Turns out, visiting Mongolia in late summer is basically the equivalent of visiting almost anywhere else in the dead of winter! But at least snow is pretty and the four layers of clothing covered up the weight I almost certainly gained eating platters of crusty homemade bread every morning. Now, let’s get to it.
We left off last in Ulaanbaatar, after returning from our foray to Northern Mongolia. The following morning, August 8, we were met at our hotel by our guide, Jay, a very fluent English speaker with a penchant for Mongolian rap and a vast collection of headbands. We flew to the dusty town of Bayan-Ogli, the provincial capital of the westernmost province of Mongolia, and arrived in what was one of the smallest airports I’ve yet to see in all of my travels (though Rurrenabaque, in the Bolivian Amazon, still takes the prize). There, we were met by our Driver, Ibek, and our cook, a jolly woman named Bogy (obviously a nickname for tourists). To our delight, Ibek also drove a Soviet beast van, though he had tricked his out with modern luxuries like actual seats and a Bluetooth radio (from which he would play the same 15 songs over and over at max volume for the next seven days). Ibek was younger than Dakh, smoked constantly (including TWICE while suck siphoning gasoline out of another vehicle), and wore the same navy blue track suit and fedora for six days straight. Though his Soviet wagon had some modern accouterments, no mere cosmetic change can make up for vehicle age and driver experience. On steep downhills, Ibek’s car gave off a disconcerting smell of burning brakes and, on steep uphill climbs teetering on moving rocks, he frequently killed the transmission and we started to roll backwards towards a drop off. While it is really hard to objectively compare the quality of the “roads” in northern vs. western Mongolia, I can say with confidence that Ibek was less skilled at preventing bodily harm to those of us being flung about the back of the vehicle. Western Mongolia is quite rocky and there has been no apparent attempt to remove rocks from the path of traveling vehicles. In fact, it seemed at times like the largest boulders were actually found straddling the tire tracks. The giant boulders, pools of mud, and steep hills made travel cripplingly slow with 40km (about 25 miles) taking 3 hours to cover. The drive was like being in one of those old motion simulator rides at the mall (or Star Tours at Disneyland) but without seatbelts or any assurance that the vehicle wasn’t going to tip off of a cliff and kill us all.
After airport pick up, we left immediately and headed out to our first destination in the west, Altai Tavan Bogd national park, which has the highest peaks in Mongolia and straddles the border with Russia and China. Ogli is in a dusty valley surrounded by dry peaks, not unlike Las Vegas or Phoenix. As we climbed toward the mountains, the vegetation changed remarkably little, with a few tufts of wiry grass and spiny red plants covering otherwise barren hillsides. As with the north, there were nomadic gers and herds of animals, but even these were sparse given the poor grazing fodder. Additionally, we passed collections of squat stone dwellings lived in by Mongolia’s Kazakh population. There are ~100,000 Kazakhs living in western Mongolia, Muslims who speak the Kazakh language and apparently live a more traditional nomadic Kazakh life than the Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. Whew. I just used “Kazakh” five times in a sentence – pretty proud of that. Though there weren’t many people, plants or herds of farm animals, there was an abundance of morbidly obese marmots, some so fat that Brad and I though they were dogs from a distance, until they shuffled their fat bodies into a hole.
In the evening of our first night, we arrived at the eastern gate of Tavan Bogd national park and set up camp. The following morning, Kazakh camel herders were supposed to arrive and load our stuff, while we trekked into the mountains to camp and climb a 14,000 foot peak that straddles the Russian border. Brad and I were obviously quite excited to illicitly put a toe into Russia from the summit. It was frigidly cold, with an icy wind lashing at our tent when we went to bed. In the morning, we woke up to two inches of fresh snow in our camp and no camel herders (they apparently opted out due to the storm). With no way to pack our stuff to base camp and with blowing snow whipping around, our guide decided to pull the plug on that day’s trekking and drive to the south gate of the park, which has a lower elevation and a better trail to base camp. Despite being geographically very close, it took FIVE hours to drive to the base camp, all the while being battered in the automotive boxing match of Mongolia’s roads (my head: 0, wall of car: at least 5).
The southern gate of the park was in a lovely valley alongside the White River (which is actually not white, but an opaque aqua blue from the suspension of glacial silt) and surrounded by lower mountains. We arrived in the early afternoon to a driving rain that filled our tent with puddles as we set it up. By the evening, the rain transitioned to snow.
Though the rangers at the gate had told our guide that the weather was expected to continue for four days, by some miracle we awakened to a clear-ish morning with only some high, puffy clouds and a layer of frost coating the grass. Given the quantity of snow in the mountains, our guide had already pulled the plug on what was supposed to be a non-technical (i.e. not on snow) hike of Malchin peak, but since the weather was good we could at least go up to base camp and see the view, about a 12 mile round trip. We left early, to take advantage of the good weather, and enjoyed panoramic views of the glacier carved White River Valley, lined with snow-dusted hills. In front of us, the high Altai knifed into the sky, glaciers tumbling down their flanks and thick cornices of snow precipitously balancing on ridge lines. Disconcertingly, herds of Bactrian camels (wooly-haired, two-humped Asian camels) wandered in the snow, in stark juxtaposition to the wintery environment. Our guide Jay (not his real name, but he refused to listen to us trying to pronounce his actual Mongolian name) had a tough time on the hike, since he hadn’t been at altitude in a while, but still used every opportunity afforded to him to take a smoke break. I mean obviously tobacco smoke helps the lungs acclimate.
Following our hike, we visited a nomadic ger in the valley to enjoy some milk tea and yak-milk curds. Just a word here on curds for my Wisconsin friends – these are not your midwestern, squeaky, soft, fried curds dipped in horseradish ranch. Curds in Central Asia and Mongolia are petrified, hard little nuggets that are dried to the point of cracking your molars, with a texture akin to a Jawbreaker candy and the flavor of salted, sour sand. They are meant to last and sustain nomadic families through a long, harsh winter. Some are almost inedible without sucking on them to soften them in saliva for 30 minutes before attempting to chew. Some are profoundly sour, some are obscenely salty, some are actually edible. The yak milk curds at this particular ger were among the best I’ve had on this trip – one type she had prepared had a small bit of sugar to cut the acidity but even her sour curds were not as mouth-puckeringly tart as others – and were soft enough to chew with only minimal mouth-soaking time. Following a feast of curds, fresh bread piled with rich yak-milk butter, and cups of hot milk tea, our hostess busted out an old pickle jar filled with a clear liquid. Jay referred to this liquid as “vodka” but I learned through some questioning that it is actually a moonshine alcohol made from fermented milk products with no grain at all and, per his description, “the first cup goes down well but be careful because the second cup may finish you off.” Here I committed my first major cultural faux pas, as the hostess handed a cup toward Brad and me and I reached for it first, leading to some confusion and an explanation from Jay that Brad should have taken the cup first as it was being offered to him as a sign of respect for men, to which Brad replied “FINALLY.” 😒😒😒
The milk moonshine was tart, cold, served in a full tea glass, and definitely alcoholic. I was forced to drink two full cups, Brad had three. This did not help with our stability in the backseat of the Soviet beast as we crashed back down the mountain that afternoon, to our next camping spot.
The next morning we left our lovely but alarmingly windy camping spot by a small river and loaded into the beast, with the goal of driving to Khoton Nuur, a lake in the southern part of the national park, for some additional hiking and camping. Jay’s hope was that the weather would be better at a lower elevation. We’d only been in the car for about 15 minutes when Ibek pulled over. This seemed a bit quick for a smoke break, even for Ibek, and there was much chattering between him and Jay. Turns out that the gasket sealed around the oil filter had essentially disintegrated (realistically, it probably hadn’t been replaced since the last time the van was used as a Soviet ambulance) and ALL of the oil had leaked out. We were 50km (~30mi) from the nearest town on a barren, rocky dirt road in a valley next to a river with no sign of habitation or even a ger or herd of animals. Ibek fashioned a new seal out of an inner tube, using his mouth and some sort of glue and we waited. We were informed by Jay that this rutted out dirt track is a “main” route between areas of the park so assuredly cars would come by. And they did. Roughly one car every 30 min. Fortunately most of these had spare oil to share and, little by little, Ibek refilled his oil while Brad and I wandered the valley. Serendipitously, our breakdown happened next to a grove of seabuckthorn berry bushes. Seabuckthorn berries are tart, juicy little orange berries with terrifying, two-inch long spines surrounding them on the bush. Sustaining only minor injuries, we grazed on berries while waiting for Ibek to swindle oil off of passing drivers.
Given the prolonged delay, we didn’t arrive to the lake until late in the afternoon. After we finally acquired oil, we drove through a profoundly dry moonscape valley surrounded by parched mountains that were adorned with ribbons of shiny black basalt. The valley was filled with Bronze Age and burial mounds, which confirmed my instinct that only the dead should inhabit this valley, as well as deer stones, and other monuments, including lines of upright stones extending east to mark the rising sun. Finally, as we approached Khoton Nuur, a few thickets of evergreen trees appeared on the flanks of the mountains and some tufty grasses and hardy wildflowers pushed up through the dry soil.
Khoton Nuur was gorgeous, a crystal clear turquoise lake with a range of snow capped mountains to the north and west and dry, desert hills to the east. We set up camp on a grassy meadow on the lake shore while being blasted by icy wind. By the time we had set up the tent, it was snowing again. So much for that better weather.
In the morning, our tent was encrusted in a shell of ice, it continued to snow, and, just like Elizabeth Warren, the wind persisted. Bogy, our jolly cook, decided this seemed like a perfect time to heat up some water and wash her hair outside while wearing a tee-shirt. Meanwhile, I was huddled in the cook tent wearing four jackets. This seems like a good place to talk for just a minute about Bogy. I know I mentioned our cook Daldei on our trip to the north and how he made elaborate, delicious meals despite being in the middle of nowhere. Well, Bogy put him to shame. She was incredible. For breakfast every day she made eggs, crepe pancakes, fresh fruit for the pancakes, homemade buttery, crusty, pan-grilled onion flatbread (which I can credit for at least 10 extra pounds of body weight), coffee, milk tea, oatmeal, and meat. Every lunch and dinner was a multiple course affair. She made pizza on a cast iron pan. She made hand cut fresh noodles. She made a lamb barbecue one night that elicited noises from Brad that I’ve never heard him make while eating. Her effort and skill allowed me to forgive her for blasting some truly terrible music during the few times when Ibek let her mix up the rotation of his 15 songs. One of her favorites was a Kazakh singer named Dimanche who apparently won The Voice in China. His special skill is screaming out insanely high notes that would make Mariah Carey jealous and probably alter the patterns of migratory birds. Please look him up. Please. Actually, here. I’m going to include a link to make it easy for you: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=anKmU1J0l9g
Finally in the afternoon the weather broke and we headed up a small nearby canyon to hike to a waterfall. It was just gorgeous, with the fresh snow layering the multihued rocky canyon walls and dusting the evergreen trees. When we arrived back at camp, Jay and Ibek headed out to fish for dinner and Brad and I scrambled the surrounding hills for views of the lakes, the nearby row of mountains and, in the distance, the craggy high Altai.
The following morning, we packed up and left the lake and the national park, heading east back toward Bayan Ogli town. Our plan was to go to the Altai Eagle Festival, which started the following day (Saturday) and would last through the weekend. As I mentioned previously, Western Mongolia is has a large ethnic Kazakh population and a very harsh winter climate. Historically, the Kazakhs of this region (and Kazakhstan) used eagles to hunt for rabbits and foxes to use for meat in the winter. The practice declined dramatically during communist times, though some families still trained eagles and retained the knowledge of caring for them and managing the wild eagle population to ensure its health (crucially, releasing the eagles back to wild when they are still of breeding age). In the early 1990s, after the fall of communism, eagle festival competitions were started to encourage hunters to continue to train eagles, maintain the skills and recruit young people to take up the practice. The largest is held in Bayan Ogli town the first weekend in October, but there is a second, smaller annual festival that is typically held in Sagsai (a town with approximately 60 eagle hunting families) in September, which we planned to attend. This year, this festival was moved to Tolbo, a nearby mountain lake. These festivals are increasingly popular and have become somewhat of a tourist shit show – the one in October is one of the largest tourist draws in Mongolia – and, consequently, there are some problems. The eagles that do well at the festivals sometimes aren’t the best hunting eagles, because those eagles are more overwhelmed and distracted by the crowds, so there is a question of whether these festivals are really helping hunters maintain the practice in a genuine way. But most people seem to agree that they provide a financial stimulus to support the community and the people who compete ARE from families who have hunted with eagles for centuries. Additionally, there are traditional Kazakh horseback competitions, food, and people selling local handicrafts.
The first day, Saturday, the festival competitions started two hours late with an event that was scheduled for Sunday. I wasn’t too amped about this – at least it started the day it was supposed to, which exceeded my expectations – and, while we waited, Brad and I wandered the festival grounds, scrambling the surrounding rocky peaks and taking photos of waiting eagles, horses, and competitors. But other people were not ok. As I mentioned, these festivals are HUGE tourist draws and, I quickly realized, specifically are a draw for older travelers with many, many, many very large cameras, portable chairs, and a sense of profound entitlement. Camera-wielding old men jockeyed for position and hollered objections when anyone happened to accidentally block their shot while quiet complaints simmered to a slow boil the later the start was pushed.
Let’s just be clear for a minute about the grounds of this festival. It was in a bone-dry field covered with yellowing grass. There was no clear designated area to sit, stand, or view. Aside from some circles delineated by painted rocks where competitors stood, there really didn’t appear to be anywhere that was off limits. As people naturally do, spectators had arranged themselves into a loose semicircle around the main competition area, some standing, some sitting on the ground, some on camp chairs. Once this arrangement happened, people became very, very attached to “their” spot and would scream, yell, and generally throw a fit if someone else happened to sit in a place that blocked their view. After a bald man with a white beard and three cameras came over to personally yell and Brad and I because we dared to impede his perfect view and “he paid the same amount as us” (never mind that we were among the first few people who arrived and were sitting around a ton of other people), we decided to climb a hill and watch with the more chilled-out tourists on the rocks. The late start did nothing to calm down the photography groups, who aggressively circled any approaching horse rider or eagle handler. National Geographic released a documentary called “The Eagle Huntress” about a female eagle hunter from Sagsai a couple of years ago. Her dad was one of the judges for this competition and when she arrived, riding a fat little pinto horse and clad in a crisp white fur hat and jacket, her eagle perched regally on her right forearm, the crowd swooned, men with cameras broke into a jog to get close to her, and the photogasm was at full climax. Despite all of these aggressive male photographers, I was pleased to note that the largest lens I saw was possessed by a woman. As we’ve all known all along.
Aside from the jostling photographers, the people watching at this festival was stupendous. We spotted multiple male western tourists in head-to-toe Mongolian fur garb that they topped with nice, thick hipster man-buns. An exceedingly tall European man with long blond hair sported a tan, full-corduroy suit. A Slovak tourist hammered on Australian wine that he was gulping out of a plastic cup chatted with Brad about his knife collection (he was, at that time, wearing two large knives in a holster over his howling wolf tee shirt). An older Australian miner volunteered to us that he wasn’t wearing underwear (and hadn’t for 7 days) because he accidentally mailed it all home from China. Three separate young men (all locals) walked into the field between events and openly urinated in front of the crowd. I caught an older American woman in a puffy down jacket photographing the pit toilets with her ~$3000 camera. Brad also caught people taking photos of the toilets. Though, to be fair, the “toilet” at this event was a giant square hole that was only obscured from public view on three sides by a thin layer of waist-high plastic. Upon the hole, two 2×4 boards had been perched for standing on, teetering alarmingly while you balanced on them and attempted to relieve yourself without falling into the shit pit and while staring at people walking by the fully-exposed fourth side. Now that I describe it, I guess it was photo-worthy.
The first event (scheduled for Sunday, happened on Saturday) was an eagle calling contest, where the eagle’s trainer stood in a circle in the field and called their eagle to them. Eagles were waiting with a handler atop a nearby hill, approximately 500 feet away. The trainer would run in circles, screeching, hooting, and flapping a ribbon at their eagle. The best trained eagles heard the call right away, locked onto their trainer, and took off from the hill, flying rapidly straight to their target. Eagles were judged on how quickly and straight they flew and also how well they landed on their trainer’s arm. Some eagles took a joyride, meandering around in the sky before eventually going to their trainer. Some opted out completely, landing on a nearby mountain or flying over the ridge and disappearing, leading their trainers to borrow a horse and gallop off to find the wayward raptor. And quite a few eagles decided that they weren’t interested and ignored their trainer’s screams, ca-caws, flailing, and running, refusing to take off at all, content sitting on the hillside. After allowing the trainers to make fools of themselves for 20 seconds or so, the announcer would disqualify them and the handler with the reticent eagle would hike back down the mountain in an avian equivalent of the walk of shame.
The best eagles (16) from this event qualified for the finals the next day, where they would be required to fly from the same hill and “attack” a fox fur or rabbit pelt lure dragged behind a galloping horse ridden by their trainer. Since these were the best birds, all 16 of the eagles in this final event took off immediately, most of them streaking toward the moving target, and nailing it with their giant talons. Trainers would hide pieces of meat in the pelt so the eagles got a reward for the strike, but some eagles refused to let go of the lure, perched on it with their necks arched and wings open like the dragons from Game of Thrones, cawing and chirping. It was clear that the eagles had the upper hand, their trainers cajoling them with scraps of meat and eventually outright begging them to let go and climb back on their arm. The winning eagles flew the fastest and straightest and had the most direct landing on the lure.
The other events at the festival were traditional Kazakh horse games, including one where a rider had to extend his body sideways at a 90-150 degree angle off of a galloping horse and scoop small flags off of the ground. Remarkably few people fell off, though also remarkably few managed to pick up all of the flags. Having long arms was a clear advantage. Buzkashi was another highlight – a popular game played throughout Central Asia where two riders play tug-of-war on horseback with a large animal carcass. Some matches ended almost instantly whereas others went on for a long time, riders lying sideways with both arms wrapped around the body, horses bracing with all of their force, running, or leaning into the crowd. Finally, there was a Kazakh horseback “dating” game called kyz kuu where a man and woman race on horseback. The woman has a whip and can hit the man if he’s next to her, encouraging him get his horse to run faster. If she likes him, she whips him less hard or not at all. If she doesn’t like him / isn’t impressed with his equestrian abilities, she can absolutely beat the hell out of him. This was my favorite game 😈.
We stayed Sunday night after the festival in the town of Bayan-Ogli, at the “nicest” hotel, which cost $25 per night during high season, had no shower curtain, and had actual, honest-to-goodness mailing tape holding together a crack in the wall. In the morning, we went to the airport to fly back to Ulaanbaatar, jostling for position in line with many of the same aggressive eagle festival attendees. The “airport” was a single room. The power went out twice while we were waiting in line and the single stalled bathroom was out of service. I went out front and peed by a tree in the parking lot, because I no longer have standards or care.
Yesterday was our last day in UB. We spent the afternoon at an absolutely charming museum with the somewhat noble name of “The International Intellectual Museum.” This museum was founded in 1990 and was the FIRST museum in post-communist Mongolia. It was founded by a man who has a lengthy career of making wooden puzzles, elaborate chess sets, and magic games. The museum is four floors of puzzles and games, including traditional Mongolian games and international contributions. They have over 400 chess sets, many engraved wood, jade, and marble, some giant and some tiny. They have thousands of carved wooden and metal brain-teaser puzzles. The entry fee was approximately $3 and included an English-speaking tour guide who watched us fail to solve most of the puzzle tricks, pointed out the most important pieces of the collection, showed us some magic, and talked to us about something called “puzzle parties” which are annual conventions of puzzle makers! OMG! She showed us a picture of GW Bush visiting and receiving a handmade 3-D Statue of Liberty puzzle from the founder. She showed us cable car puzzles the founder made for the puzzle party in San Francisco. She showed us a massive chess set with an obese, seated Chinggis Khan as the king and giant felt Gers as the knights. She showed us paintings and sketches hanging on the walls, 50% of which were by the founder (a man of many talents!). One of these paintings was a large, brightly colored display of “Important Mongolians through history” which included the ever present fat, seated Chinggis in the center. Brad noted a shirtless man in the “modern Mongolia” section, a rifle slung over his shoulder. He asked the museum guide about this man and found out that he’s the current prime minister. Later, we met Jay for dinner at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant that was, remarkably, EXACTLY like the Mongolian BBQ restaurants in the states, and asked about this guy. Jay confirmed that he has a wee bit of a Putin complex, hence the weapon and bare nipples.
In the evening, we walked past the “G-spot gaming center” – obviously named by someone who doesn’t know English – and enjoyed some beers at Hops and Rocks, UB’s one and only true craft brewery. Mongolia was fantastic and we will both miss it – though we will not miss the almost complete absence of showers or pavement! This morning we got up bright and early to fly to Seoul for a couple of days enjoying the city, some spicy food (spiced with something other than mayonnaise or ketchup), and (of course) a little day trip to the DMZ before we head home. See you all soon!