Moose's famous apple pie
Moose's famous apple pie
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!
Attention to detail: the logo always faces the customer!

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

The facilities
The facilities

My unfortunately timed bout with food poisoning (it started on day 1) continued into the third day but I was feeling much better overall. Making bathroom runs to the outhouse some 100 yards out into the steppe at 3AM when it is below freezing is quite the experience. Especially on breezy nights like the one we had last night.  That said, there is an upside. Combine a door/roofless outhouse with a stiff breeze and you have got yourself a smell-free bathroom trip with one heck of a view!

Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad

Around 1:30 today we stopped in the town of ДАЛАНЗАДГАД (Dalanzadgad) for shopping, lunch and, most importantly, showers! This time the shopping facilities were much more western we even got to partake in a form of transportation that I didn’t think we would see for many days: an escalator! Dalanzadgad is the capital of the Gobi aimag (province) and has a whopping 14,000 residents!

Dust. This has been one of the biggest hardships thus far on the tour. Shortly after we loaded up in the minivan on day one I noticed that most of the interior seams as well as the rear windows were sealed with either duct tape or packing tape. As it turns out, the tape had been put there to curb the amount of dust constantly trying to invade the back of the vehicle. I’d hate to see how bad it is without the tape because it is pretty horrendous as is. Here is an example of what our bags looks like at the end of a day’s driving.

This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.

The dust was actually making it pretty hard to breathe and most of spent some time hacking and coughing each day so far. Thanks to the Chinese population it is actually quite easy to find face masks in the towns so we picked some of those up during the lunch stop. I’m sure we look like right idiots but it was certainly an upgrade from my underwear bandit look from earlier in the day (undershirt wrapped around the face!).

One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem

Anyhow, the shower stalls at the public bathhouse were squeaky clean and the hot water was plentiful. Washing off what felt like a pound of dust/dung, shaving, and quickly doing some laundry in the running water was unbelievably indulgent. This is what happens when you haven’t seen running water in 3 days!

A short 90 minute drive from the town took us to the entrance gate to Yolyn Am, a park that has a valley with ice year-round. Well, it is supposed to be year-round but it recent years most of it has melted away by mid-summer. There were still small patches of ice to be found but it wasn’t the meter-thick slab that we were expecting. It was about a 6km roundtrip hike into the valley and we were a bit disappointed that we arrived so late in the day. The sun was setting (and the temperature plummeting) when we were on the walk in. Wildlife spotted inside the canyon included some vultures, thousands of small rodent looking creatures, a lone bat and a few smaller birds.

Minivan odometer: 752km (251km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 1-3
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
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
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
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
The facilities
The facilities
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
Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed
One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem
Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
A welcome change of scene - mountains!
A welcome change of scene – mountains!
Just a little ice
Just a little ice

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

Thai Airways took us from Bangkok to Beijing on their daily red-eye. The flight was way too short to have a meaningful amount of sleep but that didn’t matter, I was very excited to be on the way to Mongolia! We landed in Beijing just before dawn on a beautiful autumn morning.

After a brief visit to the Air China lounge we boarded our connecting flight on an Air China operated Boeing 737. It was my first time on Air China and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The meal service included some terribly bland rice porridge and the entertainment consisted of a lively argument between two of the flight attendants midway through the meal service. In the end, I concluded that the best thing about Air China is that they are in the Star Alliance (my miles work for booking their flights) and that they go to Mongolia. Other than that, I wasn’t too impressed.

Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK

We had booked a room with the Khongor Guest with the intent of also booking one of their tours. This got us a free transfer from Chenggis Khaan International Airport into the center of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a drive which took nearly an hour to cover the 10 or so miles. Traffic, even at 10:30AM on a weekday, is horrendous in UB. I was glad that we had the ride because the location, or at least the entrance, of our hostel was hard to find.

The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse

We spent the majority of our first day in UB recovering from the redeye and working on a tour plan with the owner at Khongor. They offer a wide range of itineraries spanning from simple day trips to 30-day tours of the whole country. We wanted to visit both the Gobi Desert (in the south) and some of the lakes in the west/north of the country. We eventually converged on a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to visit these areas.

Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.

Another aspect to planning to the tour was finding companions to lower the per person cost. Luckily two other travelers had arrived the day prior and had similar destinations in mind for their tour of the steppe. The four of us were to travel together for the first 8 days of the tour and then Amy and I would continue on our own for the remaining days. We opted for an all-inclusive tour which included the minivan, fuel, driver, tour assistant, accommodation, all food, and admission fees along the way. This type of tour priced out to $48 per person per day when we were splitting it four ways, and then $82 per person when it was just Amy and I. Pretty expensive, but it is not an easy place to travel independently.

Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square

With the tour scheduled for departure the next day, we set out and explored a little of UB. Near the guesthouse was the State Department Store whose slogan reads ‘all needs fulfilled.’ It dates back to ‘Red Russia’ times but nowadays serves as an outlet for all sorts of high-end brands. Just a little further down the main drag is Sükhbaatar Square, the center of UB which was a reasonably impressive sight.

UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"

Foodwise, UB treated us much better than expected. We found a vegetarian restaurant (Gerel Ayalguu, directions here) just a couple blocks from where we were staying. On our first visit we sat down and had a good long stare at the Mongolian menu. I could positively identify one word “кофе” (coffee) but nothing else. Eventually one of the waitresses brought over an English menu – phew, what a relief. Ordering still took some guesswork (the translations were iffy) but Amy ended up with a nice soup and I got a big hearty serving of noodles.

One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food

The next morning we were met by our driver and tour assistant, Ultzi, who would be taking care of us for the next 13 days. We loaded our bags into a tough-as-nails looking Russian minivan and set out for the grocery store. Ultzi shopped for the food that we would need for the next few days and we found some supplemental snacks before setting out on the steppe.

Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?
Off to Mongolia
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square
UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
Amy enjoying her 'kimchi soup' and (soy) milk tea
Amy enjoying her ‘kimchi soup’ and (soy) milk tea
Noodles, the first of many I think I'll be having in Mongolia
Noodles, the first of many I think I’ll be having in Mongolia
Noodles.  The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Noodles. The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?

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