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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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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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.

 

Central Mongolia

As we headed north, from the Gobi to Central Mongolia, the landscape changed drastically and reminded me a lot of Colorado. There were rolling hills, rivers, mountains, and forests. We saw thousands of animals a day and every animal looked so healthy, especially the horses. The camels were replaced with yaks, cows and ginormous birds. A cold front rolled in and the temperature was around 2 – 11 degrees Celsius. Similar to Colorado the weather seemed to change quickly, it will be a cold rainy morning and sunny afternoon. As we drove through various villages we searched for a post office, but after attempt number 4 failed we waited for our next opportunity.

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On day 7,  we left for a 2-day horse trek down the Orkhon Valley to visit a nomadic family. The horses were small and well trained. They were a bit skittish of shadows and trash (the trash is another issue entirely). We rode to the Tsutgalan Waterfall which was formed by unique volcanic eruptions and earthquakes about 20,000 years ago. Nick swam with the locals in the freezing river (a little too close to the 24 m drop). We rode up the valley in beautiful weather and enjoyed the magical scenery.

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After 4 hours of riding we reached the family’s ger, bathed in the river, played games with goat and sheep ankle bones and entertained their 2 young children. Throughout the trip, we have fallen asleep to the sounds of baby camels crying, dogs barking, goats farting, and horses neighing, but tonight it was the sound of children howling like wolves. We returned on the horses the next morning and made our way back up the valley in the rain. We stopped for salted yak milk tea and made our way back to a family ger. This family ger has the most beautiful alter as the family man is extremely religious. I went back out on the horses to visit another waterfall while Nick rested his poisoned stomach.

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We left Orkhon Valley and after a few hours came across paved roads for the first time in almost 7 days. Our wonderful guide, Oyuna, asked if we wanted to see, what we thought she said was a pillar rock. Turns out she said penis rock (even better). In a valley, which represents a vagina, there is a small rock shaped like a penis where women come to worship in hopes of increasing their fertility.

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A few minutes down the road is Erdene Zuu Monastery. This is a beautiful compound made up of 108 stupas holding 3 old Tibetan monasteries built in 1583 and a newer monastery built in the 90s. This is worth the stop. There were so many paintings, statues, and block printings of various Buddhas and protectors. I learned about Shri Devi, the only female protector who destroyed all of the evil in the world by sleeping with the devil, killing him, and finally eating her own child that she made with him. I also learned about the only female Buddha, Tara, who has 7 eyes. Buddhism is so complex and I look forward to learning as much as I can. Outside of this compound you can walk to the ruins of the old capital, Karakorum. In the mid-13th century, Chinggis Khaan established a supply base here and his son ordered the construction of a proper capital. Excavated by a German exhibition in 1998, the foundation of the great hall is on display. We left the old capital, stopping at the 3 empire statue and headed to Tsenkher hot springs.

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At the hot springs, we stayed at a tourist ger camp for the first time as this is one of the only ways to experience the sulfur hot springs. We felt extremely removed from the local community and missed fermented dairy products, but did enjoy the luxurious amenities (shower and charging outlets). The springs were relaxing and we hiked up to the source where the water comes out of the ground at 86 C and is bubbling. We left the next morning and stopped by Taikhar Chuluu Rock, Chuluut Gorge, and hundred branched tree (holy tree). As we moved north toward the white lake, we noticed more mountains, larger trees, pigs (making more pigs), and pines.

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After the town of Tariat we left the paved road (much enjoyed for the 100km we were on it) for the white lake. As we moved up the mountain pass on a bumpy road (our vehicle almost sideways), we approached an ovoo (rock or wood pile to show direction or worship) then moved over the pass to see an enormous glistening lake. The Great White Lake (Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur) is 20 km long and was formed by volcanic lava damming the Suman River. This lake reminded us of Lake Champlain, only undeveloped and pure. Our ger camp was located meters from the water’s edge and we woke up the next morning to the sound of seagulls.

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We hiked into Khorgo Uul, a 200 m tall extinct volcano that erupted 7,000 years ago and visited various caves on our way back to the lake. We had a relaxing afternoon reading in the sun and swimming in the cold water. The diverse landscape of Mongolia continues to amaze me. Our group played canasta before bed and we woke up sporadically to the grunts of yaks bashing into our ger. (Don’t let their beautiful dog cow combination fool you, if you get too close, they’ll try to charge you. I know from experience.)

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Touring the Gobi

There are a variety of ways to explore Mongolia, therefore Nick and I have decided to do a combination. We started with a structured tour through our hostel exploring southern, central and northern Mongolia, then will trek with a non-English speaking Khazak guide through the west, and last, camp and navigate the central on our own. We began with a 16 day tour as this made economical sense and was much easier! We did not have worry about driving 10 hours a day on barely existing dirt roads, getting lost or vehicle malfunctions.

We left Ulaan Batar and headed toward the middle Gobi. Within minutes of leaving the city we got a glimpse of the true Mongolia. We saw thousands of “free range” camels, horses, goats and sheep wandering around and sleeping on the dirt path of a road. We had no idea that this would become a daily norm. We stopped for traditional handmade noodles a family restaurant (all restaurants are family restaurants it appears) then headed to the white stupa.

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The white stupa (Tsagaan Suvarga) are white limestone rock formations approximately 30 m tall. This is a spiritual area for locals and reminded Nick and I of the Utah desert. Although a “tourist stop” we quickly learned that the meaning of this is the opposite of that in China. While at the white stupa we saw 2 other individuals and no one else hours prior to or after leaving the area.

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After, we arrived at a family ger where we had salted camel milk tea and fermented camel milk. Little did we know that throughout our trip we’d be consuming mostly camel, yak, horse, goat, and cow dairy products. We spent the evening watching the moon rise and listening to baby camels cry for their moms’ to return from the pastures.

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On the second day, we ate breakfast while listening to the goats fart, then headed to the south gobi. We hiked in Yol Valley, a protected area since 1965. This beautiful gorge is one of the few places you can see ibex in the wild. There is a small museum at the entrance where there is some interesting if not well done taxidermy of Snow Leopards, Gazelle, Ibex, Eagles and Lynx. This is the first place where we saw westerners traveling on their own via motorcycle. We walked to our ger camp and then explored the surrounding mountains. This was such a peaceful evening in the foothills of the middle beauty overlooking the emptiness of the desert. We ended the night drinking vodka with our wonderful driver Nasa (when you can’t communicate, drink).

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The following day we left mid morning for the sand dunes of the Gobi. The “roads” to Khongor Eels (Khongor Sand Dunes) are quite bumpy and anyone with back issues should beware! Legend says that a queen was exiled to the mountains where she was given a huge rock mirror, then a warrior named Khongor (pronounced Hunger) rescued her, she shattered the mirror creating the sand dunes. After a 30 minute hike we reached the top for sunset, however unfortunately it was rainy and cloudy (although the locals say rain is good luck).  We returned the next morning for sunrise and slightly nicer weather and the view at the top was breathtaking. We ran along the untouched ridge and could hear the static electricity from the sand sliding, making the sound of a plane mid flight. The view of the sun breaking through the clouds and the perfectly sculpted dunes will stay with me forever.

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The family we stayed with while next to the dunes were extremely welcoming. Upon arrival we were greeted with snuff tobacco, salted camel milk tea, cheese curd and tobacco (to hand roll cigarettes). Their ger was decorated with photos of family, the Dalai Lama, and Naadam Festival. We met the family cat and learned how to make hand made noodles. While stretching behind our ger, a little girl named Bouyna came over to join me. Although we couldn’t communicate we had a blast and spent several hours together. It’s funny how easy it is to connect with children, there are no unspoken barriers that need to be broken. While I played with Bouyna, Nick played volleyball and Mongolian wrestled her two older brothers.  The family took us on a camel ride which was a new experience, but definitely made us feel like tourists.

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The next morning (as mentioned above) we returned to the dunes for a beautiful sunrise and then drove toward the flaming cliffs. On the way we stopped in a small village for lunch, although in the states this town would seem abandoned, it was alive and well. We checked out the local school and (Nick) enjoyed steamed and fried Mongolian dumplings. The flaming cliffs are one of the largest tourist attractions and we encountered a total of about 10 other tourists. The flaming cliffs are known for the  world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs in the early 1920s. Over 100 dinosaur skeletons were unearthed from this location. We stayed at a family ger nearby and watched camels drink from the watering hole, modern herders use their motorcycle to move camels to the pasture and we checked out the local Gobi trees. That night we gazed at the Milky Way while listening to the guard dogs bark all night.

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Although we did not spend time with this family, the man of the ger camp showed us how he distilled goat milk to make alcohol. It is a home made distillery that distills any fermented milk. After tasting some milk alcohol, we left camp and hit the windy dirt road. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful river (although looking back, semi-polluted) to swim, bath and wash clothes. Our driver cooked us tradition Mongolian barbecue which consisted of heating rocks in a fire then placing them in a pot of onions, potatoes, carrots, water, goat meat, salt, and pepper. The pot begins to boil and you place it over the fire or burner for another hour. This was a delicious meal and enjoyed in the openness of Mongolia’s plains.

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Next, we headed to the Ongi Khiid Monestary which was destroyed in the 30’s by the communists. Only the foundations of a once elaborate Buddhist complex remains. After a short drive, we arrived to the family ger, where Nick promptly lost 2 games of “the finger game” and had to drink two full bowls of fermented mares’ milk. We were called outside and Nick helped herd the goats, then we both helped with the milking. What a cool freakin’ experience! Although we only collected a bucket of milk each, while the family woman collected 5, we were covered in goat milk and smiles. We enjoyed a red sunset with a view of horses that seemed to last forever. There are few places in the world where in every direction you look, you have an unobstructed view of the horizon.

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Ger Rules

– When approaching a family ger beware of dogs!

– When entering the ger, step completely over the threshold and watch your head! If you accidentally trip entering the ger, you are bringing good luck to the family. If you trip while exiting the ger, you are taking away their good luck. If this happens, collect dried animal droppings outside of the door and re-enter placing them in the fire.

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– Enter the ger clockwise (left) and sit on the west side. The ger door always faces south and it is disrespectful to sit in the north (this is where the man of the house sits). It is improper for women to sit on the floor so sit on a small stool when available. Men should cross their legs while sitting on the floor to avoid pointing their feet toward anyone. Men are always served first.

– Never pass anything or walk between the middle 2 support beams. Do not lean against these beams as it means you’ll be burdened with heavy weight in life.

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– When receiving salted milk tea (camel or goat), fermented milk (mare or camel), tabacco snuff, cheese curds or stale pastries, accept with your right hand while supporting your right elbow with your left hand. Learn the finger game to decide who must finish the entire bowl of fermented milk and enjoy!

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– When drinking vodka, the person who first serves, will always serve. Accept supporting your right elbow then dip your right ring finger in the vodka and flick three times offering it to the sky gods.

– When sleeping in a family ger the women should sleep on the west side and men the east. Your feet should always be pointing toward the south (door) and if you are in the north your head should point toward the alter and feet away from the alter.

DCIM101GOPRO

– Never hang anything on the center rope as this is made of deceased animal hair (camel, horse, sheep, etc.) and is sacred.

Helpful phrases:

– Sain bain uu (hello)
– Sain uu (hello to children)
– Bayathla (thank you)

*The phonetic spellings of Mongolian words are inaccurate and hard to pronounce. Most k’s are silent and in most phrase books, thank you, pronounced bayathla is spelt ba-yar-la-laa. It’s hard to know when you are pronouncing something right, so listen to the locals.

Ulaanbaatar

Flying into UB was unlike anywhere else I have flown to. We flew over vast mountainous land and ongoing plains. We could see no car lights, buildings or roads, then all of a sudden, our landing gear went down. We arranged a $15 pickup to Sunpath Guesthouse and were welcomed to the country with blaring Mongolian hip hop music and learned how to buy a cigarette through the window of your vehicle from a neighboring car. It was interesting to see the inconsistency of driver side seats as half of the cars are imported from Japan and the others from Korea. Nick and I were on our way to a 45 day adventure.

UB

We spent time exploring the city, walking to the Genghis (Chinggis) Khaan Square and running errands. We headed to the top floor of the State Department Store to purchase a local sim with 5GB for $13. Although the 3 workers at Mobicom barely spoke any English, the process was easy. I was shocked by how large the department store is and the variety of goods they sell. (If you want peanut butter for trek buy it here, as you won’t find it at the local grocery stores.)

gk

We took the number 7 bus for 500 T ($.25) and headed to immigration, as any US citizen planning to stay more than 30 days must register. While on the bus, we noticed a young local lady handing the older bus driver a baby, he stood up and took a seat with the baby in the back of the bus. The women took off her purse and started to drive, we loved this shift change! Although immigration was only a few miles away, the bus took about 45 minutes each way and the process took about 1 hour. We needed photo copies of our passports, passport photos, 1,600 T ($.75) and a lot of patience. Later in the day we stopped by Seven Summits (the outdoor gear shop of Mongolia) for a map and some friendly advice.

The next morning (9 am) we attended morning prayer at Gandan Khiid. After the religious purges of 1937, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Mongolians openly practiced Buddhism again. These temples were built in 1838, fell in 1937 and were reopened in 1994. There are a variety of temples where you can see monks chanting, meditating, eating breakfast and the novices learning the sutras. Migjid Janraisig Süm, the main attraction, displays a 26m tall Buddha and hundreds of images of Ayush, the Buddha of longevity. The large hollow Buddha statue contains 27 tons of medicinal herbs, 2 million bundles of mantras, 334 sutras, an entire ger and furniture. Listening to the monks chant takes over your body and reminds you that everything is okay.

buddha

monk

Some of our favorite eats in UB were Luna Blanca, Pyongyang and Nasmaste. Luna Blanca is Mongolia’s first vegan restaurant and we indulged in delicious Mongolian dumplings (meat free!), kimchi and ginger sesame seed tea. Another great way to end the day is to walk up the steps of the Zaisan Memorial and enjoy the sunset and overlook of the city.

overlook

Overall UB is feels run down, underdeveloped and unmaintained. There are buildings half constructed and abandoned, particulate pollution (caution to all contact wearers), and a present alcohol problem. However, the people are the gem of the city. They are not necessarily friendly or overly excited to see Western tourists but so beautiful and every face tells a story. Drive 10 minutes outside of the city and see a whole other world where there is beauty in the animals, sunsets, desert, mountains, rivers, gers and steps (grasslands).

nasa