Another great memory I have from Sainshand is visiting all of the amazing museums, monasteries, and historical sites. Sainshand was filled to the brim with exciting sites! And they were made much more dramatic thanks to the desert weather. The wind was always blowing excessive amounts of sand into our faces. Sometimes, you couldn’t even see the color of the sky or the ground a few feet in front of you.
We went to a couple of monasteries filled with beautiful artifacts and statues. We even visited a rare female monastery, and briefly stayed there for a service. At the end of one tour, a monk had us lay down on the ground to meditate for half an hour.
My favorite part was the offerings we gave to them at some of the sites. In total, we had the option of offering to four different sites. But the catch was that you needed to pay for all of it yourself, or else it didn’t count. Therefore, I decided to only offer at one. The four options I had to offer were: water, candy/cookies, milk, and vodka. At 2 sites, we were instructed to wish for something at the same time. To offer we simply tossed or placed the drinks or foods on a specific part of the site. This was often tricky because of the temperamental wind. We had to face a certain direction while offering, and it sometimes meant that a good amount of the offering ended up on us!
I ended up choosing the milk offering site, simply because I thought it was hilarious. The ovoo was in the middle of the desert, and was made of 2 sand breasts. “Ovoo” is a term used by Mongolians to refer to any holy site.
Our monk guide explained that this ovoo was a tribute to celebrate women and encourage fertility. I asked an SIT staff member if there was a deeper meaning and she said “no meaning- just boobs”. I think she was a bit confused as to why I was laughing so hard at that. I also thought it was funny how we were offering milk to 2 giant sand breasts. The men were instructed not to watch while we tried to avoid splashing ourselves with milk and overall enjoyed our time together as women. I would say that I’d prefer to offer milk to a breast ovoo than climb a mountain anyways!
There were two other memorable events that were unique to the desert environment. First, our monk showed us a dinosaur fossil! It was one of the most interesting things I’d ever seen. I knew that there were many dinosaur fossils in Mongolia, but I didn’t expect to actually see one in person. I even got to hold a piece of its spine! And who would have stopped us? It was just lying out in the open with no fences, guards, or any sort of monitoring device!
It was strange to see a precious dinosaur fossil with no protection. In fact, the monk told us that there used to be a baby dinosaur near it, but it was stolen less than a year beforehand! I can’t imagine a whole community knowing about a dinosaur fossil in the United States and not protecting it or giving it to a museum. It was a difficult concept to wrap my head around.
The other unique experience was the opportunity to visit a camel-herding family in the desert. I got to ride a camel for the first time in my life, and it was amazing. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I definitely wasn’t expecting the camels to be so tall. Or that I would ride them with a carpet saddle. Or that the humps were so soft and bouncy.
They even let us lead each other’s camels, so picture us running as fast as we could to make it fun for the other person. Lucky for me, Kit led my camel, and he ran for the whole time! Thankfully, there were two humps on either side of me that kept me nice and secure. Riding a camel had been on my bucket-list, and I was glad to have finally gotten to ride one.