Tales From the Field: In Which We Ford a Flooded Gobi River (July, 2010)

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Breakfast, with cashmere goats. Great way to start the day!

In a country where 100km is a good day’s travel on the earth roads that serve most of it, we had just learned from locals at Baruunbayan-Ulaan, a soum center where we had stopped to get petrol, that the heavy log and plank bridge we heading for in order to cross the Taatsyn Gol had been destroyed, a casualty of five days of rain in the Hangai Mountains followed by serious flooding downstream in the Gobi, where I was on a two-week camping trip in July of 2010, traveling in a Land Cruiser with Khatnaa, my driver/guide and Soyoloo, our cook. The closest intact bridge would require almost a two day detour north and then back south, which didn’t appeal to any of us. What to do.
Khatnaa decided that we would drive on west to the river and see what the situation was. Also at the petrol station were two very full Mitsubishi Delicata van’s worth of Mongol men and their families. A little later a third one showed up.

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Heading south-east into the Gobi. I love this

In one day that had incident enough to two, here’s my journal entry from July 15, which gives a certain immediacy to what followed (photos after the journal entry):
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur (Orog Lake) as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsyn Gol (Taatsyn River) to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and we all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.

We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.

We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”

Here’s a selection of the photos that I took…

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Mongols from the vans looking for a place to cross a channel of the flooded Taatsyn Gol (river)
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Khatnaa walking out to see if he could find a crossing place as described in the journal entry
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After Khatnaa came back from not finding a way across, he drove up to the top of a bank overlooking the river valley where we had a picnic lunch and watched what was going on down below
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We drove back down and passed these two local herders who were riding over to check out what was happening
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You can see them in the distance on the left. Of course, they just rode across, no problem. Which was pretty funny, actually. It was that kind of day
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Would-be miners getting advice from the herders. All this taking place under a spectacular summer sky and crystalline light
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We were waiting at our car and suddenly one of the vans started across. I took this photo just as it started to stall out. The guys behind it immediately rushed up to give it a push and out it came on  the other side
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Then it was our turn. I took this shot at mid-stream. The water was up past the bumper
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Then the second van crossed with us looking back the way we’d just come
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Meanwhile, the herders enjoyed a little unexpected afternoon entertainment…
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The third van crossing without incident but some pretty good splashes
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All vehicles safely across the guys took a few minutes to goof around in the water.
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Then they headed back to their vans to continue their journey
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We followed behind and came upon one momentarily stuck in sand on the slope up out of the river valley. We smiled and waved as we went by since we still had a fair distance to go to our next destination, Orog Nuur (lake)
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And not too long after….camels!

In Mongolia, when traveling in the countryside, even when it seems bad it can be very good. And something cool, interesting or out and out wonderful happens every day.

Tales From The Field: “Crashing” A Naadam In 2010

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I sat in the car and took photos through the windshield

I was coming to the end of my first tent camping trip in Mongolia in July of 2010. We had traveled south to a remote Gobi lake, Orog Nuur…myself, my driver/guide and a cook… and back north into the Hangai Mountains to see a variety of sights, including two mineral spring resorts, a Buddhist retreat established by Zanabazar, Mongolia’s finest sculptor, popular Orkhon Falls and the much visited site of the imperial Mongol capital Harkhorin which is adjacent to the famous monastery, Erdene Zuu, partly constructed of stones from the ruined capital which was sacked my the Ming army after they ended the Yuan Dynasty of Khublai Khan and chased the Mongols back to their homeland.

Our route now took us north, down out of the Khangai Mountains, where, for the last night out, we were going to pitch our tents at Ongii Nuur, a lake known for its birds. It was a gloomy, cloudy day. As we were driving along, I noticed a large ger encampment down and off to the left. I almost said something to to my Mongol driver/guide Khatnaa, but let it go. Then he had to slow down because a bunch of men and boys on horses were crossing the road. I told him about the gers. He made a right turn and followed the horsemen up the slope. And at the top found ourselves in the midst of over a hundred Mongols, many dressed to kill in fancy brocade del, sashes and boots.

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Last instructions, I assume, before the riders and horses go out to the starting p0int

Just about the only thing that I had hoped to encounter on the trip (my fifth to the Land of Blue Skies), but had not, was a local naadam, the festival that always has a variety of traditional competitions and activities, including the Three Manly Sports of horse racing, wrestling and archery (I had gotten to attend my first local naadam at Baga Gazriin Chuluu in 2009 and was instantly hooked). Now it appeared that we had finally stumbled onto one on the last afternoon of the last day of the trip.

We pulled up in an area on the hill where a lot of cars and trucks were parked. There were horses all over the place. Khatnaa got out, spoke with someone and came back with the news that the event was a family reunion. Stay or go? We’d inadvertently crashed a private party. I told Khatnaa that it was up to him to do what he thought best. He thought for a moment while I held my breath and then pulled into the middle of a long line of cars, where we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Over the next two to three hours I sat in the big silver Land Cruiser and took around five hundred photos of whatever crossed my field of vision. Our arrival had coincided with the run-up to the horse race and we had gotten there just in time to watch all the preparations for it.

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I wasn’t sure what to watch for, but then saw the characteristic cloud of dust with a chase car in front and the riders and other cars behind

It seemed like over half the men and boys were on horseback, warming up the racehorses, chatting and just riding around the area the same way the rest of us would walk. The trainers stood out with their fancy del, sashes, hats and boots, along with their sweat scrapers tucked in to the back of their sashes. Older men sat on the ground exchanging snuff bottles in the traditional greeting. Kids were happily running and riding all over the place. Everyone was clearly having a great time, as was I getting to watch it all.

Our “cover” was blown when a young couple on a motorbike drove up and offered us fresh, hot khuushuur (fried mutton turnovers). No way we were going to pass on those. I stayed in the car until the first horses were approaching the finish line and then got out and joined the happy crowd.

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I never found out for sure, but it looked like it was a tie for first place. What counts is to be in the first five to cross the finish line

Afterwards, shortly before we left, I was photographing a lovely black race horse who was being scraped down, as the sweat from the winning horses is thought to be very lucky and auspicious. A woman came up to me, took my arm, led me over to the horse and made a gesture for me to lay my palm on the sweat, which suddenly turned me from spectator to participant. It was a very kind and thoughtful thing for her to do since I was very obviously not a member of this very big family. I was never so glad that I knew how to say “thank you” in Mongolian.

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The black horse. This was a race for two-year olds so the horses haven’t reached their full size yet.

I Have Five Entries In The “We Said Go Travel” Travel Writing Contest!

 

Time to milk the camels.
Time to milk the camels.

I’m not a “writer” but I do write, mostly on this blog. I ran across a travel writing contest sponsored by the We Said Go Travel site and decided to re-write five of my posts from my two-week camping trip in Mongolia in July 2010 and see what happens.

Everything that fits the theme, “Inspiration: A Place That You Love” and is written in grammatically correct, decent English is being posted on the website. There will be judging for cash prizes, though, by Richard Bangs, who they describe as “the father of modern adventure travel, so I might even win a few bucks.

Three of the five stories have been posted. The fourth is scheduled for March 12. I’ll update this post as the stories go live.

You can read about the contest here.

You can read my entries at these links. Enjoy!:

http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/camels-and-the-nomadic-dung-fire

http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/an-unexpected-gift

http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/mongolia-the-valley-of-the-yaks

Mongolia Monday: 5 Photos of Favorite Places- Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve

This will be a occasional, on-going series of images of my favorite places in Mongolia. Baga Gazriin Chuluu means “Small Earth/Land Rocks”. There is also an Ikh Gazriin Chuluu (Great Earth Rocks), but I haven’t gotten there yet.

In July of 2009, my driver/guide and I pulled into the ger camp, which is located in the reserve and got settled in. I came out of my ger and was greeted with this amazing light and a woman riding down the valley. I had a feeling I was going to like this place.
It was my good luck to be there on the day of a local mountain blessing ceremony or local naadam. There was a horse race, wrestling, anklebone shooting and lots of people just riding around on their horses.
Seeing argali was my purpose for going there and within a couple of hours the first morning, my driver spotted this group of rams within sight of the car.
The following year, 2010, I got to go back as the first stop on a two-week camping trip. Here's the spot my driver/guide (same one as in 2009) picked.
Driving around, we came upon a short valley which had a number of cinereous vulture nests, including this one with a juvenile who was almost ready to fly. We climbed up on the rocks to get above him and I got some great photos.

There are more photos of Baga Gazriin Chuluu, including the story of my first trip there in 2009 here.

Mongolia Monday- Real Mongolian BBQ (Boodog)

Siberian marmot in Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve, July 2009

Summer is here and I thought I’d present a photo essay on one of the most beloved foods in Mongolia….marmot. Say “tarvaga” to the average Mongolian and watch their eyes light up.

Unfortunately, the native Siberian marmots have gone from occupying the steppes in the millions to Endangered in just ten years, having experienced a 70% population drop.  The major contributor to this decline was a demand for the pelts by….the Chinese.

Hunting is still allowed during August and September, depending on population numbers, according the species listing in the IUCN Red List. Hunting can also be shut down if bubonic plague flairs up. It turns out that marmots in Mongolia are the source vector for the bubonic plague that hit Europe in the 1340s. The Mongols know that if they see a marmot behaving strangely, then it is likely that plague is present.

Marmots in Hustai National Park, May 2005

The cooking traditions surrounding marmot in Mongolia is the stuff of visitor legend. A number of the travel accounts I’ve read have an account of the preparation of marmot, always with a “and you won’t believe this, but….” tone.

I finally had my chance to try it last year. Since this was a personal extension of hospitality to me because they knew I liked Mongol food, I will allow my hosts to remain anonymous.

(Important note: if you are squeamish or think that meat starts out wrapped in cellophane, you may want to stop reading here. This photo essay will show the whole process from beginning to end.)

Any Mongols reading this are invited to add comments, stories, corrections in the comment section. This is accurate to the best of my knowledge, based on what I saw and was told.

Stove heating up rocks and marmot carcass ready to stuff
The meat is stuffed back into the carcass, along with the hot rocks, which will cook the meat from the inside; the cook made sure that the carcass was stuffed with rocks all the way down into the hind legs
Pounding the meat and rocks down into the carcass
Closing the neck opening with wire
Then we all adjourned to this beautful spot by the river for picnic dinner
Now for the famous part: removing the fur with a portable torch
A helper scrapped the singed fur off and also the fat as it came to the surface
The next step was to wipe down the carcass with bunches of grass and then rinse and scrub it with water
The neck wire was removed and the juice poured into a cup, which was then handed to me. I drank it right down and it was quite good
Then the carcass was split open to get at the chunks of meat; I was also given the tongue and it was good, too
Dinner is served
As is traditional, the hot rocks were passed around for health and good luck
We also had cabbage salad, everything washed down with Mongolian vodka. We had been drinking airag, but my guide said that airag and boodog don't mix, so we switched to the vodka. Did I say I was having a great time?
Not much left. I ate my share. Yes, it was good. Really good
Notice the back paw has four toes and the front paw has five; why this is true will be the subject of my next Mongolia Monday post

Mongolia Monday- 2010 Trip Gear Wrap-up And A Few Favorite Images From The Trip

Honored elder at Naadam opening ceremony, Ulaanbaatar

Before I left on my July/August trip to Mongolia, I bought some new stuff and posted about it here and here. It included a new camera pack, jacket, hard drive for image back-up and memory cards. I also bought a couple of pairs of L.L. Bean tropic weight pants.

The KATA digital rucksack was a WIN. My camera equipment was well-protected and easy to access. The straps had a good ergonomic design that made the pack very easy to wear while hiking.

My new REI Windbreak Thermal jacket was also a WIN. It was all I needed for summer travel in Mongolia and it really did stop the wind and resist light rain.

Sunrise, Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve

The Toshiba 500GB hard drive, which I used to back up images that I had downloaded to my MacBook Pro did the job. I liked not having another battery to keep charged, as was true with the Wolverine drive it replaced. Another WIN.

The Sandisk Extreme 8GB cards were indispensible. I was filling one in a little more than a day at times. I’ll keep the 4GB ones for back-up for now, but will probably get two more 8GB cards for the trip to Kenya/India in January. Definite WIN.

Horses near Hustai National Park

The only FAIL were the L.L.Bean “tropic weight” cargo pants. I have no idea what they were thinking when they named these. I wasn’t in the tropics, but the weather was often humid, sometimes VERY humid. The pant fabric didn’t breathe at all. If anything, they acted like a moisture trap when my legs started to sweat. Very uncomfortable. Needless to say, they aren’t going to India with me, but they’re fine for wearing here in Humboldt County.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 11- Mongolian BBQ, Erdene Zuu, A Naadam At Last, And Back To UB

After the dramatic trip down the mountain and then arriving at our campsite just before dark, it was lovely to wake up to sunshine the next morning on a grassy hillside. Even better was the parade of horses and yaks that came right by where I was sitting as I was having morning coffee. Lazy animal watching and reference shooting again.

Our beautiful campsite near Tsenkher Mineral Springs

I found out over breakfast that we were camped near Tsenkher, another mineral spring resort. We drove to one of the ger camps, where the manager treated us to tea and snacks, arranged for us to take showers and for me to do a last small round of laundry.

The hot spring, with ovoo

We then drove north out of the mountains to the large town of Tsetserleg, where we visited a hillside temple in front of which was a very tall, new statue of the Buddha. I had been wanting a new del, so we searched around the container market, but didn’t find one that was what I was looking for. Getting to poke around a town a little was fun, though.

View of Tsetserleg with new Buddha statue

I thought our next stop was the famous monastery of Erdene Zuu, but Soyoloo’s  cell phone rang and, the next thing I knew, we were back at her sister’s home. We were invited to join them and share a meal that is dear to the hearts of many, many Mongols….bodog or marmot BBQ. We arrived just as they were ready to begin stuffing the carcass with hot rocks and meat. Once the marmot was ready, we all piled into cars and went to a lovely spot on a nearby river for a picnic dinner.

The entire process was a pretty involved affair and I took around 150 images. I’m just going to show a couple here and do a separate post later on, which the status of marmots in Mongol culture certainly justifies.

Yes, the fur really is removed with a portable blowtorch
Dinner is served!

I was honored with the liquid that was poured out of the body cavity, which I drank and found quite good, then the tongue, which I ate and found quite good, and the first cut of meat, which I ate and….found quite good. We all washed down the feast with vodka (all together now), which was quite good.

It was late afternoon by the time we said our good-byes and were on our way. We camped on a hillside along the road to Erdene Zuu. It was warm and humid. There were lots of mosquitos, so we lit a dung fire again. I use earplugs, so I slept ok, but Khatnaa and Soyoloo were kept awake by loud and numerous grasshoppers.

species of grasshopper on a toothbrush

Our first stop after breaking camp were the ruins of an old Uigher city, Har Balgas. As it happened, there was an archaeological dig going on, which was interesting to watch and I got to chat with the archaeologist in charge.

Rampart ruins of Har Balgas
Dig in progress

Not too much farther on, the stupa-lined walls of Erdene Zuu Monastery came into view. Not only is it adjacent to the site of the ancient Mongol capital, Kharkhorin, but it was built using stones from the old city, which was destroyed by a Ming Chinese army after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, which had been founded over one hundred years earlier by Chinggis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. A stone turtle is the only artifact left where the city had stood.

The wall around the monastery
One of the main temples
Large stupa complex
Ceramic roof detail
Posing with the turtle

I had gotten careless and went into the complex with no hat, sunscreen or water, so by the time this photo was taken, I wasn’t feeling very well. It was extremely humid and hot. I was ok once we were back at the car and I drank a lot of water, but this was probably the closest I’ve ever come to heat exhaustion or worse. Very foolish. But Erdene Zuu lived up to its reputation as the top tourist site in Mongolia. The temples are magnificent and I was sorry that no photography was allowed inside them.

Our route now took us north, where, for our last night out, we were going to camp at a lake known for its birds. As we were driving along, I noticed a large ger encampment to the left. I almost said something to Khatnaa, but let it go. Then he had to slow down because a bunch of men and boys on horses were crossing the road. I told him about the gers. We followed the horsemen.

The one thing that I had hoped for on the trip, but had not been able to find, was a local Naadam. Now it appeared that we had stumbled onto one the last day of the trip. We pulled up into an area on a rise where a lot of cars and trucks were parked. There were horses all over the place. Khatnaa got out, spoke with someone and came back with the news that the event was essentially a family reunion. Stay or go? We’d inadvertently crashed a private party. I told Khatnaa that it was up to him to do what he thought best. We stayed. And tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Over the next few hours I sat in the car and took around 500 photos. Our arrival had coincided with the horse race and we had gotten there in time to watch all the preparations for it.

Some of the horsemen
Lots of socializing on horseback; the men in fancy del and traditional hats all seemed to be the trainers

Our “cover” was blown when a young couple on a motorbike drove up and offered us fresh, hot khuushuur (fried mutton turnovers). No way we were going to pass on that. I stayed in the car until the first horses were approaching the finish line and then got out and joined the crowd.

Jockeys taking their mounts out to the starting line
Neck and neck to the finish line; the winners crossed the line at the same time

Afterwards, I was photographing a lovely black race horse who was being scraped down. A woman came up to me, took my arm, led me over to the horse and made a gesture for me to lay my palm on the sweat, which is lucky and auspicious. It was a very kind and thoughtful thing for her to do since I obviously was not one of this very big family. I was never so glad that I knew how to say “thank you” in Mongolian.

All day it had been cloudy and humid, with some squalls of rain. By the time we were on the road down to Ogii Nuur, it had gotten really windy. Khatnaa and Soyoloo managed to wrap a tarp around a picnic structure to provide  shelter from the wind to cook our dinner. At dusk, it died down enough to set up camp on the lakeshore. We were all pretty tired.

The weather was much better the next morning and we got in some good birdwatching. Khatnaa had gone up to one of the ger camps along the lake the previous evening and made arrangements for Soyoloo to use their kitchen to prepare our breakfast, which was very kind of them. The owner of the camp was there and turned out to be a retired Mongol army officer, who still needed something to do, so he had started a couple of ger camps. We had a nice chat with him and his wife and then left for the final leg of the trip.

Soon we were on tarmac, leaving the earth roads I love behind. There were a few more sights to see, like a dune complex where local herders were offering camel rides and our lunch spot next to the road where I got one last round of good horse and herder photos.

Lunchtime reference opportunity

By mid-afternoon we were in Ulaanbaatar, pulling into the hotel parking lot. I had left UB on July 10. It was now July 25. I still had trips to Hustai National Park to see the takhi and to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu and, as much as I looked forward to going to both places, I was sorry to have my camping trip come to an end. It was one of the best experiences of my life. My goal was to simply go into the countryside without a set itinerary and let Mongolia come to me. It did, in ways I would literally never have dreamed of. Bayarlala!

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 10- Tovhon Monastery And A Very Stormy Afternoon

After leaving the falls, our route took us along and across the Orkhon Gol until we started to climb back into the mountains.

Along the Orkhon Gol
Bridge over the river

Once again, we were in wildflower heaven.

Up into the mountains once more
Mountain wildlflowers

We were on our way up to Tovhon Monastery, a famous remote mountain retreat founded by Zanabazar, the first Bogd Khan of Mongolia and the greatest artist the country has produced. He is particularly known for his exquisite bronze sculptures of Buddhist incarnations and deities.

As we drove farther up, the earth road turned into a very badly rutted mud road, due to the recent rains. We came very close to getting stuck and Khatnaa backed down onto a flat area and said that we would walk the rest of the way, about a kilometer. That was fine with me since I had wanted to do at least a little hiking in the Hangai Mountains. What I hadn’t realized was how hot and humid it would be. But I just put one foot in front of the other and pretty soon these green prayer flags came into view.

Our destination proved to be worth every step and drop of sweat. In fact, it really felt like walking the last part had absolutely been the right thing to do.

Green prayer flags near path to monastery

We emerged out of the trees onto an open area with some gers and local guys trying to get their horses lined up for a photograph.

Local herders with horses for hire

Then it was time to make a final walk up the slope to the monastery itself.  Once we were on the grounds, the view across the mountains was breathtaking.

View from Tovhon Monastery, Hangai Mountains

The buildings are of Tibetan/Nepalese style. Zanabazar ran afoul of the authorities more than once and this was one place where he took refuge. There are a number of small structures and stupas, but one of the main reasons people come here is to climb up the cliff that backs the monastery to pass through a “womb cave”. Doing so symbolizes death and rebirth. Men can then continue onto the top. Women are not allowed. Right or wrong, that’s simply the way it is. I was too wrung out from the hike, so I stayed below, took photos and enjoyed just sitting and being in a very special place.

Temple with prayer wheels

In the background of the above photo, you can see people beginning the climb to the top. It was very steep, really right up the cliff face. Not anything that would be allowed in the USA.

Temple building with fence and gate

There was also a small garden. Once again, there were native plants that have been introduced into America. But what was really special were these lilies, the only time I’ve seen them in all my trips to Mongolia.]

Lilies
Monastery garden with cow parsley, veronica, larkspur, hardy geraniums and the lilies

Finally it was time to take our leave and start back down. I took this last photo from down below. You can just see the top of the temple roofs.

View of monastery setting

The hike back to the car was easier, even with the ups and downs. We drove down the hill to a huge swath of wildflowers. Other tour groups had set up long tables and were having lunch. Khatnaa pulled right out into the middle of the flowers and we also had our lunch surrounded by them.

Lunchtime view

Just as we were finishing up, it started to sprinkle. Time to leave. The sun had vanished over the past hour and as we drove on, I realized that we were driving more or less straight towards some very dark and heavy clouds.

We started to see big bolts of lightning to the right and left. Then in front.  We reached an elevation where we were almost up in the clouds. Diffused flashes of bright light went off directly in front of us with almost simultaneous cracks of thunder. Then it started to rain. Hard.

Storm clouds, but no rain yet; taken through windshield

At this point, I stopped taking pictures for awhile because I didn’t want to distract the driver. The storm had become very intense. Eventually, we came down into a high valley.

Rain in the distance; the direction we were going
A ger we made a quick stop at

And then went back up in elevation again in driving rain.

Serious storm clouds
Road back up into the mountains

We reached the pass. The rain had let up enough for us to circle this ovoo.

Ovoo up on the pass
Down into another valley

Once we came down into this valley and saw all the gers and animals, I thought to myself “Whew, we’re through it.” Wrong. We were driving toward where it had been raining, so there was an increasing water build-up on the earth roads which soon turned them to mud.

Coming down out of the mountains

The road got more and more treacherous. Once again I mostly stopped taking pictures to avoid causing any distraction. To quote from my journal:

It had been raining heavily in the direction we were going and the roads were running with water and very slick in spots. As I sat in the passenger seat, I saw how deep the Mongol bag of tricks is for driving on in what were really impossible conditions.

The tire treads got so caked with mud at one point we lost traction completely and slid to the side of the road. Khatnaa, somehow, by turning the wheel back and forth quickly, got us facing in the right direction and then deliberately drove down a rut (see image below) at the side of the road that had water in it to clean off the treads on one side.

“He also kept the treads clear by driving on faint paths in the grass, off the road.

“We were still at high elevation and hadn’t seen a ger since the climb to the pass, so if we got stuck, I’m not sure what our options would have been. Calling AAA certainly wasn’t one of them.”

"Mud" road; deliberately driving into this ditch seemed really counterintuitive, but it worked

Finally we really were down out of the mountains, crossing a grassy steppe lit up in beautiful storm light.

Level, almost dry earth road at last
Storm light; grab shot from car window
Soft light on the steppe
Soum center houses

All this had really used up the day and, to my eternal delight, we ended up at Soyoloo’s sister’s home for dinner. And what a dinner! First, of course, was good, hot suutai tsai (milk tea), followed by airag, followed by nermal arkhi, accompanied by a big platter of aruul. Then we were served mantuu (steamed bread) roe deer venison, lenok (a kind of fish) broth and a big serving of buuz.

We also learned that, not surprisingly, the rivers were either high or flooded at most of the fording spots. Our hosts led us to a safe crossing point as an almost-full moon lit our way. We arrived at our campsite around 9:30pm and set up the tents. I don’t believe any of us had trouble falling asleep that night.

A beautiful Mongolian night

Next time: A trip into Tsetserleg, plus Uigher ruins and Mongolia’s most famous visitor destination- Erdene Zuu.

Mongolia Monday: The Best Camping Trip Ever, Part 9 – Wildflower Heaven And A Famous Waterfall

After lunch at the lovely spot that ended the previous post, we drove higher into the mountains, up where there were forests of larch trees.

 

Typical beautiful scenery

 

 

Two boys we passed; what a great place to be kid on a horse!

 

Many of them were a reddish color, which indicated that they were dead or dying of a beetle infestation. Very sad.

We came over a pass that had a very impressive ovoo.

 

Ovoo made of wood, with khadak

 

As we came up into the trees, we found ourselves in a wonderland of wildflowers. To my surprise and delight, one of the most common was very familiar – fireweed. It is an introduced plant in the United States and I see it in bloom in many places near our house and along the roadside. Little did I know that there is a little bit of Mongolia in the neighborhood.

 

Up into the mountains; fireweed by roadside

 

 

Large colony of fireweed

 

It was clearly the perfect time of year to see mountain wildflowers. I grabbed a lot of photos as we went by, but we also stopped a couple of times to get close-ups.

 

Wildflowers

 

 

Dianthus

 

 

Colony of troilus (orange flowers)

 

 

Bedstraw, larkspur. burnet, geranium

 

The flowers tapered off as we came down in elevation, where we passed this herd of horses.

 

Horses

 

Soon we were driving across a very large valley with a lot of rock outcroppings. Upon looking at them closely, I realized that I had seen something similar in Hawaii and Idaho- lava flows. It looked as if the entire valley had been filled to some unknown depth from an ancient volcanic eruption.

 

Orkhon Valley

 

 

Wildflowers growing in lava formations

 

 

Edge of massive lava flow

 

We finally approached the site of something that Mongolia isn’t particularly known for… a waterfall. The amount of water going over the edge is dependent on rainfall. Many people apparently go to the Orkhon Falls and are disappointed in how little water there is to see. We weren’t. One consequence of the rainfall that has been a part of this story from the time we were in the Gobi is that the falls were full and beautiful. It was pretty overcast, so we took a look and some photos and left to find a campsite.

 

At the edge

 

 

At Orkhon Falls

 

Once again, good yak viewing from the comfort of our camp.

 

My tent, with yaks

 

A couple of  local herders came by to gather up their animals.

 

Local herder

 

The next morning was bright and sunny, so we went back to the falls before departure and I got some lovely photos.

 

Khatnaa, me and Soyoloo; the kid who Khatnaa handed my camera to did a nice job!

 

One can now see how deep the lava deposit is.

 

Orkhon Falls

 

 

Ovoo at edge of falls

 

 

Orkhon Gol (river)

 

By an interesting coincidence, another Humboldt County artist friend was not only in Mongolia at the same time as me, but she and some other folks were on a canoe trip. On the Orkhon Gol. They were far downriver from where I was, to the north. The Orkhon Gol orginates in the Hangai Mountains and flows north, where it joins the Selenge Gol, which flows into Lake Baikal.

On our way out of the area of the falls, we saw two black kites sitting on fence posts.

 

Black kites

 

Little did I know that this morning was the beginning of one of the most interesting, eventful and unexpected days of the entire trip.