The weirdest thing happened the day before we left for the ice festival. I turned on the tap, our same old usual water tap, and what did I see? BLUE water. Really. Like windex blue. Not the normal range from clear to orangey red when the rust is flowing, but BLUE. And kind of soapy? Maybe they were cleaning the pipes? Who knows. What I do know is that we did not drink the Kool-Aid. But we did take photos.
So anyways…our first trip into the bitterly cold countryside of Mongolia in the winter…in a Russian van…with 8 ex-pats, 4 Mongolians, and only 8 functional seats. We should have known from the moment the van pulled up (pulled up? chugged up is more like it) an hour late that we were in for an interesting journey…
Right, so the van chugs up in all its glory, and out pops two Mongolians in beautiful deels, and two Mongolians not in beautiful deels. Throw the bags in the back, and let’s go! But wait a second…there isn’t enough room for all of us? This is weird. Oh, we’re going to pick up an extra seat and drop off two Mongolians? Right-o, let’s go!
So off we go to an apartment block up the hill from our pick-up spot where the next thing we know is that another bench seat is coming out of the apartment and being placed in our van. Don’t worry, we’re told, the bags will be packed around it, and they will hold it in place. Welcome to how things are done in Mongolia.
With the seat in place, we assume we’re dropping off the extra two Mongolians, but nope, as soon as our tour director hits the road, they’re peering into the back of the van in search of an amount of space wide enough for their Mongolian butts. Amongst murmers and grumbles from the now squished ex-pats, we hit the road.
Day 1 was pleasantly uneventful. We remained on paved highway the entire day, stopped for pizza along the way at a cafe managed by a VSO volunteer, and made great time. We were in Bulgan City before we knew it, checked into our guesthouse and happy as could be.
Day 2 rolls around, and off we go into the vast unknown: a day of dirt tracks, breakdowns and I hope you used the toilet in Bulgan because you won’t see another one for a week. The Mongolian music is playing, the passengers are bouncing all over the van (still smiling), and we’re doing it…the real Mongolia! We’re in it, living it, this is so awesome! Wait, why are we stopping? And why are the front seats coming out? And why is the engine opened? Oh dear. Breakdown #1. We were so young and innocent then.
So yeah, we broke down in the middle of nowhere, but as everywhere is the middle of nowhere without a mechanic to be found, everyone knows how to fix their own vehicle. So we hung around for a bit, ate some of the three pound summer sausage that Becky and Mark sent to us from Colorado, and then off we went, back on the road. Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing right along to lunchtime and beyond. Where did beyond take us?
Duh, right to a flat tire. Breakdown #2. Breakdown #2 also provided me with the experience of feeling the COLDEST wind I have ever felt…at least at that point in time.
So flat tire fixed, off we went to Murun (or as we prefer to spell it, Moron). We were meeting up with two other vans of people there so we could make the journey to Khatgal, the town by the lake, as a group. After dinner in Murun, off we went, three Russian vans careening through the Mongolian steppe in the dark not really on a road. They’re really into safety here.
The problem with driving not really on a road at nighttime is that it’s really easy to lose that not really road. And lose it we did. Oh boy did we lose it. A lot. And each time at least one of the three vans would wind up in a snowdrift, all the passengers would pile out to push the van out of the snowdrift, and off we would go again in search of the next snowdrift. The positive about this activity? Each time we stepped out of the van, we stepped into the most magnificent starry sky I have ever seen. It’s amazing what the Mongolian countryside can do to a starry sky. Breathtakingly beautiful.
And then we arrived. To where, we weren’t sure, but we had arrived somewhere and off we went into Grandma’s house. Grandma’s house was a little wooden house, one simple room, two single (smaller than single) beds that were shared by Grandma and the 14 year old grandson, and Batman and Robin (two of the Mongolians who rode with us). Now, picture a smaller than twin sized bed with two grown men in it, sleeping side by side in their undies, sharing a pillow. One of these men is a Mongolian wrestler (read: he’s not small), the other is his littler sidekick. And they are spooning. And they are straight. Suffice to say that Mongolian men put up a good front about anything related to being gay, but they are the farthest thing from uncomfortable when it comes to touching. It was…sweet? Something like that. Especially when I woke up one morning to find Robin looking like he was whispering sweet nothings into Batman’s ear. Aww…
Anyways, breakfast each day was bread cooked by Grandma is the ger stove (how you cook bread over a fire is beyond me – but it was delicious), sugar, salty milk tea, and maybe some muttony buuz if we were lucky. Mutton actually tastes better in the countryside? It doesn’t taste good per say, but it does taste better.
Oh, where did we arrive? We arrived to their home:
And Grandma’s home too:
After breakfast, off we went, through the hills to the Ice Festival. When we arrived, it was horribly horribly windy…
But we did find this:
And an ice slide:
And an ice skating race:
And we went for a horse ride!
Oh, and we spent quite a bit of time in a little tea shop ger eating khushuur (fried mutton dumpling things) and drinking salty milk tea. And then back outside we went for more Ice Festival fun…
We had races with ice blocks:
And sat on dragon ice sculptures:
And then finally at long last after a frigid, frigid day, we went to a bonfire at which there was also a dance party. The music of choice? Hello, Justin Bieber, welcome to Mongolia. Really. Suffice to say the Mongolians have Bieber fever (we might have caught a little of it too). It was great though, a dance party by a bonfire at the Ice Festival in Mongolia. That opportunity doesn’t arise too often.
Well fueled on Bieber and vodka, back into the Russian van we piled, and back to Grandma’s we went. We were about 2/3 of the way there when our trusty(?) van sputtered a bit, the lights flashed, and we stalled. What was the problem? It went a little something like this:
Batman: “Petrol is finished.”
White people: “Shall we walk?”
Batman: “Please wait.”
So we wait and they routed around in the van in hopes of finding something, anything, that might have gasoline in it. Miraculously, they pulled the oddest looking contraption out from under the seat, poured its contents into the gas tank, and off we went again.
For about two minutes. Then sputter, lights flash, van stalls.
Batman, right on cue: “Now we walk.”
So walk we did. Not far – in fact, Robin saw the van lights from the house, then saw them go out, then saw a flashlight, so by the time we reached the house he had intercepted us along the way.
And that was that, to bed we went. Day 2 of the Ice Festival was quite similar to Day 1 in that it contained many ice adventures.
There was ice tug of war:
And ice wrestling:
And then real wrestling!
Wait a second, who is that man?
Christopher wrestled! Really. The guy he wrestled came in 2nd place in the whole tournament, so I think he did pretty well. He would have done better if he had one of those suits though.
Anyways, the next day we went back to where the Ice Festival was (it was only 2 days), played on the sculptures, and then went for another horse ride:
Then we climbed the highest mountain we could see, hung around by the ovoo for sunset, and back down we went for dinner. And what was dinner? Fish khusuur! It was fresh caught and put all other Mongolian food to shame. I can confidently say that it was delicious. YUM!
The next morning, back in the van we went for the journey home.
Ahh, the journey home. It took two days, and in that time the van broke down seven times. Counting running out of fuel, that brought our grand total of breakdowns to ten. Incredible.
Suffice to say we were happy to be back on our orange couch in UB. The countryside was spectacularly beautiful…just so vast and empty and incredible. The journey through it was eventful and bouncy and fun…I’m just not sure I would look forward to doing it again in the winter!
And that’s that, our journey to the Ice Festival.