Adventures in the land of Manly Men
The main part of my Mongolian adventures was a trip organized by Ger to Ger, travelling with the nomads (and 2 Norwegians I met online) then visiting a few sights by jeep.
June 28, 7:23: Dragon Bus Center, Ulaanbaatar
I don’t see any dragons. Buses, yes. OK. We’re getting on a bus for Rashaant, where we’ll be met by a jeep that will transport us to our first ger (yurt.)
June 28, 14:00: Mr. Byambatogoth’s ger
Our first ger! We’re waiting for camels, and then we’re going to ride around a bit.
When we got here, we were served milk tea and yogurt. The yogurt was made by Mrs. Byambatogoth from milk from their goats. Yum! We played a few traditional games with their 7 year old son, Batgere. These games are played with dried sheeps’ ankle bones.. one was a horse race (Batgere won) and one was somewhat like marbles. Then Batgere found one of the Norwegians’ cell phone, and spent the rest of the time enjoying its much more modern games.
June 28, 20:00
We just finished dinner, which is served late in herder families. The camels were eventually found 3 hills over but they (being camels and therefore stubborn) refused to come back, so we rode horses on our afternoon’s trip. This was a short trip out to an Ovoo, which is a log teepee covered in prayer flags. You worship it by walking around it 3 times, tossing in 3 stones, and making a wish.
On the way back from the Oovo, we helped Mrs. Byambatogoth (who was guiding us) herd the family’s goats into a corral near their gers. It turns out herding goats is really easy. I’m sure she could have done it just as quickly without us :) Then we played volleyball outside, and a 10 year old neighbourhood kid rode up to join us. I also got to try milking a goat.. it turns out I’m not very good at this.
Later in the evening, they kicked the goats out of the corral and brought in all the small sheep. One of them made a run for it, so Batgere chased it down and grabbed it by the wool. It was too heavy for him to lift but since Mongolia is the country of Manly Men, he couldn’t let us help. One of the Norwegians finally found a solution: he told Batgere to carry the sheep behind his neck, which allowed him to take most of its weight without Batgere noticing :)
June 29, 13:00: Mr. Otgonbayr’s ger
We rode to this ger on the last family’s horses. Our bags went by Super Mustang, which is a horse of the iron variety. I rode on the family’s prized saddle, which our guide said was worth over $1000. It was really uncomfortable! Mongolian saddles are made of wood, which makes them uncomfortable at the best of times. This one had some extra silver ornaments that served as pressure points inside my thighs. FAIL.
When we arrived, the Otgonbayr family was busy shearing their sheep. Apparently the wool is worth 50¢ per kilogram. They offered to let me try shearing myself, but the sheep were covered in ticks so I declined.
I’ve been misled all my life into believing that Manly Men smoke Marlboros. It turns out that that’s just a marketing ploy. Real Manly Men smoke cigarettes they’ve rolled themselves out of newspaper!
June 29, 20:30
After the sheep were sheared, Mr. Otgonbayr put together an oxcart and we trundled slowly to some nearby sand dunes. Sitting on the oxcart was a nice break from the Mongolian saddle and the sand dunes were neat. We’re pretty far from the Gobi Desert.. this is what they call the Minigobi: a patch of desert 280km long but only 500m-1000m wide.
The Otgonbayrs have a bicycle, so I took it out for a ride. Wide open pastures, occasionally dotted by a few gers.. nothing too surprising there :)
June 30, 13:00: Mr. Idertsogt’s ger
In the morning, we rode to Mr. Idertsogt’s ger on the Otgonbayr’s horses. These were nice horses with great Russian saddles, which are made of leather.. but the ride wasn’t too comfortable for me since I had to carry my backpack, heavy enough to be uncomfortable.
As we were leaving the Otgonbayrs, a truck pulled in (to ask directions) with the parts for a ger on the back. I found out that 2 experienced people can assemble a ger in about 30 minutes. Last time I saw one built was at Burning Man, where it took about 40 people 2 hours and 2 attempts! Herder families move their gers 2-4 times a year, usually less than 10km each time.
June 30, 16:00
We had a good ride in the afternoon. Russian saddle + no backpack + good horse = win. I’m starting to see why someone would choose to ride horses for fun :)
We rode out to Swan Lake and saw some distant swans, then rode to another part of the Minigobi. Our guide didn’t speak any English but we communicated by drawing pictures on the sand! He also wrestled one of the Norwegians. I’m not sure who won.
June 30, 21:30
The rest of my afternoon was fairly eventful.. we played soccer with a couple of local kids in the family sheep corral, then the kids left to herd in the sheep (bareback.) Before dinner, I went out to climb a nearby rock formation, accompanied by one of the family dogs. In past evenings I’ve been worried about missing dinner (Mongolians refuse to even guess when meals will be ready or events in general will happen) but I realized that it doesn’t matter.. Manly Men are prone to disappearing for hours to herd animals or whatever, and the women are used to that. Dinner will be kept warm until they get back. And it was :)
Happy birthday Mom :)
Last night, I went outside to pee in the middle of the night. As well as "so many stars", there were "so many sheep!" Our ger was surrounded on all 4 sides!
This morning, more shearing.. it was the Idertsogts’ day for it. This time, I helped out. It turns out I’m not very good at the actual shearing, but I’m very good at catching sheep and tying them up to be sheared.
July 1, 19:00: tourist camp near Karakorum
After the sheep were sheared, we went for another horse ride with our excellent guide (described to us as Mr. Idertsogt’s brother.. wouldn’t that make him Mr. Idertsogt as well?) to a local monument. Then we convinced him to go furthur, to the next rock outcropping, and we climbed it.
After lunch, we were picked up by the Ger to Ger van, which drove us to Karakorum, which I believe is Mongolian for "not much left." This was the capital of Mongolia in the 13th century, but there’s essentially nothing from that period remaining except for the temple walls. These now house a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which was built on the site in 1585. Still, this was nice to see, especially considering it had English signs and explanations, so I got to learn what many of the things I was used to seeing in these temples actually were.
Surrounding Karakorum is a rundown industrial city. We drove out of that and into a "tourist camp", which is like a hotel but with gers instead of rooms. They had hot showers, which was nice (nomadic gers don’t even have running water – Manly Men bathe in the river, or not at all.)
Oh yeah, Manly Men (and women) don’t wear seatbelts. I spent about ½h of our first long van trip digging out the clicker for my seatbelt from under the seat cover, which had been installed without regard for seatbelts. Also about an hour into the drive, the road got really rough and our guide’s unfastened seatbelt was bouncing around and bothering her… so she pulled it over her lap and held it there for about 20 minutes!
After dinner at the tourist camp, the Norwegians did some archery, thus completing the "3 Manly Sports", which are horseracing, wrestling, and archery. They weren’t very good at it.. I didn’t even try, because I already know I’m not good at archery :)
July 2: Tsinhir Hot Springs
This morning we drove to another tourist camp in the remote Tsinhir Valley. We made it in time for lunch, followed by a soak in the hot springs. These aren’t as nice as a Japanese onsen but are way nicer than the hot springs we stopped at in Tibet, which nobody wanted to use (even our Tibetan guide said they were too dirty!)
And after that… nothing. There’s nothing to do in Tsinhir. I hiked to the source of the hot spring and up a few hills, then it started to rain. I’d already finished my book, but I found a clone of Guitar Hero on my phone.. not that great :(
July 3: The long trip back to UB
We set out reasonably early from Tsinhir and drove for a couple of hours… then the van broke.
Our guide was able to phone the regional coordinator, who promised to send a car from Rashaant (2-3 hours away) to rescue us. Meanwhile our driver took the engine apart (Manly Men do that) and located the broken piece (a lever that ran between the camshaft and one of the engine valves.) We all walked down to the nearest ger to hang out but after an hour or two, that got boring. To make a very long story short, after almost 7 hours of waiting, a truck showed up with 2 mechanics, the regional coordinator, some food (finally!), and some parts. They spent the next hour fixing the van and we drove out.
By the time we reached Rashaant, it was dark and there were no more buses back to UB, so we had to spend the night there. Rashaant is even less interesting than Tsinhir, and really not a nice place in general. UB is surrounded by suburbs of fenced off yards with gers and rundown bulidings.. but in Rashaant, that’s all there is!
July 4: UB, finally
In the late morning, we took the first bus to UB, arriving mid-afternoon.. only 18 or so hours behind schedule. Luckily I had just enough time to do laundry, shower, and buy groceries before my train to Irkutsk.
So… well… mixed feelings about Ger to Ger. The first part of the adventure was fun, but the last few days were quite boring, with not enough to do at all. Also, I’m really unimpressed with yesterday. Why did the coordinator spend her time finding mechanics and van parts rather than sending another vehicle to pick us up and worrying about the van later? Good thing my train didn’t leave until today…
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