Return to Terelj National Park

In mid-October, Emma and I took a couple of weekend trips out of Ulaanbaatar, on either end of her Fall break. I didn’t have time off, but I wanted her to have the feeling she was on break. We were also lucky with the weather. Looking at the forecast, it seemed like October 13-14 and 20-21 were going to be the last fall-like weekends, with temperatures in the 50s, so it seemed like a good idea to go out of town. I wrote about our trip to Hustai National Park already, but the weekend before that, we went back to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park (often just called Terelj), and we also saw the giant Chinggis Khan statue at Tsonjin Boldog and the Thirteenth Century Theme Park. This post will be about our day in Terelj, and the next one will be about the Chinggis Khan statue and the theme park. I described Terelj in an earlier post as well, when we went there with my university department, in case it sounds familiar.

We set out from MIU early Saturday morning. Our tour guide and driver, Buugii and Jagaa respectively, met us in the parking lot in their van. As we headed out, Buugii explained that she was an English teacher at a private school and mainly worked as a tour guide during the summer. This seems to be true of a lot of people who know English well here; tourism is one of the main industries, and there is a lot of demand for English-speaking tour guides. Jagaa spoke only a little English, about the same as my level of Mongolian at the time. But the two of them made a great team, and Emma and I began to suspect what Buugii confirmed the next day, that they were married.

Our first stop on the way to Terelj was an ovoo, a sacred stone pile by the side of the road near the entrance to the park. I had seen it on our way out with the MTP program the month before, and I have seen several others in our brief excursions around Ulaanbaatar, to and from the airport, and on our trip to Hustai. This seemed to be a popular one, which makes sense given its location on the way to one of the most popular tourist sites in the area. Ovoos are usually located on mountain or hilltops, or along journey routes. They are centers of power. It’s customary to add a rock from the ground to the pile, and walk three times around in a clockwise direction, in order to have a safe journey. The colorful cloths, called khadag, are placed during ceremonies, the predominant blue representing the sky. People also leave offerings of money, sweets, food, or other items to the spirits whose power infuses the location of the ovoo. This ovoo had a pair of crutches and a bicycle tire, as well as a dozen or so pigeons warming themselves in the sun on the southern face of the rockpile.

There were also a couple of golden eagles and a cinereous vulture on stands nearby, being minded by their keeper. It was the first opportunity I’d had to see eagles up close in Mongolia. They were gorgeous, and I could imagine hunting with them. I’m hoping we make it to an eagle festival while we’re in Mongolia. The vulture was beautiful, too.

Our next stop was Turtle Rock, a rock formation that looks like a turtle when you are driving into the park (it looks completely different from the other side). We stopped off to take photos, and then continued to our next destination, the Tibetan Buddhist Aryapala Initiation and Meditation Site. This is a relatively new Buddhist temple, built in the 1990s. The temple itself is high on a hillside, and it was built in the shape of an elephant because (according to a sign) the elephant “was the means of transportation of vessel for the Buddha.” The steps leading up to the temple are the elephant’s trunk. There are 108 white steps and eight black steps “that illustrate the human kind’s ordinary and meaningless life” (according to the same sign).

But before you get to the temple, you walk up a path lined with 72 banners of Buddhist teachings in both English and Mongolian. My favorite was “May you thoroughly realize this world is like a ravine on fire,” which is certainly how it is feeling these days, between climate change and the resurgence of fascism. Along the way you also pass many statues, shrines, and places to make offerings, as well as a large prayer wheel. As we walked, Buugii gave us a history lesson about Mongolian Buddhism, especially about the Stalin-influenced pogrom against Buddhist lamas (monks), tens of thousands of whom were massacred or imprisoned in Siberian labor camps. Nearly all of Mongolia’s 700 monasteries were wiped out during this purge, which is why there are very few old monasteries remaining. Freedom of religion was restored in 1990, and many families put their children forward to become lamas. Despite the attack on Buddhism under the communist government, the religion persisted. Buddhism has a long history in Mongolia, intertwined with the shamanic religion that preceded it and exits alongside it. Depending on whom you consult, around 50% of the population is Buddhist, and Mongolia played a huge role in the spread and governance of Buddhism historically. (I’ll be including more in a future post, after we travel to some historic monasteries in February).

Once we reached the top, we took in the glorious view. I was struck by how quickly autumn had come and gone; when we were in Terelj just three weeks earlier, the larch had been still green or just starting to turn golden. Now they were still a bit golden but heading towards bare. I could understand why this place had been chosen for a meditation center. The view was amazing. The smooth rock faces on either side of the temple were adorned with colorful paintings representing four guardians of the temple. The temple itself was a riot of color. This is one of the things I love about Buddhist temples. Each color is meaningful, as well. While the building itself was white, the 108 bright red, blue, and gold prayer wheels encircling it, as well as the wooden trim painted with scenes of hell, life on earth, and paradise, hinted at the glorious interior. It was filled with hanging silks, tapestries and paintings of the different bodhisattvas, golden Buddha statues, ornate carpets, and cases of sutras wrapped in bright colored cloth, as well as photos of the current Dalai Lama, whom Emma recognized (“That guy in the sunglasses!”).

After we soaked up the interior, we went back outside. I pointed out one of the pictures of hell to Emma, and she yelled, “Cool!” The temple’s attendant (who was mainly there to make sure people covered their shoes or took them off before going inside) cracked up. He came up to us and firmly grabbed me by the elbow, dragging me over to show me a painting of a magpie, which I dutifully photographed. He grabbed me again and dragged me to the side to point out that one of the little golden buddhas inside a railing decoration was female, her breasts tarnished by years of manhandling. I was feeling a little manhandled myself.

Walking back down the path to the car, we were amused to see a sign advertising “Grand Pizza – pizza by the slice.” This made Emma realize that she was really hungry, and after we got back in the van, she at a few too many of the snacks we had brought along for emergencies. It wasn’t very far to the tourist camp where we were staying, amusingly called the Guru Camp. We went into the wooden green-roofed restaurant and sat at a table with a view overlooking the valley. Shortly we were served a three-course lunch, the main dish of which was a delicious vegetarian version of khuushuur, a fried pastry usually filled with meat. Emma unfortunately had eaten too much in the car, though she thought they were good, too.

After lunch, we brought our things to our ger, and settled in for a bit of a rest. The next part of the program was to visit a nearby nomadic family and go horseback riding, but we had a couple of hours to relax. Emma pulled out a book, while I grabbed my camera and went outside for a walk. I mentioned in my earlier post about Terelj that it’s not a national park in the sense of excluding humans from the landscape like Hustai National Park is. Hustai is a strictly protected area, which doesn’t allow development of any kind. Terelj, on the other hand, allows the construction of tourist camps and even hotels. This development is unregulated, and there are currently over 3,000 tourist camps in the national park, and a large hotel under construction. As I climbed higher up the hillside behind Guru Camp, I could see at least a dozen clusters of white ger scattered across the landscape, each one representing a tourist development.

After a while, I went back to see if I could entice Emma to come outside. I told her about the rock formation I’d seen at the top of the hill, and she came along with me to climb it. There were patches of snow still left from the previous snowfall, and we had a mini snowball fight. Then we headed back down the hill to meet Buugii and Jagaa for the next item on our itinerary, a visit to a nomadic family.

On our way, Emma asked me a logical question: “Why are we going to visit a family of we don’t know them?” I tried to explain this aspect of tourism, which I myself remain uncomfortable with, to be honest. Visits to nomadic families, including overnight stays, are a standard feature in Mongolian tourism. Nomadic culture is so characteristically Mongolian that it makes sense for it to be a part of the tourist experience. Mongolians are extremely proud of their nomadic heritage, and many people who were raised in the city still maintain strong connections to family out in the countryside. Therefore, visiting with a nomadic family, experiencing their hospitality, seeing how they live, and learning from them, is a way of conveying to international visitors this unique way of life. For many tourists, it seems to be one of the highlights of their visit to Mongolia.

I’m not really sure why I am so uncomfortable with these sorts of experiences, but I think about it a lot. It probably started during my BA studies in anthropology and my awareness of the effects of western colonialism on parts of the world I’d visited when I was younger, especially Mexico and East Africa, and the connection between tourism and colonialism. Part of it is recognizing the inequality of the situation, being a relatively wealthy tourist in what is often classified as a poor country. It feels like objectification to me, as well, treating people like props or theme park characters. On the other hand, it is a way to extend the wealth that tourism brings to a country like Mongolia to ordinary people. People whose way of life has been affected by the expansion of tourism, as well as national parks, need to find alternate sources of income, and this is one of them. I like the idea of spreading the wealth. But it also commodifies what is often described as “traditional” nomadic hospitality. Because nomads travel long distances and live in far-flung places, people customarily take each other in and help each other out. The nomadic family visit is a form of this hospitality that has been produced for tourists.

On the other hand, as a recovering anthropologist, I have an abiding curiosity about how people live. I am fascinated by different ways of life, and by how much I can learn from other people. The chance to see inside a ger, to see how people live in one, was incredibly intriguing. Once inside, we were offered traditional Mongolian milk tea, which I love, so I happily drank Emma’s when she slipped it to me after trying a sip (she is not a fan of Mongolian dairy products). This was much richer than the milk tea I had had at the MIU cafeteria, and it was delicious. There was also an assortment of products made from whey, a kind of Mongolian cheese, and some butter. I tried everything, but the butter was my favorite. While we sat, Buugii explained the construction of the ger and a bit about the nomadic lifestyle.

We were supposed to go horseback riding, but Emma decided that she didn’t want to go, so we cancelled that part of the visit. (Emma used to ride, but she hasn’t felt like it in a while. I would like to go while we are here, but I am not going to push her to do it, though I worry that she may regret it later. We still have some time, and we will be riding camels in a couple of weeks, so that may get her back in the spirit.) Instead, we stood outside and watched the family’s son, who looked to be about 8 years old, show off his skills. He stood on a horse’s back, and then he jumped off and ran to get what looked like “his” calf. He rode the calf out the gate and down the road, disappearing around the corner. A moment later, he reappeared, with the calf pulling him along beside it. He was on his feet, holding onto a rope around the calf’s neck, as if he were trying to pull the calf to a halt. But the calf was not deterred.

While we were watching his antics, Emma befriended the family’s two dogs, both of which had the thick, black fur of the Mongolian dog, the Bankhar. Then it was time to head back to the ger camp. The sun was starting to slip towards the horizon, but we still had time to climb the hill behind the camp one more time. This time Buugii and Jagaa came along. They were amused by Emma’s rock-climbing antics, especially at one point when she had trouble finding her way back down. Then we all climbed up onto a rock outcropping over the camp and enjoyed the view. The shadows of the trees extended across the brown grass on the hillsides across the valley, giving them a furry appearance. The camp was completely in shadow. It was starting to get cold, so we headed back down to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was another delicious vegetarian meal, and this time Emma was hungry enough to eat. After dinner, Buugii asked us, “Have you ever played with ankle bones?” Of course we hadn’t, so she pulled out a thick felt pad and a set of ankle bones. Emma thought they were human, until Buugii told her they were from goats or sheep. She explained how each side of an ankle bone resembles a different animal: One side has the hump of a camel, one the shape of a horse’s face, one the horns of a goat, and one the fat belly of a sheep. She then explained the rules of a game that Mongolian children (and adults) play with the ankle bones, tossing them on the felt pad like dice, and then looking for matches and flicking the matching bones toward each other with your finger, sheep to sheep, goats to goats, horses to horses, camels to camels. If you missed, or if you hit a non-matching ankle bone, it was the next person’s turn. Otherwise, you collected the bone you hit and went until you didn’t have any more matches. We played that game for a while, and then another one which was like a horse race, where you moved your ankle bone along a track every time you “rolled” a horse. The games were a lot of fun, and of course Buugii and Jagaa were pros, but Emma won a couple of rounds. I was not quick enough.

Eventually it was time for bed. The fresh air of Terelj had its effect on us; we were both drowsy. When we got back to our ger, someone from the camp came and made a fire in our stove, and the ger soon became very toasty. In fact, she came in a couple of times during the night (at around 1:00 am and again around 4:00 am), and I found the ger far too hot to sleep in. But each time I wasn’t able to explain that she didn’t need to restart the fire, and Emma seemed to be sleeping, so I didn’t want to disturb her. Just as the temperature would get cool enough for me to drift off to sleep, she would come in again and start up the fire. I was happy when morning came, and I could get up and go outside.

(Stay tuned for part two, our visit to the giant Chinggis Khan statue and the Thirteenth Century Theme Park.)

5 thoughts on “Return to Terelj National Park

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