More Adventures in Central Mongolia: Kharkhorin

After our absolutely amazing horse trekking trip to some hot springs, Swiss Friend and I decided to check another piece of Central Mongolian awesomeness off our list, this time heading to Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai aimag. Kharkhorin is the site of the ancient Mongol city of Karakorum, which at one point was the capital of the Mongol empire. As a result, every tour bus doing the close-to-Ulaanbaatar route stops here.

We said a legitimately sad goodbye to the absolutely amazing Fairfield Guesthouse in Tsetserleg, and after much struggle, did eventually find the one man in the whole town who would take us to Kharkhorin for the going rate, rather than the going rate x 5 in foreigner tax. That guy also turned out to be an absolutely terrifying driver, so instead of relaxing for four hours, we spent two white-knuckle hours planning our funerals. In our eagerness to get out of the car, we forgot that we had absolutely no idea where we were staying that night, and as a result had him let us out nowhere near…anything.DSC01099
Cue several hours of 1) us wandering around looking for the ger camp we had arbitrarily picked out of Lonely Planet, 2) not finding said ger camp, 3) finding a hotel playing terrible karaoke music that wanted to charge us exorbitant prices, 4) leaving said hotel, 5) me sitting alone on the side of the road throwing rocks at dogs while Swiss Friend tried to (unsuccessfully) find some other ger camp, 6) me eventually remembering that in our trek to the ass-end of nowhere, we had passed a sign in English advertising Gaya’s Guest House, 7) Swiss friend sitting alone on the side of the road throwing rocks at dogs while I trekked back to the sign; 8) prayers to Zeus that the number on the sign would work, 9) talking to the owner of the camp’s 12-year-old daughter whose English was weirdly excellent, and 10) getting picked up by the pre-teen ten minutes later in a cab she had wrangled for us.

That in combination with Kharkhorin’s relatively unspectacular scenery  (Western Mongolia snobs that we are) lead us to initially regret our decision to bother with this godforsaken, ugly, tourist-trap corner of Mongolia. We made a deal: we’d give ourselves 24 hours, and if Kharkhorin continued to suck, we’d jet.
We arrived at the ger camp mid-afternoon-ish, so we were all alone and really not feeling the place. So we went exploring–and discovered some pretty interesting things on our hike. These included:

The skeletal heads of Naadam horse race winners:
A turtle rock, which apparently marked the borders of ancient Karakorum.DSC01106
And a giant rock carved to look like a goat, and by goat I mean penis.
According to the internet, this monument to manhood was put here to remind the monks at the nearby monastery to stay celibate. To me, erecting (ha) a giant statue of a penis to remind you not to use yours sounds less like Buddhism and more like a sex ed class in Clayhatchee, Alabama. What I can say is that right as we were playing on the rock penis, the sun came out, so Swiss Friend and I decided then would be as good a time as any to practice some yoga…because where else are you going to do it?

That evening we headed back to Gaya’s ger camp to eat dinner, get acquainted with Gaya (who turned out to be just as lovely as her daughter), and befriend…everyone who was staying there. After getting off to a bad start, our opinion of Kharkhorin was finally starting to turn around.

The next day we caught a ride down the hill with some ger camp buddies to go explore Erdene Zuu Khiid, the oldest surviving monastery in Mongolia.
It was huge and lovely and neat!DSC01124DSC01119DSC01122
We explored all the temples we were allowed in and may or may not have snuck into a few we weren’t.DSC01116DSC01121
We also got to hang out and listen to some chanting. We had a wonderful day walking around the grounds and making more friends.

Later the afternoon, Swiss Friend and I decided to explore in town, where we made even more friends and convinced some particularly awesome ones–two French women, two French children, and two Mongol dogs they’d picked up in their travels–to come back to Gaya’s with us.
That evening, after having a big group dinner at Gaya’s, Swiss Friend and I roped our ger camp friends into going on a walk with us:
Nothing like travel friends, kids, dogs, and a walk in the Mongol twilight to remind you how amazing your life is.

Yay, Kharkhoriin!


Gobi Desert, The Good Parts

Alright, so getting physically assaulted in the Gobi by an insane Dutchman isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but enough good things happened in the desert that I can’t regret going. Here are some of my Gobi highlights!

1) Ger Raising with a Nomadic Family
Most of the families we stayed with tended to park us in a ger and then leave us to our own devices, but our very first family out in the Gobi was so nice that when they asked for our help putting up their extra ger (in which they would presumably put future backpackers and leave them to their own devices), we obliged.
They were much impressed by the fact that I am a ger-raising expert.
So much so that they attempted to hook me up with Mr. Sexyman–herder of goats, drinker of vodka, and proud owner of a motorcycle decorated with teddy bears.
Alas, I lack the language skills to say, “I’d rather not throw my dreams away to wade through goat shit, thanks,” but even if I could actually say that in Mongolian, I doubt the ladies would have taken no for an answer. They had a mission, and that mission was to have me wed within the week. As a result, what was supposed to be a group picture turned into a golden filament from my most elegant hour: one of the ladies trying to make Mr. Sexyman hug me, and me being really, really awkward about it.

2) The White Stupa
Honestly, I have no idea what this is. Is it a canyon? A cliff?
Whatever it was, it was beautiful. Looking at them from the bottom was even more spectacular. If any of you ever find yourselves at the White Stupa, hike down to the bottom, it’s the best part.
I did not mess with these colors, for the record.

3) Yolyn Am, the ice canyon
Deep in the Gobi is a canyon that, despite the fact that it lives in a desert, still stays frozen until sometime in July. Yolyn Am turned out to be spectacular for two reasons. One, canyon:
Two, ice:
Oh and three, hiking.
I mean, really? Stop it, Mongolia. Just stop it.
Yolyn Am was also one of my favorite places because it was the first and only time I stayed in a ger camp with the other tour groups I had befriended along the way. After three days of only the Douchey Dutchman for company, getting to talk and laugh with legitimately cool people made me feel like a real person again.

4) Khongoriin Els, the ginomous sand dunes
Most of the Gobi is scrubby deserty nonsense, but tucked away in one corner are a couple 1000-foot (300-meter) sand dunes.
I didn’t truly grasp just how motherfucking big a thousand feet is until I was standing in front of a thousand-foot dune trying to figure out how I was going to get up it.

Well, one foot at a time, I suppose.
Climbing the dunes was hands-down one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because for every step I took, I sunk and slid backwards. Halfway up I saw a small group of people standing there watching me, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if those were my friends from yesterday?” Three-quarters of the way up, they started chanting “TINA! TINA! TINA!” and I smoked the rest of that goddamn dune.
I was an exhausted, sweaty mess, and I ate half my body weight in sand but it tasted like victory.
This was the view of the land behind the sand dune.
This was the view fifteen minutes later, when we realized a massive sandstorm was coming right towards us.
And that’s how I rode out a sand storm at the top of a thousand-foot sand dune. The wind was punching me in the face, I couldn’t see, and I’m pretty sure I ate the other half of my body weight in sand. This time, though, it tasted like badass.
Seriously one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me.

I. Love. Camels.
And even though riding camels through the Gobi is super touristy, I have a hard time caring. Because camels.

In summary:
The desert, I discovered, doesn’t quite do it for me like giant mountains do, but the Gobi has some really, really cool parts. You have to do a lot of driving to get there, but it’s totally worth it. Despite my trip’s bad ending, I’m glad I got to experience southern Mongolia.

Mongol Weekend to 11

This is my student.
On top of being a really good student, she is also an awesome person. And she comes from a family of herders in a nearby village, so when she offered to take us home with her for a weekend, Swiss Friend and I were like YES. But in German, so JA.

Our trip began with a five-hour bus ride into the countryside, in which I entertained the entire car by only knowing one Mongolian song which I enthusiastically sang every time the CD we were listening to repeated itself (approx six times). We thought we we had made it when we pulled into her family’s yard in the village, but as it turns out, we hadn’t. In the summer, the herders take the animals out to better pastures, and said pasture took another 45 minutes to reach by car. We pulled up to the lone ger at eleven pm and promptly fell asleep. We woke up to this:
I mean, wut?
If this wasn’t a picture of me in my obnoxious pink fleece standing by their ger, I would have a hard time believing this happened. BECAUSE LOOK AT WHERE WE ARE.

Saturday started out a little rainy, so we spent the morning hanging out and getting to know her family. She has three brothers who are super nice and her mom I just wanted to hug forever. Her dad was really funny and got a kick out of playing my ukulele.
And this is her sister, who was our constant companion the entire weekend.
She dragged us around and kept up a constant stream of chatter, but didn’t seem to be bothered at all by the fact that we had no idea what she was saying. I think she thought we were simple.
At some point, this happened.
Yes that is a small child in a deel holding a baby goat. It doesn’t get more Mongolian than that.

By Saturday afternoon the rain had cleared up, so her dad took us up into the mountains to explore a bit.
According to local legend, khöömi throat singing comes from this river. I think this is what the rock says, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
The view was just aiite, I guess.
So aiite that we had to stop the car so Swiss Friend and I could get out and continue staring. At this point, it wasn’t just the five-year-old who thought we were simple.

After getting back to the ger, Swiss Friend and I wandered around with the small child in tow. Or, rather, the small child wandered with us in tow. At one point the child handed me a baby goat.
Then I realized said baby goat still had its umbilical cord attached so I gave it back to its mom and forcibly dragged the child over to the goats that were more than just, like, two days old.
This goat in particular got hauled around and loved every second of it.

This goat, however, is Todd.
Todd desperately wanted to come inside, so he spent most of Saturday parked in front of the ger, waiting for his opportunity. When someone left the door open, he jumped inside and lead the brothers on a merry chase as he dived behind furniture and under beds. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to catch a baby goat not once, not twice, but three times in a round hut ten feet across, but that just goes to show you’ve never tried.

Oh, Todd. You weirdo.

We finished Saturday by singing to goats, collecting dung for the fire, and–my personal favorite–a horse race. My students’ brothers decided to race their horses to see which one they would enter into the race at Naadam, and the rest of us piled into the car to speed alongside the galloping horses.

The winner!
The winner!

And then I milked a goat.

Sunday was a very relaxed day–we wandered around, ate lunch, and I milked another goat, which Mongol Mom said I did “very well.” At some point we played a game with painted seashells and thumb tacks that involve counting, and I understood it not at all.
Despite the fact that it took me 20 minutes to make it onto the board, my team (i.e., me and a brother) still managed to win. I just don’t understand how because numbers.
After lunch, we drove back to the village and walked around a bit before catching a ride back to Khovd.
While we were waiting for our ride, my student taught us some Mongol dance steps. When we attempted them, she laughed so hard so had to sit down, so there was that. On the ride back we had packed 18 people and their stuff into a van meant for eleven, but that didn’t stop the van from demanding a song from us–good thing ukes are compact. We played and sang and they laughed, so that’s the last time I sing American folk songs in an overcrowded van full of Mongols.

And that was my most Mongol of Mongol weekends. I’d done the ger weekend thing, but never with an actual herding family and final verdict: it was awesome. Definitely one of the coolest and most memorable things I’ve done in Mongolia.

Thanks, family!

How to Put Up a Ger in 10 Easy Steps

Friends of ours are moving into their ger while they renovate their house, and when they invited us to come help put it up, we were all about it.

Warning: The following is a highly technical, very scientific account of a ger-raising. Apologies in advance for the readers I will lose along the way.

Step 1: Put the floor down and the lattice walls up.
Step 2: Put the center roof piece thingy together by some dark magic that happened in the 2 minutes you were in the house playing with the cat.
Step 3: Gather your roof poles.
Step 3b: Attempt to balance one end of the pointy roof pole on the lattice wall while guiding the other into the tiny hole in the center thing. But the pole is really heavy, so if you are short, it’s basically like playing the world’s worst game of reverse jenga. And if you’re inside the ger, think dodgeball but with heavy pieces of wood falling from the sky.
Step 3c: Do one pole for every five the strong Mongol guy next to you does. When he tells you you’re doing a good job, use this as an opportunity to dance around in circles and take pictures of your audience.
Step 3d: When all the poles are in place, back off and let the Mongolian guys figure out where the foreigners went wrong.
Step 4: Pull a piece of canvas over the roof of the ger. Practice your sailor’s knots. Or, if you are not a sailor, tie bunny ears and pray.
Step 5: Brief interlude in which you are distracted by fiendishly adorable children. Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s a weakness we all struggle with.
Step 6: Work in teams to carry giant walls of sheep. Also know as massive pieces of felt; wrap them around the ger. Stand on your toes and cling desperately to the side of the ger to hold the felt in place while more things get tied to themselves. Make sure the felt isn’t flush to the floor because moisture or something.
Step 6b: At this point, your ger should look like a really big, naked sheep. Hugging the fuzziness is generally frowned upon and doesn’t smell great either.
Step 7: Let the people who knows what they’re doing…do stuff. Like put the big, circular roof felt on.
Step 8: Watch other people pull a canvas thing over top of all of this. Belt it down, and help pull the belts tight. At some point while you’re on the other side of the ger pulling on things, a blue something-or-other will appear at the bottom of the ger (more dark magic).
Step 9: Carry the stove in.
Step 10: Tadaa!
Step 10b: Eat pizza.

Amish raise barns, we raise gers. Another thing to cross off my Mongol bucket list!