Quick Update

Just a quick update to let you know that we are headed off into the heart of the Gobi Desert today. It will be 5 or 6 days until we have access to the internet again.

Had a few questions about the Mongol Rally. It is not a race per se, it’s a test of survival. The teams start in London and have to make it to Ulaan Bataar. Your only reward is a beer at the finish line. It is a charity event too. It costs $750 to enter and you have to raise another $1000 to be donated, along with what’s left of your car to a charity once you get here. Most teams make it in 5 or 6 weeks. There is no set route. You have to figure that out on  your own. Saw a few more cars limp into Kovd yesterday and this morning.  You can read more about it here.



Westward Ho!

Desert Lake

Perfect camping spot!

After Maaike and Shombodon interview a few people in Altai we decide to head back to the northwest to Kovd (pronounced Hóft). On our way out-of-town I get a shot of the graveyard of a lot of the cars that have participated in the Mongol Rally. The Mongol Rally is a race of sorts that goes from London to Ulaan Bataar (pronounced OOh-lin BAH-ter, in case I haven’t mentioned that before…). This is the final resting place for many of the cars that have made it this far, but couldn’t make it the rest of the way. We are met at the Ovo at the gates of the city by an old friend of Shombodon and Maaike for a traditional good-bye ceremony. We all walk around the Ovo three times and out comes the bottle of vodka and a paper cup. Keep in mind that it’s only 9:00AM. A shot is poured and each of us take our turns downing it in one gulp (all of us except Engthbier, who is driving). The bottle goes around 3 times until it’s empty. It’s very bad form to leave any vodka in the bottle. Once the bottle is drained we say our good-byes and hit the road.

Serious DesertAs we drive north-northwest the terrain changes dramatically. Except for the sparse vegetation we might as well be driving on Mars. By noon we make it to a small village that is being swallowed up by sand dunes. We visit with an old classmate of Shombodon and have lunch at her home. This mutton is prepared with a pressure cooker and heated stones. Not exactly sure of the method but it was infinitely better than the boiled mutton we’ve been subjected to thus far on our journey. Of course our good-byes involve yet another bottle of vodka. The buzz from this mornings farewell had barely worn off before I’m pickled again at lunch. The proper way to do a shot is to dip the ring finger of your right hand into the vodka and flick a drop into the air, once for the spirits of the sky, once for the earth and once for water then one more dip to be placed on your forehead.

We stop at a ger that has a few young camels lazing in the sun and ask if we can take some photos. They happily oblige andGirl stirring fresh batch of airag then ask us to come in to try a fresh batch of airag (pronounced irakh. Remember to pronounce the “kh” like your clearing your throat). This airag is made from fermented camel’s milk. It’s still pretty disgusting, but it’s not nearly as bad as the horse airag. The man of the house gets us to try his milk vodka. It is airag that has been further distilled into a clear liquor. It’s pretty good and has a creamy texture and a pretty powerful kick. After a few more photos we hit the road again.

Desert SunsetWe make our way farther into the desert and look for a good camping spot. We find a lake that Shombodon had been to many years before. It’s a small lake surrounded by dunes. It’s a perfect site to spend the night and we pitch our tents and have dinner. We are treated to a spectacular sunset and a perfectly quiet, dark night. I awaken at around one in the morning and peer out at a sky filled with stars and the Milky Way. Next thing I know it’s morning and I scramble out of my sleeping bag to get a shot of the sunrise. I notice that there is a little bit of frost on the windshield of the truck. I knew it had gotten cold during the night, but I didn’t know it got that cold. After breakfast we pack up and point the Isuzu into the desert on a northwesterly heading. We drive most of that day thru the most barren landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s also the first time in my life that I’ve gone a whole day without seeing another soul.   We reach Har Nuur (Black Lake) and set up camp nears its shore. Had high hopes for a nice sunset, but nothing materialized. Sunrise was another matter. Got up early and took a few shots of a great sunrise reflected in a perfectly calm lake. Eat, pack and we’re on our way again by 8:00. That’s pretty early for this crew.

Emergency fuel stopAs we make our way towards Kovd we pass two more large lakes. Just after noon we cross a bridge and the Isuzu dies.  Out of diesel. No problem.  Engthbier crawls  up to the roof of the truck and we siphon about four gallons into the tank and we’re back in business. We don’t have that much farther to go before we can fill up again.  The terrain around the lakes is still desert and the mountains are rocky and jagged. They remind me very much of the landscape in southern Nevada. We reach Kovd and find a fairly decent hotel. We check in, unload our bags and snoop around the town a little. We visit another Manchu ruins and I take a few photos for Maaike. This set of ruins is much smaller, but it’s in much better condition. We return to our hotel and wash and rest up before dinner. We find the top choice in the guide-book to eat at. Western Mongolia is much more ethnically diverse so there are many more choices on the menu that we are used to. I have peppers and beef that has a sauce that is very good. I think it has a little Chinese influence to it. There are Kazakhs, Chinese and a couple other ethnic groups here. We see our first mosque here too. After dinner we walk out ofMongolian Rally the Altai restaurant and see a foreigner studying a map on the hood of his small Fiat. I say hello and he greets me with a thoroughly American accent. I ask where he’s try to get to and he replies UB. I then notice the pitiful condition of his car and realized that he is doing the Mongol Rally. Just then another car pulls into the parking lot and then another. They are a team of four cars with three guys in each car. The three cars we see are beat to death. One had its exhaust system completely ripped out. The other hos no shocks left and the other had a massive dent in the driver’s side door when they got into a tussle with a bull somewhere in Russia. All the guys seem to be in great spirits, but their cars were on the last legs. I’ll be very surprised if all of them make it past the boneyard in Altai.

I convince Engthbier to take me on a short excursion early the next morning so we get to bed pretty early. A loud, boisterous party keeps me from resting peacefully, but I manage. In the morning I hear a diesel engine start up and I look out the window to see that Engthbier is already at the truck and ready to go. I had little hope of getting any good shots because of a layer of high cirrus clouds, but it turned out okay. Got a few good shots of the jagged mountains around Kovd and made it back to the hotel by 9:00.
This is Shombodon’s od stomping grounds so he and Maaike will have plenty of people to interview. We’ll be here for another day or so and then we’ll head south-southwest into the heart of the Gobi.

Change #2

So, we were supposed to head farther west after we left Uliastai  (pronounced oohli-AH-stai) but the guy that Maaike wants to interview is out of town until the 21st. So instead we turn south and travel to the state capital of Altai.

Camel with and attitudeThe change in scenery along the way is amazing. We go over a 9000 ft. pass and stop at the top to take photos. It is actually cold up there. We can see two 4000 meter peaks from the pass. From there we descend into a semi arid region and the soil turns very sandy. We are getting closer and closer to the Gobi Desert. We come across a herd of camels lazing in the sun. We stopped to take some photos and Shombodon makes a bet that he can catch a camel. This I gotta see. As we start walking towards the camels he starts to call them. They ignore his calls and the whole herd starts walking away from us. Meanwhile, Engthbier has walked around toShobodon trying to win a bet the front of the herd so we have them surrounded and they start walking back towards us. Shombodon culls one from the herd and does his best to catch up with it. He does manage to get up next to it, but he never gets full control. Bummer, would have like to seen him succeed.

Mongolian hospitalityWe stop at the ger of an old friend of Shombodon’s. The friend is not at home, but his house guests are. We are obligated to go inside and partake of some hospitality and tea. Milk tea is a little bit of tea mix with a lot of milk with a little salt thrown in for good measure and served warm. The really good stuff has little lumps of mutton fat floating in it. (I don’t drink the lumpy stuff) As usual they bring out a pot fill of boiled lamb, but this is a little different. This pot contains all the other parts of the sheep. They don’t waste a thing. So we are invited to eat lung, heart liver and some other part that we never really identified. I made myself look way too busy taking pictures to bother with eating. After thanking them for their hospitality and saying our good-byes we stop by an old socialist era irrigation reservoir that Maaike’s old project had rehabilitated some years ago. After taking a few images for Maaike we head off cross-country to some spectacular sandstone rock formations. It looks a whole lot like the area around Moab, Utah. Saw some basalt columns but the light wasn’t great so we’ll go back to get some shots of those.

AltaiArrived at the sleepy little town of Altai around 7 and checked into a hotel. Doesn’t look like much, but it has working toilets and hot water for showers. Can’t ask for much more than that out here. Got up this morning and walked around a bit. This is a very clean and quiet little town. I know it’s Saturday morning, but the streets in all the other aimag centers that we’ve visited have been jam-packed by mid-morning.

I’ve finally figured out a way around all the mutton. Most restaurants serve rice and have some vegetables. I can count on them having, at least, onions and maybe a bell pepper. While we were in Uliastai I asked Shombodon to see if I could get rice with some vegetables. The waitress looked at me VERY suspiciously. This brought the cook out of the kitchen to make sure she understood what I wanted. The rest of the kitchen staff could be seen peeping through the kitchen door. They can’t conceive of somebody not eating meat. A meal without mutton is like a day without sunshine. Once Shobodon explains what I’m trying to get the cook disappears back into the kitchen. Bingo! I get what amounts to veggie fried rice. Maaike looks on enviously as I devour my meal. At dinner we ask if the same cook is on duty. With an answer in the affirmative, both Maaike and I get the same thing for dinner. I wasn’t quite as successful last night when we got to Altai. We ordered an omelet with onions (they didn’t have any peppers) and rice. What we got was an omelet with onions and a type of sausage inside. We forgot to tell then to skip the meat. Oh well, live and learn. I’ll try again at lunch.

Random Thoughts

Sunset, Tsagaan NuurI’ve been here one month. Here are a few random ramblings:

Mongolia is a textbook example of how NOT to transition from communism to capitalism.

…it is however a land of great potential and opportunity.

Most of the metal that went into the Olympic metals came from Mongolia.

Mongolia is a country of extreme contrasts and contradictions.

Mongolia has no beggars.

Mongolia reached 100% literacy during its time as a socialist country. It has slipped to 98% since the transition. Still pretty amazing.

They like their beds hard here. I think they get their counter tops and mattresses from the same quarry.

Gender equality here is amazing. It’s part of their history and culture. From the warrior queens to the equality espoused under socialism, the attitude towards women is something we could learn a lot from. 70% of college graduates are women and 80% of professional jobs are held by women. The only blip is only 13% of the seats in parliament are held by women. The general theory is that women don’t want to be in politics.

Uliastai means “The Town of Aspen”. Looks very different from the one in Colorado.

They still sell the 3rd world version of the Toyota Landcruiser here. I wish they made it available in the states.

Russian jeeps are indestructible.

I’m still trying to figure out how they can get perfect cell reception out in the middle of nowhere. (When I spoke previously about the “middle of nowhere” we were just close to nowhere, maybe on the outskirts of nowhere.) The last couple of days we were smack-dab in the middle of nowhere without a cell tower in sight. I can sit in my condo in Colorado Springs and stare at a cell tower and still drop calls!

Cats are a rare sight here. Most people believe they carry evil spirits.A rare sight

Nothing has happened to change my initial impression that Mongolians are really laid back and friendly people.

Mongolian is a hard language to learn. (But it’s worth trying. They love it when you make the effort.)

If anybody knows of a hybrid system that can heat water from solar panels and methane collected from human and animal waste, please let me know. There is a town here in desperate need of it.

One of the elderly ladies that we interviewed said something amazing right before we left her ger. She said she knew that Maaike and I live in rich countries. She said that Mongolia, too, is a rich country. Rich in culture and history and opportunity. She said she hoped that some day soon the entire world would be able to live in peace and harmony and that we could all enjoy the riches that life has to offer. I don’t think anybody has ever said it better…

The Wild, Wild West

WildflowersFirst off, we changed our plans about a minute before getting in the car to take off. We decided that we would go north first and go thru the west in a counter clock-wise route. The thinking was that if we got to the northwest part of the country later in the month we could have the danger of having snow and ice in the mountains (yeah, I know, it’s the middle of August). So we headed north to Darkhan (to pronounce that correctly you have to make the “kh” sound like you’re clearing  your throat). A 4 hour drive from UB, 1.5 of which was just getting out of the capital. Stayed at the Khara Hotel. (…same thing with the “kh”). The hotel didn’t look like much from the outside, but it turned out to be pretty nice. Actually had the best shower I’ve had since I got to Mongolia!

A Swing and a Miss!

AmarbayasgalantOne of the places I wanted to make sure we saw on this trip was the Amarbayasgalant temple. It’s the one that was spared during the socialist religious suppression. We take the paved(!) road from Darkhan to the turn off to the temple and we start to notice a lot more traffic than usual. Turns out that the weekend we picked to visit the temple is the weekend they hold an annual prayer celebration. The guide-book says that it turns into a Buddhist version of Woodstock during this three day long festival. They couldn’t have known how right they were when they wrote that. Once we got on the dirt road for the hour drive to the temple it started to rain. By the time we reached the valley where the temple is located the whole place was a soggy mess. We were also not prepared for the crowd. Steppe EagleThe valley was full of cars and tents. No way to get any good photos so we grabbed a bite to eat and headed to our next destination. I did manage to take some fotos of a couple of enormous buzzards and a couple of Steppe Eagles.  I gotta give a mention to Engthbier’s driving. He and the Isuzu got us out of there in one piece. The way out had turn into a huge mud bog and people in little-bitty two-wheel drive cars were getting stuck all over the place. Had a few river crossings that had high degrees of difficulty on the way in. On the way out they were simply hair-raising.

The next stop was Erdenet so Maaike and Shombodon could interview a few people who had worked at the countries largest copper mine (It still is and will be until a newer one is opened in the southwest part of the country later this year). It was a state capital and I had hoped to do a blog post from there. Alas, the main internet cafe was out of commission and the other wasn’t open. Never did figure out why.

Left Erdenet and pointed the car westward. Our next stop was a ger hotel on the banks of a large lake. We had to camp one night on theTsagaan Nuur way and found a beautiful site on the side of a wooded hill. Stopped at a grave site marked by “Deer Stones” that date back to 700-800 BCE. Two of the markers were still standing when the site was discovered. The rest had been resurrected.  Made it to Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake) by early afternoon the next day. Our ger hotel was very nice. It had a restaurant and a small shop. It also had toilet and shower facilities.  Decided to take a rest day and just enjoy the place. Of course, it started raining as soon as we got there so thatInside our ger put a damper on our sight seeing. No matter, we managed to enjoy the day off from being thrown around the inside of the Isuzu.

Left Tsagaan Nuur  yesterday and made our way to Tosonsengel. Stopped at a true roadhouse for lunch. The menu choices were noodles with mutton or noodles with mutton soup. It was a tough choice, but I elected to stay with the tried-and-true noodles with mutton.  Interviewed a few Ger Hotel at Tsagaan Nuurpeople along the way and stayed at the “new” and “modern” Skyline Hotel. Something had gone horribly wrong with the plumbing so the showers and toilets didn’t work. Lucky for us there was a pit toilet out back. Oh joy!

Left Tosonsengel and drove thru some beautiful mountains and valleys full of yaks and sheep. Stopped on the top of Zagastai Davaa (Fish Pass) and saw some fall colors starting to show. (That’s right, it’s AUGUST 15th!) It was quite cool up there and there was  no doubt that they will have frost up there any day now. Today made it to Uliastai. Raining. Still. Nobody we’ve talked to so far can remember a summer as wet and rainy as this one. Made it down the pass and arrived at our hotel by 3:00PM. Checked in and then had a late lunch. The menu was full of wonderful things to eat, but none of them were available. Only traditional Mongolian food and that meant some combination of mutton and noodles. Fried, steamed or in a soup. That was our choice. Looked in the guide-book to find another restaurant. Luckily there is one that sounded good. We will try to find it tomorrow.

I can’t believe I’ve been here a month already! The time has flown by. I have seen and learned so much about a country about which IMongo Dave knew absolutely nothing. The next week will present the best opportunity so far for the types of photos I’ve been waiting for. If we can just get the rain to stop it will be a lot better.

On the road again, Part 2

A good state highway!Time to hit the road again. Enough with the lazing around in the luxury of Ulaan Bataar. We’ve recuperated from the first road trip and did a few interviews here. Laundry is done and all we have to do is go to the grocery store and stock up on provisions. We’ll leave early Thursday morning and head west. Our plan is to stop at the last remaining herd of the original horses so I can get some shots of them and then head down to the Gobi Desert. We’ll be taking a counterclockwise route from the capital, south to the Gobi, then north thru the far western reaches of the country thru the mountainsBuddhist memorial at the site of monastery ruins and lake district and skim the northern border on our way back to the capital. Hopefully, if we have time, we’ll stop at the Amarbayasgalant monastery when we get close to UB. Amarbayasgalant was the only monastery to survive the soviet religious purge in the 1930’s. It’s thought that it was the unwillingness on the part of some sympathetic Soviet officers that saved the beautiful place. We’ll be gone about 4 weeks, returning sometime during the first week of September. Again, internet resources are few and far between so it will be 3 or 4 days between blog posts.

Found out that Rhapsody is not accessible outside of the good ol’ USA so my MP3 player will turn into a nice paperweight tomorrow. Aaargh!

Guess the only thing left to do is to decide where to eat my last good dinner while in UB.

The stuff your parents dragged you to…

Maaike and I, having nothing better to do on a Saturday night, went to see the Mongolian National Song and Dance Academic Ensemble. Remember that stuff that your parents dragged you to when you were a kid? You might have ended up actually enjoying it, but you could never let them know. Well, that’s exactly what this was, except that it was really incredible. The show started with a lot of tradition dances then had some performances with two or three performers doing traditional songs and playing traditional instruments. The highlight of the evening was a performance by two old guys who played horse head fiddles and did what’s known here as throat singing. The horse head fiddle is a two stringed instrument and played with a bow. Throat singing is similar to the two-toned singing that Tibetan Monks do. It was really quite something and judging by the audience’s reaction it was the highlight for everyone else too. The contortionist was a distant second place in the crowd pleasing category, but I have to admit, she was amazing. I had no idea the human body could do some of those things without ending up in a body cast for a year! The end of the show was a performance by the Mongolian National Orchestra. It performs with anywhere from eighty to one hundred and twenty pieces, all traditional Mongolian instruments. Totally amazing. Some of the music was traditional Mongolian, some of it was modern symphonic pieces written by Mongolians for a symphony orchestra. The finale was and interesting mash-up of Queen’s “We are the Champions” and a piece by Tchaikovsky (neither Maaike nor I could remember the name of the piece). For an encore they did “Fanfare for the Common Man” intertwined with Beethoven’s 5th. So, there you have it. My parents will be proud to know that I WILLINGLY attended something cultural and publicly acknowledged that it was quite good and very, very interesting. I would have taken my camera with me, but it cost and additional $25 to take photos during the show and an extra $65 to take video. I’m rethinking that decision and may go back with my video camera after we get back from the second road trip. Meanwhile, here is a link to a YouTube video that somebody posted. The highlights are at 3:01 where the guy is playing an instrument made out of a cow horn, (it had a reed and brass valves, but does it go in the brass section or the woodwinds?). Also. at 3:43 is the contortionist and one of the throat singers is at 4:22. Enjoy!