Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 4. UB to Karakorum

At last we are ready to get on our way! Our expeditionary vehicle is a Suzuki Jimmy, which is a tough little jeep, with high clearance and four-wheel drive but, alas, not very big. There is no way we are going to fit all the stuff we brought with us, so last night we consolidated our gear, and today ended leaving two duffel bags full of stuff in care of the hotel. We easily got into Peace Avenue west, the main thoroughfare of UB, and for a good half hour crossed through the industrial outskirts of UB, and the ger “fabelas” that surround the city, until at last we were in open country. I was half expecting that once we got out of the city we might be able to see some trees, but I was disappointed. The landscape is very attractive, but it is completely bare. Zoe tells us that during the Soviet era the grazing herds had to me moved every three months, which gave up to 9 months for a pasture to recover. Ever since the end of the Soviet era, however, the herds are barely moved, so the best pasture is being overgrazed (the tragedy of the commons).

As we moved west it got covered by a thin fuzz of pale green grass, interrupted here and there by a lonely ger, or a herd of goats and sheep, but still no trees. Much to our delight we found that the road is in pretty good condition, so we can cruise at 70 to 80 km per hour (say 45 to 55 miles per hour) with little stress. Yes, there is the odd pothole, so from time to time you see a car in the distance swerving wildly to avoid a hole (they also swerve wildly when they are close to you, so that is a bit scary). We have set a rotation driving, and exchange drivers every hour and a half or so, partly so the person wedged on back doesn’t freeze into a crouching position.

At about 3 pm we arrived to Karakorum (Kharkhorin in phonetic script, where the “kh” is pronounced as a hard “H” in English or a “J” in Spanish), where Chenggis Khan established his capital sometime in 1221 AD (actually, more like a supply base, but his son Ögödei turned it into a proper capital) and by 1250 AD had blossomed into a city of nearly 50,000 inhabitants. Zoe brought us to the museum, which is a must see for any wandering explorer. The central piece is a beautiful model of the city, which must have occupied at least a square mile. At the southwest end stood the grand palace, where emissaries from all over the empire came to transact business with the Khan. Surrounding it were open parade fields, a permanent Mongol town, and a ger town. The Khan showed respect to all major religions, so in addition to the public buildings there was a synagogue, two mosques (one Shiite and one Sunni) and a Catholic Church, each surrounded by a settlement of devotes to those faiths.

Karakorum remained the center of the world until 1260 AD, when Khubilai Khan moved the center of government to Beijing, and in 1388 AD was razed to the ground by Manchurian invaders. Today there is very little left to see of the great city, and where the grand palace once stood three centuries later the Buddhist monastery of Erdene Zuu Khiid was built, partly from the rubble of Karakorum.

The rest of the museum forms a circle around the model (perhaps inspired by the ger) where key artifacts, maps, and displays of Mongolian ancient history are displayed. A special exhibition shows the results attained in the recent excavation of the tomb of a noble from the 16th century, which not only had beautiful murals, but has also yielded a remarkable collection of terracotta figures and gold jewelry.

After visiting the museum we crossed the street to visit Erdene Zuu Khiid, which is claimed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Mongolia. It is a little shabby, basically because it was abandoned during the Soviet era, but now there is a new group of monks living there, and I imagine they are slowly bringing it back to snuff. But if it is shy on the gilded statues it more than makes up for it by the gruesome devils that seem to lurk across every corner to trip the faithful. These devils will tear your entrails and throw them to the dogs, and are sure to give little children all sorts of good reasons to be devote Buddhists.

We decided to spend the night in Karakorum, and our trusty guidebook recommended The Family Guesthouse as the best place in town. We had close to no indications to go by, but John’s map reading skills put us on the right path, and after successfully crossing the town we landed with uncanny precision at a handsome cluster of gers. For US$12 a piece we had our own ger to sleep, plus dinner and breakfast, and the offer of hot showers and flush toilettes. This is also probably going to be my last chance to use the internet for a while.

A ger is a round structure made of wood lattice walls. These lattice walls are hinged, so they can be collapsed and moved. Each piece of the lattice is about 4 meters long when spread out, and the size of a ger is measured by the number of pieces used. Typical is to use 4 or 5 pieces, so the typical ger has a circumference of 16 to 20 meters (which comes up to a radius of 3 m or so). The walls, which are about 1.5 m high, are joined to a center piece by a prescribed number of narrow support “beams” (I don’t remember what the number is, but it must be 85 or so), which may be simple or richly decorated and provide for a convenient way to hang all sorts of stuff. The center piece is a heavy ring of wood, maybe a meter in diameter, with convenient openings for ventilation and the smoke stack of the small cast iron stove that provides heat during the winter. Once the ger is set, it is tightly wrapped in sturdy blankets and an outside fabric cover, and is anchored to the ground by ropes and heavy stones, so it doesn’t run the risk of flipping during the rather usual heavy winds of the Mongolian steppe. The inside of the ger can be simply or lusciously decorated (the one I am writing this blog in has satin drapes all around it), and the furniture is small, simple, and functional, so it is the ultimate tiny house. The key is that this is the house of nomadic people, so it has to be designed to be moved as often as every three months. In reality a ger may stay in place for years, during which time the owner may fall prey to temptation and load it with a solar panel, a satellite dish antenna, a flat screen TV, and so on and so on.

Note: The door to the ger is also about 1.5 m high, which means I have almost brained myself twice going in and out of our tiny house.

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