Saturday, September 3, 2016

Countryside Adventure

Summer Travelers
Enji and I departed Ulaanbaatar on Saturday, August 6th, for our summertime countryside adventure. Zorig delivered us and ALL our gear--7 pieces--to Dragon Center (bus terminal) where we caught the first bus of the day to Darkhan. My friend Michelle lives there with her husband and daughter and we enjoyed an afternoon and evening with them. Enji became acquainted with Terra, as well as her beastly companions, George and Basar. We had the best fried chicken I've had since arriving to Mongolia. YUM! In the evening we ran through the itinerary with Michelle's husband, Agii, who we had hired to be our driver. Then on Sunday, August 7th, we disembarked in the indestructible Russian van (and the vehicle proven it can go anywhere and everywhere in Mongolia) that would be our turtle-like home for the next week+. 

What follows is a rough itinerary of our travels:

The Man Stone
    Sunday: Drove from Darkhan, through Erdenet (where we stocked up on supplies at their Costco-like Nomin and had lunch), then on to Moron (pronounced more like Murun) where we spent the night in a hotel. Enji and I made a short walk around the little town just as darkness descended.
    Monday: We visited some Bronze Age deer stones about 20 km outside of Moron, and then drove on to Lake Khuvsgul. Wow!! It's SO beautiful. Agii got us settled in a Guest House, (simple ger with pit toilet access) about 50 yards from the lake. We had lunch, then went down to the lake. I swam in the clear blue waters that reminded me so much of the cool, clear lakes of my childhood and youth--Lake Michigan or Lake Huron. Enji waded some and we both skipped stones. 
    Nice selfie smile and proof I was in the water

    It was a little windy and there were smallish waves. Later on in the afternoon we walked along the lakeside and checked things out. I'll never tire of the sight of yaks--they are so much more interesting to look at than cows! They act a bit like dogs--playful and goofy--but look like buffalos with fluffy tails. Strange combination and fascinating to watch. Stay tuned for pictures of these fellas. 

    Tuesday: With rain on the menu all day, we opted to journey on and a very hard day's drive it was. We left around 9:30 and drove well over 500 kilometers, much of it off-road, arriving that night after 11 pm to Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park. Agii was a trooper, seemingly finding a second and third wind to keep on driving--and got us settled into another "guest house" ger. We crashed with a lovely fire crackling away in our cozy stove.

    View from the mountaintop
    Wednesday: I got up, enjoyed coffee, and then hiked the mountain right behind our ger. OH MY....what a glorious view it had! It was a chilly and windy morning....but it did not diminish the feeling of closeness with the earth. I probably spent close to an hour up there, checking out the vegetation, watching birds, and even encountered a little black squirrel that reminded me of the Abert squirrel in Colorado. 

    After a small breakfast (summer sausage heated in a pan, with mustard on bread), we packed up and Agii took us to the Khorgo Uul volcano. We hiked up to take a closer look at this most-recently erupting volcano in Mongolia (about 5,000 years ago). 
    Nicely composed shot, Enji!

    Then we drove on up the lakeside and got settled into the nicest ger camp of our trip--Ikh Khorgo. I highly recommend the place. We had a very nice ger and took turns enjoying a hot shower. Enji settled in to work on his art and I decided I wanted a hike before dinner.  I climbed the mountain behind our camp and quickly found myself caught in a brief but strong hail storm. I hid under my umbrella in the tree line. Some days the weather here reminds me so much of Colorado. We ate a hot meal in the camp's restaurant and enjoyed a relaxing evening in our ger--Enji drawing and coloring, me reading, music in the background and conversation sprinkled here and there.

    Just before the hail rained down
    Thursday: After breakfast and getting everything back in the van, Agii took us farther up the lakeside where he had coordinated horseback riding. Surprisingly, Enji had never been on a horse before. (I KNOW!!) While the sun was shining, the wind was also blowing and the temperature was lower than we would have liked. We only rode about 30 minutes....but it was a lovely ride. He got to experience a walk and then a trot.

    It was time to move on--(yes, I'm quite the slave driving itinerary-maker, as my family and friends know). This time to Tsetserleg, the capital of the Arkhangai aimag (province). This was a beautiful drive on paved roads with river canyons and mountain passes to keep our eyes and minds engaged. Just before we reached the village of about 15,000, Agii said something to Enji. Enji said, "Do you want to see a Big Rock?" I thought it must be more than a big rock....but I was up to see whatever there was to I said, Heck Yeah! After a brief detour from the paved road, we arrived at a destination where there were a number of cars parked and small makeshift shops selling Mongolian food. Agii pointed off guessed it, a BIG ROCK.

    I don't know the whole story but there is apparently a legend or folktale about a strong man that carried the rock from afar and placed it here in a place where there are no other similar rocks around it. We walked around it and snapped some pictures. My only regret from the whole trip? I didn't ride one of these saddled yaks at the base of the Big Rock!

    We arrived into Tsetserleg in the afternoon, had lunch, toured the aimag museum (housed in an old monastery) that is on a hill that overlooks the town. We got settled into the Naran hotel and then walked down into the village center to find the stores, hunting for some assorted items which we miraculously found (disposable razor for me, another canister of gas for our stove, and a different brand of milk tea packets for Enji). We had dinner next door at the tourist hub-- Fairfield Guesthouse & Bakery (and breakfast again there the next morning). 

    Not quite to the source, but a very hot pipe!
    Friday: We departed Tsetserleg, drove about two hours to Tsenkher Hot Springs where we enjoyed a relaxing dip. This was another first for Enji. We soaked, showered, then hiked up the path to see the source of the hot water. We also saw a little snake there--only my second one in all of Mongolia. 

    Just after noon we were back on the road. We stopped and had lunch on a hilltop with a 360 view and then journeyed on to the Orkhon Waterfall. This was a site that Dad and I had wanted to see back in 2014. We tried to get our guide at the time to swap out Erdene Zuu Monastery for this majestic natural feature. He said, "oh no, very bad road and no time." Looking at the map then (or even now) didn't seem so far. But now that I've traveled the relatively short distance, I get it. It's ALL off road and the last bit of it is a minefield of lava rocks, some of them good sized. I didn't think to snap a picture as we creeped like an insect over them and then through the large mud and water puddles that surrounded them.  Yes, there is no way we could have seen the waterfall in just an afternoon. 

    Getting down to the base of the Falls
    Three hours after leaving the hot springs, we arrived to our destination. Enji and I hiked out to the falls--probably a 15 minute walk. We observed them from the top, then found the trail that wound down and around to the base of the falls. The river was high because of recent rains. We managed to see a couple of small fish and then returned to the top, where we toured strange displays of stuffed animals that a Mongolian man had set up. It included a wolf, fox, a couple different cats, a capercaillie, and strange assortments of horns and antlers, and carvings. 

    Creepy display near the falls
    We got settled in a ger camp for the night. I took a hike up into the hills while Enji worked on his art and fought off the ground squirrel that tried to steal our trash. We heated up our canned ham and enjoyed it with some instant ramen (I am certainly NO camp cook--that's Zorig's talent for sure). 

    Saturday: We were packed up and ready to go again by 9:00. We traversed our way out over those same lava rock fields and on to Kharakhorin--the ancient, imperial city. We had some lunch, then toured Erdene Zuu Monastery and walked out to the ancient turtle stone. Before leaving town we visited the museum on the outskirts of town. So far it's the best curated museum I've seen in Mongolia. It's air conditioned, the displays take you from ancient to modern times, and the English displays offer generally good translations. It was only 4 pm when we finished. We asked Agii if there was someplace down the road we could stay. Yes--there was. He took us another 80 km to the Mongol Els--a long strip of sand dunes sandwiched between rocky smallish mountains and the flat steppe. Turns out, Enji had never before seen sand dunes either. 

    We spent the night in a herding family's extra ger. No electricity. No stove. This was our barest of bones stay--but it was our final night and it ended up creating the perfect atmosphere for what our trip ended up facilitating--time and opportunity for Enji and I to become more deeply connected with one another. 

    If you are still with me.....if you've read this far and scrolled through all these pictures.......then I want to tell you how special this nine day trip became. My goal was to show this young man parts of this beautiful country of his. And I did. We did see so many stunning places. But as we checked our way through my itinerary of sites, the trip shifted. This young man and I were finally, for the first time, in one another's physical space morning, noon, and night. We cooked and ate together, slept and walked together, and we talked and talked and talked some more. I was often in awe of his ability to ask questions and to express himself. He learned English by watching movies and playing video games for goodness sake!

    You should know that, like his father, Enji is a night owl. I learned early that he "turns on" around 9 pm, becoming most talkative and inquisitive. This is about the time I want to shut down and turn off. I'm an early bird--up to see the sunrise (and yes, I will set my alarm for it), enjoy my coffee, maybe take a hike in the cool, crisp morning air. Enji slept until I told him to get up. He never complained about getting up, but he often climbed into the van and laid back down to sleep while we journeyed to the next point. I never wanted to sleep while driving--too much to see and watch. :)

    The Thief!
    Each day offered new opportunities to talk and get to know one another better. We talked about families--his and mine. We talked about school and college. We talked about Christmas plans. We talked about dreams and hopes. We talked about life in the USA and life in Mongolia. We talked about Ulaanbaatar. We talked about love and relationships. And we talked about us--how his father and I's love connection created an opportunity for the three of us to cobble together a blended family. I came with an open mind and heart, and he, just like his father, opened up his arms, his home, and his heart to me--this woman from a foreign land. A woman--I'll add--that he had no choice or word in having thrust into his life. What has transpired over the past year is beyond miraculous.

    Plenty of Americans enter into blended families. People divorce and remarry. People have birth children, step children, adopted children, and there are full siblings, half siblings, and so many other titles for the members of the families that are created. We have heard the horror stories about children of previous relationships resisting, rejecting, even hating the new partners their parents connect with. Enji and I shared with one another that we wondered how it *could* have gone down for us. What if he hadn't spoken so much English? (I don't know.) What if he had been angry or mean towards me? (Again....I don't know.) I wondered if he would be jealous of me taking up his father's time. (Not that he's ever shown). Yes, we talked about all the "what ifs." But we had no concrete answers for any of them. And just as well, as none of them came to pass. 

    Instead, we decided to be family. I have not given birth to a child, but this teenager has decided that for the here and now and the future ahead of us, I am mom. He asks me to see him as my son. And so we do this.  I will forever be grateful for this trip we took and how it created the space for us to speak freely with one another, to be vulnerable and candid. 

    Sunday: On Sunday we awoke to a sun shining morning and left for our last full day of adventure. We drove on to Hustai National Park. We enjoyed a fulfilling buffet-style lunch at the ger camp situated at the entrance to the park. We walked through their information center and watched their movie. Then we collected a young intern guide and drove off in search of the Przewalski horse. The horses weren't anywhere to be seen from the road way, so our guide said we'd need to hike a mountain. I could tell that Enji was not keen on this idea, but he also knew I expected him to come. It was hot and dry out, the sun beating down on us. He and the guide talked as we climbed, all of us sipping H2O from our water bottles. I prayed ALL THE WAY up for there to be a group of horses over the summit. I would be SO disappointed if we hiked all that way and got no results. But in a park this size, there was no guarantee we'd find them. I can't tell you the relief I felt when I crested the top and immediately spotted a horse. Oh my--Enji was going to get to see them! I was a ways ahead of them....but soon they were there and saw what awaited us. A small group of horses--four adults and two darling, white foals. 

    Here's looking at you!
    We watched them and took our pictures. Then we descended the mountain. It was nice to finally have Enji along for one of the hikes. I love climbing the steppe here--no vista ever disappoints. As we walked down, I found myself feeling a bit sad. Our grand adventure was coming to a close. While I was very much looking forward to the shower ahead and to sleeping in my own bed, I was melancholy over leaving the countryside and going back to the hustle and bustle of UB. Work was just a week away--summer was quickly slipping away. 

    I pushed the sadness out and held tight to the gifts of my summer vacation--time with my husband and father in South Africa, time with friends in UB, a sweet weekend of couple time with Zorig in Gunt, and finally, this countryside journey with minii huu (that's Mongolian for "my son"). Yes--the sweet two months of summer had not been wasted, but enjoyed and lived. 

    And as we all know, when one adventure comes to an end, another is just ahead. Next up--I settle into my position at the secondary school and Enji begins his educational career at ASU. Yes, there's always more to share with you. Thanks for traveling with me--for reading my words, for staying in touch, and for caring. Hope you had a summer rich in fun and connections. 

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