When we would arrive at a family’s get camp, the family would come out and greet us, show us to the ger, help us unload the van, bring us some hot water for tea and then start the fire. Each ger has these iron stoves with a pipe going out the top of the ger to let the smoke out. It also creates a draft in the stove that fans the fire. I’m also convinced these stoves let out a ton of heat making them inefficient.
Different locations had different types of fuel – in the Gobi, where there are no trees – we used dung. In case you were wondering, camel dung burns the best. And it doesn’t smell as bad as you think. One place was so cold we went out hunting for the families stash of dung. We found it under a tarp behind a shed and loaded up a bag to last us until we went to sleep.
Now, I’ve done a bit of camping in my life, and each trip has required at least one fire to be lit. And I am usually successful. In Mongolia, I am not. I tried every morning, and sometimes in the evening, to start the fire but it never worked. I’d get the wood staked up with tinder at the bottom – just like how one starts a fire in the woods – but nothing would catch.
Usually our driver, Ganaa, or someone from the host family would come in, push me out of the way, and get to work. They would laugh at my set up and jam a bunch more wood into the stove and somehow get it going. Towards the end I developed the theory that they all have vodka breath. When the Mongolians blow on the fire, you hear the sound of a flamethrower and all the wood seems to burst into flames at once. My wintery-fresh Colgate breath must have had a chilling effect.
The morning after our first stop on the way to the Great White Lake, our drivers took some time to fix the vans. When Ganaa had a problem shifting into first gear, we asked what was going on. We did most of the communicating with him by just saying or asking “good”. He held his hands like he was holding something and shook it up and down violently and said “Too much Gobi”. So he rebuilt the entire gear box. By himself.
If you have ever wondered what men do out in the wilds of Mongolia it’s this – fix cars. Other then leaning over the stoves starting fires, they spend a lot of time leaning over engines fixing them. At almost every remote ger camp, there was a gang of men fixing a car. And by “fix” I mean gerry-riging – usually with tape, rags, or some other impromptu solution. When the Apollo mission was in trouble, they should have called in some Mongolians to fix it.
As he was working on the van, we walked into town, got some snacks and hung out at a container market. A container market is just a little market where all the stalls are containers – like you would see on the back of a semi-truck. I still have yet to figure out how these vendors get all the stuff that they do -toothpaste, tools, socks, watches, sheepskins, jeans, pipe cleaners – you name it. I live in the consumer center of the world and have no clue how to become a seller of anything. But some lady in the middle of the Mongolian desert is selling my kind of deodorant out the back of a container sitting in dirt. Awesome.
We arrived at the next stop pretty late at night. I’d like to point out that this camp had the longest walk to the toilet. It took about five minutes. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s about zero outside, six inches of snow on the ground, pitch black and you gotta go, it’s pretty dang far.
Most ger camps consist of a ger for the family – these days they are equipped with solar panels and maybe a satellite dish and tv (fanciers gers had dvd players) – and then a couple gers for visitors. Each camp also had a pit toilet. Some were nicer then others. One only had a two foot wall around it, so everyone could see you until you squatted. The smell of the toilets wasn’t so bad, which we attributed to the weather – everything was frozen.
We walked the next morning over to a waterfall nearby – which was also frozen except for a little trickle – so we amused ourselves by throwing rocks because they made cool noises skidding across the ice. We went for a horse ride across some fields, had lunch, then drove to Tovkhon Khiid, a neat mountainside monastery on the way to the next stop. We hiked up the hill – about an hour’s walk – and toured the monastery. The buildings themselves weren’t too impressive, but the view was killer. And the monk kid was kinda funny.
On the way to the stop that night in Khorkhorm – Mongoliga’s original capital, we stopped at a ger to pick up some people who’s car had broken down. Turns out we had met these people in Ulan Ude at the monastery a couple weeks before. They were Buddhists from London making a tour to different monasteries in Asia. They even gave some public lectures in Ulanbaatar (UB). We were invited into the ger for tea and socializing before packing up the Buddhists’ stuff and heading out.
The next morning the other group headed back to UB while we continued on. Khorkhorm has a main monastery which we toured in the morning. I even got to go into a temple filled with monks doing their prayers. They were all chanting different things and sometimes came together in a very sing-song kinda way. After the monastery we dove to the next stop – Tserleg – and ended up staying at Ganaa’s house. We met his wife and kid. She made us some yak pastries for lunch. Oh man were these good! While Ganaa had some family time, we walked to another market and got the family some chocolate and candy. On the way back we stopped by an english cafe and got some brownies and chocolate pastries for later.
After a late start the next morning we drove to the Great White Lake, stopping by sacred tree for lunch. Along the way we got some yak’s cream from these kids on the side of the road – who also sold us the mare’s milk in recycled plastic bottles – and started eating it right out of the bag. Yes, bag. The cream is made by boiling the milk and letting it cool forming this circular block of cream. Later that night we would end up going through all the food we had, seeing what went best with the cream. It was awesome on a Kit-Kat but even better when spread on a shortbread biscuit then topped with jam. Once we discovered that, we ate several packs of biscuits and almost the entire bag of cream.
When we arrived in the evening we walked out on the lake, which was frozen until the middle, to watch the sunset. Tina started sliding around on the ice for fun and eventually fell – fracturing her elbow. The sun was setting anyway so we heading inside for dinner and to warm up and get Tina comfortable with some ice for her arm.
The next morning I went for a walk around part of the lake. The host family had some cool dogs who walked with me the whole time, and when some other dog came towards me, or a stray cow, they barked and kept me safe.
Even thought it was freezing, it was beautiful. I held this guys horse while he led his yak herd to the lake to drink. While they were drinking I walked out on the lake to take some pictures. He came out to talk to me. We tried a few subjects but just ended up giggling at the awkwardness of the conversation. Mongolians love seeing photos of themselves, so he looked at the photos I’d taken. He didn’t seem too impressed which made me feel bad. I felt like saying, well, at least I don’t work with yaks all day. But that actually sounds kinda cool. Mongolian: 2. Stuart: 0. See if I ever hold his horse again.
The plan for the afternoon was to ride horses to a volcano crater. We were told to be ready at two, but of course it was about five before Ganaa came back from errands, and when pressed about the horses said, “Horses? No.” Apparently, no one knew where the horses where. Instead he drove us to the crater and we hiked up for a great view of the sunset and surrounding countryside.
We were informed the next day that Ganaa wanted to change the plans because of a river that may or may not be frozen over enough to cross. He wanted to go back to UB on the main roads. Turns out that this new plan took us back to his house. That was fine with us: more yak pastries! On the way we passed a Chinese survey crew scoping out something for the highway. Our driver said “Chinese” then made a face of disgust. Then motioned that he wanted to punch them in the eye. Then giggled.
Ganaa’s wife joined us for the trip back to UB. We stopped that night at a place called the “Small Gobi”. It was a desert with little dunes handy incase you couldn’t make it down to the Gobi proper. The host there was really funny. He would come into our ger about every 10 minutes to see if we were ok. After he lit the fire, he stood up and patted himself on the back and bowed for us. The next morning as I was walking around, he wanted to try on my glasses. He put them on, took them off, put them back on, looked around. Nodded with approval, then gave them back to me.
During the final leg of the trip, we stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch a couple hours away from UB. I had a hankering for some buuz – meat stuffed dumplings that are steamed and filled with juice. Even though it was on the menu, they didn’t have anyway. So got some dumpling soup and Tina and Arnika (also a vegetarian) split some salads. The soup was ok, but at that point I was tired of Mongolian food, so I ate everything but the fat (in some dishes, they cook chunks of mean and chunks of fat). I felt weird about not finishing my food – like it was a sign that even after 13 days in the country, I hadn’t really let go and experienced Mongolia. But then I noticed that the driver – who ordered the same soup as I did – ate all the fat, but didn’t touch the potatoes.