It's almost impossible to explain the overwhelming emptiness of Mongolia. I've never been to a country with so much of so little. Perhaps I've never been to such an undeveloped country either. The "main thoroughfares" are just grass fields. Pavement hardly exists outside the capitol and the next largest cities barely have power or any kind of supplies. A lack of infrastructure makes traveling extremely difficult. There are few intercity buses or trains. Most voyages are made by old Russian military vans limping along and overstuffed with people. Routes are based on the hub-and-spoke system and all roads lead to Ulaanbaatar.
I knew it would be necessary for me to share the cost of transport with other travelers, so I made a post online looking for people interested in joining in an adventure. At I got a message asking if I wanted to go with a group leaving at . All I knew was that the voyage was to take between nine and eleven days and was to cost far less than any other alternative I'd looked into. I didn't know where I'd be going or who I'd be going with, but I took a chance and said yes.
When I arrived the next morning at the designated meeting place, I was introduced to my new traveling companions. The group was made up of four pods which had come together somewhat last minute and was comprised of two solo Israeli guys, an Israeli couple and an Australian couple. They were all roughly my age. One of the Israelis said to me: "Lets get one thing out of the way. You're American, right? So you must like Ultimate frisbee?" I looked at his bag and saw an Ultra-star strapped to the outside. This is gonna be a good trip.
We were a bit delayed when leaving since apparently our van couldn't enter the city because it was Tuesday and it's license plate ended with the number 2. Seriously. We spent our extra time shopping for groceries. You can really place an English speaker by the way they shop for groceries. Should we buy eggplant or aubergine? Cilantro or Coriander? Tomato or Tomato?. In general, international English is written as the queen might write it (for instance the colour grey) but spoken as Midwestern American might speak (with the most notable exceptions being: alight, queue and lift—referring to an elevator). The Israelis used American English.
No one goes to Mongolia for the food. For starters, there's really only four dishes: buuz (the steamed dumplings I mentioned in my last post), khuushuur (which you'll learn about later in this post), tsuivan (potato noodles) and fermented horse milk products. Outside of the cities the latter seems to be the main thing consumed. As such we prepared most of our meals. In some ways I was raised culturally Jewish and eating with the Israelis was like taking a bite out of my childhood. Throughout our trip we had tahini, halavah, and made fresh doughnuts and pita.
Our van was packed to the top, and being the last person to join I had to leave most of my stuff behind and bring only the essentials which I expected to need for the next nine days. If only I knew then how long it would really be before I saw my stuff again or what trials were to await me and what equipment I would really need to conquer them. Our voyage was to take us through north-central Mongolia with a stop in the middle to attend the countries largest holiday in a small town along our path.
At various weekends during summer, each village in Mongolia celebrates Naadam, a smaller version of the Olympic games. The three main events of Naadam are wrestling, horse racing and archery. The only food consumed during Naadam is khuushuur, a deep fried meat pocket. All of the wrestlers wear a traditional uniform and preform some sort of dance before competing. The horse racing takes place across the desert or great plains, and all the jockeys are children riding bareback. Archery seemed to be the activity that people cared about the least, but was also the most different than what I would have expected. Rather than shooting sharp arrows into bullseyes, the competitors shoot arrows with big rubber points into a row of stacked blocks in an attempt to knock over the most red ones. It was sort of like the carnival game where you throw a ball at a stack of cans.
Throughout the expedition we saw rock forms, sand dunes, waterfalls and mountain-top monasteries. We bathed in hot springs and spent lots of time tossing a disc in a county which seems to have been formed specifically for that purpose. On a daily basis we were graced with enchanting celestial events. The stars in the Mongolian countryside are some of the best I've ever seen, and the moon-rises may be unparalleled anywhere on earth. On our first night the sky was naturally so bright that we were able to toss a disc without the aide of artificial light. Before returning to UB I saw four beautiful rainbows and as many shooting stars.
The voyage was not without it's downsides and rough points. Long drives in cramped quarters over unimaginably bumpy roads in a van who's heat exchange is on the inside of the cab weren't pleasant. Fortunately the group knew lots of games, funny jokes and puzzling riddles to help pass the time. Misfortunes also played their part. After arriving at White Lake I decided to go for a swim and wound up cutting my foot. After bandaging it up we embarked on a full day hike and immediately after being dropped off, my sandal re-broke and I was forced to walk on my bare cut up foot. I woke up the next morning feeling sick. When it rains it pours. The following night it rained and our tent filled with water. If you weren't aware of it, the nights are always freezing in Mongolia.
We eventually arrived at our anticipated destination, where we were all set to part ways. The Aussies were heading to the west, most of the Israelis were gonna go north, and I planned to return to UB with the van and be reunited with my stuff. The rough road on the last day of our voyage had damaged the van and I learned it would be laid up in the tiny little town of Moron for 3-4 days, maybe even more. With that knowledge I decided to head north with the Israelis to quest for a shamanistic tribe of reindeer herders living high up in the mountains.
After a 12hr overnight van ride to the village of Tsagaannuur, we were set to depart on horses for the final 9hr portion of the journey. As if I had too much stuff with me already, I was again obliged to pair down my pack. I was starting to long for my things in UB and George Carlin's rant about "stuff" kept playing in my head. A van dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and signaled that the horses would come get us soon. After three rainy hours we resolved to spend the night in the only nearby structure, which was some sort of stable constructed entirely our of animal shit. At two guides arrived with eight horses. One of the men was clearly drunk.
We set off on horses and made the most of the remaining daylight—which was quite a lot during that time of year. We woke up early the next morning and headed into the mountains in search of the Tsaatan (reindeer people). Not long after we left, the guides stopped the caravan. We assumed it was so we could explore the nearby ice sheet which was there all year round. After walking about the snow plate for a while, one of the guides approached us and asked for water. We gave it to him and thought nothing of it. A moment later we saw him take off on his horse, back in the direction from which we had come. We went up to inquire of the other guide what was happening, and found him shirtless, convulsing on the ground. We did everything we could for him and were successful in comforting him and calming his shakes. A long while later—the nearest anything was quite far away—the first guide came back with yet another guide and ushered us away. We protested but the guide insisted. We left the sick guide with all of our water and hoped that more help was on its way.
That night we crested a mountain and descended into a valley. A herd of reindeer was grazing in a pasture and just behind them were three ortz (tepees). We spent that night and the entire next day with the Tsaatan family high up in the mountains. They offered us reindeer milk and cheese, which we all found to be far better than the mare and yak products which we'd previously consumed. The following day we rode back to Tsagaannuur with plans to depart that evening for Khovsgol, Asia's second largest lake.
Upon arriving in Tsagaannuur we were informed that due to a power outage which occurred the day we left, they were unable to pump gasoline and we'd have to spend the night in town. Tsagaannuur is, without a doubt, the eeriest place I've been to on this trip, including Japan's suicide forest. The "city" is comprised of abandon buildings with nothing stirring about them. The same few people kept appearing, including an old man our van stopped to pick up in literally the middle of nowhere, and a kid who persisted in standing like and owl and watching us with a blank and emotionless stare on his face no matter where we went. The next morning the power was still out and we learned that they expected it to be for several more days yet. We fully expected our voyage to end there and our story to be the plot for a new horror movie.
There was nothing to do in Tsagaannuur. There was one "restaurant" which wasn't very good. One shop which occasionally opened and carried a small smattering of supplies. We made the most of it. A miscommunication about building a fire to cook with led us to quickly whip up some light Israeli doughnuts. The small market carried vodka and several of us had brought playing cards. The second day there we stayed up late into the night cooking, drinking and having fun. I feel it necessary at this time to point out that so far in Mongolia I've barely drunken any alcohol at all. Drunken Mongolians are all too common and scary, but despite what many people seem to think, I really don't drink that often (though I do tend to consume a lot when I do, which I realize is especially unhealthy).
Of course the morning following the night we stayed up late drinking was the morning of our rescue. At a man stood staring at us through the window, a larger image of the creepy little boy. I'm not sure why it woke me but it was a startling sight. Apparently the man was a driver who had been sent from Moron, the city we originally departed from, a 12hr drive away. He had come with two full tanks of fuel, which as it turned out, wasn't quite enough for a round trip. Twice on the way back to Moron we had to stop and siphon gas from other vehicles with a bottle and rubber hose.
A wasted day in Moron and an 18hr bus ride later, I was finally back in UB and shortly reunited with my stuff. I was surprised that there was a public bus from Moron to UB given the road conditions I had previously experienced in Mongolia. My apprehensions were confirmed. At everyone had to get off the bus and many people had to push it up the deep ruts of a steep and muddy mountain. Just after midnight all the passengers got off and pulled the bus out of a bog by a river. It's truly amazing to me that they attempt such a journey at all, and I understand why that's the only long-distance bus in Mongolia that I've heard of.
The nine day trip had turned into an eighteen day voyage. Though I was seriously lacking in supplies throughout the duration, I'm really glad I went the distance. There's no way to describe the majesty of the Mongolian countryside and when traveling is that rough, you can guarantee the journey will be as exciting as the destination. Oh, the Man in Blue? He was just checking in to make sure I was ok. I wound up bumping into him on the street the next day. I hadn't noticed him originally because that time he was dressed all in White.
If you didn't click the link about our Australian travel companions earlier in the post, I suggest you check out the short video they made about the beginning part of our journey.Soundtrack: Cecilia (Simon & Garfunkel)