Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing
Honey glazed Duck Breast, Vegetable Salsa, Micro Greens and Seasame Dressing

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

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