To get from one town to another in Mongolia is not a matter of catching the local bus. It is an ordeal of patience, resilience, negotiating skills, and more patience. From Erdenet we wanted to get to Khatgal, which requires going first to Moron (a rather desolate and mildly hostile town), and then hitching a ride north.
We were fortunate enough to be staying with a gracious Mongolian woman and hanging out with her adorable kids all day. To get to another town, you have to find a mini-van that happens to be going that way, and then reserve a seat. To guarantee the seat is reserved usually means sitting in it until the mini-bus leaves. Our friend informed us that she reserved seats and that she would keep calling to find out what time the mini-van was actually leaving. They won’t leave until all the seats, and then some, are full. “And by the way”, she mentioned, “there is another foreigner bench warming in the van, maybe we could make a new friend”. To which my travel companion replied, “I hope it’s not another American, or worse, a Catalan (people from Catalonia, a northern region of Spain). So 9am turned into noon, which turned into three, which turned into 4:30, and we are really beginning to think this horse isn’t leaving town anytime that day. Finally at around 6pm, we leave in a 15 seater van – with 20 Mongolians, luggage, a kid sleeping on the back of the driver’s headrest, and to my companion’s chagrin – a Catalan.
What was supposed to be a nine hour drive to Moron proved quickly that it was going to be much more. It took two hours alone just to get out of Erdenet. The vodka had already been opened, the young Mongolian guy who had been starting at me intently had convinced the person sitting next to me to switch seats, and the singing of traditional songs begun. We spent the first six hours drinking, stopping to pee, using my translation book to talk, stopping to eat, stopping to pee, waiting for the guy who drank too much and passed out in the ditch while peeing to wake up, finding comfortable and somewhat socially acceptable ways to maneuver legs, feet, and luggage, and more singing.
And we were barely out of town. It took some fourteen and half hours to get to Moron, by which time the alcohol and long wore off, things were getting exceptionally uncomfortable (made mildly more comfortable by the fact that the young man next to me insisted on holding my hands the whole way and let me use him as a pillow), and a prime example of the fact that there are no roads to speak of in Mongolia. Just dirt tracks to be bounced over like the people inside are the contents of an air popper.
But we made it, The Spaniard, The Catalan, and I. We got a little cheated on the four hour fare from Moron to Khatgal, our lungs got coated in dry dust coming in through the cracks of the car, but we made it.
One thing I feel about Mongolia is that you have to let things grow on you. When we first showed up at Khatgal, we thought it was a horrible one horse town. Small, quiet, a handful of shops, some gers for rent, but at this time of year no real hotels. The Spaniard was hell bent on a real shower, so we went around to every guesthouse we could find, and could only find gers: with no toilets, no showers, but a cozy stove inside. We settled on one. Got bucket showers with newly heated water, and settled in. And then never wanted to leave.
At the very bottom piece of Khosval lake, it is truly a town a person can relax in, at least in the fall. The only annoyance was the ladies who would set up camp outside our ger and try to sell homemade stuff, but for someone looking for handmade clothes or souvenirs, it would have been a good bargain.
We had an interesting setup of trying to cook for ourselves on the ger stove. We used beer cans to roast potatoes in the fire, and used Danish cookie tins to boil yak meat, potatoes, carrots, onion, and beer on the top. For some reason the first night it took us six hours to cook. Inefficiency with the stove, copious amounts of Mongolian lager, and the three of us getting to know each other were to blame.
From Khatgal we arranged to go to a ger farther north to really experience the lake. From Khatgal you can only see a tiny sliver of what is the second largest fresh water body in the world. We got dropped off about half way up where we were promised one store would be open. We had only brought a couple days of food, and our packs. When we got there, there was nothing open this time of year. A family agreed to let us rent some gers for five bucks a day, but there was no way to get more supplies. The driver said they would pick us up in three days. We decided to rough it and see what would happen.
The lake was stunning. The days were beautiful.
The first day there a young person was helping us get wood and get settled in. We really couldn’t decide if it was a boy or a girl. At first I though older teenage girl, but everything about the way they moved, laughed, and chopped wood like a maniac screamed young boy. We traded notions on fishing. We showed them how to use the rod, and they tried to show us the best spots to fish. We had no luck, but no bait either. We were using raw yak meat, a raison, a grub found on a log which didn’t last long, and later a fish tail.
A couple days later, the young one showed up with a bag full of fish. We didn’t get one bite, nibble, or see anything resembling a fish, and here was a whole bag full. They were delightful with onion, salt, pepper, and garlic given by the Israeli ger neighbors and cooked in the cookie tins.
One the third day our young friend showed up with no del (Mongolian jacket) on, and she was definitely a she. And not such a young one at that. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by their dusty jacket.
After the third night, it became clear that no one was coming back to get us. We were out of food, had no way to get more, and the one family that lived up there had no mode of transportation or communication. We decided to hike back to the town. Loaded up with our packs we headed out at a little before 10am, with no real concept of how far the trek was going to be. After a few hours and about 10km, we ran into a sign: 30km to Khatgal. Holy mother of yak meat, here we go.
We had no food, just a couple bottles of water we rationed, some candy, and the guys had to split two roll up cigarettes between them for the hike. Not a small feat for folks from Spain. I was falling way behind, and had a lonely day of lake gazing and walking, walking, walking.
After about 30km total we finally got passed by a car. They offered us a ride in a car the size of a Toyota Tercel that already had five adults and two kids in it. I was balanced on a lap with a cute, but pissy-pant kid on my lap. Grandma was balanced on mom’s lap in the front, and our gear was squeezed in the trunk with three spare tires. Which would have been good foreshadowing, but didn’t seem so at the time. Now with eight adults and two kids, we bounced along the dirt road back to town. After a few kms, the driver started to lose a little control as the back tire blew out. We were left to walk the last few kms, about 40 in total for the day, in all our exhausted glory. Back at the gers we stayed in before, this looked like the best town ever as we made our yak cookie-tin speciality, and drank the only bottle of Spanish wine for probably 300kms.
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