Further adventures in Central Mongolia: Tövkhön Khiid

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.
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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
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2) tried (and then declined) massive bowls of fermented horse milk
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3) chased away the cows that wanted to join our picnicDSC01139DSC01140

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.

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Horse Trekking in Central Mongolia!

Swiss Friend and I are friends for many reasons. I mean yes, we didn’t exactly have a smorgasbord of friend options out in Western Mongolia, but the bigger reason is that we’re very like-minded when it comes to travel and adventures, particularly the kind that stem from bad ideas–which, arguably, is how we both wound up in Mongolia in the first place. So when I suggested we spend part of our time traveling together at a hot spring in Central Mongolia, and she suggested we get to said hot spring by horse, it was a match made in travel buddy heaven.
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We started off our journey by catching the bus from UB to Tsetserleg in Arkhangai Province, Central Mongolia. Our hotel was the absolutely brilliant Fairfield Guesthouse, which has all the amazing things like hot water and carpets that get regularly cleaned. After months of Mongolia, we were so blown away by the concept of a real mattress and complimentary tea service that when we discovered our rooms came with towels for the shower, we collapsed in giggly-crying fits on our respective queen-sized beds. And then recovered by taking really long, really hot showers. One day, when I’m rich and famous and have developed an inexplicable fondness for snails, please remind me of the time the prospect of a fluffy towel made me cry. I will humbly laugh in your face and then have my manservant Claude escort you from my villa.

After that, it was dinner and exploration time! Tsetserleg boasts many attractions, like traffic circles:
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Grass:
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Temples:
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Giant Buddhas in front of temples.
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And something called the “Divine Enlightenment Achievement Lane.”
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Either I did it wrong, or it’s broken.
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Whatever, climbed mountain.
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The next day, Swiss Friend and I were picked up from the guesthouse ON TIME by our driver, that’s how amazing Fairfield is. We drove about 10k out of town to a little row of gers, where all the horses were fighting amongst themselves for the privileges of bearing us for two days.
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It was while we were hanging out watching our guide and the ger people chase horses around that Swiss Friend and I met Weird American Couple who, though perfectly nice, were not nearly as impressed with the guesthouse as we were and kind of dickish about it. They were dickish about a lot of things, including how long it was taking their guide to get their horses together. Luckily for us, though, their guide spoke perfect English, which we needed when we discovered that our guide had no idea where we were going or how long we were going for. We weren’t very sad to see Weird American Couple go, but we were sad they took their guide with them.

After they left, our guide ran around doing Important Guide Stuff while we befriended our horses and debated whether or not we were actually going to make it to the hot springs. At any rate, it was too late to back out, and we’re not ones for backing out anyway.

Eventually, we were off on our noble steeds, Freddie (Mercury) and Bruce (Springsteen).
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Day 1 of our horse trek saw us traversing various rivers, mountains, forests, and valleys, all from the backs of our little Mongol ponies.
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Turns out it’s not so easy to take pictures from the back of a horse, especially when your camera sucks and said horse is dancing around in circles because God forbid he be more than five feet away from inside Bruce’s butt at any give point in time. But I got some decent ones.
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One of the my favorite things about Mongolia was how often landscapes caused me to reevaluate my life. This trek had me reevaluating every ten minutes.
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It didn’t take us very long to realize that our guide had zero interest in what we did with the horses as long as we didn’t fall off of them.
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This lead to various meanderings away from the route, sing-a-longs, and the occasional Freddie v. Bruce speed face-off which our guide more or less ignored. At one point I went galloping past the guide while hollering like a madwoman and he turned to Swiss Friend and said “…Real Mongol woman.” Good news, ladies. All you need to do to be a real Mongol woman is not fall off your horse.
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The only part of Day 1 that was mildly unpleasant was right at the end, when we rode the Arkhangai Mosquito World Fair, the multitudes of which welcomed us by attempting to kills us. I was wearing jeans which saved me, but poor Swiss Friend was not.

Thankfully we rode through the mosquito attack relatively quickly, and not too long afterwards arrived at the hot springs.
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The “hot springs,” as it turns out, is like, two inches of water that comes out of the ground straight from hell because it’s ridiculously hot.
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They mix it in with cold water and pump it into the baths, which we jumped right into because we’d been riding for seven hours and deserved it, goddamit.
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We rented a ger for the night and passed out, but not before discovering where Frodo Baggins’ Mongol cousins live.
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We kicked off the next morning by wandering around the ger camp and attempting to emotionally prepare to ride again.
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Day 2 was much the same as Day 1, except this time we were starting off tired and sore. Also, we switched horses because Bruce’s enthusiasm for life was making Swiss Friend nervous.
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We also took a slightly different route back, one that required much more scrabbling up mountains with our ponies.
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Notable moments from Day 2 included galloping Bruce through a herd of yaks, which is an excellent way to wake yourself up in the morning.
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After six hours of riding, we finally made it back to the guesthouse…
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Our guide vanished with the horses so we treated ourselves with hot showers, at which point we discovered that Swiss Friend, on our jaunt through the Mosquito World Fair, had been bitten an impressive 192 times, just on her legs.
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We were also somewhat surprised to run into Weird American Couple at the guesthouse, who informed us that they had cut their trip short because their butts hurt, the nomads they stayed with didn’t feed them vegetables, and because they really wanted prune juice. Swiss Friend started calling them the “prune douches,” and almost broke me.

The verdict: seriously amazing. Central Mongolia is what everyone thinks of when they hear “Mongolia,” and it was really amazing to see and experience it from the back of a horse. My suggestion is be a bad-ass, not a prune douche. Bug spray wouldn’t hurt either.

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Mongol Weekend to 11

This is my student.
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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:
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I mean, wut?
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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.
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And this is her sister, who was our constant companion the entire weekend.
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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.
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At some point, this happened.
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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.
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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.
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The view was just aiite, I guess.
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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.
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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.
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This goat in particular got hauled around and loved every second of it.
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This goat, however, is Todd.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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After lunch, we drove back to the village and walked around a bit before catching a ride back to Khovd.
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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.
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Thanks, family!
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We’re On A Boat, And Other Stories

Our Russian friends, on top of being awesome and hilarious and ridiculously fun, are also fabulous because they get out of town on a regular basis and always invite us along.
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Most recently they invited us for a day of picnicking on the lake with some Mongolian friends of theirs.
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One of the first things we did upon arrival was set up shop.
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And then get the hell out of there and go wandering. We discovered that a nearby herder had ridiculous amounts of baby animals, so that occupied us for a good 45 minutes.
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He also had a baby human who did not understand why we found the baby animals so entertaining.
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On our way back to the lake, we stumbled across a horse lying on the ground with its legs tied together.
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I initially thought it was a horse for slaughter, but then we discovered that the Mongolian equivalent of “coming back for your car later” is “parking your horse on the ground and tying it up.” This was perplexing, but ultimately unsurprising.
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Then we wandered back because there was some talk of a boat, which I initially ignored on the grounds that the Mongols are not exactly known for their seafaring ways. But then we got there and there was, actually, a boat.
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At full throttle it was still slower than if you were rowing, but who cares, boat.
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We putted around the lake for an hour and disturbed a lot of animal life.
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Eventually we got kicked out of the boat and the Mongolians disappeared. While we were waiting for them to come back, we took naps, wandered around, and befriended cows.
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When the Mongolians finally did appear almost two hours later, it was with an enormous bag of goose eggs from a metrick fuckton of nests they’d robbed. If there are no geese this year on Khar Us Nuur, you know why.
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They then attempted to hardboil these goose eggs and serve them with Kazakh-style horse meat. The meat was good, the eggs were…weird. They tasted like lake, for starters. And the eggs whites were jelly, which was odd.
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At this point I thought we were going home, but then in typical Mongol fashion, right when you think the party is winding down, someone pulls out a gun.
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Which, as it turns out, I am so bad at that as soon as I fired it all the Mongolians started laughing.

Whatever.

Later, after the gun had been put away, we wandered back over to the herder to investigate why his daughter was screaming her head off. Turns out unhappy goats being combed sound just like people.
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And then, there was this horse. And this herder, going, “Does anyone want to ride this horse?”
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ME. I WANT TO RIDE THIS HORSE.
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I RODE THIS HORSE.
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We didn’t do more than trot in circles while a dog attempted to herd us back to the house, but whatever, rode horse.

Mongol boat day for the win!