Living in the 13th century

Today I headed 130 kms east of Ulaanbaatar to check out a ‘13th century park’ to which we are planning to take delegates attending a conference in Ulaanbaatar next year on a day-long excursion.

It was raining when we left, but that didn’t deter our driver from driving at what seemed like a dangerous speed, splashing through pools of water on the road at 80-90 kph so that the whole windscreen was obliterated in muddy water. I guess my guide could sense that I was a bit nervous, because after we had to swerve suddenly to avoid an oncoming car that had itself swerved to avoid a pot hole, he turned to me and said: “Don’t worry, the driver is very experienced – just look out of the side window and then you won’t be scared.”

After about an hour and a quarter we stopped by a massive steel statue of Chinggis Khan that was being built by the side of the road. It is out in the middle of nowhere, but is intended to be a halfway stop for people traveling to the 13th century park. It is nearly finished, and when completed will house a restaurant and a souvenir shop.

The scale of the statue can be judged from the size of the large earthworks vehicle on the left hand side of the photo below and the four-wheel drives on the hill to the right. (The picture is quite dull because it was taken in a light drizzle).

After an another half an hour or so we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road across the steppes – at times sliding around corners on the soft mud (good job we were in a four-wheel drive – there was no way a conventional vehicle could have made it through some of the soft spots today).

The scenery was beautiful – so green at this time of the year – and occasionally we would see one or two gers in the distance.

After about another half an hour we reached the 13th century park which is a 350 hectare National Park in which about 35 people are living like they did in the 13th century. Yes, it is a tourist park, but not one where people come and dress up as 13th century warriors for the day and then go home at night – these people live in the park 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, just like they did in the 13th century – with no power, no running water, and no modern utensils of any kind.

About 50 tourists a day come and visit the park in the summer months, and only a handful in the winter. There are eight camps in the park with 2-6 people living in each camp following different lifestyles as they did in the 13th century. Each camp is several kilometres from the next one, so each one feels very isolated.

The photograph below is of the hunter’s camp, and the one below that is of a fortified camp of the type in which a king and queen would have lived in the 13th century.

One of the hunters inside the ger that you can see in the first photograph allowed me to take a few portrait shots of him. I didn’t bring my external flash unit with me, so had to rely on the built-in flash which unfortunately produced a bit of shine on his face. But it didn’t turn out too bad.

We also visited the guardians camp near the entrance to the National Park and a teachers’ camp where gers are set up like classrooms were in the 13th century.

We called it a day after visiting four camps because the rain was getting heavier, and I was getting quite wet and cold. Our driver – a large Mongolian man – gave me his coat to put over mine (which helped a bit), but so that he didn’t get his shirt wet, he took it off and was driving us around the camps topless! I couldn’t believe how cold he must have felt, but I suppose people who are used to braving winters where it gets down to minus 40 (Celsius), must feel relatively warm when the temperature is hovering around the low teens.

I hope it is not too cold when the conference delegates visit the park next year, because it is an interesting place to visit. I am not usually into tourist parks like this – but Mongolia’s 13th century park is quite unique and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.

On the way back to Ulaanbaatar I spotted a ger not far from the road that had a satellite dish set up outside (my guide told me that because the owner had a motorbike AND a horse, as well as the satellite dish, he must be quite a wealthy nomad). I asked the driver to stop, and after getting out of the vehicle started to walk towards the ger. But then a black dog – one of three sitting outside the ger - started racing towards me barking and growling. So I quickly snapped the shot below and ran back to the vehicle, just making it back before the dog. It didn’t look to be a very friendly dog!

Half way back to Ulaanbaatar my driver and guide decided to stop for a cigarette. It was still drizzling and quite cold, so I stayed inside the vehicle. I snapped the shot below through the side window. That’s the driver on the left. By this stage he had put his shirt back on but hadn’t bothered to button it up. I still had two coats on to keep warm.

When we reached Ulaanbaatar it was apparent that the rain had not let up for most of the day because there was water everywhere.

Snakes on a Plane – for real!

A beat-up Bluebird and a burned building in UB