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I woke up in the middle of the night thinking I was still on the train and was really confused as to which one. Anyway, today we are leaving for the Steppe Nomads ger camp. It is located 130 km from the city in the Gün-Galuut Nature Reserve, area of wide eco diversity set up to protect endangered species. We got up at 7:30 and Leslie showered. The free breakfast consisted of 4 small slices of bread, butter and coffee. At 9:30 we went looking for our driver. I found a car sitting outside and I asked the guy if he was our driver. He said no, but later I realized this "no" simply meant he didn't speak english. As I headed back in, he started muttering something that sounded like "keff" - I think he meant "camp". He then said "guide" pointing to the guesthouse. Indeed, when I got in, Leslie was already waiting with the guide - a skinny chinese looking girl. They first took us to their office, a modern building protected from the rest of the city by a moat of large puddles. Here we paid 330 dollars which included 150 for the drive. The road to the camp was full of potholes. We first passed by few towns and villages. It's funny to see yurts intermixed with buildings in a typical settlement. Later we passed enormous statue of Genghis Khan. It was surreal to watch this giant silver horseman rise over the hills. The experience I felt must have been quite similar to what locals felt as the massive Mongolian armies started advancing on their villages. Except that after the photo we got in the car and left. The locals were left to fight for their lives. We also witnessed the aftermath of an accident - an SUV rolled over into the gutter and on its roof. This made me wish the back seat had seatbelts.
The scenery was absolutely amazing: bunch of rolling brilliantly green hills. I thought Mongolia was flat and dry so this was a nice surprise. The last 17km were on a dirt road or actually a maze of dirt roads with red arrows pointing the way. Right before entering the camp we had to pay entrance fee - 3500 pp + 1000 for the car. The camp is really beautiful. It's over a hill from the gate, in a valley with a river to the east. There is a total of 20 yurts with each having 4 beds. We got our own yurt, #4. It's really pretty on the inside with beams painted with bright floral patterns. A stove sits in the center and a chimney sticks out through the roof. The chimney can be somehow removed to close the roof, but we have not yet figured out how this is done. We were treated to lunch by our waiter - salad, borsch, and chopped up goat/sheep/horse? Later we walked up to a nearby hill where I wrote in the journal and Leslie went on a bug extermination mission. It was really peaceful up here. Absolute solitude. The only signs of civilization, besides our camp, were few distant gers speckling the horizon. We returned at 6:30 to catch our 7pm dinner - apple/sweet sauce salad and spaghetti with some other surprise meat. This was actually pretty good. We then chatted for a while with the waiter. He had been studying english only 4 months but his english is by far the best of the people in the camp. I guess people in Mongolia doen't learn foreign languages in school - or at least not english. Not many people speak it and the ones who do have only a very limited vocabulary. We had some other guy cover the lid on the yurt, but he left the chimney up with a small hole around it. We hoped it wouldn't rain in the night but it actually did. Yet, somehow the carpet and the linoleum by the stove were complely dry in the morning. Quite amazing! In the camp with us are about 10 other tourists - the annoying kind with big bellies, SLRs hanging from their necks, wearing safari hats, and pulling behind large suitcases and golf bags.
The spectacular Steppe Nomads ger camp. We are in the second yurt from the left.
Leslie very happy to be here - and the roof of our ger
Later we walked up a hill by the camp. The views were indescribable. It was as if we had stepped into a painting.
Absolute peacefulness - disturbed only by the blowing wind, soaring birds and roaming horses.
This camp really needs somebody who speaks English! It would also help if the manager was willing to at least appear friendly when talking to tourists and not keep looking away while the waiter translates - as happened last night while we were inquiring about horses / family visit we had reserved. See, tonight we are supposed to be staying with a real Mongolian family, yet we have no idea how this will materialize. Anyway, after breakfast, which consisted of bread, butter, jelly flavored jam, bacon flavored cheese spread and a really greasy doug/egg sponge omelet, it started to rain. We saw the ger keepers taking chimenys off and completely covering the roofs of the other gers, but didn't do ours. When I asked a lady to also close ours, she said no. So maybe it's a safety thing so that people don't burn candles and suffocate - but it would be nice if someone explained all this. Another thing. Mongolian pillows. The one at the LG Guesthouse is like a sack of flour. I almost broke my spine when I laid down too fast. Then the ones here are more of a bean bag type that swoosh loudly whenever I move my head. At least the ones at the family were pretty normal, but were small - they were like those decorative pillows people put on their sofas. Getting back to the camp, we were napping when people came in to the ger telling us that our horses were here. We told the girl we wanted to go after lunch, at 2pm.
We had no idea what was happening. From the conversation we had with the waiter in the broken english, we were led to assume that we will just be given horses and will have to find the (or a?) family on our own. This did not thrill us at all! We had no desire to get lost in Mongolia. However, at lunch the Mongolian guide for the French couple came by and helped translate. We were told that somebody from the family will come for us and will take us - this was quite a relief! The personnel probably thought we were nuts for thinking we will wonder on our own, but that really was the impression we got. The guy who came with the horses looked really hardcore. He is really dark skinned and wears the mongolian robe. He tied our horses together. I got this black one which kept groaning and grunting. It also looked out of gas, but luckily he made it up the big hill separating the ger camp from the family without me having to do any pushing. We were going pretty slow. In the beginning, my butt kept sliding over to the left but I readjusted myself. Also, Leslie's horse kept rubbing against my thigh. The ride took about 20-30 minutes. Leslie's horse started to trot few times - I guess he was fed up with my slow horse. This resulted in her riding next to the guy who then tried to talk to her which didn't go very well. The guy also kept groaning and muttering something. And farting. The camp is outside the park boundary and consists of 2 separate ger groups - separated by the toilet they used.
There were bunch of kids running around including an 8-something year old who took one of our horses and went off after the grazing animals. We were taken to the family ger, where we were served milk tea - which I read about before and expected to taste quite gross - but was in reality quite delicious. It's basically tea with a lot of milk, fat and salt. It tastes better hot. We were also given butter with some cream / cheese spread. This also wasn't bad. We were next taken to our yurt. All this was quite confusing since they didn't speak any english - and we any mongolian. The family is quite strange. The old guy is pretty creepy and keeps farting. There are few women of undeterminable age - I think the relative age is given by how many teeth they have left. The one I think is the wife had only about 4 which made her look like a hippo. Then there is the younger one who walks hunched over all the time - this really creeped me out. Then there is another one - definitely a daughter, plus few small kids - a chubby boy for instance who would make noises and then all the women would burst out laughing. The people kept staring at us - very intensely as if they wanted to read our minds. We would be sitting in our yurt and the women would just sit there staring at us, not saying anything. As I said, this was really creepy. Then it started to rain...
We were sitting in the yurt, contemplating our escape (or at least some plan to survive until the next day) - I can't believe Leslie wanted to spend whole 3 days with a nomadic family! - when all of a sudden the cover was pulled over the roof, making it almost pitch black inside! This didn't make the situation any better. We tried to nap for a bit to make the stress go away. But finally the rain stopped and we came out. We noticed bunch of sheep at the nearby hill being herded. Watching the sheep gave us something to do. Later, the son of the manager from the ger camp came by. He lived in Santa Monica and had pretty decent command of english. He said his grandmother lives in the other half of the camp. He also inquired about our well being. That was nice. We told him that we had no idea what was happening but otherwise everything was OK, given the total lack of ability to communicate. We asked about the english speaking guide we had booked but I guess he/she was not available. Anyway, things improved drastically soon afterwards when a new guy showed up. Turns out he is the brother of the weird one, which is quite amazing, because he was much paler, friendlier but especially human-like. He came on a Daihatsu-like truck. We inquired about the various strips of meat - and fat - that were hanging in our yurt. He said it is sheep, and after that he opened up a plastic bag containing various sheep parts, legs, etc. He asked if we wanted to try it.
Hesitantly we agreed. After this he put a large pot on the portable stove in our yurt. He lit the fire, and then grabbed another plastic bag containing insides of a sheep frozen together into a single block. He put the whole thing in the pot! While the organs were cooking we ate some yoghurt made from yak milk. It wasn't bad at all, and tasted quite like regular store bought yoghurt. The wife also brought out these noodles with potatoes, carrots, onions, and soome non-mutton tasting meat. We got pickles and canned peppers/tomatoes to go with it. This was by far the best meal I've had in Mongolia! Well, while eating this - and getting quite stuffed - the innards finished boiling and the dude started offering us various pieces: stomach, heart, lungs, kidney, liver, intestines and an undetermined long tubular piece - probably rectum! The stomach and the long rectum looking piece were by far the most disgusting, while heart and lungs were quite tasty. It didn't taste like mutton at all. During all this, we also downed 4 shots of chingis vodka - while the dude had 3 gulps from a bowl. He wouldn't take the fourth as he had to drive. Funny guy... He actually ended up spending the night at his brothers yurt. All our communication was by pointing in our Mongolian phrase book. This worked great until he started pointing outside and trying to tell us something. Whatever the word was, it didn't seem to be there. But then, I heard him say "loshady". That's Russian for horses! "Gavarite pa rusky?" I asked him. Duh - Mongolians and Russians are neighbors, of course it makes more sense for them to know Russian than English. We told him we have already seen them. Boy, were we wrong!
We walked out, and all of a sudden found ourselves among some 140 horses. It was really amazing. We had no idea this family owned so many of them. The sheep also came back, along with few cows and yaks. All this walking helped my stomach. Eating the sheep pieces, I felt like I was going to explode. It's possible the vodka helped too. The day ended up very much awesome, even though it started rather scary. I guess I now know how Leslie felt over at my grandmothers. The weather also cleared and we got to see a spectacular sunset. Few more things: The wife or the older sister kept making these weird sounds which sounded like a balloon deflating - pfoooooh. The toilet is a hole in the ground with few cross beams for sitting. It's behind a short metal sheet for privacy yet quite close to one of the yurts. Luckily I did not have to use it. But I had to pee few times. Peeing in a steppe is quite weird as there is not a single tree in sight. So you just pee standing in the middle of an open field. I wonder where they get wood for building the ger frame. The roof supports are used to store various items, such as cooking pots or toothbrushes. I slept quite well despite bunch of sheep meat drying right by my head. The jolly fat guy also spoke Russian which helped a lot. I felt more in Russia here than in Russia itself: drinking vodka and conversing in Russian.
The father of the nomadic family where we spent the night. And my grunting mini-horse.
Gers belonging to the family
Enjoying suutei tsai, the traditional Mongolian milk tea. Also random pieces of meat drying in our yurt.
After the rain passed we watched sheep being herded back to the camp.
It was really nice.
Few more shots from the nomadic family
Cows and long haired yaks
Not even this piece of the world has escaped new technology - that a solar panel on that yurt.
A delicious noodle dish and yak yoghurt.
The next course is being prepared - cooked innards of a sheep!
The jolly fat guy. That's probably stomach. We drank some vodka - Leslie and I from shot glasses and the dude from the bowl.
Later we went to see the many horses and also witnessed a spectacular sunset.
We got up at 7:30 - me because I had to pee really bad. I also managed to put my contacts in without a mirror. Quite an accomplishment, I say. We got up just as the sheep were being let out their pen. Their bah-ing sounded very human like. It sounded more as if somebody was actually imitating sheep, badly. Later Leslie tried to pet a horse but it was too shy. We also watched the guy catch a sheep - few were left in the pen - pick it up, toss it to its back, tie its legs and proceed to pull out wool with his bare hands. Later he used scissors to cut the wool - probably because of our bewildered looks. Soon two Mongolian looking women came from the other half of the settlement. One is from Boston and the other is her guide. I got accused of flirting with the lady from Boston - I wasn't on purpose but a guy can't help being nice. However, later I inadvertently caused major confusion. I was under the impression the family women were trying to communicate something to us. In reality, they thought it was us who wanted to tell them something. This went on for a while until they brought down the translator girl. Getting a translator is definitely crucial if you do decide to spend time with a Mongolian family!
Few other observations. When we got in the yurt for the first time, we were given a snuff bottle to smell. The father character spun some prayer wheel looking thing and then took the bottle out a drawer. It was elaborately wrapped. Also, I read in the phrase book that you are not supposed to step on the threshold. Unfortunately I read this only after I wiped my feet on it few times. Probably not good! I got the same horse for the ride back. At first, I thought I got a different one, since Leslie got a new one and I didn't quite remember what mine looked like. However, the horse was quick to remind me of itself, as it started grunting and stuttering as soon as we reached the first hill. The ride was fine, except that Leslie's horse kept farting and the dude's horse was getting ready to take a dump when it was very close to her leg. We also descended down a pretty steep hill. I started sliding off again but managed to readjust before falling off. We paid the guy - the whole thing was only $28! We also gave him T15,000 for a tip - and the vodka.
Right after getting back we went bicycle riding. We rented the two Merida bikes for 2 hours at $3 per hour per bike. We rode over the rest of the valley. A fence prevented our southern progress so we climbed up a hill. We also rode to the river. The surface terrain varried quite a bit - a hard packed soil with only few blades of grass giving way to lush green pastures covered in hard-to-bike-on bumps and then patches of loose gravel/sand. I really enjoyed just sitting by the river, watching the cranes fly around. That is, until a heard of cows started advancing uncomfortably close. We had lunch at 1, mutton filled steamed dumplings and chicken rice soup. I could not stomach any more mutton. I took out the meat out of all but two dumplings and filled the remaining dumplings with the meat. I sent these jumbo dumplings back. The restaurant did it's best to offer "western-style" food. However, I don't think they realized it's the meat, not the way it's prepared that makes some people sick. To my stomach it doesn't matter that the mutton comes in the form of spaghetti and meatballs. It's still mutton!
After lunch we showered. The water wasn't very hot, but it was sufficiently luke-warm. We then napped and later did archery. I managed to whack myself on the left arm few times. It will be nicely bruised for the plane ride back. Besides this we just hang out. The dinner was huushuur - fried dumplings. Two were filled with some potato filling. These were quite delicious - even the mutton filled ones. But, my stomach finally gave up. It was totally fine at the nomadic family - which is where I expected to possibly get sick. It must be either some reaction the mutton or the way the food is made. Or maybe it's the water. We have been drinking quite a lot of tea and coffee here, and I started noticing feeling not all that great after each cup. At the family we only had the milk tea, which probably had no water in it. It was pretty cold in the ger at night, because our lid was left way open. It seemed like too much hassle to track someone down to close the lid - plus all other gers had their lids half open.
Our yurt on a clear morning
The dad, now wearing western clothes, rooing (plucking wool by hand) the sheep
Back in the tourist ger camp, we rented bikes and went exploring
These puffballs are delicious when young, but care must be taken to distinguish them from immature Amanitas.
Escaping from the cows
Our spongy dough/egg omelette
Huushuur, fried filled pierogi and mutton-stuffed dumplings
The french family whose interpreter really helped us out!
We also went bow shooting. I was really bad at this. My left arm was badly bruised, while Leslie had no bruises at all!
Our last night in a ger.
Falling asleep to candlelight
We left the camp at 10, after breakfast of bread and rice milk. Our driver didn't speak any english and he didn't know where LG guesthouse was located. But I drew him a map and we were on our way. Straight through the steppe! Instead of taking the dirt road to the paved road he took a straigh shot through the grassland. Funny thing was that the paved road felt much bumpier than the trans-field passage. We had the customary admire-big-statue stop (which he also used to pee on the side of the road). It was really smoggy and congested when we got to the city. Sort of makes you wonder why people trade the rural life for this mess. I read later in a book Leslie bought that the Soviet collectivization is to blame. The Communists forced herders to give up their cattle, and being without their animals, the herders had no choice but move to the city. This time we are staying in a private room. There don't appear to be any other guest around. The couple from 3-2 is gone. We are right next door in 3-3. The room is nice - 2 beds and a shower. Well - sort of. The hose leaks and the only way to shower is by unscrewing the shower head and rinsing off the stream puring out of the hose. The sink also sprays - as Leslie unfortunately found out later. She turned on the faucet, and right away found her shirt soaked.
Today we went out to the Chai Lam museum. The museum is just south of the main square. It contains several temples, but not that big free standing Buddhist statue we hoped to see. We saw photos of this statue in various tourist pamphlets but could not figure where is it located. Few temples had paintings of people getting slaughtered by wild beasts and also of wild animals devouring - and pooping out - humans. The circle of life? Later, we walked by multiple street vendors wearing face masks, human phone booths (women sitting with a telephone on the sidewalk) and a lady charging to use a scale. We also saw a guy in a wheelchair just whip "it" out and start peeing, just like that, sitting in wheel chair, in the middle of a sidewalk. He squeezed out a good arc, completely missing the chair. We visited the modern State Department Store. The souvenir shop is on the top floor and is quite impressive. I got a T-shirt, a hat, a ger replica, and few traditional dolls. We returned to LG with the souvenirs where I discovered that Mongolian "medium" is really American "small". So I made Lesie go back, which wasn't too nice of me, especially since as I am editing this almost 2 years later, I have no recollection of what happened to these T-shirts. We ate dinner at DB's Mongolian BBQ. This felt really wrong - what is known in the West as Mongolian BBQ is supposedly more Japanese than Mongolian. But, the food - and the price - were great. T10,500 ($10) for the buffet. Beer was T2500 for 0.5L. I only managed 2 trips to the grill: curry beef and peanut shrimp, but I also had several salads and soup. We got back after 9, just as it started getting uncomfortably dark. UB is not a good city to walk in after dark. Not only are there various surface hazards, such as open manholes the size of a large dog, the street lamps are very dim and very scarce. Many streets have no lamps or they have just the poles, as if somebody stole all the light units. Then our hostel is in a pretty dumpy part of town with various sketchy characters hanging around. We walked in through the empty restaurant. In the 2 days we've spent at LG, we have not seen a single customer in the restaurant. Combined with the low occupancy at the guesthouse at what is supposedly the peak season - the dorm was totally empty - it makes you wonder how the place stays in business. But it is not alone. Two city is full of these guesthouses with empty dorms and empty restaurants.
Giant Genghis Khan on horseback statue rising over the hills
It was really smoggy when we returned to town. Later we at BD's.
One of many violent-themed paintings in the Chai Lam museum.
Photos from the museum
My National Geographic-worthy photo - clash of civilizations!
Well this is it. Today is the last day of our journey. After breakfast of bread, fake nutella, butter and Russian MTV we hopped in the hostel-provided car for the ride to the airport. The ride cost $15. Right before we left, I placed my overly used and ready to retire New Balance trail running shoes next to a dumpster behind the hostel, hoping that somebody may find them useful. I just didn't expect it to happen so fast. I barely walked the 10 yards back to the car before they were already gone! Some bum picked them up. I hope they fit. The drive took about 20 minutes and involved the usual honking, swerving and a bumpy road. We passed by a powerplant. At the airport we first had to wait for the international departure section to open. The check in section had about 5 counters. We were the third in line when this lady started carting in suitcase after suitcase right in front of us. In the end, I counted 30 suitcases. It appeared that she is a travel agent for "Olympia Group", some Finnish agency. We thus moved to another line, but that one moved at an even slower pace. The person in front had an issue with their ticket. We ended up moving back to the original line but not until I told the lady off. Leslie and I were the last two people in line and I don't understand why she didn't let us go before her 30 bags, 30 passports and 30 ticket confirmations. The plane was about 80% full and we had an empty seat next to us. The green pastures quickly turned into the Gobi desert. It also got cloudy. The food was really bad. I hope the food on the flight to LA is better. I had chicken with rice and no flavor. Leslie had what was supposed to be fish and rice but was likely cardboard soaked in artificial flavoring.
The landscape in China is very impressive - various tall hills and wide snaking rivers. We also crossed a large city by a similarly large river. Beijing is quite massive. We first had to check in to get boarding passes. We then went through passport check while being hurried by various cops. The transfer booth is hidden behind some bushes. We got our passports stamped at a terminal that included various smiley faces to rate the officers performance. We then went through security and walked through the terminal. There are bunch of shops here and also various funny Engl(r?)ish signs. "Go! Beijing! Go! Olympic!" We ate at a Chinese fast food restaurant called Flavor Tang. We also had coffee at SPR Coffee which looked suspiciously like Starbucks. I guess intellectual property rights enforcement is not one of China's strong suites. Leslie bought a cute panda. She was so happy to find it. She looked absolutely adorable holding the panda in her palm. On the flight home we had more nasty food. My beef & rice had the rice but not the beef. It instead had some strange industrial meat by-product at best. The vegetables tasted of freezer burn. I typically don't mind airline food, but this was too much. Then there was this strange squishy black ball wrapped in plastic on Leslie's breakfast tray (she got pea "porridge" while I got an omelette). We felt like those Africans in "Gods Grew Tired of Us". We finally figured out this thing was an egg - pickled perhaps. It was absolutely disgusting. Well, not only was the food gross, it made us sick. Next day, back in the States, I woke up in the middle of the night with terrible cramps and 100F fever. Sunday I am still having bad stomach but at least the fever is gone. Leslie was good Friday, but then got sick on Saturday. Who would have thought that of all the weird food we've been eating it will be the airline that will do us in?
Something's telling me these may not be the "original" Butter Scotch candies, nowadays.
The lush green lands soon turned into the dry Gobi desert
Mountainous scenery in China
Beijing. It's apparent orderliness reminded me of Sim City.
Our lunch at Flavor Tang, washed down with a can of Coca Cola - I hope.
Leslie's adorable new pet