Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tight Pants and More Riding

25 July 2015
After a quick 12 hours on dirt roads, smashed in a land rover with 9 other people, I found myself back in Ulaanbator. I decided to go to Naraan Tuul, the black market and buy new pants and boots so I didn't look quite so homeless. You can buy anything imaginable in the market; cooking stoves, jewlery, fishing poles and boats, puppies, school uniforms, saddles, and of course knock off Armani jeans. 

I pointed to a pair I liked and I was handed a wrap around skirt  for modesty and a small carpet to stand on. With hundreds of people winding their way through the market, I shimmied out of my pants and smashed my thighs into some very tight jeans. I asked if I could have a bigger size. The lady holding the mirror cocked her head to the side, looked me up and down, and said, "no, those pants good." And how can you argue with that. So we cut the tags off and I left market looking far more stylish than when I entered.
To go to the Gobi would be days of driving each direction, so what the heck, I left to go horae back riding for three more days.
My horse was a sweet little paint and my saddle was wooden slats and iron bars with a scrap of leather over the top. Thank goodness I had been riding, otherwise I would still be walking funny. We could have ridden in circles for all I cared, but our first night out we camped at the Monastery in the national park. The Monastery has been rebuilt and us now a museum, but the valley gave it a spectacular setting.
The guides, dressed in their beautiful dels and tall leather boots, would sing out spontaneously as we rode. It always made us break into smiles and the music fit the landscape perfectly. Every night the setting sun made the hills look like velvet and I fell asleep to the sound of horses munching the grass. Every morning I was the first one up and felt like I had the whole steppe to myself.
The three days flew by and before I knew it I was back at the riding camp for one last night. We stayed up late in the big ger singing songs, impersonating Mongolian rappers, and teaching each other games. I taught the mongolian guides a game where you stand on chairs facing each other holding the end of a rope. On the count of three, both people have the pull in all the slack and try to pull the other person off the chair. We were all laughing so hard by the end and we collapsed at the table to finish off the night with chess and cards.
My head is swimming with happy memories and I cannot believe I am going to be sitting on a plane in a mere 10 hours. Pictures can hardly do this country justice and the warmth of the people is truly inspiring. I feel as though I have been back in time and I will find myself abruptly thrown back into the present day when my plane lands tomorrow.

Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Good Day Drunk and why I Smell like Yak

21 August 2015
The next morning Pembuck and I headed off to Chandmandi-Ondoo, a small town to the east. We rode through feilds and feilds of wild delphinium, edelweiss, and yellow poppies. Like cowboys in a Western film, we rolled into town and tied our horses up to the hitching post.
The town was a maze of wooden houses and dirt roads and Pembuk had a friend at the very edge of town. We rode there and decided to camp in his yard for the night. To celebrate our visit out came the vodka, naturally.

I'm the early morning the rain started, and it continued to rain throughout the day. In a tiny house we spent the day making noodling, dumplings, soups, yogurt, yak vodka, and beast of all, blueberry jam. No one was idle but everyone spent the day quietly, especially Pembuk who spent the day rolling around on the floor nursing a hangover. 

Due to the rain, we spent another night there and left the following morning. As we were packing up, the daughter of the house passed me a jar of the beautiful blueberry jam that we had made.

All the rivers were flowing out of their banks and as we rode through the valleys, some of the crossings became downright scary. Pembuck would pass me his phone and jacket in case his horse had to swim, then take his horse into water so clogged with sediment that it looked black. After finding a path through, we would gingerly urge our horses through, tucking our legs up as high as possible in an attempt to keep our feet dry. Our deepest crossing had the water up to mere inches of the saddle and I was thankful to be on such plucky little horses.

With Khatgal on the horizon and the rain continuing to fall we decided to keep riding to Pembuk's house making 52 miles in 11 hours of bone jarring trotting. I have never been so happy to arrive at a house and stretch out on the floor with a bunch of strangers.

After a morning of watching a beautiful lady round up her cows on an ancient bicycle wearing a floppy sunhat, we jumped back on our horses and went for one last day of riding around the town. With no pack horse we galloped everywhere, racing the length of the abandoned airport runwaynso fast thatbthenwind made tears streaming down my cheeks. We zigzaged back and forth tryin to cut each other off and laughed until we were both breathless.

I had to stop off at a Guesthouse where I had left my passport and running shoes and as we walked into the kitchen, we CME a cross a group of 4 Mongolian ladies with a bottle of vodka. They invited us to sit and everytime I drank a shot I was given a cheer and a "thank you very much!" in a very short time the bottle was gone and we jumped back on our horses to weave our way back to Pembuk's house. 

Once there, Sho-ya, the french men's guide stopped off on his motorcycle and with great determination asked to buy my saddle bags. We drank milk tea and debated. I said those were my only bags and he offered to trade me for "yak". He gestured for me to jump on his bike and I found myself bumping along back roads to his winter home where he pulled out hand scraped yak leather bags. He was so hopeful and wanted my saddle bags so badly that of course I said yes. He broke out his biggest smile and I found myself the proud owner of a set of well made, extremely pungent yak saddlebags.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Ways of Life and the Joy of Hot Water

13 August 2015
The morning before left we watched a bull get castrated. 3 men sat on the bull while one made a tiny slit in the sack, the testicle was squeezed out, tied off, and quickly cut. When both were off, the site was washed off with gasoline and they let the bull up. He slowly got to his feet and walked off, a little less bullish.
After that quick farm chore Pembuk and I were off! With just the two of us and our pack horse we could travel much faster and Pumpkin Thighmaster was running with minimal encouragement.
Our path climbed up through the mountains throughout a long day of riding. We crested a hill and a sweeping valley full of wildflowers stretched out in front of us. We hobbled and staked the horses in the meadow and settled into making our standard dinner, Mongolian soup. 

First you boil a big pot of water, then you take your dried yak meat and tenderize it by beating it vigorously between two rocks. If you are lucky there is a bunch of dried fat to go along with it. Noodles and meat pieces go into the pot, a little salt, and voila! Dinner is served and slurping your soup is expected.

I got up to take pictures of flowers when Pembuk asked, "Leeez, hot water?" And he gestured for me to follow. We walked up the valley and to my amazement, around the bend there were a series of small wooden huts and steam rising from the river.
I jumped and skipped my was excitedly to the source of the Hotsprings where you must cup the water against each eye so it looks like you have a tear running down each cheek. Then I started looking at and in all the cabins. They had wooden signs over the doors telling how hot the water was in each hut, the hottest being 118 degrees. 
I walked into a hut and Pembuk started talking to a woman nearby. The floor was wooden planks with a hole in the floor and a bench along one side. The water was about two feet down.
I threw off my shoes, pulled up my skirt, and stood in the blissfully hot water. I didn't know what the etiquette was, do you wear a swim suit? Do you pour water over you? None of the doors had locks and none of the windows had coverings... Desire overcome inhibition. I ripped of my clothes and sunk into the water up to my ears. 
Sweet love! It was heavenly! Days of hard riding, cold wet feet, and not showering melted  away in an instant. I had to stop myself from making happy moaning noises. When I was sweaty hot and red as a lobster I jumped out, dripped dried, and walked out with a huge grin. We walked back to our camp and I slept like a rock. 
The next morning I woke up with the sunrise and found my tent covered in a layer of ice. Back to the Hotsprings I went and soaked until I was oozing pure joy. I hung my coat up in the window and not a person bothered my cabin for the hour I was there. As I walked back to camp the sun was up and the day was warming quickly.
I wanted to stay for two nights, but that was lost in translations and we soon packed up and headed down the valley watching golden eagles fly overhead.When we stopped for the night we looked over and right in front of us a cow decided to have her baby!
We watched for hours as the calf dropped, the mother licked it clean, it took it's first wobbly steps, and finally had his first meal. I was so happy that we only stayed at the springs one night, everything seems to work out when I don't try to fight it.

Wheelin' and Dealin' with a Western Saddle

8 August 2015
After 2 days in the bustling metropolis of Khatgal (pop 3,000) I was itching to get out into the countryside. I started asking if any of the guides would trade a horse trek for my saddle. Everyone who looked at it upside down and right side up,  gave it a hearty pat and said, "good saddle, good, good." Happily I was able to trade my old saddle plus $200 for a 10 day trek with a guide, food, and a pack horse. Even better, I was able to use my saddle during the trek.
My mighty steed earned the name Pumpkin Thighmaster after the first day. Although he was round and had the slowest walk of any horse I have ever ridden, he galloped like his tail was on fire. 
We set off around the east side if the lake and stopped off to pick up another guide and 2 people from France. This was fine for me as my guide Pembuk spoke about 4 English words and I welcomed the company. Since most of the negotiations for the trip had been done in charades I had no idea where we were going, unfortunately neither did the french, but in traveling, that is all part of the fun.
We started off with one of the (soon to be many) river crossings in a party of 2 guides Pembuk and Sho-ya, 2 Frenchmen, 1 translator, 3 pack horses, and myself. Since the ponies are small and maybe all just a little crazy, you cannot put bags behind the saddle of the horse you are riding otherwise they start bucking like wild. But my blue saddlebags were given much admiration by the guides as they made loading and tying down our packs fast and easy. 
Every meal was cooked over an open fire and we grabbed water from the creeks. Quickly we fell into a routine where the translator Tsetseg cooked food for the French and I would eat with the two guides. Every evening they would repeatedly fill my bowl to the brim until I was uncomfortably full, and then Tsetseg would bring me a plateful of even more food. It turned into a game of who could sneak their extra food into Pembuk's bowl and guilt him into finishing it.
On the second day we stopped at a ger by the lake where Sho-ya keeps his yak herds during the winter. The family there makes butter and yogurt that they sell.

They also make yak vodka (as do most Mongolians) distilled from fermented yak milk. After the first large mug of it, it starts to taste pretty good. Before you drink you dip your ring finger into the vodka, flick your finger into the air three times for the spirits of the earth, sky, and wind, and touch your ring finger to your forehead. 
The next day we set out to see the Tsatan reindeer people who live in the mountains above the lake. There are only about 30-40  families who still herd reindeer in Mongolia and normally they stay high in the mountain valleys, as tourism becomes more popular around the lake, more families are migrating to the low lands in the summer months. The reindeer and beautiful and still have velvet covering their antlers. The families live in Oosks that look like teepees.

On the way back to the ger I understood that the frenchmen would be heading back to Khatgal and just Pembuk and I would be continuing on for the next six days. We spent our last night laughing, playing card games and if course, drinking vodka.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Russian Borders and Marmots

8 August 2015
Moving on from the central steppe I took an overnight bus to Khatgal. I thought the ride would be horrible but by some odd lucky turn, my bus has declined sleeper bearths and was in fact more comfortable than the hostel beds I had been sleeping in.
The bus, which was suppose to take 18 hours, stopped often for dinner and bathroom breaks. I woke up in the parking lot of the bus station after a sound nights sleep. The only people left on the bus were the drivers and myself, all the other passengers has already disembarked. I thought it was rather kind that they just let me sleep away especially since the ride only took about 10 hours and had been parked at the bus station for quite a long time.
Khatgal is a small town at the southern edge of lake Huvsgol, the 2nd largest lake in asia, and is a vacation destination for Mongolians and tourists alike. The only problem is that it's really close to the Russian border so you need a guide If you are going hiking or horseback riding. I tried to get a border permit in the capital so I could ride into a valley where reindeer herders live, but after waiting 3 hours in a government office I was  denied. Instead I have been hiking and riding horses through the hills overlooking the lake which is pretty darn beautiful.

 While walking along the edge of the lake, I saw two men burning the hair off a couple of Marmots. I had heard that they eat them here, and that they carry rabies,  but it was the first that I had seen so far. The man posed in an action shot for me but I left before they could ask me to stay for lunch.
Because there are so many places that I want to see, it has been far cheaper to rent horses for about $15 per day in different areas than to buy one for $600. The horses are tough little things and not always thrilled to move forward. The last one I rode I named Vacation.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Riding the Steppe

3 August 2015
I spent the last eight days in another world. The Mongolian Steppe is a glimpse into a different time and a simpler place.
I decided to join a tour and head out on horseback to explore central Mongolia. Rather than a set schedule we would wake up in the morning, make sure our hobbled horses were somewhere close by and take a leisurely breakfast. Then out we would ride, sometimes walking and sometimes a full gallop off in any direction we felt like going.

if it started to rain we would duck into a get and drink milk tea. If we were lucky, or maybe unlucky we would be offered fermented mares milk whick tasted like vomit's tangy after taste. The mongolians love it and drink it with great gusto. 
The best times would bring dumplings, the not so best times meant hard squares of cheese curds that made your mouth water with the tang of fermeting milk, like biting into a piece of hard lemony square of rotting tofu. Although the food was never great, the hospitality was amazing, and the families were full of smiles every time we stopped. One especially cold and rainy day we walked into a ger to warm up and after bowls of milk tea I looked over and saw a brand new baby sheep tied to the bed and curled up asleep in the corner.
Every night we would find a place to camp and a car would come bouncing along through the grass with our camping gear. I would head off for a walk up to the top of the closest hill to stretch my legs out. When I walked back down, dinner would be waiting and sometimes a campfire.
The vastness of the steppe is unbelievable. The wind can howl for days and gushing rain storms can roll in so fast. But there is something so very unique about the landscape here. Something timeless. It wonderful to know that there is still a place where people are nomadic, where simplicity is a necessity, where herds of horses, cows, and goats roam unchecked for miles and miles.

Our last day was a quick stop in the Bogd Khan national park where there is a Monastery... and trees! I was shocked at how fast the week went, thrilled that I went with a group, and ready for another trek farther up north.