Hello all! I’m here!
After nearly two days in transit, I finally arrived in Ulaanbaatar late Monday night. I was picked up at the airport by a really nice small man with virtually no English who took me out for Korean food and told me to get a Mongolian boyfriend. Then I got picked up by my boss; it had apparently been decided that the hostel I booked was not acceptable so I should crash on her couch until such time as I could fly out to my future home in Khovd City.
Khovd, for those of you whose Central Asian geography needs brushing up on, is on the other side of the country from the capital Ulaanbaatar. Most people elect to fly because the alternative is to drive. I had heard about the overland trek to Khovd—a two-day, thousand-mile journey over unpaved roads that suck and paved roads that suck only marginally less. It is, by all accounts, a mind-bendingly brutal trip. So of course when my boss said “We’re driving to Khovd tomorrow, do you want to come instead of flying?” I said “Totally,” mostly because I wanted to see how mind-bendingly brutal it is for myself. And also because nothing says “Welcome to Mongolia” like a spontaneous roadtrip.
So the next day, eight of us—four adults and four kids under the age of 11—packed ourselves and our stuff in a single Land Cruiser and headed out of UB. It was here I got my first experience with Mongolian roads: this one was paved, and that’s about all that can be said for it. “This is the nicest road in Mongolia!” said my boss, as a giant pothole cracked my head on the ceiling. “Is it now,” I said, as we fishtailed off the road to avoid another one. “It’s only two years old, but bad winters mean potholes,” she said, as we bounced back onto the road and immediately lost the front of the Land Cruiser in a rut. “You don’t say,” I said, as we swerved into the other lane to skirt around the gaping maw of what was not so much a pothole as it was the cavernous entrance to the deepest circle of hell.
And then the road ended. And didn’t come back for some 24-odd hours, so we bounced along unmarked dirt roads and all there was to see was steppe and sky and yurts and all the horses, yaks, sheep, and goats one could ever hope to scare out of the trail. Insider tip: if you ever need to scare sleeping camels out of the road, the secret is to roll down your window, pull out your camera, shove the top of your body out of the Land Cruiser and yell “HELLO, CAMELS!” at the top of your lungs. Camels are not fond of this.
We drove for ten hours the first day and fifteen hours the second day, with occasional breaks for noodle-making and peeing, both of which take place wherever and whenever the urge strikes you. I was told: “You think you have freedom in America, but there are too many rules. In Mongolia, have real freedom. You can pee wherever you like.” Chew on that, John Boehner.
In the past 48 hours, I have tried camel’s milk (weird) and fermented mare’s milk (weirder). I have tried numerous questionable meat products. I have crossed the open steppe and the Altai mountains in the back of a car. It’s going to be an interesting year.