In the middle of Ulaanbaatar, after trekking, camel riding, horse riding, and riding around in an old Russian jeep through vast open sweeps of grassland, desert, and mountain valleys for the better part of a month, we find ourselves in an internet cafe with almost fifty locals playing internet games and yelling across the room. Can this be real? Are we really still in Mongolia?
Mongolia, the land of nomads, gers, yak meat and mare milk, and apparently a huge population of counterstrike players. So much to say about this wonderful country but without the needed time to write it, I'll sum up our travels by bullet point.
What we did:
- Jeep trip through the Gobi desert. 8 days, dirt roads, shake, rattle, and roll. I still feel the bumps from the dirt track, but those feelings will fade with time. What won't fade is the memories of beautiful desert. Flat, open, vast, colorful, hostile, fun.
- Walking around Ulaanbaatar. We spent maybe a week exploring the capital city, checking out museums, holy places, festivals, and everything Mongolia. Although it's a capital, it's not uncommon to see a local riding a horse down the main drag,
complete with the traditional garb.
- Trekking around Arkhangai province. Over 10 days by foot, walking from one stunning mountain valley to the next. Crossing swollen rivers, following locals with yak carts or on horse back, camping near nomadic families and eating nothing but traditional foods. Absolutely enchanting scenery and experiences.
Things that make Mongolia great:
- Fresh yogurt. Not the kind you find in the store, this stuff is straight out of the barrel inside the nearest ger. Warm, tart, delicious.
- Fresh cheese. Summer is the time for nomadic families to make dairy products (hence the yogurt and cheese), and we certainly indulged in the offerings. While not all the cheese was agreeable, the soft layer that forms on the top of boiled yak milk is divine.
- Mongolian hospitality. Camping next to families that we shared no language with, we were always invited in for a warm cup of tea (see below) and a snack. We shared laughs with the adults by using a point and speak book and attempting the hairball like sounds that constitute their language, and played simple games with the children that always resulted in smiles.
Camel riding. While not quit as epic as our camel trip in India, our bactrian (two humped) camels snorted, farted, and generally misbehaved just like their cousins in the deserts of India. We rode near huge sand dunes, racing each other with camel-power.
- Horse riding. We really didn't spend much time on a horse, but at one point a river proved to wide for crossing by foot. On to the horses we went, holding on tightly while they slipped on rocks and battled the current. Once safely across, we marveled at how powerful these smaller horses were, and thanked them for allowing us to keep our socks dry.
- Stunning scenery. I really don't have time to get into this, just look at the pictures. From the Gobi desert to the mountains of the west, Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. Combined with the fact that no pavement or power lines broke the horizon, I may have spoiled the rest of our journey with beauty overload.
- Basketball. Everyone plays, the courts are just cleared spaces next to gers. Hoops are re-bar nailed to a backboard made from planks of
wood. Everyone knows Lebron James.
- A river rinse. Day 5 of the Arkhangai trek, we were full of sweat and dirt. The river was freezing, but for the locals sake we needed to go for a swim. No soap allowed, but at least a few layers of grim were removed.
- A warm shower. Day 7 of the Gobi trip, day 11 of the Arkhangai trek. We stank. Showers are great, don't over estimate them.
Things that make Mongolia less than great:
- Meat. Alright, I am a meat eater and didn't mind meat at every meal. This is Alyssa's peeve. Mutton dumplings, mutton on the bone, mutton boiled, mutton dried, mutton any way you like it. Dried yak meat boiled and added to rice. Dried camel meat served the same way. Even I have to admit the meat was getting a little tiring. "Do you have a salad to get with that slaughtered goat?"
- Tea. Not your average cup of earl grey, the tea is warmed goat, mare, or yak milk, heavily salted, and served piping hot. The first few times the tea went down without issue, but after cup one
hundred and forty eight, it was getting to be a bit much. Yet tradition says when you enter a ger you are served (and expected to drink) this tea. We always smiled and drank, then gagged when finally left alone.
- Alcoholism. It's a real problem here, maybe a leftover from soviet rule. Local men seem to get drunk every night and then proceed to hassle (and even assault) foreigners and locals alike. Two nights ago a visibly drunk man put a knife to my back and took my beverage, nothing else. Scary.
- Leaky tent. On our trek the rain joined us for the last three nights of travel. With towel in hand, we did our best to dry a persistent soak, giving up twice to humbling ask a local if we could sleep in their ger. Authentic experience to sleep next to the families, but maybe overstepping our bounds.
Of course there's so much more great and not so great with Mongolia, but if you want to learn more about it you should just come here yourself. Alyssa and I are doing well, a little tired but excited to get back to China (we are
actually craving greasy Chinese food rather than another cup of tea). From China we haven't decided where to go next, either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, then maybe a foray into Uzbekistan. The visa situation is a hassle, making a beach in Greece all the more enticing. We'll see.
Hope all is well back home. Happy birthday Dad, Kylie, HS and anyone I may have forgotten. And happy fathers day.
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