Monday, August 27, 2012

Hustai National Park Mongolia

Our next trip out of UB was to Hustai National Park, a protected area in Mongolia since 1993. Like Terelj National Park, it is only about 60 miles from UB but takes 2 - 2 1/2 hours to reach the park due to the roads. I thought I would show what the roads leaving UB looked like so you could get a real sense of how destroyed they become due to the heavy winters. There is also only one road that leaves UB heading southwest so the traffic is very bad. It takes probably an hour to just get out of the city limits.

Mongolia is known for having clear blue skies but air pollution is getting worse and UB is fast becoming the most polluted city in the world.The thick pollution air has gotten worse since we have been here mainly because we are approaching the winter months. Some of the factors for their polluted air is congested traffic, very dry ground conditions and poor combustion of coal, essentially from wood stoves
This is Mongolia once you are out of the city limits. Pretty huge difference!
The main attraction for visiting Hustai National Park is to see the worlds only natural surviving wild horses. The Przewalski horse, called "Takhi" by Mongolians, were once extinct in the wild and have been reintroduced from zoos around the world.  Przewalski horses can usually be seen in the late afternoon when they come down to the river for water. Because of this, we spent the night at a tourist camp and got to sleep in a traditional Mongolia home called a ger. 
A Ger (pronounced "gehr", rhymes with "hair"), also known as a yurt, means home. Even today there is a large population that live in gers, including Ulaanbaatar. The structure is a circular wood-frame that is typically 12 - 30 feet in diameter. They are covered in felt made from wool of sheep, most are heated by a wood stove and there is no plumbing or electricity.
Our Ger for the night!
Inside our ger included three single beds along with a wood stove.
The ceiling.
After lunch, at the camp, we had some down time before heading out to explore the park so we decided to hike up a hill that was behind our camp. We did not realize how far the hill actually was until we started walking. You can see our camp in the distance and we are just now starting to climb up the fairly steep hill. 

Scott got a picture of Mike and me just starting to make the climb.
We made it and the views were spectacular!
We also had time to go horseback riding! 
We called Scott's horse Mr. T. for his trimmed mohawk mane. We were also surprised on how small the horses are compared to those in the US. 
This was really enjoyable for me because we were not restricted to follow our guide in a single file. We had carte blanche and so I was galloping with my horse more than I have ever before!

We left the camp mid afternoon to explore the park. Our first stop was to visit the Ongot stone monuments. The monuments date back to the Turkic Empire (552-742 B.C.) and is the biggest collection in Asia. There are over 30 stones carved into man and animal figures. 
There are also 552 standing stones in a line stretching from the Ongot to the southeast. The stones are said to point in the direction of heaven and to act as a guide for departing souls. 

Ongot stones carved into animals have symbolic significance. The sheep was one of the main sacrificial offerings.  
If you work as a Ranger for the park, you are allowed to live inside the park with your family. Our driver actually grew up in this area so we stopped by to visit with a nomad family he knew. We were a bit uncomfortable about just stopping by but apparently this is very common in Mongolian culture. There were three gers all next to each other and about 13 - 15 people in one family living there. 
We were invited inside one of their homes for some bread, Mongolia Salt Tea called "Suutei Tsai" which is warmed up cows milk and some salt and urum. Urum which looks like heavy butter is made from cow or yaks milk. It sort of tastes like sweet butter but thicker in texture. 
Sipping our milk tea.
It is hard to imagine that five people live in this one ger. One side of the ger had two mattresses, a cabinet/dresser and a small TV. This family actually had some electricity probably because they live in the park. There was a small satellite dish outside their home too.
Their kitchen section.
The family raises horses, cows and sheep. This woman had just finished milking some of the horses and is placing the milk into a pitcher.
The young son left to round up the sheep that were about a 1/2 mile away.
Scott and I have never noticed horses standing beside each other in the opposite direction so we asked Star, our guide. He said it keeps the flies off both their faces using their tails.
The time has come and we finally get to see the Przewalski horses! The horses are stockier in build compared to domestic horses with shorter legs. Average length is 6 feet and about 4 feet in height. They are truly beautiful horses.

It definitely was a full day. We headed back to camp around 8pm for dinner and then went to a concert to see a very famous Mongol band that was performing. The instrument they are playing with is called Morin Khuur, meaning fiddle with a horses head. It is a bowed stringed instrument and the most important musical instrument of the Mongol people. Also, throat singing is very popular in Mongolia and is believed to have originated in the southern west region of the country. I have never heard throat singing before and it is very hard to describe. I have attached a video from youtube, not from this concert, to give you an idea of what throat singing sounds like.  

Another successful trip out of UB. Highlights for me would be horseback riding, seeing the Przewalski horses and staying in a traditional Mongolian home, a ger. Definitely glad we went on this trip before we left Mongolia.
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