Coffee and tea. These seem to be two items that this trip evolve around. Baku keeps a sturdy Stanley thermos filled with hot water so that during our breakfast tea time, lunch tea time, afternoon tea time, dinner tea time, and pre bedtime tea time there is water to go around. Our choices of flavoring to add to our hot water include lemon tea, green tea, blueberry tea, Akhbar black tea, Lipton black tea, and instant coffee. Once you had your base beverage you then could put numerous sugar cubes (or just dunk a sugar cube in the tea and eat the sugar cube), powdered coffee creamer, butter, sweat cream, or caramel flavoring to make it just right. Needless to say I stayed away from various flavor adjuncts.
We had our obligatory breakfast and then headed out in the furgon for a rather long day of driving with an average speed of less than 20mph. We passed by where we were planning on camping, which had several large cranes hanging out and stopped near a large man with binoculars. It turns out he was a famous Kazakh wrestler who was out bird watching, and our driver wanted to say hi.
We resumed our journey and eventually exited our valley and came across a Kazakh cemetery. Katy had little interest in seeing the cemetery, but I stepped out of the car and briefly looked around. It was interesting because the architecture of the cemetery was such that you could say it was in Pakistan, and I would believe you.
Resuming our journey in the furgon, we then passed through a rather wet bog land and came across our largest river crossing to date. Most of the rivers/streams that we had previously crossed were less than fifteen feet long, this one was a solid fifty feet across. We successfully made it across and only a little water seeped into the furgon from where the door was. After another three hours in the car we made it to a region that had three lakes. The first lake, Dayan, is known for being mosquito infested, so we didn’t even think of stopping there, and then we came to the distal end of the second lake (Khurgan) where we stopped at the fuel station. If we hadn’t filled up on 80 octane gas, I would have never known the tank buried into the side of a hill was a solar powered fuel station.
We then crossed a real bridge that we did not doubt the structural integrity of and went up to the ranger station. Elka and Baku took their ID cards and our passports and got us a border permit ($2 per group), so we could continue onto the third lake, Khoton.
We then setup camp near the third lake. The area was rather buggy, but we soon discovered that most of the bugs were harmless annoying flies, not mosquitos which was a solid win in my book. Khoti started fishing, and Katy and I played some settlers, and then we had dinner. After dinner we took the furgon back to the bridge so Khoti could try fishing in a new area. Elka, Baku, and Katy then took Katy’s selfie stick and spent thirty minutes taking various iterations of bridge selfies. I did not enquire too much as to what was going on.
When we got back to our camp on the lake Baku tried her hand at fishing. I would have to rate her casts as substandard, and then she got a snag. Khoti tried to undo the snag, but was unsuccessful, so Baku stripped and went into the water to retrieve her snag. Khoti erected another, smaller blue tent which matched our dining tent, and I discovered it was a bathroom tent. Yes our budget tour did include a bathroom tent if you were staying the night on wide open group.
I discovered the next morning that our budget tour also included Vienna sausages for breakfast. I have very few foods that I won’t eat, but the sweet processed meat flavor of Vienna sausages splayed open is just a little much for me. We then headed off a little inland to go to a waterfall and came to another bridge. This bridge was built three years ago, but one of the supports was damaged last winter, and it became a cross-at-your-discretion bridge. We again watched from the far side of the bridge as our furgon made it across without a problem.
We then continued our drive and stopped when the road became rather slanted, even for the furgon. We then got out and walked to a waterfall. After some locals tried to talk me into jumping into the pool and going for a swim, we continued farther to the top of a hill. This put us about 3km from China, the closest we would come at this point of our trip. We saw a herd of ibex in the distance crossing a snow bank, but they were too far away to see clearly. We then headed back, trying to not get our shoes wet.
Our driver was fishing when we arrived back, and they wanted to stay near one of the local gers where Khoti had relatives. They asked us if we wanted to stay in the ger with them and the family, but 12 people in a ger (which normally slept a family of 7) seemed a little crowded and free of personal space so we graciously declined. They tried to find a flat spot near the ger to setup our tent, but we were unable to locate one that wasn’t strewn with rocks. We took a break from the search and had some tea. The tea was Kazahk milk tea. You take boiling water add, two scoops of a fresh mixture of milk (goat, sheep, cow), one shake of tea leaves, and a decent amount of salt, and you get Kazahk milk tea. Most areas in Mongolia don’t add the salt to the tea, but Kazakhs and people in the Gobi do. They had bread which was chewy and butter (made from the same milk mixture with more salt than butter in the US), which was really really good. Twenty two products are made from milk in Mongolia, but they have a very narrow definition of cheese and only one of the products we tasted would they consider a cheese, but we would consider many to be cheese. The family had the mother (42), father (47), and five children between the ages of 6 and 22 living with them in the ger. We decided to go down the hill two hundred yards and set our tent up there for the next two nights.
After we setup camp the table was moved outside, and Elka produced a bottle of vodka and four beers to celebrate Khoti’s birthday, and we produced another bottle of vodka (I figured having a couple spares in my bag wasn’t a bad idea). The parents came from the ger up the road, and we starting toasting and having a decent amount to drink. Baku then brought out some fresh goat and onions which was the most tender meat I have had in Mongolia. Then the dance party started; how can you have a birthday without a dance party? I am not sure how much music was on the USB drive they used to play music, but there is one song that I swear we heard over fifty times on the trip, about Astana, the capitol of Kazakhstan. After the impromptu seven person dance party, we decided to go up to the ger. Katy was exhausted of people and forced dance parties at this point and wanted “me time”, so she headed off to read.
At the ger, the father promptly was put to bed because it was 7pm, and he had had too much to drink. They produced another bottle of vodka at the ger, and I produced another one as a gift. Thankfully they saw fit to put the bottle I gave away for later. The oldest daughter then began making the noodles for the stew for dinner. They buy 100kg of flour at a time and keep it in a corner of their ger. The stew consisted of goat and noodles. It was more traditional than a lot of the food that we had been eating since any vegetables are pretty rare in traditional cooking. The kids of the family then went outside to play basketball for an hour before it got dark. I decided that after the amount of vodka I had consumed trying to play basketball was not a good idea. Throughout the region I did not see a single soccer goal, but a good number of homemade basketball hoops, which I found pretty surprising. Wrestling is reportedly the favorite sport of most people we have asked. We then called it a night after the third bottle of vodka was finished and headed back to camp, where Katy made me drink a bottle of water, and I took a couple of prophylactic ibuprofen.