Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fall Break Travel

Picnic lunch on the Chuluut River
I work at an international school and with a host of international teachers; however, I am not an international teacher. Love and a new life brought me to Mongolia; I'm here with every intention of staying forever (this comment always seems to surprise my students and others I meet here in UB). International teachers teach around the world for the diverse experiences as well as earning the money and opportunities to travel to yet more places during their breaks and time off. Lunch time lounge chats often revolve around travel recently completed or where future breaks are bound to take people. For me, I'm focused on traveling here in Mongolia--to discover and learn more about this wild and free country where I make my home with Zorig and Enji. 

My school has a one week Fall Break in mid-October and Zorig fulfilled my wish for a countryside adventure. We traveled north and west to his camp on the Chuluut River, about 170 km south of Murun. This map is an estimate on locations. We left UB (red) and traveled west. Ulziit (yellow) was a way point, consider it like a rest stop. We ate soup there at 6 am on our journey back. And the camp was near Jargalant (green). We were an hour drive from Jargalant at Z's camp. We spent the first night and the last two nights there and two middle nights at a camp farther up into the mountains, via the Princess Road. Both camps had us sleeping in wooden cabins and we had stoves in which to burn firewood, keeping us warm and cozy. 

One thing about countryside travel in Mongolia--it requires A LOT of driving and a great portion of it is off-roading. Our trip included approximately 350 kilometers of paved road and then 200 of unpaved. The unpaved takes much more time, of course. And for my friend Kantodeia and I, it required active use of Dramamine to survive without losing our stomachs along the way. The views are stunning and I like being so close to the land. It was 12 hours driving time to get from UB to Z's camp. 

But that 12 hours got slightly extended by a few stops en route. We stopped for lunch, then to change a flat tire on our trusty Russian Van. 

A ways over the steppe, we stopped in a village to get the flat tire repaired (smart!), and then in the middle of the night, Zorig shot a wolf and we celebrated with the local nomads (who rode up on their motorbike) as they had been losing sheep from their herd in recent days. This celebration included vodka, of course. We finally arrived to sleep around 2 am. 

Awaking the next morning to the stunning view of blue skies, mountains, the river, and a picturesque camp (build by my husband!)....was breathtaking and worth every minute of the bouncing, bobbing, and banging-around ride in that Russian Van. 

Day 2 we traveled yet farther into the mountains by way of the Princess Road (it reminded me of old mining roads in the West, very narrow, rocks on all sides) to our second camp where we stayed for 2 nights. We arrived again after darkness, so a second morning began with a breathtaking view. We hiked and fished. We ate and drank. We made a huge bonfire, drank wine  and whiskey, and danced around the fire to music from the 60s and 70s (playlist included: Hotel California, Winds of Change, How Deep is your Love, Midnight Lady, and an ABBA song, as well as others) that blared from a CD playing inside the Russian van. 

Something fascinating about countryside travel in Mongolia is that you can feel FAR away from civilization and human beings. No cell service, no light or sound pollution. You are out in the middle of nowhere, it seems. However, you can't walk very far without running into a herd of some sort of livestock. Kantodeia and I encountered cows and horses and watched a herd of yaks graze on the opposite bank of the river. We never saw the human herders that owned these animals, but I'm sure they were over just a ridge or two. The animals aren't at all bothered by humans--they are mildly curious at best. 

One of my favorite things about traveling into the countryside with Zorig is his knack for cocktail making. My dad and I experienced this for the first time last summer (2014) when we had "fruit cocktails" laced with fancy vodka. Our fall break trip included a mixing of some sort of fruit flavored cocktail mixer with cheap Mongolian beer. It was delicious! The food is often a mix of premade items (sausages, bread, salads in jars) as well as food made from local meat, veggies, and dairy products. We had horse meat soup with noodles and I made a beef soup with noodles one afternoon. We had rice and beef, and mutton ribs cooked by Zorig over charcoal (Yum!). 

Aaruul, about the size of a Silver Dollar
Countryside trips often include visiting with local nomads. We were invited into the homes of the families near the camps and enjoyed milk tea, yak butter (a bit like heavy whipped cream) over boortsog (sweet fried bread....similar to a beignet), aaruul, and other dried yogurt products. I am acquiring a taste for some of these items and each new home offers their own unique products. Kantodeia and I tasted things and made recommendations on what was good, and what we didn't care for ("Oh...these are the good biscuits!" or "Oh yum, they have the yak butter!"). At this moment, I actually have store bought aaruul (traditional dried curdled milk) in my refrigerator. I like it a little soft and not dried out--but I LIKE IT. The first time I tasted it....I found it sour and distasteful. Not so anymore. It has both a sweet and savory taste--difficult to describe to someone that hasn't tried it. It has qualities of both cheese and yogurt. Hmmmm. 

Husband sharing Mongolian vodka
Also tried on this trip, for the first time, was traditional Mongolian vodka. I am NOT a fan of this and will forever remember Kantodeia's whispered comment to me upon her first taste (sorry that's one of our many inside jokes and phrases from this week of adventure). It is vodka made from milk. It is clear like any other vodka, but has a sour milk taste to it. It's a weak vodka and probably only half the alcohol content of store-bought vodka. But when you drink as much as Mongolians can, it's easy to get drunk on the stuff as we observed. :)

In the middle of October we took a risk traveling. The weather can go any which way that time of year. But we were blessed with mostly sunny days with our highs in the 40s and it dipped into 20s and teens at night. We slept cozily in our sleeping bags in the cabins (with the stove going when we went to sleep, and firing it up again in the morning to take the chill off). 

View from the outhouse at Z's camp, Stunning!
For Westerners traveling in Mongolia, you quickly get used to the fact that there are no rest areas or public toilets. You carry TP with you (I always over pack!) and if you're lucky, you may have a wooden structure to surround you. Men have it easy, of course; for the ladies, you hunt for a berm or a bush or a big rock. Sooner or later the urge over takes any modesty you are trying to cling to. This is real life and our bodily functions are natural. You just get over it. 

All in all, the week of travel and adventure was every bit of fun and excitement I could ask for. It was lovely to have a girlfriend along to share in the fun and memories being made. Mongolians are fun people to travel and be with. They laugh easily and smile often. They are resourceful and hard-working. Nothing is a bother. Yes, traveling within this beautiful country is all that interests me at this time. My new life is filled with discovery at every turn--I love it, and the man that is sharing it all with me. 


  1. Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing this slice of Mongolia.

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