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 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

We drove and drove and drove today. Endless expanses of nothingness. The only discernible change in the scenery was that the vegetation slowly got smaller and smaller.  Surely we must be getting closer to the Gobi!

Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?

Around midday we crested a hill and caught our first glimpse of a rural Mongolian town (Mandalgovi, I think). We stopped briefly for a bathroom break and refueling. The building we stopped at looked like a rundown Soviet hospital but it had been converted into a makeshift shopping mall. Each of the small rooms had a shop and we found one with a nice selection of wool socks. After the cold last night we gladly purchased some new socks.

Late in the afternoon we arrived at an area known as the White Cliffs.  Seeing them was a bit unexpected because most of the terrain leading up to them was pancake flat.  We drove up to the top and had an hour or so to look around.  The scenery was certainly spectacular but I think we were too exhausted from the day of driving to actually enjoy it.

Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.

In the evening we stayed at another ger camp. The family kept camels, goats and sheep so we had some good fun looking at the animals. Around sunset the the daughter and child returned to the camp with their large herd of goats and sheep. They were herding them with a motorcycle – a technique that seems to be quite popular here in Mongolia!

Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle

The ger had all the amenities that one would expect of a ger.  There was a dung-fueled stove was installed smack in the middle.  The doorway was guarded by a very tough looking Mongolian dog but he did nothing to stop one of the baby goats from repeatedly invading our ger.  As for sleeping arrangements, we had some quality Mongolian beds to enjoy.

Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed

Minivan odometer: 501km (230km today)

This ger came with a guard dog
This ger came with a guard dog
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Mongolian truck stop
Mongolian truck stop
Camels like to shake their lips
Camels like to shake their lips
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and roll in the dust
and roll in the dust
Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.
I'm not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
I’m not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
A very playful kid at the ger camp
A very playful kid at the ger camp
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust

We found camels!
We found camels!

What a wake up call today has been. I knew that the Mongolian steppe would be desolate but what we crossed today was a shock. Heading south from UB the roads, if you can call them that, were horrendously bumpy. Our Russian-built minivan handled them with ease but it was readily apparent that a large portion of the vehicles in UB never leave the city, at least not in this direction. Once we broke out into the open plains the driving surfaces got a little smoother but we still had to be constantly vigilant of being thrown from our seats by the surprise bump.

Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.

Some more about the vehicle. We are traveling in a year 2000 Russian minivan that has been outfitted with five seats in the back. It looks like the seats are from a Japanese or Korean car but they have been welded to a sturdy steel frame which has been bolted to the floor. The rest of the interior appears to be mostly stock with the exception of a few pieces of angle-iron that have been bolted to the interior columns for added strength. There are no seatbelts which is a pity because they would be excellent countermeasures for the incessant bumps in the “road.”

We stopped for lunch at a small shack someplace in the middle of of nowhere. The fare was vegetable soup for Amy and I (we are both eating vegetarian on the tour) and for the others it was a big bowl of mutton soup, heavy on the fat. I suspect we will become very familiar with these dishes over the coming days.

The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip

Seemingly endless hills and grasslands were finally interrupted with something very exciting. Camels! I’ve been on the lookout for camels almost the entire trip and I am happy to report we finally sighted some of the bactrian variety on September 21 at 4:06pm.

In the evening, we visited the ruins of a monastery and a rock with magic water. We rolled into our first ger camp around sunset and our tour assistant got to work preparing dinner. As soon as the sun set the temperature plummeted and the old lady who ran the camp helped us light up our ger’s stove. The camp had six gers all of which were vacant so Amy and I got our own while our two tour companions took another. The driver and our tour assistant stayed in the family’s ger.

Shortly after dinner our stove went out and I received my first lesson in ger stove operation from our driver. There was a large plastic sack filled with dried dung that we were to feed the stove from time to time. Much to our surprise, the dung really doesn’t smell all that much when it burns.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Overnight we were both very cold. We only had enough dung for about an hour worth of fuel and we did our best to compensate with some extra blankets from the owner. I wore all my clothes to bed that night, including my new down parka, and I was still cold!

Minivan odometer: 271km

Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
We found camels!
We found camels!
The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip
High five!
High five!
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
Home sweet home
Home sweet home

© 2011-2012 RoamingRyan.com Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha