Mission: Accomplished?

Can I take this person back with me to the States? I hope so.

Can I take this person back with me to the States? I hope so.

This trip has been highly enjoyable, but was it a success given all my earlier expectations? Definitely. Although as I write this on my layover in Seoul on my way back to LAX, a creeping feeling of nervousness about returning to the day-to-day grind is surfacing. The comforts I missed in the countryside–indoor plumbing highest on the list–seem to come with a price, I’ve realized. My time on the steppe gave me a feeling of freedom that was unusual and healing. The girl in me who still lives with the upturned cardboard box as an end table doubly appreciated that freedom.

I can’t fly off to Mongolia every few months to recharge my batteries. But if there were a way to engineer more frequent travel and adventure into my life, I’d be much better off. It will be something uppermost in my mind as I return home.

In Mongolia, I found everything I sought for myself: peace, quiet, stunning beauty, and a way of life that persists doggedly in the modern world, despite an increasingly vulnerable environment. I also came away with something I hadn’t expected: new friends.


Eating My Way Through UB

One of the cheapest and best meals I had in UB: Buuz with borscht

One of the cheapest and best meals I had in UB: Buuz with borscht

I’m a little behind posting about my time back in UB, but here are some highlights:

  • Mongolian dumplings (buuz) and some of the best borscht I’ve ever had at UB Buuz
  • French onion soup at Le Bistro Francais
  • Mongolian “flan” at Michele’s French Bakery (where we sighted, two days in a row, the Lonely Planet Mongolia author, and was asked to join an impromptu tour to a lake in Khentii to watch the annual swan migration)
  • The Museum of Mongolian History, where I learned about, among other things, Mongolia’s very own Ben Franklin-esque renaissance man, Zanabazar.
  • The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, the last khan of Mongolia, featuring his menagerie of taxadermied animals and a ger made of snow leopard (now endangered) skins
  • Buying a Chinggis Beer pint glass for my dad from the bartender at Grand Khann Irish pub, where we ate traditional khuushuur, Mongolian “pancakes”
  • Watching the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble–a must see of traditional throat singing, the Mongolian long song, other folk music and dance, and a contortionist
  • Shopping at Black Market, one of Asia’s largest open air markets, and eating Ukrainian food at Opanas with Tunga, the friend of a friend I finally met up with–a wonderful tour guide and a great new friend
  • The best rose lassi I’ve ever had at Hazara, an Indian Restaurant (both salty and sweet)
The wonderful Tunga

The wonderful Tunga

Note most of these highlights involve food. My appetite rapidly returned when I reached city limits, and UB is a city of great, inexpensive food from all corners of the world. It wouldn’t be stretch to say I ate my way through the city in my last three days in Mongolia.

There are a few things I didn’t get to see that I wish I had. One is the Victims of Political Persecution Museum, which is built in the former home of the Mongolian premiere who refused to purge the population of dissent on Stalin’s orders, and who paid a price–and whose predecessor finally undertook the ugly deed. I also missed Hustain Nuruu, the park where the Takhi, known in the West as Przewalski’s horse, was reintroduced on the brink of extinction; I’d also like to come back and do karaoke and visit the Elvis Presley Fan Club, just because.

Also, I’d like to come back some day and see the Gobi, Lake Hovsgol, and Khentii provinces, and maybe even the Altai Mountains (if I sense myself becoming an even heartier backpacker.) In short, Mongolia has much more to offer than a mere two weeks will accommodate. This lovely country with its warm people and unique culture definitely merits a return visit.

Back to UB

The jeep that kept us waiting...and waiting

The jeep that kept us waiting...and waiting

Yesterday morning, before we set out for UB, I finally got a cel signal to call Mel. My mom handed her the phone and all she said was “Hi Mom!” before running off to play with her cousins–I had caught them at my aunt and uncle’s house in LA after another trip to Disneyland. While I would have loved to chat with her a little more extensively, I was thrilled she didn’t miss me too much and that she was busy in her toddler way.

After another breakfast of bread, jam, and tea, we waited for our jeep to arrive. And waited. When it finally did, it took a while to prepare, with packing and fixes here and there (for example, the hatchback door wasn’t closing…)

"They call this a road, yeah?" Yes, in Arkhangai, and most of Mongolia outside of UB, they do call this a road.

"They call this a road, yeah?" Yes, in Arkhangai, and most of Mongolia outside of UB, they do call this a road.

But eventually, with a packed van we finally said goodbye to our gracious hosts and set off for UB–or so we thought. Instead we had circled back into the valley to pick up a kid and his chaperone and all of their stuff. Of the road, the Austrian man asked our guide, “They really call this a road, yeah?” The road consists of two tire tracks through the valley.

Finally on “the road” to UB, the dust was intense. And it wasn’t just coming through the windows: it was coming through the floors! I silently thanked my lungs for filtering out the garbage as the other tourists shielded their mouths with whatever protection was at hand, mostly their sweatshirts.

After a dusty few hours we finally reached Kharkorin and stopped at another guanz with a convenience store attached to it. We picked up a few snacks and ate some omelettes with carrot salad. The carrot salad had a light vinaigrette but heaping doses of raw, chopped garlic. After days of little but bread, my stomach almost immediately felt the garlic burning a hole through it.

The rest of the ride home was long, but not as long as you’d think a 10 hour drive of mostly unpaved roads would feel. Instead of going back to UB we spent the night at Basecamp one, returning to UB only this morning (click here to see what I saw when I woke up.) When I got there, I checked into yet another guesthouse (UB Guesthouse was full, but they were nice enough to direct me to a guesthouse down the way.)

There, I showered. And I showered. And when I was done, I showered some more. Had it really been a week? Definitely a first for me.

Last Day of Trek, Part II

Rock petroglyph at Horoni Vzuur. This one is a camel.

Rock petroglyph at Horoni Vzuur. This one is a camel.

Today we set out for our afternoon ride on the last day in the Tamir River Valley. The father of the ger, Bator, led us around the valley, starting with Horoni Vzuur, which means “edge of the saw”–a rock formation featuring ancient petroglyphs. It was the opposite of a tourist site–no formal markings, just a rock in the middle of nomad’s land with history written all over it. The petroglyphs included pictures of deer, camel, and sheep, which the locals way back when thought would assure them of prosperity in livestock numbers.

View of the "island" in the Tamir River Valley that reminded me of a landscape from "Lord of the Rings"

View of the "island" in the Tamir River Valley that reminded me of a landscape from "Lord of the Rings"

After the petroglyphs we rode to an island in two branches of the Tamir River, which was really more of a large stream, since the summer rains had sadly not been too promising. The people that live here depend directly on their livestock for their fortunes–and dry summers mean lighter and weaker animals going into the harsh winters. But for now, the island was lush with trees and vegatation, and reminded me more of the Lord of the Rings than anything I’d seen yet–absolutely beautiful and fantasy-like. I was only able to shoot a few photos after we got off the island, but I wish I’d shot more while there.

Breathtaking view of the Tamir River Valley. The sparkling dots off into the distance are the Tamir River. The hill was so steep we had to walk our horses halfway down.

Breathtaking view of the Tamir River Valley. The sparkling dots off into the distance are the Tamir River. The hill was so steep we had to walk our horses halfway down.

After the island, my horse galloped (thanks to the switch Bator had fashioned for me) faster than it ever had–it was thrilling. Intuitively, galloping is much easier than trotting, and I felt a natural at it. I even raced another rider, until Bator and Amra called for us to slow down. They were probably afraid I’d fall off, but I was remarkably steady. It was my Annie Oakley moment (minus the guns, of course).

Next was a steep ascent up a hill where we found an ovoo, a Shamanistic structure that consists of rocks and blue pieces of cloth that serves as an offering to assure healthy travels and prosperity. When one encounters an ovoo, it is customary to circle it clock-wise three times and leave an offering, or at least throw a stone onto the pile. At the very top of the hill Bator showed us a cave, much less impressive than the view of the valley from the cave’s opening. The hill it sat on was so steep that we had to walk our horses down.

On the way back to camp, my Annie Oakley moment dissipated when, amid another group gallop, the Austrian gentleman fell off his horse, who got spooked by something on the ground. That could have been me, I thought, and I don’t want to fall off a galloping horse…ever. He was fine, but my confident feeling was gone, and I hardly wanted to even trot with my horse. It was good because this all happened within minutes of arriving at basecamp.

Last Day of Trek, Part I

A herd of horses heading to water

A herd of horses heading to water

Today was a wild, packed day–our last one in the Tamir River Valley of the Khangai Mountains.

In the morning I set out a bit from camp and watched herd after herd of horses come to drink at the stream, quite a beautiful sight. When I went back to my tent to freshen up, I heard two words I never dreamed I’d hear put together: Yak Fight. Turns out two bulls where fighting a mere 25 feet from my tent!


A Mongolian herdsman and his dog stopped by during breakfast for some tea. All the people we met were very curious about us and extremely welcoming.

For breakfast I had a couple of slices of bread with jam–like basically every day I’ve had outside of UB. But after breakfast Amra surprised me with french fried potatoes to supplement my meager food intake over the past few days. I could only eat a few, but the heartier ones in the group appreciated the spoils.

We then set out for our two hour morning trek to our Tamir River Valley basecamp, which again would be Bulgan-Saihan’s ger. The day was gorgeous–the warmest yet. Highlights of that ride included two complete bull skulls with horns and eagles that accompanied us much of the way.

An abandoned livestock pen, around where the eagle was stalking me (by the time I got my camera out, the eagle was gone.) It will likely be put back into use this winter as nomads move to this winter pasture.

An abandoned livestock pen, around where the eagle was stalking me (by the time I got my camera out, the eagle was gone.) It will likely be put back into use this winter as nomads move to this winter pasture.

One eagle soared above me and my horse and circled us for a good minute. He was perhaps only 20 feet above me, and I saw details of his underside–including white flecks of feathers among the brown. At one point I was convinced that he was going to attack me–goes to show what I know about wildlife. The others assured me that my horse and I were way to big. Still, one wouldn’t want to tangle with an eagle, and he seemed close enough to appear quite aggressive to me.

I aksed the others virtually everything about anything–wildlife, horses, plants, directions, plans, the weather, etc. They usually had spot on answers, too. The two other women were seasoned trekkers, biology majors and horsepeople and the man was an experienced horseman as well. I sat and listened as they talked about their various outdoor adventures, discussed horse breeds in different countries, argued over whether something was a vulture or a hawk or a badger or racoon, and discussed the differences between European badgers and Mongolian badgers. I myself don’t know a badger from a banjo.

I was at least once referred to, matter-of-factly, as the weakest link. On top of my recent illness, my inexperience made it 100 percent true. I sort of expected to be that person on this trip, and I was comfortable with that.

A Lot of Out There Out Here

A lot of out there out here

A lot of out there out here

I did swimmingly today, all things considered. We just set up camp for the night and I’m a bit fighting the urge to sleep but figure it’s best to wait until later.

I nearly had a spill today. Again we were trekking in the mountains, and in a particularly dense thicket on the decline I manuevered my horse through trees that a much narrower horse had just gone through. The horse’s head and torso made it through, but my legs didn’t! Each knee rode up small yet formidable trees and I nearly tumbled forward downhill over my horse. I  have to say I recovered quite nicely after a ghastly shreik that no doubt echoed throughout the valley below.

We stopped at lunch at a neighboring ger for salty milk tea and rice with potatoes–luckily for me, no fancy spices, just more white food. I was able to eat a whopping half a bowl.

All things considered this was an uneventful day–which after yesterday is much welcome.

We did decide though that Kirsten, the American, and I would return to UB many days early with the Austrian couple. Given everything, it was probably a wise idea. After all, there’s a lot of “out there” out here. It’s wonderful, but a bit overwhelming in many ways for a city girl like me.

Out of Adrenaline

We set up camp here (this is the tent I stayed in) the first night. The Siberian Larch forest crawled the hills behind the camp.

We set up camp here (this is the tent I stayed in) the first night. The Siberian Larch forest crawled the hills behind the camp.

I just woke up after 18 hours of sleep. The night before last–the first day of the trek–I barely slept and finally vomited; my digestive system was out of whack. I don’t think it was the quality of the food, but more of the wear and tear of travel and jet lag that I tried to gloss over but that finally got me in the end. The adrenaline rush had finally ended after several days on this side of the planet.

Despite being ill the night before and still woozy, I set out for day two of the horse trek. When my horse trotted, my brain rattled in my skull. But that wasn’t too much of a problem because we weren’t trotting much, as we rode STRAIGHT UP and STRAIGHT DOWN mountain faces, zigzagging at times where it was so steep it felt like the horse would tumble over. It was slightly miserable, but the landscape was stunning. We were traveling through matchstick forests of Siberian Larch, I learned from one of my fellow trekkers. Some of the trees still had green leaves, others russet, and some trees were already bare. Small weed-like plants with tree-like leaves grew close to the ground, also in stunning russet hues. It was definitely autumn out here, in mid-September.

Sunset, first night of the trek

Sunset, first night of the trek

But the steep inclines by horse where both physically and mentally grueling for a beginner like me, as the horses clearly didn’t enjoy the mountainous, rocky terrain. They didn’t have horseshoes either, which horse folk would know would be uncomfortable on this ride–the horses where much more built for the steppes. They may have been as miserable as me that day.

When we finally got on flat ground in the afternoon near the place we would lunch, the horses started trotting again and I realized I had absolutely reached my physical limits. Dehydration had set in on top of everything.

While others lunched, I slept. I nibbled on a cookie while the cook took me from the lunch site to the site where we’d be camping that night–others would travel there by horse in the afternoon. He set up my tent and I collapsed inside, jacket and boots still on, feet still hanging outside of the tent. Feverishly, I slept and would occaisionally wake up and wonder if things would get better or far, far worse.

I slept through dinner. Amra, our wonderful guide, brought me fresh yogurt from a neighboring ger around 8 p.m., and I ate about half a bowl with a spoonful of sugar and slept again. He said if I didn’t feel better tomorrow he’d take me to a doctor.

But it’s morning now and I’m feeling much better. It’s clear that the adrenaline rush I first felt in UB has run its course though and I need to remember that I’m with people that have ridden far longer than me–both generally and on the trek, since all of them started in some form days or weeks ahead of me. I need to remember my limitations more–another lesson in that area.


Mel joins a Mongolian family photo frame (upper-left, near matriarch)

Mel joins a Mongolian family photo frame (upper-left, near matriarch)

We finally got to basecamp two around 10:30 p.m. last night, which was the ger of a lovely family. The mother is named Bulgan Saihan, and she and I bonded this morning when I took out pictures from home to show her. She pointed to her four-year old daughter and then to Mel and said naiz–friend.

As I began to put the photos away, it became clear that she wanted to keep a few! So I gave her one of Mel, and she stuck it in the frame of her family pictures in her ger–I was really touched.

I'm with Bulgan-Saihan and Arz Gargal in a traditional Mongolian del.

I’m with Bulgan-Saihan and her daughter in a traditional Mongolian del.

After breakfast we took pictures with ceremonial del (Mongolian coats and belts) and helped milk the yak. That was a major first for me.

While I was packing up for day one of our official trek by horse, Bulgan-Saihan came in and offered me airag. I thought it would be a good time to present some items as gifts for her fine hospitality. I gave her duct tape and a magazine, which I thought would be both interesting and useful. The duct tape was a sure winner. I only wish I had brought more. I also gave her two bungee cords from my stash, hopeful she would get more use out of them than I had.

I've been through the steppes on a horse I named Naiz.

I’ve been through the steppes on a horse I named Naiz.

I thought I’d try to send her photos so I asked for her address. In return she asked for mine and said she’d like to send me a del. She also graciously offered for me and Mel to come spend time with them again.

I don’t know how this happened, but I also ended up with Bulgan-Saihan’s horse for the trek. Had she specified that I get it? I didn’t ask. But others mused at how fine it was in build and face (others on the trek included an American post-grad and a Viennese couple, all major horse folk, unlike myself.)

The horse was brown with a white muzzle and tail, and I felt he was as good as others said he was. He seemed to be full of energy and ready for galloping and climbing hills, but going downhill was a different matter (that’s ok buddy, I don’t like it either.) I pretty quickly settled on a name for him: Naiz.

The Other (and Other and Other) White Food

Mutton and starch three ways at a roadside cafe, or "guanz".

Mutton and starch three ways at a roadside cafe, or "guanz".

Yesterday was a trek in and of itself, leaving our first basecamp outside of UB for our second basecamp in Arkhangai, in the Tamir River Valley. It took us 12 hours by car, with just a few stops. First was a Mongolian convenience store, where I picked up unsweetened seabuckthorn juice, carrot-juice colored and quite tart but very healthy. It is also a Mongolian product, unlike coca cola or Korean aloe vera juice, with seabuckthorn berries growing in the East and the North of the country.

After a few more hours on the road we stopped at a guanz, a roadside cafe, where I had a very good meal of mutton–not very strong flavored and very tender–with starch three ways: rice, noodles, and potato salad! The surprising thing is the potato salad was almost identical to something you’d get in the States, and I’m surmising it’s actually a Russian, not American influence.

Mongolian food is characterized by a surfeit of empty carbs. Noodles, white rice and bread, often offered up in tandem, with the token potato (sometimes: tomato) on the side seems to be the norm. Other white foods in abundance? Sugar and dairy. Tally these all up and you have, literally, ALL THE THINGS I DO NOT NORMALLY EAT.

But the adaptable girl I am, I’ve accepted every biscuit, cup of salty milk tea or airag (fermented mares milk) and cheese cookie–you heard right, cheese cookie (I called them cheese cookies, but they are better known as dried curds)–that I’ve been offered.

First Night in a Ger

One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Silence at dawn in the Bogd Khan Mountains

One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Sunrise in the Bogd Khan mountains

I spent a comfortable first night in a ger, which I shared with the French woman. I was very impressed wtih her–she speaks Mongolian, among many other languages, including Inuit. She’s studying law and North Pole Studies–I’ve never even heard of it–and will no doubt be in high demand as the North Pole continues its rapid melt.

Last night before bed, we decided to rig up our cameras to her tripod to capture the clear, star-filled sky. But a mere 10 minutes later, we emerged from the ger and the sky had completely clouded over. That’s exactly how the weather seems to work on the steppes. Variations in temperature and wind speed are striking.

In the middle of the night I got up and went outside, where literally the first thing I saw was a shooting star from a once-again clear sky. The moon was rising under clouds on the horizon–gorgeous.

When I woke up at dawn I finally heard it: Silence. Outside there was no wind; no birds; the crickets were still asleep; the road down off to the distance was completely empty. Perfect.

As people started rousing in the other gers I took a walk around the hills surrounding the camp. I saw a lone horse munching on grass, and a bevy of magpies (good thing, apparently seeing a lone magpie is bad luck, according to the Brits I met there…) The cicadas and crickets, while not yet noisy, were beginning to hop around.

On this walk I concluded that while I will return to a relaxed and comfortable life in America, somehow, with a little distance, that life seems oppressive in very subtle ways. Maybe I’ll be able to articulate why a bit better once my tour of Mongolian countryside is finished.