As usual, we were the last to arrive at the meeting place, even though it was a relatively relaxed 9AM meet. The owner of the camp that we were staying at, Pujee, came in to town to pick us up (and in a Mitsubishi Delica no less!). I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but the traffic in Ulaanbaatar (UB) really is horrible. Actually, the roads are even worse – some of the potholes span across several lanes!
We had a quick pitstop at a local food mart, stocking up on the important things, like booze and snacks (and water). Alcohol is pretty cheap here. A 1.5L plastic bottle of local beer cost T3500 ($2).
When we eventually came out of the shop, we were told that we were going to be traveling there in a different car as the Delica wasn’t running well. (My suspicions were the EGR as it was pumping out black smoke and was down on power, but I later heard that it was probably the turbo). So, two other drivers came and picked us up.
It didn’t take long to swap the haze and congestion of the city for the blue skies and mountain ranges of the countryside – it really was beautiful. There was a small toll station T500 ($0.30) and the roads from here were lovely smooth tarmac, instead of lumpy sections of concrete.
First stop along the way was at the giant Chinggus Khan (Genghis Khan was a translation error) statue. Our friends had said it was big, and even though I knew it was 40m high, I was still amazed at the size of it when his head popped over a hill. Not only was I amazed at the size, I also didn’t expect it to be made from brilliant shining stainless steel.
It was free to enter the grounds, but for T7000 ($4) you could visit the museum downstairs (which seemed to have much more interesting artefacts than the museum in town) and also climb up to the top of the statue to look Chinggus in the eyes.
The detail in the monument was truly amazing, little things like the stitching in his gloves, or the eagle on his sword were all visible. It was also a good vantage point to look out across the land. We had fortunately just beaten the tour groups and had an audience with Chinggus to ourselves.
Downstairs it was turning in to a circus, with a huge group of Germans getting dressed in traditional clothes for a photo shoot (which we also wanted to do, but didn’t want to wait) and dozens of Mongolian school kids running around.
There was also an eagle handler outside with two eagles and an enormous vulture on display for people to hold and pose for photos. It was only T6000 ($3), so Risa had a go. I’m not sure why, but she chose the biggest of the birds – the enormous vulture. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t able to hold the weight of the bird on her outstretched arm, so the handler had to assist her (and the other men that posed afterwards). It was an impressively large bird, especially when it posed with wings spread (which I’m sure it has been trained to do). Its claws had also been clipped, so it wasn’t so likely to do damage to your arm through the protective glove.
The next stop on the tour en-route to the camp was at the questionably named Turtle Rock. We’d driven into an area with ranges formed of old eroded rocks. There was yet another toll point, but this time only T300 ($0.20), secured by a large-framed middle-aged woman missing teeth, holding a piece of rope up across the road. We also noticed a steady increase in tourist ger camps.
Turtle Rock is quite prominent and impressive, but I didn’t really see the resemblance to a turtle (but looking at the photos I can now see it). We climbed up the back side where we were able to enter the middle of the rock. This is said to be the turtle’s womb. There was also a tiny hole (the turtle’s vagina, no less) you could squeeze through to be reborn. There was lots of money under small rocks, all donations from people searching and praying for fertility assistance.
After being reborn, we found ourselves on the ledge of a cliff. Our tour guide joked that we could climb down, but it looked sheer – seems we all failed to detect that it was actually a joke. Good thing I didn’t try! Looking at it from below after we had climbed down made me realise just how high and steep it actually was. We had to return the way we came, once again squeezing back through the narrow passage way (turtle vagina).
The weather forecast had been for cloudy weather for the rest of the week, so we were really happy with the blue skies and sunshine.
Next stop was the rendezvous with Pujee and the horses he’d prepared for us to get to his camp, as the little front wheel drive cars weren’t going to be able to cross the rivers and get through the mud. However, when we got there, there were only three horses for seven people. So, we shuffled out of the cars in to another two (front wheel drive) cars, a motorbike and three of the girls jumped on horses. It didn’t really make sense, but we just went along with it. The little Toyotas handled the 40cm deep water quite well, but it still felt a little adventurous and inappropriate tackling it in those cars. After we crossed the river four or five times, we shuffled again and moved into the one car, one motorbike and three horses. We now had to deal with the muddy trail, and to the credit of the lady driving, we only got bogged once (and it didn’t take long to push our way out).
We passed several other nomadic herder ger camps before we reached Dream Adventures. We dropped our bags in our tent and went for lunch. The tents were really, really comfortable. Inside there were four beautiful (if a little short for the taller gentleman) beds and a nice fireplace. No electricity, but we didn’t need any. Because of the extra work required shifting people around, lunch was ready for us when we arrived. Janett, a super friendly Norwegian lady who is married to Pujee and basically runs the camp, made some amazing buuz (a traditional Mongolian dumpling) as well as some much needed salad.
Their little son, Storm, was awesome. So much epic in such a small (but deceptively heavy) package. How many kids that can barely walk have you seen mounted up on a horse?
As soon as lunch was over (and with a stomach full of food), we got ready to ride some horses. I have nervously sat on a horse before, but that was the limit of my experience. The team at the camp were great and simply explained the process to us. Mongolian horses are fairly small (as far as horses go). They are also usually trained to be mounted from the left side, plus the verbal commands are in Mongolian (choo to go, husch to stop). I was given the largest (relatively) of the horses, who also happened to be one if the calmest – perfect match. It took a while to learn how to coax my calm (though I prefer lazy) horse to move, and even then it wasn’t much more than a slow and very bumpy trot. The camera hanging from my side was spooking the horse, so I had to give it to Pujee (who took great delight in playing with it). My horse would speed up after a kick/whip for about 10 or 15 steps, then fall back into the same walking pace. I kind of gained an appreciation for the saying ‘flogging a dead horse’ – not that it was in anyway dying.
We ended up riding for a few hours, up some big hills that have a great outlook on this beautiful part of Mongolia. I was having more luck at making my horse go fast, which was making everything more fun. The pain however was intense – from my knees and arms, but mostly from my butt. Oh, and the occasional whack to my testicles. Any speed between walking and a full gallop was met with clenched teeth and wincing.
I underestimated the intelligence of the horses. Once we had turned around and were on our way back, they started to pick up speed, anticipating being back and resting in the paddock.
We didn’t get back until after 7PM, but the sun doesn’t set until nearly 8:30. Enough time to have a quick rest and put some giant beers in the river to chill before dinner – which was some steamed bread and a mutton and vegetable soup. Janett has added her own Western touch to Mongolian food, incorporating many things that our foreign taste buds enjoy, such as vegetables and some spices or flavouring. We tried some of the local vodka (with pickles as a chaser) and started on the big beers.
It didn’t last long though, we were invited to their newly built sauna ger (which we’re told is very unique) and decided alcohol was not a good mix. The sauna ger had a really relaxing interior (and a quite intense heat). But, it really started to get sweaty when Pujee started really pouring water on the hot rocks. It was too much for me to take, so I had to have a quick towel bath and tap out.
The sauna had sapped all energy and motivation from us, so the night kind of ended when we got back to the tents.
I’d hoped to be able to take some nice photos of the stars, but the twilight hung around for hours, and then a near full moon rose destroyed any hopes of a good photo. Apart from the bed being a bit short, and it getting quite cold in the early hours of the morning once the heat of the fire had well and truly escaped, we slept quite well.
After breakfast, which was AMAZING waffles with fresh cream and jam, we saddled up again for another ride. There had been a few showers pass over already this morning, but it looked OK outside, just high clouds. I left the camera at home – no risk damaging it, when it wasn’t going to be as pretty as it was yesterday anyway. We got the same horses as yesterday, which was good I guess. Mine was still lazy, except for the brief period after a whip to the hind quarters. Actually, all I had to do was hold the whip out to the side and into the horse’s peripheral vision to get the message to him. Once he accepted the fact that we were going to go, and not at a walking pace, he kept the pace up. The intense pain on my bottom didn’t last too long, and by the end of the ride it was barely making me wince.
For the first portion of the ride this morning I kept thinking that I’d rather be on a motorbike (or even a mountain bike), but once my horse started playing along and running, things became fun. Still not as fun as a motorbike, but fun enough that I’d do it again (and recommend it to someone else). Again, like yesterday, once we had started to turn around, I no longer had to coax my horse to pick up the pace – if anything, I had to slow it down on a few occasions. I only had very dubious grip on my saddle, so every time we started a full gallop, I found I had to hold on with two hands, effectively giving up control of the horse. I found that I could kind of control it like a motorbike, leaning to one side to steer it – not that I really needed to, he was on autopilot to go home anyway.
We had a quick noodle lunch, something that I would describe as a Mongolian stir fry. Again, Janett had used a great assortment of vegetables and flavours to make a truly delicious dish. It also gave us a last chance to finish that big bottle of beer – this time a Korean beer, 1.6L for T4000 ($2.5).
We packed our bags and said our goodbyes – teary for some as they’d become quite close with our host family. It had also started raining again, this time it was quite heavy. We were also trying to work out how we were going to get back to UB. This time instead of using horses and a car and a motorbike, we were going to make do with just the car and the bike. The girls (five of them) and the luggage went with the car, and the boys (two of us) jumped onto the back of the bike with Pujee. I was actually pretty keen to take the bike out for a ride, but we hadn’t really had the right opportunity. This wasn’t really what I had in mind – sitting on the luggage rack of a bike, in the rain and through the mud. It was still an adventure (more fun when my poor tender arse wasn’t being smashed by the luggage rack when we went over bumps), but not quite the one I had in mind.
I suggested to Pujee that maybe we should wait where the car got stuck yesterday – we only just got through yesterday and had had a reasonable amount of rain since then. So, we waited for a while, taking turns to buzz around on the motorbike, which was fun. After waiting for a while, Pujee thought that they must have taken a different route, so we jumped back on the bike and raced towards the river. I wasn’t sure how we were going to cross the river with the three of us on the bike, but what I didn’t realise was there was a very rough and narrow trail on the bank that avoided the crossings. However, it was too narrow for the three of us, so I jumped off and ran the rest of the way – I hate running, but this wasn’t so bad for some reason.
Unfortunately, when we reached the meeting point, the other group wasn’t there, neither was the second car to shuttle us back to UB. Pujee left Mike and I behind and went back to try and find the other group. Even though there was mobile reception in this remote area, none of us had phones that worked – I had no SIM card, Mike had no power (and a small SIM card), and Pujee had no phone. He was gone for nearly an hour, and Mike and I killed time by hitting stones across the river with sticks. We heard the sound of Pujee’s bike just as the rain started again. By the time the car with the girls arrived at the last river crossing, the rain was pouring down. This additional rain over the last 24-hours had unsurprisingly raised the level of the river, so much so that crossing was going to be risky. Pujee stripped down to his underwear and walked across the freezing river to test the depth – half-way up his thigh.
I honestly thought it was going to be too deep for this car to cross, but to her credit, the driver hopped in the car and went for it. It didn’t look promising – mid way across the water was well above the wheels. The car was nearly out when it suddenly stopped and I thought that was it. I was unlacing my boots ready to jump in to help push the car to the shore. It was slipping and sliding on the exit of the crossing, but somehow it found the smallest amount of traction and made it out. It was incredible. Now, after she’d used an abandoned bowl we found on the side of the river to clear the pools of water from the footwells of the car, we were back on track to UB. That is, after one last stretch on the back of the bike in the freezing rain. I had two choices, pull my hood down and keep my head warm/dry, remove the hood and see – I chose sight.
We met with the second driver, shook the water off our wet clothes, said our goodbyes to Pujee, and tried to stay awake for the ambitious drive home – his overtaking efforts were to be applauded.
The drama was almost over. We assumed that the other car would be dropped off where we were picked up (and also dropped off), but after waiting in the cold and the wet for over half an hour (and without any way of communicating the other group), we gave up and walked home to find that the girls were already back, had showered and were dry and warm.
It was a lazy pizza for dinner, a large load of washing and then packing and preparing for our journey to the Gobi (early) tomorrow morning. As usual, it was last minute, with concerned emails from the tour agent trying to find out where we were staying (for a transfer to the airport) as well as a way for us to settle the balance – several attempts with several credit cards all failed, so cash-in-hand it was to be.