This is the end, beautiful friend, the end…

Ok, so the song reference might be a little too obscure for some of you. It’s by the Doors from 1967.

Erdene Zuu MonasteryWe visited the hometown of Shombodon’s best friend and it took us a while to find him. We tracked him down at his office and Maaike and Shombodon interviewed him for a couple of hours. He is a former Aimag Governor and was the director of a university after that. He is newly retired, but still maintains an office at the school. Engthbier and I just chilled at in the Isuzu while Maaike and Shombodon did their thing. The school is located at the edge of a complex of run down apartment buildings. It was wonderful to watch everybody go about their daily lives. A young mother with her two small children at the playground. The drunk sleeping on the sidewalk in the shade of a dilapidated storage shed. A scruffy old dude pulling up in a large, empty flatbed truck and going into each stairwell of the apartment buildings and yelling something. Moments later a flood of people come out with their trash and piled it on truck. Two young girls surveil me at a safe distance until I wave and smile at them. They take that as a signal that it might be safe to come and talk to me. I ask them their names in their native tongue and don’t even come close to understanding their replies. They are obviously asking me other questions, but my interpreter has disappeared. Finally Maaike, Shombodon, Engthbier and their interviewee show up, but my young friends have already taken off. Shombodon’s friend insists that we have dinner before hitting the road. This presents a slight problem since, according to Shombodon, we have a two-hour drive to our next stop. Two hours, according to Shombodon, means it will take at least four hours. So off we go to one of the hidden gems of the restaurant world and have a nice meal. I am formally introduced to our host and his name is Mr. Jaansendorg. I call him Mr. Johnson for short. He is a large, imposing presence. He has a huge head and it makes his stylish hat look comically too small. He is the very definition of gregarious and he dispatches our waitress with a smile and very few words. She reappears in short order with a bottle of vodka. This isn’t the polite half liter bottle that lubricates most of our gatherings. No, this is a full liter and I am bathed it dread. Engthbier isn’t drinking since he is driving (actually, he never drinks), Maaike will only take a few sips and that leaves Shombodon, Mr. Johnson and me to polish off this bottle. Luckily, IErdene Zuu Monastery guess, it’s really good vodka. Lots of food and many toasts to friendship and world peace later we finally stagger to the truck. It’s a very quiet ride to Kharkhorum and two hours into the ride we aren’t even close to our destination. We make our way over a saddle on a low ridgeline and Engthbier pokes his head out of the driver’s side window, mutters something under his breath and pulls the Isuzu off to the side of the “road”. Flat tire. Oh, that’s just the icing on the cake. Eleven o’clock at night and we get to change a tire. Bonus! All the tools that we need to change the tire are buried under the three tons of stuff crammed into the back of the truck. Engthbier digs around blindly underneath all of our tightly packed junk and produces a jack and tire iron. Maaike stands off to one side and Shombodon does his best to get in the way. I crank on the emergency brake and start loosening the lug nuts while Engthbier operates the jack. With the precision of an Indy pit crew we manage to change the flat in something less than a half hour. On the road again, it takes us another two hours to reach the outskirts of Kharkhorum. We pull up to the gate of the first ger hotel we come across. It’s around one-thiry in the morning and Engthbier honks the horn. I cringe as I imagine just how delighted the other guests at the camp will be. Nobody stirs so Engthbier gives a few more blasts of the horn. I start looking around for escape routes since I’m sure that we will be strung up by an angry, sleepy crowd of people in their pajamas. Finally a lone head pokes out of one of the gers. Shombodon ambles over to talk to her. She is in fact the owner of this fine establishment and they negotiate terms of our stay. Is short order we unload the bare necessities and are in bed with the lights out in no time flat. I’m out as soon as my head hits the pillow.

I wake up in the morning and I can see through the chimney hole at the top of the ger that it is a gray day. The chill in the air makes me hesitate before slithering out of my sleeping bag. The need to “check the horses” cancels out any more procrastination. I open the ger door and fold myself  in half to extricate myself from the tent since cracking your skull on the low door frame is something to be avoided at any time of the day, but especially first thing in the morning. It’s then that I discover why we were not greeted by an angry crowd after our noisy arrival. We are the only guests at this ger hotel. Turns out it had just reopened after some renovations and we are their first customers since the grand reopening. I look to the west and notice that the sky is clearing. I can also see the reason why we are here. The magnificent monastery and its white walls less than a mile away painfully remind me that I don’t have my sunglasses on and that the effects of that bottle of vodka have not subsided completely. Not long after I get out of bed the rest of our contingent is up and about as well. Nobody feels much like unpacking all of our food provisions to find our breakfast stuff so we settle on some tea and bread. After chatting with the nice proprietor and her young daughter we are on our way for the short drive to the monastery. It’s a beautiful place and well worth the effort to get here. Engthbier catches a few more ZZZs while the rest of us go in and explore. Maaike and Shombodon take the guided tour while I strike out on my own and take photos. The light cooperates just long enough for me to get all the images I need and we take our leave of the place. Maaike and Shombodon want to visit the museum and I opt to accompany Engthbier to get our tire fixed.

Mongol Rally CarThe commercial center of this town is a dusty square bordered by old rail cars with the wheels removed and old retired shipping containers. The rail cars and shipping containers serve as tiny shops and auto repair centers. The first two places we stop at are too busy to fix our tire. The third time is the charm, but I worry about a place that has few, if any customers. What does that say about his abilities or his customer service. As soon as the mechanic gets done welding something to the back of another Mongol Rally car he fixes our tire. For a grand total of 500T (about 70 cents) we are good to go.  We go to pick up our companions at the museum and decide to grab an early lunch before hitting the road again. The guidebook has a couple of interesting recommendations. The first one we try can’t serve us because the cook hasn’t shown up for work yet. Second restaurant, same excuse. Finally we let Engthbier use his powers of divination to ferret out a place to eat that is open and has a cook who has shown up for work. He wheels the truck into a parking lot, he gets out and pokes his head in the door of the establishment and gives us a smile and a thumbs up. Testing my luck one more time I order some veggies and rice. I notice that my odd request doesn’t elicit the same response that we get from the other places I tried that. It didn’t even prompt the cook to come out and make sure she understood what I wanted. What I got was a very nice dish of sautéed veggies and rice. Seemed way too easy. After lunch we stop at a small market and pick up a few bottles of water for our trek back to the capital city.

It’s a very quiet ride back to Ulaan Baatar. We’ve been on the road for a little more than three weeks. That sounds like a long time to me when I think about it, but it has flown by. It seemsPrayer Wheels like we just left and now it’s over. In no time flat I’ll be on a flight back to the States. The ride back to UB is boring. The landscape is boring and the high clouds saps what little color there is out of everything in sight. Not long into our journey we get to the paved part of this route. After a while traffic starts to pick up and then two lanes turns into four lanes. We crest a low ridge and UB and a dense brown haze hanging over the city comes into view. No sooner do we see the city than are swallowed up into the perpetual traffic jam that plagues this metropolis. We jerk along in traffic for about an hour before we arrive at our apartment. Neil has left he key to her flat at the manager’s office (she’s in the U.S. attending a family get-together). After unloading our stuff and making arrangements to see Shombodon and Engthbierin two days time Maaike and I decide to eat first then take our showers. We walk around the corner to Rosewood Cafe, a wonderful new restaurant in UB. We were both just desperate to eat something with flavor. I had the Penne Past with Italian Sausage and Maaike had the Green Goddess salad. I asked for additional crushed red pepper and the waitress produced a small ramekin with about a quarter cup of the pepper and I dumped the whole thing on my pasta. I think our taste buds went into shock. It was, in a word, amazing.

We ended up back at the apartment and started a load of laundry and took turns taking very long, very hot showers. Very few things feels as good as a shower if you’ve been without one for a few days. It was only eight-thirty or so when I went to be, but no matter, I was out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow.

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.