Kharkhorin - Ulaan Baatar - Beijing - Home

We escaped the beetle plague in Tsetserleg and headed for Kharkhorin, popular tourist destination due to its 13th century status as capital of the Mongol Empire: Karakorum. On the site of the ruins of the great city of Karakorum is now the large monastery of Erdene Zuu (whose construction began in the 16th century apparently using the stones of the ruins). In Kharkhorin we settled in a ger hotel where, as night approached, we became increasingly worried about beetle infestations and wondered about our choice of accommodation in the breezy ger. Our fears were assuaged when the hotel manager told us we could sleep on the restaurant floor if ever the bugs got out of control (that's what they did last year with the foreign tourists who complained). But we slept peacefully, the bugs having not yet migrated as far east. After Erdene Zuu Monastery, the city's next tourist destination is Kharkhorin Rock the holy phallic rock that apparently keeps the area's monks celibate. In recent years an even larger penis statue (complete with flaming testicles) has been built on the hill next to Kharkhorin Rock. From Kharkhorin we used public transportation for the first time in weeks, catching a bus to Ulaan Baatar. We had a few days of relaxation in the capital until our 30-day visa expired, we spent it shopping for souvenirs at the huge Naran Tuul Market (also known as the Black Market) and counting down the days until we could eat something other than Mongolian food.
We also took in a performance of the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. Our border crossing into China was no less chaotic than the one into Mongolia (although this time we had purchased train tickets ahead of time to get us to the border). Arriving at the border early in the morning we hired someone to drive us in to China (a mandatory border crossing-requirement). He managed to get himself up to the front of the queue of the hundreds of run-down Mongolian jeeps lining up to stock up on Chinese goods. Nevertheless, our crossing dragged out over many hours thanks to Yann and I who were held up by border guards who wanted to confiscate our antique Mongolian teapots. Who knew the metal detector was functional?

Throughout the teapot detention, our jeep driver who had worked so hard for his prime position in the jeep queue, huffed around threatening to abandon us at the border if we didn't abandon our teapots. Luckily it seemed that the border guards were not allowing him to do this. After much patient resistance (which I didn't think I was capable of), the border guards took photos of our items, send them to an antique expert in Ulaan Baatar, who several minutes later sent back the ok to leave the country with the two teapots in our possession.

Over the border, we had a little bit of trouble securing bus tickets to Beijing due to high demand. My broken Chinese and overly assertive tone attracted the attention of two fellow travellers, Neil and Mike, retired high school teachers who were also trying to get to Beijing.  They were extremely positive and good-natured and were a great contrast to the unhelpful ticket dealers (and me). We ended up securing four spots on that evening's sleeper bus to Beijing and we set off together.

In Beijing, our new friends joined us at our favourite hostel where we all booked rooms. Neil and Mike enthusiastically set out every day and came back every evening with hilarious stories (always telling them with an extremely positive spin). Yann and I mainly lounged around waiting for our flight home, but we did take the time to see some of the city's sights that we had skipped (or did not exist) on our previous visits; the trendy 798 Art District and the Olympic Village and the National Grand Theatre. As always, we savoured the cheap and delicious Chinese food (which was even more delicious after 30 days in Mongolia) and Mike and Neil even treated us to Peking Duck at one of Beijing's most popular restaurants. We finished our trip in style and comfort, a 35-hour trip home, with a night on the floor of the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome.  

Rough Night in Tsetserleg

We left Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur on foot heading to the closest village, Tariat, 6 kilometers from the lake through the National Park. The landscape is covered in volcanic rocks, with very little vegetation and dotted by several extinct volcanoes including the Khorgo Uul Volcano whose crater is open to visitors. We detoured from the main road to make the climb and take in views of the lake behind us. In Tariat, we attempted to hitchhike onward to Tsetserleg but ended up negotiating an overpriced ride with a local man who found us waiting around in the empty village. Tsetserleg is the tiny capital of the central province of Arkhangai. Its hills are covered with neat rows of colourful wooden homes and the occasional ger sitting on equally-sized lots divided by wooden fences. Its centre is made up of wide, tree-lined avenues and a large public square complete with Soviet-style monuments. Tsetserleg holds a special place in our memories because it is where we spent the worst night of our Mongolian trip, perhaps the worst night we've ever had on the road . Our first night we spent at an expensive guesthouse hotel catering to foreign travellers who can't spend a month without an Italian espresso. It was exactly the place we don't like to stay, but it is where our driver dropped us off, late at night. We begrudgingly accepted the extremely comfortable beds and the first hot shower in weeks (not our worst night of the trip).

The next day we explored the quiet capital, visiting two of its active monasteries and a former temple complex (turned museum) featuring some great anti-clergy communist artwork. We finished the afternoon with a stroll up the stairs of Divine Enlightenment Achievement Lane leading towards a large Buddha statue overlooking the city. There wasn't a huge amount to do, but the town was extremely pleasant. Our second night's accommodation, directly across from our first evening's luxury guesthouse was the type Yann likes to stay in. It was run-down, pretty gross and a little bit too expensive for its level of cruddiness. We hesitated a little bit before agreeing to the filthy room with a single bed but we fell asleep fairly content with our money-saving decision, leaving the windows open to let in the cool evening air.

A few hours later we were both awake. The wall of our room were speckled with black bugs. The bugs were appeared to be some type of small beetle and they moved clumsily and didn't fly very well. I picked several out of my hair and out of my ears which was especially disgusting. We closed the window but we were doomed, the beetles had completely infested our room. Even with the window closed, the crumbling, drafty hotel had many other places through which the bugs could infiltrate and they were doing so at an alarming rate.

We were calm at first, pulling our stained bed sheets over our bodies and attempting to sleep. But the sheets proved no barrier to the beetles - we both continued to pull bugs from various orifices (they even got under our clothes). We increasingly became more panicked and agitated.

We felt that the light was attracting the bugs, but we couldn't stand feeling the bugs crawling on us in the dark. We alternated between dark and light until we resigned ourselves to a night without sleep. We left the lights on, sat up, and began taking shifts killing bugs with our guidebook. I was furious for moving hotels, I angrily speculated that we had purposely been placed in the hotel's most vulnerable room. And why the hell hadn't someone told us to close our window?

I stormed to the front desk to demand a new room, it was about 2a.m. In the lobby were three dejected employees, one sitting on a couch holding a broken fly swatter. They couldn't speak English but I knew from their faces that there wasn't another room in the hotel that was bug-free. They directed me to the front door from where I could see that the white hotel had turned black - a seething mass of beetles. We were trapped.

Somehow we got a few hours of sleep. We woke up to a room littered with beetle carcasses. We were at the bus stand at dawn.

Marmot Boodog

Back at Bata's Guesthouse in Moron, we agreed to join up with other tourists who were trying to make their way south, to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake). Not an unpopular destination, the lake is usually approached from Ulaan Baatar and not from Moron in the north.  It took three days of waiting before Bata could convince a driver to drive us the few hundred kilometres to the lake. He didn't seem overly happy about his decision.
It took most of the day to get to our destination, where we settled into an inexpensive family-run ger camp for the night.

In the evening we were roused from our ger cots by the sound of a blow-torch. Having read about the use of blow-torches in Mongolian cooking I excitedly dragged Yann out to take a look. A small crowd was gathered around the hunters/chefs who had already pulled out the insides of the marmot and replaced them with hot stones and sewn the whole thing up. The stones cook the marmot from the inside, while the blow-torch burns off its hair and crisps its skin. I stood around watching as Yann ran off for a toilet break. Before Yann returned, the cooking was complete and I was handed a nice chunk of marmot fat with a thin outer layer of crispy skin. I made sure to show my appreciation by sampling the crispy skin, but I left the best part for Yann. Eating marmot was a special test of our travel etiquette, we knew that in Mongolia, marmots can carry the bubonic plague. As the meat was being parceled out, the hot stones were passed around between the men, I can't remember if this was for good luck or for virility, I just remember someone telling me, as they handed me the stones, that women weren't really supposed to handle them.  The mood was festive as people gathered around for their share of the meal. There seemed to be quite a few people coming to eat, considering the small amount of meat. Despite the plague risks, we were grateful to have been offered a piece.

To finish off a great evening, we watched the men of the camp successfully, albeit slowly, put up a ger while intoxicated.
For those of you who are interested in trying this at home here is a recipe for Marmot Boodog from

Marmot Boodog
With the opening of a marmot-hunting season, Marmot Boodog becomes a very popular and fun outdoor activity for Mongolians, especially men. Marmot hunting and boodog cooking is a prerogative of men. A freshly killed marmot is separated from intestines and cleaned. Then, a prepared marmot is filled with preheated hot stones and tightly sealed. The marmot meat is cooked by the heat of stones from inside. Additional heating is provided by open fire or gas burner. The same amount of precaution as described above must be used for handling the marmot cooking process. When done, the marmot meat is very tender and tastes like wild duck according to some foreigners.

Ingredients (5 servings):
1 medium marmot

Cooking gear:
From small to medium sized smooth stones

Cooking time:
Approximately 1.5 hours

Clean the marmot, separate the intestines and slightly remove hair from the skin. Rub the inside with salt, fill up with hot stones and seal tightly. Additionally, roast the marmot on slow open fire or with a gas burner. Usually, Mongolians do not use seasonings in order to keep the specific taste of marmot meat. When the cooking is done, the stones are pulled out, rolled in hands, the meat is cut into pieces and served hot.