I’ve said for many years that in Mongolia, more than in most places, the journey really is the destination. It’s something most visitors miss with the usual emphasis tour companies have of going from sight to sight on paved roads. Eleven trips in twelve years and I’ve never been bored and have never slept while rolling. It takes time, effort and money for me to go to Mongolia every year and I don’t want to miss a minute of the limited time I have in the countryside. So while this week’s post doesn’t have a lot of incident or excitement, it will give you a chance to see a little of what’s “in between” on the road day to day, this time in the Gobi.
We hadn’t realized it when we set up camp at Boon Tsagaan Nuur, a remote lake in the Gobi, but we were not far from a herder’s ger (see above photo). A short walk towards the lake revealed it settled behind a dune. We found the goats and sheep to be entertaining, but could also see that they had grazed the grass down to the ground in the entire area except for one section that was fenced off, something one sees all too often these days.
There were a number of shorebirds…plovers and a redshanks, but I couldn’t get close enough for decent photos.
We left the lake driving south around the east shore, a route that I had not been on before, which was great!
Next week we’ll travel far, far south, deep into the Great Gobi A Strictly Protected Area, one of the most remote locations in Mongolia. No towns, no herder families, no mobile phone service. I could hardly wait!
One of the places I most want to go back to and spend a week camping, painting and sketching is this place. For me, the “Valley of the Yaks” is the whole package. Green mountains, beautiful small rivers, herders, their gers and their animals, raptors like black kites and absolutely no visitor infrastructure at all.
We drove more or less to the end of the road, which was at the top of a steep slope. There was, of course, an ovoo. Getting out and looking over the top, I noticed two things right away: A drop dead gorgeous mountain lake, one of eight in the park (“naim” means “eight” in Mongolian”) and that the road continued down, and I do mean down, the other side at about a 45 degree angle. Needless to say, almost no one is crazy enough to drive it even though it is the only road in the park that provides access by car to any of the lakes. The only other way to get to them is to walk or ride a horse. We climbed up the slope, joining quite a few Mongol day-trippers. Even though nothing in particular was going on, there was a festive feeling in the air.
I took my lake photos and also got some more good wildflower images, then it was time to drive back down the hill and find a campsite. We passed some Mongol guys who were sitting and chatting by the side of the road. As we went by, one of them, who had obviously noticed that I was a westerner, yelled out “I love you!” Almost without thinking, I yelled back “Bi mongol dortei!”, “I like Mongolia!”. For some reason, Khatnaa and Soyoloo thought this was hilarious, burst out laughing and high-fived me. Khatnaa then decided that I had to learn another Mongol sentence: “Bi argaliin udad dortei” which means “I like dung smoke.”, a reference to our stay at Orog Nuur in the Gobi. I think I ended up having to repeat it at every ger we visited after that. All in good fun, of course.
The time had now come to find a spot to camp for the night. I was looking a little longingly at a place right down next to the river, certainly a prime spot that one would gravitate to in America. But up on higher ground was a dirt ring where someone had set up a ger. That’s the spot that Khatnaa picked and when it started to rain pretty hard later on, it was obvious that he had made the right choice and my choice might have gotten us quite wet if the river level had gone up very much.
As I sat enjoying the late afternoon light, suddenly I had to grab my camera body with the long lens. A herder had come down the other side of the river and was rounding up his yaks. I reeled off about 170 images from the comfort of my camp chair.
After dinner, we all sat and chatted until suddenly the wind kicked up and then it started to rain. Bedtime.
The next morning was beautiful and I got some more long range shots of the same herder milking some of his yaks. Soyoloo and I took turns washing each other’s hair down by the river.
I hated to leave, but promised myself that I would return and have more time.
We re-traced our route back down the valley. On the way, we stopped for more yak photos. I had, not unreasonably, thought that the bigger ones with horns were the bulls. Then I saw an actual bull. He was absolutely huge and had no horns. The herders remove them because, armed with what are essentially two long, sharp spikes, a bull yak would be a very dangerous animal to have around.
The gelded yaks, like the ones above, are called “shar”, Mongolian for “yellow”. It seems to be the term applied to any gelded livestock. I don’t know why yet.
We also passed a number of herds of horses. It looked like the airag supply was good.
Back out of the valley, we passed this little riverside drama, but didn’t stay to see what happened next.
We drove past a family who was setting up housekeeping. I thought this was a good photo of a ger without the felt covering, plus, what a lovely spot to live!
We also went by this small monastery, located outside of a soum center.
Continuing on, we were soon going up in elevation and I started to see forests for the first time. We stopped for lunch on a hillside covered with wildflowers.
Next week: wildflower heaven and a famous waterfall.
Two of the things I like best about traveling to Mongolia are staying in a ger and visiting people in their gers (“ger” means “home” in Mongolian).
Actress Julia Roberts was hosted by a family of horse trainers during the filming of an episode of the PBS series “Nature” called “The Wild Horses of Mongolia” (which isn’t what it was about, although there was a little takhi footage from Hustai National Park included). At the end, she’s sitting in a ger filled with Mongolians, looking into the camera with this big grin, saying something to the effect of “I’m sitting here in this ger and I don’t understand a word of what these people are saying, but I’m as happy and content as I’ve ever been in my life.”
Yup, she nailed it. I feel the same way. There’s something about the quality of space created by a ger that is very special. I’ve been in clean ones, dirty ones, sat on stools, beds and the floor, seen beautifully furnished ones and ones with next to nothing in them and I get the same content feeling in all of them. Hand me a bowl of suutei tsai (milk tea) or airag (fermented mare’s milk) and some aruul (dried yogurt) or tsotsgii (cream) and I’m a happy camper (and a cheap date too, I guess, although my husband would probably beg to differ). Anyway, here are some of my favorite images of gers from my four trips to Mongolia.
First, ger camps:
In 2005, I got to visit a ger factory and see how they are made:
Then we went to the Black Market where you can buy anything ger; from individual parts to the whole thing.
The research camp at Khomiin Tal (takhi reintroduction site) in western Mongolia is spectacularly sited in a river valley:
My first experience of staying in a ger was during my first trip to Mongolia on an Earthwatch project “Mongolian Argali” (now called “Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe”; highly recommended) in the spring of 2005. The camp is much bigger now; seven gers, two containers and a volleyball court:
One of the interesting and, to a lot of Westerners, amazing things about traveling in Mongolia is that the thousand-plus year old traditions of hospitality out in the countryside are still practiced. It feels very odd to walk up to someone’s ger (assuming there are no dogs in sight), open the door and walk right in without knocking. After four trips, I still get a twinge doing it.
I found myself very intimidated the first time. There are no windows in a ger and the door is solid wood so, even with a guide, you are walking into someone’s home without any idea of what to expect. Fortunately, the Mongols are patient and understanding, like my first time, when I turned to the right instead of the left and circumnavigated the ger to get to the stool that I was to sit on.
At least I remembered not to step on the threshold or walk between the upright supports.
The older gentleman approved of the fact that I was wearing Mongol boots. He said to me, through my guide “I see Mongol boots and I look up and see… a western face”. It was spring, which means really cold and windy, and they were the warmest footwear I had with me, having purchased them at the State Department Store in UB. They worked, of course. I asked if he would be willing to have his picture taken with a westerner wearing Mongol boots and he immediately sat up, buttoned his del and made room for me to sit beside him on the bed.
Those thermoses keep water hot, hot, hot for over 24 hours. I want one. I just have to figure out how to carry it home.
Now ger visits are one of the things I MOST look forward to when I go to Mongolia. A ger, maybe because of the quality of space that the round shape creates, is one of the most pleasant and peaceful places that I’ve ever been in. I just happily sit sipping milk tea or airag and nibbling aruul as conversations that I don’t understand a word of go back and forth between my guide and our hosts.
Gilmour seems to have relished ger visits also and provided a good description of the customs:
“As for entering tents on the plain, there need be no bashfullness. Any traveler is at perfect liberty to alight at any village he may wish and demand admittance; and any Mongol who refuses admittance, or gives a cold welcome even, is at once stigmatised not a man but a dog. Any host who did not offer tea, without money and without price, would soon earn the same reputation, the reason being, I suppose, that Mongolia has no inn, and all travelers are dependent on private houses for shelter and refreshment. At first sight it seems rather exacting to leap off your horse at the door of a perfect stranger, and expect to find tea prepared and offered to you free; but probably the master of the tent where you refresh yourself is at the same time sitting likewise refreshing himself in some other man’s tent some hundred miles away; and thus the thing balances itself. The hospitality received by Mongols in travelling compensates for the hospitality shown to travelers.”
While I’ve done my traveling in Mongolia by vehicle, the following, for me, really evokes what it’s like to journey through the countryside. I’ve included a few images from my trips.
“Traveling in Mongolia has many pleasures, but ordinary traveling is so slow that the tedium threatens to swamp them all. Horseback traveling does away with the tedium as far as possible, and presents the greatest number of new scenes and circumstances in rapid succession. Night and day you hurry on; sunrise and sunset have their glories much like those seen at sea; the stars and the moon have a charm on the lovely plain.
Ever and anon you come upon tents, indicated at night by the barking of the dogs, — in the daytime seen gleaming from afar, vague and indistinct through the glowing mirage. As you sweep round the base of a hill, you come upon a herd of startled deer and give chase, to show their powers of running; then a temple with its red walls and gilt ornamented roofs looms up and glides past.
Hill-sides here and there are patched with sheep; in the plains below mounted Mongols are dashing right and left through a large drove of horses, pursuing those they wish to catch, with a noosed pole that looks like a fishing rod. On some lovely stretch of road you come upon an encampment of ox carts, the oxen grazing and the drivers mending the wooden wheels, or meet a long train of tea-laden silent camels.
When the time for a meal approaches and a tent heaves in sight, you leave the road and make for it. However tired the horses may be, they will freshen up at this. They know what is coming and hurry on to rest.”
In three trips to Mongolia I’ve seen exactly….three cats, literally one per trip. In general it appears that Mongolians don’t much like cats. There are a number of beliefs about them, none particularly positive. I was told that the appearance of a cat meant that there would be a death. Two women that I’ve spoken with both said that they didn’t even like the idea of touching a cat, but one allowed as how her attitude was probably based on things older people had said when she was much younger.
On the other hand, when we stopped at a ger in the Gobi, I watched a woman shoo this cat into the ger while the dogs were clearly meant to stay outside. I remember thinking “It figures.”
They do seem to be kept around by some families for the age-old purpose of rodent control. This little cat was at the ger camp at Ikh Nart. She was fussed over by the cook, who I was told loves animals. She was very friendly, so David and I were able to get an unexpected “cat fix”. It was apparently impossible to keep her out of the staff ger because she would climb up to the top and come in through the center opening. One night she dropped down onto our guide’s bed, one of the women who was adamant about not liking cats, and proceeded to try to snuggle up near her head. I remember thinking “It figures.”
I suspect that Mongols have had dogs for as long as they have had horses and the other “Snouts”. The traditional greeting upon approaching a herder ger is “Hold the dogs!” and they aren’t kidding. The traditional herder’s dog is a Tibetan mastiff, which can take its guard duties very seriously. I was told on this last trip, however, that many herders do keep a dog as a “pet” along with the ones for guarding. I hope to learn more about all this on the next trip.
One consistant piece of advice that one runs across when looking into travel to Mongolia is do not, DO NOT, pet, pat, scritch, scratch or otherwise touch any dog. They have not been vaccinated for rabies and getting saliva on your skin, much less a bite, means air evacuation to a hospital for the (painful) series of shots. Foreigners who are working in the countryside get the rabies vaccine, but since nothing is 100%, it’s smart for them not to have contact either.
That said, I have found that most of the dogs I’ve seen don’t exhibit vicious behavior and a lot of them seem to be longing for contact with people. I finally relented once at Arburd Sands when this dog approached me while I was sketching and leaned into me. I decided that it was unlikely that the camp owners would have a dog around that was at all likely to bite the guests. I stayed alert while I gently petted his back and didn’t let his mouth near my hand. He seemed to really like it, but it was still a risk.
I hadn’t seen brindle dogs like this before this trip. Not sure where that coloration came from, but he has the mastiff head and body type.
I feel like I’m seeing fewer of the pure mastiffs since my first trip. When the Russians pulled out in 1991, I was told that they left their guard dogs, mostly German Shepherds, behind. And I remember seeing a couple of what looked like purebred Shepherds between the airport and UB in 2006. There has obviously been a lot of uncontrolled interbreeding. It looks to me like the dogs are gradually reverting to the basic dog form that travellers see all over the world in the streets, the countryside, at dumps, etc.
And, for something completely different, at Red Rock Ger Camp, there was this chow chow, the only one I’ve seen in Mongolia. Never found out who he belongs to, but a fairly wide area around the camp seemed to belong to him, judging by his thorough and conscientious marking routine.
From The Global Village Dept.- twice when I’ve been in the State Department Store, I’ve seen young girls with tiny “fashion accessory” dogs tucked in their arms, a la Paris Hilton. Sigh.
And finally, many of you know that I have a rough collie, named Niki, the same breed as Lassie. Imagine my surprise when I happened upon this banner in Ulaanbaatar: