Friday, May 11, 2007

A Short Note From Moron

Moron, Mongolia - I'm going to keep this short as our driver is waiting in the van outside. We're stopping today in Moron (pronounced differently than you would expect, but unfortunately, I can never remember the proper pronunciation due to obvious obstacles). We need to resupply at the market, check email, take our first shower in over 5 days, and charge camera batteries.

Anyway... for the sake of time I'm not going to go into any detail here. You all will just have to wait until June for that sort of stuff. Why?? Because, we're on the move. I feel like Morgan Spurlock (30 Day... tv show) has sent us out to live the nomadic Mongolian life for the next 30 days. The only difference is that we move every day or so, instead of every season. Each day we travel about 150 km of so called "road." The road seems to be more of an indent in the grass than a road. Seriously though, today was the first pavement we've seen since lunch in Lun, 5 days ago. We've been spending our days bumping up and down in the back of this gray, Russian made box and our nights staying with families in traditional Gers. It's been great! The incredible landscapes seem to be endless.

Tomorrow, we are returning to the wilds. We will continue north to Khoysgol Nuur National Park where we will rustle up some horses and go looking to the elusive reindeer people. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Beijing to Ulaan Batar and Beyond

Ulaan Batar, Mongolia – Today is our last day in Ulaan Batar. Due to a lazy day yesterday, we have lots of errands to do before our departure early tomorrow morning (including updating the blog.) But first let’s back up one week…

Friday, April 27th was our last Day in Beijing. We spent it in Beijing with Pat, who had only two more days left before his return home. Since we had all pretty much seen most of the tourist spots we had cared to see in Beijing, we decided to take a wander out to the 2008 Olympic site and see how things were coming along. The main buildings including the center piece stadium are well underway; however there seems to be quite a lot of work left to do when it comes to everything else. There are tons of hotels that are not even half done, the roads and parking haven’t even been started, and the new metro line is nothing but a long hole in the ground. The shocking thing is that much of this major construction is still being done with the not-so-modern equipment typical of Chinese building sites. You see this ultra modern web of steel (looking somewhat like a large bird’s nest) going up in the background, while right in front of you materials are being hauled in with a tiny tractor that looks like it is being held together only by the layers of mud and oil that have collected over the centuries. Anyway…it will be interesting to see how they pull it all together.

The Olympic Stadium

That night we all went out for a nice dinner of Peking duck. Mmmm…a sizzling slice of duck fat dipped in hoisin sauce…it doesn’t get any better than that!

On Saturday (4/28) we caught the 7:00 am train to Mongolia. The 30 hour train ride was relaxing and uneventful as most good train rides are. The only excitement came at the borders. We hit the Chinese border at 8:00 pm, where most of the passengers filed off the train to ransack the duty free shop in search of massive amounts of fruit and beer. The train is then taken away for about 3 hours so that its undercarriage can be changed out to accept the narrow gauge tracks in Mongolia. At about 1:00 am we reached the Mongolian border for another 2 hour stop, where the customs official, a stern and stout woman in a Soviet-styled uniform straight out of James Bond movie (or rather an Austin Power’s movie), barked a few pointed questions at us before stamping our passports and letting us sleep the rest of the night.

The Train From Beijing to Ulaan Batar

On Sunday (4/29) we arrived in Ulaan Batar, and like our arrival in China, things did not go smoothly. When we got off the train, things started pretty easy. Although we did not call ahead for a reservation, we found someone from the guesthouse we were planning to stay in waiting at the station. After stocking up on Togrog at the station’s ATM, we piled into a Russian built 4-wheel-drive minivan taxi with a Swiss family of four. Once at the guesthouse we all piled out and Suwei helped the Swiss family unload their stuff as I went and checked out the room. The room looked good so we plopped down our bags, and started getting ready to go out and find something nice to eat. That’s when I noticed that I didn’t have my day pack.

On travel days I keep in my daypack, my camera, my book, toilet paper, water, ipod headphones, etc. I keep it in my day pack because I want access to it and I want to keep it close at all times. This trip was no different. When I got off the train the bag was strapped to my chest, when I climbed into the taxi I had it firmly on my lap, when I came back to the room after washing my face… I had no idea where the bag was. I felt like Suwei looked in the Beijing airport.

I must have left it in the taxi. Two of the girls from the guesthouse suggested that we leave right away to check to see if the taxi returned to the train station. The girls flagged down a car and we went back to the station, but the van was not to be seen. Then we checked the long distance bus station across from the guesthouse. There were about 10 identical, Russian-made minivans, but we didn’t find the one we were looking for. The girls then suggested that we check the black market for the van. At the market there was another parking lot full of the same gray vans, but again none of them belonging to our driver. At that point, I figured the bag was gone.

In the parking lot of the black market the two girls from the guesthouse start asking the other drivers about the van that picked us up. How they figured who was driving is still a mystery to me, but the other drivers knew the guy. They agreed to give him a call and find out where he was without letting on that he may have a bag containing a lot of valuables in the back of his van. Let me try to set the scene… The two girls, six drivers, and I are sitting in one of these decrepit vans to avoid the cold and dusty winds blowing across the parking lot from the north. All conversations were in Mongolian, except for the rare translation from Hishka, the girl with the best English. “The driver, he is at home.” “He says he remember picking us up at the station.” “He says he didn’t see any bag.”

Either he is lying or I’m going crazy. Back at the guesthouse I talked to Idre, the owner about contacting the police as we now had the driver’s name, his vehicle number, and his phone number. He suggested not to, advising that if we could get the driver to agree to meet us we might have better luck. However, at that point the driver was no longer answering his phone. A half an hour later Hishka’s phone rang. It was the driver. He tells us his phone battery went dead and needed a charge. He agrees to meet with us.

This time Suwei and I climbed into Idre’s van with the two girls, Idre’s wife, and a driver from the guesthouse. We wind our way around the many pot holes and crumbling curbs of Ulaan Batar’s windy and dusty back alleys (avoiding a bike race taking place on the main drag, Peace Avenue) until we reached the parking lot of a bank where we met the taxi driver and his wife. It seemed as if everyone was speaking at the same time, again all in Mongolian. Suwei and I had no idea what was going on except for Hishka’s translations. “He says he hasn’t seen any bag.” “He says we can not check the van because the van is at his home” “He is asking if it was you who lost the bag.” “He wants to know what was in the bag.”

Finally after about 15 minutes of this game, the driver admitted to having the bag. Hishka asked me how much money I had on me and how much I could give him. We agreed on $20 US for his “honesty.” With that the driver walked over to a white car and pulled the bag from the spare tire well in the trunk. In the end I felt pretty damn lucky. I figured the $20 was the cost of my own stupidity. As a bonus I got a picture of the taxi’s driver’s wife at home.

Ulaan Batar

Since Sunday we have been in Ulaan Batar getting errands done and waiting for our Kazakhstan visas. However, on Wednesday and Thursday (5/2 & 5/3), we got out of town for a bit. Way back in February when we were still climbing at the rock gym in Belmont, we talked to Steve Fitzmorgan, an old friend from Confused and fellow gym rat, about our proposed trip to China. Steve strongly suggested that we spend less time in central China and more time in Mongolia. He and his wife Kimber, had spent a lot of time in Mongolia and had liked it so much that they had decided to move there in order to help a local friend start up a horse camp outside of Ulaan Batar. We wrote down his email and told him we’d think about it.

Fitz’s (Steve’s) praise was one of the main reasons we decided to visit Mongolia and when we finally got around to emailing him last week, we learned that he and Kimber had just made their move and were currently setting up shop in Ulaan Batar. Long story short on Wednesday morning we ended up packed into a car with Kimber and her friend Mende heading out to the Stepperiders horse camp about 40 minutes south of UB. Mende and his wife Binah own the camp and have asked Steve and Kimber to help run it for the season. We were going out there to see what they were up to and to lend a hand in the set up.

Kimber had mentioned over dinner Monday night that the Stepperiders horse camp was going to be the base camp for horseback riding trips – trips that would last one week or less, targeted toward the backpacker-type of traveler, not the dirt-bag-type travelers, but not the hold-my-hand-and-wipe-my-butt-type travelers either. If interested you can check out there blog at

Stepperiders Horse Camp

Our first task was to help Fitz and Mende dig the latrine. They had started the hole the day before and were down about 1 meter when we arrived. Mende wanted it 4 meters deep (so that it doesn’t have to be re-dug and won’t stink). It was hard work. Pick, pick, pick, shovel, shovel, shovel. We rotated every 5 to 10 minutes. The hole was about 3 meters deep when we quit for dinner.

That night we slept in our first ger. A ger is the traditional Mongolian hut or what we sometimes think of as a yurt. The next morning, hardly able to move due to sore muscles, we took on the much easier task of assembling Steve and Kimber’s ger.

Building the Ger

Fitz & Kimber - Mongolian Gothic

Tomorrow, Sunday (5/6) we head west. We have hired a car and a guide for the next 30 days. We could probably make it across Mongolia using local transportation, but we felt that the time involved in waiting for rides would be better spent going to places where local transport can’t take you. That and the fact that Hishka (the girl that helped us with the bag) is going to be our guide made the decision that much easier. We are really looking forward to seeing more of the countryside.

That said… we will probably be out of touch for the next few weeks and will not be able to update the blog until we get to Olgii at the end of May or to Kazakhstan the first week of June. Please be patient, I’m sure we will have plenty to write about then.

Catch you in a few weeks!

Here is the link to the slideshow.

Beijing, China to Ulaan Batar, Mongolia