Bagan & Pyinma

Nick and I arrived in Bagan on a sleeper bus at 4:30 am, our guesthouse was only a mile away so we decided to walk. The road was dark but paved. I tripped off the edge of the road and twisted my ankle in the gravel, going down hard. Unable to remove myself from the road, nick dragged me to the sidewalk as cars passed. It quickly became clear I wasn’t walking the last half mile and nick moved me and the gear to the other side of the highway to catch a cab. At the guesthouse, it felt like the end of our trip until the local doctor confirmed there was no fracture through an x-ray.

Bagan Radiology

Bagan stretches over a 16 sq mile area with over 4,000 temples and pagodas scattered. Construction began in 1044 when the king introduced Theravada Buddhism to the area. In 1287, the kingdom collapsed from the Mongol invasion. As I stayed back to rest my ankle, nick was able to explore. He said the temples were larger than Sukhothai but less detailed than Angkor Wat. Come sunset nick would return to the guesthouse, put me on the back of a motorbike, carry me up the temple stairs and enjoy sunset.

Shwesandaw Paya

Although years of erosion, neglect, bad restorations and an earthquake (1975), the temples seemed in decent condition. The one temple I visited, Ananda Ok Kyaung, was remarkable. It was large, detailed and lacked the guadiness I’ve seen throughout SE Asia. The 4 large buddhas at each entrance were decorated with detailed paint and facing large beautiful golden doorways. Small buddhas were placed into window like carvings in the wall.


On the 8th, we decided to celebrate my birthday a day early and visit Pyinma, the small village where Gung Gung (my mother’s father) was born and raised until the age of 8. The only information I was working off of was Uncle Bob’s biography and cousin Jen’s interview.

Hong Chon Chin

DOB: 02/07/1925

POB: Pyinmar (Mandalay District), Myanmar

-He lived in Burma for 8 years before moving back to China

We hired a taxi and drove 26 miles south of Bagan, taking an hour and a half to Pyinma (Although pronounced Pyinmar, the only map we could find had it spelt Pyinma.) I wasn’t sure what to expected, to drive to a small town, get out, take a photo and head back. However, the experience I gained was unforgettable. As we drove, we passed palm farms (palm oil), sandy flats, horse and buggies, and ox carts. Our driver was constantly popping his head out of the window and asking for directions.

Driving through sandy flats

Eventually we arrived to a small village square with 1 local shop and 2 locals standing outside. The dirt roads were dusty and thatched homes made up the village. With google translate I was able to convey my grandfather lived in this village. They were obviously confused and directed us to the local pagoda. It later became clear that anyone returning to the village would first pray at the pagoda. We observed the small and unmaintained pagoda and enjoyed the view overlooking the Irrawaddy River. We interacted with some kids that were playing soccer with a small bamboo ball and rolling tires with sticks. As we headed back down the dirt alley to the village square, the 15 kids followed us. We looked like a parade. It was a funny sight assuming no foreigners have ever visited this village, let alone on crutches.

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Pyinma’s main road
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Irrawaddy River
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Pyinma’s Pagoda
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Local Pagoda


Now there were more people at the square as our visit was causing some camotion. I tried once more to convey that my Chinese grandfather was born here 90 years ago. Many of the elders had poor eyes and the kids read them our translations. Ah, they understood. Through google translate, cerades and our taxi driver, the locals conveyed that a few Chinese families did once live in this village, however they either all moved or died. Only 1 family remained and they lived in the neighboring village, Chauk.

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Village Square

My grandfather once said 400-500 people lived in his village, and only about 5 families from China. Besides anyone being Chinese this still seemed accurate. Although it felt like 30 thatched homes made up this village, it was expansive, and the locals said Pyinma consisted of hundreds.

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One man said his 98 year old father may remember my family and he jumped in the taxi and we headed to his home. It was obvious that this man had never ridden in a car before as he didn’t understand, how to open the door, close the door and hit his head getting in. We arrived at a thatched home with cows and chickens. We exchanged smiles and laughs with the elderly man. I said my grandfathers name and his parents names, however he did not remember and may or may not have understood why I was there. He was bundled up and the loft smelt of urine. I wasn’t expecting to get anywhere from this the encounter as it’s been generations since my grandfather last lived here but meeting the locals and being invited into homes was a gift. After, the man took us to his daughters house just to show us off. We dropped off the man and thought we were headed back to Bagan.


10 minutes later our taxi driver said, “Out. Chinese.” We arrived in Chauk the neighboring village where we walked through a crowded market. We saw familiar sites of woman with painted faces, carrying large loads on their head and selling unique produce. Our taxi driver asked a handful of locals and all I could imagine was him asking, “I hear a Chinese family lives here. Where do they live?” Although doubtful, it was a funny. We passed the market and arrived to a small home where two women in their 50s were sitting. Their faces were painted and they spoke Burmese but there was something extremely familiar and comforting about them. They had puffy under eyes, single eyelids and plump checks. They were Chinese. Although their family moved to Burma many generations ago, they were of Chinese decent. They didn’t remember my grandfather as they would not have yet been born when he lived there. We tried to ask why Chinese families moved to Burma but couldn’t get a clear answer. After exchanging some smiles and saying thank you we headed back to Bagan.

Chauk’s Market

At the end of the day nothing is certain but the probably that my grandfather too stared at the same vast Irrawaddy river and spent time at this village’s pagoda was moving. It wasn’t hard to imagine what this village looked like 90 years ago because I doubt much has changed. I think it’s important to hold onto you roots because it’s a part of who we are. It makes us unique. So I am thankful for Gung Gung’s stories of riding water buffalo, seeing snow for the first time and praying to the Buddhist banana tree gods. I wish I knew more and asked more questions but am thankful for those who did.

After a successful day, Nick and I spent our last morning in Bagan watching the sunrise. We watched from the top of Pyathada Paya, as 30 hot air balloons floated through the sky.

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Yangon (Rangoon)

After running with our bags to catch the 12:35 train to Yangon, Nick and I boarded the car covered in sweat. It took 6 hours to make the 107 mile journey topping out at 31 mph. Although it felt like we could run faster, it gave us time to soak in our surroundings. Nick and I have been constantly stared at in Myanmar, but the stares quickly turn to smiles and we befriended a handful of local passengers on the train. Men and woman walk the cars selling quail eggs, oranges, grilled fish, peanut brittle, cigarettes, powdered coffee, and betel nut until their baskets are empty. Woman balance these large baskets on their head and jump from car to car. Our new friends bought nick and I corn which was the favorite snack among the locals. The huge yellow cob of corn was sweet and juicy. We also tried white and purple corn which had hardy kernels that were extremely starchy and filling. Nick and I watched kids from every town come to the tracks to wave as the train passed. It seemed like it was their daily form of entertainment. Young boys would bike their sisters down and they would just stare as we passed by. As we approached Yangon we gazed out our windows speechless as we passed by fields of garbage and dilapidated inner city complexes.

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Yangon was an interesting colonial city. Unlike Phenom Penh, there were huge side walks, parks, railways and relatively organized traffic. I could imagine a time when this city was thriving but now it felt as if there were few updates since British rule. It was undeveloped, but in a different way than Cambodia or Laos. The smell of human waste and fish oil seemed to follow us. Betel nut stations were found on every corner. Locals watered the street in front of their homes and storefronts every evening to reduce dust and vats of public drinking water could be found every hundred feet. Somehow we had amazing luck with the public bus system. Although we had no information before getting on any bus, somehow we were able to predict the routes based on major city roads. We were clearly an uncommon occurrence for the locals.

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Betel Nut

During our time in Yangon Nick and I visited Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar’s main stupa which was part of a larger complex (82 other buildings). We visited a St. Mary’s Cathedral and the large Bogyoke Aung San Market. We celebrated Myanmar’s Independence Day at People’s Park with a chocolate milkshake (powdered chocolate milk, shaken) and on what appeared to be the country’s only rollercoaster. Although this may have not been the safest decision we’ve made on our travels, we laughed at the scene. Hundreds of locals watched in fear, gasping, as the cars flipped upside. There seemed to be a line of 10 people so we patiently waited our turn. When we were next, somehow 30 people pushed and shoved in front of us and we had to wait 3 rounds. We also lost at the pushing game while riding the city trains, Nick and I will have to improve on this before India!

Favorite Yangon Eats: Indian Chief, Aung Thukha and Lucky Seven.

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Independence Day Celebrations
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Dragon Boat Pagoda
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Quail Egg Street Food

Navigating Northern Vietnam

Nick and I love our new life on the road. We are having a blast getting lost, eating among cockroaches, sleeping in $6 guesthouses, drinking tea, being vulnerable, haggling, trying new things and sharing smiles with strangers. However, Vietnam has been challenging for us in 2 unique ways, we are overwhelmed by the number of tourists and exhausted by the scams. Maybe because Nick and I came from desolate Mongolia and aren’t use to seeing so many Westerners or maybe because it is clear that some of the locals have been exposed to mass quantities of tourists, it has been hard to adjust. In addition, it’s tiring when we have to avoid being taken advantage of financially numerous times throughout a day. Okay, keep this in mind, put on your tourist blinders and let’s explore the wonders of Northern Vietnam (Sapa, Bac Ha and the Ha Giang Province).

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Playing by the river in Coc Pang

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Harvesting rice in Coc Pang

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Sapa

Nick and I took the 6am “sleeper” bus from Hanoi to Sapa ($8.50 pp – 7 hours). Although, rather comfortable for anyone 5.3″ and under, we recommend taking it during the day as the view coming into Sapa is remarkable. 

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Sapa sits on top of tall karsts covered in lush green rice terraces, next to a plunging valley. The town itself is a tourist pit, built as a “trekking” base for tourists. After dropping off our bags at a guesthouse, Nick and I set out for a short hike to Cat Cat Village. The colorful traditional clothing and exquisite jewelry worn by woman from the surrounding hill tribes was unique and gorgeous. While in Sapa we splurged on delicious $4 honey lemongrass tofu at Nature’s View and enjoyed getting local at the late night bbq stands.

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I’d like to name my next dog Tofu. Thoughts?

The true beauty of this area lays in the surrounding villages. Nick and I planned only to spend 1 night, however since we were ahead of schedule we decided to do the typical homestay. Within 5 minutes of making our decision, we were approached by Mama Kurr and began trekking to her village (Black Hmong People). It took us 4 hours to hike up and over the mountains to her home. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall and were shown marijuana and indigo dye plants. Mama Kurr had me rub some green plant leaves and water together and within minutes my hands were stained dark blue. This plant is used to dye fabrics, although in the West we use a synthetic compound most commonly used in jeans, the black Hmong still use this organic option. It’s fascinating how removed Westerns are from our natural resources (using marijuana for hemp, organic dyes, and harvesting rice).

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Indigo Dye plant

*Pause, side note: Tourism is interesting; on one hand I understand that I am part of the problem, a fortunate westerner who wants to see the unexplored. However, watching 7 year old village children approaching you like zombies rehearsing “1 for 5,000 – 2 for 10” and knowing that their parents are having them skip school to sell to tourists is heartbreaking. Sure, travel sustainable and give back to local communities, however is there anything else we can do to protect the beautiful people and places that are rapidly changing?

After hiking through through rice fields, we arrived at Mama Kurr’s house. The view from her “patio” was breath taking and we enjoyed drinking coffee and reading while taking it all in. The rice had recently been harvested (about 3 weeks prior) and the daily fog had settled in the valley. We played with her grandchildren and puppies and watched the pigs and chickens roam in the vacant terraces. The water buffalo observed us as we helped to prepare a delicious dinner over an open pit fire.

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Bac Ha

The next day we returned to Sapa and caught a bus to Lai Cai then another on to Bac Ha. Nick found a homestay on coachsurfing and we had a great time hanging out with a local family. We had dinner, attended the night market (traditional dance and song) and stopped for delicious chè trôi nuóc (rice flour balls in sweet ginger sesame seed tea) to end the evening.

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Homestay with Huy Trung and family
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Fishing for star fish at the night market
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che troi nuoc

The next morning Nick and I went to the Bac Ha market where local hill tribe people sold produce, water buffalo, puppies (meat?), handmade crafts, and buhn nem. The market was huge and by 10:00 packed with foreigners and locals alike. We headed 6 km out of town to the Lung Phin market where we were the only foreigners in site. This gave us a feel for what a local market actually looks like. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the local community was not thrilled by our presence.

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Hmong woman at the Bac Ha Sunday market

After the markets, we headed to Ha Giang where Nick and I rented a motorcycle to explore the most northern part of Vietnam (we strongly recommend renting from QT Motorbikes & Tour). We had a blast exploring the Ha Giang area as the next day we would set off for a longer loop. We were able to see uncut rice fields that blew in the wind and spotted a waterfall. We made it our mission to swim under the waterfall and after an hour or so of wandering in rice terraces we were rewarded with refreshing water.

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The next 3 days on the bike have been our favorite experience in Vietnam thus far. The first day was extremely cloudy and rainy. We drove up and over some (what we imagine) remarkable passes and Nick did a great job driving bumpy single lane mountain roads. We edged passed semi trucks, saw the aftermath of a bike accident and had to go around some nerve racking blind turns (don’t worry Mom and Dad we were safe!). However, we were rewarded by beautiful views, rice terraces and limestone mountains covered with vegetation. And greeted with hellos, waves and high fives from local kids.

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Ordering in a small village is always a show

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Tram Ton Pass

We spent the night in Dong Van where we explored the old quarter, a cluster of tradition Hmong houses converted into small shops and restaurants. The next day we biked over beautiful mountain passes and spent the night in Coc Pang. This small village (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) was our absolute favorite stop. We felt extremely removed from the tourist loop and welcomed by the community. We were able to share smiles and laughs  with locals while walking around town and were even invited to help a family harvest rice. The rice was cut, separated and cleaned while the family thought Nick and I were hilarious. This time in Coc Pang made the entire northern loop worth it. We know it is jealous to want an experience without foreigners, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds!

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Dzao woman herding water buffalo

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We headed back to Ha Giang, took a sleeper bus to Hanoi and now are off to Dong Ha and the DMZ. Stay tuned!

Chilling in Cat Ba

From Hanoi, Nick and Stacia took 3 buses and a ferry ($8 pp – 7 hours) and arrived at Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Although beautiful, it seemed impossible to escape tourists (we can’t even imagine what it would be like during high season). We had a blast climbing, swimming in emerald water and kayaking through caves. We also spent time exploring the beaches, market and enjoying bia hoi (draft beer).

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Monkey Island
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25 cent bia hoi

Stay: As we stepped off the bus we were approached by a crowd, each person wanting us to stay at their hotel. Luckily, Nick had already found the Cat Ba Central Hotel II for $9 a night (double room) with ac and breakfast included. This guesthouse was a good change as it was quiet, comfortable, and had a great view. The owner was extremely helpful and I would recommend this place to anyone. 

Climbing: Nick and I were interested in climbing in Cat Ba, however had to rent gear as our bags are still full of our cold weather clothes and camping gear from Mongolia (we’ll swap it out for climbing gear at the end of the month). We were originally interested in deep water soloing, however the high costs and low tides deterred us. We rented climbing gear from Cat Ba Climbing and headed to Butterfly Valley. Anyone interested in climbing in Cat Ba, I would recommended supporting a local family and heading to Cat Ba Climbing. If you are interested in non-negotiable high prices and blonde Australian employees, head to Asia Outdoors. Nick and I rented a motorbike and were on our way to the climbs. The approach was beautiful and we had a blast, although the heat, snakes and humidity were unfamiliar.

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Butterfly Valley

Halong Bay: The next day we decided to go on a boat tour as our hotel offered a day of activities for $15 pp (kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, lunch and cruising around Halong Bay). This was the best price we could find, however there was no escaping the tourist loop. The limestone pillars jutting out of the emerald water, settling fog, fishing villages and hidden beaches made for a picturesque day.

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Escaping Ulaanbaatar

Just like any new place, at first Ulaanbaatar is very intriguing. The line between city and wilderness, plethora of “idols” to Chingiis Khan, and transitions between ger district and metropolitan blocks all give the city a unique feel. As stated in our UB post, we had a blast exploring the city, however after our first 3 days we were ready for something new. Unfortunately, we had arranged our trips in the countryside and the Mongolia transportation system works in a way that we returned to UB for a few days and then a week between excursions. We needed to find something to do other than sit around, we needed to escape UB. Fortunately, we found three activities that used up our time in a productive manner and heard of more for next time!

Hiking From Zummond Back to UB

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The first time we arrived back in UB from the north we did an overnight backpack from Zuunmod back to the city. This involved taking the bus from the Dragon Bus Station to Zuunmod (runs every hour for 2,000T). We had previously bought a relatively good map from Seven Summits on the surrounding UB area. From Zuunmod, we hiked 3.5 miles to the  Manjusri Monastery. This was a great spot for lunch among the ruins of the Stalin purged buildings and under a new reconstructed hall. We then headed up into what we thought was pristine seccluded wilderness. However, quickly learned that all the pine nuts that are sold on every corner in UB are collected all throughout this area. Every quarter mile or so there were people pounding trees and grinding the cones. While interesting at first, it did not lead to the naturally experience we were looking for. Unfortunately, I would not recommend this trail to solo female travelers. After 12 miles from Zuunmod we made camp and had a relatively warm night. The next morning we hiked through more pine cone encampments and over into UB at the Zaisen memorial. Overall, it was a great little trek and a good way to get out of UB for 36 hours.

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Lotus Child’s Centre

Before leaving for Ulgii we rented an extra sleeping bag from the Lotus Guesthouse due to the increasingly cold weather. We learned that Lotus is a nonprofit that runs an orphanage in Gachuurt with 65 kids. We thought volunteering here would be a great way to finish up our time in Mongolia and escape the city during the extra 6 days we had before our flight to Vietnam. The bus driver for the students picked us up at 10 am from the guesthouse after his morning runs and picked up the other workers on the way to Gachuurt. We arrived at the orphanage to learn that there was no structure or direction for volunteers so we just began to hang out with the kids.

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We helped 4 twelve year old girls bake bread and muffins for the entire orphange’s weekend breakfast. During the weekend the staff (including the cook) goes back to UB so there were 3 adults (Nick, Stacia and 1 social worker) supervising the kids. Although, they didn’t need much supervision as they cooked, cleaned and looked after one another better than most adults. We were blown away by their independence.

On Saturday, the kids practiced sports for a competition the next day. We helped make pizza, played cards and hid-and-seek. On Sunday, the kids competed against a local Chinese school in football (soccer), basketball, and dance performances. Overall the experience was a blast and it was hard to say goodbye to the amazing kids. If you plan to volunteer at Lotus, be sure to contact us for advice!

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Cheering on the boy’s football (soccer) team at a competition
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Not only did Stacia have a different hair style everyday, but we ate kimchi, pineapple, hot dog, pea, pepper, and ketchup pizza.
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Hide-and-seek champions: Asha & Khaliun
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9 year olds raising 1 year olds

Chinggis (Genghis) Khan Statue

We made it to the 40 meter Chinggis (Genghis) Khan statue (7,000 T pp) with Didi, the founder of Lotus. There was a small museum inside, and although nice, seemed like a huge tourist trap. It was hard going from the Lotus orphanage that is struggling to get by to what appeared to be a giant waste of money.

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Snow on Chinggis’s arm

Other Ideas

Although we didn’t make it to Terelj National Park and Khustain National Park these are suppose to be great ways to get out of the city! We had spent plenty of time in Russian vans and were looking to do something a little more independent. Extreme Mongolia had good deals on climbing in Terelj, but unfortunately they had already stopped the service for the winter.

 

 

Буркiт (Eagle)

After our trek and the usual bumpy ride, we arrived back in Ulgii. That night we stayed at the Traveler’s Guesthouse. Contrary to the name, it is actually a collection of gers in an empty lot next to a gas station. The owner was helpful and we enjoyed showering and relaxing for the night.

The next morning we drove to Sangsai with Dosjan’s (the owner of Kazakh Tours) brother. He is a very competent and brave (crazy) driver. The eagle festival was very unorganized and felt more like a field day at school than a festival. At first our driver drove around the desert looking through binoculars for eagle hunters. We found some, however they didn’t seem to know where the festival was being held either. Finally, we arrived and soon eagle hunters were riding over the hills in all directions. In all, 50 hunters were present including the famous eagle huntress (Aisholpan). Although it seemed like a tourist trap in the beginning, about 50% of the patrons were locals by the time events began. The events were shortened due to a spreading goat disease which resulted in a low turn out. There were two eagle competitions. One, involved calling an eagle down from a hill to the hunters arm. In the second competition your eagle had to “attack” a dead rabbit that was being dragged behind a horse. The final event was between horsemen. Two riders would grab hold of a goat hide and pull each other (sometimes off their horses or far from the festival) until one let go. Between competitions we looked at souvenirs (bought some eagle feathers) and ate snacks (watermelon, fried dumplings and ice cream). At the end of the competition, a majority of the eagle hunters got very drunk and could barely ride their horses or hold their eagles (a little excitement ensued). Drinking is a very present issue among men in Mongolia.

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Processed with Snapseed.
Due to the goat disease the second day of festivities were canceled, but it worked out for us as we both became pretty ill (with we think giardiasis). We instead spent the day lounging with a brief trip to the Ulgii mosque. Stacia was surprised to see that only men were aloud in the beautiful 2 story congregation room, while the women prayed in a tiny unmaintained white walled room in the back of the mosque.

The next morning we left to stay at an eagle hunter’s home for 3 days. This Kazakh family lives in a stone and mud complex rather than a ger. The family consists of a 55 year old couple, their 29 year old son, 26 year daughter in law, and their 20 day old baby. We were still moving slow and feeling ill as we had just started the antibiotics for Giardia, so we enjoyed the down time. We spent a lot of time “talking” (passing back and forth an old Kazakh- English – French phrase book) and of course, eating dairy products in the family’s living room. The language barrier allowed for a lot of awkward silence!

We learned that the man of the house’s father was an eagle hunter, as is he, as will his son and his newly born grandson. Only the Kazakh people of the West (Altai area) hunt with eagles and they need it to be stated on their license for it to be legal. He started eagle hunting in 1985. Since then, he has owned 70 eagles, however let 48 of them go quickly as they never caught a fox. He keeps a successful eagle for about 10 years. The eagle he currently has he captured when the eagle was 1 and it has caught the following foxes:

  • 2012- 22 foxes
  • 2013- 22 foxes
  • 2014- 44 foxes
  • 2015- 32 foxes
  • 2016- 48 foxes
  • 2017- tbd

He will set his eagle free in 2020 when it hits sexual maturity. He sells the foxes, as they are used to make traditional Mongolian clothing (mostly headwear). The eagle either crushes the heart/face of the fox or suffocates it (this was unclear in our game of charades). His eagle is held in a small shed with little light but room to roam. We were graciously given an eagle blind (the small hat that covers the eagle’s eyes) as a gift.

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Processed with Snapseed.

For breakfast and lunch we ate the traditional stale pastries, varieties of cheese curd, clotted cream, and butter. We drank about 10 bowls of salted yak milk tea a day and had handmade noodle, potato, and sheep soup for dinner. We enjoyed delicious fresh ira (Kazakh yogurt) before bed, as the yaks were milked an hour previously (yaks are milked twice a day). When we were served a communal rice and sheep dinner, everyone grabbed a spoon and started eating. If we even stopped eating to breath we were yelled at by 4 individuals “baloy che” (eat rice!) and when we ask for tea we are basically told we can have more tea after we eat more.

The next morning the yaks were milked, the animal droppings were collected and the sheep and goats were herded, excluding one unlucky sheep. We learned that in 2016, this family of 4 had butchered 1 yak, 1 horse and 20 sheep. The man of the house brought us into a stone and mud shed where he sliced the neck of the sheep and drained it’s blood. Within an hour the entire sheep was broken down. The lungs would be feed to the eagle, the large intestines were braided and hung (to eventually eat), and the small intestine was coiled into a climbing rope like figure and wrapped in the sheep hide. By the end, their was only a small bucket of waste which mostly consisted of blood, poop and digestives from the stomach. The stomach was washed and would eventually be blown up like a ballon, dried, and used to store butter.

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In the evenings we enjoyed listening to the older man play a Russian accordion, guitar and what looked like a 2 string ukulele. Stacia helped the older woman make bowsak jay (what we have been calling stale pastries) that are delicious when fresh. Nick helped herd yak and we continued to enjoy our last 8 days in Mongolia.

We are flying back to UB on the 22nd and are spending our last week in Mongolia volunteering at an orphanage. Stay tuned!

Altai Tavan Bogd

The flight from UB to Ulgii gave a new perspective on the vastness of Mongolia. We flew over multiple sights that we saw in the weeks prior, including Kharkhorin and the White Lake. Our flight had been delayed but as a result we got a free night in the nicest hotel in Ulgii! However, the luxury was different than Western standards as there still were stiff frame mattresses, an open top toilet bowl and the shower was the entire bathroom. Dosjan from Kazakh tours met us at the Airport as arranged. He seems very responsible and organized. We were able to arrange a border permit, rides to and from the national park and a Kazakh guide through Dosjan in a very economical and independent manor. That night in Ulgii we walked around the main square, bought groceries for our trek ($50 for 8 days and 3 people) and ate dinner at a high value Turkish restaurant, Pamukkale.

The second day in the west we woke to mosque prayers as the Kazakh people are primarily muslim. Today was the start of our trek, but first we needed to get to Khoton nuur. The Kazakh only speaking driver of a very artfully decorated Russian jeep picked us up at 10. It was a good thing he had custom padded the ceiling as the next 7 hours to drive 200 km were very bumpy. The landscape outside of Ulgii looked like pictures from Central Asia (Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.) and we were struck by the difference from the rest of Mongolia. Our driver did a great job making the trip a tour with 4 stops. First, we stopped outside of Sangsai at a eagle hunter’s home. We drank milk tea, tried new more chewy cheese curd, and of course too much of our favorite cream and stale pastries. Finally, we each held an eagle which was too heavy for Stacia’s arm. The eagle hunter was obviously very proud of the bird and dressed in his traditional hunting outfit. It was unfortunate to see the bird spent the vast majority of the time locked in a dark shed, but it looked very healthy. Next, we stopped in Tsengel a quaint village and had more milk tea and stale pastries with a local Kazakh Muslim family (wooden home not ger). As we entered the national park the scenery changed to more similar of the Rocky Mountains. Just before the lake we stopped at two nomadic families. The first were friends of a the driver and he dropped off some tea and flour. The second was the home of our Kazakh guide, Hurmet. It was nice to find that Hurmet does know some English, totaling to around 50 words! At his ger, we ate a communal meal of rice and goat. Finally we continued to the lake with our guide a few hours behind with horses. At the lake the we checked in with the military, made our first poop fire and waited for Hurmet to arrive.

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The next day we awoke after our first cold night in a tent. Hurmet showed us how to pack the pack horse and we were soon off following Hurmet on his horse, escoon asban, with the pack horse skin asban in toe. A huge white dog followed us for much of the day, but disappeared after reaching the end of the lake. That day we hiked from 9:30 to 4:30 and covered over 17 miles. Just before camp we had another military check point to wait through. At camp we cooked a communal vegetarian meal by the bright blue glacier river. Hurmet also showed us the surprisingly delicious mix of milk tea dipped sugar cube and goat cheese.

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On the second day of our trek we started off by breaking our water filter in the glacial river (good thing we had replacement parts). We then hiked into green valley, which is lined by trees on either side and a beautiful turquoise glacial river going down the middle. We hiked for another 17 miles and set up camp along the river with the larger mountains beginning just in front of us. Near dark a herd of horses entered the valley, pushed by five Mongolian men. Hurmet was able to act out that they we using the wood in the valley to make winter horse shoes. At night around the poop/wood fire we created a Kazakh vocab list and laughed at our inability to do a proper Asian squat.

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The next morning we started late (10:30) as the sun didn’t hit us until later. We hiked for 16 miles up and into white river valley and down into  Mongolian ger camp. White river valley was absolutely stunning. Hiking up and over the pass we were struck with the view of black rock walls, white sheets of ice and golden fields of grass. The contrast was unlike anything we had seen before. That night we stayed with a nomadic Mongolian family in their ger. This was the most authentic family stay we have had. Nick ‘enjoyed’ sheep vertebrae from a communal platter and we watched a horse get shoed. People were continuously coming in and out of the ger as we watched black and white Mongolian dish tv. That night we were kept up by the 5 guard dogs barking the wolves away.

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In the morning we ate a stale pastries, yak butter, cheese curd and multiple milk teas for breakfast. After some lying around and procrastination of the cold, we hiked down stream and through a bog. The mountains continued to get bigger and bigger with permanent snow accumulating. At the end of the ger community Hurmet showed us some petroglyphs of yaks, ibex, red deer?, sheep, goats and horses. After a few miles of hiking we were invited into another family ger for milk tea and distilled milk vodka. We soon realized that this was the ger of the men who were shoeing their horses a few nights before. Hurmet had given them pastries and a can of our vegetables as they had no dinner and now their wives repayed us in fresh, not stale, pastries, delicious! We also met a blonde haired toddler of the family who lived Stacia’s camera. Immediately after this ger we rounded a bend and saw for the first time, Malchin (our goal summit) and the rest of the five sisters. We descended into the valley and made camp by a final military check point and the river valley entrance to base camp. That night we made a communal spaghetti, veggie, tuna and unfortunately ketchup (the Russian and pictures made us think it was spaghetti sauce) dinner before practicing our Kazakh.

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When the sun hit our tent we rose to Hurmet making hot water for our coffee, what a treat! Soon the horse was packed and we were on our way to base camp. A very haggard looking dog followed us in search of more stale pastries. Of course we didn’t make it far up from river before one of Hurmet’s dos (friends) invited us in for milk vodka, milk tea and stale pastries. We were able to give out some toothbrushes to two of their adorable children. Base camp was just another 5 miles, two bogs and increasingly beautiful skylines away. Upon arriving we broke out the rain gear for the first time. By sunset it turned into snow gear, as the weather pattern changed. Dinner was another communal meal with Hurmet and we met a number of his guide friends. We also met other tourists but of course the local guides were more fun. One of the other guides happened to be he husband of the woman we stayed with two nights previous. Mongolia is really a small place. We fell asleep to the sounds of snow storms getting bigger.

At 5:30am our Malchin summit alarm went off. We looked outside and Nick was immediately unhappy as the weather looked unbearable. Stacia convinced Nick to go back to sleep and give up hopes of a summit but after two hours Nick poked his head outside to a few patches of blue skies! With a little 😉 convincing we headed out to see what the hike would be like. With a fresh 4 inches on the ground we took our time but made our way successfully to the summit of Malchin! It’s never an adventure without a few tears and scares. The views of Russia, the five sisters and western Mongolia rivaled all others so far. Breaking snow was fun but sliding trail on the way down was treacherous. After a lazy evening and a final dinner with Hurmet (and his neighbor/guide friend) we turned in for our final cold tent night.

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The next and final morning we packed up in a surprisingly similar routine. We ate some of Hurmet’s stale pastries and yak butter with our last slices of bread and jam. Soon we were off following/herding a loose camel out of the national park. Stacia and I had come down with a little food poisoning (or so we thought) so the last 10 miles went slowly. Now we are taking antibiodics for Giardia and hoping we feel better soon! At the north park entrance we said some sad goodbyes to Hurmet and had some final milk tea and stale pastries in a beautiful Kazakh ger. Our Russian jeep and two Kazakh drivers were waiting and we rallied off to Ulgii. This time it only took 4.5 hours to go the 150km. That night we stayed at the traveler’s guesthouse and had a much needed shower and rest.