Monthly Archives: November 2010

My Mongolian Mustache Ride

It has been a long time since I have posted anything. I apologize, but when Kara does such a fabulous job of informing the public about our lives there is no need for my input. This week was different. I had a week off from school and decided to take a little trip around Mongolia with a mustache and a friend. I went to work on Monday, because we were technically supposed to be there all week and on the way home stopped in for my first haircut in Mongolia. I convinced the haircutter person I wanted her to shave my beard, but the power cut out just before she got to my mustache. I thought this was the perfect excuse to rock a mustache for a week (that and Kara would never let me keep it if I was to be around her).

So, the next day I went to meet my friend Jon at the bus stop at 7am. He was not there so I gave him a call and he was still in bed. Luckily, nothing in Mongolia runs on time as we got to the bus station at 8:00 just when the bus was supposed to be leaving and then sat on it for another 25 minutes before it left. The ride was uneventful, Lonely Planet said it would take 11 hours to get to Tsetserleg, Mongolia’s most beautiful aimag (state) capital. It only took 7 hours, a pleasant surprise, across some vast, snow covered and empty land. The bus dropped us of right in front of the hotel at 3:30. It was surprisingly warm, probably mid 40s so we decided to make the most of the afternoon and hike up the mountain directly behind the town.

The Buddhist shrine below the mountain we climbed when we got to Tsetserleg.

John scampering up to the summit.

John and I on the summit of Bulgan Mountain.

After the hike, we met up with a Mongolian girl we met on the bus for dinner. I got to practice my Mongolian and she her English. We ate the first of plenty of cheap Mongolian meals and she showed us around town- 4 restaurants/bars, 3 hotels, and a night club. We called it an early night with big plans for the next day.

The next morning we woke up and asked the staff about tourist ger camps and horseback riding. They said ger camps were closed and they would look try to set up horseback riding for the afternoon. Determined to prove them wrong we set out to explore the town and check out the lone ger camp in the Lonely Planet. After a bit of a walk in some gusty winds we found our tourist camp, however, there were only two gers. We figured we had come this far we mind as well check it out. There was smoke coming from one of the gers so we approached it. The dog outside let the owners know we were there and the came out and welcomed us in with milk tea and dried milk curds. They were very friendly and welcoming, but we began to get the impression they weren’t responsible for the tourist camp. Using my stellar Mongolian skills I asked if we could stay in the other ger tomorrow night. They agreed, we set a time and a price and I asked if we could see inside the other ger. The said they didn’t have them but they would get them. We didn’t think twice about that, said thanks and we’ll see you tomorrow. We returned to the hotel to find they had done nothing about riding horses so we went for another hike.

It was quite a bit colder and windier today, so we thought we would stay in the valleys so we hiked three miles up one valley over a low ridge and back down another valley. It was a good hike, nice scenery though it would have been had it not been all brown. All the trees loose there foliage, even the pine trees.

Me next to an ovoo (traditional ceremonial marking) on the ridge we crossed.

We returned to the hotel chilled to the bone and ready for another night out it Tsetserleg. A giant plate of meat and rice/noodles a couple beers and early to bed.

Now is when it starts to get interesting. We had a leisurely morning at the guest house, where we checked out and headed to the “ger camp.” We showed up and we welcomed again by the family with tea and milk curds. We had planned another good hike from the ger camp and we were eager to put our bags away and get moving as the weather was much nicer today. In the limited communication it became clear that the other ger we pointed too was not a tourist ger. Apparently, they didn’t have the key because another family lived there. Eventually, we met the other family, the father was more sociable and made more of an effort to communicate and we began to piece together what was happening. We would be staying in the family’s ger that we were in, that family would stay in the ger next door, and this new family would go somewhere else for the night. Confused? Me too. After an awkward hour or two we got out of there for another hike.

The hike down through the snow.

We returned from our hike to find the “ger camp” abandoned except for the kids, a ten year old and a four year old. They unlocked our (their) ger for us, then as Jon failed to build a fire, the ten year old came in and did it in a matter of minutes. After we warmed up, we headed into town for more greasy food and beers. We picked up some supplies for the cold night in the ger a bottle of vodka a couple beers and a thermometer and returned to the ger, a little later than we told the kids when we left. When we arrived the family was in our (their) ger, I don’t know if they were more personable or if it was us because of the beers, but we really hit it off. I spent the next two hours talking in Mongolian with the parents, with the help of my notebook and a dictionary and Jon played cards with the kids. We broke out the vodka and our host customarily though the first shot into the fire, then we past the bottle around until it was finished (don’t worry it was a small bottle). I’m not sure if I was chasing vodka with the dried milk curds or the other way around. Irregardless, it was two hours of the most cultural interaction and best language practice I have had since I’ve been here.

I slept like a baby in my sleeping bag; Jon, however, was not quite as warm and was up a couple times during the night stoking or restarting the fire. We slept in until 10, not surprisingly it is dark in a ger. The mornings interactions we a bit more awkward than the night before, but we said our goodbyes and we gave them so gifts: a thermometer we picked up for ourselves that the father was extremely interested in and a pack of cards for the kids.

We headed back to the hotel to see if they set up horseback riding for us and they did (sort of). We got a ride out to a winter ger camp, where we were put in a ger and given more milk tea, fresh milk, and cheese. We waited for over an hour as our “guide” rounded up the horses and got them ready for us.

A modern ger camp; notice the solar panel and satellite dish.

Jon prepared for a cold ride as the horses are brought in.

I haven’t ridden a horse for years (like 20) so this was going to be exciting; however, my horse was not nearly as excited. He wanted to take his time, no matter how much I yelled “chuuup” and kicked him in the ribs. Jon and the guide had to circle back regularly to make sure I was coming. I rarely got the horse to trot, but the guide did, either by taking the reins and trotting off on his horse or smacking the butt of my horse with with a twig. My horse liked neither, but he could defiantly move. I even got up to a cantor a couple of times. After we went down the valley to visit the guide’s friends we joined in moving some cows. They are slow moving and boring, so we turned our attention to the guides herd of horses. Jon and the guide rounded up the horses and brought them back towards me (as I was lagging behind). I did get join in and I must say “I should of been a cowboy I should have learned to rope and ride,” because it was fun.

Returning to the ger camp

Well, that about wraps up my Mongolian mustache ride, at least the fun part. Shortly after we got off the horses it began snowing and didn’t stop until we reached UB the next day. It made for a long bus ride. The bus moved slow due to the snow and repeatedly stalled out. I must have on the only heaters or the engine, because I was sweating for the entire 11 hour bus ride back. We got bored and broke out the GPS to see how far we were from home and then the thermometer to see how hot it was under my seat, over 100 degrees F. There is such a thing as too much information, which I hope I didn’t provide you with.

Darkhan and a dark apartment

So this past weekend marked our first adventure with the bus system in Mongolia. Not the city buses – the real deal, let’s get out of UB buses. Saturday morning we left the comfort of home, our UB apartment, and headed to the bus station (the Dragon Center, as they call it). It was disheveled, disorganized, and full of hustle and bustle. For about five minutes we weren’t sure where the ticket office was, and then we found it hidden behind some buses (logically). Inside we went, and we were greeted with a kind of hoard of Mongolians gathered around the tickets windows fighting to pass their money through to get a ticket. One look at that, I took the backpack from Chris and sent him off with our IDs and some cash to buy us tickets. Good luck, my man.

He joined the mass, fought his way little by little to almost the front of the line, and then we both watched as the Darkhan sign was moved from his ticket window to a neighboring window. Along with the sign went about half of the hoard, so Chris was pushed along with them, like it or not. Being a friendly guy, however, he soon befriended an English speaking Mongolian girl, so she took his money and our IDs and in no time produced tickets for us.

Off we went, our first bus ride to a new city. Once we were out of UB, it was beautiful…and vast…and pretty darn empty.

The ride took three hours with one stop at the mid-way point:

And then we were there, in Darkhan! Merryn, our VSO friend, picked us up at the bus station and whisked us away to her apartment. The walk was great…short and not too cold…but the most shocking thing was the lack of cars, car horns, people, everything. Darkhan is one of the bigger cities in Mongolia, and it is QUIET! It was so pleasant. At this point we have grown so accustomed to constant noise, that to be in a place – a city! – that was quiet was a real treat.

After warming up with a nice glass of wine, we headed back out into the much colder night to grab some dinner and see a Mongolian lounge singer. Dinner was great. The lounge singer? He wore a khaki suit with a mint green shirt and a pink striped tie under it…he had lots of grease in his hair…and he was a Mongolian lounge singer. That about sums him up.

Anyways, Sunday morning we enjoyed a leisurely morning of BBC and chatter. Then off on our big adventure, to walk about Darkhan. Unfortunately for us, the temperature had dropped A LOT since the day before, so we got our first real dose of just how damn cold this country will be…soon…very soon. We lasted for a while on our walk before I declared myself to be frozen through and through, so we retreated to the market for some lunch supplies, and then hastily made our way back to Merryn’s for a cup of 3 in 1 coffee (all powder, 55% sugar, 30% non-dairy creamer, 15% instant coffee – the Mongolians love it), followed quickly thereafter with a glass of wine.

We did manage a few photos on our walk before my hands turned into icicles:

That one is of Mongolia’s only suspension bridge. Evidently at nighttime it’s all lit up pretty – we didn’t see it, we were inside by then. And here’s one of Old Darkhan, then New Darkhan (what the two sides of town are called – I imagine you can deduce why):

And a couple of us being horrid. I’m riding a concrete panda bear because my coat looked like a panda and I had a water bottle much like the panda’s big red mug, and Chris is standing next to a statue of a little boy wearing herder’s boots and nothing else. Oh and the little boy (not Chris) is peeing (when it’s not winter and the water is shut off). Darkhan artists have interesting tastes:

Sunday night we hopped on a bus home, and four hours later were snug as bugs in our cozy UB apartment. It was a great trip, wonderful to see Merryn, and so nice to get out of the noise and pollution of UB for a night. Next time we go, we plan to take the train…it takes most of the day but it must be just beautiful.

So this week is Chris’s school vacation, and I have been left to my own devices since Tuesday morning at 7 AM when he headed off to Tsetserleg, a town West of UB that everyone says is just beautiful…in summertime. Ha! It sounds like he and his friend are enjoying themselves…we’ll see what he has to say when he gets home on Saturday.

As for me, well…the power cut off sometime on Tuesday. Evidently the landlord “forgot” to pay the bill, so there I sat, in the dark. Damnit. To my delight, it came back on Wednesday afternoon after much harping to pay the bill. Then later Wednesday afternoon the door handle of our outside steel door (we have two doors) came off in my hand. Oops. I could get it back on – which is important because you lock the door by pulling the handle up – but something wasn’t right. After another call to the landlord, I was told someone would fix it this morning, Thursday morning. So yeah…I was happy…electricity was on and the door would be fixed and I went to bed thinking about how nice a cup of coffee would be in the morning…and then I woke up…flipped the light switch…DAMNIT DAMNIT DAMNIT. No electricity. This time wasn’t as bad though because when I opened my door, the lights were off in the hall too, so it meant it was a building power cut, not a my apartment only power cut. Anyways, the lights came back on around 10 AM, but not before I made that damn cup of coffee I wanted so badly:

Yep…that’s our camp stove over there in the left corner. Any port in a storm.

Anyways, the door fixer arrived mid-morning and went to work on fixing the problem. He installed a whole new locking mechanism pretty quickly, and things appeared to be on the mend…until he came into the apartment, closed the door, locked it from the inside, and there we stood…stuck inside. Oops. Lots of fiddling, pulling, pushing, I imagine curse words, and finally a request to use my phone. He called someone, that someone appeared on the outside of the door, more pulling, more pushing…and we were free! After about five more minutes of work, the door was functional again (even to the point that my old key still works on it), and off they went. I was a bit nervous that I would surely get locked out the first time I tried to get back in, but nope, it worked like a dream.

And that’s that…my first week alone in Mongolia. Oh no, that’s not that. My interpreter quit! Again! Well…the first one was fired; he didn’t quit. But this one quit. She has a baby and it’s too much time away from the baby, so now here I am again…interpreterless. It should only last until mid-December when I inherit my co-worker’s interpreter…hopefully. In the meantime I just chuckle and carry on creating things in English that will someday need to be translated to Mongolian. Who knows when that someday will really be…

Alas, so it goes. Here’s one happy thing from my time alone…without power in the morning, I have really noticed the sunrises. Yesterday was beautiful!

Oh and one sad thing: I had stored our first Mongolian icicle from our window outside in our freezer (you know, memories…). Well, thanks to too many hours without electricity, our poor icicle melted away into nothing. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I think that was the worst realization of the power outages…

So it goes, something tells me I won’t have to wait too long to find another…

Just when you think you’re figuring it out…

you get on bus 7 and get a city tour instead of a beautiful Sunday hike.

Yep. Bus 7. It was nice, don’t get me wrong. Not too crowded (a rarity), no squeaky brakes (an even bigger rarity), the Mongolian version of a Sunday drive I suppose.

So yeah, we were attempting to meet up with some friends for a nice hike Sunday morning, and instead we got a city tour. Come to find out our friends that we were trying to meet up with got a city tour too, so we weren’t the only foolish ones.

Anyways, less than lucky #7 brought us here, which we both decided wasn’t so bad after all:

Above me is the Zaison Monument, a Communist Era Monument (note the swastika in the corner?). We climbed up 600 steps to get there. Behind me is Ulaanbaatar in all of its glory. And on my head is the warm hat that Chris’s mom sent me. Wonderful.

In this next one we’re facing South, and behind us is one of our favorite places to hike. We didn’t hike there this past weekend though because it was cold and we wimped out. Let’s be honest.

Anyways, here’s another one of UB…maybe because of the snow we got recently the pollution wasn’t so bad?

And now you get a collection of sunrises from our balcony window. Some of them are pretty, and some of them are pretty gross.


Pretty (though admittedly not a sunrise):


Really pretty:

And really pretty gross:

The pollution was pretty horrible about a week ago. Dust, smoke, exhaust, assorted other horrible smells…you name it, we had it. We would walk out the door in the morning and instantly cough on account of the smoke/cold combination. Following the bit of snow we got this weekend, the pollution seems to be down quite a bit, so hopefully it’ll stay that way for a while. We’ll see.

In other news, my interpreter started today at long last! It was really a wonderful thing. I could hold a conversation about work! I think that maybe the lack of an interpreter taught me a little lesson in patience, as in Mongolian life there is rarely – if ever – a sense of urgency. The belief is that things will happen when they happen, so why rush them? I am trying to fully embrace this belief (Hello joie de vivre, my name is Kara), and this is where I sit while embracing it:

The radiator you see in the background is one nasty devil…it is HOT in that office. My Mongolian counterpart sits at the desk next to mine. Her name is Avarga, she is a Pediatrician, and she thinks it is really funny when I say anything in Mongolian.

So yeah…things are good here. We’re already looking forward to the weekend, as Chris has next week off from school. I’ll take Monday off so we can have a nice long weekend visiting our friend in Darkhan, a city about 4 hours North of UB. It should be nice…I’m looking forward to a bus ride through the countryside before we reach the 2nd largest city in Mongolia (large is a relative term, mind you).

Off I go for now. I hope everyone on the other side of the world is warm and cozy. Soon enough we will be in danger of freezing our faces off. It is not going to be nice.