The Mongolian Road Trip

Almost as soon as I was told I was being assigned to Mongolia with the Peace Corps, my parents started making plans to visit, and last August, they came. This blog post is long overdue, but it was such a fun and adventure-filled trip, I would be remiss not write about it, however late it is. This probably deserved to be broken up into several posts, but I’m so far behind at this point, I’m going to cut some corners. Forgive me.

My parents landed at Chinggis Khaan airport in Ulaanbaatar (UB) extremely early in the morning one fine August day and despite their insistence that they could navigate getting to Our Town just fine on their own, James and I went to UB to pick them up from the airport. Reality check: Mongolia is a damned hard country to travel in if you don’t speak Mongolian and don’t have tour guide.

We took the 8-hour bus ride to Our Town the next day and right away my parents loved Mongolia. We were the only foreigners on the bus (as usual) and the rest of the passengers were as interested in my parents as my parents were in them. They especially got a kick out of the cheesy music videos (see examples here) they play on the TV in the front of the bus.

We have very fancy buses here in Mongolia: notice the tasseled curtains.

We spent a couple of days in Our Town. We visited our local market, monastery, and museum, and we got to watch a traditional Nadaam celebration.

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Our local monastery turned museum.
The actual monastery.

I was afraid that my parents had missed all the Nadaam Festivals (which is Mongolia’s most famous holiday. You can read more about it in this blog post) but lo-and-behold, Our Town’s wrestler had won the National Nadaam’s wrestling competition and the town decided to have an extra Nadaam to celebrate, just in time for my parent’s visit.

A wrestler looks out onto the wrestling field.
The guy on the left is trying to play it cool but before the picture was taken he kept scooting closer and closer to James like he wouldn’t notice. Can’t say I blame the guy.

It was skin-melting hot out the whole time and on the first day of the two-day celebration a Korean reality-show showed up and kind of ruined the authenticity of everything, but I was still happy my parents got to experience some of the festivities.

Town elders sharing their snuffbottles.

I knew that I didn’t want us to spend the whole three-week vacation in Our Town, but my parents were frustratingly easygoing about what they wanted to see and do during their trip. “Whatever you think is best” they kept saying.

There are so many beautiful things to see in Mongolia, it can be hard to decide where to start, so I started with the most popular tourist-attraction in Mongolia, Lake Khovsgol, and worked backward from there to plan a week-long 4-wheeling camping trip.

I worked with a local tourism company that is owned by Murray, an Australian friend of ours, to hire a car and driver (which is actually significantly cheaper than renting a car I might add.) I told him my plans and route, which he helped refine. There aren’t many paved roads in Mongolia, so our route was planned using known trails and by studying maps.

I made it very clear that we didn’t need anything fancy, but that my top priority was reliability. I have been in this country long enough to know that no one here ever says anything is impossible, so a driver with a sad two-door Sentra would say he could absolutely make the trip. “Zugeer” (it’s ok) is like a national motto that is sometimes used when things are very clearly NOT Zugeer.

I trusted Murray to find of someone good, so imagine my shock when the day we were supposed to leave, a run-down off-brand mini-van with bald wheels showed up to pick us up for our big trip. The back seat was caving in, and there was a horrible noise coming from the back end. My mom was not happy, and I was in panic mode. I wasn’t sure we would even make it to our first stop, but trying to play it cool, and seeing no immediate way out of this predicament, we all got in and took off.

The van.

Our first stop was Taikhair Chuluut, which is just a big rock about 40 minutes outside of Our Town. I had heard so much about this rock, that I’ll admit, I was underwhelmed by it. It is just a big rock and while petroglyphs might have been discernible a couple of decades ago, every square foot of it has now unfortunately been tagged and spray painted.

Taikair Chuluut: a big rock. There’s a legend about how a giant used it to crush all the snakes in the region a long time ago, but we still have snakes in the region, so he must have missed some.

We didn’t stay long at Taikhair Chuluut and quickly got back into our noisy van to continue on to Tsagaan Nuur, White Lake, where we were to spend a couple of days. The road from Taiikair Chuluut to Tsagaan Nuur was the only part of our route that was paved, so I had a terrible feeling when the driver pulled over on a deserted stretch and announced something was wrong with the front wheels.

Soooo, is everything ok?

Several hours later, James had helped disassemble the entire front end of the van, my dad was collecting bugs for fishing to pass the time, and my mom had make me walk up every surrounding hill looking for a cell phone signal. It was not an auspicious beginning to the vacation to say the least.

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Finally James and our driver were able to get the car running again, but just barely. We limped the several hour drive to our second destination: White Lake National Park before the engine started spewing smoke everywhere going up the final mountain crossing before the ger camp. Despite the smoke being so thick we could barely see out the front window and the engine going slower and slower, our driver kept insisting that everything was JUST FINE. The van finally died completely just a 1/4 mile from our lake-front ger camp. We decided to walk the rest of the way.

I called Murray from the tour company.
“How’s the vacation going?”
“Not great, actually” I replied, ready for a fight.”We’ve broken down three times already today and this is the easiest leg of the trip.”

Turns out I didn’t even need to get my claws sharpened because Murray immediately recalled our driver (who I felt really bad for, clearly we weren’t the only ones having a bad day because I’m sure he ruined his engine pushing it too far) and agreed to send us what I had originally asked for: a reliable driver in a reliable car.

Tsagaan Nuur in all it’s glory.

We had a lovely evening at Naraa’s ger camp and enjoyed our first afternoon in the Mongolian countryside. Our second driver, Ganbaa, showed up the next morning in the nicest, classic Land Cruiser I have ever seen and took us to visit the nearby volcano that created the whole area.

Portrait with Ganbaa and car #2.
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Workin’ it.

We spent another day at Tsagaan Nuur, fishing and hiking, before setting off on a four-wheeling adventure north to the region of Khovsgol. There aren’t many roads in Mongolia, but Ganbaa had no trouble taking us across the vast expanse of mountains and steppe, even though it was rainy and wet most of the way. Every couple of minutes, one or both of my parents would insist that we stop the car to take pictures of the herds of livestock that sprinkle the countryside.

Horses by the lake!
Standard Mongolian road crossing.
Stop the car! exhibit A. To be fair, it is pretty cool seeing herds everywhere.

At Khovsgol Lake, we spent one quick night at a ger camp in Khatgal, at the southern tip of the lake before proceeding up to our real destination. Most tourists stay on the west side of the river where the ger camps and tour companies are, but we went up the east side of the lake to an idyllic camp spot that Murray had told me about and whose exact location Murray made me promise to keep secret.

Left side: busy, right side: space
Setting up camp
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Welcome to my camping spot.

We spent three days there seeing no one else but herds of horses and the random herder in the distance. Ganbaa was so sweet helping us collecting firewood and generally being a nice guy to have around.

You can’t tell me this isn’t idyllic.
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The drive back to Our Town took two days and we found the most beautiful spot in a valley to stop at.

Setting up next to a fresh water spring meant we got to partake in it’s healing properties.

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the majesty of Mongolia.

After such a relaxing time by the lake, coming back to Our Town felt very busy. Things felt even more busy when we went back to Ulaabaatar.

We spent the last two days of the trip in Ulaanbaatar, doing a little bit of sight-seeing lot of shopping. I knew my mom really wanted to visit UB’s enormous Naraantuul or black-market and there was no way I was going to let her do that on her own. Naraantuul is like an enormous open-air market where you can find everything and nothing in an endless maze of stands. There are pickpockets galore and almost no one speaks English. We had a wonderful time.

We also visited Gandan Khiid, which is the largest monastery in UB. We watched the monks (some of whom are very young), and sat in on a reading (no photos allowed). Unbeknownst to us, it was a Buddhist lucky day to get married, and we also saw half a dozen newlyweds come through to be blessed.

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My parents visit flew by and before I knew it, I was putting them back on the plane and saying goodbye, trying not to think about the fact that we had a whole other year ahead of us. I was sad to see them go, but I had such a fantastic time and I think my parents did too.