Come to Mongolia.
Seriously. The last couple of days (bedbugs aside) have already confirmed that Mongolia is one of my favourite places in the world. Everybody should come here, it really is a great place for a holiday and you could easily spend a two week vaycay here without running out of things to do.
The morning after what I shall now describe as B-Day, we were picked up by coach (by an awesome, beret-wearing, aviator-toting Mongolian called Mia) to be taken into the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park for our overnight stay in a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent (our ger is shown above).
Before we got there though, we were taken over about 100 minutes of the very bumpy roads outside UB, which would have been fun enough anyways, but was made even more hilarious as one poor member of the group, Tom, was suffering after a night on the karaoke (and vodka, obviously) so the road was playing havoc with his digestive system. Loz also unveiled his hidden talent fake retching sounds, only adding to Tom's discomfort, and meaning that Håkon and I had aching sides by the time we arrived at our destination - a 40m high statue of Chingis Khan made entirely from stainless steel. Built on the spot where, as legend would have it, Chingis received his Golden Horsewhip, the statue actually houses a museum and a viewing platform (on the head of the Khan's horse no less) which gives great views over the countryside. The statue itself is incredible, and there's a wildly ambitious master plan for the rest of the site which I don't think has a snowball's chance of reaching completion, but it means the statue sits in an impressively commanding setting. We also got the chance to dress up in some traditional Mongolian clothes (warriors for the boys, princesses for the girls) which was fun. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the museum is also home to Mongolia's largest boot... Which was nice.
On the way from the Steely Khan (that's a good name for a band...) we stopped at a little tent to try the local liquor - fermented mare's milk. It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds - like a watery, very sour yoghurt mixed with vodka and with an overwhelming smell of grass - so we all tried a little, except for Loz who downed the rest of the bowl. Another 50 minute drive and we were at the ger camp, set right in the heart of a beautiful national park. The landscape has changed dramatically, the rough, sandy grassland of the plains giving way to trees and low shrubs as we enter the valleys. In fact, the whole area is evocative of spaghetti westerns with tall pines and rocky outcrops peppered over a blanket of yellowing grassland. When we arrived at the camp, we were treated to a massive meal of salad, soup and dumplings, all excellent, before heading out for one of the highlights of the trip so far - horse back riding.
I've never actually ridden a horse, but let's just say that me and 'Rasputin' (my name for my little black pony) got on like a ger on fire. Before too long, we were careening over the plains, even giving Laziz, a natural horseman, a run for his money. It was an unforgettable experience, particularly the sensation you get when the horse changes pace from a cantor to a gallop, and suddenly my trusty steed's muscles become liquid, and the ride goes from bumpy and fun to fluid and exhilarating.
Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for this part of my memorial tapestry. I think the bad nights sleep, the onset of the group lurgy and the rearing head of my ridiculous allergies pretty much knocked me out for the rest of the day, so an early night in the ger beckoned. I awoke about three hours later with the distinct impression that my head was on fire. Kate had apparently disregarded the local advice and thrown a bundle of firewood into the stove inside the ger (one stick every 30 minutes was suggested) and the interior of the tent had reached near sun-like temperatures. In fairness, this 'sweat lodge' approach might have help my symptoms as I awoke the next day for some archery practice. My status as the reincarnation of Robin Hood confirmed, we headed back into UB for another night, thankfully in a different room - this time devoid of crawlies.
Our last morning in UB was spent in museums, cafés and doing some shopping before boarding the last train of this trip, the one that would carry us to Beijing.
Thanks Mongolia, it really was emotional.