We came south down out of the mountains and into a small soum center, stopping at a petrol station. There was a truckload of horses parked near us and Khatnaa spent some time chatting with the men while I snuck a few photos from inside the car.
Our next stop was in front of a fenced compound, which turned out to be the home of Khatnaa’s cousin and his family. We spent a few hours visiting them, being fed a feast of airag, buuz and other goodies. Since this was a very special social stop, I left the camera in the car. Not only did it seem inappropriate to even ask to take pictures, but I’ve found that sometimes I simply want to fully be a part of whatever is going on and using a camera creates a barrier that makes me an observer instead.
We finally went on our way, richer by a container of fresh, delicious airag.
It was fairly late in the afternoon by the time we left, going north back into the mountains. We crossed over a pass and on through a valley, finally stopping for the night on an open slope. The next morning we were visited by a young local herder, who was obviously nervous, but unwilling to pass up a chance to meet us. He did seem to have a quiet, confident way about him and I asked Khatnaa to ask him if he had been a jockey in naadam races. And the answer, as I expected, was “yes”.
There were small groups of horses and yaks around, so I got some good photos just sitting in our camp. Then a well-dressed older gentleman rode over to us and stopped for a chat. He really was the quintessential Mongol herder.
We finally got all packed up and on the road, crossing a river as we drove up a beautiful green valley. But suddenly, the green turned white. Khatnaa stopped the car immediately and I saw that the ground on either side of the car was carpeted with tiny white flowers. We got out and took in the beauty of the scene. Khatnaa spoke with Soyoloo and then said to me in English that it looked like the very first light snow in October and one didn’t see this large an area of the flowers very often. Even though it was cloudy, the fields had an airy, delicate quality which was quite magical.
Our next stop was at a small temple which stood on the outskirts of a soum center. The statue and offerings on the inside were quite extraordinary, at least to me.
Driving on, we were soon going up in elevation again, stopping for lunch at a turnout in the road that, at first, looked good simply for its lovely view. But once out of the car and walking around, I found that we were in the middle of an alpine rock garden, filled with delicate flowers, like yellow poppies, which were delightful miniatures of the kind one finds in western gardens.
Coming back down into a valley filled with gers and livestock, we passed the remains of one of the illegal “ninja gold mines” that are disfiguring the Hangai Mountains. These mines have also affected the run-off which fills lakes like Orog Nuur, causing them to be dry now, more often than not. Very sad in a country that has traditionally had such a strong land ethic. But understandable when there are not enough jobs and people have families to support.
As we continued on, we saw two young men on horses riding in our direction. We stopped and Khatnaa got out to chat with them while I took photos from the car (do you see a pattern here? :0) . I don’t know where they were going, but they were all dressed up and looking good.
We continued on into the valley and a huge freestanding rock came into view.
Driving up to it, I could see that it was festooned with khadak, the ceremonial blue scarves. We stopped for a short time, walking around it.
As it turned out, just past this local sacred landmark was what I will always think of as the “Valley of the Yaks” and which I think is one of the most beautiful places I saw on my trip.