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JULY 2, 2003 -> Mongolia Road Trip: Week I

Something about Mongolia's vastness and nomadic culture incites ordinary travelers to adventure. They purchase horses or camels and set off across the steppes, they bicycle great distances on corrugated roads, they walk from the Russian to Chinese border, and one strange American was knocking a golf ball across the nearly 4,000-km width of Mongolia (www.golfmongolia.com).

We had opted for a softer journey, tracing a wide circle through near-western and southern Mongolia in a gunmetal-grey Russian van. Most nights we slept in 'gers' - the white, felt-wrapped tents that the majority of Mongolians still live in. The gers are squat, domed cylinders with a circular opening at the top, through which the stovepipe extends and the scent of boiled mutton (largely) escapes. During the day, the bottom layer of felt is pulled up to permit air circulation at ground level - a process that I called 'lifting the skirt.' In the evening, the skirt is dropped and a fire is kindled in the stove; in no time the ger is comfortably warm. Ger furniture usually consists of two to four mattress-less beds (which are really just large storage chests), a dresser covered with family photos and bric-a-brac, and often a small shrine to the Dalai Lama. The inner support poles and the wooden furniture is painted in bright background colors (red, orange, yellow) and covered with elegant floral motifs that look remarkably similar to Scandinavian rosemaling.

When driving in Mongolia, one learns to disregard distances. The quality of the road - if it exists at all - dictates the arrival time. A tantalizingly short trip may take several hours if the route crosses dry river beds or boggy flatlands. When one track becomes too rutted or muddy, a new track is blazed, and so on, until a wide plain is braided with new and dying roads. It can be a shock to climb a hillock on a single track and see an eight-lane dirt superhighway stretching out to the horizon on the other side.

There are no road signs in the countryside, and few in Ulaan Baatar. Drivers navigate using experience, intuition, and Mongolian GPS - the Ger Positioning System, where one triangulates ones position through frequent stops at gers to ask directions. It was useless to refer to our map, because we rarely traveled on marked roads. A shortcut always existed. Though we often questioned their judgment, we never got stuck, or backtracked, so they clearly knew best.

Erkhemee, our primary driver, had a wide face and sunny demeanor. Turo, his older sidekick and relief driver, had a skinny, darker face with a pencil-thin moustache. Nori called him Gomez, and I had to admit that he looked Hispanic. They were a perfect Mongolian Laurel and Hardy, a slapstick comedy in the front seat. Whenever Gomez stalled the engine or ground the gears - which was often - Erkhemee would lean over and smack him with a fist or empty water bottle. Often Gomez would protest, perhaps make a snide comment and Erkhemee would cuff him again. On the rare occasion that Erkhemee stalled the engine, Gomez would unleash a furious assault of blows and vitriol.

Our first destination was Kharkhorin, the former capital of the Mongol empire, and now famous for Erdenee Zuu Khiid, a massive Buddhist monastery. It is difficult to conceive of dusty Kharkorin as the capital of an empire that stretched from Iraq to Korea; today it's hard to make a local call, much less keep abreast of developments in countries thousands of miles away. Very little remains of Ogedei Khan's great Tumen-Amgalan palace - only a few broken sections of bas-relief walls. No offense to the Mongols, but if I were the Ruler of the World, this would be the last place I would build my pleasure dome. As we walked past the temples of Erdenee Zuu, we heard a loud chant rise up from the Tibetan-style monastery at the back of the compound. We rushed to the monastery gates and sat near a brazier filled with incense, transfixed by the beautiful, calming sound of the prayers.

After Kharkhorin, we drove west for two days to reach Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake), spending one night in Tsetserleg, a regional capital ensconced at the base of fractured bluffs. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur stretches 20 kilometers west from the small town of Tariat, and is the jewel of the eponymous national park. The wind-whipped lake laps at lava flows from a long extinct volcano - now just a hulking cinder cone that tourists can ascend on horseback. Collapsed lava tubes crater a dark, encrusted landscape where trees have only recently gained purchase. Our ger sat at the base of a sweeping valley, overlooking the eastern edge of the lake and the Khangai mountains beyond. Behind us loomed a broad-shouldered mountain, its peak a jumble of shattered boulders.

We had just settled in on the first night when a horseman brought us a large, freshly caught pike. Erkhemee bought the fish, but he wanted us to cook it. I thought it would be a good experience for Nori, so I gave her some basic directions for cleaning the fish and sat back and watched. The pike's scaly skin was extremely tough, and our knife remarkably dull. I barely contained my laughter as Nori tried in vain to pierce its armor. She finally managed to sever the head, but didn't much like the idea of getting her hands into the body cavity to clean out the guts. Fair enough. In the end, it took Turo and I the better part of an hour to clean, peel off the skin, and fillet the unfortunate pike. But it sure tasted good with rice!

The next morning, we woke early, determined to climb the mountain behind our ger. It took several hours to reach the peak - a surprisingly flat rectangle of grass - from which we could see the entire lake to our east, the old volcano to our west, and mountains everywhere else. We took a different route on the way down, skidding down scree-covered inclines past clumps of wild rhubarb, yellow wildflowers, and the ubiquitous goat dung. We made it back to the ger just in time for horse riding.

Nori had already determined that she was allergic to horses during a previous trip to Tasmania, Australia, but she wanted to give it another try. So she popped some antihistamines and bravely mounted up. My horse clearly did not appreciate my heftiness; it kept biting Nori's horse, perhaps jealous of its light load. The scenery was beautiful as we trotted deep into a valley, climbed a separating ridge and descended into another valley, but we learned two important lessons. First, if you're allergic to horses, don't ride them, even after dosing on Allegra - Nori's face was covered in welts and she wheezed and coughed for most of the final hour. Second, two hours is a long time in a Mongolian saddle - even my cushioned posterior was blistered.