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

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