Escapades of the Mongolian Kind
* * * * * PART I * * * * *
Since I was a wee child, I dreamed of going to Mongolia. Not many do, but as a child two things greatly lent themselves to forming my identity: 1. Being supremely skilled at riding and caring for horses and 2. Being a hobo. Mongolia: the land of nomads and wild horses. Clearly, I belonged in Mongolia, I thought as a child.
So now 17 years later, with one jolly and long-suffering friend in tow, I venture to my Mecca. 12 days spent there and many escapades collected. Here is an assortment of anecdotes in chronological order to sum up our travels in the magical land of Mongolia.
Pulling into Ulaanbaatar felt a little like discovering an oasis in the desert. We had spent the last 15 hours looking at the same unchanging scenery of vast uninhabited grassland. Finally, here was civilization. Though as a city, it certainly was a different one. Gers (small, round Mongolian dwellings made of wood and sheep felt) surrounded and perforated the whole infrastructure of the city. Everything appeared grey and dirty except the brightly painted roofs of the one-level houses, making the city look like someone had dumped a box of crayolas on top of a concrete rubble pile. But civilization nonetheless and the beginning of our journey.
Snafu 1. We were supposed to pay the balance of our excursion fee upon arrival and the plan was to just go withdraw the money and pay them. Who knew that withdrawing $2,000 dollars from a foreign bank would be so hard. Each bank had a $50 withdrawal limit so began the great tour of Mongolian banks, withdrawing a limit from each one, accruing tons of ATM fees, but an hour and a half later we came back to the office bearing over 2 million Tugrik..Mongolian currency (1,200 T = $1)
Snafu 2. Then we were told that we would set out on our excursion that night, arrive in the countryside the next day, and embark on a 9 day horse journey with no showers and no sight of civilization the entire time….not exactly the itinerary we booked. Instead, we asked to be put in a hotel that night so we could straighten everything out and after getting back on track to our original itinerary we set out the next morning.
Our tour guide/ translator is called Uka. His English can be hard to understand. Yet he is somehow a professional English teacher at a University. Glo and I are worried for the condition of Mongolian’s education system. Uka calls himself “Strong Arm”. Uka is 26 but he lied and said he was 24. Uka runs around and jumps like a child. Uka makes very exaggerated facial expressions. Uka consideres himself to be the best English teacher at his university, but we have to repeat ourselves 3 times before he understands us and Gloria has to translate for me when he talks. Uka thinks Glo looks Mongolian therefore they must be distant cousins. Uka wants to know if Glo speaks “Mexican”…”Do you mean Spanish?” ….”No. Do you speak the traditional Mexican language called Mexican”…………………..”No, Uka. We speak Spanish in Mexico.”….”No, I believe you should speak Mexican.” Sigh, the world according to Uka is a world in which people speak Mexican and want to kill each other and still subject the whole African race back into slavery, and where the Black Death was started by Mongolians throwing sick marmots into European castles. Also it is a world in which blue Dragons rule the rivers and the black birds are trying to give us messages from Hell. Uka perpetually confused us and annoyed us. We tried to be patient with him until we realized that he got on the nerves of the entire normal Mongolian population too. And in the end we discovered why Uka is the way he is: Uka used to do nothing but play video games and once he spent 36 hours straight in front of the computer screen without realizing how much time was passing, completely absorbed in his world of CounterStrike. Congratulations, Glo and Joe, for surviving 12 days with the maniac known as Uka whose email is: Doyouknowme@yahoo.com.
Glo is a little new at camping and trekking and a little freaked out by bugs. Nonetheless, both of us were enjoying our jeep ride into the countryside, passing by beautiful pristine nature and all sorts of animals right outside our windows: sheep, cattle, goats, horses, yak, and marmots. We rolled down the windows to get a better view and fresh air when I grasshopper flew inside and Gloria freaked out. She was screaming and trying to crawl over me to switch seats with her. The whole car (me, our driver, our cook, and Uka) were all just watching her be a spectacle. As soon as she calmed down we went over a huge ditch and somehow just Gloria went airborne and smacked her head on the top of the roof. She screamed and then broke out into hysterical laughter and we all followed suit. 5 hours later, we arrived and settled into our Ger.Shaking the eagle
Before getting to the ger camp we stopped by a monastery where there were two tame eagles outside. Before we even realized we had consented, I found my hand shoved into a thick leather glove and a man putting a huge 20 pound eagle on my right wrist. And then I had 3 people crowd around me and me new eagle telling me to “Shake it! Shake it!” …..what? shake the eagle?...before I had time to figure it out the man had grabbed my wrist and started shaking the eagle. It spread its large wings and posed for a picture. For those of you who have never shaken a 20 pound eagle, it is no easy task. That bird was heavy!! Glo followed in similar fashion but with more giggling, per usual.
We stayed with a Mongolian nomad family in our own ger. Each ger has an iron Russian stove in the center to heat the ger because nights on the Mongolian step get quite cold. I spent a lot of time honing my fire making skills. Often I would get such a crackling fire going that I would overheat the ger and then we would have to open the door anyways to let some cool air in. One night I overheated the ger and in impulsive frustration I decided to open the stove door and pour water over the fire, ignoring Gloria's protests, and sending plumes of ash out into the ger and all over our beds and belongings. We woke up the next morning coughing and smelling like we had spent the night in a campfire.
* * * * * PART II * * * * *
We set out with two Mongolian Nomadic Horseman for our 5 day trek through the mountains. Gloria was a bit scared because her last time riding a horse (5 years ago) she had been thrown, but she was up for the challenge…as long as someone led her on a lead rope. Unfortunately, that person turned out to be Uka and unfortunately Uka turned out to be horrible at leading someone on a horse while he himself was on horseback and unfortunately Gloria got led into several trees along the way. =( poor girl was having a rough time. For me though, this was a dream come true. The horses were all so good and well mannered, stout and trusty. The scenery was so beautiful wide open grassy spaces that flowed right into rolling hills and then climbed into rocky mountains covered in fir trees with the sparkliest, flowing river winding its way along side us the whole time. The saddle took some getting used to since it was a lot harder and smaller than a western saddle. But at least they hadn’t given us the real traditional wooden seat saddle with iron stirrups that the horsemen used. We rode slowly and made camp for the evening. The next day we stopped by a natural hot spring and had a bath and washed our hair. So refreshing. The whole day as we got on and off our horses, Gloria always needed an extra boost to get up and there wound up being a whole lot of butt grabbing going on all for the sake of getting Glo on and off the horse. At one point, Uka was trying to help her get on and in a way that only Gloria Ibarra could pull off, she hoisted one leg over the horse’s back, wound up not upright but on her belly hugging the horse’s back, and the next thing we knew she had gone up and completely over on the other side. The horse in confusion stepped on Uka’s foot who then let out a loud scream and all of us spectators and Gloria included burst out into raucous and unending laughter. Gloria, still jolly, hoisted herself on again and almost fell off again because she was laughing so hard but we managed to get on our way…laughing all the while. But by the end of that day, Gloria had been led into one too many trees by Uka and had had enough of the horse trekking part of the program so we decided to head back to the ger camp early, where Glo could stay on her feet and I could go out and ride by myself.
All of the horses were well-mannered except one, the horse that our young horseman rode. He was high-strung and temperamental and we were warned to stay away from him. My horse, well-mannered as he was, was what they called “a good Mongolian horse”…which meant that he was fast and that he loved to go fast. But for most of the trek, I made him go slow to stay at the same pace as Gloria’s slow-poke horse. On the last day, Glo decided to walk back, and I made my horse walk behind her. After a while he decided that pace was WAY too slow and he started getting antsy. At that point, the young horseman rode up and told me to switch horses with him so that he could let my horse run fast for a while. I was a little surprise3d since we had been told to keep away from his horse but I went along anyways…After all, I’ve never been scared of any horse before. The young horseman took off and I kept his horse going at a walk. Then I felt it coming. The test. Every high-strung horse tests a new rider for the first time. So I let him trot but at a controlled pace. One problem though. This was my first time in a traditional Mongolian saddle which literally looks like a small wooden seat with a wooden panel in the front instead of a saddle horn, and with iron stirrups. When the horse started to trot, my ankles were banging against the iron stirrups and my thighs hitting the wooden panel. Not comfy. I tried to adjust and figure out how to sit in the saddle when the horse realized his opportunity to break away. And so he did. And there we went galloping across the wide open Mongolian grass. Nothing in front of me to stop my horse. And what they say is true. Mongolian horses are fast and powerful. I’ve never gone so fast before. The wind ripped my baseball cap off my head even though it was fastened with a pony tail. I knew the horse would keep going until I was off it’s back but I was intent on staying on, bad footing and all. I pulled up as hard as I could on the reins and let out a loud and low “HAI” which means stop for Mongolian horses. Then I brought the reins up tight and yanked as hard left as I could to force the horse into a tight circle. Circles always slow a horse down. And sure enough, he slowed to a bumpy trot, throwing his head the whole time, and twisted into a small circle, for which my footing just wasn’t ready. I slipped slowly and gently off to the left, holding onto the reins the whole time. A painless fall and I jumped on my feet immediately and my horse was suddenly calm. I put my hand on its head and asked it to stop and it did. The young horseman came riding up at that point and asked if I was ok and I said yes. He went back to retrieve my hat and I got back on my horse. The test was over as soon as I got back on. He had to know I wasn’t scared of him if I got back on. And I wasn’t. Though there was adrenaline coursing through my veins from the thrill of riding that fast in a wide open space for such a stretch. My horse was grumpy but done with his antics.
I was a little embarrassed that the horsemen had seen me fall. But apparently I shouldn’t have been. Because the next day, the young horseman approached Uka and told him that he had fallen in love with me on account of my riding skills and was prepared to try to make me his girlfriend. Uka told him not to waste his time because I lived in America and we couldn’t even communicate in the same language. Too bad for the horseman but at least I felt like my riding skills had received the ultimate stamp of approval.
Babies in Mongolia are fat and beautiful. Nomadic children play all day outside and grow up in their family’s ger. They help with whatever they can…the girls washing and hanging the clothes by hand, bringing firewood into the ger, and other small tasks. Boys help the men ten the animals and we were impressed to see the ten year old boy of our host family working all day herding their goats and sheep. One day, three little Mongolian children who looked to be ages 3, 4, and 5 made our day as we watched them gallop swiftly across the plains, their little legs butterfly kicking their horses fervently even though their feet didn’t even reach the horse’s belly. One had a wooden paddle in tow and swatted his horse’s neck and we were pretty sure it felt like a mere neck massage to the horse. The other had a rope in hand and from time to time would swat his horses behind. The littlest rode in back and took care of yelling at the top of his lungs as the thundered around in great jubilation. It was clear how much Mongolian horses respect their tiny riders. A beautiful sight. Gloria and I made good friends with the two little girls that belonged to our host family. It’s amazing how little you actually need to know of each other’s language in order to be friends. Especially with kids. We dressed them up, shared our candy and cookies, climbed on rocks together, and they loved us.
Our driver was called Erdenhu, though if you ask him his name, he will list a bunch of names in a language for each culture that he has met people from. Erdenhu was our anti-Uka and we were so glad to have him along. He daughters our age and he knew evry road in Mongolia and most of Russia and many parts in Northern China. He has been driving for 20 years. He is also a pilot and flies to see his daughter in Europe and his other daughter in Beijing. Erdenhu spoke very broken English but somehow we were able to communicate with him better than we were with Uka many times, granted it involved a lot of body language and laughing. Erdenhu was a jolly man and we all shared a similar sense of humor. He, Gloria, our cook (who spoke and understood zero English), and I all got along famously in the universal language of hand gestures, physical humor, and making fun of Uka.
* * * * * PART III * * * * *
Our ger camp was right next to the second tallest waterfall in Mongolia. The waterfall was created by an earthquake that split the earth 70 years ago and forced the river to fall into the new crevice in the ground. We could hike down the ravine to the little pool that the waterfall fell into and Erdenhu would always go down to fish and once we went down to keep him company. Uka and our horseman brought out a rubber inflatable raft and decided to paddle to the backside of the waterfall. This incited a whole slew of eager Mongolian tourists to take the liberty to put on the nomad family’s extra life jackets and demand to be taken in the raft to touch the waterfall. And so they paddled boat load after boat load of screaming tourists through the waterfall. It looked interesting but I was too cold and too clothed that day to try it. And so I waited until the next morning. The water came down icy and sharp and knocked the wind out of my as we passed along the cliff on the backside of the waterfall. I felt like I was holding my breath until we came out the other side. When Uka said he wanted to go through again, I politely declined and decided to jump in the water for a swim instead which equally winded me and made my skin sting with iciness. I think sometimes I do these things just so I can say that I’ve done them, not caring of the pain that is involved. In any case, I have now seen the backside of a real waterfall.
We said goodbye to our ger camp on the 9th day and headed for a little hot spa tourist camp nestled at the foot of the mountain. That ger was the most uncomfortable we slpet in the whole time with lumpy beds and I hole in the roof which made us freeze at night. But at least we got to have a refreshing bath in the healing waters of the hot spa and have a real shower for the first time in 5 days.
The Little Gobi
Our last stop before getting back to the city was at a tourist ger camp next to the “little Gobi” –a stretch of sand dunes that is farther north than the main Gobi desert. This was by far the nicest and most comfortable ger camp we stayed in and we enjoyed our cozy little ger with the colorfully painted traditional furniture. That evening Glo and I went for a sunset camel ride—one that we had been anticipating since the beginning of our excursion. Gloria had kept saying “I wonder if I will fit between the humps?” Our camels finally arrived and we estimated that she would in fact fit between the humps. Our camels knelt in front of us and I got on first. Once I was between the humps, my camel lurched forward to rise from its knees and let out a loud, startling bellow and the same time. Gloria is convinced that he also turned his head back to bit me though I am convinced that he did no such thing. In any case, Gloria was freaked out and now refused to get on her camel. We coaxed and pleaded with her to get on but to no avail. She said she was scared and didn’t know why the camel had made that sound and now would not get on. I said: Gloria it wasn’t even your camel that did it. Yours is just laying there patiently for you to get on. And she would kind of pet its hump and say ok and move forward to get on and then decide against it. After about 10 minutes of this, my patience had run out. We had both been so excited about our camel ride and now the sun was setting and our camels were waiting and the camel boy was confused and really just wanted to ride my camel. In frustration I told Gloria that I wanted to sock her in the face if she didn’t get on her camel. Not a proud moment. But she got on. And we had a nice ride to the sand dunes. Camels are such funny creatures. Their heads and eyes are huge. Their humps wobble like jello that has been turned out of a mold. They have these big thighs and knobby knees and then the littlest chicken leg calves. Their feet look like huge paddles that expand when it touches the ground. And I must say, camels are ten times more comfortable to ride than a horse.
When we got back to the city, we had a free day to ourselves that we used to shop for souvenirs at a leisurely pace. The last thing on our itinerary was to have a farewell dinner at a restaurant with our cook, Erdenhu, and Uka. We thought it was a little funny when they showed up at our hotel that they didn’t know where we were going to dinner. We expected that they would have been instructed by the company to take us to a certain place and we would have set meal options since the dinner was to be covered by the company. But we decided on the BBQ chicken place at the corner of the block (which Glo and I had already eaten at 3 times). We ordered our food, ate, tried to have a bilingual conversation about sports and Uka’s computer addiction, and at the end, Uka called for the bill and handed it to GLo and I. We both looked at each other in confusion and asked, “wasn’t this meal supposed to be included in our trip?” (I mean really, did they think that we had just treated them to a $50 meal). Uka said he had to call his manager to verify. She told him that the company was supposed to pay for it but the problem was that Uka had no money. Neither did the cook. And neither did we. So Uka let us go home and left the cook as hostage at the restaurant while he ran back to the office to get money to pay for dinner. What a disaster. One final note: At dinner, Uka decided to present us with some parting gifts. During the trip, Uka spoke a lot about his spiritual beliefs and we spoke a little about the fact that we were both Christian. So Uka decided that a nice parting gift for us would be a holographic picture of a very strange looking Jesus and Virgin Mary surrounded by angels and clouds, one for each of us. We weren't sure how this was supposed to commemorate our time in Mongolia, but then again, it did come from good ol’ Uka.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in magical Mongolia. I had great company in Gloria, to whom I am eternally grateful not only for helping me realize a whimsical childhood dream by coming with me, but adding so many laughs and good memories along the whole way.