Aug 27, 2013

Thoughts on Mongolia

My boots are full of mud and my sandals are full of shit. Mongolia will have it no other way. It is a country that dares you to enter its borders. Why is it a dare? The people of Mongolia live in ways unique to any country we've ever travelled to. Their steadfast desire to honor the country's nomadic heritage dictates the customs and traditions that define not only what it means to be Mongolian, but what it means to be a tourist in Mongolia. Still a fledging democracy, modern Mongolia has stretched this ancient fabric over the post-communist requirements such as healthcare, schools, and other necessities. Despite families relocating their home and herds 2-4 times per year, children still receive schooling by living in dorms located next to their schools during the winter months. Even though Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, cell phone coverage blankets nearly the entire country keeping even the most remote family in contact with the modernizing world around them.

Tonight as I type I am lying on a mattress on the floor in what is likely the master bedroom of a farm house. We were brought here by the driver we have hired to show us Mongolia. He grew up in this house and his sister lives here watching his two sons for the summer while he works. As this is Mongolia, hospitality is a quality deeply ingrained into every family and every individual. This is why his sister now sleeps on the floor in the family room while Amanda and I take her bedroom for the night. We've been told that the origins of this openess and willingness to share was born not so much from kindness but from neccessity. When travelling in Mongollia, especially by horse as was the custom just a few years ago, distances are too great to carry provisions. Therefore every ger and every home has an open door with an open invitation to dine for anyone who enters. This tradition has continued in the age of private vehicles and tourism.

We are in the heart of the Gobi Desert. If I were to walk outside, the faint hint of a setting sun would illuminate the land just enough to see the jagged mountain range stretching from East to West in front of us. Between this particular home and those mountains, a thin ribbon of sand dunes cuts across the dramatic landscape. A long sloping grassland slowly rolls into those dunes in front of me. Behind me is a dry canyon bed with red hills dotted with dinosaur bones and other treasures.

We are lucky to be here. There are walls, windows, and electricity that is generated from the small solar array and a homemade wind-turbine connected to a half-dozen car batteries and a converter. Like most of the gers and houses we have slept in for this journey, the bathroom is a small shack straddling a ten foot hole 50 yards away from the house. There is no running water but there does appear to be central heating in the form of pipes that pump water made hot by the wood/dung burning stove. Of course, we are visiting Mongolia during one of the few months where heat is not required. The kitchen is outside in a separate ger. Like most nights, we are sleeping in our sleeping bags. The cousins, three boys and three girls who live here during the summer, were absolutely thrilled to see us. We are Mogi's (our driver) first ever tour group. He runs a business in the capital and doesn't get to see his boys very often. This made today special for all parties, ourselves included. These six kids were genuinely enthralled by our sudden and unexpected arrival.

Amanda and I played frisbee, soccer, basketball, chess, checkers, and rode bikes. After dinner the three oldest kids took us on a sort of backyard exploration. We saw their garden and explored the red cliffs of the canyon next door. We sang songs to each other and went fossil hunting.

Sounds weird doesn't it? Yes, the highlight of our day was playing with a 12 year old and two 9 year olds that we were unable to communicate with. But Mongolia would have it no other way. Mongolia is the furthest thing from a relaxing vacation one can possibly imagine. We've showered twice in twelve days and we're running low on wet wipes. Finding an outlet to charge a camera is nearly impossible. My neck is sore everyday from the whiplash I get on the “roads” we've travelled hundreds of miles over. But somehow, this is really enjoyable.

I have a feeling that Mongolia is the kind of place that we will only truly appreciate once we have left. When we are here, the sheer lack of a single western comfort can be an overwhelming distraction from what Mongolia does have: pure untouched beauty, a culture still living as their ancient ancestors did, and an overwhelming sense of hospitality to strangers and family alike. These simple qualities will forever be engraved in my memory. I will soon forget my frustration with squat-shitting in a hole for two weeks.

Amanda and I sat on the tailgate of the Landcruiser tonight staring at the rising moon above those jagged mountains. As darkness slowly set in, we contemplated how quiet and incredible this place is. Thirty feet away our driver drained the intestines of the goat he had just slaughtered. Not even the overpowering aroma could ruin our moment with Mongolia. I have a feeling that it only enhanced it.

Aug 25, 2013

Gobi Dunes

Random British Tourist 
Our guide Khisgee
The tallest dune at the moment in the Gobi desert stands about 660 feet high. This things is a monstrosity. It was also extremely steep. We finally reached the summit- it was an all-fours affair getting there. The rain and wind tried to blow us down the other side but we persisted. The run down took about 2 minutes. The entire tourist camp took shots of vodka to celebrate. It was good, clean fun and a truly memorable Gobi experience, much more so than the slow camel ride from the next morning.

Aug 24, 2013

Gobi Desert

Sometime between sleeping in a teepee and the forever memorable full gallop horse ride through an enormous grassy meadow, my toe developed a fairly nasty infection. This was likely due to the fact that we had come to Mongolia but my socks had not. I did buy three pairs at the enormous, maze-like black market in Ulaanbataar, but apparently three pairs of socks does not make for happy feet over a period of nine days.

Our plan was fly back from northern Mongolia to the capital where our next guide and driver would be waiting for us at the airport. Thankfully once we landed in UB, our luggage was there waiting for us, albeit 9 days later than expected. Amanda and I were relieved to be reunited with our possessions. Unfortunately, the usefulness of the warm weather gear had expired as our next leg of the journey would take us south to the sweltering Gobi desert. Our guide Khisgee arrived an hour late without any supplies. Apparently our scheduled guide canceled last minute and Khisgee was summoned just one hour before. She was traveling back from a family reunion and had only the clothes on her back as her husband dropped her at the airport to pick us up.

Luckily for Khisgee, Amanda and I now had extra clothes, toothpaste, a flashlight, a jacket, and a hat. Our first stop was the grocery as Khisgee would be cooking all of our meals. She bought a cart full of food but had no way of cooking it. Of course Amanda and I did not know this until about three hours into our drive when we happened to pass a second Golden Gobi tour headed home. She was miraculously able to wave them down as they passed us on the paved road at 50 mph and that tour loaned us their stove and pot. We then stopped for dinner at a road-side restaurant. As we were leaving Khisgee purchased some dishes and utensils from the restaurant. She is very resourceful.

All the while my toe was not looking too good. After a day of touring the ancient capital of Kharkorin, we arrived in the tiny town of Saikhan-Ovoo. Tiny towns such as Saikhan-Ovoo act as the service capitals for the nomadic people that live within their province. This is where the nomads come for healthcare, haircuts, gas, mail, groceries, car repair, showers, and anything else they might need. As it turns out, tourists traveling for hours on lonely dirt paths in a Landcruiser may require these services as well. We initially stopped here to diagnose a strange noise that had developed in the truck. Then we had showers, I got a haircut, and we all took a trip to the clinic to have my disgusting toe cleaned out and treated.

I think I'll be able to keep my toe. My haircut cost about $1.40 (cheaper than the shower), and we'll start fresh in the morning with a new brake rotor. Tomorrow we head to the Flaming Cliffs.

Aug 20, 2013

Reindeer Herders of Northern Mongolia

It felt like a dream, it felt like a nightmare, it felt like anything but reality. Eleven hours into a 12 hour horse trek into the northernmost mountains of Mongolia, I had convinced myself that exhaustion was a drug and I was tripping hard. It was 10:00 PM and the sky was about midway through it's seemingly never-ending sunset. Our brave but tired horses slowly traversed through the muddy slopes of high mountains whose snow-capped peaks fed the the endless number of streams as water frantically began it's weeks long search for some far-off ocean. The fading light was enough to illuminate the jagged peaks rising from all directions as though they were a crowd in the bleachers and we were the weary entertainment for the night in the valley below.

The initial plan was to spend two days making this journey. That timeline became compressed despite our late departure and for reasons not apparent to us. The sun came to its final resting place with about 45 minutes left until our destination. What followed was an arduous journey downward through mud, rivers, muddy rivers and mud full of rivers. Our brave horses never faltered in their sure footing. My heart was racing, either out of fear or to keep me warm. Amanda and I were about to surrender when suddenly – the sound of a barking dog in the distance. Then there were two, then four, then a dozen barking dogs. Was the dream turning south? Or had we finally reached the reindeer herding nomadic Tsaatan tribe?


We entered the teepee and were instantly greeted by perfect American English. Zaya was born in Mongolia, raised in Colorado, educated in Shanghai, and now lives amongst the snow, the mountains, and of course, the reindeer, in the Taiga of Northern Mongolia. She welcomed us into her home and Amanda, myself, our guides, and Zaya proceeded to polish off the bottle of vodka we brought as a gift while we warmed up around her stove.

We awoke in the morning to the sound of reindeer scratching at the canvas walls of our teepee. This particular tribe of about 25 families moves with the seasons four times per year. They decided to spend this summer in a beautiful grassy valley at the base of some slow rising hills at, what seems like, the top of the world. Reindeer are everywhere. We drank their milk and ate their meat. They are the beating heart and soul of the Tsaatan people. The nearest hospital was a 12 hour horse ride, followed by a 12 hour jeep ride. We were truly witnessing a lifestyle that lives on the fringes of society. Yes there were satellite dishes and televisions running from solar panels. Yes, they wore western clothes, yes they used a chainsaw to cut down their fuel, yes they live in one of the coldest parts of the world, outside, herding reindeer. It was an incredible experience to say the least. We stayed in our own private teepee and left the next morning. As I sit here with Amanda on the shoreline of Tsaganuur (White Lake), I ponder all the events that have taken place in the last five days. We will never forget this experience. It was extreme, it was beautiful, it was other-worldly. I could never choose to live amongst the animals in such a cold clime but I certainly saw the appeal. Nature truly provides for these people as it has been doing for thousands of years, the way all of our ancestors once lived.  

Aug 18, 2013

Naadam Festival

The Naadam festival takes place in nearly every town in Mongolia during the first half of July. Mongolians refer to the events as the “three manly sports” which include horse racing, wrestling, and archery. No doubt, these ancient sports date back to the early days of the Mongol empire.

Amanda and I attended the Naadam festival in the tiny northern Mongolian town of Tsaganuur or White Lake. Like the rest of Mongolia, this town is the center of a large nomadic population. Naadam is the one time each year where many of these nomadic people gather in one place to compete against each other, to sing anthems, to sell goods, and to enjoy the festivities.

Here's a brief breakdown of what we saw:

1.  Horse Racing: Any boy between the ages of 8-12 with a horse competes in the horse racing event. They race on the open grassy plain in a course that climbs hills and crosses streams. The courses are either 15km or 30km. Most of the boys ride bareback and shoeless. These races were truly impressive if only for the length of time that the horses spend in a full sprint. They last about fifteen minutes. Later in the trip we saw a second Naadam horse race where about half of the riders were young girls.

2.  Wrestling: Legend has it that at some point in history, a woman posing as a man won this event. In protest, the male wrestlers devised a costume for the following year that you see in the photos. The lack of a chest covering meant any woman would surely be exposed. There are no weight classes in Mongolian wrestling meaning it is usually the largest contender who wins. Three matches at a time are fought in the central arena the winner is of course the only competitor to not lose a match.

3.  Archery: In Tsaganuur the archery competition was too similar to a carnival booth game for me to have much information on it. I know that women can compete in it as well.

Aug 12, 2013

A Traveler's Dilemma

All of our possessions

The thoughts in my head this morning are as follows, in order of importance.:
  1. I am very glad to be of a less-than-average height American
  2. Why are all the clothes in Mongolia so small and all the hats so big and what does that tell you about the average Mongolian?
  3. Why is it impossible to find a winter hat in the coldest capital on the planet?
  4. Where the hell is our luggage?
  5. I am never, ever, checking luggage again.
Sure there are other things flying through my head such as why do they drive on the right in Mongolia and sit on the right? But these random thoughts are more of a white noise barely heard over the five listed items that boom through my head like a Victor Wooten bass line in the front row of his concert.

As I sat contently in my coach seat on a twelve hour flight to Beijing and wrote to you about the adventure we sought and the time-traveling we hoped to do in Mongolia, little did I know that the luggage that we packed and re-packed half a dozen times the night before was probably still sitting on the tarmac at LAX. Both Amanda and I landed in Mongolia with no bags – a feat that I dare anyone to repeat. I believe 99% of statisticians would agree that this event is statistically extremely improbable.

This happened to us once before when we landed in Cairo in January, 2011. This time was a little different though. Remember when I told you how we were coming to Mongolia to shun modernity and embrace the old world? This is easy to say when you have a pack in the trunk of your plane containing modern wonders such as rain jackets, sleeping bags, hiking boots and at least a few changes in underwear.

In Egypt we travelled for nearly a week before our bags were delivered to us in Luxor. In Mongolia I just don't think that's going to happen. We arrived to our hotel at around 1PM and, after a serious talk over some meat and noodles, decided to go forward with our planned itinerary. We hopped a bus to the Black Market where we loaded up on the essentials for cheap: hats, rain ponchos, socks, undies, a duffle, some clothes, a flashlight, shoes (I flew here in flip flops (face-palm)), toiletries, and a dozen snickers bars.

I now write to you from the last row of our small propeller-driven airplane headed northwest to the Hovsgol region and the Darkhad Depression. The plan is to see the Naadam festival, go on a three day horse trek, and spend a day relaxing at the lake. At this point, I don't know what to expect. For fear of sounding too whiney, I've left out the other, much smaller issues that have challenged our enthusiasm to be here in the first 24 hours.

Yet, as I stare out the window at the beautiful lush rolling hills of green spread as far as the eye can see, I am optimistic that our luck will improve, our outlook will brighten, and the small hooded coat that we took from our hotel's lost and found will keep us warm. We refuse to give in. We asked for adventure, and we have an adventure.

Aug 5, 2013

Why Mongolia?

Mongolia: 1/7 

July 5, 2013

In the last few weeks I've been asked repeatedly by nearly everyone with whom the topic arises: “Why Mongolia?”

Unfortunately I was consistently unable come up with an answer that was both honest and interesting at the same time. That's not to say that the truth of our choice isn't interesting, but merely that most people simply can't fathom why anyone would spend thousands of dollars to fly half -way across the globe to stay in tents for two weeks skipping such modern luxuries as the internet, paved roads, showers, electricity, or even fresh fruit.

If I have to be perfectly honest, of all the destinations Amanda has taken me, this one is by far the most desolate and the most adventurous. As I sit on this airplane crossing the Bearing Straight headed for Beijing, I ponder what the next two weeks will bring. This will likely be our most expensive and at the same time most uncomfortable journey to date. We will arrive in Ulaanbaatar and begin a 14 day private tour with a driver and a guide. These hired folks will show us the Naadam festival, the reindeer herders of the north, the beautiful lake Hovsgod, and of course the Gobi Desert. We will do most of the traveling by jeep and horseback.

Why are we doing it? A sense of urgency I suppose. In a world completely engulfed in media, technology, and instantaneous updating, Mongolia seems our last great option to explore a simpler way of life. Many Mongolians still live entirely off the land in nomadic fashion. Yet, as with every culture Mongolia is modernizing itself with breathtaking pace. Our guide and driver will introduce us to these people living in ways similar to their ancestors two thousand years ago. Sure we will miss such luxuries as beds and restaurants. However, this is the very reason we will be going.

It's been a busy few weeks leading up to now with very little time to sit and consider this trip. To all of our friends and family who asked: “Why Mongolia?” The answer is quite simple. It's a fading opportunity to travel back in time and we intend not to miss it.  (Photos in the next entry, I promise)