Monday, June 25, 2007

Not Crossing Kazakhstan

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - Ok, so we just got back to Bishkek after 5 days of trekking up in the Tian Shan mountains south of Karakol. It was truly beyond beautiful, but you all will have to wait for the photos. We are behind on our blogging and would like to show a bit of Kazakhstan first.

But... before I do that, I want to share a Mongolian joke.

On our last day in the Altai Range, I saw Khishgee reading a small, well-used and slightly torn book. I asked her what it was. She said it was a joke book. I then asked her to read a few to me as I wanted to post a Mongolian joke to the blog. She read about 20 before we both realized that they all pretty much sucked. Birah overheard us and said he had a good one. This is the joke he told... with a few enhancements:

A man riding across the steppe really has to pee. He climbs off his horse faces the wind and lets it go. The wind blows and he gets pee all over his pants. Thinking himself a smart man, he figures he has learned his lesson and vows never to do that again.

Later that day, he feels a gurgling in his stomach and realizes that he's got a bad case of diarrhea (K - probably ate too much yak yogurt). Remembering his experience earlier in the day, he squats...this time with his back to the wind, and....gets shit all over his pants!

Ok, so the punch line is a little weak and a bit awkward, but it had a true Mongolia feel to it.

Ok...on to Kazakstan...

Even if I hadn't rented "Borat" a week before our departure from California, I still would have been shocked upon entering Kazakhstan. Knowing that the "Kazakhstan" portrayed in the film was completely fictional, the only preconceived notions I had of the country came from our time in the Kazakh province of Bayan-Olgii in western Mongolia (see Crossing Mongolia - Part 4). Unlike western Mongolia where the centuries old nomadic culture has continued to thrive almost unchanged in relative isolation, the culture in Kazakhstan has suffered two generations of Soviet influence. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 did not mean a return to their roots. Instead they powered ahead fueled by huge reserves of natural resources to become central Asia's most successful economy. Borat couldn't afford to live in modern Kazakhstan.

Statue of a traditional Kazakh in front of a not-so-traditional apartment block

Due to cost contraints, we decided not to explore the countryside of Kazakhstan and elected instead to stay in Almaty. Once we got use to the sticker shock and learned how to live a bit more cheaply, we realized that we really liked the city. Almaty is the commercial center of Kazakhstan and is the most cosmopolitan city in all of central Asia. As Suwei mentioned earlier, it is the first place where neither one of us looked out of place. The city is also quite beautiful, with tree-lined streets, snow-capped mountains, lush green parks, and fountains everywhere that actually worked. But...we were still paying 80 bucks a night so we need to stay focused, figure out our next move, and move quickly.

When we arrived in Almaty we didn't have a clue. We searched for a Central Asia Lonely Planet book in Ulaan Baatar, but couldn't find one. We were flying blind. Day 2 in the city was spent looking for cheaper lodging. We floundered a bit in the morning following a series of bad directions to a number of suggested locations of internet cafes. We ended up in the Hotel Kazakstan speed surfing for budget hotels at 25 Tenge a minute. Forty minutes and six dollars later we concluded that there were none. The nice woman manning the business center there spent about a half hour on the phone calling around to every hotel in the phone book. She was the one who found the quirky Russian hotel up on the hill where we ended up staying all week. I don't remember the name of the hotel as there was no sign outside. (S - The Armand Hotel, if anybody happens to heading in that direction soon and needs a cheap place to crash.) The front entrance was in the back of what looked like a big pink observatory hidden in the trees of a gated community. We were sold by lunch our first day there.

We were greeted by a heavyset Russian woman with limited but functional English skills. She seemed surprised that we had actually found the place (it took the taxi driver over an hour). Since there was nothing but trees near the hotel, we asked if there was someplace we could get lunch. She led us through a maze of ornate ballrooms, half-constructed hallways, and concrete stairwells to a shabby little room next to the kitchen with a few folding tables. She asked us what we would like for lunch:

"What do you have?"
"Cold soup."
"Ok, cold soup sounds good. Do you have anything else?"
"Let me check."

She shuffles off back into the kitchen. A few minutes later she returns.

"Liver and macaroni."
"Anything else?"
"Ok, we'll have the liver and macaroni."
"Do you want supper tonight?"
"Yes, we would."
"What would you like for supper?"
"Ummm, what do you have?"
"Let me check."

She disappears into the kitchen again for a few more minutes.

"Meat and rice."
"Anything else?"
"Ok, we'll have the meat and rice then."
"What time you eat?"
"How about 7:00pm?"
"Ok, 7:00pm, one minute please."

Again to the kitchen.

"No 7:00 pm, 6:00 pm. The cooks go home."
"Ok, 6:00 pm."

The cold soup, the macaroni, and the liver were very, very tasty. But for supper we ended up eating in town since we had to find an ATM as the hotel would take nothing but Tenge. The next few days our favorite receptionist was replaced by a series of other, very similar, heavyset Russian women with no English, but we were already sold and decided to stay.

Our state of confusion began to turn around on day 3 after we met Nick, an American working for a real estate agency in the Alatau Hotel. We found his name on an expatriate website listing possible sources for cheap apartments. Over coffee (S - good coffee...brewed, not instant and free...I have to mention this because a cup of drip coffee cost $4 in Almaty and I had not had any non-instant coffee for well over a month) he advised that if we liked our hotel we should stay as beating the price would be next to impossible. He also suggested we talk to CAT (Central Asian Tours) about our onward travel plans and he gave us a few possible sources for English language guide books.

We took his advice and went to the CAT office. We walked away from there with a list of possible routes and their corresponding prices. We walked to Ramstore (a mall and department store) where we looked for a guide book and ate lunch. We passed up the AFC (American Fried Chicken: "The taste that is in your mind.") for gyros in the food court. Then we walked to the Inter-Continental Hotel and to the Hyatt Regency where we finally found a LP Central Asia, Copyright 2004. That evening we filled ourselves with pizza and information about Kazakhstan.

Sunday, nothing was open so we took the #6 bus up the hill towards the mountains. The bus was loaded with hikers, climbers and picnickers. And on the road there were mountain bikers, backpackers and Sunday drivers. It seems Almaty is a fairly active town and a good portion of the population head to the hills on their day off. The bus dropped us off at the Medeu Ice Rink (1700 m) and we hiked our way up to the Shymbulak Ski Resort (2300 m). I was sucking some serious wind on the way up (partly due to some stomach issues I'd been having, but mostly due to me being seriously out of shape). We stopped for a rest at the top of an avalanche control damn to watch a guy in a bear suit pretend to eat children and pose for photos. At the ski resort, for 600 Tenge we took a ride on the chair lift hoping to reach Talger Pass. However, we soon realized that it was 600 Tenge per chair lift and it took 3 lifts to reach the pass. Being cheap bastards, we elected to work off our salami and cheese lunch by sucking more wind. Clouds and rain moved in before we made it to the pass so we turned back towards home. It really was nice up there.

Monday and Tuesday we spent a lot of time walking around town getting things done. Here is what we did:
  • Waited in line at the Kyrgyzstan Embassy to apply for visas.
  • Got coffee and pasteries at Thomi's.
  • Walk around in circles looking for a post office that actually sold stamps.
  • Got a haircut. Now I really look like a Russian.
  • Walked back to the Kyrgyz Embassy to pick up our passports with visa.
  • Took lots of pictures of camel statues that were scattered all over town. (Do any of you San Franciscans remember the hearts?)
  • Washed our clothes in the bathtub and dried them on the towel warmer of our hotel room.
  • Took a ride to the top floors of the highest office complex in town where the US consulate is located. I remember thick bullet-proof doors, a Jasper Johns print of the American flag, and a fantastic view of the city. (We both needed pages added to our passports.)
  • In the consulate we chatted with John, an American working for an NGO in Almaty for the last 3 years. His organization was closing down due to rising living costs and was sending him home in one week. At the same time, his wife had accidently sent his and the dog's passports through the wash and he was at the consulate checking to see if they needed to be replaced. He told us where we could find the best shashlyk in town.
  • Walked and bussed all the way across town to eat shashlyk. Shashlyk is basically kebabs. This particular place, recommended by John, was just a rusty, smoking shack wedged between the sidewalk and a few cars parked on the street. They had tables set up and you could buy beer from a news stand across the street. They weren't ready to serve food yet, but a small crowd had already collected. We had a skewer of pork and a skewer of chicken, soaked in vinegar and sprinkled with paprika. John was right, we've had none better.
  • Ate samosas and icecream (S - had another icecream bars ever) while waiting for a few college kids running a cell phone store in a subway under Dolsky Ave to burn two DVDs to backup all our photos from Mongolia.
  • Took a soak in the Arasan Baths. These public baths cost 1000 T for a two-hour session. It was a bit confusing at first but Suwei and I found our way to the respective male and female sides. Entering the bathes I was approached by four fat men in white coats, looking like overweight orderlies from a funny farm. They wanted to give me a massage. Tempting as it was, I only had enough Tenge in my pocket to rent a pair of shower shoes. I undressed, lockered my stuff, and used my REI pack towel to cover my bits while I checked out the bathes. Figuring out the customs of a foreign land is always tough, but doing so while naked is especially difficult. The first room I entered was full of slabs of marble with buckets of soapy water next to them. In the back of the room a few men were laying on these slabs being slapped by fat men in white coats. I moved on. The next room had showers, of which I partook. Getting the feel for things I tried the Norwegian sauna, the cold pool of the Turkish bathes, and then the excessive heat of the Russian saunas. The Russian saunas were filled with fat old guys beating themselves and each other with myrtle branch (for sale out front) until they turned all pink and puffy. I moved from hot to cold and back again until I was fully refreshed and relaxed. I'm pretty sure Suwei had a slighlty different take that she might want to share.

The next day we caught a minibus to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. More soon. Check out the photos and commentary here:

Almaty, Kazakhstan

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Crossing Mongolia - Part 4

Karakol, Kyrgzstan - Ok, last post on Mongolia. We're attempting to do a little concurrent processing here - Karl's working on Part 3 and I (Suwei) will try my hand at Part 4.

Olgii to South Altai Range - May 28th to May 31st

So we finally made it to Olgii, the capital of the westernmost aimag (province) in Mongolia on Monday the 28th. We planned to get to Olgii a week before leaving Mongolia because we needed to purchase a plane ticket to Almaty, Kazakhstan and you can only purchase plane tickets departing from Olgii in Olgii and in person. We would have like to go by land to Kazakhstan but Mongolia and Kazakhstan don't actually touch. There's a sliver of Russian in between and we would need a Russian visa to cross the sliver -- acquiring a Russian visa takes time and money.

So of course our first task was buying the ticket. We waited for the office to open at 2pm and when we finally got in, we were told there was no room on the Wednesday, June 6th flight. Fine that's why we got here a week early. So how about Friday, June 8th? No, there's no flight on that day. Ok, fine, how about this Wednesday, May 30th? Full. Uh, oh...we had to fly out +/-5 days around June 6th for our Kazakhstan visa to be valid. Then Khishgee stepped in...lots of talk in Mongolian, some hand gesturing...and then she turns to us and says we have 2 seats for June 6th. Huh? Regardless, thank god for Khishgee! So the Air Irtysh representative, erases the names of 2 other people from a 8.5"x11" piece of white paper folded in half length-wise and writes our names down in their place. The sophistication and security of the ticket issuing process had me stunned silent. Next, Khishgee says we need to pay for the ticket to guarantee the seat (the reason why the erased names got erased...they had not paid, yet). NP, I whip out my credit card. No, we accept only cash in Togrog, the Mongolian currency. Well, we did not have that much left in Togrog. In fact we only had maybe $10 worth so it was off to find an ATM. In our first attempt, we waited almost an hour at one bank in a "line" (if you call 4 abreast right at the counter with a jostling crowd behind pushing forward, a line) for what was suppose to be an ATM behind the counter. No ATM. There was a Visa sign right at the counter so how about a cash advance on a Visa card. No again, foreign Visa cards not accepted here. We did finally find a place that would do a cash advance against Mastercard with a small fee of course. I was relieved to finally get paper tickets in hand and had to jump for joy and give Karl a hug.

For the night, Khishgee and Birah found us a hotel in town. One of Birah's "girlfriends" worked in the hotel as the receptionist.

Karl's bed sagged. Not good for Karl's back so he threw the bedding comprised of a pad, sheet and blanket on the floor. Karl went in for a better inspection...was that goat fur where a mattress was suppose to be? (I had a nice thick, firm mattress on my bed.) Or maybe a secret stash of toupes? This might explain the small chunk of meat and gristle stuck in our bathroom sink.

So with errands done and a comfy night sleep, we headed out for the southern side of the Mongolian Altai Range. The landscape changed from dry, dusty hills to rocky deep river valley to finally blue waters, lush green hills and snow capped mountains. In addition to the change in landscape, we had noticed a change in the gers. Taller, bigger and with the stove pipes in the back center of the ger instead of the front center. This meant we were squarely in Kazakh country...Bayan-Olgii is a pre-dominately Kazakh province where Kazakh, not Mongolian, was the primary language.

When we reached the southern part of the Altai range, we stopped to ask for a Kazakh family whose daughter Khishgee had befriended 2 years ago on her first ever guiding trip. And we stopped and attemped to ask. And we stopped and attempted asked. Many times. Some folks would just ride off on their horses after an initial "Sain bai no" (hello in Mongolian), while others would just nod their heads in a gesture of no or I don't understand. Hmmm...Khishgee was feeling a little miffed...repeating that they should know Mongolian...after all, all men in Mongolia are required to do time in the military service where Mongolian is spoken. Oh well, we finally found someone who understood, could speak and was willing to communicate in Mongolian, and knew the family.

The family was still living in their winter home and location which was a wood cabin perched up on a hill. (Just a quick aside...I don't give the name of the family because the last name of a Mongolian comes from the first name of their father.) Apparently their summer home and location would soon be a ger located closer to the shore of the lake...about 100m from the winter home.

Lucky for us the Kazakh family all spoke Mongolian (and Kazakh and some English even) having lived in eastern Mongolia for 18 years. We also noticed that the dress was different: skullcaps for the men, scarf covering the hair for the women, and gone were the traditional Mongolian dels (long jackets).

The next day Khishgee suggested a hike and pointed off in the distance. I think Karl thought she was pointing to some peak with snow on it and enthusiastically nodded his head. Halfway through our hike out, we remembered our visual sense of distance was distorted here in Mongolia and realized this was going to be a long hike. As we got closer to the hill that Khishgee pointed to earlier as our destination, Karl exclaimed, "What? We aren't climbing that peak?" (pointing to a snow-capped peak even farther out). But about 5 seconds later, he realized he was actually relieved because it had been a long hike out and we still had not reached the base of the closer hill.

So at the base, there was a large winter ger complex and we went in to greet the family. We wanted to see if we could leave our horse there. (We had a neighbor's horse with us that we used to cross a river along the way.) We were invited in for the usual Mongolian tea (salty milky tea) and biscuits (deep fried dough that's neither salty nor sweet but usually a bit stale). Khishgee asked in Mongolia whether we could leave the horse with them but all she got was a shake of the head, "no". Was that "no", I don't understand or "no", we could not leave the horse. Khishgee asked several times in Mongolia (getting a little louder each time)...she was a little frustrated, that at one point she accidently asked the question in English. Oh well, all this just meant that we couldn't leave the horse.

Halfway up the hill, we noticed the Kazakh man from the ger complex had followed us up on his horse. He ended up being a pretty friendly guy and helped us out: showed us a few extra carvings, caught our horse when it got free of the rock we tethered it to, and kept Khishgee company while walking the horses up and down the hill.

South to North Altai Range - May 31st to June 3rd

So there's no road from where we were in the south portion of the Altai Range to the north portion where Tavan Boyd resides. No Tavan Boyd is not some famous Mongolian, but the tallest peak in Mongolia at 4374m (14,434ft).

It was a long and rough day of driving. We didn't make it all the way to our goal that day so we stayed with our first Tuvan family. The Tuvans have their own language but the family we stayed with was also fluent in Mongolian. Also back were the traditional Mongolian dels and gers. The second day we finally made it to the end of the road. Literally.

First night and first Tuvan family
on the way to see Tuvan Boyd
Final and farthest west ger complex
we would go to in Mongolia

It pretty much rained for the first day and a little into the second day. It worried Birah a bit...if the rain continued we would not be able to cross the river on the way back. However, by noon of the second day the rain stopped and the sun came out. But it was still cold and blowing so we huddled in the ger and played cards, read and relaxed. Me, I was sick from who knows what...maybe 3 cups of yak yogurt in a 24hr period, maybe being lactose intolerant, maybe the jostling by the rough road, maybe something else I ate, or maybe all of the above. Anyways, I was feeling dizzy and had a deep desire to hurl (or as Karl would say, "Ya feel like yakking?" at which point he would laugh himself silly).

The next day turned out beautiful. No wind. Bright sunshine. Karl took off for a hike up to a plateau, across the plateau, and around a smaller peak to see if he could get closer look at Tavan Boyd. He ended up going up to the plateau, across the plateau, realized that going around a peak was going to take too long, and instead, on the way back, he hiked up and over the peak. Here's the view he found of Tavan Boyd (it's the peak in the center back).

Khishgee, her friend, Karligash, from the south Altai Range, and I did a little shorter hike. We went up to the plateau behing the gers for a peek at the peak too. Karligash had joined us on the remainder of our journey because she wanted to go to Olgii and see an allergist at the hospital there (anytime she ate something spicy or sweet she would break out in a rash). She had recently graduated with a teaching degree to teach Mongolian. Being fluent in Kazakh and Mongolian and speaking a little English made her invaluable to us for this part of the trip.

Back to Olgii - June 3rd to June 4th

The next day we headed back. We had lunch along the river and also ran into a Mongolian family on the move to their summer pastures. They had dropped some part for their satellite and were going to temporarily camp where we found them while some of family members searched for the part.

It would take 2 days to get back to Olgii. The road we took back was a different than the one we had taken to get there. This road was rough and Birah had never taken it before. Across a river (that ended up being fairly easy), up a mountain pass (winding but Birah took it nice and slow), down the mountain pass (scary, winding and steep with large boulders in the middle of the road but Birah did that in such style that I managed to doze off now and then), and then through a plateau full of mud pits (where we all provided advice though Birah really didn't need it).

Alas, we survived and made it to our very last ger in Mongolia. This one was a summer Kazakh the ones we had been spotting throughout this province. The family only spoke Kazakh but they actually knew Karligash so we were golden. Translation was slow: English to Mongolian and then Mongolian to Kazakh. Least to say there was not much in-depth conversation at this particular stay. We did enjoy the beautifully decorated ger inside and the father of the family did communicate that he wanted us to take some family pictures the next day.

Farewells - June 4th to June 6th

Back in Olgii on Monday (we came back early because I was still feeling a bit sick and we were told our flight might leave a day early). First thing...we dropped our stuff off at the hotel. A different one this time. We noticed 2 cars parked out front, one said, "Beijing to Paris" and the other, "Beijing to Norwich". Karl ran into an English-speaking guide in the hotel who explained that in 2 days cars on a road rally from Beijing to Paris were going to be passing through Olgii. They were here to prep and scout out a route ahead of the participants. We wondered what route they were planning to take out of Mongolia via Olgii. We had heard the last passable road out of western Mongolia was the road to Russia out of Ulaangom about 7 days back.

So after dropping the bags, first things first, we took our first shower in a week at the bath house. The next day, Karl wanted to check out the market but I think we went a bit early and on a weekday so we found it a bit dead except for a few guys playing pool.

Khishgee and Birah took us to the Olgii International Airport for our flight on Wednesday, June 6th. Karl remarked that it was the only international airport that he had been to where the restroom was a set of pit toilets with a wooden shack around it, unisex of course. So these were our last moments in Mongolia...I was sort of ready to move on -- we had spent 38 days in Mongolia...but I was going to miss Khishgee and Birah.

For more pictures, check out the slideshow below.

Crossing Mongolia, Part 4

Crossing Mongolia - Part 3

Karakol, Kyrgyzstan - Ok, yesterday we took a 6 hour bus ride to Karakol and this morning we planned a 5-day trek for the mountains leaving tomorrow morning. Therefore, I must get this put together quickly. So without further ado... Part 3.

Tarialan & The Kharkhiraa Valley - May 20th to May 23rd

The day before we left Khyargas Lake another Russian Van (blue not grey) came limping up to the resort. I'm not sure what was wrong with it, but by the looks of the tortured piece of broken metal they pulled out of it, it wasn't going any further. We therefore had two new passengers (the driver's buddy and the driver's wife), at least until the next village. At one point during the trip Birah hit a particularly nasty bump, sending everyone airborne. I landed somewhere near the side door and Suwei landed on me. Unfortnately, I managed to dislocate my pinky finger in the process. Luckily that pinky has been dislocated so many times that popping it back into place was relatively painless, although I think it grossed Khishgee out.

The closest town was Naranbulag. We dropped off our passenger and stopped at a store to stock up on food. However there was none. Khishgee came out with only a jar of pickles.

Next we stopped at Tarialan, a small town at the bottom of the Kharkhirra Valley where we hoped to do a few days of horse trekking. In town we found Mr. Myagnazjau, a teacher at the school who could organize treks in the summer. Since we were a little early for the season we found him very busy. That day a group of Kazak students from the Bayan-Olgii province were performing for the kids at the school. While he sent out word that we were interested in going into the mountains, we watched the kids perform everything from traditional Kazakh dances to rap music.

At one point during the negotiations, Khishgee asked us where we wanted to go. We told her what we had in mind. She gave us a quizzical look and asked, "But what if that is impossible?" I answered, "Well... then I guess we'll do something else". In the end, despite warnings of wolves, laments about exams, and a long break to watch sumo wrestling on TV, Mr. Myagazjau did manage to pull together a guide and 4 horses for our trek the next day. We ended up staying with Mr. Myagnazjau and his wife (also a teacher) that night and watching another very interesting Mongolian TV show. Translated, the show was called "I'm Mongolian" and was a Mongolian reality show about a group of city kids from Ulaan Baatar sent out to live in a ger in the countryside...Real World meets Mongolia.

We met up with Dasha, our horse guide, at 8am the next morning. The first task, it turned out, was to cut up the tarp covering our bags and stuff in the back of the van to make new saddle bags (Dasha's were not large enough to fit our excessive amount of gear.) Khishgee and Dasha's wife sewed them up (with a hand cranked sewing machine) right at the trailhead.

Our plan was to do 4 days of horseback riding up the Kharkhirra Valley, to the peaks of Kharkhiraa Uul (4037m) and Turgen Uul (3965m). We started off in a narrow valley with a meandering river flowing from side to side. We weren't more than 1/2 hour from the trail head when I started shifting in my saddle. Like the Mongolian horse, the Mongolian saddle is pretty small. Not only that, mine wasn't really a saddle at all. Rather it was two metal bars welded together to form a saddle shape then a few blankets were thrown over the top for padding. The two bars were not very friendly towards my bum cheeks. In addition to that, the back of the saddle was doing a job on my tailbone, while the horn in front pummeled my family bits. And then when I tried to stand, my stirrups were different lengths. I was a wreck. As soon as the valley widened a bit and we could stay on one side of the river, I handed the horse over to Dasha and continued on foot. Suwei joined me after our lunch break.

The valley wasn't very steep and we really didn't do much climbing until late afternoon. We did, however, cover a pretty good distance. We set up camp, ate dinner, and chilled out in our tent enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. At about 6pm it started getting chilly. Not 1 hour later it was down right cold and started to rain which was soon followed by snow. It kept up all night and was still snowing when we ate breakfast in the morning.

Suwei and I would have liked to keep going as we were prepared for the cold, but Dasha and Khishgee definitely were not. Dasha's tent was in dire condition. There were more burn holes in the floor than there was floor. The tent poles were homemade out of bits of metal and couldn't quite support the weight of the nylon fly. I was able to make it stand with the use of duct tape, a cow bone, and a few boulders. But with a dusting of snow, it was on the edge of collapse. Dasha also mentioned that a storm such as this one could continue for up to 3 days. The shivering horses made the decision final. We packed up camp and headed back down the valley (on horse had actually taken to biting people).

Back at the trailhead we spotted Birah and Mr. Myagazjau coming up the road in the van. The said they had seen the storm and figured we'd be bailing. It was nice to get some warm clothes on and chill out in a toasty ger.

Ulaangom - May 23rd to May 24th

Ulaangom means "red sand". According to the Lonely Planet, it is nothing but a "weather beaten slab of concrete". We didn't care, all we wanted was a hot shower and this was the first place since Moron (12 days ago) that we thought we might find one. The first hotel we stopped at did not have hot water. "Maybe later."

The second hotel looked better and we were able to get a room with an extremely small double bed (but one of the few we've seen in our travels). The water was not hot, but the bathroom had a cheap Chinese electric hot water heater and we could see that it could be turned on. Unfortunately, it wouldn't stay on. It took 1 1/2 hours and two toothpicks for the hotel guy to fix it. (I thought he was asking for match, so I handed him a lighter. He shook his head, walked out, and then came back with the toothpicks.)

The entire town's internet system was down, so we spent our post shower afternoon looking for chocolate. We found a few somewhat chocolaty items and returned to the hotel.

Downstairs in the restaurant a few recent graduates were celebrating their recent graduation with a banquet and dance party. We decided to have dinner in the room. To say the room was a bit drafty would be an understatement. The whole place whistled and groaned, the pipes reminded me of huge pipe organs, and you had to watch out for self slamming least the breeze dried out the wet carpet (we didn't ask). I thought the diagram on how to use a female condom pasted to the door of the closet was a nice touch and informative.

The other funny thing about the hotel was the lack of knocking. As I mentioned earlier, it is not a custom to knock in Mongolia and hotels were no different. We were in the room reading when the maid opened the door, walked in, nodded to us, and then started cleaning the room around us. Not 20 minutes later the guy from the hotel desk just walked in, went into the bathroom, and took his two toothpicks back.

Uureg Nuur - May 24th to May 25th

Uureg Nuur was one of the prettiest lakes we visited on the whole trip. However soon after we arrived, the temperature dropped and the rain came in. It rained all night and the wind made a hell of a racket. The wind stayed around and it never did warm up. In the afternoon we started going a bit ger-crazy and decided to make for the lake. The blowing clouds made for very dramatic and dynamic views. We took tons of photos.

The family's little boy didn't like me. Suwei and I thought this strange as I usually get along great with kids. We found out later that before we arrived the boy was behaving quite badly. When we got there the boy's mother told the boy that I was Russian and that I would take him away to Russia if he was bad. I'm guessing the boy had no intention of improving his behavior because he avoided me like the plague and would almost burst into tears if I came to his side of the ger.

Achit Nuur - May 25th to May 28th

If Uureg Nuur was the most beautiful then Achit Nuur had one of our best family experiences...and it was pretty off-the-scale beautiful as well. To get there we had to pass through a fairly desolate section of desert that ends just short of Achit Nuur. We stayed with a family on the marshy, grassy northeast side.

At first we had talked about staying with this family only one night as they were going to have a new ger ceremony the next night. But then they invited us to stay for the party saying that it was good luck that we had arrived. In Mongolia children are usually given a ger when they get married. Alternatively, for males if you are not married by the time you get back from your military service, you will be given a ger then. This was the case with our hosts. The son getting the ger was 20-years old. And although he was planning on getting married in September, he was getting his ger now. We were staying with his brother's family.

The whole compound was beautiful with strange lumps of green grass. The matriach of the family had 8 sons and 20 grandchildren and most of them were there for the party. By the time Suwei and I got back from a hike to the lake, the festivities had already begun.

The new ger ceremony started out with the women sewing the felt for the ger. Most of the men had already started drinking the huge vat of homemade vodka by that time. After the women finished sewing, the men assembled the ger. Then the real party began. Everyone enters the ger. Men on the left, women on the right. As biscuits, candies, jars of sweetened condensed milk, and of are passed around, various guests stand up and offer a blessing to the family and the ger in the form of a speech and a small donation of money or other gifts.

When it came to be our turn, I was elected to speak with Khishgee translating. I fumbled around with the formalities of handing over a bowl of yak milk, passing a blue sash, handing over the donation of togrog, re-acquiring the bowl of milk, taking a drink, grabing the sash...I really had no idea and I'm sure I messed it up. Anyway with translation I said, "Thank you for taking us in and sharing your family, your celebration, your customs, and your vodka." Then I wished them the best for their family and their new ger. It was a bit of a risk, but the vodka comment got a good laugh.

We did a few more rounds of drinking but decided to cut out before it got too crazy. For most of the men the party raged on through the night and well into the next morning (some were still drinking as we left the next day). Before we left the whole family thanked us for coming (some looking the worse-for-wear). They gave us each a traditional blue sash and a bottle of vodka. We really felt welcomed.

From Achit Nuur we dropped down into the town of Olgii...where we will pick up in Part 4. Suwei's working on that right now. Hope to have it out later today.

For more pictures and comments check out the slideshow:

Crossing Mongolia, Part 3