Thursday, October 6, 2016

Mongolia: A Week in the Desert

The travel bug is a real sickness and one with no cure.  It is an ailment that stays with you for all of your life once you have caught it.  One symptom that you have caught this highly contagious virus is if you constantly find yourself dreaming and discussing with friends about where you want to travel next, even while on a current trip.  I am a travel bug victim and that is one of my problems.  Whenever I thought about or talked about this question, however, one country always made that list: Mongolia.  In fact, it was this exact question that prompted this trip as me and a friend both had Mongolia as a mutual match in our top 3 most desired countries to visit.  Why you might ask? Mongolia isn’t known as a tourist destination, there is no famous landmarks, or even significant historical facts.

Cliche passport photo
What attracted to me about Mongolia is from what I had seen in pictures and documentaries, and that was a country that seemed content on living a simple life and had very little modernization.  Almost 40% of Mongolia’s population is still nomadic and for such a massive country their population is only ~3 million people.  When traveling I love to witness and experience culture that is far different from my own.  My favorite countries that I have visited have been the ones whose culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum from what I am used to.  So it was this that motivated me to go to Mongolia for 6 days and live in the middle of the Gobi desert.

Day 1:
The day started a little confusing.  After getting into Ulaanbaatar (UB) very late the night before, we were supposed to get picked up at 7:30am to start our tour.  However, we got a call at 7:00am saying our driver was here, so we had no time for a shower or brushing our teeth (not a huge problem as not showering will probably be expected once we get to the desert).  We quickly grabbed our bags and went downstairs.  When we met the driver, he informed us that we still owed him $1,800 USD, which was more than double the amount we were supposed to pay for the entire tour, not to mention we had already paid a $200 deposit.  After a call to the tour organizer and a friend of the driver who acted as translator, we settled on paying $330 USD more.  This is much less than the total price we were supposed to pay ($900/$450 per person) so I was a little suspicious that we were getting scammed and that either we would have to pay again once we got to the Gobi desert or that we would not get picked up once we got there.  We confirmed through the translator that we would not have to pay again, so now the only concern was if we would get picked up in the desert.  In order to get the answer to that question we first had to take a bus packed full of Mongolians for 10 hours (was supposed to be 7-8 hours).
21st Century nomads
            This bus ride was eerily similar to the 12-hour bus ride I took in Myanmar with my cousin: long straight roads with nothingness all around; Mongolian dramas playing on the TV, which I entertained myself with by creating my own stories based on what I saw similar to a toddler “reading” a picture book; and being so cramped that I could hardly move my legs.  I had a big Mongolian dude on my left, a big Mongolian woman on my right, and other people’s luggage stuffed between my legs and the seat in front of me.  The only scenery to look at was the flat steppe with an occasional ger, which are the traditional Mongolian nomadic houses.  These surprisingly usually came with a solar panel and a car, so I guess these are 21st Century nomads.  Also, we saw many  It was awesome to see these animals in the wild, but after 10 hours the novelty wore off.
herds of different animals ranging from horses, goats, sheep, camel, and cows.
            Finally we arrived to where our tour was supposed to pick us up and I could remove myself from my cocoon that was my seat.  Outside the bus window, when we pulled up to the terminal, I noticed an elderly woman holding a sign with the name of the tour company we booked through on it and the last of my worries evaporated from my consciousness. 
From here we still had a two-hour drive through the desert on make-shift roads carved out from repeated tire passage.  There were countless crossroads and absolutely no road signs or geographical markers to orient oneself, so it was amazing that our driver knew exactly when to turn.  When asked how he was able to do this, he simply pointed to his head and said, “GPS”.

This ride was far more enjoyable as I could appreciate the solitude and beautiful emptiness that surrounded me.  It is only as I write this in my journal now that I realize we did not pass a single car in our two-hour journey.  We stopped and took some photos of the scenery, camels, and sunset along the way before finally arriving at our accommodations for the night.
We were greeted by a woman wearing traditional Mongolian clothes who served us what I presume to be goat’s milk as a welcome.  As we toured through our ger camp, the strongest emotion that surfaced was disappointment.  This was for a couple of reasons.  First, and this might sound strange, it was too nice.  Being hundreds of miles away from civilization, I didn’t expect nice accommodations.  Yes, it was definitely cool to be living  The larger problem was with the number of Koreans also staying at the camp.  Now I love Korea and the Korean people, it is why I continue to choose to live there, but I came on this trip to escape the familiar and hearing Korean being spoken all around me made achieving that goal impossible.  Nonetheless I was still happy and the experience still felt unique.
in the traditional nomadic houses, but warm
showers (heated by coal), super clean facilities, and electricity was not what I expected to find in the middle of the Gobi desert.
After unpacking we ate a really nice dinner of Mongolian dumplings in the restaurant (another thing I didn’t expect to find in the Gobi), showered and then relaxed.  For our relaxation time we did one of the things that I was most looking forward to on this trip; we inflated our air hammocks, grabbed a couple beers, and enjoyed the night's sky.  It had been years since I had last seen a sky peppered with so many stars and the environment, quietness, and comfort of the air hammock (call me Billy Mays, but y’all really need to buy you one of these things) created one of the most peaceful moments of my life. Oh, and the beer helped too.
After enjoying this moment for a while, we decided to make some friends with the Koreans.  I love meeting Koreans abroad and seeing their surprise to see a 외국인 (foreigner) speaking Korean.  We chatted for just a bit before finally heading off to bed.

Day 2:
We woke up for breakfast to learn that one of my concerns from the day before had not been resolved as I had thought.  Our guide told us that we still owed her $630 USD.  We told her we that the driver who picked us up from our hotel in UB had told us we had already paid the full amount.  Now, if you remember, I thought I had walked away from our negotiations the day before with a favorable deal, but it turns out I was not as clever as I had originally thought.  After talking to the tour instructor, we eventually settled on paying the rest of our original balance.  However, as it turned out, we were not supposed to stay in the nice accommodations the night before because we had booked the tour staying as a guest with a nomadic family.  The tour instructor tried to make me pay an extra $100 for this mistake, but there was no way I was going to let that happen.  Not only was it their fault that they took us to the wrong place, but we also didn’t even want to stay there!  He eventually saw the wisdom of my argument and agreed to not charge us.  So the good news, if you look at it in the right way, was that we got one free night in a nice place with good meals, but the rest of the trip would be spent living with nomadic family, which is exactly what we wanted!

After breakfast, we set out for the first destination on our itinerary.  Bayanzag, also known as “the flaming cliffs”, were just some cliffs in the desert.  Having seen the Grand Canyon and Cappadocia, it was not really anything special.  The area, however, is also known for the amount of dinosaur bones discovered there and our guide set off to show us one.  Again, he walked through the desert as if he knew exactly where he was going.  Mongolians must possess the same skill as Native American trackers, because he walked quite a distance before stopping right at a pile of rocks that marked the location of the bone.  They told us that the way to tell if it is a bone rather than just a rock was to touch it to your tongue.  If it sticks, then it is a bone, but if it
Showing us the bone
doesn’t then it is a rock.  This did not seem very scientific and was a little disgusting, but it worked.  I even tested it out myself.  However, I am a little skeptical about whether it was a dinosaur bone or just another animal’s bone, but let’s just say it was.  Being skeptical is no fun.
Afterwards, we went back to our camp for lunch and then set off for our next destination, Khongor Sand Dunes.  As we set off, the lady dressed in traditional Mongolian clothes that had welcomed us poured the presumptive goat’s milk on our van’s tires, which is their tradition to wish someone a safe travel.  Now off for another 4 hour drive through the desert.
Our hosts
We made a few stops for pictures along the way before finally arriving at the place we would be staying for the next two nights.  This was exactly the type of living arrangements I had drawn up in my mind all the previous months leading up to the trip: staying with a local nomadic family, with herds of animals all around us; nothing but pure nature surrounding us as far as the eye could see; and no modern conveniences (we did have a light in our ger, but it was connected to a car battery and to turn it off you just simply disconnected it).  I was excited that we would be getting the real experience of what it was like to live in the Gobi.

We dropped our bags in one of the families extra gers and headed off to climb the Khongor

Sand Dune.  These sand dunes were the size of small mountains.  As we set off to climb one we could tell it was steep and would be challenging, but I had no idea just how difficult it would be.  The steepness of the dune forced us to crawl while digging our hands into the sand for extra grip to prevent sliding.  Although I do have a very real fear of heights, this was not my biggest fear today.   With each step I took, as I got closer to the top, more and more sand ahead of me would break and slide down, moving me a little with it.  My fear that I could not shake was that at any moment the whole dune would slide down and trap us in a sand avalanche.  Yet we pressed on and eventually made it to the top completely exhausted and out of breath.  This was definitely one of the most physically challenging things that I have done in a while, but it was totally worth it as the view was remarkable.  Sitting on the narrow peak, we could see for miles on every side and there was nothing but the beautiful Gobi lands.  No buildings, highways, cars, or noise; just pure peace and natural beauty for as far as the eye could see. 

King of the Dune
We spent a while up there soaking in the view, while also taking the opportunity to get my lungs to where it felt like they were actually taking in oxygen again, before we decided to head down.  Immediately my fears resurfaced.  At first we began our decent on our butts scooting along like a dog that has got worms.  However, as I did this I could not only feel but also here strong vibrations deep beneath me that lasted a few seconds after I had come to a halt.  This only magnified my fear of a sand-alanche.  Yet my friend didn’t seem phased at all.  Watching her enjoy the moment with a childlike simplistic pleasure, I envied her.  Why is she having fun while I am here terrified?  I began to think that maybe my fears were irrational, or maybe she just doesn’t let fear
Pure terror
interfere with her pleasure.  Whatever the answer, I decided that I too would throw caution to the wind and enjoy the moment.  Instead of scooting on my butt, I stood up and began to run down the dune.  Due to the steepness and my momentum, I was able to achieve what felt like superhuman speed.  As long as I took long enough strides, I could keep up with this rapid momentum, and even if I couldn’t I would take what I am sure would have been a hilarious and painless tumble down the dune.  Nonetheless, we made it to the bottom in minutes.  I am really thankful for my friend to have shown me how to let go of fear and just have fun.  Fear, although safe and necessary at times, only prevents us from maximizing the enjoyment of the situation.

Goat Stew
Once at the bottom, we went back to the nomadic family who we were staying with and they cooked us a delicious meal of goat stew (goat, potatoes, carrots in some gravy) with rice.  As we ate outside, we watched them round up all their animals for the night.  To herd them they used both dogs and motorcycles: the perfect blend of old and new.  We capped off the day by just talking beneath the stars before finally falling asleep

*Note: upon descending down the sand dune some thirty or forty-five minutes after having climbed it, I noticed our footprints had already been erased by the wind.  It was a hallow feeling realizing that all evidence of my existence on that dune would be gone within the hour.

Day 3
            We woke up around 9am for breakfast, which can be best described as a crispy pancake or roti prata with a side of a congealed goat milk yogurt type thing.  Immediately after, we began our
Seriously, it smelled so bad.
activity for the day, which was a camel ride through the desert and to an oasis.  Although it was a new experience and the sights were still spectacular even after having been incessantly engulfed in them for the last two days, camels are the Roseanne(s) of the animal kingdom: filthy and disgusting.  I had a front row seat for getting to see them in all of their disgusting glory; at the end of our three-camel caravan I sat.  We walked so close together that we couldn’t walk directly behind each other, but instead each camels head was just to the right of the hip of the camel in front of it.  This resulted in my leg and foot being precariously close to the…uh…exit end of the digestive system of the camel in front of me, which caused me to stare in that direction much more than I would have liked to in order to prepare myself to be able to make any sudden adjustments if necessary.  I watched each of these three camels poop maybe five or six times each, burp a couple times each, fart almost repeatedly throughout the walk,
Squaring off
and one even projectile vomited all over our guide, all within just a two hour ride.  Just imagine Slime from Ghostbusters as a hairy strange shaped animal. 
         The size of the camel also made it difficult to straddle and really uncomfortable to ride for such a long time, so we requested to go back to the ger early since we were so sore.  We were supposed to ride the camels again after lunch, but we both agreed we had gotten the experience already and were too sore and grossed out to ride them again.
            For lunch we had dumplings again, except this time they were fried, and since we cancelled the only other activity we had scheduled for the day (2nd camel ride), we had the rest of the day open.  The first thing we did was took a 4-hour nap.  It felt as if we had been constantly moving and doing things since we landed in Mongolia, which is good, especially when you are trying to visit such a huge country like Mongolia on just a 6 day holiday, but it takes its toll.  Therefore, it was really nice to have this time to recharge ourselves (nearing 30, this is becoming more and more necessary as I travel) allowing us continue this pace of travel for the remainder of the trip.
            However, upon waking, we still had daylight left and decided we didn’t want to waste the entire day (not that sleeping was a waste).  Our guide had told us about a stream near where we were staying, so we asked to go see this.  It didn’t sound that exciting but at least it was
something.  When we arrived, however, we learned that what we interpreted as “stream” was actually our guide saying “spring” (communication would be a continual challenge throughout the trip).  It was a really small spring as well.  While at the spring, our guide started to sing a beautiful Mongolian song as we watched the water bubble from the ground.  She told us that this water from the spring is believed to be good your eyes if you look into it, so we tried it and thus far there is no noticeable affect.  She then took us to another spring nearby that was supposedly good for your stomach if you drink it, but something tells me that this superstition would have opposite affect, so I didn’t risk it.
Camel Noodle Soup
            Afterwards we came back to our ger and relaxed a bit by taking a short stroll through the desert before dinnertime.  For dinner, I got to add a new animal to my growing list of animals I have eaten in my travels: camel.  We were served camel noodle soup.  It was essentially a Mongolian twist on the Southern comfort food, chicken noodle soup, just substitute chicken for camel.  What is the verdict? It tastes very similar to unseasoned ground beef.  Not bad, but not really delicious either, but I am still glad I tried it.
            Things suddenly took a turn for the worse shortly after dinner as I had severe stomach pains and had to make multiple trips to the bathroom, which was really just a hole in the ground (good thing Singapore trained me to perfect my squatting technique).  Either I didn’t have the iron stomach I thought I had, or two full days of trying to avoid using “the hole in the ground” had caught up to me.  I become sincerely concerned because I could notice myself getting dehydrated, but all of our water was locked in our tour van and the driver was asleep already.  All I could think about was my days in my youth playing “Oregon Trail” and how many times my characters died of dysentery, and I knew that that was not how I wanted to go out.  Eventually I slept.

Day 4
            The stomach pains and a massive windstorm that hit us during the night combined to provide me with very little sleep.  Despite that, after immediately chugging two bottles of water, I felt a little better.  We packed up our bags, because today we were headed to our final destination: Yol Valley.
            At the beginning of the trip I loved the long rides through the desert, but at this time I really dreaded it.  It is likely because a 4-hour trip on a make-shift bumpy road is not so favorable on an upset stomach.  I found myself getting internally angry at the driver, even though I knew it was beyond his control.  It was just not a comfortable trip.
A Mongolian "town"
            Eventually we arrived to a small town.  First, let me clarify.  A “town” constitutes as anywhere that more than two buildings exist within relative proximity of each other.  Here we had lunch and we were told that we would be having dumplings.  If you’ve been counting, this would make the third time we ate dumplings in the last four days.  Partly because I love trying new and different foods, and partly because I was honestly sick of dumplings, we asked for something else.  Our only other option was goat and rice.  It wasn’t that special, but at least it was somewhat different.  With a little bit of food in my stomach I was definitely feeling better, so we set off for Yol Valley.
            When we arrived at the valley we were told that we had the option to walk the 3km or we could ride a horse for $5 each, so we chose the beasts of burden to bear or burden and walk us through the valley.  It is hard continuously coming up with synonyms for the word “beautiful”, and I know my liberal use of the word devalues it and even my own credibility, but riding through that valley it is the only word that comes to mind.  Riding a horse between two rocky cliffs on a perfectly sunny day was beautiful.  It felt like a western movie and I was the Mongolian John Wayne.  On a separate note, horses were far more enjoyable to ride than camels.  They were much more comfortable, less disgusting, and we got to slowly gallop (or fastly trot) for part of the trip, which was exciting.  
          This was the culmination of our trip in the Gobi and with an 8-hour bus ride plus a 3-hour flight back to Korea the following day, we chose to pay a little extra to stay in hotel and get a good nights sleep and a nice shower.

Day 5
            Our bus back to UB was set to depart at 8am and we had worked out with our driver to be picked up at 7:30 from our hotel and be taken to the bus station.  We went downstairs to wait for the driver at 7:30 and as the minutes passed we became more and more concerned.  Eventually at 7:40, with no sight of our driver and no certainty he was coming, we decided we couldn’t risk it.  When at 7:45 a taxi was coming by, we didn’t know if we would see another one so we decided to take it and he safely brought us to the bus station.
            The 8 hour bus was the same long bus ride as before, however at least this time it wasn’t as crowded and I got to sit with my friend.  When we arrived in UB we had roughly 7 hours until our plane left for Korea at 1am, and I had heard that in UB there was a large statue of Gengis Khan, so I asked our driver about possibly going to see that since we had so much time.  The drive told us that it is not that close and would take about two hours to get there, we could have an hour to look around, and then another two hours back.  If things went exactly according to planned, that would put us arriving to the airport two hours ahead of our flight. If things went according to planned.
            Driving to the statue, I was getting really annoyed because we kept getting stuck behind incredibly slow drivers going 30km an hour (19mph) and this is a nicely paved road we are talking about!  I kept thinking that my grandfather would fit in well in this country if these were normal driving habits.  Also, this made me worry because we were on a very tight time schedule and I doubted that those calculations factored in driving 19mph.  Luckily our driver was incredibly poor at estimating the time it would take, because even at this frustrating pace we still made it to the statue in under an hour, or more than an hour less than the time it was supposed to take. 
Full statue
              The statue was relatively new and was bigger than I expected.  It apparently even has the Guinness World Record for largest statue on horseback, which, in my opinion, shouldn’t count as a record when you have to get that specific.  I could be the record holder of the person to have the most consecutive jumps on one leg while eating cheese whiz and listening to Nickleback at the same time (easy record because nobody listens to Nickleback).  Anyways, it was a cool statue and it was interesting seeing how much of a hero he is to Mongolia, considering he was arguably the most evil man in history.  He certainly conquered one of the
Playing dress-up
Up close with the Khan
world’s largest empires in history, and certainly brought a lot of wealth and power to Mongolia, but at what cost?  It is believed that he killed more than 40 million people.  That is more than the Holocaust, Atlantic Slave Trade, and the entire WWI combined!  This just goes to prove the saying that “the difference between a hero and villain is which side of a river you call home”.  Before we left to go back to the airport, for the equivalent of $1.50 USD, we did a little Mongolian dress up, and I chose the most Genghis-like outfit I could.  The clothes were extremely heavy and bulky, which is understanding given the weather, but I am amazed they were able to move and fight in clothes like that. 

It was now time to make the dreaded trip to the airport.  Due to our driver’s giant miscalculation of the time it would take to go to the statue and back, we had time for dinner.  There was a particular Mongolian dish that my friend had heard of prior to coming on the trip, called Khorkhog, and she had asked every single restaurant we stopped at if they served it, but to no avail.  Since we had the time, and this would be our last meal in Mongolia, we asked our driver if he could take us to a restaurant where we could eat Khorkhog. Khorkhog turned out to be pieces of sheep and other vegetables cooked in a container using hot stones and water to create steam.  It looked delicious when it came to our table, but our meat was extremely fatty, so I didn’t really enjoy it.  At least we finally tried it.

All that was left was for us to fly back to Korea.  The trip was finally over and it had been just the experience I had hoped to have: days of isolation surrounded by beautiful landscapes; detachment from civilization and technology; exposure to very unique and different culture from my own; and great memories shared with a good friend.  I had a rough welcoming waiting for me back in Korea.  In order to maximize my time in Mongolia, I booked our return ticket to land early Monday morning around 4am.  With the first train from the airport not until 5:30am, me living about an hour from the airport, and having to leave for work around 7:30am, I practically went straight to work upon arriving home.  It made for a rough day, but it was totally worth it.  Mongolia now makes the 29th country I have visited, and it earned its place at/near the top of that list.

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