Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia


July 15-17, 2017

It was another bright sunny day as we headed out, crossing the Zavkhan River and entering Gobi-Altai Province, known for its splendid Altai mountains, which are divided into two parts: Mongol and Gobi-Altai. Bogie shared that the Gobi-Altai is a drier desert area, one of the least suitable places for raising livestock, but known for critically endangered Central Asian endemic animals such as the Gobi bear, Backterian (wild) camel, goitered gazelle, Khblan (a type of deer), Mongolian Saiga antelope, and the snow leopard. These animals thrive in secure remote national parks like the Sharga National Reserve.

In the afternoon, we stopped by the town of Altai, a provincial capital nestled between the mountains of Khasagt Khairkhan (11,742 ft.) and Khan Taysher, on the northern edge of the Gobi. Here we bought more groceries, had lunch in a restaurant, and walked around town, admiring the unusual statues, before driving west on a newly constructed paved (!) road to Sharga Nature Reserve.

Click on first picture to show slide show.

We really were in the desert! It was flat and sunny with the usual tufts of dry grass. The mountains were way in the distance and we only saw one or two gers. Now and then we’d come upon beautiful clusters of horses standing in a circle, head to head. Bogie said that this was to get away from the flies. It looked like a football huddle to me.

We also saw groups of sheep and goats, and a few camels, but no yaks. It was too hot!

During these rides we invariably engaged in lively conversation. As I’ve already told you, Bogie has a strong feeling for his country and the problems it faces with the continuing impact of global warming on his people and their livelihood as nomads. He also has an extensive knowledge of birds and wild life, which he shared with us along the way. One of our most interesting conversations dealt with the wild horses, or, as they were known, the Przwalski or Dzungarian horses, the rare and endangered subspecies native to the Central Steppe. They were named after the 1880 Russian explorer, Nikolai Przwalski, who declared the horse a new species, and sent a skull and skin to the St. Petersburg Zoological Museum. There’s a great deal on the internet about this fascinating story of a horse that was near extinction and is now slowly recovering, thanks to conservationists. We didn’t go to the area about 100 miles from Ulaanbaatar where they can be seen, because of the number of tourists at this time of year. Another time….

For the next few days we found a variety of campsites, some in small, beautiful oases with poplar trees, needle bushes, streams, and green grass, and others on rocky, sandy terrain…but it took a lot of searching! And each site had its own special atmosphere.

One morning I awoke to the sound of munching animals, and enjoyed a steady stream of cows and calves parading by my open tent. One had a mouthful of cabbage gleaned from what we had discarded at dinner. It’s a new experience to throw organic waste out onto the grass, knowing that in the morning the animals will have eaten it.

We also had to fight voracious mosquitos in one of the more marshy sites, where we had gone to fetch water. Fleeing from them, we found a rocky hillside near an old graveyard. The graves had mounds of rocks piled on top, and simple markers, or none at all. Scurrying underfoot were adorable lizards with sweet faces and tiny feet. I held one and could feel its heart pounding like a trip hammer against my skin. It was colored like the rocks…gray, reddish brown, and white. Nature’s camouflage.

This was the infamous night when a ferocious wind storm came through the camp. I could hear Bogie and Algaa in the wee hours, hammering more stakes into the lines to keep the tents from blowing away. The next morning the wind had subsided, so we ventured forth, to find the dining tent crumpled on the ground and metal poles everywhere. Tulle and Bogie were in the process of setting up a table and chairs and assembling a makeshift kitchen in the open air. Breakfast under a blue Mongolian sky. How delightful! A first for me.

Collapsed dining tent

Eager to get out of the heat, we continued our one-hundred-mile journey through the Gobi, making one stop in a small town to buy groceries, only to discover that a well-known throat singer resided close by. We walked through town past a wall of typical wooden fences until we found his house.

There we were greeted by Grandma and two daughters and treated to the usual hospitality. We offered a few gifts. Grandma really enjoyed the books.

The throat singer performed for us, and introduced a Mongolian instrument new to me—the two-stringed horse head Morin Khuur. The Morin khuur is a traditional instrument of Mongolia, and used frequently in cultural celebrations. He and his lovely daughter played several tunes—plaintive as well as snappy—reminiscent of our country music.


Jon Pollack, my dearest friend and hiking partner, died on January 13, 2018, leaving a huge void in my life that can never be filled. You may remember that I’ve written extensively in this blog of our adventures over the past nineteen years, and know that he was instrumental in introducing me to the beauty of both the Olympic and the Cascade mountains.

Jon at Cedar Creek, Olympic National Park, 1992

2011 Together at the Lewis River

Jon was a truly versatile human being. His musical talent ranged from early dancing and singing in musical comedy to longtime participation in the Seattle Men’s Chorus. After graduating from Columbia College in NYC, while at the same time devouring every play, opera, or art show that graced the city, he returned to the Northwest and spent every fall and summer backpacking. How he loved the forests of the great Northwest!

Jon at Shi-Shi with the Yellow Line Club 1995

Over the years he hiked every trail in the Olympics and tackled the Cascades, summiting some of the highest peaks in both ranges. In the nineties he and his friends, Dennis Larsen and Pat Ziobron, teamed up to form the yellow line club, adding another friend, Kathy Kelleher, halfway into the game. They used the map handed out to tourists, and every time they finished a trail segment it was marked by a yellow highlighter, thus the name. Yes, they did all 628 plus miles over five years of weekends and vacations, rain or shine.

Summitting Mt. St. Helens 1991

1991 Jon on summit of Glacier Peak, 10,500 ft

In the late ‘90’s Jon started leading difficult backpacking trips in the Cascades and Canada with a close group of friends. He was a strong leader and, especially in my case, an accepting friend. There were several times when he dealt patiently with my fear of exposure on some of the cliff-side trails, especially when we would get lost and have to scramble up a scree-laden incline. I remember his shouting, “Stand up, Meg, for God’s sake stand up!” as he reached for my hand, finally accepting the fact that I was going to crawl up the side of a steep incline because I was too afraid to stand and risk falling backwards.


Jon and I met in 1999 while trekking on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. From the time he helped me remember the final lyrics to De Lovely, I knew we were kindred spirits. We spent the rest of the trail annoying our fellow climbers with show tunes!

Like me, Jon was a theater, opera, and New Yorker addict. We went to the Seattle opera, together, often with two close friends, Christy Korrow and Barry North.  We discussed theater for hours and Jon’s knowledge was encyclopedic. Yes, our interests dovetailed. We were in synch.

At the Seattle Opera 2016

In the summer we hiked from the Olympics to Vancouver Island, and from Assiniboine to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies. I’ve written many blog posts of our glorious sojourns into the wilderness, whether backpacking or just hiking from our campsite. You can read about some of them HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.  Jon is mentioned in so many places on my blog: you can find them HERE.

Click to start slideshow.

Jon was a rare man. He faced his imminent death like my son, Christopher. He saw what was coming, he fought it, but in the end he accepted it with grace and gratitude for the varied and rich life he had experienced. At 61 he still had a lot of exploring and living to do. But a virulent cancer consumed him and within eight months he was gone.

It was Jon’s inclusive spirit, his joie de vivre, his hilarious sense of humor, his optimism, and his ability to help all those who were fortunate enough to cross his path that drew us to him and will live on within us.

Some years ago I introduced Jon to the beauty of New England—Maine, Vermont, and the vagaries of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On our first  climb up the Randolph side of Mt. Washington to Crag Camp, he got his first taste of the rough and boulder-strewn trails in the Whites. They weren’t the predictable switchbacks of the Olympics. In frustration he turned back to me and yelled, “Meg, where the hell is the bloody trail?”

“You’re on the trail, Jon. You’re on the bloody trail….”

And from now on you will be with me on every step of any future trail I tackle in your beloved Northwest. I could never find my way without you.



July 14, 2017

Unlike the previous two nights, last night turned freezing, making me glad for my down vest and superb sleeping bag. But by 10 AM, when breakfast was over (Tamara cooked her special pancakes!), it was warm and sunny once again.

Tamara Blesh on the way to making pancakes

We spent the morning in Zavkhan province, which is named after the Zavkhan River. Its headwaters originate in the southern foothills of the Khangai mountains and flow through the Great Lich Mongol Sand, finally entering Airag and Khyargas Lake in the Great Lakes Depression. This depression is the home of several large, saline lakes, which have no outlet.

Scenes along the way…click on the photos to start a slideshow…

In the afternoon we visited Otgontenger National Park, where the highest peak of the Khangai mountains is located. This snowcapped summit is called Otgontenger and is a holy mountain worshipped by the entire nation.

From there we drove down along the Bayant River, one of the tributaries of the Zavkhan River. We stopped by Otgon Soum to stock up on fuel and groceries, and enjoy, once more, those yummy ice cream bars.

Can you find the sheep in this picture?

Soon after, we entered the steppe zone from the mountain steppe. Bogie pointed out many indicators of this new area: the lynx, (shiluustei), Mongolian lark (Melanowrypha Mongolia), and Krylow’s grass (Stipa Krilowi). Wherever you find these species you are in the Central Asian steppe grassland. As we approached the river valley, we started seeing the plants that grow in the Gobi, such as Caragana bushes, Allium onions (Allium pollyrhizum) and many more. Be patient with my spelling. It’s a bit too technical for me, especially in Mongolian!

After a lot of off-road searching, we stopped at the shore of a rippling lake that reminded me of Puget Sound in Langley, with its long strip of rocky land on the opposite side facing the beach. We had time for a swim before we finally camped at Tayshir dam reservoir.

Of the ten dams in Mongolia, this is the biggest. Bogie told us a great deal about the lake-type ecosystem in this semidesert zone of western Mongolia. Here is a link to a scientific journal article about it. Some of you biologists will find it fascinating.

At the close of the day, we set up camp

and enjoyed another spectacular sunset.


I hope you are all taking some time to groove on the holidays, enjoy your family, and make plans for what I hope is a healthier, more thoughtful, compassionate, and peaceful year ahead.

I seldom put personal information or political opinions in my blog, but I’ve received so many wonderful year end reports from friends, who press me for basic information, that I’m sending them and you the sketchiest of news. This is a first for me. I’m not known for brevity.

My youngest son, Robert, is off to Shenzhen, China, on business, leaving his wife, Gwen, in Orlando, Florida, to hold down the fort for their golf entertainment enterprise, Glowgear. My daughter, Martha, has returned to her home in Denver, Colorado, after three months of teaching Essential Somatics in the U. K., Ireland, and Australia, to be on hand when her daughter, Cally, gives birth to a second son in January (what does that make me…a great grandmother, again? Can’t be!). I shall be joining the Denver wing of the family for Christmas while Cary and Tom are staying in Langley, with the school farm program and Tom’s house building at the Upper Langley affordable cohousing community going swimmingly. Grandson Adam and his girlfriend, Allie, are in New Jersey tearing up cyber space with various innovations. Grandson Thomas, a prolific writer of fantasy fiction, will greet me in Denver before he makes his way to Portland, Oregon, to embrace a new job and that soothing winter rain. Cary and I miss going to Nepal, but the holiday season brings a lot of wonderful connections with stateside family, friends, concerts and theater that we don’t find trekking in the Himalayas.

And to all of you…a wonderful Christmas and jolly holidays. And try not to behave yourselves….

(Stay tuned for more reports of my trip to Mongolia last summer!)

View of Puget Sound from Cascade Avenue in Langley, WA on a sunny December day.


July 12-13, 2017

We stayed another day by White Lake, which was relaxing, while giving us time to do some laundry and have another bracing swim. It was warm and sunny, but windy beyond belief. I looked like Donald Trump in a windstorm, and finally gave up trying to look glamorous…or even presentable. It wasn’t to be!

The water was lovely, but I got a little tangled up in the weeds at the shoreline, something that always grosses me out. I can’t help wondering what little critters might be waiting to take a nip out of a toe or two.

The food was very good, and Tuul’s cooking superb. Tamara and I tried to help and at least do some of the chopping, but the “kitchen” was a complicated set up and one that Tuul could navigate much better than either of us. She finally let us help with washing dishes, but it was strange getting used to washing in cold water and rinsing in hot. When in Rome….

We had salads and fresh veggies for many days until we ran out of the supplies we had stocked up on in Ulaanbaatar. And, of course, there were omelets, pasta, rice, and a variety of soups loaded with lamb. I was amazed at how long the meat could keep without refrigeration, but I had no ill effects.

Breakfast was always a surprise. Varied and jovial.  I wish I could understand the jokes!

After breakfast Bogie and Algaa hightailed it to the nearby ger of some friends to watch the national wrestling finals on TV.

Tamara spent the time reading; the children found plenty to do; and one was camera-shy.

I scouted the nearby hills for some exquisite views of the lakes and nearby terrain.
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When I returned, the men were still glued to the TV, so I helped myself to the best yoghurt of my life, and lay down to take a nap on one of the beds lining the ger. Immediately, Bogie reminded me never to point my feet toward people or inside areas. In this case they must be pointed south, toward the door. Feet are considered symbolically unclean and should not be pointed toward a person or a special place like an altar, and the soles of the feet should not be exposed, directly, to another person when sitting down on the floor. This was not new to me. Years ago I was made aware of this custom while meditating in a temple in Bangkok, Thailand.

I was awakened by shouts of ‘Bravo’ from Bogie. The winner of the tournament had been announced and was Sodnomdorj from Khuvsgul province in northern Mongolia. For those of you keeping track of my journey, know that many places have several spellings, depending on the local dialect.

I find it difficult to describe the next few days as we went overland through streams and up hills that I never imagined a vehicle could navigate. It was like being on a roller coaster and never knowing what would appear around the next hill. I finally had to stop sitting in the front, for it was too scary going up inclines that tilted the van at what looked to me like a 45-degree angle. Then we’d go close to a cliff and head over and down into deep ruts or a series of boulders, and tilt the other way. Algaa didn’t even try to avoid them. He just rode over them. He used two extra gears, which were situated to the right of the main gearshift, with breathtaking skill and calm aplomb. Tackling the width and breadth of this vast country by vehicle is not for the faint of heart. But you sure do have an intimate connection with the land! I only wish that I could have done the trip by horseback. That would be the ultimate dream trip.

We drove westward along the Khoid Kerk River. This river flows into White Lake and is the main source of its water. On the way we passed through Tsakher Soum, which is similar to our county, and the smallest administrative unit in Mongolia. Farther upstream, we reached the Nukhen Davaa mountain pass.

Since we left the monastery in Kharkhorin, we had been traveling in the Khangai mountain range. It is one of four main mountain massifs, the others being Altai, Sayan, and Khentii. We crossed the highest ridge of the Kangai mountains into Zavkhan province. It’s one of five western provinces.

After lunch we stopped at a mini-mart in a town that looked like the wild frontier, fences and all. Once again we splurged on the best ice cream I’ve had in ages…chocolate covered bars. I had finally gotten over my reticence about eating such dairy products in Asia.

Looking for streams and fresh water and a camping spot became our late afternoon activity. We’d see a place and head off-road to explore the territory. We seldom met anybody, except for an occasional Prius stuck in sand or mud (they cost about $4,000 here…worth moving to Mongolia, eh?), driven by a young man thirsting for adventure. That has to be the only reason anyone would chance driving a small car on this turf. Needless to say, Algaa was a willing helper, and he pulled several out of the sand and mire and sent them on their way.

During our search we stopped at a high spot to stretch our legs.

We bumped into some Mongolians with whom we shared picture-taking. It was great to run around the hills. We felt like kids enjoying a family outing. The sun had abated and the air was fresh and cool.

That evening we camped at the foothills of Nukhen Davaa, an area that is dominated by an Alpine meadow ecosystem. There we walked through tall grass that waved in the wind and had shimmering white tops in the setting sun.



July 10-11, 2017

I never tire of the morning view from my tent. And I’m never sure whether I’ll be greeted by a horse, a sheep, a sunrise, a panorama of looming mountains, or all of the above. But I do know one thing…it will be peaceful.

On our way to the first stop of the day, a family ger, we passed the winter camp I had seen the day before on my hike, and enjoyed interacting with a local herder.

This prompted a long discussion about the history of wild horses (the most famous one, the Przewalski, is being re-introduced into Mongolia) and the present-day practice of capturing a horse, breaking him, and sending him into a “pack.” The pack will decide its territory, but it has to be within the area allotted to that particular herder and his family. This system of organization is not strictly legal, but has been decided upon over the years by the various families. Packs of horses have one stallion and 20-30 mares. There are also some geldings, mostly ones that the herders or racers ride. You geld a horse when it reaches horse puberty…age four. We were to see many such packs, several of them standing with their heads together, reminding me of a football team in a huddle.


Just over the hill we spotted a group of gers. What a delight it was to be ushered into the large round room and treated to milk tea, pressed yogurt, various kinds of goodies made from yogurt, real yogurt, and, sometimes, popcorn.

A typical ger is covered with two layers of canvas with an insulation layer of felt. It can be taken apart in less than an hour and moved to a different location…south in the winter and north in the warmer months. It is supported by a collapsible wooden frame and ropes made from horsehair and cinched around the perimeter to hold it together. The use of gers is still very much a tradition in central Mongolia. You can see why. They are useful and incredibly versatile.

We moved to the ger next door and were shown where vodka was made from yak yogurt. Drying curd hung from the ceiling  A motorcycle was parked outside. Some herders use them instead of horses. Notice the sheep’s head on the back, probably for dinner.

We had already been introduced to Mongolian hospitality and kindness, so it was not a surprise when Algaa slowed down and stopped by the side of the road to help another motorist in trouble. This happened twice in the next two days and both times he knew the driver…one a relative and another his best friend. Small world. Each time he assisted them it gave us a chance to chat with the clients and swap stories from such places as Germany, California, France, and Holland. These exchanges are one of the reasons I so enjoy travel in faraway places.

Algaa was a character, indeed! He usually dressed in pants and an undershirt, or on the hot days, no shirt at all. He was a phenomenal driver and could talk on his cell phone while negotiating the most arduous “roads.” His van was his baby and he cared for it each day, washed it in the streams, and kept the inside spotless. He even slept in it. And his sense of humor was one of his most endearing qualities.

The annual Naadam Festival across the vast grasslands of Mongolia is held in every village and city on the 11th and 12th of July, coinciding with Independence Day. It’s a colorful spectacle when competitors show off their skills in wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

Cheer up Bogie! Here are a few old-fashioned folks!

Everyone in town dons the finest apparel (del, meaning traditional cloak) and congregates out of town. Bogie was lamenting the fact that it used to be so much better when everyone came by horseback, but now shiny new cars are crowded everywhere and spoil the atmosphere. (Cars are much cheaper in Mongolia than the west due to the economy.) At 29 he’s already sounding like us old folks!

It was lunchtime when we arrived outside a small town near the Tarjat River, and a race was just finishing up. Horses came pounding up a wide grassy “highway,” their riders urging them ever faster by rhythmically using a gentle switch, first on their hind quarters, then on their necks. What excitement! Four-year-old horses racing over ten miles to the finish line. They kept coming even after the winners were declared and the celebration had begun. I missed out on most of the photos for lack of time, so I just enjoyed the drama and hoped I’d be present for the next finish. There’s plenty of colorful coverage on the internet.

After the race, we wandered throughout the hot and dusty fairgrounds, past merchants and individual displays of wares, and numerous tailgate parties, until we found the wrestling. Most everyone in Mongolia loves wrestling. It seems to me like the national sport….a bit like our football. During our trip nomads would join us for food or fellowship in the evenings and, inevitably, a wrestle would take place. Bogie was especially adept at this, and I have some neat videos of the men grunting and groaning and throwing each other around with great alacrity.

Here at the festival anyone from the audience who has the temerity can challenge the big guys (and they are big).

Notice the spindly little fellow in the video holding his own with an expert. You can only lose if your elbow touches the ground. It doesn’t matter how many times you get thrown or stumble. I could not believe what the human body endured that day! And don’t you love the way the winner preens and trots around the ring holding up his arms and doing a little dance? I didn’t take a video of the beginning, but it was like a choreographed circle dance with all the wrestlers waving their arms and moving their hips and bodies to the music. And they looked as if they were having a real blast.

Our time at the wrestling match was cut short by the advent of rain, so we rushed to get the tale end of another horse race. Obviously, there was no picture taking this time, because of the downpour. Drat! It was funny, however, to watch three horses neck in neck as they reached the finish line. And the winner had evidently lost his rider along the way, poor fellow. But he won, nevertheless.

We left the festival, reluctantly, and drove down a peaceful highway with rolling hills, rows of electric poles and several small villages.  They were typical of others we had seen: brightly colored houses clustered or built on a hillside in tiered fashion. I found the arrangement rather touching…some in semi-circles and some lining the highway. And many with high wooden fences. The roofs were also bright colored and the design simple, rectangular, and usually one-storied. I saw no fancy or extensive landscaping. Of course, there were no villages or towns when traveling off road. Just small groups of gers.

In the late afternoon we passed a deep canyon rimmed with pine trees, through which the Chestnut River flowed. We were now in the Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park.

That night we camped on the shore of Targat, the wild river. I took a hike on one of the hills overlooking our site.

The next morning we stopped at a super market to buy supplies, as we did, periodically. Take your pick of languages!

Then it was on to Tariat soum, a district of Arkhangai Province. You could see the volcanic debris on the hills en route the famous Khorgo volcano.

The volcano was quite a tourist attraction loaded with Mongolian families clambering up to the rim to get a look at the lake way down at the bottom of the crater.

As the afternoon wore on we went through another resort on the northern shore of Terkhiin Tsagaan, the White Lake. Rental gers nestled along the shoreline and tourist vans dotted the landscape. Groups of people hiked on the rocky hills.

We rode around the lake until we reached its northern shore. The terrain was rocky with small lumps called permafrost. The lumps were rocks covered with lush green grass.  You had to really watch your step as you walked.

There’s nothing like a swim before dinner as the sun makes its way behind the distant hills.


July 8 – 9, 2017

For the next week we traveled to higher altitudes and began to see yaks and rock-covered mountains with patches of poplar and larch trees. As we made our way to Tserleg, the provincial capital of Archangai province, where Bogie’s mother lives, we went through Kharkorin, the center of Ovorkhangai Province at the lower end of the Orkhon River. This is at the easternmost foothills of the Khangai Mountains, where they meet the rolling steppe of central Mongolia. The most famous landmark near the ruins of the ancient town of Kharakorin is Erdene Zuu monastery, the Temple of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and its famous phallic rock.

The history of this oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia dates back at least to 1585 and some say to the 8th century. It has survived centuries of invasion, political shifts, religious purges, and outright murder. The outer wall contains one hundred and eight white stupas, which managed to survive all the purges. The number 108 is very significant to Buddhists. For more information about this beleaguered monastery, now an historical museum, click HERE.

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Near the temple compound, there was a tourist area and everyone wanted to be The Eagle Huntress (see the movie if you haven’t already.)

We stayed for one night at the home of Bogie’s mother. It was here that we were treated to our first traditional lamb barbecue, a very elaborate feast served with a variety of salads, vegetables, and sweets. It was also our first real taste of Mongolia’s legendary hospitality. I’ve never seen anything like it, but was to enjoy the same warm and welcoming atmosphere throughout my journey. As we left we could see Ankush and his cousins enthusiastically playing with the plastic bat and ball that Tamara so thoughtfully carried as gifts for our host families.

Bogie with his wife and family

The day was glorious, with views of mountains, meadows, and animals.

In the late afternoon we set up camp near a clump of woods shielding a pristine, meandering stream. Well, not so pristine. Bogie was furious when he spied debris, especially plastic wrap in the water. He wasted no time cleaning things up and sharing his strong opinions about pollution.

The evening was peaceful…hiking in the mountains, exploring a nomad winter camp, and watching horses as they passed by.

The quiet of dusk. 




July 7, 2017

“WHAT A WONDERFUL FEELING, WE’RE LOOKING FOR A ROAD.” (sung to the tune of Singin’ In The Rain). Yes, a good part of my journey through the heart of Mongolia last July was spent in a Russian van bumping over open countryside, maneuvering between giant rocks, down gullies, and through rivers, in search of the semblance of a road that would take us to sparkling lakes, undulating mountains, exquisite rock formations, and wilderness campsites. Sometimes I felt the van tilt so far that I was sure we would overturn, but our driver, Algaa, whom I nicknamed George, because I could never say his name with the correct inflection, was better than any race driver I had ever seen gracing the tracks of the Nurburgring or Indianapolis. It defined adventure and made me realize how often I employed my New Yorkese as I hung on and yelled, “Oiy Vay! I can’t believe this!” It was truly a thrill a minute.

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In all fairness, there is a super highway, but all the scenic places are off road…and it’s more fun, anyway!

Last July 3rd, just before I flew to Ulaanbaator, I wrote a bit about the history of modern Mongolia and about our outstanding guide, Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu (Bogie). Click HERE to read it. Bogie is an ornithologist, geologist, and engineer all wrapped into one, with an extensive knowledge of the wild life and history of his country. Like about 98% of the populace, he is well educated and aware of the problems facing the world today. He berated the West for its complacency about and complicity in global warming and for its lack of awareness of climate change. And he despaired of what it was doing to the culture and economy of his country. Animals are dying, grasslands are drying up, and nomads are moving to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol, in an attempt to make a living…stretching its facilities to the breaking point. I totally agreed with him, and shared my despair about how the current administration was pulling out of the Paris Climate Change Accord, and also allowing for more emissions from coal plants. I was helpless to explain this craziness and lack of foresight and was heartsick when I saw the condition of the formerly fertile hills and valleys of this nomad culture. Later on in my story I will show you how we got stuck in a sandstorm in the Great Mongolian sand dunes (or upper Gobi) and had to shovel our way out. And we weren’t the only ones!

Our story starts from the picturesque and bustling capital, Ulaanbaatar, on July 4th. Bogie arrived at our rented room on his bike and he, Tamara, and I headed for the main market located in the huge government department store to buy supplies for our trip. Tamara, you may remember, is my friend from Maine, whom I call a “traveling librarian.” At the store we met Tulle, Bogie’s charming wife, who was going to accompany us on the trip along with their adorable four-year old son, Ankush, a live wire, indeed, who was with us the first two days.

On July 8th we started on an adventure that would take us 4,750 kilometers overland through the Noyon Khangai and Altai mountains, Olgii, the Altai Bogd National Park and its lakes, the Kharkhiraa and Turgen mountain area, Achit, Unreg, and Hyargas Lakes, and the Great Mongolian sand dunes. Most of our first day was spent on a paved road, so we had no idea what lay in store for us! After we went off road, we passed numerous small lakes and marshes. The animals that stood in them and the low-lying white puffy clouds were perfectly reflected, doubling our visual pleasure. We were on the steppes with all kinds of grasses—from flowering forbs to feather grass, from spiny clusters to drought-resistant varieties with long Latin names. But there was still a great deal of sand with ripples, not from water, but from the wind.

It was a picture book scene: craggy outcroppings, black rocks, rolling hills, and an occasional cluster of two or three gers surrounded by roaming sheep, goats, and cows. A ger is a form of yurt. The roof is made of straight poles attached to the circular crown.

We camped not far from a nomad family, and it was quite the process each evening to set up.

As we were setting up, two children came by on a camel, offering rides. If I had known that this was my best chance, I’d have hopped aboard. Instead I decided to explore the sand dunes and swamps, which were rife with baby frogs and other tiny aquatic creatures.

We camped in part of the Khugnu-Tarna National Park. All around were small sand dunes and high grasses. In the distance were brown hills and lakes.

After dinner we walked to a sandy ledge where Bogie and his family had a grand time sliding down and trudging back up in bare feet.

As we stood there the moon came up and was in its full glory by the time we returned to camp. Sheep and goats roamed just outside our tents, as on most nights. It was cold and there were beads of frost on the grassy steppes at 5:30 in the morning when I peeked out at the sunrise. A clear white light silhouetted the hills.  Reflections highlighted the marsh. Total silence.


The last day of our trek in the Solukhumbu…

December 17, 2016

We headed out of Bhandar, climbing to the top of this ridge before then descending down to Shivalaya. It was straight up for three hours, past terraced farms and fruit trees all cultivated by farmers whose homes lay destroyed or were in the process of being rebuilt.

We saw different kinds of technology in action… from a parabolic mirror that heats water in a tea kettle, to save on burning wood… to a massive bulldozer creating a road that will forever alter the village as buses and trucks will now have access.

Click on the photos to start slideshow.

The children have simple games. These two children had so much fun sliding down a steep meadow on pieces of cardboard.

As we went through a family courtyard of packed dirt, we stopped to watch two boys playing marbles, expertly flipping the marble off the thumb and index finger. They scrambled about in the dirt like old pros, and gathered others to watch the impromptu match.

The Nepali children are full of energy, and we have observed them playing various games with old balls or rocks, including imaginative forms of cricket or baseball. Kids are ingenious and “make do” with what is at hand. Bless them!

It was a long way up, and we were happy when Jean Jacques, who had left the guest house later, caught up to us. We passed many mani walls, crossed the road several times, and continued up the rocky steps of the trail, with a beautiful vista behind us.

At noon we finally reached the delightful town at the top of the ridge, and had lunch next to some mani walls. The town had sustained damage as we had seen with farms all along the way, but was rebuilding. No one talked in a depressing way. They just kept working and accepting what had happened as part of life. I found it quite distressing to see the big houses in ruins and whole families relegated to squalid shacks on the hillside. I stopped taking pictures after awhile.

After lunch it was up and down and then began a relentless, five-hour downhill. The trail went from flat rocks, often jagged, to big boulders, to smooth clay potholes and water-damaged slides, to walkways next to a precipice.

Jean Jacques overtook us again with his 120 lb. pack and pointed out several large abandoned bees nests that were swinging from a sheer cliff way up high.

They reminded me of the active ones we had seen on the Melamchi trek last year. I loved this part of the trail, enjoying going in and out of the forest with its blanket of pine needles covering the rocky trail.

At last we reached the final grinding switchbacks high above the river. I really was amazed that I didn’t take a header, for we leapt from one boulder to another, wary of every twist and turn that greeted us.

What is a bit disconcerting is that you can see where you’re headed way down below, but it never seems to materialize.

At last—ending on a veritable landslide—we dropped into town. Dusk was fast approaching. Telltale remnants of the earthquake damage were visible in the many tin roofs of the small village.

What a greeting we received when we arrived at the Riverview Lodge! There was Jean Jacques, who had already showered and was waiting to celebrate our achievement with rakshi and dinner. And who could ask for a more beautiful waitress to serve us?

I can’t resist a comment about the challenges of some of our guesthouses. Like this one and the Riverside near Melamchi, the second floor rooms are reached by an outside open flight of stairs. Railings are non-existent, which, for me, is just a continuation of the open trail. This particular place was quite fancy in that it had a western toilet off the courtyard and a shower next to it with water constantly running from an open spigot into a bucket. With the river flowing by, apparently no need for water conservation here.

It was a long and jolly last evening in the mountains! Who cared about the arduous trip home? We’d face that tomorrow….


Continuing with the final days of the trek in the lower Solukhumbu last December…

Dec. 16, 2016

Before leaving Kinja, we discovered that parts of the Shree Buda Kinja Basic School had been destroyed and the library, especially, was in need of books and supplies. The school was in the forest not far from the guesthouse, so we walked there and were able to give money from my friends, Lynn and Robert Rubright. The librarian was overjoyed!

Here is a slideshow of the school:

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After visiting the school, we headed out of town, crossing a long bridge over the river, and then following it up the valley.

It was nice to give our “downhill” muscles a rest for a day as we wound our way uphill through small mountain villages and lush forests. We passed many farms, and one in particular with delicious freshly picked oranges.

Big orange tree

We enjoyed a wonderful rest stop of eating those fresh oranges, learning about cardamom, and relaxing in the sun.

The trail turned steeply up high above the river.

Cittra with his beard shaved

Coming to the top of a steep incline we were greeted by Chittra, whom we hardly recognized, since he had shaved his dark beard. He was a friend of the owner of a destroyed guesthouse complex in the process of being rebuilt by Nepali friends and an Australian volunteer. It was wonderful to see these people all working together.

It was a beautiful place with terraces and forest all around the cluster of destroyed buildings.

When I asked Buddhi to ask the owner if he ever was discouraged, Buddhi indicated that this was not something a Nepal thought about. He said, in effect, that they just picked up the pieces and went on. Quite a telling attitude, I thought. He lives with his family in Bhandar and comes every day to work on rebuilding his property. That’s quite a daily trek!

It was wonderful the way the men cleaned up the half-built dining room, set up chairs and a table, and served us the best dal bhat ever. (I know, I’ve said it before, but since it’s always different, I will say it, again).

Added to the dal we had superb buffalo milk yogurt. I was so full I’m surprised I lasted four more hours up to the lodge. But I was mightily contented.

It’s hard to believe how many steps we climbed. It went on and on ever higher. The views from every angle were glorious and it was fun to watch as we rose above the turbulent river on endless switchbacks.

We had a few downhills before reaching a huge meadow—an amazing expanse of farmland dotted with the remains of large stone houses. In some of the abandoned shells we found tomatoes or rosemary or turmeric flourishing. Obviously, there were absentee farmers tending their crops. There were also orchards and terraced fields of wheat and barley. And interspersed with all this were the ubiquitous mani walls. I still had pangs of sadness when I saw the tin shells and makeshift dwellings where families were living while rebuilding.

At last we were approaching our destination! We had entered the district of Ramechhap, and were warmly greeted at the door by the owner of The Shobha Lodge and Restaurant.  It had been refurbished and was partly rebuilt of wood and aluminum siding. The beautiful young cook, Sujata Pradhan, who is part of the family enterprise, is also a teacher of Nepali at the secondary school for 600 students, located thirty minutes farther up the mountain. We ended up spending time with her and making a donation along with our friends, Stephanie and Jesse King. It will be used to buy books, pens, and other necessary school supplies. She was overjoyed by our gift.

The only other guest that evening was a charming Frenchman, Jean Jacques Quinquis, a retired negotiator for Air France. We would spend quite a bit of time with him over the next couple of days and even meet him for lunch in Boudhanath before returning home. He was one of the nine men we met on this trek, who were traveling alone and had returned to Nepal many times.

Need I say that we slept well?

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