Meg Noble Peterson

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

Category: Mongolia

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

 

IT’S OFF TO THE NAADAM FESTIVAL AND THE KHORGO VOLCANO!

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.

ONWARD THROUGH THE ROLLING STEPPE OF CENTRAL MONGOLIA

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. 

 

 

“LOOKING FOR A ROAD, WE’RE LOOKING FOR A ROAD!

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.

MONGOLIA!

I interrupt my recounting of our trek in Nepal last December with breaking news….I’m headed for Mongolia on July 3rd! People keep asking me, “Why are you going to Mongolia?” Just open a history book and start reading the fascinating rise of Chingghis Khaan (or as we say, Genghis Khan), the 12th century founder of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in history. Some call him the most brutal ruler in history and others call him The Lawgiver. Certainly he was a man of action, uniting numerous tribes and conquering everyone in sight. Then move on to the exploits of his grandson, Kublai Khan, the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. You won’t know where to stop!

I have been fascinated with the recent history of this faraway country, which has evolved into a present-day democracy sandwiched between China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. It has been said that over the past 2000 years, there is possibly no other place on the planet that has exported as much history as Mongolia. And now, at hardly more than three million people it has retained its peaceful nomadic culture twenty years after the Russian occupation, juxtaposed with a new technological insurgence in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. And it is determined to take charge of the development of its own rich resources. All this helped along with a 98% literacy rate and a reputation for unsurpassed hospitality. Pretty amazing.

Four years ago I heard about Bolormunkh Erdenekhuu from my friend, Terri Pedone. They had met while birding at Hawk Mt., PA., on the Kittatinny Ridge, a great migratory path for the raptor birds. She raved about this young man, a superb ornithologist, and put me in touch with him. After several efforts at planning a trip to  the mountains, lakes, and wide-open spaces of this beautiful country, we finally put a trip together. Joining us is another dear friend, Tamara Blesh, whom I met at the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala, India, in March, 2007. She’s a librarian from Maine and introduced me to teachers in Ladakh at the various schools to whom she delivers books every year.

I look forward to relating a most unusual trip, spent camping or living in Gers along the way as we explore Mongolia by jeep, camel, and horse…with a little swimming and hiking for good measure. And don’t forget the eagle hunts and racing during the Naadam Festival. We will be starting in Ulaan Baatar and traveling west to the Altai Mountains and Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We are forgoing the Gobi Desert (too hot!) but instead will be going to the Great Mongolian sand dunes. Stay tuned….

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