After seeing all the sites in Kharkhorin thrice over, Swiss Friend and I decided to do a day trip to Tövkhön monastery on the recommendation of our ger camp buddies. Gaya, ger camp manager extraordinaire, hooked us up with a relative of hers for a ride, and with surprisingly little fuss or issues, we were off.
But in Mongolia, life isn’t easy for very long, and in our case, it was easy for about an hour before our car got stuck. How stuck, you ask? This stuck.
In a stroke of luck that we made sure to appreciate very, very hard, we got stuck within sight of a few gers that housed an extended family of horse herders. Amazingly, these people also owned a tractor, so we let them get to it while we:
1) Wandered around for two hours looking at the baby horses
2) tried (and then declined) massive bowls of fermented horse milk
3) chased away the cows that wanted to join our picnic
and 4) climbed mountains
Find the stuck jeep in that picture.
Eventually our car was freed from the mud, an event our driver and rescuers celebrated with various alcoholic beverages, as is only appropriate when you’re about to go drive on cliffs and things.
And then we were off!
Our drive finished at the base of a forest on a hill.
After half an hour of hiking, we reached monastery base camp, or whatever the official name is.
Monastery base camp sold iced tea, vodka, potato chips, and very little else.
Up we go!
The view from the top was…well, it was Mongolia, what do you expect?
Oh, and the monastery was pretty aiite too.
Tövkhön is the one of the oldest monasteries in Mongolia and has stood on this site in one form or another since 1648 when a fourteen-year-old monk looking to build a monastery decided this was a nice spot. You know, as opposed to fighting the Manchus, like every teenager with a head on his shoulders was doing at the time.
But the mountain kept going, so up we went. At one point we had to do some actual rock scaling to get to the top, only to discover the giant sign that said women weren’t allowed on that part of the mountain because insert reason here. In such instances, I like to pretend I’m illiterate.
And then our friend showed up! The day before, we had befriended a Dutch tour guide, so while his group ran around the mountain, we happily hung out with him.
After we got back to the ger camp that night, we discovered Gaya had somehow read our minds and booked us bus tickets back to UB for the next day. So instead of stressing, we packed our bags and spent the rest of the evening chilling with our ger camp buddies and being overwhelmingly happy that we had come to Kharkhorin after all.
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.
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.
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!
We explored all the temples we were allowed in and may or may not have snuck into a few we weren’t.
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.
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:
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.
LOOK AT THOSE FACES.
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.
A few weeks ago, our Russian friend decided to celebrate his birthday by taking us all out of town for a picnic.
It was a pretty cloudy spring day, but that didn’t stop is from having a lot of fun. At some point I got roped into a game with a bunch of teenagers that involved passing a volleyball back at forth around a circle and if you messed up (which I did, frequently), you had to sit in the middle and dodge volleyballs being pelted at your head by excitable sixteen-year-olds. That was fun.
It was really, really windy, so our little fire required some serious protecting.
And when various pieces of meat flew off the makeshift grill, I entertained myself by throwing them up in the air and watching the falcons swoop down and catch them. Which as silly as it sounds was ridiculously awesome and totally made my week.
I roped Other English Teacher and our Inner Mongolian friend into hiking up the mountain with me. This required a lot of scrambling up giant rocks and precariously wedging ourselves into gaps in the boulders, and then at one point I misjudged a rock and started to slowly slide down the cliff face towards the 500 foot drop. But then Other English Teacher saved me and I’m fine, mom, really.
The top was WINDY!
And the view, as always, was lovely.
We climbed down just in time to eat chicken and watch the sun set.
In the spirit of more lovely views, Other English Teacher and I recently decided to attempt the really big mountain on the other side of the river as our last hiking expedition before he went home. We never actually made it to where we were trying to go–every time we got to what we thought was the top of the mountain, we realized we were standing on a smaller peak behind the actual mountain. But it was still gorgeous. And hot. And gorgeous. Whatever, have a lot of pictures.
Stay tuned for the next episode of Kulturschock!, in which we commit genocide against geese.
These last few months haven’t been marked by any big dramatic trips, but we have been getting in plenty of short day/weekend trips out to the countryside. And now I shall blog about them. Welcome to Adventures in the Countryside, Part I, in which we go to Erdenebüren, a village about an hour and a half away where some friends of ours live.
Thus far we’ve made two trips out to Erdenebüren, once in Feburary and then again in April. Our first trip there was pretty typically Mongolian–too many adults crammed into too-small of a car–but the trip wasn’t very long and at this point my standards for travelling in comfort are so low I can’t be bothered to care.
Our second trip out was distinctly more comfortable in that we had a Land Cruiser stocked with beer and food, but not nearly as fast because we broke down for three hours.
What happened was this: our friend who was driving noticed something leaking out of her car when she picked us up. So we took the car to the mechanic, who we could not initially find until some phone calls were made and he came out of the toilet with a raging boner. I can only assume that he desperately wanted to get back to addressing that situation because he fixed nothing and gave us the okay to drive. And then we broke down 45 minutes later because we were out of transmission fluid. After half an hour in the toilet, possibly the mechanic was, too.
The good news is that it was probably the most enjoyable breakdown of all time. I entertained myself by sitting on top of the Land Cruiser and waving at all the passing cars (read: 2).
Also, it was a beautiful day, the landscape was gorgeous, and I made Other English Teacher take breakdown selfies with me.
Two hours in we remembered that we had a Land Crusier full of beer, so we broke one out and decided the next logical step was to pretend to be models.
All in all, we were broken down for a very entertaining three hours while we waited for our friend’s Mongolian driver to come out with his tools and his transmission fluid and save us. Which he eventually did.
On both trips, our first order of business after arriving in Erdenebüren was to go exploring.
Also, climb things.
And both times we checked out local canyons and went hiking.
And both times hiking devolved into that classic game from our youth Throwing Things Into Water.
At some point on Trip 2 I decided it would be a good idea to go hiking without water or telling anyone where I was going, which was possibly stupid.
Also on Trip 2 we found a cool rock by the river that had a map of the Khovd River on it, and therefore needed to be played upon.
The river itself is apparently a whitewater tourist destination, provided you are rich enough to import your own boat and spend two days driving it out to this corner of nowhere. As you can probably imagine, there are no tourists.
And that was Erdenebüren! A very lovely little village in which live a lot of people that I really like. We had a lot of fun hanging out and exploring, and yes, even breaking down, and yes, even breaking down a second time when our Land Cruiser drove through a puddle on the way back and decided that life was too hard. Whatever. When life gives you breakdowns, climb mountains.
Have some gratuitous pictures of camels and horses, because the way back was full of them.
And truly, nothing is as cool as honking at camels to get out of the damn road.
There are two main things one does in UB when arriving after a five-month self-imposed exile in the West. The first is “eat all the food that isn’t boiled meat,” and the second is “take advantage of your friends’ internet and write a blog post.”
Khovd to UB
I kickstarted my Mongol road trip by hopping a bus to Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, that I spent 12 hours in on my way out to Khovd and thus had never gotten a chance to see. The bus ride was…urgh. The first 20 hours were over unpaved roads, and I spent 16 of them throwing up into a bag. Once we hit Bayankhonghor, the pavement kicked in and I could finally stop vomiting and start attempting to sleep (I give myself an A for effort).
At one point I was dead asleep for the first time since I had left Khovd when a Mongolian deel (traditional jacket) dropped out of heaven and landed on my head. The dude behind me was apparently concerned that I was cold, and decided the answer to this conundrum was to drop a deel on my face. Maybe not the greatest execution, but I appreciated the generosity (and yes, it was very warm).
I arrived in UB at 6 in the morning–it was too cold to wait outside for my friends to wake up, but luckily the Blue Sky hotel let me crash in their lobby even though I looked like a hobo.
As soon as I got to my friends’ house and put down my stuff, they were like “We’re going hiking in an hour, want to come?” I hadn’t gotten more than an hour of sleep in two days, but hell yeah, I want to go hiking!
And I’m very glad I did, because it was a lovely introduction to UB, albeit from very high up.
The two days since have been spent wandering into markets and shops and emerging looking like a shell-shocked private crawling out of a trench in Ypres. After five months in Khovd, UB is decidedly overwhelming (people! buses! no cows!), especially the shopping situation. Like a total backwoods hick, I actually gasped out loud in the State Department Store (and Mercury market, and like, ten other supermarkets) and spent a solid hour wandering around just touching all the things I had forgotten existed (pillows! electronics! sweet potatoes! spinach! cake mix! icing! brown sugar! powdered sugar! real cheese! wine glasses! fluffy towels! CINNABON!). I went to a real cafe and had a real peppermint hot chocolate and a real slice of cheesecake and nearly died of real happiness. And I bought a metric shitton of baking supplies, which I will be putting on a bus and shipping back to myself.
I did touristy things, too. Like Choijin Lama museum, a temple set right in the middle of UB:
I also hit up the Buddha park and hiked up the giant hill next to it to check out the Zaisan memorial.
UB has been a fabulous time. I’m off to Darkhan tomorrow, so I’ll check in eventually.
I mentioned in this post that one of the best things about my apartment is that I have enough floor space to throw some pallets down and host the one courageous backpacker that would make it this far west. But surprise surprise, that one guy brought a bunch of friends, because from October to November I hosted a grand total of ten people.
I don’t know if we did cool stuff because I had backpackers, or if the backpackers just had fabulous timing, but here’s some of the trouble we got ourselves into with our rolling cast of backpacking buddies.
The Obstacle Course
With French Couple 1 and British Couchsurfer (who went with us to Eagle Fest), we did a day hike out to the obstacle course. To get there, we had to plod through people’s fields, creep over, under and through their fences, and occasionally locate strategic hopping points in order to cross the various streams and rivers that wind all up and down the river valley.
Then we hit the obstacle course (the one and the same from this post. Can you find the Frenchman free-climbing down this rock face and giving me an aneurysm in the process?
I was pretty convinced he was dead, but even better, he’s a rock climbing instructor. I tried to follow–I made it about two feet up before I noped the fuck out and decided climbing a mountain was good enough for me.
Red Goat Mountain
My second group of backpackers, I think, got the best deal and as a result probably think I live a way more interesting life than I actually do. The day they arrived we had a massive fish dinner courtesy of my German friend’s epic haul from the river that day. And on Saturday, a couple coworkers decided they were going to hike Red Goat Mountain, occasionally known as Holy Shit That Thing’s Huge, and invited us all to tag along.
The hike itself took several hours and was a bit demanding–we had to backtrack along the smaller peaks multiple times, squeeze ourselves over and under rocks, and control slide most of the way back down to the bottom–but the views were incredible (as was the wind). Our one Israeli friend schlepped a guitar all the way up to the peak; I initially thought he was insane, but then we spent an hour at the top eating chocolate and singing songs, and it was fabulous. So it turned out that he was actually a genius.
The next day, our Russian friends decided to go check out Tsenkheriin Agui (цэннхэрийн агуй), caves about 100 km south of Khovd. The caves are famous because they contain a series of cave paintings, some of which are apparently of extinct plants and animals. So we brought our flashlights and our hiking shoes and not our gas masks, which was a mistake because the cave is so full of dry, dusty birdshit, you might as well have cut out the middle man and shoved your head up a chicken’s ass. But who cares, caves!
Initially, we simply ran around the giant cave and looked for all the cave paintings, which was fun in and of itself. At some point I wandered over to the back of the cave and saw a tiny little Mongolian man who appeared to have lost the bottom half of his body. When I got a little closer, I realized no, he had not been cut in half by cave demons, he was simply standing in a hole. He looked at me and said something–what, I didn’t know, but he didn’t have to tell me twice. I wriggled out of all my layers, dropped my purse, said “don’t steal my shit” to whoever was there (possibly no one), and followed the small Mongolian man down the rabbit hole.
I quickly discovered that Small Mongolian Man was apparently part ferret because the dude could squeeze himself through the tiniest slivers of rock. And, like an idiot, I followed him, because when tiny, fierce Mongolian men say “army crawl under a mountain,” you army crawl under a goddamn mountain and hope they do not have a cave troll. We came out into a chamber that was so small, we had to kneel and duck. He pointed his flashlight at the wall…cave paintings? No, no, he just wanted to show me the wall. Then we turned (shuffled) around, and went right back out the way we came.
I emerged tan, birdshitty, and so elated to be tan and birdshitty that when Small Mongolian Man gestured wordlessly and left the cave, I grabbed Other English Teacher and followed him out, up the mountain, and into the mouth of yet another cave. We continued to follow the ferret man over boulders, squeezing ourselves through more small passages than we could count, simply to come out into tiny “rooms” within the boulders before turning around and going right back. All this culminated in scaling a vertical rock face in the dark, wedging our hands and feet against either side of the narrow tunnel and spider climbing like goddamn ninjas. When we got to the top, our guide turned off his flashlight, and we sat in the darkness for who knows how long.
By the time we all left the caves, we were completely brown. Our hair, teeth, skin, clothes–everything was cake in half an inch of birdshit. And it was awesome. We wrapped out our cave adventure with a dusty picnic by the river, in which we unintentionally befriended the Mongolian picnic that was going on fifteen feet from us, traded beer for carrots, and chased away the horde of Mongol men who had congregated around the Russians’ car, tapping on the window and ogling their very, very blonde baby.
French Couple 2 also got a dose of life with our Russian friends–this time, they packed us all in the car and drove to the lake for a few lovely hours of running around on the ice.
We weren’t totally sure how frozen it was, so at some point our exploration devolved into a game of “throw the giant rock really hard and see if it cracks the ice.” At one point it was the French guy’s and my turn at bat, so we chucked the rock, and, when the ice didn’t crack, slid our way over to the rock to retrieve it. Except as soon as we got there, we could hear the ice under us cracking, so we looked at each other and hightailed it back for the shore. Everyone took one look at our Jesus-take-the-wheel faces and had to sit down, they were laughing so hard. I relegated myself to the weeds in shame.
As was probably to be expected, the backpackers have all moved to more tropical climes because the only people dumb enough to spend the winter in Mongolia are us. Fingers crossed that when spring rolls around, it will bring some more backpackers with it.
But for right now, I’ve got to go do some backpacking of my own–school break means I’ve got three weeks to run around Mongolia like a chicken with my head cut off, which I have every intention of doing. First stop: Ulaanbaatar, via a 40-hour bus ride. See you on the other side, hopefully!