Monday, November 7, 2011

To Ger or Not to Ger, Day 1: Travel to Mongolia's Desert Region to Learn Local Folk Songs

You know you’re in for a fun day when the itinerary calls for a departure by rural bus. Travelling in Mongolia is not easy. Its road system is, how shall we say, rudimentary. In fact, once you leave Ulaanbaatar (“UB”) there are no roads. Just a series of dirt paths that run for hundreds of miles joining and separating and re-joining again as the bus, mini-bus, and jeep drivers choose the smoothest and quickest route (though it’s arguable that they actually choose the bumpiest and wildest route). It recalled a ski slope as the various roads split and converged and the drivers sought out “fresh tracks”. Let me assure you, fresh tracks in the Gobi desert are nowhere near as good as fresh tracks on even the most mediocre powder day.
Looking for fresh tracks...
Pretty nice for Mongolian bus.
Our (mis)adventures, however, began before the bus even left the station. Moments after getting on the bus I reached for Remy (our trusted, GPS-tagging, water-proof, dust-proof, drop-proof, perfect for the Gobi desert camera) and found he was missing. And he never goes missing. He is by my side 24 hours a day. But now, in a city notorious for its pickpockets,* Remy is gone. Had I dropped it? Had it fallen out of my pockets in a way that it never had in over 300 travel days with it (or its predecessor Clemy?). I even asked some of the dodgy looking guys standing around the bus station if they saw my fun, bright red camera. Unsurprisingly, they had not. So, it was gone. It was stolen. Ten months of crime-free travel is a pretty good streak, but like all things, it had come to end, it was a pretty good run. And so, when the bus pulled out we were down to Fatty-D, our large, not dust-proof, not drop-proof (or is he?), and not water-proof DSLR. Well, we thought, if he makes it through the Gobi, at least our pictures would be gorgeous.  For more on this see Cr-Ulaanbataar, our posts on cruel Ulaan Bataar, here and here.

And then the bus pulled out of the station. The plan was to take the government bus from UB to Mondolgobi, a seven to eight hour ride.** Our front seats gave us a good view of the endless scrub and desert landscape.
That's kilometers per hour.  Not miles.
(Pssst: that's like 12 miles per hour)
That is slooooooooooooooooow.
It also gave me a prime seat to snipe the rest stops in Mongolia. Actually, not. There are no rest stops in Mongolia. So, when enough people requested a stop the bus pulls over to the side of the “road” (we were just bouncing along a dirt path), and everyone – men, women, and children – runs off the bus, pops a squat and does their business. In full view of everyone else. And everyone who is driving past. It took Jesse a few pits stops before she had the courage (and urgency) to pull off such a move.
Mongolian rest stop.
Not so much privacy.
Not so much anything...
Hours later we pulled into a “town” for a lunch break. More like a handful of gers and ramshackle buildings, but it would be nice to stretch our legs, use the toilet, and grab something to eat. But then we remembered we were in Mongolia. In rural Mongolia. So while you could stretch your legs, you could not use a toilet (there was none), and as for the food options, they were limited. We could have Khooser.  That's it.  Khooser, you may not know, is a greasy luke-warm empanada-like dumpling filled with pieces of very-badly butchered mutton.*** That is, attached to each piece of tough mutton was an even-tougher and chewier piece of fat. We got three, two, or maybe three, too many.
Local town
Local restaurant
Local food
Local flavor
After a few more hours we pulled into the bustling city of Mondolgobi (pop:12,000). From the bus we hopped into our rural jeep to drive the 46 kilometers to Mr. Sogaar’s Ger where his wife, Ms. Uuganbold, prepared and served us a (second) nomadic lunch and tea. Woo-hoo.  It was clearly gonna be a long week in the Gobi.
The endless Gobi under the well-named, Eternal Blue Sky
The Ger.
The Lunch.
The needlework.
There was some confusion when the Mongolian ladies realized Jesse didn't really "do" needlepoint.
The Family. And on the right, the rural jeep driver.
We didn't have the heart to tell him that it was weird that he was in all our pictures.
[JLM: Apparently we also didn't have the heart to tell Dave how ridiculous his unizpped pant bottoms/leg warmers looked]
Only by having the rural jeep driver take the photo did he not try to include himself.
After lunch we drove to Mr. Munh Od’s Ger where we would overnight (first night in our tent, eeeeeeee). We were greeted by the entire family, who were thrilled to learn that Dan – our new friend and third member of our group – had brought a bottle of Chingis Vodka (the finest $4 vodka you’ll ever have).  As he offered it to Mr. Munh Od there was a great cheer, and Mr. O ripped the lid off, spilled some in his handsome Mongolian bowl (the head of any respectiable Mongolian household has a fancy gold or silver bowl that they use for everything, eating, drinking, fingerwashing) and threw it onto the roof of the Ger as an offering to the Eternal Blue Sky. With the ceremonial aspects complete the drinking began in earnest. The bowl was filled with vodka and passed round. Everyone took a swig, and then the bowl was refilled. We killed the bottle in three passes.
Thanks be to the Eternal Blue Sky
(or maybe Dan's Amex Blue card), but whatever...
And the vodka was sent high into the air, and onto the roof, and then, dripped back down to the carpet...
Vodka?  As soon as word got round,
everyone piled into the Ger.
The little guys loved the vodka too!
(and our English-Mongolian "dictionary")

Even the pup, who was cruelly disabled so he wouldn't bother us, wanted to get in on the vodka fun.
In return for the vodka Mr. O offered us airag. Airag is fermented mare’s milk (yes, milk from a lady-horse). It’s a thin milk, like 2% milk, that is very sour, like it has been fermented and gone bad, and makes you gag as it goes down. Next we were offered live crickets, which we tactfully declined explaining that we were just so full from the vodka and tiny sips of airag we fought down.

Thankfully, we were then excused from the Ger, and things took a positive turn. We played with the kids, hiked around the local area, milked goats, watched a gorgeous sunset and played volleyball well after it was too dark to play. As the game broke apart (both because it was too dark to see the ball, and because the court was on a hill, so anytime the ball was knocked out, it just rolled and rolled and rolled unobstructed in the Gobi desert) we were again summoned to the Ger. Summoned for dinner. Uh oh.
Once she learned I would try my hand at the milking
she must have been yelling the goats, "run my little friends run!"
Right there?  That's the spot?
OK, here we go!
Eeeeeeee!  Success!
I can hardly look.

The fun was over.  It was time to eat.

Tonight’s entrée: noodles with mutton. And mutton fat. We struggled through our bowls, gnawing and grinding the tough air-dried mutton that was prepared specially for us. Jesse and I each finished about half of our bowls before we began the gesturing dance of how the food was soooooo delicious but also sooooo filling (it was mostly vigorous tummy rubbing interspersed with thumbs-up, big smiles, and the occasional kiss of the fingertips and exclaiming “perfecto” or “bellisimo” we figured that since they made pasta, perhaps they knew a little Italian). Thankfully, Dan was a hoss. He wolfed down bowl after bowl of this noodle dish to the great pride and satisfaction of our hosts. We even slipped him some of our larger chucks of mutton/mutton-fat for his enjoyment.
It was so good it deserves a second photo
Well, someone definitely liked it.
Jesse and her champion substitute eater.
Finally, we retreated to our tent for the night. And it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was cozy and nice (though a thicker sleeping pad wouldn’t have hurt…). 
Our tent, (so thankful we were not sleeping in the Ger), and our pup (still horribly tied up)
But, as Jesse noted, at least he couldn't get away when we wanted to pet him...
Actually, wait.  There is one more aspect of this trip that requires our attention....  The toliet.  This was no Toto B100.  In fact, I am 100% confident that the box the B100 comes in would be a way better, way cleaner, and way more private bathroom.  Mongolians, it seems, enjoy a half-tiled bathroom, or half-wooded bathroom, if you will.
Jesse, considers a true half-bath...
And rejects it, instead heading for the rock formations about a half-mile away...
At least she had a nice view while she sat squat.
* In fact, friends of friends who met the night before had specifically warned us that they and everyone who visited them (though they admitted when you live in Mongolia you only get a few visitors) had been pickpocketed.

** It is actually only about 200 kilometers, but with an official speed limit of 20 KM/hr and the practical one not much higher, it’s a long, slow ride.

*** It just seems wrong to call these, things, by the same name as the delicious and wonderful South American treat.

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