Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we had an excellent mileage redemption lined up to take us from Japan to Namibia. The only problem was that we had to get from the Philippines to Japan on the cheap.

ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline

The first step was a short hop from Palawan back to Manila on ZestAir. They call themselves “Asia’s most refreshing airline.” Kind of a bold claim for an airline that doesn’t even provide complimentary beverages but they did get us to Manila mostly on schedule for the low price of US$51.

Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau

From Manila we took a bus to Clark Airfield about an hour’s drive to the north. Clark used to be a major US air force base but these days it is a commercial airport popular with the discount carriers. Cebu Pacific took us from Clark to Macau for the astoundingly low price of US$62. Certainly one of the cheaper international tickets I’ve flown.

Macau was more or less as expected. After grabbing a taxi from the airport to the Macau Westin Resort (another points redemption!) we took the hotel shuttle down to the strip. Huge casinos were all over the place with many more under construction. All the familiar brands were there (Venetian, MGM, etc) and they all seemed to be spot-on replicas of their American counterparts. Did you know that Macau’s casinos now bring in more money annually than Las Vegas? It is the gambling capital of the world.

The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau

After a night in Macau we boarded one of the high-speed ferries to Hong Kong. Despite all my travels I had yet to visit Hong Kong so I was very anxious to check out one of the world’s most iconic cities.

My friend Charles insisted that we stay at the infamous Chungking Mansions to get the full Hong Kong budget travel experience. The mansions didn’t disappoint. The massive complex of buildings are crammed full of everything from tiny guest houses to money changers to restaurants to laundry mats. It’s truly a city within a city.

The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions

Amy stayed with our bags in the comfort of the Holiday Inn lobby next door while I explored the labyrinth of guest houses for a place to crash. I was able to view 8 or 10 different places within a half hour and I have to say, it pays to shop around. They vary widely in cleanliness, room size and price. Haggling is of course a requirement. In the end, we got a small but perfectly acceptable room in the heart of Hong Kong for just over $20 per night.  Here is a video showing the walk from the street to our guesthouse which was nestled back in “D block” on the third floor:

Sadly, I didn’t get to explore nearly as much as I had hoped during our two day stop. Our award ticket from Japan to Africa needed some tweaking so I spent many hours on the phone with United while Amy was out exploring. Charles arrived on our second day and led us around on a brief tour of the waterfront one evening and across to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry.

Osaka at night
Osaka at night

By our third morning it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Osaka. Amy and I have both spent considerable amounts of time in Japan so we didn’t have any must-dos on our list for our two night stop. This was just as well since Japan is extremely expensive with the strong yen. To keep costs down we burned some hotel points for a couple of excellent nights at the Sheraton Miyako and ate cheap convenience store food.

Osaka by day
Osaka by day

During our only full day in Osaka we headed up to the Umeda Sky Building so that Amy could check that out and then we wandered through some of the massive department stores and camera shops. All in all, we didn’t do all that much but that was fine by me since we had a busy week of flying ahead of us.

Macau, Hong Kong and Japan
ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline
Mmmm...zesty!
Mmmm…zesty!
I'm glad that I don't have to eat a meal on this thing!
I’m glad that I don’t have to eat a meal on this thing!
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Manila’s not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau – a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Vegas?  Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Vegas? Nope, the Venetian in Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
Historic center of Macau
Historic center of Macau
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Our ride to Osaka
Our ride to Osaka
Osaka at night
Osaka at night
Osaka by day
Osaka by day
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty

About six hours in a cramped van brought us from Sabang to El Nido at the north end of Palawan Island. El Nido is a bit off the beaten track but it is well worth the effort to visit. It is a tropical paradise!

El Nido
El Nido

We rolled into town without reservations so while Amy watched our bags, Charles and I scouted out the accommodation options. The beach front was lined with a dozen or more guesthouses right up against one another. We had read in the guidebook that there were some more secluded alternatives just outside of town around the point. Makulay Lodge was the first place we found and we absolutely loved it.

The view from our room
The view from our room

The guesthouse was small operation. There were only three rooms in the original building where Amy and I stayed and we were lucky enough to get the top-floor room with a stunning view of El Nido’s bay. We negotiated a 1000PHP ($23) nightly rate for the room. Certainly one of the best room values of our RTW trip.

The main thing to do around El Nido is to tour the surrounding waterways and islands. Day-long boat tours are how this is done and the staff at Makulay helped us hire a boat on three separate days. On each of these tours, lunch consisted of the boat crew grilling up some fresh fish on the beach. Charles joined us on the first two tours and we were lucky to have a private boat just for the three of us. The boat tours averaged 600PHP ($14) per day per person.

I also enjoyed some of the area’s superb SCUBA diving during our stay in El Nido. I dove with Palawan Divers, one of the older outfitters in El Nido, for an affordable $65/day for three dives. Amy was also able to join the tours for a nominal fee to go snorkeling. We didn’t have an underwater camera with us this time around but we saw some spectacular sea life. The highlight for me was seeing a massive sea turtle at close range.

Given how cheap it is to reach Palawan I was shocked that there weren’t more tourists in El Nido. Everyone kept telling us that high season was right around the corner (Nov 1, to be exact) but we saw little sign of tourist hordes. I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring SE Asia’s beach and island offerings over the past few years and I have to say that El Nido is one of the most idyllic tropical destinations I’ve seen. We liked it so much that we stayed a week in total soaking up the tropics.

El Nido
El Nido
El Nido
Makulay Lodge
Makulay Lodge
The view from our room
The view from our room
A nice lightshow one evening.
A nice lightshow one evening.
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
You definitely don't want to fall on these.
You definitely don’t want to fall on these.
Another day, another beach
Another day, another beach
Sand dollars
Sand dollars

Jan 022012

When we returned to civilization after our 13-day Mongolia tour, I was happy to hear that my friend Charles would be making a short-notice trip over to SE Asia and that his plans overlapped with ours in the Philippines. Charles is a fellow frequent flyer mile junkie and has completed two impressive round-the-world trips on his own. Neither of us had been to the Philippines before but we had all heard good things about Palawan.

For the most part, getting around the Philippines is cheap and easy thanks to a very competitive mix of low-cost carriers. We used one of the biggies, Cebu Pacific, to travel from Manila to the island of Palawan. Palawan is in the far southwestern corner of the Philippines and is one of the country’s least developed areas. The tickets rang up at an affordable $56 per person.

After a brief overnight in the town of Puerto Princesa, we boarded a bus for Sabang, a tiny village on the west coast of Palawan. The ride took us across mountains, rice patties and small farms – every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful coastline.

The main attraction in Sabang is the “Underground River.” The Underground River is a long water-filled cave which is navigable in small canoes and kayaks. The tourism board recently completely a successful campaign to have it listed as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” against competition such as Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. I can’t say that I would rank it as such but it was an interesting and impressive sight.  As a tip to other travels, make sure that you are up early to catch one of the first boats into the caves as it can get very crowded and noisy with all the other tour groups.

To me, the real beauty of Sabang is how sleepy it is. The wide crescent-shaped beach isn’t bad either! Most tourists visit the Underground River by way of a day tour from Puerto Princesa and while the beach is bustling by day, it is almost deserted in the late afternoons and evenings.

Sabang offered up the whole range of accommodation options. At the low end were small bamboo huts and at the high end were two out-of-place and nearly empty high-end resorts. While Amy stayed with the backpacks, Charles and I scrutinized the options. At the far end of the beach we found a humble little place called Mary’s Beach Resort. Mary’s only had about 5 bamboo huts and two of them had prime location facing the beach.

We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!

We haggled a bit on the price but I think we were both of the mindset that we would take the huts at just about any reasonable price. In the end, Amy and I paid under US$14 (600PHP) per night for ours and Charles got a slight single-occupancy discount on his. The huts each had showers, a front porch, mosquito nets and electricity (6PM to 10PM only!) but really the best part was the view:

The view from our hut
The view from our hut
Sabang
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Sabang's lovely beach
Sabang’s lovely beach
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!
Another satisfied customer at Mary's
Another satisfied customer at Mary’s
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
The view from our hut
The view from our hut
The view of the beach from Mary's Resort
The view of the beach from Mary’s Resort
"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang

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

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.

Day 9

...and some of the bridges have seen better days.
…and some of the bridges have seen better days.

Another long driving day for us. The first order of business was to drop our traveling companions off at Kharkhorin’s bus station this morning so that they can travel back to UB and catch a different tour. Amy and I will continue for days 9-13 of the tour on our own. This bumps the daily price up to US$82 per person per day but it is the price we must pay to visit the lakes. The next destination on our itinerary was Terkh White Lake which is another 300+ kilometers from Kharkhorin. Fortunately, most of the distance is paved. Yes, that’s right, I said PAVED!

Tsetserleg
Tsetserleg

Along the way we stopped in Tsetserleg for lunch and grocery shopping. Tsetserleg is a pretty large town by Mongolian standards and it is the seat of the province. Nevertheless, one is never far from the heart of soul of Mongolia. Case in point: as we rounded the corner on to the town’s main street there was a man trying to get his small herd of yaks out of the center of the road. A short while later I was admiring the cows who had set up shop in the city park.

The drive after lunch seemed longer because there was a larger percentage of unsealed roads but we did pass through some amazing scenery. At one point we stopped next to a spectacular canyon (Chuluut Gorge) for photos.

Our ger for the next two nights
Our ger for the next two nights

Arrival at the ger camp was a little bit awkward today. When we pulled in a family was in their ger enjoying some yak milk tea. I was promptly served some milk tea and was offered some pancakes that had made earlier in the day. The sweet pancakes were flaky and delicious and they perfectly balanced the salted (yak) milk tea. Actually, I didn’t know it was yak milk at the time nor did I ask. For me, it is often better not to known in these situations! Here in Mongolia I have learned that you need to just assume that all dairy products can come from any animal (sheep, goat, horse, yak, camel, etc.) or often a mix of many. Really though, the yak milk wasn’t all the different from cow milk and since it wasn’t fermented it was quite palatable.

The awkward bit came after we had finished up our yak treats in the family’s ger. We found out that we would actually be staying in their ger that night and that the family would go someplace else. We sort of felt as if we were running them out of their home and in a sense we were. Apparently the family has a number of ger closer to the lake that are using for tourists but those had already been packed up for the year. Instead, we were given their home for two nights and they went to stay with another family! Did I mention that their ger came complete with a flat screen TV and the BBC?

As our tour assistant was preparing dinner I went for a short hike in the hills west of our ger camp. The family’s herd of sheep and goats were on the far side of the hill and they made a good effort at staying away from me. One thing is certain, they are much more proficient at clambering around rocks than I am!

Guess what?  Goat butt!
Guess what? Goat butt!

Minivan odometer at end of day 9: 1835km (301km today)

Day 10

Wow, it’s hard to believe that we are already into the tenth day on the tour. We didn’t have extra blankets last night but managed to stay warm thanks to the plentiful supply of wood. This part of Mongolia is forested so wood is easy to come by. Getting up every two hours to tend to the stove was a bit annoying but it certainly beat freezing!

Another Mongolian toilet with a fantastic view
Another Mongolian toilet with a fantastic view

Today’s main activity was horseback riding and I am happy to say that it was more successful than my last attempt at the sport. My last attempt was way back when I was a kid and I believe it ended with my aunt’s horse using the nearest tree branch to scrape the clingy little brat (me) from its back. Today was much less eventful.

Amy suited up in her del
Amy suited up in her del

Before we went out on the horses, our tour assistant Ultzi offered Amy and I dels to help us stay warm. The del is the traditional Mongolian dress that sort of looks like a robe. Apparently if you have one of these and some nice high Mongolian boots then winter here is a piece of cake. I don’t exactly buy that line of reasoning but the del that they gave me was certainly warm. Much warmer than anything I had in the backpack.

Sporting a del and ready to go with my short-and-sturdy Mongolian horse
Sporting a del and ready to go with my short-and-sturdy Mongolian horse

The first thing you notice about the Mongolian horse is how short they are! They shouldn’t be underestimated though, Ghenghis Khan conquered most of Asia on these formidable creatures! The one that I rode was mild-mannered and responded very pretty well to my commands, especially as compared to the stubborn camels we rode earlier in the week.

Another surprising aspect of Mongolia horse riding are the saddles. The common materials for making saddles here are wood, iron and fabric. Sounds comfy, doesn’t it? In all honesty, it wasn’t that bad at least not for the 90 minute ride that we completed.

We rode around 6km from the ger camp to a nearby volcano, the youngest in Mongolia I was told. The horses stayed at the bottom while we hiked up to the rim of a small crater and then a much larger one. The volcano was active about 7,000 years ago and the ground was covered in volcanic debris. The best part of visiting the volcano were the views of the surrounding countryside and the White Lake.

Khuushuur and salad
Khuushuur and salad

Lunch today was Khuushuur, a large fried dumpling that is traditionally served during the Naddam festival. The vegetarian version that Ultzi and our driver prepared were filled with potato, onion, carrots and turnips. The simple dough (just flour and water) was kneaded briefly before being rolled out and formed around the filling. The resulting dumplings were fried until golden brown and delicious. A pickled vegetable salad accompanied the dumplings to make a tasty autumn lunch.

Mongolian beach in September
Mongolian beach in September

After a brief siesta back at the ger we donned our dels again and went for a walk down to the lake shore. There were plenty of yaks and yak babies (calves?) to stare at and we even befriended a dog along the way. There are many ger camps near the lake shore but most of them appeared to be shut down or in the process of being dismantled for the winter months. This made for a nice quiet afternoon at the lake.

Minivan odometer at end of day 10: 1835km (0km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 9-10
Beautiful tarmac and, as an added bonus, bridges!
Beautiful tarmac and, as an added bonus, bridges!
...though there are still some obstacles to be found...
…though there are still some obstacles to be found…
...and some of the bridges have seen better days.
…and some of the bridges have seen better days.
Tsetserleg
Tsetserleg
Amy wearing her sleeping bag (and all her warm clothes) in the van for today's drive.
Amy wearing her sleeping bag (and all her warm clothes) in the van for today’s drive.
I bet it is nice here in January! (this was taken in September)
I bet it is nice here in January! (this was taken in September)
Chuluut Gorge
Chuluut Gorge
Yaks
Yaks
Terrible roads on the final stretch into Tariat, the last village before the lake
Terrible roads on the final stretch into Tariat, the last village before the lake
Terkh White Lake
Terkh White Lake
Our ger for the next two nights
Our ger for the next two nights
Our ger camp at White Lake
Our ger camp at White Lake
Guess what?  Goat butt!
Guess what? Goat butt!
Another Mongolian toilet with a fantastic view
Another Mongolian toilet with a fantastic view
Amy suited up in her del
Amy suited up in her del
Sporting a del and ready to go with my short-and-sturdy Mongolian horse
Sporting a del and ready to go with my short-and-sturdy Mongolian horse
Khorgo volcano
Khorgo volcano
Khuushuur and salad
Khuushuur and salad
Testing out the water: decidedly cold and certainly not worth bathing in.
Testing out the water: decidedly cold and certainly not worth bathing in.
Mongolian beach in September
Mongolian beach in September

Day 7

Huge day of driving today. We rose early and had breakfast at 7:30AM so that we would have enough daylight to complete the 300+ kilometer drive to Arvaikheer (Арваихззр). During the drive north the weather became considerably cooler and Amy and I struggled to stay warm in the van during the drive. All told the drive took us an exhausting 10 hours which included a 90 minute lunch stop at some dusty canteen in the middle of nowhere.

Even though we were staying in Arvaikheer, a city which has a population of over 23,000 people, we still stayed at a small ger camp. It was located on a lot demarcated by a tall wooden fence. The lot was just big enough for four ger, a small shack, two outhouses and space to park two minivans.

Big city livin in Arvaikeer, Mongolia
Big city livin in Arvaikeer, Mongolia

After we settled in to our ger the driver took us out for a brief shopping trip. I wanted to get some gloves and we had to replenish the normal consumables: TP and wet wipes. Most Mongolia stores are quite strange. Unless it is a big supermarket, the goods are often behind the counter and you have to tell the clerk what you want. Obviously this doesn’t work out for those of us who aren’t too good with Mongolian. On a few occasions the shop owner just invited me behind the counter to grab whatever I want, at other times I’ve just been ignored and in others we’ve played charades. The latter was the case this evening.

Gesturing for gloves is quite easy, the part I messed up was the quantity. I wanted one pair but somehow the clerk got the idea of 5 stuck in her head. Maybe it was because I was using my hand to gesture for the glove? Who knows. She rang up the price on a calculator and it came to 1,250 Turgiks (US$1) which seemed quite reasonable for one pair of gloves. I paid and she put a bunch of the gloves out on the counter, I presumed she wanted me to select which ones I wanted. I grabbed a pair and left.

In the shop next door, Amy decided that she also wanted a pair so I went back to get them. It was about this time that the old lady was frantically looking for me to give me the 4 other pairs of gloves that I had purchased. Apparently they were 250 turgik each or $0.20. So new gloves were my gift to everyone else in the van.

Just as we were pulling into the ger camp I noticed a dark cloud off to the west. It looked like a rain storm but soon we found out that it was plenty cold for a bit of snow! I had the feeling it was going to be one cold night in the ger.

Minivan odometer at end of day 7: 1378km (319km today)

Day 8

Sleep was scarce last night. The cold was the problem. The owner of the camp gave us a few extra blankets but we learned the hard way that they weren’t too warm. The wind howled all through the night and I managed a few hours of sleep before waking up around 2:30AM not being able to feel my feet. Fuel for the stove had been exhausted that point so I made an attempt at warming myself with one of those mylar space blankets. That helped but it wasn’t enough for me to fall asleep.

Around 3:30AM I made a trip to the outhouse and got to enjoy the blowing snow along the way. I also spotted the old man’s wood pile which was hidden behind a short section of fence and covered with plastic. Given how uncomfortable it was in the ger I made the decision to raid the wood pile. The next problem was where to find matches (tip for Mongolia travelings: bring some matches with you!). Luckily there were a few hot embers left in the ash pile at the bottom of our stove. The business section of the NY Times and a few minutes of huffing and puffing did the trick quite nicely. Warmth!

Snacks...and matches for relighting stoves
Snacks…and matches for relighting stoves

We made the short (156km) drive from Arvaikheer to Kharkhorin (Karakorum) today. Before we left town we went on a quick shopping trip. Arvaikheer was no different from the other Mongolian towns we have visited. Basically just a big conglomeration of rundown Soviet era buildings. What is particularly strange about these towns is that it is very difficult to infer what is contained in each building. Back home it is pretty obvious whether a given building contains a supermarket or a school just based on the outside appearance. In Mongolia, that isn’t the case. If I weren’t traveling with a guide I’m not quite sure how I would find half these places.

Nice big plate of hot noodles and a refreshing Coca-Cola
Nice big plate of hot noodles and a refreshing Coca-Cola

We made Kharkhorin in time for lunch today. The restaurant was a pretty nice place and they served up some nice hotpot and stirfry dishes. Despite being what appeared to be one of the fancier restaurants in town, they still didn’t have running water. My trip to the facilities consisted of going outside, walking down the block, through a construction site and over a pile of snow before finally reaching an outhouse behind another building. After lunch I learned how the restaurant itself gets water. Here it is, Mongolian city water works:

How water is delivered to some of the business in Kharkhorin
How water is delivered to some of the business in Kharkhorin

If you are lucky, your restaurant has one of these Mongolian sinks for washing your hands after your outhouse run:

Mongolian sink (the water goes in the metal can)
Mongolian sink (the water goes in the metal can)

The big attraction in Kharkhorin is it’s monastery, Erdene Zuu Khiid, which is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The site has some of the few Buddhist temples that survived the Red Russia purges of the 1930′s. Only a small portion of the complex has survived until today but it is still good for a look around.

Later that night we had our second showers of the trip. After five days without running water, I assure you that this was a treat that was thoroughly enjoyed! I don’t know if our donkey friend delivered my shower water but if he did, it wouldn’t be a first for me…way back in Bolivia I also enjoyed a ‘donkey powered’ shower.

Minivan odometer at end of day 8: 1534km (156km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 7-8
Our ger camp at Khongor Els
Our ger camp at Khongor Els
Big city livin in Arvaikeer, Mongolia
Big city livin in Arvaikeer, Mongolia
A great sunrise in Arvaikheer
A great sunrise in Arvaikheer
Snacks...and matches for relighting stoves
Snacks…and matches for relighting stoves
How water is delivered to some of the business in Kharkhorin
How water is delivered to some of the business in Kharkhorin
Mongolian sink (the water goes in the metal can)
Mongolian sink (the water goes in the metal can)
Nice big plate of hot noodles and a refreshing Coca-Cola
Nice big plate of hot noodles and a refreshing Coca-Cola
Our driver is also enjoying his meal
Our driver is also enjoying his meal
One of the turtle stones at the monastery
One of the turtle stones at the monastery
Ger camp in Kharkhorin
Ger camp in Kharkhorin

Day 5

After visiting the cliffs in the morning we continued driving westward and eventually arrived at the Khongor sand dunes! They don’t stretch endlessly to the horizon but they are impressively tall.

Random dairy products on the roof
Random dairy products on the roof

Late in the evening the lady at the ger camp invited us in to her ger to sample some of the dairy products. This was the one moment in my envisioned Mongolia travel adventure that I had been fearing the most.

On the menu today was fermented camel milk. I tried a little and I have to say that it certainly isn’t my favorite beverage. Like buttermilk but runnier and with chunks. I also tried some Mongolian butter which is the congealed film that is collected off a boiling cauldron of mixed milks (goat, sheep and camel). The slightly crispy texture was appealing but it still had the pungent odor of everything else in the ger.

The sun setting behind the dunes made for some nice photos and made me late to the evening’s cooking class. Ultzi was showing the group how to make booz which are a traditional Mongolian dumpling. Normally they are filled with mutton and fat but tonight we were also made a vegetarian version. The simple flour & water dough was kneaded and rolled out on a small board and then everyone worked to form and stuff them. Lots of labor but they made for a delicious and filling dinner.

Minivan odometer at end of day 5: 1059km (157km today)

Day 6

Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad

We didn’t get in the van at all today! That was certainly nice for a change.  Ultzi pan-fried some of the leftover booz from last night and served those along with a nice cucumber tomato salad for breakfast. It was excellent – even better than the fresh booz. With bellies full of dumplings we headed out for our first go at camel riding.

Our mode of transportation for the day
Our mode of transportation for the day

One of the men who lives at the ger camp acted as our guide and he showed us the rope (there is only one on a camel) so to speak. Now, here in Mongolia you find camels of the bactrian variety. Bactrians have two humps as opposed to dromedaries which have a single hump. Dromedaries are the ones that you see hauling tourists around the pyramids in Egypt.

Getting on the camel was easy. There is a small saddle made of carpet between the two humps and you climb on them while they are laying down.

They weren’t nearly as stinky as we were expecting. All of us were saving our dirtiest of clothes for the camels but honestly they weren’t that bad. We cameled for about 90 minutes before arriving at a low spot in the long chain of sand dunes. We stopped for a bit and I taught myself how hard it is to climb a sand dune.

In the late afternoon we climbed the dunes next to the ger camp to catch a glimpse of the setting sun. It was much much harder than expected but the view from the top was well worth it.  Racing back down them was also good fun.

Later in the night the goat/sheep herd returned for the day and set up camp immediately next to our ger. The gas production of a herd of ~100 animals who have had a full day of grazing is impressive. Impressive in both the olfactory sense and aural sense. That was the evening (actually all night long) entertainment.

Having a break from the minivan was nice for a change.  But tomorrow is to be our longest day of driving yet!

Minivan odometer at end of day 6: 1059km (0km today)

Camel odometer at end of day 6: A positive, real number!

Mongolia Tour Days 5-6
We stopped here for a bathroom break
We stopped here for a bathroom break
The ger camp at the Khongoryn dunes
The ger camp at the Khongoryn dunes
The baby camels would cry out for their mother's each night
The baby camels would cry out for their mother’s each night
Random dairy products on the roof
Random dairy products on the roof
The booz (Mongolian dumplings) are served
The booz (Mongolian dumplings) are served
Wake-up call from our camp's friendly dog
Wake-up call from our camp’s friendly dog
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Certainly the most interesting padlock I've ever come across. Handmade in Mongolia.
Certainly the most interesting padlock I’ve ever come across. Handmade in Mongolia.
Our mode of transportation for the day
Our mode of transportation for the day
Amy having her check-out ride
Amy having her check-out ride
Before we reached the top, my camel decided to take a break
Before we reached the top, my camel decided to take a break
Annoyed that they had to haul us up the sand dunes
Annoyed that they had to haul us up the sand dunes
No way around it: socks filled with sand
No way around it: socks filled with sand
Amy and Bonnie racing down the dune
Amy and Bonnie racing down the dune

Saxaul tree
Saxaul tree

Mercifully, the fourth day of our tour involved less driving. I think we only covered about 150km today traveling from Yolyn Am to an area known to tourists as the Flaming Cliffs.

Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.

Along the way we stopped in a small village called Bulgan for lunch at a ger cafe. I am starting to gather that lunch at a ger cafe is always a lengthy process. First, placing your order (that is, Ultzi placing our order for us) takes some time. It always seems to involve a great deal of back-and-forth conversation/debate/bartering between Ultzi and the cook in completely incomprehensible Mongolian. Second, one has to wait for someone to go out and obtain the requisite ingredients. Third, the stove has to be lit. Forth, the veggies have to be chopped.  And so on.  Don’t get me wrong, freshly cooked food is the best plan in an area without refrigeration but it is amazing how long it takes. Budget at least 2 hours for lunch at a ger cafe.

During the lengthy dining process you do get to learn a little about the people who own the cafe. In Bulgan the family had a number of kids that were playing around the ger. By the end of our lunch stop one of our tour companions decided to buy the whole group of them lollipops from the store. We evacuated shortly thereafter and didn’t get to witness the sugar-fueled chaos that ensued.

The Flaming Cliffs were just a short ways beyond Bulgan and we had plenty of time to wander around before sunset. The area adjacent to our ger camp had loads of saxaul trees which grow at an amazingly slow rate into all sorts of twisted and strange shapes.

The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs

The next morning we visited the Flaming Cliffs. The rock formations are impressive and apparently a large number of dinosaur fossils have been found in the area. We didn’t see any dinosaurs but there were all sorts of strange plants, bugs and lizards to be found.

Minivan odometer: 902km (150km today)

Mongolia Tour Day 4 – Flaming Cliffs
Our ger camp near Yolyn Am
Our ger camp near Yolyn Am
Instead of a stone, this ger had a piece of an old radiator to hold it in place.  Discarded crankshafts are also popular.
Instead of a stone, this ger had a piece of an old radiator to hold it in place. Discarded crankshafts are also popular.
The village of Bulgan's modest temple
The village of Bulgan’s modest temple
A comorant in the middle of the Gobi.  He looks lost!
A comorant in the middle of the Gobi. He looks lost!
Lunch at a "ger cafe."  Amy, Bonnie and Miina plus some random American guy who was lost.
Lunch at a "ger cafe." Amy, Bonnie and Miina plus some random American guy who was lost.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
Lunch in progress at the ger cafe. Single pot cooking is the name of the game.
A full belly after lunch.  I wonder if they deliver?
A full belly after lunch. I wonder if they deliver?
Miina and Bonnie bought some candy for the kids at the ger cafe.
Miina and Bonnie bought some candy for the kids at the ger cafe.
Mongolian road
Mongolian road
The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs
Even-toed undulate (camel) footprints
Even-toed undulate (camel) footprints
Lizard crossing
Lizard crossing
Miina, Amy and Ultzi
Miina, Amy and Ultzi
Saxaul tree
Saxaul tree
The Flaming Cliffs
The Flaming Cliffs
Sand circles
Sand circles
Busy beetle
Busy beetle
Porcupine quills
Porcupine quills
Every ger has a sky light
Every ger has a sky light

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