Campervan Trip to the South Island

Flying to the South Island

The next two posts were written 6 weeks after the fact so they are more in history mode than the standard in real time mode.  That means they are boring and dry.

We came back from Rotorua, and Katy had two weeks of work orientation followed by nine days off before she started real shifts.  We decided to use that time to explore the South Island for the first time.  We decided to go the campervan route for this trip.  We left for the airport on Saturday to get there about an hour early and discovered that New Zealand domestic airports are very different from US ones.  The New Plymouth airport does not have security.  I mean there is not a single metal detector in the entire building.  The airport also doesn’t believe in ID checks so you just scan your boarding pass and off you go into the plane.  We have since modified our airport plan and believe that you only need to get to the airport around 15 minutes before the flight boards.  This makes short plane rides (like to Auckland, etc) very palatable since you don’t need to get there early.

South Island roads

We flew into Christchurch, which is the largest city on the South Island and according to most statistics the third largest city in the country.  It is also the only city on the South Island that we can fly to direct from New Plymouth.  We were then promptly picked up at the airport by our rental company Affordable Rentals.  The rental was ~$40 USD per day for a campervan that you could stand up in.  The pickup of the campervan went smoothly, and we went to the store to stock up on food for the next week or so.  We then headed up towards Pearson Lake and had a couple stops on our way.  We discovered that our 2002 Toyota Hiace diesel van has a hard time reaching the speed limit of 100kph and when going up a hill sometimes has a hard time reaching over 50kph. We promptly named it Bertha. 

Lava tube on the way to Lake Pearson
Our camping spot the first night in our first campervan

The next morning we cooked some breakfast and hit the road.  A hundred yards later we get a shrill alarm coupled with all the warning lights in the van having come on.  Not good.  Of course we did not have cell phone service at this location, so we drove twenty minutes back down the road until we got a couple bars.  We called roadside assistance and after about 90 minutes, we had a tow jeep (think of a jeep with a car trailer behind it) arrive.  The mechanic promptly diagnosed that something was wrong and that we should go back to his shop.  We then drove another 30 minutes with the blaring alarm until we got into the thriving metropolis of Springfield (population ~220…and a few llamas!).  

Our walk around Springfield brought us to the train station

The final diagnosis was that the alternator had failed, and the rental company’s solution was that they would bring us another van and said it would take about 2 hours.  Four hours later, we had a new van and headed back out.  We named this one Moses since it only does 25kph up hills and moseys along.  This van turned out to be a disaster with a fridge that didn’t work, since it didn’t have a fuse in it, and a water pump that had an air leak resulting in either needing to flood the water tank every morning to get it to work or disconnect the faucet head and suck the water out.  We obviously were not super pleased with losing a day of our vacation and having two other issues to address with the campervan that we hired, but I guess that sometimes happens when you higher from companies like Affordable Campervans.

Bailey Spur hike

We got back to where we had started the day by 3pm and decided to continue on towards Arthur’s Pass.  I was expecting the pass to be a high altitude pass like we have in Colorado, but instead the pass was nestled in a valley at the rather low altitude of 2,425 feet.  We did a hike of Bailey’s Spur and made it most of the way before we decided that we needed to turn around to get to the campsite before it got dark.  We decided to camp at the Klondyke Corner campsite after checking out the other campsites available near the pass. 

Klondyke Corner campsite

We use an app, Campermate, which has a list of most of the campsites around and reviews.  After our last encounter with sandflies, I look closely to make sure that the reviews are not saying that sand flies are all over the place.  We cooked some dinner and watched some large mountain parrots called Kea.  

What a Kea looks like. There are less than 7,000 of them and they actual are semi nuisance birds. They enjoy eating rubber gaskets from campervans and any food that people give them..

 The next morning after breakfast we headed for a hike up Avalanche Peak.  Since Arthur’s Pass is a low level pass, the mountains go pretty much straight up and so does the hiking.  We went to snow line and had a good look around before we headed back down.  

They decided to build a real bridge here.

We have discovered that since it rains in New Zealand (once in awhile), they like their waterfalls, and so we went and saw a popular waterfall at the pass.  We then headed two more hours to the west coast to Hokitika. 

Lounging around on the Hokatika Beach

We decided to splurge and stay at a holiday park near the beach.  The advantage of a holiday park is that they have showers.  Katy likes showers.  I am ambivalent. They also have electric hookups, which means that the microwave and electric kettle work, since the 12 volt battery is not enough to power them.  We watched sunset and then walked across the street to see some glow worms.  Glow worms are the larvae of a fly, which have a glowing butt to attract insects to eat.  

We had a good first four days of our trip, minus losing most of one of them to some mechanical issues.  You can read about part two here.

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Moving to New Zealand in 12 Boxes

New Zealand
Taking off from Denver, one last look at the mountains

We have started a new adventure, living in New Zealand for a year. We were unsure how the adventure was going to start because Katy was successful in getting her visa in less than a week, but mine never came through. We decided to give New Zealand Immigration a call; after 105 minutes on hold a cheery woman answered and politely informed me that the current processing time for my visa type is 40 days, and my application was in a queue in the New Zealand consulate in London. She recommended I upload a copy of my plane ticket so once it was assigned to a human they might process it faster. I decided to call back the next day, and after 95 minutes on hold I was able to talk to a gentleman who said there is no way I would get my visa in time and that he would email the London consulate and ask them to rush my visa and to call back the next day. The call the next day yielded the information that they have read the email, but my application had not yet been assigned a human. I was then to call in at 4am Denver time Monday morning for another update. My fourth call yielded the most unhelpful person that insisted the time frame was the time frame, but I was able to convince her to look into my file, and they had assigned my file to a human, win. About five hours later Katy got an email that I had received a visa. It was a little stressful not having a visa the day before we were scheduled to leave (plan B was to try to get a tourist visa on arrival).

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House is cleaned and our boxes are packed

Mac took us and our backpacks, 8 boxes, ski bag, bike box, and carryons to the airport, and we were able to successfully checkin and pay $1200 for our bags. We then did a tour of the lounges in the Denver airport and headed to Houston. Our flight from Houston was delayed a bit, and we discovered that one box did not make the plane. We then participated in a tour of Asia in the front of the plane courtesy of airline miles. We used United miles for our flight, which we got in part of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. We flew from Houston to Taipei, then to Singapore, then to Melbourne, then to Wellington, since the long way around was the only way we could get award seats.

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We arrived slightly jet lagged and piled our boxes onto two luggage trolleys (please note that they are trolleys, not carts, but don’t get them confused with trundlers at the grocery store which certainly aren’t carts or trolleys…). While waiting for the last bag someone came up to us and told us the last bag didn’t make it, but would be here tomorrow.  When it did show up, it was a box of 70 pounds of Katy’s clothes and shoes that was tossed and exploded; it was completely covered in tape and the cardboard had lost all structural integrity (you could roll the box).

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Only a little luggage…

We then fit all of our stuff into a Ford Ranger pickup truck with a cab that was rented from Hertz. It was a rather large vehicle to be introduced to driving on the left hand side of the road with. We spent three nights in Wellington at a cheap AirBnB getting some logistics like cell phones and Katy’s medical license sorted out. We also purchased Yoshi, a 2010 Toyota Prius, which was a fresh import from Japan. The nav system is in Japanese (and still thinks we are in Tokyo), some of the dash is in Japanese, the warning alarms are in Japanese, and when you get in the car you get a friendly Japanese greeting. At least that is what I think it is.

We then drove as a caravan the 4.5 hours up to our new home in New Plymouth. We had rain for about half of the drive and are learning that rain is a very common occurrence. Driving on the left side of the road does take some getting use to. We initially decided that whoever was driving was the person who went to the driver side of the car, even if they had forgotten that the US passenger side is now the driver side. We have turned on the windshield wipers a good number of times instead of the blinker, since they are transposed in left drive vehicles. We have not gone through any roundabouts the wrong way, and it took a quick second to realize that on the very few New Zealand roads that have two lanes, the left one is the slow lane.

We arrived in New Plymouth during a light drizzle which lasted for most of the next week. Our seasons are all screwed up. We left Boulder in July and spent a month in Mongolia wearing long pants and puffy jackets instead of shorts so it seams like we missed a lot of summer. We are now in spring in New Zealand and will skip a winter. The downside is that we will skip summer next year when we come back to the states.

New Plymouth is a town of 70,000 (9th largest in New Zealand), but it is very isolated.  It is about a three hour drive to get to a larger town and both Wellington and Auckland are 4.5+ hours away. It has the reputation of being a rural place that many locals don’t stray from. There are two main industries, dairy farming and oil/gas. The most common mechanism of injury for a 20-40 year old women is falling off a horse. The town has a six mile long coastal walkway and a downtown area that has a good number of restaurants and shops. It also has two bike shops.

It has been a great adventure to get to New Zealand, and I am only two months late getting this posted, not enough spare time.

You can see Taranaki peaking out in the background. It is often shrouded in clouds
New Plymouth coastal walkway
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Istanbul is Hot in August, the Pool at the Ritz is not

E49F5012-FD9F-4BD4-A7CB-7CA82E1D6857Our third day in Istanbul denoted when we were down to only one week of honeymoon left. We went down to breakfast, and they remembered our breakfast drink order, one coffee with cream and one Turkish tea, and brought it without asking. Our first stop of the day was to take the metro to the Hagia Sofia.

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We tried to get there when they opened and were able to see a lot of the palace before the tour groups showed up. When we left a line (in the bright, unsheltered sun) had formed to get tickets. Did I mention that Istanbul is hot?

We then headed to the basilica cisterns, which consist of a large subterranean room with a bunch of Roman columns holding it up. It fell out of favor a bit ago when people decided they wanted running water instead of drawing their water from a pit.

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We then decided to wander over to the bazaar. There is a large covered grand bazaar and a much smaller covered spice bazaar, but in my opinion the outside streets around the bazaar are the more exciting part. At this point Katy decided she wanted a kumpir, which is basically a mashed potato with a ton of fixings for lunch. The issue is that they are not the most common food item in this section of town. We spent a solid two plus hours while wandering around the bazaar looking for a kumpir.  We finally backtracked to near our hotel where we had previously seen them for sale to find her lunch treasure (Katy says: absolutely worth all the sweat and toil).

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Carts that workers use to carry peoples purchases through the bazaar

We then wandered the rest of the way to our hotel and went to the pool for the rest of the late afternoon. We then walked down to the road along the Bosphorus and north along the shore looking for a place to eat dinner. We walked over a mile to the north, which took us away from a lot of the western tourists. We picked a fish restaurant overlooking the straight. Katy decided to be a little adventurous and ordered a Raki to drink. Raki is an anise flavored beverage that you add water and ice to in the right combination, and it makes it cloudy. I really liked it and Katy liked it more than she thought that she would.

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We then tried to order a taxi on Turkeys taxi app and failed. There was a ton of non moving traffic, and the fare was suppose to be $3, but there were not enough drivers to satisfy demand. We tried to take a taxi from the street, but they wanted $10, too much. Katy then opened up google maps, and within 2 minutes we hopped on a bus that was jammed pack and took that most of the way back to the Ritz (Katy: turns out there was a soccer game at the municipal stadium, which was next to the hotel; we could hear the crowd cheering from the lounge).

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Our last full day in Turkey we had one place on the agenda, Topkapi Palace. We tried to time it when there wouldn’t be hoards of tourists, but there were still hoards of tourists. It was a a rather large palace complex (Katy: it was massive and beautiful, despite being so hot; and I at least had no idea that the Ottoman Empire lasted well into the 20th century, so it was very interesting to learn about the history). I would say the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia were my two favorite landmark tourist attractions in Istanbul.

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We then headed back to the markets and ultimately back home. One large difference between the bazaar in Istanbul versus Bishkek is that a lot more of the bazaars are geared towards tourists, and there are a lot more touts bothering you. There are still (significantly) less touts than Morocco. It is justifiable that the bazaar is more tourist oriented because there are exponentially more tourists in Istanbul than Bishkek. Istanbul is definitely more expensive than Mongolia, but a lot of the cheap souvenir trinkets were still cheap. A lifesaver on dealing with the heat was that a bottle of water cost the same amount as using the public toilet, $0.20. I kept at least one one lira ($0.20) coin in my pocket at all times, so I could have a bathroom break or water on demand. As much as I am not a fan of paying for toilets, when they cost less than a quarter I am less irritated, especially when they are clean.

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We wandered back to our hotel, and I went to the pool for the rest of the day, while Katy went and had a hamman treatment, which is basically a combo bath/massage (Katy: and was amazing!!!😍😍😍). We then went out and had our best meal of the trip at a sea food restaurant that was enough off the main drag that we didn’t hear any other patrons speaking English. Katy got a whole sea bass, and I got the anglerfish (Katy: google it, it’s one of those deep sea monsters), which is a type fish that I am not sure if I have ever seen on the menu before, and both were really good.

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Katy at the late night dessert bar

Turkish Airlines had changed the time of our flight to Croatia to a couple hours later a few months ago, and I wasn’t able to find open seats on the earlier flights, so we ended up with almost another full day in Istanbul.

We spent the next morning visiting the bazaar trying to snag the last few trinkets of our trip. It worked out that in the last 50 yards of our trinket hunting, we discovered multiple stores that had the stuff we were looking for cheap. While we were walking through, we passed several news agencies filming in front of banks and currency exchange offices and didn’t think anything of them. We then discovered later that day that they were filming because of the sudden drop in the Turkish Lira. We didn’t really get to take advantage of the stronger dollar conversion for the lira, except for the hotel. They charged us the exchange rate based on the day we checked in and the credit card paid the transaction when we checked out so we got the exchange rate of when we checked out, which resulted in it being 25% cheaper than we anticipate for a total of $501 (Katy: including my hammam and all the booze at the pool). We then took a taxi to the airport, and he took the long way, which cost us an additional $4, but it irritated me so I gave the driver a piece of my mind when we got to the airport. We spent most of the afternoon at the hotel getting a 4pm checkout, so we had minimal time in the Turkish lounge, and it turned out to be Katy’s favorite one of the trip (Katy: but I did squeeze in one last dip in the pool as a result of the late checkout, so I don’t know that I entirely regret that choice…).

Turkey was a great country, and Istanbul seemed like a truly European city with all types of people in all types of dress co-mingling.

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We Made it to Europe-Istanbul

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We had an early flight, 630am, from Bishkek to Istanbul so we called up our Yandex.Taxi app, and a driver was at our door within 10 minutes. The Bishkek airport was hopping this early in the morning, and it was a mess. They aren’t super great with lines in Kyrgyzstan, which I am fine with, but Katy is not a fan. We made it though immigrants and customs without being pulled aside and having to pay a bribe—not common, but of all the countries we went to on the trip, this was the most likely to have it happen. When we were talking to one of the locals on the hike he mentioned that there is a lot of buerocracy like Russia, but it is much more manageable because you just pay a small bribe, and the issue goes away. 

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The white tastes like a grape flavored Smirnoff ice and is drinkable if you don’t think you are drinking wine. The red, this photo is the closest you should get to.

We went to the lounge, which had beer and wine (think of it as a late night, not an early morning) and some food stuffs. It was actually a lot better than the Ulaanbaatar lounge. We then had an uneventful 5.5 hour flight to Istanbul and were at our hotel by 10am. The immigration officer did want to confirm that I was really a business class passenger and just not bypassing the line (we may have been a little scruffy looking at this point). 

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We had booked a room at the Ritz during the period when the US and Turkey had stopped issuing tourist visas for one another (~February), and prices had declined to €123/night, and we were able to use one of our credit card upgrade certificates, which gave us a club room (breakfast in the restaurant, and in the club lounge four food services daily, and alcohol for free) which aren’t available with status. That made it pretty affordable at a place we normally wouldn’t stay, but we are on our honeymoon (rooms are now €200-300/night). When we got there they whisked us up to the 12th floor, so we could check in there, instead of the lobby (club guests don’t normally fraternize in the lobby, apparently). I don’t really understand it, but they were able to get us a corner room with a very partial Bosporus view at 10am so I can’t complain. The club lounge host then took a map and went over the city with us over some Turkish coffee and Turkish delight. 

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Istanbul is hot and humid. It is definitely the warmest place we have been since Tokyo over a month ago (Katy says: it’s the warmest place since Sri Lanka). At least the universal price of a bottle of water is 1 lira which was $0.20 (when we got to Turkey the conversion was $1 to 5.1 lira, our last day that changed), and they were easy to buy. We spent the afternoon walking around our portion of Istanbul. We then crossed the bridge to the older section of town and decided to do a Bosphorus boat ride ($3) since it was leaving very soon. 

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We then went back and freshened up while looking at the pool but decided to abstain (for now) since the hungers were upon us. We had a loose plan and ended up walking around for about 20 minutes before we came to a kebab place. Traveling with Katy, I tend to eat less meat and go to less places that specialize in meats than if I was traveling with meat eaters, but a few times per trip we can go to a place that focuses on the meats (Katy: I had a lovely veggie kebab). We then wandered home. 

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We had 3 full days and planned to checkout of the hotel at 4pm on our last day in Istanbul. That said, there is something nice about staying in a fancy hotel with outdoor mini pools that overlook the Bosporus. Our strategy was to sight see for the first portion of the day and after lunch wander back to the hotel. Istanbul is hot. We decided to do pants (Katy: and intermittent, stifling head scarf) this day and knock out all the mosques that required conservative clothing and the following days have a little more freedom in our dress. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, but we only saw a handful of women in hijab during our time there. Istanbul is much more diverse, with many Muslim women (both local and foreign), wearing everything from black abaya to hijab with western clothes, to women in sundresses or shorts—and not uncommonly, women in both forms of dress a together in groups.

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We went to the Blue Mosque, which was under construction, so you could not see a lot of the ceiling (widely considers the highlight), which left a lackluster impression on us. Instead of going to the Hagia Sofia, which is right across the plaza, we decided to amble to the Süleymaniye Mosque because the Hagia Sofia entry line was too long to bake under the sun. During our amble, Katy discovered some lavender soap that it was essential she purchase, since our soap had been consumed over the past month (please note she did not feel a need to use it at the Ritz, just stockpile it for potential future needs—Katy further notes it cost 5 lira, i.e. less than $1, and smells delightful, and probably had contact with an actual lavender plant at some point). We then took the tram back home. It cost $0.50, and the terminal station was just down the hill from the hotel. We then reapplied sunscreen (at this point we have five types of sunscreen that are being used for different purposes, but our sunburn levels have been minimal) and went down to the pool. I got a beer, and Katy got a gin and tonic. The G&T was served in a chilled pint glass with ice and filled 3/4 of the way, with an 8 ounce bottle of tonic on the side, still nearly full. It turns out that the cup was just full of gin, and they supplied less tonic then gin. Needless to say Katy was a little tipsy after her cup-o-gin and sidecar of tonic. It was then dinner time, so we wandered about 20 minutes away to a smaller place that had some Istanbul craft beer in bottles. We then prepared for bed, to try to beat the lines the next morning. 

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Horse Rectum for Dinner in Kyrgyzstan?

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Where is Kyrgyzstan?  I am not going to act like I was able to pick it out on a map with a high degree of certainty before Katy and I decided to go there. It is between Kazakhstan and China; not that that is a helpful description. With our frequent flyer plane ticket, we had to continue to fly in one direction, and the only flight west from Mongolia we could take was to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Turkish Airways. The flight stops in Bishkek and then continues to Istanbul, but we decided to get off in Bishkek for four days. Our expectation going there was that we probably will never go back, and it will be nice to have a few low key days before heading to Turkey. 

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View from our AirBnB

The owner of our AirBnB in Ulaanbaatar got us a cab at 7:45am to the airport, which was really clutch. We did not have a working rideshare app, and it wasn’t really easy to flag a taxi on the street in UB. The flight to Kyrgyzstan was an uneventful 4.5 hour flight. Immigration in Kyrgyzstan might have been the fastest I have ever seen. You did not have to fill out any paperwork; there was no line, and my estimate is that it took 30 seconds total. Customs took about three minutes since one of the taxi touts had to go and get the customs official to open up customs so we could leave the airport. After being approached by fifteen people for taxis we figured out our game plan, and the taxi driver charged us the correct rate, $9 for the 40 minute drive to our AirBnB.

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Leaving the airport taxi lane the drivers have to get out and pay the attendant. I am sure there is a more efficient way to do this.

We did have some issue getting into our AirBnB/connecting with the owner, but we went to Relax Coffee, which was across the street from where we thought the unit was, and got a coffee and some internet, and eventually he came to meet us (well, actually he sent his younger brother).  This AirBnB looked great in photos but was a little worn on the inside (Katy says: Todd is wrong, it was very new, so new it felt sterile like it had never been lived in) and was lacking in basics (only 4.8 feet of toilet paper, no dish soap or rags, no salt or pepper, no laundry detergent, but it did have ample vodka glasses, enough for a small army). It did have air conditioning, a balcony, a washing machine, and a great location. 

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We then went out and stocked up on toilet paper (Katy bought the cheap stuff for $0.12/roll; it didn’t even have a roll in the middle. Her defense was it was more expensive than the $0.08/roll TP; my defense is that I enjoy $1.00+/roll TP) and assorted other culinary treasures. We then headed off to Save the Ales, an all-female run and owned microbrewery. On our way we noticed that Bishkek was not like we anticipated. The streets were clean, well maintained, and ADA compliant (in the technical sense, using all the ramps might be a tad tricky). There were a lot of people in the streets in a wide range of dress. I had asked the guy upon checking into the AirBnB how I said a few basic words, and he told me how to say them in Russian, not Kyrgyz. 

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About 20% of people in Bishkek are ethnically Russian (their family could have been there for 100+ years), and a little over 60% of the population of the entire country are actually ethnic Kyrgyz. This meant that we did not stand out 100% as tourists. It helps that there are less than 20,000 US tourists a year, and most tourists make a beeline for the countryside (like we did in Ulaanbaatar). The currency was the som, which Russian Google-translate showed as catfish, so we got to know how many catfish everything cost.

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Brewery in the midst of very Soviet looking apartment blocks

Our gradual wander to the brewery was peaceful, and we were the only people there at 4pm. They had 4 beers on tap, but they were out of their IPA. I take that as a win because it is 400% more than the singular microbrewery in Mongolia had. We split one of each brew and noticed that all the employees smoked (in Mongolia TK, who did not smoke, said that 90% of youths in Mongolia smoked, and he only had one other friend who did not regularly smoke). We then decided that dinner was in our future and went to a Georgian restaurant, which was pretty good. We then headed home. 

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Cheese bread with egg on top. The amazing thing is that that the dairy product in this did not taste like barnyard, something we had grown very use to in Mongolia.

The next day we had a lazy morning and cooked some eggs and then went out to the Osh Market. Osh is the name of the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, but is also the name of the largest market in Bishkek.

I had been looking for a phone store since we got to Bishkek, since our WiFi device doesn’t work in Kyrgyzstan, to get a local SIM card. Bishkek doesn’t participate in Uber, but Yandex Taxi (Russian) is essentially Uber, but you needed a Russian or Kyrgyz phone number to make it work. Our condo owner we didn’t trust to call a taxi for us, so we wanted to use it to call a ride at 4am when we left (and if we wanted to take a ride around town). We eventually found a shop that sold them and tried to buy one. Of course I didn’t know how to open my SIM card slot, so one of the guys ended up going up the road to get the tool to open the slot, and we worked our way though it. It ended up costing $2 for the SIM card and 4 gigs of data with calls and texts, not too shabby. We did see a store owned by the cell company about 100 yards down the road, which would have saved a lot of time, but this was a good adventure. 

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The carrier we got our cheap phone plane from (posting this from Croatia and still haven’t taken the SIM card out)

We then continued to the market. The market was huge, and like most central markets it had tons of different sections. Only two people in the market tried to get our attention, and there were not a lot of tourists in the market at all. It was really nice to be in a giant market and have very very minimal parts of it devoted to tourists. 

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Snack time. 210=$3 for 2.2lbs to get a feel on prices

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Stands with various dried curd and other foul smelling dairy products

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Not every market has alcohol stands

After lunch Katy went to get a massage (1 hour full body massage for ~$20!), and I went and explored. I discovered a wine bar, so we went there after Katy’s rubbing. They surprisingly had about thirty wines you could get by the glass ($2.5-6, expensive for Bishkek), but none of them were Kyrgyz. We then went out for more Kyrgyz food for dinner. 

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Lunch. Spicy food with chewy noodles that is actually authentic. It might be true that after no spices other than salt that was put in everything (including tea) my definition of spicy might be a little off.

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Our third day in Kyrgyzstan we had booked passage on a hiking trip to a spot 30 miles from the city. One difference from Denver and Bishkek is that tall mountains are accessible close to the city, and there are a lot less foothills. We had an interesting mixed bag group through Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union ($5) with about half being Kyrgyz and the rest being tourists. Two of the younger people who were born in Kyrgyzstan said they barely speak any Kyrgyz, just Russian. It was nice to see some big mountains, and the end destination of our walk was a waterfall (seems to be a theme), so we ate lunch there instead of in the valley looking at the big mountains. Most tourists to Kyrgyzstan are there for the mountains or horse riding, and people normally leave straight to the mountain areas, spending a lot less time in the city than we did. 

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View from the trailhead. Recreational hiking is a relatively new thing for a lot of people in Kyrgyzstan

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These thistles honestly came up to my chest

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The end destination of the hike

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When we got into town we went to a brewery which just had IPAs on tap, win. This beer was actually decent, not just novel. We then went to another trendy restaurant with giant outdoor couches that served kebab and Azerbaijan food. Unfortunately we didn’t discover until after we ordered that if you ordered a full fish they gave you a fishing rod, and you had to fish it out of a pond in the restaurant.

One thing with a lot of the restaurants we have been to is that they are HUGE. You can fit five Boulder sized restaurants in some of them (Hoss’s Steakhouse size). We then went to the no name bar. Unlike true hipster establishments there was a sign on the door saying the name of the bar was the no name bar. Bishkek is different than Ulaanbaatar because they actually do hipster well. The establishment was decorated in eclectic hipster, and when we sat down we were only given a menu in Russian (almost all places that cost $4 or more for a meal had an English menu), but a waitress came right over and asked us if we wanted her to translate the menu, and it worked out way better than photo-Russian via Google translate. There are minimal requirements to brew and serve beer, so a lot of places have bad home brew (which is better than light lager) on tap; this place was no exception.  Katy got a few mixed drinks, which were surprisingly good. 

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Gers in Kyrgyzstan are not called gers like in Mongolia, and they are more sloped at the top to give more head room

Our last day we had another wander around the city day, and it was great. Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan far exceeded our expectations, and now Kyrgyzstan is on our list of countries we want to visit properly. 

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Thoughts and Musings on Mongolia

I am breaking this post into two parts. The first are things I learned about Mongolia from talking to people that I found interesting and couldn’t fit into other posts. The second part are my thoughts on the country in general.

Mongolia is a very different country than others that I have visited. Since half of the population lives in one city that is where most of the infrastructure spending goes. The number of paved roads outside of medium-to-large sized towns is minimal, and they mainly connect cities in the center of the country.

Ulaanbaatar was designed for 500,000 people, but about 2 million people live there now. Since many of the people that live there were formerly nomads they just took their gers and placed them at the edge of the city. Most of the people that live in gers use coal (sometimes plastic bottle waste) for fuel for their stoves. This coupled with Ulaanbaatar being the coldest (or second coldest) capital city in the world has led to air pollution in the city that is worse than Beijing, something you would not expect for being one of the lease population dense countries in the world.

Main very Soviet era looking plaza at night.

Yes, Ulaanbaatar does have a Beatles Square

The previous administration tried to address the sprawl of Ulaanbaatar by offering subsidized loans on apartments in the city at 8% interest. The current administration has taken away the subsidies for new loans, so our guide has a mortgage on his condo at an 18% interest rate ($300 per month payment). The government is trying to entice people to move back to the country. They have initiated a voucher program where if you live in Ulaanbaatar you get a voucher for 0.7 acres of land for free as long as it isn’t in Ulaanbaatar (with a few other stipulations).

The number of people in Ulaanbaatar has led to the city being a traffic nightmare. It takes 30 minutes to get the airport without traffic, but the one time we went in the middle of the day it took over 60 minutes with most of that additional time being spent traveling less than two miles. They do have a public bus system, which is jammed full during rush hour, and according to TK, during the winter when everyone is bundled up, he has literally been lifted off his feet by a wave of people leaving the bus and forcibly “taken” off the bus before his stop.

Nice sidewalks, but everything needed a little maintenance.

The average wage in Mongolia is low. In Ulgii the salary for a teacher was about $160 per month (our guide was a teacher the rest of the year). In Ulaanbaatar it is about $300 for teaching English at a public school and about double that for teaching at a private school. When Mongolia became “independent” the literacy rate was very low, less than 10% of the population. While part of the USSR the literacy rate increased substantially, and today it is in the high 90%s. Mongolia now scores 92 on the human development index, which is a statistic reported by the UN that stratifies countries into different tiers of development, and a score greater than 80 denotes a high level of human development. Now it is not required to send your children to school, but most people do, even in remote areas. This is done through a combination of boarding schools and the fact that in the winter families move to their winter house for ~7 months, usually in a village with a school.

The universities in Mongolia are in Ulaanbaatar, and many families send their kids to Ulaanbaatar for education, but many never leave. This has translated to Ulaanbaatar being a very young city. Despite all of this prices in the city are very cheap. We ate lunch at a noodle shop, and it was $3 for two entrees and a soda. A beer at many establishments cost $1. Despite the low food prices there is a emphasis on food safety. We did not have GI issues the entire time that we were in Mongolia, which I found very surprising. At the cheap noodle place I repeatedly saw them wiping counters (not sure if the rag they were using was clean, but there was an effort).

Mongolia is not the most vegetarian friendly place we have been. Faced with Katy’s dietary restrictions, most places offered her every carrot in a 5 kilometer radius, but little else. On a plus side, she can now see a mile through her eyelids, and the orange hue to her skin will likely fade eventually… (really, that many carrots)

They really wanted to be hipster, but they missed the mark. That said the place was always jammed with Mongolians.

We got lunch for $3 total from this place.

There for some reason there is an infatuation with Korean beauty products (which Katy shares), and most things are 50% cheaper than US/Korean prices. Like in the US, most people have a smartphone. In general things are really cheap in Mongolia. Spending more than $4 in a typical restaurant is difficult. Even in fancy restaurants the $8-10 plates are meant for two people. That being said Mongolian food is not a culinary delight. They use minimal amounts of spice, and most of the meat is boiled. They don’t differentiate fat from meat, so a lot of dishes with meat are pretty fatty. When we got back to Ulaanbaatar our dinner stop was Indian food, and boy was it good and spicy. Most Mongolians when they go out to dinner don’t eat Mongolian food, and Korean is the current food fad. One thing they do well are noodles. Most places that we got noodles they were homemade wheat based chewy noodles that were really good.

One true microbrewery in town. They were out of all their beers except the pale ale. It was drinkable, but the first time I tasted hops in over a month so I wasn’t picky

Overall Ulaanbaatar was a surprise. It is a city that is trying in many aspects. After not having a real bed in about four weeks coming back to a real bed and laundry machine was pretty amazing. Katy and I both had an amazing time in Mongolia. We feel that we saw a lot of the country (even though we missed giant parts), and we might come back in the future if there is a compelling reason, but it isn’t at the top of our return list. I am glad that we split our trip up into two parts and were not with one tour company for the entire time. It allowed us to fly between segments, which saved over 40 hours of driving with our itinerary and gave us two different but equally good guides with very different perspectives to share.

The steps to the fourth floor of our AirBnB, very Soviet era looking. Inside the apartment was really nice.

Outside of the opera house. We went to a cultural show which was surprisingly good, but didn’t have enough cash so I had to run and find an atm before it started. Found this on the way.

The State Department Store was located next to our AirBnB

Katy watching here prayer wheel go around. Most of the Buddhist temples and monasteries were destroyed during communist purges.

We ended up at a Korean BBQ place one day for lunch

Downtown Ulaanbaatar

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Three Days at Khovsgul in Photos

We spent most of the day driving to lake Khovsgul. Khovsgul is a rather large lake which contains about 2% of the earths fresh water. We had three nights at the lake before we drove to Moron and flew back to Ulaanbaatar.

Herders in the road. I swear the car rocked a couple times as the cows bumped into it.

Reinforced power poles, this area gets a lot of wind in the winter, I am just happy that it reduces the chance of summer power outages

Katy and I ended up switching beds since she didn’t like getting out of bed when it was cold to add more wood to the fire

Our snack stash. Half of it was ruined by evil squirrels that get into the gers. Ended up storing the survivors in the stove when not in use. Katy was so mad the snacks got eaten she was ready to make squirrel pot pie.

Safety first on our boat ride

We stayed on the lake three days. Our guide said that he had never in five years stayed in the same place for three nights. I think normally people spend a long time driving each day.

We bought some alcohol distilled from yak milk at the yak festival. It is about 25% alcohol and tastes of slightly sour milk. It cost $1.20. We did not finish it.

We splurged for some wine one night in the camp.

We walked to a sandy beach one morning that we found when we went to the reindeer herders teepee.

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You Don’t Need Electricity to Enjoy Lakes and Hot Springs

What did we do after the yak festival? That was my thought when I started writing this portion of the blog. Day of the week, day of the month, and what order we have done things is getting hard to tell. It is awesome. There is something great about not caring or knowing what day of the week it is.

With memories of yak polo in our mind, we had a rather uneventful long drive ahead of us. We were heading towards White Lake, one of the two lakes we were staying at on this portion of the trip. The recent rain made the roads a little slower than normal and around 5pm we entered arrived at Khorgo Volcano. I knew this was on the itinerary, but I wasn’t anticipating seeing lava fields (like in Hawaii) smack dab in the center of Mongolia.

We disgorged from the jeep, and Katy made a beeline to an outhouse setup beyond the parking lot. Unfortunately she didn’t see that there was a women around them, cleaning, and collecting $0.20 to use the bathrooms. We did not see a lot of public bathrooms in Mongolia, especially in the middle of nowhere. In the cities most public bathrooms had a nominal cost of $0.03-$0.20. We walked up to the rim of the volcano crater on a lot of loose volcanic rock. A good portion of the people heading up the volcano were sporting sandals which looked rather perilous, given the footing.

After the volcano we then headed a couple more kilometers to the camp. We got to the camp around 730pm and had dinner at 8pm. We were spending two nights at the camp, and it was nice to not have to repack our bags for the next day.

On our full day at the camp we went for a horse back ride, walked around the lake (got caught in a rain storm and hung out in a shop while it rained), played settlers, cooled beer in the lake to complement settlers, and read our books. It was a good day. One minor issue is that in the evening the power went out because a storm knocked down three power poles. Unfortunately they are a little slower than Boulder in getting the lines back up and running, and power was out all the next day also. Luckily we left that power grid before we could tell when the power was going to come back on.

The next day we were heading to Jargal Jiguur hot springs. Our packet said it would be a four hour drive; TK said it would be a two hour drive; and it ended up being a three hour drive.

The hot springs was without power, and they needed power to run the pump to fill the pools, so we went for a walk up a hill in the afternoon. There were many, large grasshoppers, so our walk detoured to the town on a dirt road, which had less abundant grasshoppers (Katy says: I insisted). We first encountered a herd of cattle that was lounging in the road, and near the center of town we encountered a couple women driving their sheep and goats through the town.

This area has of Mongolia has a lot more trees than a lot of the country we have seen. This means that people use a lot more wood in construction. The fences they have in town are nice solid fences instead of scraggly ones. A lot of the houses in town were prefab wood ones. Basically if you enlarged a set of Lincoln Logs into house size and built a house out of them you would get their houses. A prefab Lincoln Log house cost about $2000 if you were to build it in the region. If you were taking it to Ulaanbaatar it would cost another $1000 in transportation costs plus Ulaanbaatar has a wood tax which you would need to pay on wood imported into the city (even if it is domestic).

We got back to the ger complex and went to the hot springs. They were suppose to be sex segregated, but a coed group of Germans were dominating the men’s side so we took over the women’s side. The pool was a good temperature, and we stayed in long enough to get some good dehydration-induced spins when we stood up.

After dinner we played some Mongolian card games with our driver and guide. We learned two games. One was the same one that Elka showed us, except more nuances of the game were explained. The name of the other one translates to twister. It is a trump game most similar to euchre and was a lot of fun to play.

I grabbed a little post dinner hot tub time prior to another long driving day ahead.

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Mongolian Yak Polo

We left Karakoram and were suppose to have a short drive to visit a temple and a waterfall. Unlike the previous days, we did not review the plan ahead of time. We arrived at a viewpoint overlooking the Orkhon Valley and our guide, TK, announced that we were approaching our one destination for the day, a waterfall. I then asked if we were not going to the temple, and he said that there wasn’t one around. Katy then got out the itinerary and after some discussion in Mongolian we headed towards the temple. I was irritated because frankly I didn’t really care about seeing another waterfall in Mongolia, and I had specifically made sure that this temple was included. On our way we came across a small horse racing event, which we briefly stopped at.

A lot of the temples in Mongolia were built by exiled Tibetan monks and princes. This particular one had about a forty minute walk up a hill to reach it. The area had relatively few mosquitos, but had its fair share of flies. Many people were riding horses to the temple, but I wanted to get some exercise, so even though we were told it would take two hours to walk versus thirty minutes to ride a horse, we chose to walk.

The temple was nestled on the top of a mountain. The various meditation caves were located around the top, and Katy saw the various cliffs that had to be scaled and decided visiting them was not her idea of a fun time. TK and I visited them, and we started down when the sky got ominous.

We made it about halfway down when the sky opened up with a nice mixture of hail and rain. When we reached the Land Cruiser all three of us were soaked. Luckily Katy and I had packed light rain jackets, which at least meant our tops were (mostly)dry. We then had a delayed departure because the road was deemed too slippery to drive on. After waiting about twenty minutes we decided to head down via the grass, which was minimally slippery compared to the dirt road.

Roads in the Mongolian countryside are dirt for the most part and unregulated. There are time I have counted over fifteen sets of tracks next to each other that you can choose to drive on. The only times that there is just one track are when the road is so rocky that there can’t be more than one track, and in the few spots where the road is improved. I think driving in the muddy grass next to to the road is a sure way to start another track. Our driver rarely drove off an established track, even when it looked smoother than the track we were on.

That is hail in the road, just what I expected in Mongolia

After a couple more hours driving we arrived at the waterfall. This was suppose to be a light driving day, but it turned into a decent amount of driving, since we went the long long to and from the temple. We walked to the waterfall in our soggy shoes. Most of my clothes had dried out during the ride, but there were still part of my jeans that were pretty wet. The waterfall was the largest one than we had seen and decently impressive. We then went to our ger camp, Orkhon Waterfall Tourist Ger. We lucked out because they had double beds too. We tried to get a shower right away, but the power was out. One thing that we have learned is that power is fickle in Mongolia, and most days there has been at least a brief power outage. Dinner was a pleasant surprise for Katy because they had an unknown protein source with red specks on it. It may sound strange and disgusting, but Katy was pumped to have a protein available (the only time in a 20 day stretch that there was amble protein in a meal).

Popular place to get your wedding photos taken

The next day was the yak festival. The issue was that no one really knew when it was, and TK didn’t know where it was. He was able to figure out that it was “over the hill” (a common expression in Mongolia, which turns out to mean that the speaker has no idea and is guessing), and so we started off around 10am. We started driving, and after 3km we stopped and asked a local where it was, and they said to continue on, you can’t miss it. We go about another 3km and see a giant tent with a bunch of normal sized tents. I get really pumped thinking that it is going to be the largest yak festival I have ever seen. The issue was that it looked like they were packing up the festival, not setting it up. We get out of the car and walk to one of the main tents and were invited in and given some dried curd. It turns out that we were at the site of a provincial government meeting between three of the sixteen(ish) provinces in Mongolia that had finished up that morning. After asking several other people we discovered that there really was a yak festival four hundred yards up the road. We went there and discovered that they were just setting up, and they were planning on starting around 1pm ( Mongolian time, which is to say anytime after 2p…), but didn’t really have a time table.

Lots of gers are required for government meetings Overview of provincial meeting site

We went back to the camp to eat lunch (unidentifiable red protein onto of spaghetti for Katy) and went back to the yak festival afterward. The festival was probably 50% tourists, but was a local event, not one made for tourists. While we were waiting for the event to start we went to a van that had a soft serve ice cream machine in the back and grabbed some $0.40 ice creams to wait with.

The event started with some traditional singing, horse head fiddle playing, teenage dance troupes,and speaking from local officials. There were a lot of yaks in a corral behind all the spectators, waiting for the events to begin. The hastily established corral had some shoddy workmanship though, and in the middle of the ceremony all of the yaks escaped (took several minutes for the crowd to notice). This eventually lead to all the kids on horseback (there were many) charging after them to wrangle them back into the corral.

Escaping yaks Yaks being ushered back in

The first event was yak lassoing. It consisted of two young men yelling at yaks while another one attempted to lasso one. It wasn’t the most exciting of the events.

The second event was yak riding. Imaging bull riding minus the ball cuff on the bulls. They first had to catch a yak, and then one of the riders had to get on it and try to hang on. The one arbitrary thing was how long they needed to stay on the yak or how far they had to ride it for it to count and how you won the competition. The first person to attempt the feat was immediately bucked off, and the yak was having none of it, so it took off as well. That prompted twenty people on horses leaving to chase it; they never succeeded in wrangling it and let it go. About half of the people were able to ride the yaks, with some being bucked off spectacularly.

They then let the herd of yaks wander around, and they brought out the trained yaks. The first event with the trained yaks was a yak race. There were 23 yaks registered for the race, but somehow over 30 showed up, but certainly not on time. This led to some confusion as to what yaks belonged in the race and what ones did not.

Late entries to the race

The end result was everyone could race. Most people were riding bareback, but a few had a small saddle. There was one girl (age 15) and the rest men, ranging from 8 years old to middle aged entered. All the yaks got lined up, and then people placed bets on who they thought was going to win with an 8X payout for winning. They then sent all the riders to ride their yaks 5km away to the starting line of the race. Fortunately, no one protested that their yaks wouldn’t be fresh for the race. After a good bit of waiting the yaks started to come in. It was a neck and neck race for the winner, and the girl won. The second and third place finishers were determined when one of the yaks decided he didn’t like all the people near the finish line and stopped 50 feet short and turned around. The rider then got off the yak and started to shoo him towards the finish line. Over the next ten minutes many such amusing finishes occurred.

Race for first and second place Yak refuses to go to the finish line Police captain to the rescue to help yak finish the race

The next event was the second to last event, the beauty contest. The herders brought their yaks to be judged. The herders walked their yaks around and you voted by applause. There was a large random yak in the middle of the contest area. The yak was very aggressive, but beautiful. There were overhead pages for the owner of the yak to come claim it, and then it was eventually determined that the yak was in fact entered in the beauty contest, but the owner was too afraid of it to get close to it, so he wanted it to be judged without him (it seemed eager to win and engaged in some unsubtle sabotage of its fellow competitors). The random yak was not named the winner and then it was time for the final event.

The final event was was yak polo. The police captain was the referee and spent about ten five minutes wrapping packing tape around a small rubber basketball, the type you use for the indoor mini basketball hoops, which was the official yak polo ball. After they sorted out the teams and got the right people on the field they decided on one goalie and three people on the field. Some “pros” brought their own polo sticks. Otherwise they were using community mallets. Unfortunately they did not have a spares so whenever they broke one they had to take out the packing tape and “repair” it. Yak polo was hysterical and everyone playing had a blast. After playing two games each team got the hang of it, and the games got a lot more competitive. There were some mishaps like when the the announcer had to make a rule you had to be on your yak to hit the ball, when a yak charged a person wearing purple twice, and when a yak bucked his rider off and took off in the field and they needed to get a replacement yak.

The yak fest was a blast and was a great day.

Setting up a ger

An entire ger including beds is in the trailer

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Two Humped Camels in Mongolia

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The second half of our Mongolian adventure started with a rainy morning. Katy wanted one last real coffee before she began ten days of only powdered coffee. I went to place down the street and got two large lattes each with an extra shot for $6. When I was coming back to our hostel, I noticed an early 1990s Mitsubishi jeep out front of our place with a driver and guide. I was hoping this was not our vehicle. I had negotiated our tour down $400 and an upgrade to a “Japanese jeep”, and in my head I was envisioning a Land Cruiser, not the vehicle parked outside, which was technically a Japanese jeep. Luckily when we went to meet our driver, TK, we were brought to a 2016 V8 Toyota Land Cruiser (might be a hybrid). That caused genuine excitement, it had air conditioning, suspension that was not based on the principle the faster you drive the faster your butt goes numb so you can’t feel anything, seat warmers, rear cigarette lighter so we could charge devices, and leather seats, all a far cry from the Russian Furgon.

Today was mainly a driving day, but to our delight it was almost all on paved roads. There are not speed limit signs or really any traffic signs in Mongolia (except major cities). The universal speed limit is 50MPH and residential areas have a speed limit of 38MPH. Our driver seems to be the cautious sort, but I don’t mind that. He is 50+, from the region that our tour is ending in, and owns the car. It turns out that most drivers own their own cars (except for a few of the largest tour companies), which tends to mean they take better care of them. You can buy diesel, 80, 92, and 95 octane gas, with 92 costing $3.08 a gallon.

Our tour guide TK is 22 and has a bachelors and masters in English. He says he has been a tour guide for five years (that is what the company said the minimum amount of experience their tour guides have). His English is excellent, and he has a really large vocabulary, which is a nice change. There isn’t any of the ok ok ok and being unsure if the person knows what you are saying. He started off the trip with an overview of Mongolia, and off we went for our five hour drive.

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Our drive ended at a 40+ mile long sand dune. We got out of the car and went for an hour long camel ride. One unique thing about the camels in Mongolia is that they have two humps, and you sit between the humps. We have seen the camels throughout our trip in western Mongolia, where they are used as pack animals. My camel had a lot of personality and wanted to go first; Katy’s on the other hand was very content to just trudge along. We finished up our ride and then started driving towards our camp and and a nearby Buddhist temple. We had a walk around the temple, and then it began to rain. I can say with certainty at this point that it rains almost everyday in Mongolia, but thankfully the rains typically last less than half an hour.

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Our camp was a big upgrade from sleeping in tents. There are two main categories of gers, tourist gers and local gers. Tourist gers are camps that are made to cater to tourists. They either run a generator for five hours at night (if there is no electricity), or they have power and you get a light and a couple outlets. They also have western bathrooms and showers, no more seven day stretches without a shower. This one had a main lodge with sofas in one section and a restaurant in the other half. Local gers are locals who have set up one or several extra gers outside of their home and host tourists.

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We had a leisurely evening reading our books, working on the blog, and playing settlers. I also went for a walk up the hill behind the camp in my sandals, sneakers may have been a better bet.

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The next morning we had a 9am departure and headed off towards Karakoram, the capital of the Mongol empire during the time of Ghenghis Khan until Kublai Khan moved it to Beijing. The entire city has been destroyed and all that is left is a 16th century monastery. When the communists were in control of Mongolia they destroyed most of the countries temples and monasteries, but did not completely destroy this one.

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We walked around the monastery and went to the surprisingly good museum nearby before we headed to our ger camp for the night. Since it was mid afternoon when we arrived at the camp we went for a walk by the river, but the abundance of as Katy would call them, giant grasshoppers, cut our walk a little short. This ger camp had a double bed and it had nice and hot water. There was only a power outage for a short time.

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Fried dumplings for lunch

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