Day 5 – Flaming Cliffs, Ongi Monastery

After an early rise, we set off en route to visit the Flaming Cliffs, or Bayanzag in Mongolian. They are so called because at sunrise and sunset the red sand that they are formed from glows as if they are on fire. I didn’t really know what to expect, so was quite surprised to discover that they are sedimentary formations of sandstone and quite soft and crumbly. It seems amazing that they have stood for so long. They project quite suddenly out of the landscape and the effect of the red cliffs towering above the vast, flat as a pancake plain below is quite striking. Some separate pinnacles of red sediment encroach upon the plain like they are tiptoeing into the void. It is in this region that several dinosaur fossils have been found, and needless to say, I was anxiously peering about for a dinosaur of my own! Velociraptor and the first dinosaur eggs were found here. I did find some stones with worm shaped holes in them, and I told myself that some prehistoric worm wiggled its way through there once – and I shall have to be content with this. Not quite so glamourous. Yet again, I was struck by a sense of wonder as I looked out into the past. There is something incredibly moving about being confronted with the enormity of time in this way, imagining the long-dead creatures going about their daily business.

After the Flaming Cliffs, it was back on the road. We stopped at Ongi Monastery – yet another Buddhist site razed by the communists in the 1930s. There were a few walls still standing, but it was rather difficult to imagine the site as it would have been, with numerous temple buildings scattered about the complex. One temple had been reconstructed with the help of money from donors and we were able to look inside. Here we saw statues and paintings and prayer wheels. They run summer schools for young monks here, but today it was empty. There was also a small museum of items salvaged from the rubble – some of the old stone carvings of dragons and traditional Mongolian symbols. There were also examples of some of the instruments that were used by the monks – little drums and small cymbals – and some more gruesome items, including a bowl made from part of a human skull. Apparently, the person would have done bad things and so they were killed; using their skull as crockery is like the ultimate diss. I had thought up until this point that the monks would have all been peaceable types, but now I wasn’t so sure… However, thinking about the death this place would have witnessed in the hands of the Communists was quite chilling, especially when you consider that this is one of hundreds of monasteries that suffered a similar fate.

That night we stayed at a pretty much closed tourist camp, which bordered a small river (so lovely to splash our sweaty faces with the cool water!). The main building with all the amenities in it was in shape of a castle, but was shut, as were, unfortunately, the spa and massage facilities! We stayed in a ger, which they opened up for us, and were terrorised by a six year old boy, who started off quite cute, but was a little too tourist savvy and boisterous and kept wanting to fight us with paper cups.  Our meals had begun to blur, and despite Bilguun’s best efforts, mainly seemed to consist of some variant of goat and noodles – sometimes dry, sometimes in soup form. We had begun to crave fruit and veg, but it is hard to come by in the Gobi. We killed time by playing cheat and drinking a few beers and Daniel lost consistently, keeping up with his previous track record of card games played!

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