Nestled between China and Russia is one of the planet’s final frontiers, Mongolia, the old stomping ground of Ghinggis Khan. There are a mere four million people here and a million of those live in the capitol, Ulaan Bataar, a modern bustling city. My route took me from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea at last arriving here about seventeen actual hours later but with a sixteen hour time change it was eleven at night in Mongolia. I had found a guesthouse on-line (instead using of the popular Lonely Planet Guide) called “Mongolian Steppes” and they had agreed to pick me up at the airport for a $5.00 fee. It was such a relief to see my roughly handwritten name on a piece of cardboard in the sea of unfamiliar faces.
The guesthouses are actually apartments that have been crammed full of beds in one of those dreary square cement Russian cold war buildings… how do you go from a gorgeous onion dome church to one of these things? The addresses are near impossible to find. First, everything is written in Cyrillic and second, addresses go something like this, “building behind statue around corner on left third door, blue, number 7, up three flights, MS on door”. It is the new booming business here, to turn your apartment into a guesthouse. Our hostess was “Ieggy”, a real sweetheart who spoke English very well. Of course that is not her real name. Apparently they use the fathers name first then add the given name, and none of them could I even remotely pronounce, so most Mongolians make up a western sounding name for us hopeless tourists.
My fellow apartment dwellers were older and quiet, from Finland and Switzerland. I was glad I had not chosen my housing from the Lonely Planet as sometimes their suggestions can get a bit crowded, dirty and noisy with a much younger clientele. This place was spotless and had a shared toilet and hot shower. I got a private room for $10 (dorms are $4) and Ieggy provided a breakfast of sorts every morning. That would be bread, jam, tea and that most horrible of scams big business has played on the world… Nescafe.
Ulaan Bataar is not the main reason to come to Mongolia, needless to say. It has tall buildings (not skyscrapers) and crowded loud streets with cars that don’t even think about pausing for you. The way to stay alive is to just keep walking and trust that they will miss you; if you hesitate, you’re a gonner. Having a map is a must but I can’t say as it helped me much, I got hopelessly lost anyway. Again, all the signs are in Cyrillic and most people don’t speak English. But it is not that big of a city so eventually you end up somewhere you recognize. While here it is worthwhile visiting the museums, the square, the big Buddhist temple and catching one of the cultural shows that include the dance, costumes and, most wonderfully, the Tuvan throat singers. Oh yes, and you can’t miss the black market! There you can buy nearly anything, but especially the traditional clothing and antiques. Be careful to get a receipt for anything that looks old because it can be confiscated at the borders. The Mongolians are trying to protect their cultural heritage, and rightly so. This time of year (June, July) it is really hot! and any style of clothing goes, they are quite open and modern with skimpy shorts and skirts. Of course you will also see the elders walking the streets in the traditional long jackets (dels) with sashes and the pointy toed embroidered leather boots, and fancy felt hats. It doesn’t get dark until around eleven then light again by five, I found myself eating dinner at ten!. There are plenty of bars and discos though to keep you entertained if so inclined.
No, the main reason to come here lies outside of the city. There are literally no paved roads, or phone lines, or lights, or buildings, or cars, or planes. Just vast, open quiet space. These are a nomadic people. They move their gers (known as yurts in Russian) four times a year to find grass for their livestock. There is no agriculture. They live on meat and anything that can be made out of milk. The most common meals involve mutton. Mutton, mutton and more mutton. Reminds you of Bubba and his shrimp in Forest Gump, “there’s mutton squished, mutton fried, mutton dipped in flour, mutton in a dumpling, mutton with an egg…”, you get the picture. Good thing I like mutton. You can also find the more durable vegetables; potatoes, cabbage, onions and carrots, which they import from China.
The only way to get around Mongolia is to rent some sort of vehicle. There is very little mass transit and it won’t take you where you want to go anyway. You can organize a trip from your home country but it will cost you at least double what you will pay if you organize it from here. I found a little travel agency owned by a Dutch man and Mongolian woman (Tseren Tours). For $40 a day you get a driver, a translator, food, petrol and park entrance fees. The catch is you have to find the other participants for the trip. This took me about 4 days. I went to all the backpacker places putting up notices, I even checked on line and basically spoke to every foreigner I saw. As inefficient as it seems, it is the way things are done. I finally found Joris, a social worker from Belgium who had just biked 6 months from India(!) and Carmen, a surgeon from Germany. With three you can use a jeep, any more than that you need to use a van, and that just does not seem as cool to me. You should bring your own tent, pad, sleeping bag and other daily supplies for camping. Also clothing for all weather, especially wet, and good sturdy boots. Our plan was to be two weeks including four days by horse. We will camp and stay in gers and cover the central part of the country from the Gobi desert up to mountains and visiting a volcanic lake through a valley. The plan had a bit of everything. It is not the most popular route, but then, I like to take the road less travelled.
camel ride in MongoliaDo you remember that saying, “I felt bad for the man with no shoes til I met the man with no feet”? Well, that’s a bit how I feel now. Just when you think things are a wee bit uncomfortable, lo! you ride a horse for four days!!? We left Ulaan Bataar in our jeep; me, Joris, Carmen, the translator (Serge) and the driver (Miga). ÒSergeÓ and ÒMigaÓ are not their real names; we can’t possibly pronounce them. Our translator was twenty years old and thought he was Axel Rose, complete with a skull tattoo, long hair, a bandanna and constantly listening to rock music loudly. Thank god for the driver who didn’t speak English but knew the roads and the good spots. We left Ulaan Bataar and headed southwest, stopping at a beautiful monastery in the mountains. It was actually the remains since Stalin came not so long ago and killed a tremendous number of the monks there.
Our first morning camping brought us rain, a flat tire and a dead jeep. Miga said it was because we took wood from the mountain and burned it; it’s evidently bad luck to burn spiritual wood. We tried to be much more careful and respectful from then on. Luckily, Miga was a master mechanic because we broke down nearly daily. We stopped by Karakorum, the original capitol of Chinggis Khan. It is still in use today by the Buddhist monks. Chinggis encouraged Buddhism as the country’s religion and today there is a peaceful blend of Buddhism and shamanism. Everywhere are “Ovoos”, which are mounds of rocks with offerings like blue scarves (for the sky god), bottles, crutches, money, tires, etc. You are supposed to walk around to the left, clockwise, three times and pray. If you drive by, honk three times and that will cover you. We continued south to the Gobi and, as expected, it was hot and desolate: Mostly rocks, sand and some tenacious tumbleweed type plants. We luckily ran into a young boy with his camels and caught some rides. Camels are actually quite comfortable (at least I think so now after four days on a thin saddle and a bumpy horse).
We stayed with a family in a ger in a beautiful valley in central Mongolia preparing for the horse trip. It was a late night as we were quite the novelty. The kids and younger folks stayed up to sing and take pictures; They do love pictures! And they have amazing voices! There are songs for everything: getting an animal to feed, give birth, etc, songs to the sky, the mountains, songs to make it rain, on and on. For such a quiet place these people sure can make a lot of noise!
One of the most noticeable things here is the tremendous amount of excrement. My god, it’s everywhere! Most families have three or four gers. They have yaks, horses, goats, sheep and a couple of dogs. There are no fences so the animals just wander around doing you-know-what, and we walk, sit, eat, camp, etc. in it.
And EVERYTHING is made from milk ( a bit of a challenge for the lactose intolerant). Milk is used to make a really hard, and not so yummy, cheese, a runny yogurt and pudding, vodka, and the ever present yak milk tea with spice which, as far as I can tell, is just salt. And then, of course, there is airag (which is fermented mares milk). I must take a moment to tell you about airag: This time of year they capture colts with a lasso. The lasso is a long pole with a loop at the end, like those things dog catchers use. They chase the mare and colt around on horseback, then tie up the colt. The poor thing is flopping around screaming on the ground so the mom stays close, continues to lactate, and be milked. Anyway, they eat all this stuff with a really hard bread or biscuits and, of course, the mutton and noodles. They, and subsequently we, ate this everyday!
So, after a late night of singing we got up to ride. The Mongolians use a hard wooden saddle with raised parts in the front and back, but they gave us “Russian” saddles that had a bit more padding. We found out that our jeep was going to follow us and were extremely miffed, having expected to carry our gear on pack horses. But I must say, I came to worship that jeep like an oasis in the desert! The weather was totally unpredictable! One minute hot blasting sun and gorgeous blue skies with huge fluffy clouds, then up over the mountain comes a big dark giant and WHAM, you get hail! There we were, alone in the valley (the jeep would go far up ahead and wait), soaked to our bones and freezing!! The horses wouldn’t even move, they just jammed up together with their butts to the wind. Then, ta-da, sun again. It was crazy.
The guides wore those long jackets with a sash (dels), and boots and they didn’t seem phased at all by the weather or, for that matter, anything, just singing, smiling and laughing. The scenery made it all worth it. I have never seen sky so close, clouds so big, grass so green… And the flowers! Billions and billions of them in purple, blue, pink, yellow, orange, red, and every size and shape… It was breathtaking. Really, the most incredible thing here, and the reason I came, is the utter lack of people and signs of people. There are no fences or electric lines or houses or cars or planes or roads or signs or sounds (except for the incessant singing). Now and then there is a clump of gers and the livestock associated with them. We had the occasional horsemen come by for a smoke, a chat or a sip of vodka. Speaking of horsemen, these are supposed to be some of the best in the world. I don’t know, I can’t tell, but surely these are some of the toughest people I have ever met. The horses are really small and damned bouncy if you ask me. They generally trot. If you are not a horse person, that is the extremely uncomfortable gait between a walk and a gallop that just about knocks your teeth out. You are supposed to sit up in the saddle using your thighs and, well, you can only do this for so long (not to mention the thighs are already shot from peeing out in the wild). Of our group I was the only experienced rider, and must say, by the end of each day (seven hours), I was walking like Yosemite Sam.
Oh yes, and speaking of peeing, this was the other great challenge for us girls. The inception of “penis envy,” I’m sure, was women in the wild. Please imagine open steppes, nary a grass clump to be had, and try to see us finding an inkling of modesty or privacy… impossible. When you could find a “toilet” by some gers it was a wooden shack with a hole and two pieces of wood over the hole for your feet. Personally I preferred the open. It smelled better. Needless to say, by the end of four days we were pretty darned sore and smelly (a mild word) so we went to a hot springs. Or should I say pure heaven on earth? This is why I love to travel: the extremes. One day ready to die, the next blissfully soaking in a hot springs, hot showers, toilet seats, a good meal and a bed.
Then, back to the jeep. Now, I can’t say as the jeep is much less bouncy than the horse. There are few paved roads in Mongolia, mostly dirt tracks zig-zagging around vast open spaces. I have no idea how the drivers know where they are going. I don’t think they do, really, they just head off in a direction and eventually get somewhere. But bouncy just doesn’t describe it; we are talking hours of huge pot-hole, rock, river-rutted, spine wrenching, teeth jarring, whip-lashing, flip-flopping around the back, hang on for your life, packs on your head, whoop-it-up-you-might-be-dead-any-minute kind of bouncing. Mostly it was a lot of fun, and, amazingly enough, eventually I could even sleep through it. That’s pure exhaustion?
We dropped off Joris in Tsetserleg and Carmen and I went on to White lake. It’s called that because we tourists can’t possibly pronounce, much less spell, the real name. (Here it is just for fun: Terkhin Tsagaan Nuur.) We stayed two days there, slept in a simple ger (a welcome rest from tent camping) and cooked over the stove (still with no toilet, shower or running water, but hey, it felt like the Hilton). The gers were great; round, portable, warm and some quite homey. They have four seasons of gers; depending on the number of layers of felt. They all have a wood stove (oops, I mean cow poop stove) in the middle, small beds, a few brightly painted dressers, a table, two very teeny tiny chairs and lots of photos! Also you will find cheese hanging around and pictures of the Dalai Lama. These are really friendly people and there are all sorts of rules on how to enter the ger, where to sit and, of course, you have to take and try everything that is offered to you; I have even done snuff now… wow. Somehow, my stomach survived, I did not break anything and the ol’ bum just went numb.
The last night of the trip we spent on another lake and it was actually warm enough to swim. Everything was perfect until the flies came: Small white fluffy flies in huge swarms, I mean thousands, and they are all attempting to land on us to lay their eggs and then die. What a brief, annoying life! Really, was it necessary for Noah to count two of ALL the creatures? I think not. So, we sat around to watch a truly exceptional sunset, covered with our sarongs like Muslims. Lesson: nothing is ever truly perfect and therein lies the perfection.
It was a bit of a shock getting back to the hustle and bustle of Ulaan Bataar, but great to get a hot shower and a pizza with nary a blob of mutton on it. As ever, it is the extremes, the bittersweet comings and goings, that make travel so wondrous. Mongolia was everything I’d hoped for and nothing like I’d imagined. Just the way I like it! Happy trails to all my fellow planet surfers and best wishes for miraculous adventures, big, small or smelly.