Sunday, June 17, 2007

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

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