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Travel Story by Helga McGilp

  A Mongolian Odyssey

Dashdendev (Dashba) - our driver

For many of us especially boy scouts, the name ‘Mongolia’ conjures up exotic images of a nomadic society, Genghis Khan, a land without fences, the harshest climate, the worst roads, endless grasslands, the gers and their surrounding fleet of horses, sheeps, goats and camels. For me, it seems so far from the rest of the world and everything.

I first glimpsed Mongolia, the second communist state on the Trans-Mongolian from Irtrusk and the overwhelming impression was one of enormous space. Mongolia is the same size as Western Europe but has only 750 miles of paved road.

Travel books indicated that it would be difficult to shop around for a tour company in Ulaanbaatar. I tried Shuren, Nomadic Journeys and Karakorum Expeditions. Graham’s Karakorum Expeditions is situated five minutes north on foot from Jiguar Hotel. It cost me $220 to hire a driver and a guide to hike, ride a horse, visit a monastry (Bogd Haan National Park) and sleep in a ger in Terelj for two days. I specifically asked for a guide with good written English. Interestingly, 90% of Mongols are illiterate but my guide, Khishgee was not only a fantastic guide but also one of my best guides who patiently wrote everything down in English for the whole two days. It certainly paid off, as Khisghee was well prepared with a pile of papers to write notes, which proved invaluable for my diary.

On the way to Bogd Haan National Park, our driver, Dashdendev (Dashba) in a 4WD stopped in front of a pile of stones with blue scarves. “That’s a voo”, explained Khisghee. I thought it was a loo in Mongolian and looked away. They scoffed. It was an ovoo, a pyramid-shaped collection of stones and wood, which originated from Shamanism. An object of cultural significance, this involves walking around it three times in a clockwise direction if travelling, making an offering of some kind and making a wish. If people do that, there will be no trouble on their trip. It’s a kind of superstition. They are usually found at the side of the road or on the top of the mountains.

Whilst driving on a paved road leading westward out of town, we noticed a car by the side of the road. A group of three women signalled to Dashba to stop and take a message to someone in Zuunmod the centre of the province of Tov. Both Khishgee and Dashba did not seem not surprised – it was as if they witnessed breakdowns everyday. When I asked whether they had a breakdown they looked at me as if it was a stupid question! Of course it was. Welcome to Mongolia!

Bogd Manzushir is located 50km southwest from Ulaanbaatar. The temple is named after Manzushir, the monastery of intelligence and knowledge. When we arrived at the monastery on the edge of the national park it was locked. “It’s common to be locked,” wrote the apologetic Khishgee. It was a privilege as I was the only tourist in this lovely spot. While waiting at the gate Khishgee started making small conversation.

“What does your tarzan look like?”
“If you meet an deaf person, do you have the same sign language?”
“Is the country of Scotland like this?”

I could have gone home happy after having the monastery to myself. But Tibet was my prime destination.

Before the Communist purges of the 1930s, Mongolia had hundreds of Buddhist monasteries with more than 100,000 monks. Bogd Manzushir was founded in 1733 and destroyed in 1937. There were original photos taken by a German scientist in 1911, which showed what the monastery looked like. There used to be 20 temples and 350 monks. Some were either killed or sent to prisons in Siberia. Only one monastery was renovated in 1992 through donations. The monastery was a major centre of Tibetan Buddhism as a means of uniting the people and there were sutras written in Tibetan, which were wrapped with cloth and the Khadong, the blue silk.

Khishgee explained that Khublai Khan in 1262 transformed the Mongolian capital into Beijing and established the Yeng Dynasty. He declared Buddhism as an official religion. There were lots of Buddhist statues and religious musical instruments at the monastery.

Khishgee explained that 370km from Ulaanbaatar, Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. The whole road to Karakorum is paved using Chinese investment. It would take 7 to 8 hours from Ulaanbaatar to the Erdene Zuu Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery built on the site of the ancient capital city Karakorum, using bricks and stones from the ruins.

Khishgee has not been outside Mongolia. She was told by council officials that she does not have ‘sufficient family and economical ties’ to leave Mongolia. According to the government her salary may be deemed too low but for Khishgee it is enough. She works full time at University of the Humanities teaching English and for Karakorum Expeditions as a part-time guide during the summer. Like thousands of other young Mongolians, Khishgee is determined to go to the Unites States. It is a dream she wants to pursue.

We visited a nomad family in Terelj. Dashba exchanged a snuff bottle with the man of the house at the ger; this is how Mongols greet each other. The northern part of the ger is like a shrine, a place of respect where all the family’s sacred objects are kept. Gers are homes to Mongolia’s nomadic herders. I witnessed two men taking a sheep to UB to slaughter. My Charles Rennie Mackintosh gift was placed in the northern part of the ger, along with the other sacred objects.

Khishgee insisted that I watch out for the dog outside the nomad’s ger, as she recently had 3 puppies. She shouted, “Call off your dog”, every time we approached a ger. Khishgee showed me her scar, as a dog once bit her so she was constantly warning me about dogs everywhere. I loved the way she frowned when she pronounced, “the dog”. On two or three occasions I pretended to walk away so I could enjoy watching her reactions. That reminded me of my visit to my travel clinic in Glasgow when I asked my nurse what the vaccination requirements were for the places I intend to visit. She looked at me viciously as if she was one of the stray dogs because she had other patients to see. The nurse who looked like She-Devil, which appeared on our screens in the 1980s, injected a total of four rabies jags in both my arms and thighs for the trip to Mongolia.

In Terelj, a friend of mine, Sally texted me and wondered how I was because she heard that there was a landslide in Mongolia. I showed my text message to Khishgee and she smiled. She said we do not have any in UB but asked me if I would like to see one as if it were a tourist attraction! I suspected that there might have been a communication breakdown.

Khisghee and I went horseriding. We had to accompany a horseman because the horses in Mongolia listen to their masters and don’t like to take orders from strangers.

Both Khisghee and Dashba kept asking if I had a boyfriend. Dashba begged me after drinking some of my whisky to marry his deaf cousin and live in Mongolia. If so, he will arrange to bring him to UB as he lives in Arkhangai. “His cousin is deaf. He lives in Arkhangai. Unfortunately he is far away. Would you like to meet him? Would you marry him and live in Mongolia? If so, he can bring him to UB. He is more handsome than me”, as Khisghee translated for Dashba. It must be the whisky! He insisted that I would need to grow my hair long before he could introduce me to his cousin. To Mongols, it seems shocking that women have short hair especially when I showed Dashba photographs of my friends at my 30th birthday party. “Why don’t you grow your hair? If you grew your hair. Real beautiful Scottish girl. I feel very sorry with your hair”, said Dasbha.

One thing I regretted leaving behind at home were the addresses of deaf schools in the countries I was visiting. Of course no journey would be worthwhile or pose any challenges without experiencing some difficulties along the way! I googled the internet for the address of deaf schools in Ulaanbaatar and the first site that appeared was the NDCS Cycle Mongolia for 2006!

With Khishgee’s help we visited a deaf school in Ulaanbaatar. It helped explain my confusion as to why there was no address on the website, it was just called Number 29.

Located in the eastern side of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, is No.29 – the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science of Mongolia. The Special School for Blind and Deaf is the only special school of its kind in Mongolia. Opened in mid-1950s the school has about 500 deaf pupils, of which 250 are boarders and there are 70 teachers.

Upon arrival deaf children guided me to Sarantuya Magsar, a teacher of deaf. Although she was quite fluent in American Sign Language, Khishgee my guide acted as an interpreter when I asked her specific questions about inclusion. I learnt that there are special classes run in rural areas. Ms Magsar claimed that it was impossible to include deaf children in mainstream classes. There is a traditional belief in Mongolia that children with special educational needs should not be in ‘ordinary’ schools with hearing children but be placed in special schools, often boarding schools, or stay at home. The majority of deaf children are taught through sign language, but this was not introduced until 1994.

I observed a Maths class where 16 children were taught orally because they were the ones considered potential university candidates. Ms Magsar guided me around the school, showing children’s pieces of artwork, woodwork and needlework. I was taken quickly through five or six different classes including the gym where I witnessed some teachers playing volleyball. Only four classes out of 40 were equipped with headphones that were brought from Hungary. Unfortunately most of them were broken. Only two or three children out of 500 have hearing aids. One class was equipped with three or four computers, which were donated from the United States. In this IT class they received Internet training, learned how to use e-mail and participated in an on-line chat with deaf children receiving similar training in Bayankhongor and Dornod, other towns in Mongolia.

Ms Magsar showed me the boarding house. It immediately evoked memories of Mary Hare; children have to stay at the school for many months before they see their families. At the boarding house I met two deaf care workers, Bolormaa and Baasanjav. I learnt from them that at least half of the Mongolian population still lead a nomadic lifestyle and Baasanjav described in vivid detail living in a ger with his parents. They also lamented about not being able to save enough money to pay for a visa to go on holidays outside Mongolia. Their average wage per month is only fifty US dollars.

Mongolia was the only former communist state to encourage a ‘flourishing democracy’. Ulaanbaatar also had no shortage of eating establishments. I was surprised to see a Chinese restaurant in UB, as China and Mongolia have a long tense history. I felt that I was somehow cheating for eating sweet and sour chicken as opposed to eating mutton or dumplings. Genghis Khan invaded China winning a crucial battle for control of Beijing in 1790. His armies killed more than a million soldiers and civilians in two years, extending his empire from China to the Black Sea. His death in 1227 heralded the decline of the Mongol empire. Maps of the Mongol empire can be found in Kublai Khan restaurants. (

On my last day I visited Sukhbaatar’s Square, the capital’s central square. Sukhbaatar led the Mongolian People’s Revolution in 1921. There's a mausoleum in UB, which contains the remains of Sukhbaatar, who died at the age of 30. He was Mongolia’s version of Lenin. Unlike Moscow, you are not allowed to go and look at it. Sukbaatar was followed by Choibalsan, Mongolia’s Stalin. He managed to keep Mongolia independent of the former Soviet Union.

I expected Mongolia to be cold at this time of month (November) but it is obviously different every year. Fortunately winter came very late. Normally temperatures in Ulaanbaatar range from -49°C in winter to 38°C in the summer. The Mongolian winter has passed rapidly from 10 degrees to -10 degrees Centigrade on my last day. It is the coldest national capital in the world. The freezing temperatures were no deterrent to outdoor activities at the Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery, formerly known as Ganden Monastery, as children sledded happily on cafeteria trays and bits of cardboard boxes. Ganden Monastery, an incense-scented building with golden Buddha is worth visiting. It is the largest monastery in the country, containing an impressive 25 metre statue made of gold and copper and hundreds of smaller buddhas.

Recommended book: Wild East – Travels in the New Mongolia by Jill Lawless (2002)

Recommended travel agent:

Click on photo to enlarge

Mongolian ger  Bolormaa, Helga and Baasanjav  Voo

Date Submitted:
03 Apr 2007

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