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