Desert, Desert and More Desert…

Mother MountainOkay, so, we hit the road early in the morning after spending the night in the desert. The desert seems endless in the direction we are going. There are high mountain ranges on either side of us off in the distance. We pass some rock formations and then another mountain range appears ahead of us. Beyond that is the “Mother Mountain”, the most holy of places in Mongolian folklore. We stop and do a little hiking, grab a bite to eat and hit the road again. We head off in a northerly direction and up a long slope to a mountain pass. This pass was carved out by an ancient glacier. It was not an easy road. Very rocky and ever since the “Big Bang” we’ve had problems with the Isuzu overheating when going up hill for an extended period of time. We had to stop and let it cool off three times on the way up this pass. We finally make it to the top and coast our way down into another wind-swept desert town. This one held a surprise though. A few of Shombodon’s relatives live here and they met us on the outskirts of town. They lead us toMaking Buuz a one room apartment and that’s when the merriment began. A bottle of vodka appears out of nowhere and the women of the house start preparing buuz, chopped mutton wrapped in a flour noodle and steamed.  One of the ladies notices that I am taking photos of the process. Every time she starts to do something new, she pauses, looks at me as a signal to take another photo. Once, she pause and looked at me while wielding a meet cleaver. I wasn’t sure how to interpret this, but I took a few photos anyways in hopes that it wasn’t a threat to  my well being.This a raucous crowd and the eating a drinking lasts until late in the evening. After we are done there they take Maaike and me to the Buuzone hotel in town. It consists of one room with four, rock hard single beds. We sleep there for the night and Shombodon and Engthbier sleep with their relatives. In the morning Maaike and Shombodon interview the chairman of the elders council. This guy was a true grumpy old man. He was not happy that they had transitioned from socialism to democracy. He was not happy with the younger generation and a whole host of other things. He’s convinced that people had all the freedom they needed under socialist rule and that the transition has ruined the country. He also doesn’t think that the young people of today respect their elders. Hmmm, I think they respect most of their elders, just not this one. After Maaike and Shombodon finish the interview we pack up and get ready to go. Was relieved that the relatives had shown up for the good-bye without a vodka bottle. Turns out that they are going to lead us out of town and show us some rock drawings on the way. We start out through a very rugged canyon and stop a few times along the way to take some photos.Desert Canyon I find a canyon that rivals anything I’ve ever seen around Arches National Park or Canyonlands. We finally get to the petroglyphs and then they show us a steep rock wall that we need to climb to see some natural pools that the lamas used for Buddhist ceremonies. About halfway up the rock face I remember a very important fact. Once I get to the top of this I will eventually have to come back down. I can go up Natural Stone Poolswith no problems. My knees really hate coming back down. Oh well, there’s a guy in our group doing this in flip-flops, how hard can it be? So, we get to the top, ooh and ahh at the natural pools and then start back down. Let’s just say it wasn’t my most favorite thing we did that day. Back on terra-firma we pile into our respective cars and the relatives lead us out of the canyon. We stop for our good-byes and, you guessed it, out comes the vodka bottle. Not the polite half liter size either. It’s another big gulp vodka bottle, but at least there are more of us to help kill it. One of my favorite images of the whole trip will be of Engthbier getting directions from one of Shombodon’s cousins out in the middle of the Gobi Desert. We drive for the rest of the day and reach our next destination my early evening. We arrive Getting Directionsat just another windswept town up in the foothills and set off in search of the Lama who used to be the head of the monastery here. Maaike wants very much to interview him about the Lamas and life under socialist rule and the purge in the late 1930s. It was a comedy of errors trying to find him in a tiny little town. Everybody knew who we were talking about, but nobody could give us accurate directions to his ger. We’d show up at the wrong ger and get another set of instructions to another ger. This happened 4 times until we finally found him. I was beginning to think that we’d just end up checking every ger in the town. It might have been faster. Maaike and Shombodon interview this guy for an eternity. It was already dark by the time they were finished. It was going to be very hard to find a good camping spot, but the Lama offered his front yard as a campground. Score! Shombodon, Engthbier and Maaike had their tents set up in record time and I had crawled into my sleeping bag in the truck and we were asleepPetroglyph in no time. The next morning I wake up and notice frost on the windshield. The Lama insists that he show us the petroglyphs in the hills surrounding the town. He also shows us the rocks etched with codes that the Lamas used during the religious purges of the late 1930s to tell future Lamas where they hid the sacred texts. The Lama has been able to find a number of the buried treasures, but needs assistance in finding the rest. When I get back to the States I’ll see what kind of social media campaign I can start to help support him in his efforts.

…but we never talk anymore…

Ok, ok! I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicado lately, but towns out here in the Gobi are few and far between. Larger towns with internet connections are ever fewer and farther. Also, don’t be too disappointed. I spent a little while resizing some photos for this post but this computer doesn’t have any USB ports that work. I’ll make up for it in the next town which should be tomorrow.

Anyways… I think we were in Kovd last time I posted (before Donna’s birthday). We got up and packed and we were met by one of Shombodon’s old friends. He had brought along the local museum director and he guided us out to some spectacular petroglyphs and stone men. Imagine, if you will, a very nice photo of a petroglyph of an animal with antlers and a man with a bow and arrow and another of a small stone statue in the shape of a man. The stone men and the petroglyphs date from the bronze age and are in great condition. The stone men are grave markers of heroes killed  in battle. These are way, way, way off the beaten path so they are unmolested as well. I’m lucky in that very few foreigners and probably no tourists get to see these.

We head south after our good-byes (sans vodka). The terrain turns even more arid and sandy. We stop in a dusty, windswept town for lunch. Imagine a nice photo of a sun bleached  town with dirt streets and a row of low slung buildings with lots and lots of small motorcycles in front of them. The only restaurant in town, lucky for us, is open for business. The only restaurant in town has only one thing on their menu, the house specialty, mutton with noodles. After eating our fill we all pile back into the truck and head farther south. A little ways out of town we come to a turn-off and take off up a road that leads us to a nice desert mountain pass. The air is cool and dry and I notice that this is a really nice road. I ask Shombodon about it and he says that it’s a mining road that the Chinese built and maintain. There is a coal mine up here and the Chinese are the only customers. We see a few marmots and some other little critters and lots of beautiful hawks out looking for a late lunch. It’s a perfect scene and I’d love to take photos if not for the fact that the mid-day sun makes it impossible to get a good shot. I am enjoying the vista none-the-less when all of a sudden, POW, no, make that a BAM! It sounds like a small explosion and everybody flinches. I take a quick scan of our situation. Engthbier still has control of the Isuzu so we didn’t have a blow-out. Nothing is smoking so we aren’t on fire. Engthbier puts the truck in neutral and pulls to the side of the road and turns it off as soon as we get stopped. I fully expect to get out of the truck and see fluid gushing from under the engine compartment. Nothing. Hmmmm. That’s odd. Engthbier opens the hood and we can hear the water in the overflow container boiling. There is a hissing sound coming from the cap of the radiator but nothing more than that. Engthbier gets back in the Isuzu, puts it in neutral and does a backwards u-turn to get the truck facing into the wind. A few minutes later I notice Engthbier getting ready to take the radiator cap off. I guess waving ones hands frantically and saying no, no, no, no, no is pretty much universal in any language that means that might not be a good idea.  Imagine a photo of Engthbier looking under the hood of our white Isuzu Bighorn with a clear blue sky After the Big Bangand jagged mountains in the background. We wait for a little while and start the truck up again. Everything is running fine so off we go. We reach the summit in no time and it’s all downhill from there. No problems. Never have figured out what the big bang was.

After we reach the bottom of the pass we head even farther south and end up looking for a nice place to camp. We don’t have to worry too much about finding a hidden camp site since the chances of anybody passing this way during the night are between slim and ain’t-never-gonna-happen. We spend the night in the middle of the Gobi Desert and it’s about as quiet and serene as any place I’ve ever been. I get up in the morning, take a short hike away from camp  and catch some nice sunrise photos. Imagine an image of a picturesque mountain range lit by a lovely, early morning golden light. Imagine, too, another photo that shows the desert floor Self Portraitwith my very long shadow in the early morning sun titled Gobi Self Portrait. Everybody is up and getting breakfast ready by the time I get back. We pack up the truck and everybody holds their breath when Engthbier goes to start the engine. To everybody’s great relief it starts without a hitch. We all climb in and head off even farther into the desert. Enough adventure for one day. Today will be the second day of this trip that we’ll pass without seeing another soul. Will post more tomorrow and I promise there WILL be actual photos.
Cheers!

A few things I forgot…

Inside Ger with Maaike & Engthbierok, so, the pass we had to wait for? Never needed it. The outpost that we went thru to get to the very eastern part of the country reminded me of the toll booth they erected in “Blazing Saddles”. Miles and miles of savannah in every direction and the road takes you right up to this little gate. Had to laugh.

The horse race I talked about in last post? 400 riders & horses. Most horses came back with riders. some didn’t.

Ger tent was infested with little black beetles. Passed the time capturing them in a water bottle. Too much fun!

It will be a few days before we have another chance at the internet. Til then, cheers!

The Long and Winding Road

First full day in Ulaan Bataar. Arrived yesterday at 10:50 AM. It certainly was an ordeal getting here. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a REALLY long trip. I thought the hardest part was going to be getting thru security. With 3 metal joints in my body, 35 pounds of camera gear and half of a Walgreens pharmacy in my bag I thought it would take forever for them to dig thru all of that. Nothing, they didn’t look in my bag or even wand any of my fake body parts. Popped a couple of Dalmane once I got on the flight to China and was asleep before we took off. Woke up about an hour before we landed. Both of my checked bags made it, much to my amazement. Had lunch at Millie’s, a fave hangout for diplomats and ex-pats. My first meal in Mongolia was a cheeseburger and fries. The place is owned by a Cuban so the hamburger had a distinct Cuban flavoring to it. Had Mongolian for dinner. Mutton noodle soup. Not bad. Not much going on today. Maaike, the author got in the day before me so we both need a day to to rest up and adjust to the new zone. Will walk around town for a bit and hopefully get some photos. Have yet to find the cord to plug in card reader so no photos today. Hopefully will be able to post some tomorrow.