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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had noticed that our ticket indicated that our flight Ulaanbaatar was going to take over four hours, which seemed rather excessive for a three hour flight between airports with minimal air traffic. We boarded our flight with boarding passes that only had our first name handwritten on them and were unlucky in getting the one row that didn’t recline.
About thirty minutes into the flight we were told we were going to land. We landed at Ulaangom and were told everyone had to get off the plane, so we went to the departure gate instead of the arrival. After about thirty minutes we reboarded the plane and took off. I then looked at the schedule of all their flights, which was easy because they only fly to six cities a day and determined that only two cities had flights that arrived back in UB at the same time so we weren’t going to have any more unknown stops.
The taxi driver we got at the UB airport was honest and charged us $8 for the ride to our hostel, Danista. The $23 room was closer to downtown than our last place in UB.
We got to Danista around 3pm, and our driver was picking us up at 9am the next day, and we had a list of things we wanted to get done: buy towels, get allergy meds at pharmacy, buy a hair clip and tweezers, buy bug spray, get snacks for the car, get Katy’s gel nail polish (from the wedding) removed, get another headlight to replace the one stolen from Katy’s pack, and get more cash from the ATM.
Luckily for us there was a mall a four minute walk from our place, and we were able to everything taken care of there. In the US you can get most of these things taken care of in one store, but it took buying things at seven stores to get everything on the list. We quickly realized that things are cheap in UB, and Katy set out to buy assorted other “treasures”. Luckily her neck pillow and five face sheet masks purchased at three stores (don’t ask me) were easily covered by her $8 treasure budget. She was able to walk in and convey to the women in a salon what she wanted done with her nails, $4 and 20 minutes later her nails were free from the gel polish from the wedding.
We then decided to have Korean for dinner since we were in the mood for food with a little more spice than we have had in the past ten days.
We went back to the hostel to regroup, and it started to downpour, coupled with a very impressive lightening show. Then the power went out for about two hours, but it came back in right when we were ready to call it a night.
Kazahk culture and their idea of personal space is definitely a lot different than ours. I don’t think that I could cope with the lack of solitude that they have. They also are very giving and want the best for you.
This was our lazy day of the trip. We walked down the road to a neighboring ger of a family that had a lot of horses. Outside of their ger they had about ten foals and mares. They milk the mares multiple times a day during the summer, and most of the milk is fermented to make an alcoholic beverage, a slightly (3-4%) alcoholic drink. They mainly only milk the mares during the summer because the winters are harsh, and the animals are still primarily fed by grazing during the winter. It is typical for a horse to lose 30% of its weight during the winter.
The first ger we tried to enter had a boy getting a haircut, so we went to the next one. A group of Kazakhs, many of whom we had seen the previous day, were lounging around the communal table drinking fermented horse milk. They poured us all a bowl (they use bowls to drink), and I had a sip. There are some items traveling that you eat or drink, and you realize that no matter what you have no desire to taste it again. The best way I can describe it is as whole milk you forgot on the counter for three weeks then put in a blender to resuspend the solids and thicken it up. I then thought maybe it will get better with a couple more sips, but rest assured alcoholic sour milk does not taste better after 15 sips.
While I was trying to drink fermented horse without any facial expressions, one of the women in the house was making cheese. It was an interesting process, and they had a couple batches in various steps of the process.
We left after a lit bit longer and went back to camp. The rest of the day was spent on a couple walks, playing settlers, and reading our books on a hill top. We stayed within Mongolia and didn’t get closer than two miles to the Chinese border. One thing about this particular spot in Mongolia is the lack of mosquitos. There were almost none. On the flip side there were a tremendous amount of grasshoppers, ranging from very small to three inches. Whenever you stepped it was like popcorn with at least ten grasshoppers hoping off. Since one of Katy’s least favorite insects are grasshoppers she was not pleased in the slightest about this development.
We got up early the next morning for our final day driving back to Ulgii. It of course was raining… Before we could head out we needed to stop back at the ger to get the meat from the sheep they had purchased (read: slaughtered) the day before. We then started on our uneventful six hour drive back in the furgon.
Arriving back in Ulgii we checked into the same hotel. This time instead of one pillow and one towel we were able to get three towels and two pillows, win. We then gave our laundry to Elka which included our jackets and most of our clothes. We then had our first shower in seven days which was glorious. I decided that I could not grow a beard without patches after 10 days of trying and had a shave.
While we were gone Ulgii had had a lot of rain and flooding. Most of the streets and sidewalks were just standing water. We walked to the market and predictably it started to rain so we had a wet run home. We had a last dinner with the group, including one of Baku’s daughters. They returned our laundry but did not have time to dry it so we strung it out all over the room and packed for the airport in the morning. They said we needed to get to the airport two hours early. We got there 1.5 hours early, which was not a problem at an airport that has two flights a day.
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.
We started one of the long drive days of the trip, heading towards Tovan Bogd National Park which is located about 10km from both the Chinese and Russian borders. It was a good six hour drive on roads that google maps shows as highways, but are really one lane rough dirt roads that you can go a solid 40mph on some of them. Other roads we were going less than 10mph on. We only got stuck once in a bog, and the driver had to dig us out and reroute ten feet away. Some of the roads were pick-your-path roads, and you had a choice of about six tracks to follow, while others were narrow, rocky, and well defined.
The National Park has a rangers’ station that you need to register at and a cluster of about five gers, with probably another 15 gers within a mile. It was raining when we arrived, and they setup a kitchen tent with a table. We spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and playing games.
We woke up to surprisingly few clouds in the sky, but they claimed it was going to storm later in the day. After breakfast, which partially consisted of slaw with tomatoes and pickles (I have some limits and this slaw approached them), we got on horses for a couple hour ride. Mongolian horses are rather on the small side, but at least the stirrups of these horses were able to be adjusted relatively long. We had a very pleasant ride to the Altai Tavan Bogd (“five saints”) mountains where China, Russia, and Mongolia meet. At the base of the mountains sits Potanii glacier and a heard of yak. Our speed on the horses wasn’t much faster than a walking pace, but at least these horses would trot occasionally, and they didn’t care about the muck that they were walking through. We returned from the glacier a different way than we came (a much steeper and more precarious way, Katy notes). We passed various flocks of sheep and goats, herds of yak and cows, and horses. The river leaving the glacier was large and fast moving. Most of the gers along it were positioned close to accessory water flows since the main river was moving too fast and too sandy for water consumption.
It started to rain with about an hour of riding to go, but it was a gentle sprinkle. We dismounted when we arrived at our tent and had to walk around a bit to get our knees functioning again. It continued to rain for the rest of the evening, and we played some games and drank a bunch of tea/instant coffee.
The game plan the next day was for the driver to cross the rickety bridge and drive us over a couple large water flows where we would start a hike up a hill/mountain and then come down the other side. The driver would then drive around the mountain and pick us up in the next valley over, and we would then find a campsite. The day started rain free, but all of the rain from the previous day made the grass very wet, and soon our shoes were wet. Elka had rain galoshes that she was wearing and was wondering why we didn’t have rain boots. She also commented that most people bring a lot more stuff than our carryon size backpacks. My backpack also contains our sleeping bags, and Katy’s contains travel-edition Settlers of Catan as well as all the guidebooks, but traveling in the same furgon for so long we were able to decompress and keep the sleeping bags out of the backpack and are using a shopping bag for dirty clothes. Needless to say our boots got wet quickly as we trudged through the grass up the hill. At times the ascent got steep and it looked like there was one way to reach the top of the mountain. We went up the steep part, and it plateaued into soft wet grass for a while and then changed to grey shale that was sticking out of the ground at oblique angles. The rocks sticking from the ground combined with fog that had rolled in and the utter lack of vegetation made the top of the hill appear other worldly.
As we were trudging along on the stones we spotted a herd of ibex about fifty yards away and after giving us a good look they took off down the shear side of the cliffs. It always amazes me how some large animals like ibex and mountain goats can cling to the side of the cliff. It then started to sprinkle, and we started our descent and ate our lunch of spaghetti. We had Mongolian spaghetti, which differs from Italian spaghetti by a wide margin. I will give them credit that the noodles were spaghetti, but the “sauce” was made by combing BBQ sauce and ketchup which falls a little short of my definition of spaghetti sauce…
The descent started off a little sketchy when our guide started by darting into an unknown abysses and then coming back and trying another gully that disappeared into an abyss. She then declared that she had found our easy descent route that went down a horse trail. It was small loose gravel that rested on the angle of repose with a fine sheen of fresh rain on top of it. Katy was not happy during our twenty minute descent down the sixty degree slope.
After we descended we then crossed into the neighboring valley and began our descent down. It continued to sprinkle, and we caught site of our trusty green furgon chugging up the valley road. We hopped in and went for about half a mile before we exited to view some petroglyphs during a brief respite from the rain. The petroglyphs were oddly interesting, but it did show us why we go through lengths to limit access and protect ancient sites because interspersed among the 2000+ year old etchings were various newer etchings, including etchings of a furgon.
We bundled back into the furgon and our driver, Khoti promptly lost the way. The roads in Mongolia varied between well worn single track dirt roads, to engineered dirt roads (normally ones that went up a hill with switchbacks or along a river), to six parallel paths, of which you could take your pick to less travelled roads that sometimes involved some imagination to figure out. After a couple minutes walking around Khoti spotted a brand new looking bridge that didn’t really have a defined road leading to or from it. Well without a second of hesitation he had the furgon going straight down the hill to the bridge. We then all got out in the rain and with all of our various expertise in determining if a bridge could hold a large Russian van, we examined the bridge. After five minutes of examining the bridge it was “determined” that it could hold the van, but no one went to get back in the van except the driver. Our determination was correct, and we piled into the van after it had crossed the bridge, which it turns out was just built 10 days ago by some locals that had pooled together some funds.
We continued to travel out of the valley and got to a stream crossing and the decision to spend the night there was made. It was not where we were planning to spend the night, but it was flat, not super wet, and most importantly not filled with mosquitos. They said the place we were planning on spending the night was known for being filled with mosquitos so we thought it was a wise choice.
A little after we ate dinner two Mongolians that spoke Kazahk so well they could be mistaken for Kazakhs came to our tent, and we offered them tea. I was very surprised at their arrival since we were literally in the middle of nowhere, up a valley with very few gers. It turns out that their furgon, an untrustworthy white one, had broken down 4 kilometers up the road, and they had seen our blue mess tent and came ambling over. Khoti and Baku (our cook, his wife) went in our furgon to attempt to fix our new friends’ ride. Once they left we had Elka teach us a Mongolian card game. It was slightly confusing at first because it involved trump, and the goal of the game was never mentioned, and we couldn’t figure out the point in taking tricks, since whoever took a trick never kept it, but eventually we figured it out. After a couple games our furgon returned successful, and we went to bed shortly after that.
The reason that we came back to Ulgii was to experience part of the Naadam festival. Naadam is an annual multiple day festival celebrating ”the three manly sports”, which are horse racing, archery, and wrestling. We wanted to experience a provincial festival instead of the large one in Ulaanbaatar, so we arranged the trip to be in Ulgii for it. One thing that we didn’t really think about was that we are in a region which is 80% Kazahk, watching a Mongolian festival. It was interesting when Elka pointed out the difference in the traditional Mongolian and Kazahk dress.
The day started with a lackluster breakfast at the hotel, which necessitated a stop at a coffee shop. Surprisingly the coffee shop had blistering fast internet and solid coffee (although, Katy claims there is no difference in their lattes and cappuccinos, the travesty). Mongolia is a lot like South Korea in that it is not a morning country. At 930am we had to hunt to find a place that was open and sold coffee.
One thing that Kazahks/Mongolians take liberty on is time. Katy and I have discovered that every time we are given is a rough estimate. The same went for the start of Naadam. It was suppose to start an hour after we were told it was going to start and holding true to fashion they started 40 minutes after that. The area around the arena had a bunch of venders selling everything from water ($0.25) to Chinese trinkets, to balloons, to kebabs, to ice cream. The festival started with impassioned speeches in both Kazak and Mongolian followed by local community awards (like best builder) and the obligatory military jeep and marching band. Following the military marching band a troupe of Kazahk musicians emerged from the bus which was parked behind the stage and served as “back stage”. There were various musicians and singers that performed in traditional dress who were then followed by a large ensabmble of dancers.
The action came to a pause and went wandering around the grounds and ate a $0.40 (the most expensive) ice cream. We then watched the start of wrestling. Even though a lot of the wrestlers were Kazahks, since it was Naadam they competed by the Mongolian rules. There are no weight classes, and anyone can participate. The loser was the first one to touch the ground. It was interesting for about 11 minutes, but I have to admit a lot of the subtleties were lost on me.
We decided to not stick around for all the wrestling and went to lunch. We then had a free afternoon and Elka took our laundry and gave it a much needed wash. We tried to buy bug spray but were unsuccessful. We did succeed in purchasing sunscreen, which claims to be 90 SPF, but we seriously doubt that claim. We were also able to find a super market and stocked up on vodka and other necessities for the week of camping ahead of us.
I am not talking about a Dungeons and Dragons potion, but legit golden eagle drool.
It all started when our three hour long propeller plane ride landed in Ulgii, Mongolia. We disembarked onto the tarmac and gradually wondered into the Soviet train station looking “airport” at the same time the next set of passengers was loading.
We were wondering if there was going to be a sign with our name or how we were going to meet up with Nurbie. It turns out that Nurbie had been studying our passport photos and came up to use along with a crowd of three people. After introducing himself one of the first things that Nurbie said was, “America ! Great country, great cars, great BIG people!”. Nurbie himself is a slender 4’10.
It turns out that Nurbie had another tour with 12 people, so he arranged another women Elka to be our guide, and a husband and wife to be our cook and driver. We were slightly disappointed to not have Nurbie be our guide, but Elka is a 37 year old English teacher who has been guiding during the summers for the last five years. Her English is intermediate plus, and she is very enthusiastic so it will work.
We then bundled into our vintage furgon which is a Russian van. The back is equipped with a forward facing bench seat and two rearward facing bucket seats with a small table between them. The sound system is a hot wired Phillips five inch speaker that rests between the driver and the passenger seats. On the roof are large assorted pieces of wood that I have no idea what they are for. As we headed out of town the driver remembered that he had forgotten the jack, so we made a quick detour.
The asphalt roads of town quickly run out (read within five minutes), and we get to experience the off-road capabilities of the furgon. After two hours of being jostled around, we arrived at a bug infested area. Being honest there were a decent number of bugs in Olgii, but where we stopped there were so many that I had fears of the entire trip having it be uncomfortable/unbearable to just be hanging out. We put on long sleeves to give the mosquitos a smaller target area and then started trudging up a hill. It turns out we were going to an old eagle’s nest, which was unsurprisingly huge. The view was super impressive. There are rolling hills of various colors along with snow capped peaks in many directions (including looking in at Russia across the nearby border). We came down the hill and had lunch that Baku had prepared. It turns out that she prepared one meal sans meat for Katy and a different one for everyone else. Katy only accumulated a pile of 14 mosquitos that had dive bombed her lunch and 26 mosquito bites. Needless to say we didn’t stick around that area long and headed out. One thing about the diesel smelling furgon is that it does not close tightly so there was equal density of bugs inside as there were outside. After driving for 15 minutes the bugs were either killed or left in our dust. We then passed Atlai, a famous eagle hunter’s winter house. His daughter is an eagle hunter too, and there was a documentary that has appeared at a couple film festivals featuring her.
Many people in this area have a winter house which is a built structure either in a town or in the country that has various pens for animals. During the summer they leave that area so they are grazing the land (leaving it for winter) and make camp with their gers. Frequently extended family camps within close proximity of each other. The area that we are in is 90% Kazakhs, who speak Kazakh (along with Mongolian). Kazakh, in my opinion, is a much easier language to learn the basic words, compared to Mongolian (Katy disagrees). We bumped along for about another two hours until we arrived at the eagle hunter we stayed with. They have four Kazakh gers (which are wider, taller, and decorated with more colorful weavings compared to a Mongolian ger). One is for guests (us), one is for the grandparents with their youngest son and his new wife. The other two are for various other family members. They positioned the gers in a green valley close to the river and in an area that has considerably less mosquitos compared to earlier in the day.
We then met other the grandfather and grandmother in the ger and drank milk tea, a very sharp cured cheese, and Kazakh bread. Through Elka, we talked to the grandfather for a bit, mainly about the customary introduction topics.
Katy and I then went outside and played two games of Catan (I dominated both). We then got in our furgon with the eagle hunter, his son, and the eagle. An eagle is a rather large animal to have in a van in my opinion, and it promptly took a poop on the floor. All of which, the eagle hunter found hilarious. His laughter may been fueled by Katy’s nervous laughter, which there was much of. We arrived at our destination, an out cropping of rocks that looks into the valley and disembarked from the furgon. They then decked us out in traditional garments (I got the fox skin one), and they gave me the eagle to hold. There was a slight issue during the hand off (Katy elaborates: the eagle fell upside off Todd’s arm but was still clinging there upside down until it’s handler rescued it/Todd), and we had to restart the process. The eagle is a three year old golden eagle that weighs about 20 pounds. They then tried to give Katy the eagle and after much debate she decided that she would hold the “blood thirsty creature with a sharp beak and huge talons”. Luckily she survived with all of her eyeballs intact.
We finished up taking photos and got back into the van and headed back to camp. This time they positioned the eagle with its head towards the center of the van so if it pooped it wouldn’t poop on anyone. This resulted in the eagle drooling on my pants. I had never had eagle drool on my pants before.
We then ate dinner and drank a bottle of vodka with the eagle hunter and went to bed around 1030p. The rest of the group stayed up past midnight finishing the vodka and merrymaking.
The next morning we had a rather late start and went for a horseback ride. We left the min valley and went through a pass to mother valley. The main valley had a good number of gers and the plateau and valley that we traveled to had a lot fewer. The views were spectacular and speckled with various yak, goats, and horses all of which someone owned even if they were not in site. I had named my horse rainbow fire and Katy had named her horse star sparkle. It turns out that rainbow fire was a rather lazy horse and star sparkle got distracted by any sparkle.
Our destination was a waterfall which was rather anticlimactic compared to the mountain landscape around it. The Mongolians were rather enthralled by the waterfall. We then began our journey back and got back to the ger camp around 5pm. All of the times that they said things would happen at were loose estimates at this point, except dinner was early this time. We ate dinner and the grandfather brought out a small bottle of vodka which we shared. Our guide told our driver that he wasn’t allowed to have vodka before we started the two hour drive back into town. After dinner, we then drove to Ulgii and had a night in a hotel. Katy was very excited for the shower even though it had only been one night without one. The next portion of our trip will be about a week without one.