The 8th flight and 5th airline on this ticket!
The 8th flight and 5th airline on this ticket!
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)

One of Continental Airline’s more obscure routes took us from Palau to Manila. We spent a couple of nights in Manila but honestly we didn’t see much more than a few shopping malls. The city really doesn’t have all that much to offer the tourist so I don’t think we missed much. Maybe we should have tried harder?

The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney

We had a few days to kill before Charles, a good friend of mine, arrived in Manila. We had heard some decent things about Taal Lake which lies a couple hours south of Manila so we headed that way.

Like most of its neighbors, the Philippines has a creative and entertaining solution to mass transit: the jeepney. Jeepneys used to be surplus military jeeps that were extended and converted into bus-like vehicles. These days, jeepneys are made locally from scratch but still keep the styling of the originals. What’s cool about the jeepney is that it comes in all shapes, sizes and colors – it is as if there are no two that are the same. The only commonality amongst jeepneys is that they tend to be severely overloaded with passengers and cargo at all times!

During our three weeks in the Philippines we saw and made use of many jeepneys. My friend Charles amassed a sizable collection of jeepney photos and those are featured in the album.

To ride a jeepney you just flag it down (they will stop anywhere), climb in the back and hopefully find some space on one of the benches. Next you yell your destination at the driver and pass forward the correct fare (the other passengers help to pass it forward). If you don’t have exact change then the driver will count out change all while driving, shifting and honking. Cheap transport but not comfortable transport.

Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay

Fortunately, Taal lake is quite close to Manila. We spent about an hour on a bus and then a further hour on a jeepney to get to Talisay on the north side of the lake. Talisay is perched on a ridge overlooking the lake and, thanks to the altitude, has a mild climate compared to Manila.

The entire Taal lake area is part of the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the Philippines. There are numerous craters visible from the ridge. The most popular excursion is to take a boat to volcano island, hike up to the ridge and get a look at the boiling sulfurous lake below.

We took a boat out to the volcano one day and hiked to the ridge. Sadly, most tourists make the trip by horse and they all looked to be pretty sickly and overworked. The climb wasn’t all that bad but we were glad we started early in the day when temps were lower. The view from the top was good but I think we are starting to get a bit spoiled by all the fantastic landscapes we’ve seen on the trip.

Food-wise, the Philippines didn’t impress us. It is a bit of a paradox because they certainly have access to the same ingredients as their neighbors. Most of the food that is available sort of reminded me of carnival food – fried chicken, hamburgers, cotton candy, deep fried ice cream, etc. To be fair, I did have some very good chicken adobo (a Filipino national dish of sorts) but there wasn’t the variety of cuisine you see elsewhere in SE Asia.

Despite the Philippines shortcomings on the food front, we did have a few entertaining culinary experiences. The first came when we were on the bus down to Talisay. Food vendors came on board the bus to sell their goods. This is common throughout the world but what was interesting here is that it is done by the big corporate food outlets. We had a guy in a Dunkin Donuts polo shirt hocking big boxes of donuts! I was in the mood for lunch so I got a mini pizza. The other thing the Philippines does right is cold beer. A bottle of respectable pilsner for under a buck is universally available. Perfect after a long day of diving!

Taal Lake and Jeepneys
The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
Chicken adobo
Chicken adobo
Sample Mexican food outside of the America's is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
Sample Mexican food outside of the America’s is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food.  Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food. Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines

When I revealed to a good friend of mine that our next port of call on the trip after Mongolia would be Palau he joked that we were perhaps the 55th and 56th people ever to fly such a route. Our check-in experience at Chenggis Khan International Airport seemed to jive with this suggestion. It was as if the check-in agents had never heard of the country and it took a handful of them plus a supervisor to get us checked in. They took our word for it that we didn’t need a visa. The truth is, as Americans we can even go live and work there visa-free!

ULN
ULN

To get between the Mongolia and Palau, three flights were required. First we took Air China from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. This was our second flight with Air China and once again, we weren’t too impressed. The in-flight catering was pathetic (even by US standards) and the transit experience at Beijing was even worse. It took 90 minutes to get from our inbound aircraft to the lounge thanks to a remote stand, a slow bus, and a horrendous bottleneck at the transit counter.

We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.

From Beijing it was onward to Seoul with a much classier carrier: Asiana. Loads on the segment to Korea were very light… 13 passengers on board our Airbus A321 which can carry over 170 people. The Asiana business class lounge in Seoul was nearly deserted with only one other passenger to be found. I still refrained from banging on the grand piano. Our flight to Koror, the capital of Palau, left at 11:10PM and arrived in the midst of a thunderstorm at about 4AM the next morning.

Thanks to the short overnight flight, our first day in Palau was pretty much a write-off. We wandered town a bit and soaked in the island vibes. The island has a Hawaiian feel to it but it a very small place. The whole country has only about 20,000 people and of those, 13,000 live in the state of Koror.

Palau has been a sovereign nation since 1994 but has a “Compact of Free Association” with the United States that allows citizens to move freely between the two countries. It also gives them some other strange perks such as having US zip codes and being part of the US postal system. I made good use of this by sending a flat-rate box crammed with 8kg of stuff I had accumulated back to Florida. $14.95 to send 8kg most of the way around the world in under 10 days. Not bad, eh?

Palau’s ties with the United States were evident when we took a trip to the grocery store. The stock was a mix of American and Japanese brands. Spam anyone?

A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific

On day 2 we arranged a snorkeling day-trip with IMPAC tours to the Rock Islands. This set us back $90 per person plus $35 each in park permits (used for multiple days) and took to some of the Palau’s headlining attractions. The Rock Island archipelago is made up of thousands of limestone islets which have been worn away over the millenia. Most of them are sharply undercut by the lapping waves and almost look like mushrooms at low tide.

After one round of snorkeling we boated to one of the islands that has a marine lake. A marine lake is a sinkhole in the center of the island which is connected to the surrounding ocean through the island’s porous rock. The result? A unique and very rare salt-water aquatic environment. Some of Palau’s marine lakes hold millions of harmless jellyfish whose stingers have evolved away thanks to a lack of predators.

A short 10 minute hike from the boat was necessary to get to the lake. We swam out a good ways and before we knew it we were surrounded by thousands of pulsating peach-colored jellyfish. The biggest of them weren’t much larger than a softball and it was interesting to be able to gently cup them in our hands. As far as the eye could see it was nothing but jellyfish slowly pulsing away. This was definitely an other-worldly experience. Sadly neither of us had an underwater camera with us so the only photos I have of the jellies are from a friend we met the next day.

After Jellyfish Lake we made a lunch stop at one of the nearby beaches. The Rock Islands are all part of a state park and on many of the beaches you can find nice picnic huts and even bathrooms – you don’t see luxuries like that too often in this part of the world! A large tour boat was “parked” at the beach but it was still peaceful enough.

Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom

In the afternoon it was more snorkeling. My favorite part was snorkeling in amongst the mangrove roots along the shore – all sorts of little fishies call the roots home! We also stopped at a lagoon called Milky Way. The bottom is covered in a slimy limestone-based goo that they said was good for our skin. Honestly, it reminded me quite a lot of the white paste found on the bottom of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon spa!

As compared to Easter Island and the Cooks, eating out in Palau was dirt cheap. We talked to a guy at the tourist office and he filled us in on the local joints. We found a nice casual place called Emeimelei Restaurant that served up all sorts of island fare plus sweet tea (with free refills!) that made me feel like I was back at home. Dinner for two for $10. It was a good thing food was cheap because our accommodations didn’t offer any sort of cooking facilities! Speaking of which, we stayed at a place called Guest Lodge for $65/night which was the cheapest place we could identify.

Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive

On day 3 I went diving with a company called Fish & Fins and Amy joined the tour as a non-diver. Diving in Palau is very expensive – my two-tank day of diving came to $190 (in comparison, a three-tank dive in Malaysia set me back about $100). Weather was a mixed bag, it was cloudy in the morning and rainy in the afternoon. Sadly, heavy rain overnight made underwater visibility quite poor but it was still some great diving.  Unlike many of the island destinations in SE Asia, Palau is spotlessly clean and the Palauans seem to be very responsible towards the environment.  I didn’t see a single plastic bottle or grocery bag the whole day.

We rented an underwater camera for the day. I found that it is surprisingly difficult to use a camera while diving.   Most of the really blue photos in the album came from my attempts with the camera, the better shots came from fellow divers (thanks guys!).  I ended up using the camera for one dive and then Amy used it for snorkeling during my second dive. Best part of the diving? Manta rays!

Manta ray
Manta ray

Kayaking was on the agenda for our fourth day on Palau. We rented a kayak from IMPAC and just paddled the waters near Koror. Even though we were close to the biggest city in the country, it was easy to get away from the development and enjoy kayaking around the limestone islets. We took turns snorkeling from the kayak and found the reef to be pretty good although not as nice as the places our tours took us. The double kayak cost $35 for the day which makes it one of the cheaper day activities.

Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

Our last day in Palau was spent taking care of the usual errands (like writing postcards). We also made an attempt at getting our passports refilled with more pages but we failed. They moved the US Embassy since our guidebook was printed and the new location was way out of walking range. Luckily, a nice local gave us a lift back to town after our frustrating walk to the old location.

Palau isn’t cheap but it is certainly a beautiful place.  If I had to do it again, I would try to meet more locals.  The locals we interacted with were very friendly and proud of their country and I suspect that might be the key to experiencing Palau on the cheap!

Palau
ULN
ULN
We didn't fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
We didn’t fly MIAT but I was happy to get my hands on some MIAT bag tags and boarding pass stock!
Air China 737
Air China 737
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Some of the gourmet food offerings on Air China
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes.  Good job, Air China.
Plane-to-lounge in just under 90 minutes. Good job, Air China.
Nice sunset at PEK
Nice sunset at PEK
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul.  13 passengers on board!
A321 Asiana flight from Beijing to Seoul. 13 passengers on board!
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
We had to share the huge Asiana business class lounge with one other passenger.
The Toto Washlet...sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
The Toto Washlet…sure could have used one of these in Mongolia!
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
I love it when my flight is the most obscure one on the departure board
"The Rainbow's end"
"The Rainbow’s end"
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
A good sign that one is on an island in the Pacific
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
There are signs like this all over the place in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Gasoline is north of $5 per gallon in Palau
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like?  Well here you go.
Have you ever wondered what the Palau Supreme Court building looks like? Well here you go.
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
A calm and beautiful Palau morning
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
Our first snorkeling site in Palau
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
One of the residents of Jellyfish Lake
This is how you park a boat in Palau
This is how you park a boat in Palau
Milky Way - lagoon with limestone bottom
Milky Way – lagoon with limestone bottom
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
This stuff is supposed to be good for your skin.
Gas station ice cream
Gas station ice cream
Tridacna clam - about two feet across
Tridacna clam – about two feet across
Jaws
Jaws
Eel
Eel
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Bubble eyes going for another dive
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Manta ray
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror...good thing I had my mask
Heavy rain on the ride back to Koror…good thing I had my mask
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants
Those are some big clams!
Those are some big clams!
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak
Lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore by kayak

Time for one final post on our time in Mongolia. On the last day of our tour we drove from Mongol Els back to Ulaanbaatar. We rose early and said our goodbye to the camels that were loitering about the camp.

Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?

We also had to say goodbye to the camp’s fluffy Mongolian puppy. He was a real mischievous one with a big appetite for shoe laces.

Look at that beautiful road!
Look at that beautiful road!

Hitting the road (and yes, there actually was a beautiful paved road) we headed east towards Ulaanbaatar. Our first stop along the way was at Khustain Nuruu National Park which is home to the world’s only wild horses. We learned that most wild horses, such as the American Mustang, are actually feral. In other words, they are escaped descendants of domesticated horses. The Przewalski’s horse (or takhi) which is found in this part of Mongolia is a distinct subspecies which is critically endangered.

Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)

The takhi went extinct in the wild during the 20th century but have recently been reintroduced into Khustain park from breeding stock at zoos across the globe. The Takhi is considered to be the closest living relative of the domestic horse but it has a distinct appearance and even has a different number of chromosomes.

Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)

Our second stop of the day was at a roadside cafe for a final serving of greasy noodles and mixed vegetables. I won’t lie, after nearly two weeks of this sort of food I was ready for a change!

After a final few hours in the minivan we crested a ridge and caught a glimpse of Ulaanbaatar. Traffic was terrible getting into the city but we eventually made it to the guesthouse with the odometer reading 2,522km. I have no idea how much time we spent in the trusty Russian minivan over the 13 days of the tour but it sure did a good job. The terrain we covered was the roughest I have ever traveled across and the fact that we made it the whole way without a single breakdown or puncture is a testament to both Russian engineering and our driver’s diligence.

Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Home sweet home for the past 13 days

Our final two days in UB were spent largely recovering from the tour. We had quite a massive pile of dirty clothing to wash, postcards to write and emails to catch up on. We explored UB a little more in these two days but our main find was some tasty meals – who would have thought that Mongolia would have such good vegetarian food?

Well I think that is a wrap for Mongolia. While it wasn’t an easy or relaxing place to travel, it was certainly one of the most exotic places we’ve been. Between the largely nomadic population, the stunning landscapes and the extreme climate it is a place to be remembered. I think that we both were pushed to our limits in many ways during the tour and while it really sucked at the time it is now something we can laugh at and be proud of. Go to Mongolia, you won’t regret it!

Smiling for the camera
Smiling for the camera
Mongolia Wrap-up
Smiling for the camera
Smiling for the camera
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
Is there anything more adorable than a Mongolian puppy?
He had an appetite for shoe laces
He had an appetite for shoe laces
I already did the sunset between the camel humps picture so how about a ger camp.
I already did the sunset between the camel humps picture so how about a ger camp.
Saying farewell to my new friends
Saying farewell to my new friends
Look at that beautiful road!
Look at that beautiful road!
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski's Horse (Takhi)
Przewalski’s Horse (Takhi)
The steppe is very clean, but occasionally you do see a strange piece of trash.
The steppe is very clean, but occasionally you do see a strange piece of trash.
How about this box of vegetable oil that left Buenos Aires the same week as us way back in March?
How about this box of vegetable oil that left Buenos Aires the same week as us way back in March?
Rolling into UB on beautiful tarmac.  Very happy to be back to civilization.
Rolling into UB on beautiful tarmac. Very happy to be back to civilization.
Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Home sweet home for the past 13 days
Vegan cake...in Mongolia!!!
Vegan cake…in Mongolia!!!
Toilet paper, Mongolian style
Toilet paper, Mongolian style
We managed to hang nearly all of our clothes in our tiny room in UB
We managed to hang nearly all of our clothes in our tiny room in UB

Day 11 – Tsenkher Hot Springs

Today’s drive wasn’t all that bad. We left the White Lake and took the same road out that we arrived on. Two of the boys from the family we were staying with joined us as they had school starting the next morning. They go to high school five days a week in the village of Tariat then they come home on the weekends to help the family with farm tasks.

Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge

After our lunch stop in the village Ikh Tamir we took a dirt road to the southeast into the mountains. The road was some of the roughest we have seen, especially on the uphills where all traffic competes for the path with the lowest grade. Making matters worse is the annual rainwater that erodes each of the tire tracks into little canyons.

The hot springs, the main attraction of the day, were great! Our last shower (or running water for that matter) was three days prior so we were in need of a good scrubbing. Our ger camp had a couple of nicely outfitted shower rooms with steaming hot water that had been piped in from the springs on the other side of the valley. Outside there was a large soaking pool also fed by the springs. Outside air temperatures must have been around freezing but soaking in the warm pool was pure bliss!

Sleep was once again hit-or-miss. We had a pretty much unlimited supply of wood for the stove but having to get up every couple of hours to load it was quite annoying. At one point, maybe around 4AM, I put too much wood in the stove and made it super hot in our ger – hot enough to wake me up dripping with sweat. A few hours later I woke up again freezing cold and able to see my breath in the air. Mongolians are a lot tougher than I am!

Our driver lighting our stove the fast way - with a blowtorch
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way – with a blowtorch

Minivan odometer at end of day 11: 2042km (207km today)

Day 12 – Mongol Els

Flags at Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid

Originally our 14-day tour itinerary had us set to visit the Orkhon Waterfall. I am sure the waterfall is nice but the original 14-day itinerary would have left us with just one day in UB for the usual souvenir shopping, postcard writing, etc. We also faced the rather high tour cost of $82 per person per day now that it was just the two of us so we scratched the falls from the itinerary.

With the new itinerary, we were supposed to drive from the hot springs to Lun village which is only about 150km from UB. Lun Village is a popular place for tourists to stay with a local family, have a BBQ, ride horses, etc. Since we are both eating vegetarian on the tour our guide suggested that maybe we make another change. She suggested a stop at Mongol Sands instead of Lun Village and I think she made the right call. Mongol Sands is like a mini Gobi where you can see sand dunes, ride camels and visit the ruins of a monastery.

By now we are getting quite used to bouncing across the steppe in the Russian van. The drive from the hot springs to Mongol Sands was a piece of cake at 205km in about five hours. We made a brief stop in Kharkhorin for lunch where Amy and I finally learned the notation for toilet in Mongolia: ’00′. Such information is very useful in Mongolia towns. At today’s lunch stop, finding the outhouse was quite the challenge as it was hidden behind a rusting hulk of old steel on the grounds of an abandoned Soviet factory. Day-to-day life as a tourist in Mongolia is filled with mini-adventures like this one.

Mongol Sands wasn’t much further down the road. A few camels dotting the side of the road were a good hint that we were getting close. We turned off the main road and drove parallel to some short dunes which were covered in snow to some extent – an interesting juxtaposition. An even greater contrast was between the dunes to our left and the marshlands to our right! Many birds, including some migratory species were congregated around the water.

The Övgön Khiid monastery was a pretty nice stop. The monastery itself had been sacked by ‘Red Russia’ (as they like to say here) back in the 1930′s and the modern temple structures were built in the 1990′s. The temples were nice but to me the site’s real charm was the location nestled in a narrow valley that had been lightly dusted with snow.

The ruins of Övgön Khiid
The ruins of Övgön Khiid

The family that ran the ger camp didn’t have blankets for us tonight but they did come up with something equally useful and infinitely more entertaining: dels! Here is what I wore to bed:

Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.

Minivan odometer at end of day 12: 2247km (205km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 11-12
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Another fine looking Mongolian bridge
Frost around the hot tubs
Frost around the hot tubs
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way - with a blowtorch
Our driver lighting our stove the fast way – with a blowtorch
Some of the springs at Tsenkher
Some of the springs at Tsenkher
Does this mean that you can park here?
Does this mean that you can park here?
Bird wake
Bird wake
The first plane I had seen in many days
The first plane I had seen in many days
Virgin Atlantic, likely from Beijing or Shanghai headed to Heathrow
Virgin Atlantic, likely from Beijing or Shanghai headed to Heathrow
A little frog (toad?) that I nearly stepped on
A little frog (toad?) that I nearly stepped on
The ruins of Övgön Khiid
The ruins of Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid
Flags at Övgön Khiid
Mongolian toaster
Mongolian toaster
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.
Boxers, long johns (two pairs), pants, wool socks, cotton socks, undershirt, collared shirt, black long-sleeve shirt, hoodie, down jacket, Mongolian del and a belt to pull it together.

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