Meg Noble Peterson

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

Category: Mongolia (Page 1 of 2)

LAST DAYS IN MONGOLIA

July 27-28, 2017

The sun and the animals greeted us early in the morning on the last full day of our road trip. Not far from the lush permafrost was semi-barren land, once again, and tranquil streams in which the sand-colored mountains were reflected.

Click on photos to start slideshow.

Last call for pancakes, slathered in honey! And strong coffee to help us survive another day of going off-road in search of a short-cut. The scenery was especially splendid, as if to say goodbye in a way that would remain indelibly imprinted on our hearts and minds. Huge granite peaks hopscotched with small piles of lighter rocks that seemed spaced like a temple complex.

Mongolia is being impacted by climate change, which is causing desertification of pasture areas as shown in the following video. You can also read more about it in a recent article in the Washington Post HERE.

More ancient burial grounds rimmed swaths of pasture where hundreds of sheep and goats still grazed. And, nearby, a group of enormous yaks flourished.

I had forgotten how big these animals are! To be on the safe side, we chose a lunch spot a safe distance away. After lunch we saw one very young yak, possibly a newborn, wandering around. His mother seemed to have abandoned him. Fortunately, we passed two herders on horses as we drove away. When we told them of the little fellow, they signaled their thanks and took off to check the animal. Let’s hope they found the mother.

Later on we were treated to numerous groups of horses, much to Tamara’s delight.

Then came the camels. Again, I marveled at these creatures, which were so strangely put together, with their haughty expression and imperious manner.

It wasn’t long before we entered a real desert with windswept dunes and heavy sand, piled like snowbanks, the result of the driest year in a long time. Thus began another discussion about global warming and its deleterious effect on Mongolia. According to Algaa, he had been in this area two months previously and said that there had been pastureland at that time. It had been the worst drought he had ever seen. It didn’t seem possible that so much sand could have accumulated since spring.

By mid-afternoon whatever road tracks had existed were gone, and we were all alone in the vast desert. The drifts were gorgeous to behold, but caused even the van to get stuck.

Again, we all piled out, and twice Algaa had to resort to digging. We walked along, feeling helpless, while Bogie pushed the van. At one point we reached a high ridge and Algaa masterfully maneuvered the van over the edge and down the steep slope. It looked as if it was skiing on its tires. Oh, how I wished my video camera worked, but the battery was dead. It was actually a lot of fun, however, to slip and slide in the sand all the way to the bottom…with utter abandon.

It wasn’t until after six that we got out of the desert and onto the sparsely-grassed steppe. A few gers appeared and the mountains seemed closer. We breathed a sigh of relief and started looking for a stream so we could camp. I ached all over because of the bumping, but a night’s sleep under a starry sky was the perfect antidote.

Our last morning started early as we drove out of the desert and headed for the airport. We were treated to more of the craggy, solitary scenery we had seen the day before, only this was grander and more rugged.

The Uliasti airport is a neat little place. And we enjoyed our wait, mixing with people from various countries. There were several Peace Corps volunteers and teachers, all with an appreciation for the unique gifts one gets from tasting the bounty of another country, thus enlarging their own world. These were interesting, adventurous people, who weren’t afraid to try something new and immerse themselves in a culture totally foreign to theirs. That’s what I love about travel!

This was our farewell to Algaa, and it was difficult. We knew we would see Bogie when he returned to Ulaanbaatar with our heavy items that couldn’t go on the small plane, but we would not see Algaa, again. And he had been a delightful, cheerful, and strong companion throughout our bumpy journey. Bless you, Algaa!

I love little planes. They go close to the ground and you always know the engine is running, for it’s practically in your lap. And you can also see some marvelous scenery…those isolated hills that not even Algaa’s van could penetrate.

Our last two days in Ulaanbaatar were an adventure in itself. Just getting from the airport to our apartment was a new experience neither of us wishes to repeat! We had to locate the owner’s brother to let us in, but we also had no real idea of our address, except that it was in a certain section of the city. And it was getting dark. And, of course, we didn’t know the language. Oh, Bogie, how we miss you! But, then, isn’t it challenges that make life interesting?

When we got settled, our first thought was to try to explore some of the places in this big, complex city that we had missed at the beginning, but it quickly turned into a frantic last minute shopping spree to buy unusual and exquisite handwork for friends and relatives. All of this we did while suffering from extreme heat after coming from the higher elevations. And nothing was air-conditioned! Well, I thought, consoling myself, it’s better for the environment.

We soon realized that the highlight of our journey through Mongolia was not the city and its restaurants and shops and temples. It was the expansive, wild nature of the land; the wide-open plains with their gers and welcoming nomads; the steppe; the mysterious desert; and the mountains.

Nobody could have asked for a more generous, thoughtful guide than Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu, our Bogie, a man who loves his country and knows it in the minutest detail. But his knowledge is not limited to his particular corner of the universe. He can converse about world issues and human relations, and revels in solving present and future problems. He is a real joy to know. And during our month together, he went out of his way to anticipate our needs and be flexible in his plans. In the final hours, Bogie drove me to the airport and stayed with me until my plane left for Seattle at 5 A.M. This man typifies the sort of hospitality and generosity we experienced in Mongolia and will always remember. I look forward to the time I can host him on Whidbey Island and introduce him to the wonders of the Northwest.

~~~~~

Final travel note:

I keep hearing people complain about dreary, cramped, seven-hour plane rides on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, where the only thing you dream about is how soon you’ll be able to get off the thing! Well, after making numerous 20 and 24-hour journeys, this falls on deaf ears, and I feel obliged to give a few tips to the traveler who is contemplating a trip to Asia. Mind you, all the grief is worth it to me, but you might like to have a few details so you won’t complain about simple trips to Europe…even from Seattle.

I think I described a rather pleasant layover I had some years ago at the two Tokyo airports. They were well-organized and had cubicles where, for a few dollars, you could take a shower or catch up on your sleep in a clean bed. Of course, the challenge was to find such services in the enormous terminal, but that just added to the adventure. After spending all your money you could then recline on long comfortable couches in quiet lounges, disturbed only by the snoring of fellow passengers as tired as you were. And if you were lucky you had enough change left to buy a simple sushi after your nap.

Beijing airport is another matter entirely! Sleepless, I arrived at 8 A.M., and endured eight hours of going from one terminal by bus and train to another. Believe me, I was happy to get on the Dreamliner and collapse. It was as strenuous as any Himalayan trek, ‘though it lasted only one day.

After six hours I had been told where to find clean water (Don’t drink it, unless you’re on a desert island and the alternative is death. I did, and had some nasty repercussions), immigration, and how to transfer from terminal three to terminal two. While riding on the train and bus that brought us to the main terminal, I had seen a town totally enveloped in a fog of pollution, There were some lovely gardens and parks, but everyone was wearing a surgical mask. And many of the workers at the airport did the same.

One bright spot was the blessed carts for luggage, which are free everywhere but in the United States. Nobody could negotiate the endless red tape of this airport without them, where one line ends and morphs into another. After about a mile of walking in circles, you come upon the immigration/passport control line. Then you double back once more and wait in the “transfer” line. More stamps. More questions. More small slips of paper to be filled out. Soon you find yourself in the center of the vast terminal looking for the “down” escalator to take you to the bus, which takes you to terminal two. Oh, no, I forgot the previous step, which was to crowd into a train, which went to C-1 from where you could get the transfer bus. Are you confused?

At this point I was nodding off while sitting up, and my neck pain was reminiscent of how I felt on one of Algaa’s road escapades. But I was meeting a lot of interesting, albeit disgruntled fellow-travelers, which lightened my mood considerably. Once I arrived in terminal two I had to wait an hour until the Hainan Airline desks were open. It was packed, but I must have looked half-dead, for a nice lady sent me to the business class line (with a wink), and I was checked in and given a boarding pass immediately. This time I was careful not to lose my baggage tags that checked me through to Seattle. But you don’t have time for that story! Be thankful for small blessings.

I had thrown away the tofu saved from last night’s dinner, since it tasted like cardboard, but food was the last thing I wanted. I couldn’t wait to board the plane and sit back and maybe even crack a New Yorker. I’ve never had a layover where I didn’t even have time to read! Forewarned is forearmed….

A LAKE, A MOUNTAIN, AND ENDLESS SAND….

July 26, 2017

This was a day to remember! It started with an influx of goats into “our” lake, joining us in our morning dip.

And what a satisfying dip that was for me. I floated way out over a rocky bed beneath crystalline water, let my hair float free, and welcomed the heat of the sun. The cows and sheep arrived later, during breakfast. Afterwards, Bogie and I went for a hike, wading to the other side of the lake before heading up a steep incline of black shale and scree.

He ran. I inched my way up the deceptively steep slope, slipping precariously and wishing I had brought my poles. Exposure is something I do NOT like, and I have many horror stories to prove it. Give me trees or big rocks on at least one side and I can climb anything! Put me out in the open with nothing but eternity down below, and I freak. By sheer willpower I reached the top, turned around, sat down, and inched my way toward the bottom. Halfway down I stood up, determined to make my way back, not looking down, but straight across. After all, I had my reputation to uphold, as if Bogie cared. As is the problem with all these hills, they have no trails. I don’t do well on piles of slippery stones.

Bogie traversed the ridge to take pictures, and returned to find me cooling my sore feet in the water, and keeping company with a gorgeous dragonfly. I dared him to swim back to camp and he did, after unloading his gear on me. I must have been a funny sight dragging along, carrying Bogie’s camera, binoculars, clothes, and pack, and wearing his jaunty hat. Our late arrival necessitated a rush to pack up camp and be on our way by mid-afternoon.

Click on photos for slideshow.

Just before we left, one of the nomads approached me with the offer of a long horse ride. I told him it was a camel ride, or nothing! He had been staring at me for some time. I think it was the wild hair that intrigued him. Shortly after leaving, we sped by a beautiful lake. In it shown a perfect reflection of the Tsetsen-Uul mountains. Oops, too fast for a photo. Another scene to put in my memory bank.

We were still in Zavkhan Province and approaching the small town of Santa Margate. Masses of birds—sand martins—were burrowed into the riverbank.The whole colony would congregate in the village on the electric wires in the parking lot of a housing complex, which was surrounded by wooden fences. The houses were close together, each with a different colored roof.

There was a park nearby with statues, one of a camel…which looked like the closest I’d come to riding one on this trip. Evidently, because of the dry weather, the camels are loose on the prairie, or desert, and only the few who are trained for tourists are for riding. I should have taken advantage of the one that came around on our first day of camping! If only I had known.

Now began another cross-country sojourn over the desert, bumping all the way. I learned a very helpful phrase: amaa tat, meaning shut up. Sounds pretty benign, doesn’t it? Algaa taught it to me and said he would use it if I didn’t quit complaining about his driving! I didn’t….Repetitio est mater studiorum.

After stopping for yogurt and milk at a ger, and managing to spill most of it, we loaded up on lamb bones, which everyone ate, but me. Sheep and large cows grazed a few feet from where we rested. While the buying was going on I grooved on the munching sound of the animals eating. They sure keep the grass low! I also noticed how cruel most of the Mongolians were to their animals, especially dogs. They throw rocks and stones at them, behavior similar to that of the Indians and Nepali.

At last our search ended and we arrived at a lush permafrost pasture near a winding stream and jagged mountains. There was a sweet odor permeating the air. Bogie said it was the plant, artemesia, related to sagebrush. Dinner was perfect: homemade noodles and lamb stew, Mongolian-style. Just as we finished, a crescent moon appeared overhead. It was, indeed, a heavenly campsite!

“SEARCHING FOR A ROAD, STILL SEARCHING FOR A ROAD”—DESTINATION: BAYAN LAKE

July 25, 2017

Vanity has definitely gone out the window on this trip! I looked at myself in the early morning. My hair was like a straw bush hanging in my face, my chin and neck were covered with bites, and my legs and ankles were itchy and flaky. This trip was certainly exhilarating, but not good for the ego.

The day was warm and sunny and we all felt better after a leisurely breakfast. I lazed around, listened to Mongolian rap, which I liked a lot, and, despite being chided constantly, continued to sterilize my water with my steri-pen. Bogie went out of his way to prove to me that the water from the stream was safe. I would have none of it. I’d had one bout of giardia. That was enough for one lifetime!

Soon we headed for Zavkhan Province, passing the dam and reservoir where we had tented previously. On the way we visited another ger family, this time from the Dorvod ethnic group. Bogie had gotten hot milk from them in the morning, but, unfortunately, they had no yogurt. In fact, not even the stores had it. They told Bogie that they had come from the southern part of the lake, but were disappointed to find bad grazing…more evidence that global warming has had a disastrous impact on this part of Mongolia.

I can’t believe how excited I was when we reached a very smooth highway, flat land with mountains in the distance, no animals, and very little ground cover. It was nice and peaceful until Algaa decided to go off-road through the bumpy desert. This took us close to a beautiful lake until he suddenly veered left and headed over the open field. What was he doing?

This almost intolerably bumpy road lasted for an hour, until I thought my neck would splinter. By 2:30 we were begging for a water break and a bite to eat. We were also pretty upset with Algaa, who just seemed to be searching for some phantom road in the middle of nowhere. He was totally unperturbed and we couldn’t stay mad for long. Soon our discomfort turned to laughter as we started a contest to come up with the best title for our Mongolian trip and its search for the hidden highways and byways. Bogie spent a lot of time reassuring us that “We are almost there.“ It was as if he were placating his impatient children. I decided to time him. Tuul convulsed with laughter when I announced that Bogie’s “almost there” was forty-five minutes!

We soon came to a real desert, like the Sahara. But, of course, it was another part of the Gobi. All sand and stunning black outcroppings with sand trailing down their sides. I had moved to the backseat, so got no photos…only memories.

Around 5:30 pm we reached a section where huge convoluted rocks rose out of the sand. Algaa stopped and Tamara and I explored closely, walking over the ground stubble and sand until we reached what looked like temples…all made by nature. There were caves we didn’t explore, but found crystals at the entrance and were sure it held stalagmites and all manner of cool formations. It had an Egyptian feel to it. All Bogie could tell us was that it was part of the Margaz Mountains.

Click on photos for slideshow.

A road, at last!! But it was all sand and rather dubious. A mile farther down, stuck in the sand, were some Englishmen in a Prius. Can you believe? They were chagrin and asked for help. Ever-ready, Algaa towed them out of the sand and waved at a young boy way ahead on the road, who had been sent for help. God knows when help could have been found. I wonder where the poor devils are now. I took no photos. They were embarrassed enough.

By 7:30 we had gotten to gorgeous Bayan Lake, a fresh body of water surrounded by sand dunes. It was a bit mushy where we camped, but sandy farther on—the best beach so far. There was a compound of horses and a car with several nomads, nestled high on an adjoining hill.

Thus began an evening of socializing with men of varying ages. They really were a handsome group, including a young boy, who loved the ball and bat that Tamara gave him.

Tamara, Bogie, and I were elected to get dinner and give Tuul a night off. Bogie decided on a rice, potato, and veggie soup, and boy, did we cut and chop! It was massive. We used up all our left-over green veggies, and added turnips, squash, garlic, onions, carrots, and ginger. Really, really good! Naturally, the whole nomad “neighborhood” was invited and sat around on the beach enjoying Mongolian hospitality.

As the sun was setting, the young boy who had received Tamara’s ball and bat continued to pop flies to whomever would pay attention. He was dogged in his persistence and continued long after sunset.

Bogie was in his element…always up for a challenge. Such energy! He and a really large, long-tunic’d nomad decided to wrestle. I thought they’d kill each other, but Tuul just watched and chuckled as they threw each other on the ground, repeatedly, and got up, laughing. There were three matches and I took videos. Here is one. It’s quite dark, but it’s fun to listen to the men talking to each other.

At 11:30, as I finished the dishes and left the party, the stars were starting to pop out. It had been a lovely evening, ending with two sips of vodka and a hug from Algaa. It can’t get much better than that!

CANYONS, LAKES, CAMELS, AND MYSTICAL ROCK FORMATIONS

July 23-24, 2017

We took off early in the morning, returning to Olgii by the same canyon-like gorge, with mountains unfolding upon each other, complemented by dramatic, undulating hills of colored rock and serpentine roads. Click on the photos to start slideshow.

After arriving back in Olgii we had to visit the local market. Naturally. Bogie was a riot! He kept warning me about the danger of pick-pockets and tried to shoo me back into the van. But I stood my ground and survived. I wanted to take in all the local color I could find.

The afternoon ride was gorgeous! We drove through the great lakes depression, passing Khur-us and Hyargas Lakes, as well as navigating more deep gorges before reaching desert-like plains. There were very few animals, and the colors of the rocks on various mountains and outcroppings made the vistas look like oil paintings.

Around 5 pm, Bogie had us stop at Achit Lake for a swim. Another disaster for me! He dived in and I sank down into marsh water, pursued by an army of angry mosquitos and “no-see-ums (that’s New Englandese for tiny black insects you can’t see, but who bite ferociously).

Bogie seemed impervious to the insects, but the pain caught up with him later and he welcomed my benadryl.

After miles of off-road searching we came to a deserted government complex (the district center of Khovd county). There is a meeting here twice a year, but the windows are broken and it looks in total disrepair. The grounds are surrounded by a rickety picket fence and the mountains guard us from a distance. We pitched our tents on a sandy area.

How different the complex looked in the morning! Actually, quite beautiful. We still had no idea what was being stored in the abandoned buildings or where people could hold meetings in such dilapidated structures.

The territory was extremely varied all day, from a few patches of lush pasture to a Gobi desert -type landscape. The large tufted plants are caragana, of which there are fifteen species in Mongolia. All over the bushes we saw what looked like cotton. Not so. It was camel hair. We also went through a few small towns and, of course, stopped for supplies in the local grocery store.

Camels at last…and in abundance! I think they’re so funny looking with their necks making a large dip, coming to an end where two floppy humps begin. And what a face! Haughty, amused, bewildered. Put together by a celestial committee, I’d say.

Now came some amazing gorges and an extensive area that had an undulating clay-like landscape with no vegetation.

We stopped at a huge beach, but it was too windy, so we moved on past several more ger camps until we came upon a deserted beach with tufted grass. A lovely lake stretched beyond a rocky hummock. Camp at last. Too bad there was no sand. And in the desert no less! I attempted to do some washing, but the undertow and rocks were too much for me. Kept me from lingering for sure!

A perfect campsite, a peaceful night, a brilliant sunset.

FROM PRISTINE LAKES TO THE ANCIENT STONE FIGURES AND BURIAL MOUNDS OF THE ALTAI TAVAN BOGD NATIONAL PARK

July 21-22, 2017

Our days were filled with hiking and birding, as well as more practical activities like washing clothes and cooking.

(Click on photo to start slide show)

Bogie and Tuul took off on a birding expedition, so I decided to do my own exploring in the afternoon, climbing a steep hill behind the campsite. It was exciting to be in Kazakh territory! From the ridge I could take in a vast panorama, and watch groups of animals wander by me, while I absorbed the stillness.

When Bogie returned, we started on the evening meal, knowing there would be many visitors from the nearby gers eager for tea, food, and company. I especially enjoyed the complicated making of dumplings, which looked to me like the Tibetan mo-mos I had eaten on previous trips to Dharamsala.

We interacted with some of the same people as the previous evening and, of course, Bogie had to submit to a wrestling rematch with one of the nomads! The man had been sitting around with Algaa much of the afternoon, waiting for Bogie’s return. He lost the contest, again, but, as usual, it was very friendly, reminding me of the enthusiasm with which my young sons used to challenge each other to displays of manly strength over the years. There seems to be a competition in the male that doesn’t quit at any age, and there’s no stopping him. Here is one of the many videos I took over the next few days.

While waiting for dinner I enjoyed listening to Bogie’s recordings of quartets by the Mongolian composers, Jantsan Norov, and Byambasuren Sharav. Lively, plaintive, and, at times, sad. I was also introduced to the music of the pop singer, Javhlan. What an amazing range! Check him out on YouTube. He is now a member of parliament and fighting for Mongolian mining rights, which are being usurped by several western countries. At the airport, when I arrived in Mongolia, I met several Canadian men whose companies were extracting these precious metals. This is an ongoing controversy.

That evening a patrol car came by, driven by a border guard. He was clearly upset that we had stayed an extra day. It only took a few dumplings and some heavy schmoozing on Bogie’s part to ameliorate the situation, but it spoiled our evening plans. By 10:30 I retired, although it was still light.

In the morning I was awakened by a loud mooing. I was sure it was a cow wanting to be milked, but, instead, it was a huge bull. I peered from my tent, not wanting to get in his way as he thundered and roared around the campsite, finally departing for more fertile grounds!

As we were taking down the tents, Algaa threw a few morsels of meat to the birds…possibly vultures. They were huge and black. I can never remember which of the big birds is which! Here is my attempt to take a video of them circling.

Today we headed back in the direction of Olgii. As I’ve mentioned before, the Tavan Bogd region is the western-most part of Mongolia and straddles the border between Mongolia, Russia, and China.

In late morning, not far from another lake, we suddenly came upon a very barren stretch of land in which were worn statues and sharp black perpendicular rocks in rows, near large piles of stone. They were Turkic and Tuvan stone men and stone burial mounds, solitary standing stones, and Kazakh cemeteries. Probably commemorating high officials. These relics range in size from two to six feet in height and can weigh several hundred pounds. But we only saw small mounds and stone images. Faces, hands, tools, and other features are carved into the rock. The stones, and other blank monoliths, are usually a part of massive stone complexes that serve as either burial sites or shamanistic temples. In fact, in 2006 at one burial mound in Bayan-Olgii, the complete mummified remains of a Scythian warrior and horse in full battle armor was escavated.

The statistics vary widely as to the number of such sites in Mongolia. Some say there are as many as 400 and they date back to the Stone Age, and others give 700 AD as their origin. It was fascinating to walk among these isolated artifacts of a bygone era.

We decided to have lunch near a rough-hewn bridge over the Kovd Gol River. It was also near a checkpoint where we stopped to show our passports, since we were very close to the Russian border. It was just a formality, because there were almost no cars and few people touring in the area.

A very pleasant father with his children, about to head over the bridge.

The landscape for the rest of the afternoon was varied and unusual. One time we were going between massive hills that gave me the feeling of pyramids. The rows of grass and rocks looked almost like steps encircling the great structure and often there would be rocks, like cairns, piled on the top. Other mountain ranges reminded me of a row of one-humped camels, black and foreboding, as nighttime approached.

We camped way off road in a charming spot next to one of the small streams leading into a lake. It wasn’t far from the village of Sagsai, where we had met the eagle hunter.

AN EAGLE HUNTER AT LAST!

July 19-20, 2017

I couldn’t believe that we actually visited an eagle hunter and his family! Tamara and I had given up hope, since this was not eagle hunting season. We were aware of this before coming to Mongolia, but were heading into the Kazakh region and Bogie was determined to find a hunter somewhere near Olgii.

We left our ger family early to get a head start. They had been discussing their next move 2,000 feet down the steppe, on August 10th, just before the weather starts to get cold. They wouldn’t be able to return to their summer pastures until the cold wind and snow had abated. Can you imagine packing up your entire home twice a year to accommodate the weather? What energetic, resilient people!

The morning was spent barreling over dirt roads until lunchtime, when we stopped at beautiful Lake Tolbo (means stain) for a quick swim. Well, Bogie did. I’m not big on rocky beaches, so I just enjoyed the waves and the view. We were still in Bayan-Olgii province.

Click on the photos to enlarge and start slideshow.

What a marvelous expansion of sky and earth all the way to the town of Olgii. There was no way I could get the feel of the spaciousness of Mongolia in a photo, so I just sat back and surveyed the rocky cliffs, valleys, streams, grazing animals (not too many because of the sparse, dry pasture lands), and multi-colored, interwoven ups and downs of the landscape.

We rolled into Olgii mid-afternoon and enjoyed our only museum of the trip. It was full of kazakh art, fabrics, sculptures, and myriad cultural treasures. I recognized the town—sprawling, wide streets, low buildings, and little traffic—from the movie, The Eagle Huntress.

By the time we’d finished shopping, it was too late to check at the border patrol, something we had to do before leaving town, so we stopped at a small enclave of gers (the Mongolian equivalent of a motel, one of several in the town), supervised by a gracious young woman, Khuan, who spoke three languages…rather necessary if you live at such a crossroads. Olgii is situated near borders with the Xinjiang province of China and the Altai province of Russia. It is fascinating to read the history of this area over the past hundred years and its relation to Kazakhstan, Russia, and China. Olgii has been a predominately Kazakh settlement since before the creation of an independent Mongolia in 1911.

The next day we headed for Altai-Bogd National Park, and the town of Sagsai, where, unbeknownst to us, Bogie had contacted a well-known eagle hunter, whose father had been one of the most famous hunters in the area. He picked up a fellow in town, who said he could take us to him. What a great surprise! This is not eagle hunting season, so we had despaired of such a meeting. They were so eager to please us that they took off the intricately-woven dust ruffle (fringe) decorating the old man’s bed and gave it to us. I tried to stop them, but to no avail. What a jolly time it was!

We spent an hour with the family and ended up buying some of the hangings that the women were weaving and sewing while we were there.

Leaving with much of this young lady’s embroidery

After socializing, we all went outside to see the birds and a demonstration of the eagle hunter’s expertise. He is the son of the old hunter and has quite a reputation, himself.

Check out this video. It will give you a idea of the surroundings and the various birds.

After leaving our new friends, we drove overland, enjoying striking scenery…mountains of black rock, small lakes and streams, herds of animals, and a plethora of camels.

In this video you can hear how windy it is on the broad steppe.

Approaching the campsite

We reached a more wooded region not far from two lakes, and camped for a couple of days. The whole area is called the Khoton-Khurgan for the lakes.The large lake is Khar Lake. Directly below our site was a peaceful stream. The ambiance was that of a pristine paradise.

As soon as we started to set up camp, members of the two gers close by started coming over, bringing small gifts. It was obvious that they were curious about us. Evidently that Mongolian hospitality was the same in Kazakh areas. The two languages are different, however, so we used smiles and gestures as we served tea (after someone handed us a container of hot milk). We also gave hard-wrapped candy to the children. This was not my doing. It was Tuul’s. We all enjoyed the sociability. Tamara grooved on showing the women photos of her recent trip to southern India (on her computer) and the colorfully-dressed ladies. They developed quite a jolly camaraderie.

Finally, a friend of one of the Kazakh men arrived on horseback and acted as an interpreter. He knew both Kazakh and Mongolian. Bless him!

After dinner, Bogie and Tuul went to visit a family, and we settled in to watch the sunset. It had been a long and varied day. But satisfying. I was surprised when Algaa said, “The roads were very bad today.” No kidding! I didn’t see how either he or Bogie could find their way anywhere. It just seemed to me to be a spiderweb of dirt roads leading over streams and through valleys and mountains. Algaa would take off over a hard, sparsely vegetated meadow and find another road and then another and another…I told him his brain was a combination of GPS and compass.

 

We sat, three friends at the close of the day, wrapped in silence. My heart was full of gratitude as I searched the sky, infinite and all-encompassing. Everywhere I looked, limitless space. I seldom experience this feeling of utter solitude, yet one with the universe. I had never felt so serene, so at peace, so untroubled.

FAMILY TIME AT A GER

July 17-18, 2017

Last night we camped on a high moraine. At one time the entire area had been a massive glacier. Now we were coming out of the desert and racing over the steppes to get to the ger where we planned to spend the next two days. The landscape was varied with a rim of mountains, depressions, and a few distant lakes. It was summer and very hot, and the mosquitoes were out in full force. The towns were almost all abandoned — the nomads had taken their gers and gone to higher pastures.

Click on the photos for slide show…

In the distance was a huge mountain covered by a glacier. It looked as if frosting had been poured on it and allowed to drip down the sides.

Just as we thought it was clear sailing, Algaa took what looked like the only available route up a rocky hill. Halfway up we discovered that our fully loaded van could not make it to the top. Guess what? We all piled out and Tamara and I trudged up the road while Bogie and Tulle helped push the van. Shame on us!

Now what to do? We reached the top, checked the roads ahead, and scrambled back down the shale and scree-laden embankment to where we had begun.

We ended up not staying at this ger, but continued on. It was 8:30 in the evening by the time we had crossed into Bayan-Olgii province and arrived at the ger that was our destination. After being ushered into the main room, we were served the usual milk tea (boiling in a mammoth pan on the wood stove in the center), followed by a delicious meal, heavy on yogurt. It felt as if we were coming home to our Mongolian family. Tamara was overjoyed and decided to stay inside with the family and sleep on the floor. I elected to sleep in my tent.

It was a cold night, but I cuddled up in my sleeping bag and didn’t awaken until I heard a lamb baa-ing outside my tent at 8 AM.

We spent the next day with the family, enjoying the children, plus a few who wandered in from neighboring gers. Bogie set up the extra tent for the children to use. They had a great time playing in and out of it!

The family

The day was a busy one. We gave baseball hats to everyone, as well as plastic bats, balls, and a frisbee. What fun we all had, especially Tulle and Tamara who got right into the games while I attempted to video them.

There was lots to do with the animals and everyone got into the act, herding the sheep and horses and helping with the milking of the cows. I learned more than I wanted to know about animal husbandry and the way the herds were separated and moved around to insure genetic diversity.

I have lots of trouble getting used to the herding, castrating, and separating of the lambs from their mothers to send them over the mountain to prevent inbreeding and keep the flocks diverse…as well as fatten up the mothers. You can see the lambs lying quietly on the grass, immobilized.

When I returned to the ger I watched as our hostess went about one task after another—sweeping, stirring the yoghurt or vodka made from the yoghurt, washing, preparing for the evening meal. She was indefatigable. But she always had time for the children. I loved the way the family dressed and how loving they were to one another and the four grandchildren. I became especially fond of Angie, 14, who wore glasses and loved to curl up with a book, when he wasn’t corralling animals or riding the calves. He hurt his leg, but soldiered on all afternoon. Several neighbors, two of them teachers, joined the group as they were tending the animals.

It was late when we sat down for dinner. A hard-earned meal, indeed. I found it interesting to watch the children sitting quietly, waiting to be given a morsel of meat. No plates, except bowls for us, for our yoghurt. I couldn’t eat the meat, but enjoyed the family and also spent about an hour watching final milking for the day, and the baby cows nursing.

Just before bed, as I was lying awake in the dark, I could hear the sad cries of the sheep. What was happening is that a different group of lambs had arrived, and, of course, were rejected by the mothers, who wanted their own lambs. This, I was told, was part of the weaning process. Each group was “crying” for the other. And the next day there would be another group of lambs vaccinated and readied to be taken to the other side of the mountain and herded by another family. All part of genetic diversity. Necessary, but so heart-rending. I spent a very cold, restless night.

IT’S OFF TO THE GOBI!

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.

THE CENTRAL ASIAN STEPPE IN ALL ITS GLORY

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.

LAKES, RIVERS, AND MOUNTAIN PASSES

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.
Click on photo for slide show.

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.

 

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© 2018 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell