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!