Sunday, June 17, 2007

Crossing Mongolia - Part 2

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - We're still plugging away at Mongolia. For Part 2, we travel from Khovsgol Nuur to Khyargas Nuur.

Khovsgol Nuur - May 12th to May 15th

Khovsgol Nuur in Khovsgol Nuur National Park is Mongolia's top scenic attaction. It's the second largest lake in Mongolia and is the country's deepest.

We approached the lake from the south and drove up the more developed southwest side. When I say more developed I mean there's actually some people and homes there. We were still pretty early in the season and most of the tourist ger camps had not opened yet. (The tourist camps are a collection of gers set up solely for groups of tourist. There is usually a central building with showers, toilets and other western comforts. They are also quite expensive.) There were a few families here and there along the lake shore, but we were told there were many more headed our way for the coming summer season.

We were staying in a young couple's ger. During our stay, they moved temporarily to their parents' place a few meters away. Tulga was 25 and his wife was 18. He was a runner who had partipated twice in the Khovsgol Marathon, although he smoked quite a bit. She was part of the Durkha or reindeer people who live in the mountains northwest of the lake. We were originally going to try to organize a horse trek to visit the Durkas, but once we learned it would take at least 4 days to get to a point to where we could see the reindeer in their natural habitat, we reassessed. Plus, we heard that in the past few years the Durkha people have been lured by tourist dollars to move closer to the lake and to elevations too low for their sensitive reindeer. And...we knew there was no way our sensitive buns were going to be able to handle 4 days in the saddle.

The lake was extremely peaceful and I spent good portion of my days there sitting and staring at the ice that seemed to change by the hour. The first day there Suwei and I took a hike in the morning and I spent the afternoon skipping rocks with Birah.

The next day we rented a horses and Tulga took us on a 12km ride around the surrounding hills. I learned I make a poor horseman as I squirmed in my saddle after the 1st hour. Suwei was marginally better than I and Khishgee better than her, but still the three of us were all walking funny the next day. The trip took us close to six hours to cover 12km. I asked Tulga how far he could ride in a day. A: 200km.

The third day we were going to hike to a nearby peak. We started off through a forest of larch trees toward the peak, but nearly two hours later we were still weaving our way through the thicket of branches. By the time we reached the base of the mountain we realized we were done for. We were still walking funny from the horseback ride the day before and there was a dark grey cloud above us. We decided to return to the lake and throw rocks at the ice.

Our last night at the lake our hosts killed a goat and gave us first dibs at all the really good parts: the innards, the liver, heart, and other fatty bits of organs. "Mmmm, damn tasty! More potatoes please!"

Before we left, Tulga challenged me to a Mongolian wrestling match. I figured, what the heck...wrestling is just Mongolia's national sport, how good could he be? He humored me for about 2 minutes until I could hardly breath, then as gently as you would blow up a tank he slammed me to the grass. Later that day, being the slow learner that I am, I got thrown to the ground again by a huge guy three times my size.

Somewhere 2 1/2 Hours from Moron - May 15th to May 16th

We needed a spot to stop for the night as we had a long way to go before our next destination. We were following a river lined with what we thought might be willow trees, when we spied an incredibly beautiful valley leading off to the left. We passed a ger compound guarded by angry dogs and littered with goat poop. We chose to press on for a slightly less poop infested and much more friendly looking compound. As usual we didn't have to go far.

We stayed with a couple (26 & 23) and their little boy (although, he kind of looked like a girl). When we arrived, the couple's father and a number of other guests from nearby gers were visiting and watching Sumo wrestling on the satellite television. So we partook of the salty milk tea and unimaginably hard cheese and rooted for the Mongolian wrestlers. Afterwards, the elder father and the slightly girly grandson showed Birah and us how to get the van up the side of a mountain to see an ice field. The ice field was not too impressive, but the old man's pride in his valley and in his grandson made the trip well worth it.

Later that evening we drank vodka and played Mongolian card games.

Telman Nuur - May 16th & 17th

At Telman Nuur we stayed with an older couple taking care of thier six-year-old grandson. Both of their sons were off working in Korea. They were very kind and offered us a spot on the floor, but Suwei was feeling a little sick that evening and needed a little privacy, so we set up a tent next to the ger.

Birah and I tried to help the boy fix the gears on his bicycle but it was really just a cheap knock-off of an even cheaper knock-off and was essentially unfixable. I'm willing to bet it was never really intended to work properly.

The next day I got up early to walk down to the lake and watch the ice. The wind was blowing towards us slightly and would push the thin ice towards the shore. This caused the ice to creak and grown and pile up on the shore. At the same time the sun would melt the ice and it would crumble into itself. That kept me entertained for quite some time. Tilman is a salt lake, too salty to drink. So the people here use the piles of ice for drinking water.

There is a local legend here about a boy and his mother who stayed near lake. One day the mother took the shape of a red deer. The boy, not knowing that it was his mother, killed the deer. At this point, like most Mongolian legends we've heard, the story gets a bit fuzzy. Supposedly, the mother sent the spirit of the boy into the mountains while her spirit returned to the lake. So people in this area cannot do bad things as it is now a protected area. The End.

Aireg Nuur or Mare's Milk Lake - May 17th to May 18th

The family we stayed with here lived high on a grassy, yellow hill next to an impressive bluff. They had a spectacular view of the lake. So nice in fact, that Suwei and I headed out for a little run down to the lake to take a quick dip and to wash up a bit.

Badam Sereejed, our host, told us it was common knowledge in the area that if you bathed in Aireg Nuur, you would not get any pimples for at least 3 years. Since I had not bathed but once since I left UB over 11 days ago and had indeed collected a few pimples, I chose to believe him. Later on, I proved him wrong.

That night over another bottle of vodka, Badaam asked us a few typical Mongolian questions: What do you do? Do your parents give you a ger when you get married? How much does a horse cost in the America?

Khyargas Nuur - May 18th to May 20th

From Aireg Nuur we continued west. As we drove, the yellow grass slowly turned to yellow tufts, then the yellow tufts turned to sand with scattered tufts, then it all turned to barren rock like a large field of gravel. The large field of gravel seemed to disappear off into the horizon ending at a thin sliver of blue. This was our first glimpse of Khyargas Nuur. Just beyond the thin sliver of blue was an even thinner sliver of brown that was the opposite shore. All this was obscured by a hazy grey sky.

By the time we reached the lake the gravel field was dotted with tiny tufts of green grass no higher than an inch giving the entire landscape a greenish gray hue. Every now and then we would pass a camel or a buzzard or a horse or cows or clouds of dust. A light rain assured that the dust would effectively stick to the van. We skirted the north end of the lake and stopped at the Khar Termes Camp. There is a spring here (although it is not a hot spring as the ever-accurate LP suggests) and people used to come and stay at the camp for medicinal purposes. They believe if you drink from the spring for a few days it will help with liver problems and blood clots.

When we arrived with dark skies and blowing rain, the place seemed quite strange. It was in horrible disrepair. We found the caretaker and he led us to the one occupiable room. The other rooms were either missing windows, had plaster falling off the walls, had a collapsed ceiling, or all of the above. There was a huge satellite dish in the hall to keep us from wandering into more dangerous sections.

As it was our room was full of empty vodka bottles, cigarette butts and bird shit, but it was all in one piece. There was a certificate on the wall proclaiming the excellence of the resort. It was hung there over 20 years ago. Khishgee and Birah cleaned it up and we made it our home for the next two days.

Our first evening there we spotted a train of camels outside our window. The herdsman rode by and Suwei gave him a wave. Not two minutes later he walks into our room. Knocking is not a custom in Mongolia. He sits down on one of the beds and watches us read for about 10 minutes. Khishgee then came in and asked if we wanted to play a little rummy 500. While she and Suwei played cards the camel herder watched. He was practically sitting on Khishgee and waving an unlit cigarette as he asked questions about the game.

After a while Suwei asked Khishgee if his behaviour made her uncomfortable. She said yes, but that it was normal. She then asked what he was doing here and what his camels were doing without him. He told her that when Suwei waved to him, he assumed that she was calling him in. He had no idea why we weren't talking to him. The herder eventually grew bored and left. Soon after the caretaker came in (without knocking, of course) and took the herder's place at the edge of Khishgee's lap and began asking questions about the game.

We spent the next day doing laundry and climbing the impressive cliffs above the spring. We avoided a near death experience by aborting a plan to find a route down the scree and decided to return the way we came. The sun was shining that day and were able to see the resort in a whole new light. Once it was cleaned up a bit the resort was actually quite a nice place to stay.

That night we shared another bottle of vodka with the caretaker.

That's it for Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 3. Here is the slide show for those with time to surf.

Crossing Mongolia, Part 2

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