16 day nomads – days 9 to 12: Central Mongolia

Day 9

We used the internet and went to a couple of supermarkets before leaving Arvaikheer. Never knowing what kind of places we will be going to we stocked up while we had decent shops. We didn’t leave until midday and stopped an hour down the road for lunch. After that we stopped briefly in a small town to stretch our legs, it was scorching so we were happy to get going again.

IMG_4810Somewhere around this point we swapped camels for yaks. We also saw our first trees. After some very rough roads we entered a National Park and after hours more of very rough road we reached our destination, Orkhon Khurkhree. We had come to see a waterfall, the guidebook says it’s one of the best sights in Mongolia and after the rough road our only thoughts were that it had better be good. It was early evening but on the hills around it was threatening rain so it felt much later. We were staying overnight so we decided to walk to the waterfall in the morning when hopefully the weather would be better.

The rain came just after we pitched the tent in the corner of a ger camp. As usual
we’d had the choice of ger or tent and gone with the free option. It rained most of the evening and the temperature dropped, it was going to be a very cold night Biklar had told us, unlike the Gobi gers the gers here all have stoves, we have decent sleeping bags and thermals so said we would be fine. We began to doubt the wisdom of that as the rain turned icy and the air temperature remained really cold even after it had stopped.

Day 10

The rain held off and it didn’t get any colder and for once there was no wind. We slept well and woke to a beautiful morning a bit earlier than planned thanks to a yak that decided the yummiest grass was right outside our tent door – they’re noisy eaters. Breakfasted, tent down and packed up we left Biklar cleaning and packing the jeep and headed off to check out the waterfall. It wasn’t a 10 minute walk and we had been listening to it all night. The waterfall was nice, it was quite wide and had a reasonable amount of water flowing over it. If it wasn’t such a beautiful valley and if you had travelled on that rough road just to see it you might be disappointed if you live somewhere like NZ.

We headed off and were secretly really chuffed when we left the rough road part way down and headed off down a different valley. Central Mongolia is hilly and we spent our first day driving up hills and across valleys. Lunch was had on the top of a hill, sometime shortly after then we got lost, IMG_4798luckily in this part of the world there are heaps of nomad families to ask directions. Unluckily for us this meant more fermented horse milk, it is the most vile disgusting drink in the entire world. We also got to try some yak cheese, there are a couple of different kinds, all are sundried and it is common to see them laid out on the roof of gers drying. This type was soft and tasted sweetened and was miraculously edible even if it does taste somewhat of yak. We were also made to try something with a crusty top which we realised was yak butter, they eat it by the spoonful. We stopped at least another 3 times for directions thankfully we didn’t get out.

Eventually we crested a hill and found what we were looking for – a town. We skirted through and carried onto the aimag capital, Tseterleg. We could see a storm directly over the town as we approached but it was only as we parked up that it really let rip. We left Biklar in the jeep and dashed out in torrential rain to the market then down the row of supermarkets (we actually only wanted a few things but finding them was difficult), then we dashed over the road to buy Marie a new cap as she lost hers in the wind in Bayanzag. Lightening cracked and thunder roared. The town is on a hill and fast flowing streams formed quickly on the sides of the road and we discovered as we left just after the storm had passed that some roads were flooded completely. Biklar wasn’t happy at having to get the jeep dirty.

IMG_4854Something strange happened as we left town… we were on sealed road and stayed on it for an hour and a half… Then of course we turned off onto a rough mud track across a valley. We were heading to stay with a nomad family. Many Mongolians are no longer nomadic, they have pitched their gers and stayed put. This is bad for the land as traditionally they moved to fresh pastures for their herds, be it yak, cows, sheep, goats, horses or camels. As a result we have seen ger camps where the land around them has literally been stripped bare. This time we knew we were in real nomad land as trucks with packed down gers passed by (these days nomads move their gers by hiring trucks, not by loading them on animals).

Staying overnight with a nomad family was a change to our itinerary, they did have us down to go to some hot springs but the ‘book’ says that basically these are hot spring water pumped into splash pools that they charge you to enter. We know where there are free thermal streams at home so this didn’t interest us. Every time Biklar had talked about it he said ‘walk to nomad family’. We’d been thinking about how to rationalise our rucksacks. Initially when asked he said the walk would take around an hour. At lunch that day we clarified that we needed to take water and cooking stuff and that he would be coming with us.

After hitting the storm we had passed though several bands of heavy rain (the jeep is about as waterproof as the tent) and this little voice in the back (Emma) kept saying ‘are we sure this is a good idea?’

IMG_4840A good way down the valley and we reached a family’s ger, we could tell it was an extended family as there were several gers. We assumed we were leaving the jeep here and starting our walk but first we got ushered into the main ger. We got given yak milk, it tasted just like you imagine a yak tastes but on the scale of rankness it was at the low end. We also got given some of the yak cheese we were given earlier and we knew what it looked like and as we had a choice in the bowl of cheeses we naturally picked the most palatable one. We were concerned about time, last time we asked Biklar about the walk he said it was 2 hours. It was already early evening and we needed to rationalise our rucksacks before we went anywhere so we signaled to Biklar who seemed to understand.

Out at the jeep we had an audience of both adults and childrens while we unpacked most of our big rucksacks and refilled them with the stuff we would need, We hadn’t had any rain while we had been in the valley but the wind was bitter.

IMG_4838Mats, the tent and a stove got attached to the outside of the bags. We were ready. Biklar had done no packing, when we were done he said ‘me stay?’ ‘oh okay’ we said thinking we were going there on our own then. He had a discussion with one of the older women when we asked which way to go, there seemed to be some confusion as to whether we go north or west (the doors to gers always face south so it is easy to know which direction is which) they settled on north and pointed to the trees on the side of the hill. Really quite confused at that point but with none of them having English and us having no Mongolian we knew we had no chance of clarifying the confusion. So we hoisted our packs up and set off  going to each other ‘what?’ ‘where are we going?’ and ‘what are we supposed to be doing?’

We hadn’t gone far, about as far as a grumpy yak that kept staring at Marie and grunting when it dawned on us that this WAS the nomad family we were supposed to be staying with. Biklar must have thought we wanted to go off camping. The family was probably quite confused but must have suggested we camp in the trees on the hill. But we didn’t want to camp on the side of a mountain in bitter cold wind, with a high chance of rain and maybe wolves. We had a choice, carry on and no doubt have a thoroughly miserable night or turn back and look stupid. We didn’t hesitate in taking the looking stupid option.

IMG_4794We returned to bemused looks and tried to explain the confusion. It was fine and of course it was no problem for us to pitch our tent with the family. They pitched us next to the main ger with the jeep on the other side to provide us some shelter. Everyone was convinced the weather was going to be awful. Many hands helped to pitch the tent and great care was taken to pitch it properly (Biklar’s usual approach is to just throw it up and not worry that the outer-sheet touches the fly). They were so sure it was going to rain. We were equally convinced it wasn’t and that the bad weather had passed.

We cooked dinner, then lunch for the next day, in the tent porch with an audience of about 10 kids. The older women, who seemed to do most of the making things in the kitchen bought us out some yak milk vodka. We didn’t mange to establish how you turn yak milk into vodka but they do and it’s a clear liquid. Still tastes like yak though. Then out came 2 hot doughy buns, they tasted of some animal milk, probably also yak but they weren’t half bad, particularly when you are cold.

IMG_4870Everyone came out for a look at what we were making for dinner and lunch and to watch us eat and look at our tent set up. Mongolians gave no concept of privacy whatsoever, apparently they will even open your tent to have a look (we just left ours open) and you never knock on a ger before entering. They are just curious and having an audience of adults and kids didn’t bother us at all. It was cold anyway so we went to bed early knowing our sleeping bags were the warmest place we could be.

Day 11

We slept well once we had warmed up but both woke up with cold heads because we hadn’t been using the hoods on our sleeping bags. There were lots of noises in the night, not that they bothered us that much. We could hear yaks grazing and grunting outside our tent and as often appears to be the case the camp dogs while quite placid in the day do the job they’re meant to do at night and bark at anything close by and every noise. We have gotten used to falling asleep to the sound of dogs barking somewhere. Thankfully Mongolian dogs are proper dogs, not little yappy things.

IMG_4828It was a beautiful morning but the breeze was still bitter. We breakfasted with an audience and 2 bowls of piping hot Mongolian tea were brought out to us. It tastes like hot salty milk and while we can manage to drink it we didn’t fancy a belly full of milk before bouncing around in the jeep so we played the ‘get rid of the milk discreetly game’ which is never a nice situation to be in and we’d had to play the same game the night before with the vodka.

The walk that we should have been going on that morning got flagged without anyone mentioning it. It was cold and we’d had to repack our entire rucksacks and hadn’t moved from our sleeping bags until the sun was warm enough to take the edge off the cold. We got invited into the ger after our breakfast and when presented with a bowl of cheese and doughy buns opted for the buns as the lesser of all evils. Then we were given a bowl each of Mongolian tea. We had an audience and we were going to have to drink this one, and we did, a bite of the bun and a gulp of the tea and so on. We also got given 2 blocks of cheese each as we left. Being the ungrateful gits that we are, sweets got shoved in our mouths as soon as the jeep was out of sight to try and take the taste of the tea away.

IMG_4855Except on our few non-travel days each day has involved 7-10 hours of being bumped around in the jeep. But today we only did 3 hours of travelling to get to our destination – Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park (known in English as the Great White Lake). It was very pretty and we soon reached the ger camp we would be staying at. Before pitching the tent we sat and had lunch in the sun. It was 2pm and cold. The cloud in the distance looked a little iffy and we would be staying 2 nights. That’s a long time to be sitting in a cold tent so we decided to get a ger.

With gers set up for tourists you get the ger to yourself (if we’d stayed in a ger with the nomad family it would have been communal with some of the family). We settled in then walked up the hill behind the camp. It didn’t really warm up at all so by early evening we lit the stove. A while later Biklar came to check we had it going ok and found us almost walking around in shorts and t-shirts we had got it so hot. The rain started at 9pm. It validated our decision not to tent it.

Day 12

When we woke it was cold, the stove had gone out quite quickly after we had gone to bed and the big hole in the roof around the stove pipe (we seemed to have the biggest hole in the camp) had let plenty of cold air in. Marie got up and lit the fire. It was only 6:30am and it was overcast and miserable so she got back in her sleeping bag. Emma didn’t move at all.

IMG_4889We were intending to go horse riding in the afternoon to the volcano but it didn’t warm up one notch and we had light rain on and off all morning with a heavy shower constantly threatened. It was a 3 hour trip there and back and with a bitter wind we knew we would just freeze sat on the back of a horse so at lunchtime we bailed. Instead we climbed one of the bigger hills across the valley from camp. From the top we saw rain clouds almost on us so decided not to stick around, even so the rain had got us before we had even got off the ridge, thankfully our backs were to it on the way back.

We were very happy to be in our ger, we had got the stove on and everything drying in no time. The wind picked up and the rain set in, it was icy and we were glad not to be out on horses (we had checked before we bailed that we would get another chance to ride Mongolian horses somewhere else on the trip). We hunkered down for the evening, though we always seem to spend a huge amount of time cooking, moreso when we have the stove as we’re too tight to use the gas cookers and everything takes longer on the stove. Our peace was occasionally interrupted by some person from the camp, usually a kid, bursting in dripping wet with an armful of wet firewood.

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