A MONGOLIAN ECLIPSE ADVENTURE

By Michael and Angela Mattiazzo

SUNDAY JULY 20th: BEIJING TO ULAN-BATOR

At Beijing airport, we met up with Frederic, Guergana and Jacques, the French group who were on the same flight and Eclipse holiday with us. We were a bit dubious about catching the Mongolian national airline at first, but found it to be of high standard. It was quite funny to see Mongolians flying back into their country, checking in their newly purchased plasma TV sets.

On arrival in Ulan Batur at about 11:30pm, we were met by Baysaa, our English speaking guide. The trip to the hotel was a little bumpy. Not surprising since the harsh winters in this place cause damage to the bitumen (it gets to -40c). We crossed the Peace Bridge into the city, but couldn’t see much in the darkness. On arrival at the Flower Hotel, we were greeted with a bottle of French wine and some flowers. The only hotel to have done so during our honeymoon. We were very appreciative!

MONDAY JULY 21st: ULAN-BATOR TO TERELJ

In the morning, we had breakfast and met up with all the people on our tour- apart from us and the French crowd, the others were all from Germany- not surprising as our tour operator, Sabine, is from there. The others were Claudia, Gerald and Birgit. We headed up to a hilltop for a view of the city.



Here we encountered our first Buddhist Ovoo. A pile of stones located on top of a hill for paying gratitude to spirits and ancestors. You must circle it 3 times, each time making an offering, to bring good luck. Eg: stones, empty vodka bottles, crutches, animal bones. We prayed for clear weather during the eclipse and a flight back to UB after the Eclipse, which was still uncertain at the time. Afterwards, we visited a large statue of Buddha covered in gold coloured paint and built with foreign investment, a monument to Chinggis Khan in the City Square



and a Buddhist monastery, spinning prayer wheels and chanting "Omani padme hom". Another impressive Buddhist statue stood under the roof of the monastery.



Later we headed to a ger camp at Terelj National Park, about 1hrs drive from UB where Angela went for her first horse ride whilst Mikey went hiking to take pretty pictures.

TUESDAY JULY 22nd: TERELJ NATIONAL PARK

In the morning we hiked to Turtle rock, taking in the view and aromas from the copious flowers and wild herbs growing in the grass. We even found wild strawberries- just amazing that all these things grow wild in Mongolia. The Germans were on the lookout for the edelweiss flower, which is now rare in Europe, but of course grows wild in Mongolia.
Then later we visited another Buddhist monastery. This one lay beside a mountain. We had to cross a slightly rickety suspension bridge to reach it,

then climb 108 steps (yes, Angela counted them) to the top. The number is significant in Buddhism.

Later Phil and Mikey hiked up a hill to get superb views of the holiday village and surrounds.


During dinner that evening, Mikey noticed that all the men were getting served first!
The female waitresses were surprised that I kept handing my dinner over to Angela.
Afterwards, we had official intros and discussion on the tour in western Mongolia including a little on cultural expectations, over a couple of Chinggis vodkas.
 

WEDNESDAY JULY 23rd: ULAN-BATOR TO OLGII

A very early rise at 3:30am and a wild bouncy ride back to UB airport. Angela didn’t feel to well afterwards due to having to travel on an empty stomach. Our group had 4 passport checks through the airport, just for a domestic departure. A ridiculous level of security and quite painful as you can imagine! We finally boarded an Aero Mongolia Fokker 50 and had a nice 3hr flight to Olgii, but Phil didn’t think so: it was a bit bumpy being a smaller plane, and we crossed a lot of mountainous terrain.

We grabbed our bags off a truck- a most unusual, but effective method of baggage retrieval. We boarded our Russian 4wd combie vans. Looking quite basic, these vehicles turned out to be quite suited to the local environment as we later discovered.



After our 3rd breakfast we commenced the tour, heading towards the Altai Tavan Bogd. 10 tourists, 9 local support staff (drivers, cook, helpers and our very important English speaking guide) crammed into 2x4WD combie vans and a jeep loaded with supplies. By 6pm we settled near a riverbank and set up tent for the night amidst beautiful scenery.

A typical toilet tent.

THURSDAY JULY 24th: ALTAI TAVAN BOGD

On the road again, we visited our first ger, local Kazakhs who were very welcoming. Amazingly, they had solar power cells and satellite TV, a common scene in Mongolia. We sampled goat’s milk, cheese, tea and butter.

Saying goodbye to our kind hosts, we later walked down a steep gorge to the magnificent White River valley. The white colour of the water comes from the sand and mineral content flowing down from the mountains. On first glance, one could tell that this valley was glacially carved. Quite spectacular.
Heading up the valley, stopping to visit a deer stone, we set up camp near the Altai Tavan Bogd with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and the White River.
This deceptively small river was quite dangerous due to its rapid flow as a Russian 4WD truck was seen immersed in it with the distressed owner by the riverbank. We were not going to cross the river here and had to make changes to our itinerary for the following day.
FRIDAY JULY 25th: TSENGEL

It was a wet start to the morning as we headed back down the White River valley. There was spectacular scenery throughout and we eventually arrived at a local ger. After speaking to the owner and some negotiating in US dollars, our Guide spoke only one line to us in English: "we are crossing the river". We were all very anxious but successfully made it across the White River with the assistance of the local and his tractor.

Our guide then mentioned that we had an even bigger river to cross; the longest in Mongolia. We soon arrived at Hovd Gol.



Successfully negotiating the first two sections of the river, our van stalled in the third, with smoke coming out of the engine and water surrounding the van. The van had become bogged in the stony bed, and as the water started coming into the van we decided our time was best spent saving the luggage from the floor, while the drivers tried to get the van going. In the end we had to evacuate our luggage and ourselves! Luckily a village was on the opposite side of the river and our stressed kitchen hand was sent to get help. Soon afterwards, a Russian 4WD truck arrived to pull the vehicle out, and assist with getting the other vehicles across.



We set up camp by the river that nearly claimed us that day. However, our driver went straight to work on his vehicle and had it operational by about 11pm that evening. Those Russian vehicles are just built to last!

Our arrival on the edge of the town of Tsengel got the locals in a buzz, and it seemed that every child suddenly wanted to play games through the area where we’d set up camp. We sat and watched the cows. They seemed to have mastered crossing the Hovd down to a fine art.

SATURDAY JULY 26th: TSENGEL UUL

After filling up the petrol tanks using an ancient looking bowser, we headed south towards Tsengel Uul (mountain), crossing another couple of rivers (which stressed us at first, then we got used to the reality again) and finally a toll bridge! We visited another Kazakh ger with a local blacksmith and jack of all trades, it seemed. The family kept an eagle for hunting and they were only too happy to give us a demonstration of how to handle it (or not, as it appeared to us animal lovers).
Later we set up camp with a gorgeous view of Tsengel Uul.
Phil and Mikey hiked up the hill for a better view of the snowcap, reaching just under 3,000m elevation. This was one tiring hike but the view was simply breathtaking.
A local herdsman and his son galloped over towards us, wondering what these madmen were doing up here. We showed him the camp in the distance and invited him over. We had a Kazakh party planned that evening. When it arrived, word had got around and the whole valley turned up for the festivities. It turned out that the herdsman was a pretty good musician and he played a couple of love songs for Angela and Mikey on his dombra, a traditional Kazakh instrument with two strings. We all celebrated with a few shots of vodka, cognac and dancing.
The stars this evening were the finest that we had seen, so dark and clear. Mikey's new pair of 10x50mm binoculars got a workout. Angela learned a bit about the northern night sky.

SUNDAY JULY 27th: TOLBO NUUR

After the coldest night’s sleep, we hit the road again. This time we visited an ethnic minority Tuva family. They are essentially a Mongolian sub-group. There were subtle differences to the Kazakhs. With the ger a slightly different shape and less ornately decorated inside. We found the tea and mare’s butter particularly tasty. Angela also had a taste of the milk vodka, which was quite nice, with a mild taste. Note however that Mongolians use dried cow dung as firewood since there are no trees about. This smoke supposedly has a pleasant odour- depending on your point of view!

On our way back to Olgii, we stopped to find deer stones, take photos of horses and fix a brake problem on the combie van. By 4pm we had arrived in Olgii to pick up supplies and have a shower. We were quite fast with it (it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, so this wasn’t difficult), but the locals took their time. 6pm and we were off again and finally arrived at our destination of Tolbo Nuur (a freshwater lake).



On arrival at the shoreline we were inundated with mosquitoes! Our guide said that they were the non-biting variety and thankfully it turned out that she was right. We had to camp away from the shore however since the volume of insects were overwhelming.



We managed a bit of stargazing that evening before the insects became too distracting.

MONDAY JULY 28th: HOVD PROVINCE

During the morning, we had some free time for a walk. Mikey decided he had to climb the hill for a photo opportunity of the lake- he just loves climbing hills.



After lunch we headed towards Hovd province, stopping for a photo of the Tsambagarov Uul snow capped mountains.



and some stone carvings- which were possibly Neolithic in origin and a gravesite. We set up camp along a riverbed and Angela gave Mikey a shave, as we lacked a mirror for him to do his own. This was much to the amusement of the others, especially the locals.

TUESDAY JULY 29th: TSENKHERIIN AGUI

We made it to the capital and largest city of western Mongolia, Hovd- pop: 30 000, by about lunchtime. We were excited at the prospect of civilisation. It has a 400 year old fortress, built by the Manchu people. It’s only built of mud brick, so there isn’t much left to see but a wall. First, a visit to the local museum, which was a bit dark and dusty, but there were some interesting things to see there and it covered all aspects of that part of Mongolia’s natural and man made history. Angela particularly loved the traditional Mongolian script, which has now been superseded by Cyrillic to increase the literacy rate as it’s easier to learn. Then off to the bazaar, called the black market by locals, to pick up supplies.



We then had to wait in a long queue for petrol. We were told it was the only bowser operating in town, so we had lunch while we sat there waiting. Eventually we got going again and couldn’t wait to get out of there, away from "civilisation!" There was a pretty spectacular ovoo on the hill on the way out of Hovd.



We made it to Khar Us Nuur, the second largest lake in Mongolia. Kovd gol flows into this and creates a large delta. We watched birds and wild horses from a watchtower.



We made it to Tsenkheriin Agui (caves) by dusk and had to pay an entrance fee. There were other eclipse groups camping here and we sensed that eclipse day was approaching.

WEDNESDAY JULY 30th.

After breakfast, we hiked up to the caves, sight of 15,000 year old Neolithic paintings and were not disappointed. However, vandals had spread a lot of graffiti around. Also, a load of pigeon shit and dust made it very difficult to breathe in the cave.



After the cave visit Angela had a camel ride, commenting on how soft camel fur was in relation to horse’s hair.



We had another jeep breakdown along the way before we arrived at a "hotel and restaurant" for tea and noodles. We filled up the petrol tanks again, this time using a hand propelled bowser



and headed southwards until arriving at another pretty riverbed. Many local animals, such as the marmot, cow, sheep and goat, greeted our arrival.



Party time that night with plenty of Kazakh dancing and vodka shots under the gorgeously starlit night sky.

THURSDAY JULY 31st: BULGAN GOL

On the road again, we stopped to watch locals demonstrate how they produce ger insulation from sheep wool. Then we had lunch in the spectacular Ouychen gorge. We had the opportunity to walk down this gorge for several kilometres and admire the scenery, which included local cows and horses.



We also observed a truck crammed with locals and their ger all packed up in the rear. Talk about mobile homes!

We finally made it out of the, what seemed like endless, gorge with some very rough 4-wheel driving. Almost at our destination, we chanced upon a freshly laid bitumen road. I wrongly suspected that this road was laid in anticipation for the eclipse, but later found out that there was a mining site up the road. We purchased some goods at the very over priced "supermarket" and then set up camp by Bulgan Gol (river) in the town of Bulgan.

 
cow crossing

FRIDAY AUGUST 1st: ECLIPSE DAY

We awoke to a beautiful blue sky and spent the morning and mid afternoon keeping a close eye on any cloud development but none were forthcoming. We also took the chance to do some solar observing. However, the Sun appeared quite devoid of sunspot activity through my filtered 10x50mm binoculars.

By 4pm, we set up in the desert with a full 360-degree panorama. Our prayers during this tour were answered and we had perfect weather for the eclipse. The air temperature was about 32 C. We were armed with a pair of 7x50mm and 10x50mm binoculars and solar filters, a tripod mounted Canon 300D digital camera set at 100 ISO and a 300mm zoom lens.



Mike’s experience at the last eclipse in Libya held him in good stead, as he made much better use of the 2 minutes and 4 seconds of totality on offer. This time he wore a head-mounted torch for use during totality so that he could read the camera settings in the darkness. He had the lens held into proper focus with duct tape, and his tripod was located on solid ground.

First contact occurred about 5:03pm local time (10:03UT). Several minutes prior to totality we started to notice some effects. Venus became more prominently visible and the shadows cast by the Sun became sharper. Daylight was more pleasant to the eye and you no longer needed to wear sunglasses. The shadow of the Moon was now seen fast approaching from the North.

Totality finally arrived at 6:03pm. (11:03UT). There didn’t appear to be many solar prominences observable but a particularly large and impressive one was seen throughout totality, pointing towards the north. The corona was best seen at mid eclipse. Through binoculars, you could trace the intricate magnetic field lines emanating from the poles of the Sun.

You could clearly see Mercury and Venus throughout totality. Nearly at the end of totality, the bright prominence was seen in full splendour, just prior to the impending diamond ring effect, where sunlight first reappears.

After eclipse time, we watched a beautiful sunset, admired the eclipse photos taken by other members of our party and had celebratory dancing and drinking during the evening.

SATURDAY AUGUST 2nd: BULGAN GOL

In the morning, we visited a fruit and vegetable plantation whilst the Mongolians went to purchase dinner. The lady owner of the plantation demanded $15 entry free and we walked off, shaking our heads. Obviously she had been successful with eclipse tourists paying that fee previously. There was a compromise however, and we managed to only pay $2 entry fee. Interestingly, the fruit-growing season is very short in this region lasting only three months. We were told this is also the only place in Mongolia where it is possible to grow fruit. Apples were only about a third of their usual size. After this experience, we really appreciated how lucky we are to have such good produce back home.

During lunch, we watched a doomed sheep tied to a tree nearby. This was going to be our dinner. Traditional Mongolian Lamb. Our young Mongolian cooks assistant made the slaughter look easy, with an apparently humane way to kill the sheep. Large chunks of meat together with several hot rocks were thrown into a large hot pot, and laid on top of the fire.



No piece of the sheep was spared and we drove to the local town in a vain attempt to sell off the wool. Later that evening, we dined on a scrumptious meal. Khorkhog. The fatty parts of the sheep are the most highly prized, and the locals were very keen to eat the sheep’s tail, which is pure fat! Yuck! We followed custom by tossing hot rocks from hand to hand to bring good health. Ouch!

SUNDAY AUGUST 3rd: FLIGHT OUT?

This was the day that we had a charted flight booked out of the tiny town of Bulgan. We were told apparently that there were flight delays out of the capital Ulan Bator due to inclement weather. We still had the Sun shining in Bulgan, interrupted by an occasional dust storm. We had to pass through a highly rigorous security check, for such a small airport. The runway is only gravel- no tarmac out here. Finally all passengers were checked in, with our luggage sitting out on the pad. About 50+ people waited for the plane’s arrival, and waited.......




…No plane.

There was no explanation from airport staff. A loaded plane had taken off earlier. Rumour was that these people been flown to Hovd instead of the capital, without explanation from Aero Mongolia staff. They refused to step off the plane and demanded that they be flown to the capital! Compounding the problem, or so we were told, was a lack of any English speakers- even the tourists were non- English speaking, so there was no common language with which to communicate intent. We believe that Aero Mongolia’s plan was to transfer all tourists over to the larger city of Hovd, so that we could fly out during the night, as Bulgan has a sunset curfew. Their plan may have worked if they had communicated it to the passengers before leaving Bulgan! This caused all sorts of problems for the airline and us, stranded.

Fortunately, we had our English-speaking guide who rapidly booked a "hotel" for us. The owner attempted to charge US $300! But our guide had already paid only $7 for her room, so we were not going to budge from that price. Besides, the sheets appeared to be used, the blanket had an inch thick layer of dust on it and one pillow even had unwashed blood stains. The toilet was your basic Mongolian outdoor type and boy, it was the most putrid smell.

There was no food left, apart from two- minute noodles: which turned out to be quite tasty actually. There was no indoor plumbing- which is quite normal in country Mongolia, and the doors were locked at night so you couldn’t access the outdoor toilet! We think this might have been more a case of keeping the locals out than the visitors in, but it made for some very interesting stories of how to go to the loo in the middle of the night. When we sat and ate breakfast, which had been pulled together from what people could find in their luggage, the owner spent the whole of our meal walking past us and glaring at our audacity to sit and eat in her dining area. Service rating 0, or possibly less. The worst ever experience in a hotel.

MONDAY AUGUST 4TH: FLIGHT OUT

We were told that a flight was arranged for 6:30am and that we were to get up at 4am. Then we were told that the flight would arrive later that morning. Nobody had any idea as to when this plane would arrive. Finally we hear that a plane departed UB at 10am and that it would arrive by 1pm. At the airport by midday, no such security this time around and the plane finally touched down at 1:25pm to the cheers and relief of the 50 tourists.



We tried in vain to get our tour guide on the plane, but to no avail- the flight was already very heavy, so she had to rough it out in Bulgan and find her own way home- by rough road for two days. Unfair, we thought. Three hours after take off, we finally touched down in the capital and raced to our hotel for a long awaited shower.

Then out to a group dinner, a visit to a cashmere shop and a quick drink at Khan Brau - it seems that German inspired beer houses are popular in the Mongolian capital! We then said goodbye to the German crew (all except Sabine) who were flying home early the next morning.

TUESDAY AUGUST 5TH: ULAN BATUR

In the morning, we hitched a $2 taxi ride to the highly informative and interesting National Museum of Mongolian history. It took a while to get in as there was apparently the visiting Croatian President doing a tour of the museum. Later we walked to the Natural History Museum. We have never seen so many stuffed animals under the one roof! We deduced that the reason for all these taxidermist dreams is because the Buddhist Mongolians don’t like zoos. They actually forced the one zoo that did exist in UB to close down due to their protestations over keeping the animals locked up in cages instead of roaming free.

The Palaeontology hall had an impressive array of dinosaur skeletons, the highlight a 3m tall Tarbosaurus, which can be viewed from the mezzanine level as well as the ground. For lunch, we dined at the Chinggis Club and downed a few Chinggis beers.

Later we discovered an impressive Grand Khan Irish pub for a quick beer before a theatre show.

The show we watched was very impressive and was basically an extravaganza of Mongolian culture and arts. We saw traditional dancing, costumes from all the different cultures that make up the country, musical instruments, contortionists and singing. A lot of it was inspired by nature and we noticed lots of horse- inspired costumes and dances. But by far the highlight of the show was the throat singing and we got treated to two performances of this- one solo and then two throat singers backed up by a whole orchestra! Amazing stuff. We would definitely recommend you check out throat singing if ever you get a chance.

 

We said our goodbyes to the remainder of the tour people- actually, we missed the French crew, who’d gone to bed and just had Sabine to farewell.

WEDNESDAY AUGUST 6th: FLIGHT TO BEIJING AND XI’AN

Wake up call at 4am. We found out later that the staff at the hotel misinterpreted our request and called everyone at 4am, not just us. We were picked up with our packed breakfast to the airport and we even had an English- speaking guide to assist us with checking in. Security not as tight for an international flight as domestic. We flew to Beijing on MIAT with half the Mongolian Olympic team on our flight also. Exciting for them as they won their first Olympic medals in Beijing. We transited through to Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors and that's where our China Adventure continued.

CHINA 2008 HONEYMOON