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.

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!

Happy, Happy Birthday Baby…

Hello All! I’d like for everybody to help me celebrate a very special occasion. It is my dear wife’s birthday today. She is the best wife ever and the coolest person on the planet. You can find her on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/donna.vessey

AnnaHoney, I wish I was there to celebrate the day with you, but I’ll be home soon enough. You know how you wanted me to get you something uniquely Mongolian for your birthday? Well, I think I accomplished that. We were visiting a ger a few days ago and the folks we were interviewing we looking after their granddaughter. I told her she was a little cutie and that I would love to take her home with me. Shombodon thought that was funny so he translated that to the grandparents. Well, the Mongolians take that sort of thing seriously so after a few shots of vodka and some hugs we now have a daughter. She’s 16 months old and her name is Annaread. Her real name is too hard for us to pronounce so we can just call her Anna. She keeps calling me “Grandpa”, but it won’t take long for her to change that to “Daddy”. The real parents have nine other children and the grandparents said they probably won’t miss her.Everybody’s always said that we’d make great parents. Now’s our chance to find out if they were right.

Then, a couple of days later, we stopped to take a few fotos of some camels. Two young ones took a liking to me and I joked to MaaikeDonna's Birthday Presents that I should get them for your birthday presents. Shombodon thought this was funny and he translated it to the owners of the cute little beasts. Well, the Mongolians take that sort of thing seriously too. So, after a few shots of vodka and a handshake we now have two young camels. I didn’t name them yet. I figured since they were your presents you should get that honor.

The problem now is, I can’t get the camels out of the country and little Anna should be raised in her native country. You know how you’ve been thinking that you’d like to move? Well, I traded one of my cameras for a nice ger and a Russian jeep. So, you can sell my Jeep and your hybrid and we could live here. The two camels are females so we can make fermented camel’s milk (which is so much better than the fermented mare’s milk) and I got a few goats along with the ger and the Russian jeep so we can live the herder’s life. Kinda like “Green Acres”, huh! Ok, so let me know how fast you can sell everything there. I can’t wait for you to join us here in our domestic bliss.

Oh, and, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

Stay tuned for more fun and adventures, there have been plenty. Will post again mañana…

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.

Cheers!

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.