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20060729 – On To Mongolia


On to the train for Mongolia, which was jammed packed coming from Moscow with many folks – Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Australians, and a couple of Americans.  It seems Ulaan Ude is a popular destination.. 

Well, I said good bye to my lovely Ulaan Ude tour guide and the conductor took my WHOLE ticket – now what do I do without a receipt; I guess I will find out. It is interesting to note that the train cars are numbered from the rear of the train forward towards the engine – they did this in Japan too.


We traveled along a river valley filled with houses and derelict factories along the railway left from the 1990’s when Perestroika took place; I guess the Russian government just pulled out the money for these places and the people had to just walk away.  Many of the homes were under construction and looked quite nice though the streets were dirt, which I suspect makes a real mess in the winter.


Experience: Crossing the Russian – Mongolia boarder was interesting. First the Russian officials came through and picked up our passports (now I have no proof of a train ticket or proof of “me” … just faith that their “system” works for the several hundred folks on the train. Next someone came through with a Customs form – interestingly enough this is the first EXIT customs form I have come across, but, of course the form needed out Passport number – fortunately I carry a photocopy with me since “they” had my real passport. Well the powers that be processed our passports for the next 5 hours and finally we got our passports returned to us and off we went for about 10 minute then stopped again for several hours while Mongolia processed our immigration. The delay apparently can be from 6 to 12 hours of waiting. Fortunately, it was evening and the night air was cool so I just went to bed to be woken up periodically as an official came through.  One bit of excitement was the woman and her family in the compartment – apparently she is Russian going to work in Ulaan Baatar and seemed to have a visa but somehow her papers were not in order and after about two hours she and her family left the train.  Maybe Russia and Mongolia are still in a cold war.


20060730 – In Mongolia


We were a little late but arrived in the morning sunshine. Wow, the platform was busy with travelers, tour directors looking for their tour people, and vendors hawking hotels/hostels to stay at.  The MIR tour guide found me and off we went to a first class hotel.  I must say that I am impressed with the Ulaan Baatar train station and the city in general with its wide streets below the soft blue sky and with a cool breeze.


Since I did not get a whole lot of sleep on the train I crashed for a couple of hours before I revived myself with a good shower and brisk walk around the city.  There seems to be a lot of building going on and on 2-3 August they are holding a world Mongolian Conference here.  It might be interesting but too many people for me and I am glad we are headed out into the Gobi on the first of August.












20060731 – Around Town & Tour Dinner in Ulaan Baatar

I met one member of our tour group, John Bradley– a retired judge from NY City – He and I went for a walk and had lunch at a small Japanese restaurant; I had noodles and meat and he had meat with rice.  The diet in this end of the world seems to have large amounts of beet in it, what a change from Japan.  In the afternoon we met up with our guide Gaundy and the couple from Shreveport, Louisiana – Harriet and Al Evans.  Ulaan Baatar, UB as it is knows locally, is a good sized city and contains over 50% of the Mongolian population of about 2.5 million.  Now our group is complete and we set off across the main square to the Cultural Museum. This is a very find museum about the Mongolian people. Then off for our first dinner of a good salad plus meat and potatoes. This evening was special for there was a large rock concert in the main square with loud music and fireworks at midnight.  This might not have been half bad but we were to be up by 4 AM to get our of the hotel and make our 6 AM flight.   I am sure glad I came in an extra day and had time to rearrange my pack for the 6 day journey into the Gobi.


20060801 – In the Gobi


Well, we all made it to the plane for the short hour flight to Dalandzadgad in southern Mongolia. The plane was full since it is the only flight of the day to that location.  We even had one of the Mongolia members of Parliament on board.  Now it was only about a 2 hour drive to the Three Camel Lodge. This place certainly had Gers for us to stay in but it is nothing less than a four star class resort with most the amenities.  The only item not in line was the fact that the toilets were located in the main lodge. The Ger (same as the Russian Yurt) where I am staying is a standard round structure of sticks covered with felt and appointed inside very nicely with table, two beds, and even hot water for tea. It was cool but not cold so we did not need the stove.  The guide said that this year was cooler and has more rain than in the past.


After breakfast, a rest, and lunch we were off to see a bit of the local Gurvansaikhan  National Park. Well, after about an hour’s ride across the plain, and what a plain it is, then up into the hills to the Park.  We were told it is about 3,000 meters in altitude. At the end of the road was a flock of tourist vans. We were off now on  a little 2 KM hike down this canyon.  Well, it became narrower and deeper when all of a sudden we came across left over winter ice. Now this is interesting and unexpected.  Back at Park HQ we went through a small but good natural history museum.


Now it was back in the van and back on the dirt roads with all the ruts and bumps. I must have been tired for I almost went to sleep. After another great dinner finished off with strawberry mousse, we listened to a performance of Mongolian music and singers. Now it is to bed for we have an early morning and a 5 hour ride to our next destination of sand dunes and a camel ride.


Note – Gobi Experience:  As we flew in we could see the “highways” below –many two rut dirt tracks.  For the next number of days we were to come to know these tracks quite well, with feeling.  From the airport and the following days we sped across the plain on (or in) these dirt tracks. At times there were 3,4, and 5 parallel tracks that looked like a plowed field where vehicles each took a different way depending on the “mud” conditions and mood of the driver.  We could see some very deep ruts where during the rainy season vehicles plowed through.  As we sped along orthogonal to the desert stream beds we needed to slow down to a crawl to take the ups and downs.  Needless to say, sitting in the back seat right over the wheels, there were several times when my vertebrae took the brunt of the wheel finding a large bump at about 50 mph- ugh.  Clearly, one’s kidneys must be strong. On the other hand, since some of our trip took several hours I just let the wind blow in my face, put my head to the head rest, and was actually able to relax and almost fall asleep.  Now, one important thing to consider is passing an oncoming vehicle. But, of course, we could see the oncoming vehicle well in advance. When taking into consideration that most of the roads are ONE lane it always caused me wonder as to how they would pass.  Well, as both vehicles approached each other at 100 mph (50 mph each) we had confidence in the drivers – sure enough at the last moment each vehicle seemed to pull to the side just enough to pass.   Then there was the time when we saw three vehicles at once and an “intersection” at the bottom of a riverbed – well we passed one and the other shot in front down another track just soon enough for us to keep going without changing our speed.  So much for vehicle traffic in the Gobi.


The vastness of the Gobi plain is mesmerizing, just about like crossing Kansas. There seem to be a row of mountains in almost every direction, but far off.  We often see sheep and goats grazing and when we approach they scatter making every attempt to stay as a group – hence, some of them on one side run like the heck to make it in front of our vehicle, which does not even slow down, just in time. I wonder how many times there is fresh meat on the track?


20070802 – Gobi


I had to get up to use the toilet very early in the morning and walked to the men’s head under a most beautiful sky full of stars clear as could be. There was no moon so I could see many constellations. There was a nice breeze making the jaunt pleasant.  


The Lodge where we are staying is first class and seems out of character as to how the Mongolian nomads really live. The lodge uses wind power to generate electricity – quite modern.  I was hoping this tour, as advertised, put is in or near real families but maybe that is yet to come.  Sometimes the young guides get anxious about moving their tourist group from here to there and back again. I am learning that foreign “tours” and not usually what they pretend to be but I have heard of some good ones. The tour agent for this one has a great deal of experience, connections, and knowledge about Russia and Mongolia and is able to arrange for travel tickets and lodging very effectively, but the company does tend to focus on the TOURIST travel leading each step my the hand and without much real in-depth  information given about the culture, nature, and geology of the area as well as photo opportunities, but the guides are relatively fluent in English.  As a scientist I do wonder about some of the geology of Mongolia and it must have a very rich history as I have been reading in the book Genghis Kahn (recommended) given to be my Carolyn D.  I think giving tours is tough and wonder how American tours for our visitors are viewed. Since I am an intelligent TRAVELER and not a tourist, my view of visiting another country is quite different from many.  Ah, well, truly, I am seeing the Gobi Desert as real as it can be.  We stopped along the roadside in one place today and I saw first hand where the water comes from – the well was only about 15 feet deep and you could dip the leather bucked attached to the end of a pole down and get the water you wish. However, I only washed with it not feeling it was really drinkable. We carry plenty of bottled water with us at all times.


Our first stop, after about 3.5 hours of driving across the plain and through a small range of mountains is another “lodge” within sight of the longest sand dunes in Khongoryn Els in southern Mongolia. I am sure Genghis Kahn went this way about 600 years ago and I doubt if much has really changed. It is strange to see a Ger with a satellite dish, however. We had lunch and a rest then we will go down to the dunes and climb them as well as ride a camel – clearly, mandatory when in the Gobi.


This was a real first for me, to ride a camel, these had two humps so it was easy to get on board and sit (don’t know how one would negotiate one hump). It seem a great deal like a big horse but with only one rain  for control and I am used to two. Well, the rope goes to a peg in their nose and one only needs to pull in the direction you wish to travel or pull back to stop. I didn’t learn what reverse was or how to get the camel to get up from his kneeling position or back down. I can tell you that as the camel walks along it is does so gently so you just rock back an forth.


Just prior to camel ride the camel “master” invited us in to his Ger for some mare’s milk with goat cheese and bread – not bad, but … 


Now we were on our way via camel to the large dunes in the twilight which made it nice and cool. Upon reaching the dunes we dismounted and climbed half way up – a great experience. Naturally, with the guide yelling at me to “don’t do that” I had a great time coming down the steep face of the dune. Of course, she was worried about me walking the trail the other day too as if I had never done any climbing before; well, I guess I am getting older and should be more careful.  We returned to the camels and road back to the camel Ger camp and were driven back to our lodging. That evening was just great with a nice desert breeze so we just sat outside and sipped a drink, mine was tonic water.  My day time is sort of messed up since the sun comes up early, about 5 AM and it is light until after 10 PM.  We tend to eat lunch at 13:00 and dinner at 19:00.


20070803 – Gobi


Driving back to the Three Camels Lodge we spotted some Gazelles and turned off the road and the chase was on. Well, we almost caught up with them before they scattered.  This was easy because the plain out here is big and flat, but it did occur to me that there just might be a rut along the way.  We could see many shallow stream beds where water does come down in torrents when it does rain. – typical desert.


After lunch we set out to visit the Flaming Cliffs where the first dinosaur eggs were found in 1922. We viewed a movie just before we left about the 1920’s expedition which was fascinating. There have been many paleontological finds here. I wondered just how many other bones were probably still buried here. Apparently, the dinosaur was caught in quick sand and drowned. We saw some bones in the little local museum.


We returned to our Ger camp for dinner of the toughest meat I have ever not eaten. I guess the locals like their meat tough. For lunch we had mutton that was also not the easiest – now I know why we eat lamb.  On the return trip we stopped and saw a rear vegetable garden; there seem very few out here. The growing season is May to October and it is not easy to get water so I can understand.


20070804 – Moving north in the Gobi


From the Three Camels Lodge we headed north across the Gobi plain.The wether is treating us nice with a coolness of a little more than 20 C.  I am really getting used to bumping along the dirt road now. As we went north we began to come into some hill country which since there has been rain is now quite green passing over the Togrogiin Shiree plateau. As we go about every 5 miles is a sheep – goat herder’s Ger, often in groups of three to accommodate the whole family.  These families move in the winter to more sheltered quarters in the mountain foothills. There are, however, some rock or wooden more permanent structures that are used during the winter. I imagine that the winters here are much like the US great plains, cold, windy, and with snow.  We finaly arrive at the Ongiin River Ger Camp where we are to stay for the night. This camp seems quite full including about 30 Dutch campers at the river’s edge.  After lunch I went for a walk with my roommate John and I scrambled to the top of the nearest hill. From here I could see the Ongiin River curving down the valley. Upon return and getting a cool drink we watched while a hapless soul was trying to get his van out of the mud after trying to cross the shallow river. They must have worked for 3 hours before our driver pulled our four wheel van over and pulled him out.


We took a short jaunt a local monastery that had been destroyed some 80 years ago by the Russian Communists during the religious purge. Hence, the 1,000 monks there scattered or were killed.  What we found were only a few standing walls of adobe, but since Buddhism is not allowed to be practiced there are a few monks there restoring the monastery.  The spot is beautiful just above the river on the edge of a hill. We were shown around by a docent whose monastic story was translated by our guide; there was a small museum of found relics.


Now back to the Ger Camp relaxed and had dinner – I finally realize where we had been staying these nights, contrary to the tour flyer that led us to believe we were staying with native nomads, we were really staying in one of many Ger Camps that consist of Gears (sleeping huts) and central dining and toilet/shower facilities that have been set up all over Mongolia for travelers … i.e. the Mongolia “motel”. – The food is ok and the meat this time was not too tough.  Of course, in a place like this one cannot expect to always have hot water so a cold shower had to do but it was not bad since the sun had warmed things up.  One has to be careful what you lean on too – I leaned on a basin that really was not attached to anything and it just rocked on it’s pedestal, ah, well – at least, I had a shower.


We could see the north an approaching thunder storm and sure enough came the winds then the rain with great claps of thunder – exciting. Hence, we just turned in and slept thorough it. By the next morning all was clear and no signs of much water coming down.


20060805 – Moving north from the Gobi to the next Steppe


Today turned out to be a special day. After a few hours of driving we passed through a regional community where we toured a small medical facility and grammar school. Of course the medical facility had a line of patients to see a doctor for mainly diagnostic purposes. We were told that this facility could treat first aid issues plus maybe a minor operation, if there were a doctor around. Who really knows what would happened if something serious happened; I was told that medical planes could come in for evacuation.  On the other hand, the herders live quite in isolation with only a few who have CB radios or cell phones. The school was neat and clean  and we could see some of the preparations for lessons on the classroom walls, like how to use the English verb ‘to be’.  There seems to be a gasoline “station” at these places too. Watching them take the gas pump cover off to hand crank the gasoline was interesting, but the job was done.


As we drove on the plain had turned into rolling hills and because of the water the hills were covered with a large carpet of little white flowers among the green grasses. Arriving at the top of one little hill we could look down on a most beautiful scene with the dirt road winding through this meadow. We stopped several times. During one of those stops a local herder who had seen us came over an invited us to visit his home.


Naturally, the first item of business was to pass the bowl of fermented mares milk around with a chunk of goat-sheep cheese, followed by the vodka. I showed the family of several adults and a bunch of kids my family photos and an Oregon tourist booklet that I gave to them. Then it was outside we went for photos. One of my traveling colleagues had a Polo rid camera that was a big hit since we could take the photo and give them the result ( I strongly recommend taking such a camera on travels to provide instant feedback to the family) Everybody wanted their photo taken. As this was being done I doubled taking as many digital photos as I could. We then went over to the horses where I captured a shot of the wife milking a horse for the mares milk drink – she first got things started by getting a young horse to initiate the milk flow and she then took over.  The family seemed quite content and happy, especially with their solar driven TV and stereo.. The man of the ger was dressed in Mongolian dress which is quite stunning with his tall black boots.  We bit them farewell and were on our way once again.


Now that we had left the Gobi Desert we entered the mountains of green valleys and low mountains. Again, a storm moved in and we had a bit of wind and some large rain drops.  We finally arrived at our destination of KaraKorum, the 14th century Mongol Capitol city founded by Chinggis Kahn, but moved 40 years later to Beijing where the Mogols built the first “forbidden city”.. Now settled in a new get camp we took a real hot shower then had dinner. Once again we had vegetarian dinner since the meat was so tough that few could eat it – I wonder how they are able to do this on a regular basis – ah, well.


Tomorrow we look around the city, a real one – not just a village – and they even have a paved road.


20070806 –KaraKorum


Alas, the 16th century capitol of the Mongolian Empire.  However, all that is left is a stone tortoise.  There is a nice river that flows by our Ger Camp and this evening we had a good wind and thunder storm.  We had quite a drive north through very interesting countryside – big and expansive but now with hills.  We wound our way up the wonderful green valley with a meandering stream at the bottom. Dotted along the valley are white Gers with cattle, sheep, and goats in the pastures. This is a real scene.  We ate still bumping along dirt roads that seem to go in every direction and it is a wonder our driver knows which one to take, no GPS either.


Our dinner was lamb/mutton and it was served on the bone – how to attack a foot long leg bone gracefully.  The food is really quite good and their salad appetizer was sliced apples in mayonnaise.  This camp seemed to be full of tourists – one Japanese Ger near by seemed to party until after midnight then the Ger Camp staff were up at 5AM talking and doing their thing so I did not get much sleep – ah, well.


Up and going with bread, jam, eggs, and coffee. Our first stop was at the top of a local hill where there was a large monument to the Mongolian Empire – they really liked this guy, Chinggis Kahn. Of course, there were tourist vendors lined up and where I made on purchase of a neat silver bracelet with turquoise stones in it ($5 US) and traded a US gold dollar coin for what appeared to be a genuine US silver dollar with the date of 1872 – we shall see.


This morning we visit a large monastery that has 108 Stupas  around the edge and which was spared, for the most part, the Communist religious purge of the 20th century. This a large compound with a number of different temples used for prayer and focused on one or more aspects of Buddhism.  The color of all the works is astounding and complicated.   We were able to see and hear some monks chanting their prayers in Tibetan language, page by page. The core Buddhist prayers are carefully bound and stored in a cabinet near by.  Out the back gate we walked a little ways to see the tortoise stone statue left from the 16th century.


Now we were on our way and even on a paved road this time. Mind you, the width of the road is not all the wide but trucks of wood, wool, and everything else imaginable pass by. Of course, if a vehicle brakes down they just stop right there I in the middle of the road for repairs.


We stopped at an interesting hidden small Buddhist temple hidden in the large boulder hills that had been recently reconstructed following the demise of the ancient adobe temple.  Now we headed to out Ger Camp for the night. I took a walk before dinner up the slope just behind the Camp where the breeze was just right and I could see the large expanse of valleys and hills for many kilometers.


20070807 –To UB


UB is how the locals refer to UlaanBaatar.  Well, it finally happened and on a paved road too.  We had a flat tire. It is a wonder we have not had more of them. Our driver quickly changed the tire and we were on our way once again.


En route, we stopped at the Tkhi Hores Preserve and National Park. This where the Dutch gave back some of these special horses to Mongolia since this Mongolian species originate but had died out.  We drove into the park and tried to spot some of the horses up on a hillside but my eyes are just not what they used to be. Apparently people from all over the world come here to study these horses. The headquarters has a nice small museum and a short film about the horses which was enlightening.


Now we are on our way, finally, to UB. Of course, we had to arrive at rush hour and drive all across town to our hotel.  The traffic and surroundings remind me of Mexico, yes, just like Mexico with busses, trucks, and cars all trying to get down the road. The van-taxis liked up at the pick up stops along the way. IN the background you can see a Russian factory which now is but a shell.


We made it to the hotel and sure glad to stop bounding up and down on the roads. Our next leg will be a flight to a Mongolian lake. But for the moment I we get a couple of days in one place. I took the night off to nurse a case of stomach wog – well it happens.


20070808 –UlaanBaatar


I just took it easy this morning and rest up from my wog. After all I have been traveling for over a month now and a break is needed.  We will go to see an art museum this afternoon and tomorrow we get some more time off until our evening light.








20070809 –Tour UB then Fly to Muron


We pack up then set off to see the Bogd Khan Museum, the personal temple of the last religious and political leader, at the turn of the 19th century. I often wonder where the resources came from to build such edifices but I guess taxes and donations kept these projects afloat.  Then it was off to a summer palace and thte Choijin Lama Museum of Religion complete with a leopard skin Ger.  Of course the focus of all the temples is Buddhism, red or yellow hat sects. There are so many deities, llamas, Buddhas, stupas (shrines to the departed), and the like. Each image - be it a sculpture, bronze, or printing – has embedded in it a great many items each with a special meaning and relationship to the whole image.  There are some commonalities but each artist expresses something different. I am sure to understand all of these would take a lifetime. However, the basic spiritual theme does come through. It seems there are palaces, temples, shrines, stupas, etc. each build by some one or group. Of course, when  the Russian Communists came into Mongolia and China into Tibet they each destroyed so much of the spiritual aspects for fear of the power of Buddha hold on the people. If fact, I do not get the idea that Buddhism has or had the same hold or control over the people that the Pope and Roman Catholicism (or Islam or Judaism or …) holds over its followers.


After an afternoon break we headed for the airport and an 20:35 flight to Muron. Since we were landing so late and still had a 5 hour drive to the lake we stayed in Muron at a Ger Camp – yet, no hot water – not that they could not produce it but it was just not there.  One had to watch the toilets since “someone” did not fasten them to the floor and you had to bring your own toilet paper. Well, generally, toilet paper was available, but hot water is not.  Since we were in the north west of Mongolia into the mountains it was a bit cooler, like in high 40’s F.  The bests in this Ger were wood with a very thin mattress but there was and extra bed so I doubled up the mattresses for more comfort.


20070810 –Up To Lake Hovsgol


We left in the morning to the lake on an “interesting” road, if you could call it one. The first hour was good and after we passed the National Park gate we ended up crossing and driving up wide rocky river beds where there were barely two wheel tracks. Apparently, two weeks ago there was a flash flood and many of the little bridges were out so we just drove down into each ravine and around the issue. There were some interesting dips of 45 degree slopes down and up but our trusty Russian van in low four wheel drive pushed on. We only had to stop once to let the engine cool off. We were in pine tree country and mountains – just beautiful.  Looking up the valleys it seemed that they were very old glacially formed ones that were now well worn down. On we went – it was like riding a horse with all you muscles tight most of the time and your innards bounced around as to be totally jumbled; is this intestinal fortitude?


At last, after 5 hours of this kind of ride, on almost cushioned seats, we topped a ridge to see a most magnificent and very large lake. It reminds me of Lake Tahoe but without the people.  There are, however, a number of Ger Camps around the lake.  This seems like a real world gem and I wish I had a sailboat here. At least the Mongolians are being very careful with this lake realizing the potential environmental impact of people. On the other hand, the challenge is to allow people of the world to take advantage of this beautiful resource, with wonderful mountains around it, and not destroy it. The water is blue with white puffy clouds above – what a scene. At the moment only the hardy folks make it up here, but sure enough there are Japanese tourists by the group here.


We drove down the lake to visit the reindeer people who travel with their reindeer herds about 250 KM very few months in the Mongolian and Russian region, not really identifying with either.  We were invited in to the traditional home that is identical to the American tepee and offered reindeer milk with tea (not bad) then reindeer cheese (very flavorful) and bits of bread. You should have seen the stove top pan of bread baking and when it came out it was a beautiful golden brown. There were, since this is a “tourist” area, vendors selling all kinds of art items – I purchased a couple of small items and a pair of hand woven wool sox. One of the vendors was a young gal going to university and studying English.  We were told by our guide that the girls were often sent to the university while the boys were not thus creating a social problem, but more boys were going on the university now.  I gave this young woman my card and she said she would email me (I have done this with several people along the way) so we shall see if they do.


Back at the Ger Camp we had a good dinner then a good sleep in the cool evening.


20070811 –Morning Rest before Return to UB


Up this morning and just gazing at the wonderful water scene. After a short walk along the lake I sit here in the dining area looking out onto the lake; there is a cool breeze so it is nice to be inside at the moment.  As I typed a young boy came over to watch me so I showed him some photos of my trip so far; it did not take long and there were several looking over my shoulder.  Next time I will have to put together a complete show of Oregon, California, my home, my city, and America photos to show – these folks hunger of views of other places in the world.


Now for the road that is not a road. his afternoon we head back to UB where I will take some time tomorrow and load some photos to go with this material. 


Most certainly, this is the longest and roughest road I have ever taken – all muscles are tense and my insides jumbled beyond repair.  However, bouncing over the riverbed rocks, slowly, and around washed out bridges, was interesting and the scenery beautiful as we left the mountains. Along the way we came across herds of Yaks and an old man leading a Yak pulling a wooden cart – very picturesque, he dressed in the native deel with orange cumber bun.


20070812 – Ulaan Baatar


I said farewell to John who flew off this morning for New York and had breakfast with the Al and Harriet who will leave this afternoon. Alas, I have scheduled one more night here in UB to gather my wits and repack before I head back to Russia on my next leg of my journey.  It is nice just to relax and come down from all the bumpy kilometers we have been taking and some time to catch up on my log and WEB update.