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!
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.
If you’ve followed this blog for more than a minute or know Liz and I at all you’ll know were not ones to plan things 6 months out. That’s apparently what it takes to hike the “Classic” Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It’s limited to 500 people a day and books up 6 months in advance… Seriously 500 people a day on a trial. No Thanks.
Lucky for us there are a number of other ways to get to Machu Picchu some of which even involve hiking. After a lot of option weighing we decided on the Salcantay Trek which follows another of the Inca’s many highways through the Sacred Valley on a 4 day trek and includes a 4600m pass. Best part… you can hike it without a guide and you don’t need tickets!
After visiting the local South American Explorers club for a topo map from the 60’s (the latest version) and stocking up on a few supplies for the 4 day trip to Aguas Calentes at the base of Machu Pichu we caught a Colectivio at 6am for the ride to Mollepata where we’d start our journey. We were in luck and got the last 2 seats in the jam-packed mini-bus which meant we got to ride in the front and we didn’t have to wait for anyone else. A quick two hours later we were in Mollepata and I suggest we get breakfast as sort of a last meal before oatmeal for days. We got a tourist breakfast, which came with “orange juice” which not surprisingly turn out to be Tang. Liz pointed out that it probably wasn’t made with filtered bottled water… I shrugged her off and downed both glasses. #foreshadowing
We made our way to the edge of town and up a gravel then dirt road climbing all the way. It was surprisingly hot and when a guy driving past offered us a ride we jump at the opportunity to cut a few minutes off our trek. He drove us for about 10 minutes to where our ways parted and probably saved up 30 minutes of walking in the hot sun. Shortly there after we saw our first, of many, tour groups that were unloading from mini buses and starting their hike. The rest of the first day was a hot up-hill slog with some awesome views.
After reaching a valley and a huge fancy lodge, we found our campsite, with great views of the surrounding mountains. We were tired and wanted to save our energy for the 800m climb to the pass the following morning. The wind was picking up and it was getting cold as the sun set so we were thankful for the small cooking shelter where we made dinner and met another guy hiking independently, Mark. Mark had been traveling Bolivia and Peru and as we swapped stories he mentioned how he always seemed to get a bout of giardia whenever he’s in the Sacred Valley… #MOREforeshadowing
We rose with the sun and started our push to the pass at 4600m. The first hour was pretty brutal, our muscles were cold and sore and it took a while to get warmed up, but once we were the trail was beautiful and we found our rhythm.
At the top of the pass we were pleasantly surprised to find a summit that was enjoyable and a nice place to hang out for a bit. It was down right pleasant, even in a t-shirt. We took some photos, socialized a bit with some of our new friends, and of course found time to do our signature “airplane at the summit” move! We enjoyed the sunny weather before turning our boots downhill.
After a few hours of downhill I realized I couldn’t suppress it any longer. That rumble in my stomach had grown from “maybe a little gas” to “I think I’m going to poop on myself.” The challenge now was where. Or trail had become a bit of a donkey path with dense vertical jungle to our left and barbed-wire fence and drop off to our right. I decide it’s time to warn Liz of the impending doom.
Honey, I think I’m going to $#!† myself.
And so starts the search for the perfect location… make that any location. Did I mention the team of donkeys and porters we had just passed about five minutes ago that are hot on our tail?
Eventually, as the pressure builds, I get less selective and I find the perfect place to hang off the edge. At this point there is no longer any questions… I should not have drunk the Tang. We hobble into the next campsite about an hour later and Liz enjoys a cold beer with our new friend Mark while I head straight for the bathroom. After about an hour, a dozen trips to the baño, a few Peptos, a prescription strength anti-diarrheal, and a Gatorade, I’m feeling semi-confident I can probably make it 30 minutes down the trail to the next campground where we planned to camp.
We made it and were greeted with a beautiful site right in the middle of the valley. I collapsed on the ground while Liz set-up the tent, cooked dinner and suggested I take some of the hydration salts she had ever so wisely suggested we carry with us on all hiking trips. After dinner I perked up a bit before feeling a bit ill again and deciding I needed to go to sleep.
The next morning I felt worlds better and when Liz ask if I was up for the alternate route I was game. It was downhill-ish for the first 3.5 hours until we reached La Playa where the trials split, one climbs 800+m uphill to Llactapata (another set of ruins) and the other down to the tourist town of Santa Teresa and the hot springs. We started uphill at about noon and it was absolutely sweltering. We’d hike for 15 minutes then rest in the shade for 5 but eventually we made it to the top of the mountain and the Llactapata ruins from which you can see Machu Picchu across the valley.
Our campsite for the night was a few minutes down the trail and had an even better view of Machu Picchu. It was a pretty magical sunset. Then it was up early the next morning for the big walk down the hill and along the train tracks to Machu Pichu Puebo, Aguas Calentes, The tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. The entire town is basically there to support the tourism of Machu Picchu.
Well we had our first significant travel logistics ooops. We flew from Chiang Mai down to the beaches in Southern Thailand. We found a cheap flight into Phuket, but Alvin and Jennifer were going to Krabi, so we really wanted to just get to Krabi. We thought, no problem, it’s just a 2 hour ferry ride from Phuket to Krabi… a few minor details we overlooked.
That’s the time it would actually take, yes, BUT all ferries make it a day long trip with a stop on Koh Phi Phi for 5-6+ hours.
That means that the ferries really only run in the morning
Also buses only run mid morning
Our flight landed in Phuket at midnight
The Phuket airport is in. the. middle. of. nowhere. – an hour and half cab ride into the town of Phuket. An expensive cab ride. And the bus to town quits running at 8pm.
The bus to Krabi leaves from in town, not out by the airport.
The Phuket airport shuts down at midnight and kicks everyone out.
So basically our options were, sleep outside of the airport until the morning (not really an option, there was no where to sleep), cab ride to Phuket (expensive), or cab ride to Krabi (slightly more expensive, but at least at our destination).
We did the cab ride to Krabi, and arrived at 2:30am. We tried to book a room online en route – when we got there we looked for the place for about 40 minutes. It was a little guest house. Everything was shut down. Our sweet cab driver was so nice and got our and helped us walk up and down the street searching for our place, asking the 7/11 clerk, more searching, trying to call. Finally Rick walked really far down this alley and found our place. It’s now after 3:00am… and there’s no one to be found. The front of the guest house is this sorta open courtyard, there’s one leather-ish couch.
So I pull out my camping air pad (thanks, IMM!) and hunker down on the ground, and Rick takes his spot on the couch. And we slept semi-peacefully amidst the mosquitos and cats. Until 6:30am when the front desk lady found us and woke us up yelling “No! No! No! You can’t do this. You can’t sleep here!” we tried to explain what happened, but really she didn’t care, she kinda shoved us into an empty room and told us to sleep there. Heck yea! Free night’s stay!
I think I have a bit of a love/hate relationship going with Vietnamese food. Food here is a symphony of fresh bright herbs, crisp greens, addictively salty savory umami, subtle sweetness and spice. It’s complex, satisfying, yet refreshing. It’s also why I’ve gained about ten pounds since we got here!
Y’all know I love trying new foods, and I’m game for trying pretty much anything, so Vietnam is a playground for my curious taste buds. I love experiencing a culture and people through the food.
In our travels through Nepal, India and a little of Thailand, my curiosity had not led me astray, but alas, my winning streak comes to an end here in Vietnam. Even with a few food fails, I’d say I still came out on top.
Build it yourself spring rolls of heaven! I don’t even want to admit to how many of these I’ve eaten. They bring them out by the plate and count your empty dishes and skewers to calculate the bill. Verdict: WIN!
Bo Taye Chahn
Like a cross between beef carpacio and ceviche but with Vietnamese flavors. Thin sliced steak that is marinated in lime juice to cook it a little. Then topped with a slightly sweet, spicy, garlicy vinegarette, green onions and cilantro. So good! Verdict: WIN!
Tasting Menu of Vietnamese Tapas style dishes
One of the highlights was getting to go out to a very locals spot with our friends’ Vietnamese tutor. She and her husband just kept ordering and delicious small plates kept coming. Verdict: WIN!
Banana Blossom Salad
It’s awesome flower power. I’ll leave it at that. Verdict: WIN!
Have you heard of the magical creature that is the Mantis Shrimp?!? It is one of the coolest animals on the planet – The Oatmeal does a pretty great job explaining it.
It’s a specialty of Ha Long Bay but it was a fail because I didn’t get to try it. And we kept meaning to get it, but it was either too expensive, or the place would run out of it, or we wouldn’t have time to sit and enjoy the meal. Check out these bad boys though!
Crazy dessert drink, there are dozens of varieties, but most include some form of sweet bean custard. The green bean custard is more mild, red bean is more fibrous and beany, think flan meets kidney beans cooked like refried beans. Then layered on are these cubes of “jelly” made from seaweed and flavored with black sesame or coconut; while they’re called “jelly” I would say it’s close to the result of that time you tried to make Jello but only added half of the amount of water called for. Then you might get these little things that look like tiny pink and yellow caviar. You might get some fruit pieces in there. And it’s finished off with coconut milk. You mix it all together and switch off between spoon and straw to get all of the delicious sweetness. I’m a bigger fan than Rick is, something about “if it’s a vegetable, it’s a vegetable. If it’s a dessert, it’s a dessert. No playing both sides.”
Unlike our French friends, the Vietnamese don’t mask the snail flavor with a butter bath and the results are equally, if not more delicious. Verdict: WIN!
Sort of a fondue style experience. A burner and pot of broth come to your table, along with a big plate of fresh veggies, raw shrimp and squid and a packet of dry noodles. You make it yourself. Fun experience and some of the freshest most flavorful shrimp I’ve ever had. Verdict: WIN!
Sour Fish Soup
I asked the owner of the restaurant what he recommended and this is was I got. It was sheer will that I ate it. The fish that came in it (as you can see the gray lump of ick) had been cut into sections like you would cut a summer sausage, so you got pieces of spine surrounded by cartilidge, bone, organs, vessels and buried in between a smidge of meat. But the broth was the really special part. You know when you pour off the water that’s in the can with your canned tuna? Well they took that water, made it about three times as strong, then they somehow extracted the sour flavor from Sour Patch Kids and Warheads and added that to it. And then maybe let it sit out for a day or two. I think there were veggies in it to, I can’t remember though, my memory and taste buds were seared with the lingering flavor of the fishy-foulness of the broth. Verdict: FAIL!
Fresh Grilled Squid
I had no idea how good squid could be. Super fresh, right off the boat, on to a skewer and over some charcoal — it just melted in your mouth. Makes for some entertaining photos as well. Verdict: WIN!
It’s not just for breakfast… ok, maybe it mostly is because it’s near impossible to find good Pho any other time of day! But we did get some very delicious pho that puts anything I’ve had in the U.S. to shame. Verdict: WIN!
The Jars of Doom
Filled with potent rice liquor and a whole bunch of dead animals – lizards, snakes, starfish, scorpions, birds and more. They are supposed to help your sexual potency. I was feeling pretty confident in that area on that particular day, so I opted out of these. I did try the Honey Rice Whiskey though, mostly because it was offered to us as a gift of appreciation by a local restaurant owner after we had dined with him a few days in a row. It was strong, it burned, it made Jack Honey look good (shout out to Will Jacobus!), but we got it down. Verdict:FAIL!
The variety of sauces was awesome. We had at least three different kinds of fish sauce with every meal. We also learned from some locals that took us out that you do not mix and match sauces. Each sauce is meant for a specific dish, get it right or be shunned. The sauces were even better when I started putting them with the right stuff. Verdict: WIN!
This one is particularly sad for me because I had been wanting to try this from the day we got into Vietnam. It sounds so exciting, light, delicious! And a break from the rice, rice noodle, rice cake, rice dumpling, rice noodle of a different size, rice noodle #3, rice diet. It came to the table as a beautiful tangle of translucent, almost iridescent jellyfish pieces on top of fresh greens, sprinkled with peanuts and a bright acidic dressing. I dug in, big piece of jellyfish, the initial flavor was light, almost lacking in any strong flavor, just picking up a little of the dressing… but then it was time to chew. And oh the texture of the jellyfish…
<<shutter, mild gag>>
Each time you bite into a piece it feels EXACTLY like when you bite down on the inside of your cheek really hard, like really hard, and your tooth goes through and breaks the skin. There’s a softness, then a pop, and you break through, and it’s squishy. It’s truly uncanny. It’s disturbing. I kept trying to eat it, thinking “oh I’ll get over that”, nope, no getting over it. To the point that I could almost taste blood because it felt so much like I was biting through my cheek or tongue. I tried smaller pieces. I tried smaller nibbling action. Nothing helped. I’m sad to say I finally, after gagging down every piece I could, gave up and we left most of the jellyfish there. UGH even just writing about it I have goose bumps from the sensation of biting it. Ick ick ick.
Verdict:FAIL! FAIL! FAIL!
Half noodle soup, half salad. All delicious. Verdict: WIN!
Crazy varieties of fruits here that I’ve never seen or heard of. Chom choms were my favorites. Followed by Green Dragon Fruit. Oh and Jackfruit, it tastes just like Juicy Fruit gum – it’s super sweet, and the fruit is gigantic, I heard it can be up to 60 lbs per piece of fruit! We ate our fill of Dragon’s Eyes too, dabbled in Custard Apples (or as they call it here Milk from Mother’s Breast, a bit creepy) and enjoyed the usual tropical suspects like mango, papaya, mandarin oranges, watermelon. And I think I drank coconut water from couple dozen coconuts. Verdict: WIN!