We hitched a ride into UB from Tariat with our hosts. After a day of negotiations, and seeing that we really weren’t going to get what we wanted, which was to be dropped off in Tsetserleg, we agreed on a price and to spend a couple of hours in Tsertserleg before heading to UB. Well, since the van didn’t even leave until 6pm, it was well after midnight before we made it there. Not exactly good timing for sightseeing. We realized the family that was driving never had any intention of allowing us to hang there, they just wanted to make sure we paid the whole fare to UB instead of getting dropped off where we wanted. We needed to get to UB in the next day or two, so it didn’t really matter, it was just a little disappointing.
There were also five cows in the back. Slaughtered and ready for the black market. Five cows and five foreigners. Not bad business for our friendly drivers.
There is a really unique temple in the northeast part of town down a little winding road.
A private language school in UB is looking for four teachers: Job posting.
From Jargalant we headed to Tariat. A really, really small town with some really, really big personalities. Our trusty Lonely Planet guide informed us that you can catch minivans or jeeps to Tariat, but what it didn’t mention is that NO ONE local does this, and that we would get extorted by the locals to take the tourist route. We found an old Russian jeep to take us around the white lake, which was gorgeous, but they ripped us off at the last minute. Pretending they couldn’t take us the whole way, and finally deciding to demand an extra $10 to take us the final 15km. It was getting dark, we had nowhere to stay, and I didn’t feel like fighting over $10, which caused a fight amongst our group of five. We finally agreed to pay it and got to the town, but again it was dark, and nothing resembled a hotel.
They took us to one hotel, but the owners only had one room for five people. There were only three beds, and no mats. We ventured out to find Tunga’s guesthouse, a foreigner’s haven with an English speaking owner. They were under construction but the charasmatic owner allowed us to stay anyway. No heat, no water, not even an outhouse since it is under construction. Just find a corner and pee. Don’t do the other thing.
The second night she moved us into her house. She and her family were visiting other folks, so they let us have free reign for the weekend. The ability of Mongolians to share their house and food without even blinking is one of the magical things about the country. We set to cooking.
The final day, while waiting for a van to take us to the next town, we climbed a dormant volcano outside of town. My camera really couldn’t capture the scope. It was pretty spectacular at the top, especially after how hard it was to scramble up the loose lava rock. It was really steep in the middle, but you can’t tell from my photos.
After a lazy, beautiful, hilarious, and challenging week or so in the Khatgal area, we decided to head south. Again, an arduous overnight minibus ride. This time there was an American guy and his Australian girlfriend, the foreigners may have outnumbered the Mongols at one point.
When we got to the town,in the middle of the night, there was nothing resembling a hotel in site. There were a couple listed in the guidebook. One was closed for the season, and after dark the other two were not recognizable. The driver went around dumping everyone off at their homes. Then he stopped the van, turned it off, jumped out, and disappeared. Did he expect us to sleep in the van? Were we supposed to leave? He was gone for at least ten minutes while my four foreign compatriots and I just kind of stared at each other and started speculating. There were no lights on in the town. Finally, what seemed like a lot longer than it probably was, the driver came back with his wife who spoke a bit of English. “Where are you go?” We showed her the name in the guidebook, which unfortunately was not written in Cyrillic, and tried our best to pronounce it. She said ok. Said something to her husband. Then looked at us and said, “Where are you go?” in the same exact tone of voice. Sigh. We tried again. Again she nodded and said, “yes, yes.” Then two minutes later, “Where are you go?”
It was too cold to just pitch our tents. I was tempted to ask if we could just go to her house. After trying the fifth different possible pronunciation for this strange Mongolian hotel name, her eyes lit up, and she got it. And we were off. To this place.
No running water. No shower. Pretty comfy beds, (except for the Spaniard whose bed was on a 45 degree incline). No toilet, except an outhouse. It was pitch black outside, and something jumped out at me next to the outhouse, so I decided to just go behind the woodpile instead. It’s a good thing I did, because without a flashlight, I would have absolutely fallen into the outhouse. It had a few slats over a giant pit, and even in daylight was quite a balancing act.
On the second night, we decided to venture into the bar attached to the hotel. This was the kind of place where people still wear traditional clothes on a daily basis and ride their horse to catch a couple of drinks. We bought a bottle of vodka for the table and proceeded to enjoy as each group of extraordinarily drunk Mongolian men came over to share a shot with us. I had the distinct impression that I was the only woman for about 20km. I had given my chapstick the day before on the minivan to a guy with severely cracked and chapped lips. He was there, and seemed quite proud to already be friends with the foreigners. But then he passed out.
The American seemed to be quite jealous of the attention I was getting from the locals and at one point was yelling at a Mongolian guy, “yeah, she’s got big tits, so what!” and the next thing I saw he was lighting a horse ring the guy was wearing with his lighter, and proceeded to brand his own arm with it much to the shock of us and the locals. Some people need all the attention I suppose.
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.
Erdenet is the second largest city in Mongolia. Six hours by car, or eleven hours by overnight train. It’s a Russian copper mining town built in the 1970s and now up to about 80,000 folks. Soviet style apartments, not much to look at, and probably even less to do.
On the train, there was an extremely drunk convict handcuffed to a bar in between train cars. He was yelling all night, although it wasn’t clear if it was for booze or to be let out. Bonding over this strange occurrence, we met a European couple and ended up being invited to a fantastic ger camp owned by a guy from New York and his Mongolian wife. Mongolia is a place for strange waylays, interesting people, and the chance to say yes when an unusual offer comes around
This is a tourist ger camp, anyone interested in more info or to book a ger can leave a comment and I’ll connect you to Mark the owner.
After the dust, dirt, and uniform buildings of Mongolian cities, this was a great retreat into the mountains. There were a hundred people from a local university having a company party. We danced, played games, drank many shots of vodka throughout the day, watched a lady pole dance with a tree, and, possibly the highlight, an airag drinking contest. Airag is a local drink made from fermented horse milk. Several young men got down three or four classes, but the milk content lead to spewing soon after the gulping. Highly entertaining, if quite disgusting.
Although I can see the appeal for some folks of living in Mongolia for an extended period of time, UB itself is not that appealing of a city. First of all, it’s half Korean. Korean restaurants, Korean stores, Deawoo and Hyundai everywhere. I asked some folks why there is so much Korean stuff in Mongolia and the response I got was, “Who knows, maybe they are trying to buy our country.” There isn’t much to do in the city except go to expensive foreign restaurants and bars. A few museums, a smattering of old temples, and endless amounts of dust. Cars here rule. It is a difficult city to walk in. Drivers don’t slow done, don’t heed walk signals, and wouldn’t think twice about hitting you if you are in the way. I’ve been a lot of places with wild driving, but UB might be the worst. Well, India is pretty horrendous, but this is bad.
And this cracked me up. Seinfeld anyone?
I don’t know what is happening to my picture server. They are showing as right side up in the edit, but then they are sideways in the post. Apologies, maybe they’ll right themselves at some point.
After meeting in Beijing in the tourist hell that is Qianmen, my Spanish friend Pablo and I took the thirty-hour leg of the trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Ulaan Bataar. A common enough way to get into Mongolia.
I had no problem with the length of the train ride. It’s the four hours the bathrooms were closed while they changed train tracks and went through two different border patrols. Luckily we jumped off the train or we would have been stuck for two hours while the train honked horns and slammed onto a different rail gauge over and over again. The second two hours were getting through the Mongolian border where police kept checking all the bunks, pacing the halls, (this is one in the morning mind you), and of course ALL THE BATHROOMS ARE LOCKED. I was dying. And Aunt Flow was making a grand appearance. And after taking my passport for at least two hours – they didn’t stamp it. We’ll see what happens when I try to get out of the country.