Orhon Waterfalls And A Hike To Tuvkhun Monastery, Mongolia
In the morning, after a nice breakfast of rice cooked with buckwheat and a dish of carrots cooked with cabbage and a slice of melon, we drove to the Orhon Waterfalls (locally known as Ulaan Tsutgalan).
We parked our car in the middle of a vast green field and hiked through a lush pasture between herds of yaks and horses.
There was no mountain to climb, as the waterfalls dropped down from the ground level that we were hiking on, down into a small canyon of about 20 meters in height to form a wide river below.
At a certain spot, we noticed that many of the trees were tied with blue scarves.
We were told that at this location, a hundred local Buddhist monks and lamas were pushed into the ravine and killed during the communist purges of the 1930’s.
The blue scarves are tied to honor and appease their spirits. Sadly, there are many places in Mongolia that carry the spirits of Buddhist monks killed in this way.
We passed by a nomad family who were milking their mares.
As we observed them, they invited us into their ger to taste their Airag (yogurt made from fermented mare’s milk), their Oroom (butter made from skimming boiled mare’s milk), and their Aruul (dried curd made from mare’s milk.)
The cheese was made by wrapping the yogurt in a white sack and pressing it between two wooden boards weighted down with heavy bricks, to press the whey and water out of the cheese.
The yogurt was made by tying sacks of cultured milk to the sides of their truck, allowing the water to drip down.
It is always fascinating to enter a nomadic family’s ger when invited in.
You never know what you will see inside… An old wrinkly grandmother dressed in a traditional del, beautiful Mongolian carpets on the walls and teddy bears on the altar, an unbelievably large collection of dried meat hanging from the rafters, or, as in this case, a large collection of wooden buckets with milk products in various stages of preparation.
Nomads in remote locations always seem happy to see visitors.
Visitors carry news of what is happening around the country, or they might buy some Airag or sweet curd candy, and thus help the nomads through the summer.
Most nomads are self sufficient.
They sew their own dels from fabrics that they buy, and they grow what they eat or simply do without.
The many gallons of milk that they milk daily from their animals is processed into cheese, yogurt, curd candy, Mare’s vodka and Airag.
Many sell their milk products to local traders who then sell it in the local markets. Others sell Airag to those who stop by their ger, or who stop as they are driving by.
Each city has a milk product market in which vendors sell the milk products that they buy from the nomads.
Our drive through the countryside was beautiful.
We saw many nomadic families who were training their horses to race in the upcoming Nadaam festivals, held in provincial capitals all over Mongolia.
You can tell which horses were in training, since they were usually either covered with a blanket and kept away from the rest of the herd, or were galloping the required 30 kilometers without stopping to rest.
We passed by many Ger camps, drove through rivers and forests and open green steppes.
From a distance, we saw a goat which had just given birth to a baby, called a kid.
A large black crow was standing on a rock nearby, waiting to eat the placenta and birth debris, after the mother and kid had left.
We were told that large birds could be dangerous to the kids, because they might try and eat the tender eyes of these newly born.
An experienced mother goat who had given birth before is usually aware of the danger, and does not leave the baby unguarded.
In the open steppes where there are no trees to tie the animal to, the nomads have invented a method of milking goats and sheep by tethering the animals head to head in a zigzag formation, leaving the back teats hanging behind for easy milking.
We saw one of the families milking their goats and sheep in this way, and stopped to investigate.
Everyone in the family was busy milking, the grandmother, the wife, the children and the husband.
I was allowed to try milking one of the tethered goats.
The teats felt surprisingly warm to the touch, and the milk squirted out in a thin stream into the bucket.
Tuya told us that sheep and goats are so well trained, that if there are no wolves around, they can be trusted to go out to pasture in the mornings and come back in the late afternoons on their own.
Often, they will come and line up to be tethered head to head to be milked, without much effort on the part of the nomads.
Horses, on the other hand, will not come back from the pasture on their own.
The nomads have to go and round them up and drive them back to the ger camp.
We were told that Yaks are very hard to milk.
The yaks recognize the smell of their owners and will kick or disobey if anyone other than the family that is herding them tries to milk them.
In our culture, when we normally greet one another, we ask: “How are YOU?”
Or “How are YOU doing?”
The first greeting that Mongolians extend to one another is to ask about the well being of the animals.
The Mongolian nomad’s greeting translates to: “Do you have enough grass for the animals?”
Or “How are your horses doing?”
Only after inquiring after the well being of the animals and the abundance of the pasture, would they ask about the person’s health.
We saw many nomad children who were busy training horses for their local Nadaam festival, since all of the jockeys are young boys or girls. If they win their local race, they will be awarded prize money, and even have a chance to also race in the biggest festival, held in Ulaanbaatar.
Tuya told us that they take the event very seriously.
They analyze the poop of the horse to try and control its diet for maximal performance in the race.
If the poop is too green, they will feed it more grain and less grass, and if it is too brown, they will feed it less grain and more grass.
When it was time for lunch, we decided to stop and have a picnic.
Nasaa drove over to a big man who sat on his motorcycle in the middle of an open field, watching over his herd of sheep and goats.
While it is customary in our society to give people space and keep a respectable distance away from other picnickers when you go to the park or to the beach, in Mongolia it would be considered rude and unfriendly.
We drove right to where the big man was sitting and Nasaa and Tuya started chatting with him as they set up our picnic chairs, and then started sharing our food with the man.
He was out for the day watching the herd because of the wolves that attack the animals.
Far from feeling imposed upon, he was happy to accept our tea, dumplings and cookies, since he was out without any water or food.
He said that he planned to eat at the end of the day, after he guides the animals back to his ger by sunset.
Nearby we walked to some Turkish ruins, with stone markers of ancient burial sites left out in the middle of the fields.
In the late afternoon we arrived at a lush forest filled with wild flowers and tall trees.
Wild rose bushes, poppies, purple garlic, wild onions and a varieties of beautiful wildflowers completely covered the forest floor.
This forest hike took us to the top of a mountain where the Tuvkhun Monastery is perched among a field of Rhododendron flowers.
Located on a rocky peak 2300 meters above sea level and surrounded by forests on all sides, this small and magical monastery was established in 1651.
It was built by Zanabazar as his mountain retreat, where he worked on his bronze castings, poetry, writings and meditating.
Pilgrims have been walking through the forest to the temple for hundreds of years, but there are no maintained trails and no trail signs.
The hike was very enchanting, and we passed by a beautiful wooden Owoo covered in blue silk.
Walking canes and crutches, money and other items of significance were left behind by pilgrims, placed around the Owoo.
The monastery is located in a very rocky landscape, and a young monk guided us as we climbed the rocks and cliffs surrounding the temple.
We were shown a small meditation cave that has been used by Lamas seeking enlightenment.
It was dark, damp and dingy, and it was hard to imagine that anyone could have meditated there during the harsh snowy months.
We reached a narrow and long cave named “The Mother’s Abdomen.”
I guess it was meant to symbolize the birth canal of a mother.
It is said that one must crawl through this narrow canal of rock to the end, where a male must turn around clockwise and a woman must turn around counterclockwise in the narrow space, and then crawl back out head first.
When one crawls out, it symbolizes a second birth, and one comes out purified of all mistakes, ready for a fresh start in life.
The rock birth canal was so narrow that I held my breath as a chubby Mongolian man crawled in.
With much difficulty, he turned around and crawled out again.
As he reached the opening, he mimicked for our entertainment a crying baby and we all laughed
One of the rocks had a foot mark on it, and we were told that it was the imprint of the foot of Zanabazar who had left it on the rocks before departing to Beijing, from which he never returned. He passed away in exile in China.
Many blue flags decorate the valley below where some horsemen had camped, hoping to take pilgrims who were tired from climbing the rock walls to the high temple down the forest trails and back to their cars.
At the very top of the climb, a stone Owoo was built in the shape of a stupa.
Only men were allowed to reach this Owoo and to circle it.
On our way down, we passed by a small temple dedicated to the Naga deity, which is believed to reside in the form of a snake.
A small sign showed a Mongolia wooden spoon with a diagonal red line in it.
The sign requested that visitors do not throw milk with a wooden spoon, as Mongolians do in many holy places to send blessings.
This is because the acid from the many pilgrims’ milk offerings harms the old log buildings and the stones, and also attracts insects.
Another sign requested the pilgrims not to tie ceremonial scarves around certain trees, like people do all over Tibet and Bhutan, because it causes the trees to become diseased by rot, from the heavy layers of scarves that keep moisture near the barks of the trees.
The tightly tied scarves also prevent the healthy growth of the trees that would otherwise grow thicker and taller with the passing time.
As we hiked down the forest, the weather changed and strong rain came pouring down.
When we got back to our car, Nasaa and Tuya were completely soaked, while Jules and I, who had predicted the possibility of a change in the weather and had brought our raincoats with us, had only soaked hiking boots and socks.
Along the way, we visited another herding nomadic family.
We were invited to sit in their ger and chat.
It seemed that the man was looking for a happy opportunity to entertain guests, because then he could offer us his homemade Mares’ milk-vodka.
He drank down a cup for each sip that we took.
He was a joyful man and he told us that he owned a herd of one thousand yaks, horses, goats, sheep, and cattle, which they herd with only the four of them, he, his wife and their two daughters.
He asked Jules what he does for a living.
Jules told him that nowadays, he spends most of his time gardening, and tending to his small orchard of fruit trees.
It was too complicated for him to explain that he also spends his time researching investments and handling our financial affairs, to a man who does not understand what a stock market is and what an investment portfolio means.
The man asked who takes care of our garden while we were away traveling around Mongolia, and Jules said that he has a guy who does projects for him while he is away.
That is true.
Back in New Zealand, we’ve heard that the wintertime this year has been harsh, with lots of rain that caused a great deal of flooding in our area.
Our gardener has taken on extra responsibilities, and also acts as a care taker.
We do feel infinitely blessed to be able to travel and to live in two stunning parts of the earth.
All of the prior fears of our younger days seem to have faded away…
Fears of lack have been replaced with counting our blessings as children of life, and offering our gratitude.
All our meaningless ambitions and goals have replaced by a strong inner notion that nothing but our spiritual growth, and growing in compassion and understanding, matters at all.