Amarbaysgalant Monastery

Somehow spared the fate of many of Mongolia's Buddhist monasteries during the country's period of communist rule, the isolated monastery complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid is a curiously spectacular appearance in a landscape dotted mostly by white gers. After sending off our taxi driver and settling in to our tourist ger, we wandered the quiet complex, alone but for our small guides who silently led us from hall to hall. The long neglected buildings are in the process of slowly being restored, but the atmosphere of peeling paint, overgrown grass and unlit halls added to the eerie isolation of the sight. We spent our afternoon hiking in the surrounding hills, from where the monastery seemed even more impressive. Yann chased the kites that filled the sky around the monastery, every once in a while they would swoop down near us as they hunted (making Yann very excited). We had a one-bucket shower/laundry and a home-cooked dinner and spent an evening under a sky like none we'd ever seen. In the morning, I woke up early to catch the prayer ceremony. I couldn't get Yann to leave the comfort of our ger but was happy to watch the young novice monks gather for their lessons and singing. I sat in a courtyard by myself to watch the ceremony through the open doors of a temple hall. Other tourists had appeared late the previous afternoon in a hired jeep. With only a few minutes before sunset they had scurried around the monastery and had left the next morning before the prayer ceremony. We felt happy with our choice to travel independently, the sight deserved a longer stay.

Of course, we felt started to feel differently when came time to catch a ride back to the highway. We packed our bags and settled outside what seemed to be the central ger area. We asked the few people around if they were heading to the highway. There was very little traffic in or out of the monastery. Eventually a large group of local tourists appeared and agreed (after we offered money) to squeeze us into their van, but only for the trip to the highway. From the highway we would have to hitchhike to the next town.

Our departure was a slow one. We had to first picnic with the group, who were busy feasting on the Mongolian culinary treat chanasan makh (boiled meat) and drinking arkhi (made from fermented mare's milk). We were handed glasses of the slightly alcoholic arkhi and a knife and directed to the large bowl of makh. We seemed to be offered prime pieces and we were taught how to eat with a single utensil. I think we came off as a little bit delicate and there was much laughter at our technique. By late afternoon, we were in a car on our way to Erdenet, Mongolia's second biggest city, a 60km journey from the highway junction where we had been dropped off.

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