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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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The White Lake Trip

Ulaanbaatar seemed like paradise to us immediately after our Gobi trip, but before long, we were ready to return to the countryside. ??As Mark Twain said in??The Innocents Abroad, “The nomadic instinct is a human instinct… It has a charm which, once tasted, a man will yearn to taste again.”??We didn’t have enough time to go overland to Lake Khovsgal, so we decided to go to White Lake instead. Once we had a tour picked out, we had to wait around for other people to join us. We spent most of that time playing SimCity 2000 in our pajamas. (There’s not much to do in Ulaanbaatar!)

Six long days later, another couple joined us and we were able to leave. The other couple, Jeff from Ireland and Mags from Poland, are just beginning their year-long trip. Our driver, Bata, spoke a little bit of English. We didn’t need a cook for this trip, since there were restaurants along the way.

When we pulled up to the gers on our first night, Bata told us we were staying with his mother and his brother. I really liked his family, especially his mother, who had a weathered face and walked hunched over, but was still going strong. She even looked a bit glamorous in an emerald colored robe, black and gold head wrap, and matching earrings. Bata and his brother looked remarkably alike. (I wish we would’ve gotten a picture of them!) They invited us in for milk tea and then we finally got to try airag, the Mongolian drink made of fermented horse milk. It was very sour, but it didn’t taste as horrible as I imagined it would. We were staying in a green valley and that night I watched lightning flashing from the gathering storm clouds in the distance.

The next two days we stayed at White Lake. It was a much bigger lake than I had pictured and it was surrounded by green hills and outcroppings of volcanic rock. Jeff thought it looked very similar to Scotland. The scenery was beautiful, but there were many insects and it stormed for several hours on our second day. When it cleared up, Brad and I went horseback riding (again). The horses were well behaved and we had a very nice ride. Jeff and Mags went for their ride after us, and they not only got rained on, but they also both fell off their horses. Apparently a motorbike spooked one of the horses, which then jumped right into the other one, and both took off running.

At lunch the next day, Bata showed us a simple Mongolian game that uses sheep’s bones instead of dice. You toss the bones and depending on what side they land on, they are either a horse, camel, sheep, or goat. We were playing a horse racing game, so each of us had our own horse that got to advance every time you rolled a horse. If you got four of a kind in a single roll, your horse moved forward four spaces. We had a hard time telling the difference between the “horse” side of the bone and the “camel” side.

At night we stayed at a tourist camp with a hot spring. I didn’t want to go, since we had to pay extra for it, but Jeff and Mags really wanted to. Besides the springs, the tourist camp was just slightly fancier than the gers with nomadic families. At least we got to take a shower!

While we were driving the next day, we ran into a small town’s naadam. Naadam is a Mongolian festival that features wrestling, horse racing, and archery. We decided to stop there and watch for a while. The wrestlers wore a speedo and a little shirt that covered only the top of their backs and arms. Before the matches started, they did some kind of dance that resembled a bird flying around in circles. Wrestling in Mongolia has no time limit and the match is over as soon as someone gets taken down, so it’s quite different. After the wrestling, everyone came over to a field to see the horse race. I’m not sure how long the race was, but the winner was very far ahead of the last horse, so I think it was pretty long. The whole festival was interesting to see.

After that, we spent a day in the Mini Gobi Desert, which is a small patch of sand dunes not too far from Ulaanbaatar. We went on a camel ride (again) and played around in the sand for a bit. Before we came back to town, we stopped at Hustai National Park to see the Przewalski horse, one of the last species of wild horses in the world. It was a bit like a safari; we drove through the park with a guide who spotted the horses. We saw nine of them, including a little foal. The park also had a??cheesy??informational video and a small museum that showed all the celebrities who have visited. (The most notable ones included Prince Charles and Julia Roberts.)

Now we’re back in Ulaanbaatar for just a couple of days, getting ready for our next adventure: Russia!

Our Gobi Adventure: Part II

We saw many changes in the terrain on our first day. From the busy city, we drove through green fields that turned more brown and rocky as we went south. Along the way, Gana had only two tapes: a Mongolian singer and ABBA. Listening to “Mamma Mia” while driving through a desolate desert is a very stange experience.

Towards the end of the first day we drove by the White Mountains. It was raining, so nobody wanted to get out and take pictures, but they were very nice. That evening, after it was done raining, we stopped at a large outcropping of interesting rock formations. There were ruins of an old building there, but since nobody spoke English, we never figured out what they were.

On the second night, we drove up to a cliff overlooking the desert and the Tsagaan Suvarga formations. The rocks had red and yellow in them and reminded me of the Badlands. We climbed around on the top and then walked down to the bottom to walk along the hills for a little bit. It was very beautiful and Brad got some great pictures.

Most of the Gobi Desert is rocky, sandy ground, but we did get a chance to see sand dunes. They looked the same as they did in the Sahara Desert, except in the Sahara they go on for as far as you can see. In the Gobi, they’re just a long, narrow strip. Before we went hiking up the dunes, we took a camel ride along the base of them. I had forgotten just how stinky and hairy camels are. Their skin is rough and leathery and their fur really feels like thick, coarse hair. Not to mention that they fart and poop all the time.

After dinner, we climbed up to the top of the sand dunes for sunset. It’s difficult enough to walk on sand on level ground. Walking up a hill made of sand is very challenging. Our whole group did make it to the top and we had a great view of the desert around us. Then we saw clouds moving in, so we decided we better head down right away. We thought it was rain, but we discovered pretty quickly that it was actually a sandstorm. At first it wasn’t too bad, but it got worse as we kept walking towards our camp. We all covered our faces and agreed to stay close together because the visibility was getting worse. Right when I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t be able to find our camp, the headlights of our van cut through the gloom and Gana gave us a ride back. I’m sure the Mongolians were all very worried about the tourists getting lost.

The last really nice part of our trip was at the waterfall. This was much further to the north, so we were camped in a green valley between pine-covered hills and a river cutting through a rock canyon. We got to take a much-needed break from driving and spend two nights there. Brad and I went for a walk along the river to the waterfall and pool. The waterfall was much larger and prettier than I was expecting.

On our second day there we went horseback riding. I had only been on a horse once, and it wasn’t my favorite experience. This time, though, I really enjoyed myself, mainly because my horse was the only one that was obeying. Brad’s horse was tied to the group leader’s horse, but the rest of us were on our own. Mine would go exactly where I guided it and even stopped and started on command. The others were having problems getting their horses to keep moving. I’d like to think that I’m naturally a superior horseback rider, but I’m pretty sure I just got lucky and got a well-behaved horse.

After our relaxing days by the river, we had a long drive back to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped at Kharkorin, the former capital city in the days of Ghengis Kahn’s son, Ogedei. Nothing is left from the empire, but there is a 16th century monastery. Like I’ve said, Brad and I are pretty sick of temples and other religious buildings, but this one was more interesting because we had an English-speaking guide.

It was great to get back to Ulaanbaatar and take showers and use toilets again. Even though it’s not a very nice city, I was extremely happy to return! We still have quite a few days before we go to Russia, so we are hoping to take one more journey into the Mongolian countryside.