My apologies for the complete lack of posts over the last few months years… as you may or may not know, we’ve landed back in the states and have been settling back into life in the US of A. But you’re probably wondering how we ever made it out of Mongolia…
Our last evening at the gar was a special one, as the goats were being milked Erbolot started pulling one of the larger males out of the heard by his horns and almost instinctively “Bruce” knew what was up. 15 minutes later “Bruce” was hanging over the stove smoking, his hide was tanning outside, and his head and hooves were sitting by the door of the gar. It was amazing how quickly and efficiently everyone in the family executed their jobs of dispatching and using every part of “Bruce.”
The next morning after saying by to the family; Liz, Erbolot and I headed out onto the Mongolian steppe on horses while our driver put a few chunks of “Bruce” in the van and drove to our next camp.
Over the next 5 days we spent half the day riding and the other half enjoying the beautiful surroundings and some pretty amazing sunsets.
Liz enjoyed every minute on horseback as we crossed fields and streams.
We explored petroglyphs high on a hillside.
We tried to make friends with some 2 hump Bactrian Camels. But they weren’t having any of it.
We camped out under the stars and enjoyed some wonderful fresh caught trout shared with us by some locals and ate plenty of Bruce.
In true Mongolian fashion, we had beautify blue skies and some pretty ridiculous weather. One afternoon we had our cook tent blow down in the wind and unfortunately our day hike to the highest point in Mongolia, Khuiten Uul Base Camp, was a bit anticlimactic in the rain.
View of the highest point in Mongolia.
We also enjoyed one last bottle of wine given to us by our good friends Gavin and Becky to celebrate the conclusion of our trip. They sent us off on our journey with an amazing bottle of wine that we enjoyed in Nepal; So it was extremely special to enjoy another outstanding vintage from such a remote vantage.
And before we knew it our time was up and we were rattling through fields back to Ölgii.
Upon arrive back in Ölgii our first order of business was to get a plane ticket back to the capital. We had heard plenty of horror stories of the bus ride from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar and we were willing to do just about anything to avoid that… anything except spend 2 more weeks in the thriving metropolis of Ölgii, Mongolia.
Apparently August is back to school time, which means every kid in the country is making their way to school … in Ulaanbaatar. Those with means fly and those without take the bus. And with only one airline in the country and only one flight every other day from Ölgii to Ulaanbaatar we were looking at at least 2 weeks before we could get a seat. Any seat!
So, looks like we’re taking the bus. We asked around about how long it should take to get to UB on the bus, “Two to Five Days.” DAYS. DAYS! They are measuring the time in DAYS!
We give up on the plane plan and go to where the buses leave from and start asking prices. It’s basically the same price for a mini bus (11 passenger van) or the big bus, and when they showed us which seats were available on the big bus (for gringo like us) we opted for the mini bus. Hindsight that might have been a mistake, but I have absolutely no plans of ever finding out if the big bus is any better. I think you see where this is going …
Clearly it was their marketing that sold us.
We make a deal with a minibus guy and he says that we’ll be leaving at 1:30pm Mongolian time. “Great!” we’ve got plenty of time to get some lunch and get back. So we leave our big bags and go around the corner to grab some lunch. We make our way back at 1:25 to see the last bus pulling out of the parking lot…
WHERE DID OUR BUS GO? WHAT HAPPENED TO MONGOLIAN TIME? Where are our bags?
Luckily, a guy in a Toyota, who kind of speaks english, says he’s been waiting for us and to hurry up… we jump in and then make a number of stops at various alley’s picking people up and dropping people off. Even switching drivers at one point. We have absolutely no idea what’s going on but Toyota guy is insisting, in broken English of course, that he’s taking us to the bus with our bags. #Trust
Mongolian bus stop
By 1:45 we’re at what seems to be at a combination minibus mechanic/corrugated aluminum sheeting company/family home where the minibus we made the deal with is as well as 4 high school age kids. We arrive as they are wrapping everything up in a trap on the roof where we’re told our bags are. The Toyota guy takes off and we proceed to wait thinking we’re leaving any minute and how lucky we are that it’s just us and some high school kids… plenty of room. You see where this is going …
Three more trips from the Toyota guy later and it’s now a quarter to 4 and we’ve got our 11 passengers. As we start getting in the van we’re told we need to sit in the back. Oh, no. We know this routine. We’re sitting right here in this middle row, we got here first. After a little back and forth they realize this isn’t our first rodeo and give in.
By the time we leave town we’ve made 2 more stops and we are comfortably sitting 5 wide on a 3-person seat with 17 people in an 11-passenger van looking at over 1000 miles of open fields between us and Ulaanbaatar.
Through multiple breakdowns.
Desperados waiting for a mini bus.
Just trying to make friends during a breakdown.
Being towed across a river by a tractor.
Getting towed across the river.
And through the nightly karaoke party that seemed to break out at dusk every night.
For FIFTY. SIX. HOURS.
I guess we’re lucky it didn’t take the full 5 days!
The next morning we meet our driver/guide/”translator” and set out in our awesome Russia van on our private tour. Our tour was going to be a bit different than the typical tour, since it was just Liz, the driver and myself, and we were between typical tourist seasons. The plan was that everything was going to be done communally, setting up camp, cooking, etc. That sounded great to us. We were excited that we’d probably get to do somethings we wouldn’t have on our own and overall just thankful that we weren’t starving to death in the rain walking back to civilization without any horses.
As we made our way toward Tavan Bodg National Park we got to experience another first… Russian Van Races. Out here there is nothing paved, roads are more like tracks through a field and are completely optional. Passing is done whenever, wherever and why ever. And they drive FAST! I mean REALLY FAST. Especially if the drivers know each other… and there is some pride on the line. With a bit lost in translation it seemed that the loser provided beer at the next stopping point.
Once in the park we stopped to visit and Eagle hunter. No. No. Not someone who hunts eagles, but someone who hunts with eagles. It’s basically the traditional Mongolian version of falconry. It was pretty cool. From there it was on to meet the family we’d be staying with for the next few days.
We pulled up to 2 gers with 6 or 7 kids running around and about 500 goats. We were quickly greeted by the kids, our host Erbolot and his wife. They invited us in and promptly offered us tea and an assortment of cheeses. We’d be staying in their ger and experiencing ger life for the next few days before Erbolot escorted us on a 5 day horseback ride around Khoton Lake.
From the outside gers are pretty nondescript and all look exactly the same; big round white tents. But on the inside they are absolutely beautiful. Decorated with brightly colored handmade wall coverings. There is a warm stove burning in the evenings and no shortage of dairy products. Liz and I quickly settled in to ger life, milking the goats, eating cheese, playing with kids, and experience the dominant culture in western Mongolia, Kazakh (From Kazakhstan). Oh, and zero English.. It was a great opportunity to practice our Kazakh language skills… which consisted of one word “Рахмет!” which means thank you and is pronounced Rax-met! With a deep guttural hack for the “Rrrrackmet!” They always laughed when I said it but I think they got the idea.
Cheese… It’s what’s for dinner!
Goat’s make great wind blocks.
A boy and his goat.
Over the next few days Erbolot and our driver took us to visit waterfalls and other ger families and to some of the regional historical sites. Which, our driver who didn’t really speak much English at all, explained to us as “dead people.”
Ger life moves pretty slowly on steppe … even after almost a year of travel and being out of the corporate rat race, coming to grips with South American siesta, and being OK with only accomplishing maybe one thing for the day, it felt slow. Glacial would be a good way to describe it but it was really nice to relax and just enjoy the wide-open spaces.
Liz and I got fairly proficient at the evening activity.
First my specialty; Goat Roping. First you gotta get the mama goats on a rope to be milked. Some come running; others have to be dragged across the steppe by their horns.
Then came Liz’s expertise; The milking. After a quick tutorial (broken English) she was alternating in with the rest of the ger girls and filing buckets. The oldest daughter (who was learning English in school) was so impressed she asked Liz “How many goats do you have?” … thinking back on it we’re not so sure that wasn’t a joke.
And finally once all the mama goats have been milked and removed from the rope it’s time for that last step and most important step; letting the babies out of the pin.
Shortly into our horseback adventure, we began to discover a few fatal flaws.
First, we started noticing that the information we had gotten on where to ride, how to get there, where there was grass and water, was not really accurate. It seems that while our new friend had been trying to be helpful, she had ABSOLUTELY no idea what she was talking about.
To add to the uncertainty, the weather turned on us. Mongolia, land of blue skies, did not have blue skies for us. It was cold and rainy as we packed up our camp and head with our horses into a big storm with horizontal rain blowing in our faces. But we were continuing on.
The saddle for our packhorse, Pokhara, was barely holding together and so bags kept falling off or shifting badly. Rick got off his horse, Kajo, to readjust the packs for the 5th or 6th time. Pokhara was tied to the saddle on Rick’s horse (hint, this was a bad idea!), and I was holding Kajo’s reins from atop my horse while Rick made adjustments. So the two horses were standing in front my horse, Valpo.
… And then disaster struck.
What really did us in was a combination of tack failures.
Something spooked Kajo and he jumped to one side of my horse, and Pokhara jumped to the other. I told Rick to grab Kajo’s reins to get better control of him than I could have from on top of my horse. When Rick pulled Kajo pulled back and his bridle snapped off completely!! Which totally freaked him out, so he starts bucking.
But Kajo and Pokhara are still tied together, on either side of me and my horse. And now the rope is coming at my horse’s head, he ducks it, but it’s about to clothesline me – with two spooked bucking horses on either end. Right then, Valpo rears up. I roll off his back and hit the ground – all I see around me are flying hooves of three bucking, rearing horses. I curl up in a ball and cover my head, and as soon as I see a break I jump up and out of the way.
At this point, one of the saddles has broken and now hangs under one of the horses, one horse doesn’t have a bridle, and all three are running away.
Keep in mind there are no fences, no buildings, nothing to stop them – just wide-open hills. We know we can’t chase them down – so I grab our most important items that were in the saddle bag that fell off when valpo reared and Rick starts walking in the direction they are running, just hoping to keep a visual on them.
As we’re watching we see Pokhara, our packhorse, bucking and throwing off EVERY. SINGLE. BIT. of supplies we have for this 21-day journey. I mean pasta bags exploding as they hit the ground, fuel canisters bouncing off rocks. It looked like an air strike being delivered via horseback. Did I mention it was pouring down rain? They kept their bucking sprint for every bit of a mile, before start slowing down; no doubt due the fact they they no-longer had any of our gear strapped to them. And luckily as he’s walking after the horses Rick come across a ger camp (the traditional nomadic family homes) and a guy comes out and asks, in English, what are you doing wandering around in the rain covered in mud. Rick tells him the short version of what just happened, and the guy tells him to come in his ger and dry off, he’ll send his sons to get our horses. Rick says he’s going to go back and get me and bring me to the ger.
After a few minutes to warm up and get our wits about us we go to salvage what we can of our supplies – there’s really nothing left. The stove is ruined, our food is scattered across a half-mile stretch of mud and rock. We’re down a saddle and a half a bridle, and one of our horses seems a bit injured. We realized that there was no way we could continue on at this point, without somehow getting back to Ölgii and starting all over finding tack, supplies and possibly another horse; did I mention how much trouble it was to find tack in Ölgii the first time?
Our new friend comes back and tells us that just yesterday he had taken down all but one of his guest gers, but something told him to leave it up a couple more days – and we’re welcome to stay in it. He also tells us that he is just starting a tour company that goes out to Tavan Bodg National Park, where we were planning to ride to. And as quicker then we could say yes, he’s got his sons bringing in cots and bedding and a stove and table and chairs. There is a fire going and hot Mongolian Tea!
We replayed what had just happened over and over trying to piece together what exactly went wrong as we changed into dry clothes. We came to the conclusion that what really did us in was a combination of tack failures and some bad information.
As we were finishing our inventory of what was left (it didn’t take long) our new friend came in and talked with us. He asked up what our plan was (we must have seemed like some crazy gringos). After hearing us out he offers us a ten-day private trip out to the park, where we would stay with a family there, then horseback ride and camp – we’d have a van for all our food and stuff, we wouldn’t have to worry about horse thieves, we’d still get to ride across the steppe – and he would do it all in exchange for our three horses.
While we were totally bummed not to be doing it on our own, it felt a little like it was our only real option at this point. And we felt so blessed that God had allowed our little disaster to happen right at the backdoor (at least in Mongolian terms), of someone who could help us and take us on a tour.
So we said sad goodbyes to our horse and ended our independent horse trek a bit earlier than planned, but without injury and still with a great sense of accomplishment and a lot of lessons learned.