Monthly Archives: August 2010

Is it possible to have a relationship with a GPS?

If it is possible, well, I think I have a strained one. Chris, on the other hand, has fallen head over heels.

Welcome to our second weekend adventure in Mongolia, this one bigger and better than the last. Feeling quite confident in ourselves after last weekend’s day hike, we decided that this week a proper backpacking trip was in store. Where to? To Zuunmod and back. According to our Lonely Planet, the “easy hike” back takes 7.5 hours. The “more difficult,” not really on a trail at all hike? Well…it doesn’t say how long that one takes. And which one did we pick?

Right. Think back to the relationship with the GPS bit…

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Before we could take the long way home, we had, of course, to get a long way from home. To do so entailed finding a taxi, bartering a lower price (in Mongolian! which we did!), and then riding along for nearly two hours. The taxi was small…the roads were bumpy…and the driver, at one point, chose to go off roading for a bit. The best part of all? He played lovely, melodic Mongolian music for us the whole way. I can honestly say that if I was a movie director, I couldn’t have chosen a better soundtrack. It was simply perfect. We might as well have been gallivanting through the Alps. But we weren’t. We were on bumpy Mongolian roads and we had a temple to get to. No time for gallivanting.

So yeah, we arrived, and we looked. Unfortunately for us, we were a little late in arrival because Stalin’s men seem to have gotten the best of the temple way before we stood a chance. Such is the story for most of the temples throughout Mongolia, but lucky for us, we still had a beautiful hike ahead of ourselves.

And off we went. Hiking, hiking, hiking…oh, it’s drizzling…oh shoot…now it’s raining…boy, visibility sure isn’t good…good grief, this is fun! Alas, we trudge onward and finally make it to the summit:

Did you think I was lying about the visibility?

After another fortunate turn of events (read: we took the wrong path down from the summit and had to return not fifteen minutes later), we found ourselves with this level of visibility – a vast improvement from before:

Better visibility, yes, but better terrain? NO. We were hiking by GPS…not by trail. Don’t be silly. Lonely Planet had told us to expect a “boggy marsh” at some point in our voyage, so we were on the lookout for that, but otherwise we were really just at the mercy of our GPS and a compass. We were really doing it…we were orienteers! I never really wanted to be one of those.

Anyways, off we went. After about fifteen boggy marshes (I mentioned it was raining?) and twelve boulder fields (orienteers go over boulders, not around), we made it to camp…and there was a bit of a clearing!

We settled in for the night, built ourselves a fire, and cooked up some dinner. Mmm…ramen. And even bigger mmm? Mongolian vodka. Turns out it tastes less like fire water than any other vodka I have even tasted. You could not call it tasty by any means…but it’s certainly not terrible. Suffice to say we could see how it has the potential to turn a nation on its head.

After a chilly night we awoke to a welcome sight: sunshine! The rest of our hike proceeded far smoother than the day before. We managed to only spend about half of the day wandering through marshes and boulder fields, and to our delight, the never fail GPS brought us right to the trail we were looking for. It only took it (or us?) two days.

Now, I have been told by my hiking counterparts that we never intended to be on a trail for most of the time, and I’ll agree with that. GPS holds no blame there. Where GPS holds blame is that it just gives us so much damn confidence that we can surely navigate our way out, that at times we forget (err…at times I forget) that we (I) like trails. A lot.

All complaining aside, however, it’s a darn good thing that Chris bought the GPS before we left, because (even I will admit) it gives us a heck of a lot more freedom and security that a map alone. In that sense, GPS (and Chris) wins.

Alas, we made it home nonetheless, and this is the final photo of our journey (we’re tired):

OH, and I forgot this photo in our last post:

Because what blog is complete without a photo of a Mongolian contortionist holding herself up by her teeth whilst her behind rests casually upon her head? (Certainly not ours.)

Mongolia is beautiful despite the mutton.

Well we made it through our first real weekend in UB, and it was a doozie: a glimpse into what this country really looks like, some fresh air, and our first visit to a real live herding family in the countryside.

Friday wrapped up language school for the week, and then off we went to start our weekend with a VSO welcome dinner. On the menu? Indian food. “Welcome to VSO Mongolia; please enjoy the Indian Buffet we have prepared for you.” Lovely. It even came with a warning from the Country Director: “I hope that you enjoy the food and that it does not give you diarrhea.” Again, lovely. For those inquiring minds, we did in fact enjoy the food, and it did not in fact give us diarrhea. Score two for the whities.

Saturday morning we were up early to catch the 33 bus southbound towards the mountains. We were instructed by another volunteer to take the bus to the end of the line – when we saw the children’s prison, we were there. Take the bus to the end of the line we did, and – alas – there stood an innocent little turquoise building with a quaint little primary colored gate, all surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. We had arrived at the starting point for our hike, so off we went.

The neat thing about hiking in Mongolia is that you can hike anywhere, as there are trails just about everywhere. So we climbed the first hill we saw, and that hill led to another hill, so we climbed that one too. Carry on in that same pattern for a few more hills, and you find us here:

We’re walking around an “Ovo,” which is a type of monument built by traveling Mongolians. When they pass one along their journey, the stop, break out the vodka, follow a symbolic ritual of circling the ovo three times in a clockwise fashion, dropping off stones along the way, and throughout the journey enjoying as much vodka as they would like. We did not have vodka, but we had plenty of stones, so we fulfilled that bit of the ritual to the best of our knowledge.

Following the ovos and about six more miles of hiking, we wound up here:

The panorama shows pretty much the entire route we hiked. Following the ridgeline, we walked about 8.5 miles in a horseshoe shape. Throughout quite a bit of the journey we could see UB in the distance, but there was also quite a bit of time when it was just us and the woods. We never once passed another person close enough to say hello. We did, however, pass a number of goats that would not let us get close enough to say hello (much to my dismay).

All in all the hike was wonderful. We had thoroughly exhausted ourselves and hopped on our trusty 33 bus home. Trusty 33, return us to the guesthouse! Wait, what? Trusty 33, where are you going? Ohhhh, you are taking us far from home…to a ger district? Hmm…that’s odd. Trusty 33, you are doing a K-turn in the ger district? Again, odd. Also odd are the looks we were then receiving from the driver and ticket taker, as we were the only people left on the bus…and there were five of us…all white…and clearly not from there. So it goes.

Anyways, trusty 33 finally brought us home, and we all admitted that we were pleased to have received an impromptu city tour. Thank you, trusty 33.

Sunday morning we had a VSO organized trip to the countryside to visit a herding family’s ger. Despite our driver’s constant desire to slam on the brakes for no apparent reason, the drive was incredible. The scenery is simply breath taking in that the land is so vast and the people and buildings so few. We drove for about 70 km out of the city – the only comparison Chris and I could make was that it looks similar to Montana but with little tiny yurts sprinkled here and there. Finally we arrived at our destination:

The quiet when we stepped off the bus was remarkable. The land is so pristine…so untouched. And there are simply very few people. Evidently there are casual rules that no family will plant their ger within a kilometer of another family’s ger, so the homes are quite dispersed. The families still view one another as neighbors; they just don’t live as close as we might picture neighbors to be. The government will drill a well for each ger community, so they do have a water source, but it too may be located a few km from the home. In that sense, the families are all grateful for horses and the children to ride those horses to fetch the water (these kids have A LOT of chores).

Luckily for us, we found our own kid to ride the horse that fetched the water. He seemed to be a bit oversized for the horse, but he looked right at home nonetheless…

At least until he got stuck in traffic…

Anyways, the visit was wonderful. We enjoyed our first tastes of fermented mare’s milk (which was not entirely fermented and therefore tasted quite strongly of yeast), homemade yogurt, homemade cream/butter/cheese (which was it?), and some deliciously tasty buuz (traditional steamed dumplings). AND we got to see the herd:

Most of all, we have both concluded that Mongolia is a wonderfully beautiful place despite the mutton.

Until next time!

Mongolian Roulette

So last night we decided to break away from the group and try our luck at eating some Mongolian food. It has such a bad reputation that although we have been here for almost a week we have shied away from it. We have however, enjoyed feasts at Thai restaurants, pizza joints and Indian/Mexican food restaurant (don’t worry Forrest we didn’t get sick). The food has been delicious, but not authentic. At any rate, Kara allows me to select our destination and I choose Full Pub, a darker and shadier looking establishment than we are used to, but right on the main drag. As we are shown to our seats I excuse myself and go to use the restroom, where I walk in on some women. Oops. I wait til she’s done and go in and think to my self foolish women there is a lock right here. So I lock it. I go about my business, wash my hands and try to unlock the door, but it appears to be jammed. After several minutes of fighting with the lock, I was able to pick it free with a pen. I open the door and the wait staff was gathered and entire restaurant (about 5 people) was watching and laughing. Glad I could entertain.

So I sit down, we order beers- no problem, we’ve had that down since the first day. Kara and I pour over the menu all in Mongolian. Not being able to tell what anything is we decide that the best approach is to close our eyes and point when the waitress comes. Kara was not as satisfied with our selection as I, so I tell her she has to at least try several bites, unless it is something terrible like tongue, liver, brains or something like that. She agrees. The waitress brings us a plate of what appears to be thinly sliced pieces of meat(we think its mutton), thicker chunks of fat and sauteed onions. It doesn’t look half bad, so I shovel my first bite in to my mouth… and it is terrible! It was quite possible the worst meal I have ever had. Kara had her one bite and moved on to the side dish of white rice and pickled cabbage. I being stubborn continued to choke down as much as possible, why I ‘m not sure. We thought we were in for a long two years if mutton tasted this bad and that is all that Mongolians eat. However, after further research and discussion we were able to conclude that it was in fact liver. That is the story of how we lost our first game of Mongolian Roulette.

Boooo Beijing, Yaaaaay Ulaanbaatar!

Well, we’re here, we made it! Not without incident, but we’re here. Let’s start from the get-go…

We departed from Boston early morning on Wednesday, the 11th of August. Things proceeded smoothly through Phoenix, and we made it happily to Vancouver, where we enjoyed a 13 hour lay-over that included a trip into the city, sushi and relaxation in a park. We hopped on our long flight – 11 hours – to Beijing early Thursday morning, and all was well – we were on our way to China!

Happiness be damned, China was evidently not too keen on our arrival. Our flight landed at 5:30am, which gave us a leisurely 3 hours until our flight to Ulaanbaatar (UB). We cleared “transit customs,” as they called it, and moved along to our gate to wait. At the gate we met some nice folks who were also traveling to UB, one of them a VSO volunteer. Cool. Not cool was that our pleasant banter gave way to one of us reading the flight board:

What?! Our flight was delayed for almost 10 hours? That’s weird…well, we might as well get some breakfast and relax for a while. We’ve got a long day ahead.

Ahh, the mind of the optimist. Our breakfast/relaxation turned into lunch, dinner, another flight delay (thanfully only 2 hours!), and – alas! – we were on our way. Hooray Beijing! Wait…what? Our boarding pass “transit customs” stamp has been cancelled?! But why?! Ooh, because we did not spend the day at the free hotel that we did not know Air China had offered us – we spent it like giant buttheads at the airport! Bad travelers. So we, along with about 8 of our friends, are not allowed to board the plane. We must return to customs, exit into China (I thought you couldn’t do that without a visa?), and return with a fresh boarding pass/customs stamp. Lovely. So we do as we are told, and all is well in the Beijing Airport. Off we go; we hop on the plane, relieved to be done with that headache and on our way to UB. As weary little travelers, we embrace this 2 hour flight to catch a quick nap, and before we know it, the flight attendants announce our arrival in UB – only 20 minutes away!

Silly us. Ten minutes later we awake once again to hear that we are NOT going to UB, we are in fact turning back around and returning to Beijing. Boooo Beijing! And booo Air China. Every other airline was landing in UB but for some reason Air China would not. So back we go…

Two hours later we arrive in Beijing and are shuttled on three separate buses through and around the Beijing Airport. Rejoice, the lovely people are taking us to a hotel for the night! Or for two hours.

We arrive at the hotel, check in, and two hours later – at 5 am – we are back on a bus, heading back to the airport. We’re happy though…we’re going to Mongolia!

Ahh, again you silly travelers, do you never learn? You are NOT going to Mongolia; there is no room on the flight for you. You are going BACK to a hotel and perhaps – if you are lucky – you will fly out at 3 in the afternoon for UB.

GAGH. We are now ANGRY travelers and we are surrounded by ANGRY traveler friends. Strength in numbers. WHERE IS OUR BREAKFAST VOUCHER?! AND LUNCH TOO…WE WANT LUNCH!!! What? No vouchers? Huh? This is weird.

BOOO AIR CHINA. All at once…BOOOOO AIR CHINA.

Enough about them though. The day culminates in this photo – our heroes are HAPPY!

They’re heading to Mongolia, and – this time – the plane lands! Yaaaaay Ulaanbaatar!

Happy.

So yeah…three of our four bags arrived – the fourth arrived the following morning – and we made it to our new home in Ulaanbaatar a little over 70 hours after we left home. Cripes.

We have been here since, getting to know the city, our fellow volunteers, and the language, culture and people. We are happy, healthy and almost well rested. Things are good. Today was our first day of language school. The sounds are entirely foreign, but it is exciting to feel as though we will make slow progress towards communication. We also made our first trip to the local market today…Chris is a wonderful market shopper I must say.

Anyways, this is enough for now. We’ll leave you with a couple photos of our new home and one of the gym that Chris intends to join…

Until next time…

Is there lobster in Mongolia?

Greetings from your favorite traveling idiots…we’re back!

Welcome to our next adventure, bigger and better (really?) than the last. We’re hunkered down in Massachusetts for the moment, pleasantly enjoying our last days of gluttony in the States. Our final days here have involved lots of lobster consumption…and Captain Dusty’s…and everything else that is not tied down. And now…we’re off. In less than two days we climb onto a plane in the very wee hours of the morning (thanks mom and dad), and off we go to Mongolia…via Phoenix, Vancouver, and Beijing. We arrive to our new home Friday morning.

We’re excited, nervous and overwhelmed, but more than anything we’re just looking forward to the adventure. We hope that you all enjoy our tales of wonder and woe; we look forward to sharing them with you and welcome all of your thoughts, questions and comments.

Until the journey begins…bye for now!