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Sarah's Mongolia Adventure
Old 07-21-2008, 09:27 AM   #1
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Sarah's Mongolia Adventure

As promised, a nowhere near brief synopsis of our trip to Mongolia. First, here’s a link I thought you might enjoy to the audio from my NPR interview with Liane Hanson of Weekend Edition Sunday:
An Adventure In Mongolia : NPR
See the Summer story "An adventure in Mongolia".
My boss says that I don’t sound that smart in person.


The trip was truly amazing and the time we spent there seemed much too short. Having the opportunity to travel by car from the Gobi desert up to Lake Huvsgol near the Siberian border was unforgettable. For reference, the country is approximately twice the size of Texas. Spending 15 days road-tripping through the most impossible of roads really gave us an unparalleled opportunity to really get to know Mongolia. All of that time together in a van, driving across the country, eating every meal together, living side-by-side in the ger camps made for some very fast bonding between us and our guide Nara and driver Baagii. Nara has been a guide for 4 summers (she is a professor of English and translation at the Humanities University in Ulaanbaatar) and Baagii has been a tour driver for nearly that long, but were strangers as well, before the trip.

One thing I want to point out to fellow travelers that was not apparent to me prior to this trip: the relationship you have with your guide is crucial to the success of your trip in this sort of setting. We met quite a few tourists whose trips were derailing because their guides were not good speakers or lacked some crucial knowledge or just weren’t friendly. I think we basically lucked out, but having a quality tour company helped. We’ve never done a trip like this where we had “keepers” (usually just arrive and stumble around with a Lonely Planet and a backpack), but that is really close to impossible in a country with no real roads, no public transport, and little in the way of tourist amenities.

Seeing the beautiful countryside up close like that and getting to visit nomadic families along the way was wonderful and my pictures pale in comparison to seeing it in person! I would highly recommended Mongolia for the adventurous traveler who wants to see a place (and people) that are just remarkable.


First up, here are some from the beginning and end of our trip in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where 40% of Mongolia's 2.5 million people live (the country is the least densely populated country on Earth). There are many vestiges of the Communist regime that lasted 70 years, but the new buildings and lots of young people are evidence of the successes of democracy in the last 15 years. A hopeful and bustling city that is finally able to embrace the legacy of Chinngis Khan as well as offer some western-style amenities (like colder beer). The Gandan Monastery is also here, and a remarkable testament to the thousands of monks that died in the Soviet purges of the 1930s.

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File Type: jpg Gandan.JPG (364.8 KB, 9 views)
File Type: jpg Buddha.JPG (237.3 KB, 14 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:32 AM   #2
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Next we flew down to Dalanzagad, these are pictures from our first leg, traveling in the Gobi Desert region, which is very flat with rocks and scrub--not much sand except for the Khongorii Els sand dunes area. Also there was an interesting oasis here by the dunes and the Khongor River, which is the only place we saw horses in this unforgiving climate. Mostly there are the famous Cashmere goats and lots of camels! We met a family that raises camels and the lady has 49 grandchildren, many of whom spend their summers with her and their grandfather in their remote ger near the sand dunes. The children were delightful and really enjoyed the baby camels as much as we did!

This region is where the Flaming Cliffs are located--the place Roy Chapman Andrews discovered the first dinosaur eggs and many other significant finds in the 1930s during his famous Central Asian Expedition. Andrews is considered the model for the character of Indiana Jones, due to his many escapades in search of palentolologicals treasures.

The roads are all dirt, with rocky areas where the van slowed to a crawl. There are no real signs or directions, so without our driver Baagii's local knowledge, we'd have been lost in no time! We stayed in tourist ger camps, with distant bathhouses, and had delicious meals prepared by the camp cooks. There isn't electricity in most places and the accommodations are somewhat like tent camping, but "in the round"!

We saw a spectacular sandstorm while in Bayanzag, which made us appreciate why the doors of gers are always facing south (as the wind comes from the north) and how the round shape keeps them from flying away in storms! The sauxal bushes are the tallest plants in the desert and a sort-of forest of them is nearby the Cliffs.
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File Type: jpg Girl.JPG (254.6 KB, 12 views)
File Type: jpg Gobi.JPG (193.0 KB, 6 views)
File Type: jpg SarahDonaldCamels.jpg (179.4 KB, 20 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:38 AM   #3
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Next on the odyssey are the steppes, the central region between the spare, sandy desert of the Gobi and the alpine Northern provinces. This area supports a tremendous amount of livestock, including horses, yaks, sheep, and goats. Lots of rivers and boggy areas for driving (or almost getting stuck!). Also here are the Ongiin Monastery ruins being restored by a few local monks. We listened to several young lamas here chanting and blowing the conch horn during their prayers. Under their robes, the boys wore jeans and tennis shoes! We also saw a group of German guys with motorcycles and watched their Russian-made support van ford the river--driving across this country on motorcycle is true madness!

From Ongiin we headed across the steppes to Karakorum, once the capital of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire. The Erdene Zuu monastery built in the 1500s there is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was partially destroyed in the Communist purges of the 1930s, but several buildings remained as museums until the rise of democracy in the 1990. Now it is both a functioning monastery and museum.

We went to the dramatic overlook to see the famously embarrassing Phallic stone, that was originally placed there to reign in the impulses of the monks, but in recent history has become more of a sign of virility, and prayer scarves are placed there to for families to receive blessings of children. Horse skulls placed at the topmost hill ovoo are considered an offering of great import, the horse is the most honored and revered animal of Mongolia. Near Karakorum are some of the 3% of "paved" roads in the entire country that we read about--of course most are off limits to traffic as they are under construction, so the dirt paths were what we used!

From Karakorum we headed towards Tsenkher and Tsetserleg, villages deep in the heart of Central Mongolia’s steppes. We were very fortunate to stop at Baagii's parents ger (where he grew up), to enjoy their hospitality and the most delicious yak cream, plus our first taste of airag (fermented mare's milk), goat cheese, and milk tea (cow's milk with butter and salt added). His parents were so very kind and their meadow was beautiful. We also stopped in Tsenkher town nearby, where Baagii's inlaws live, who were keeping his adorable daughter and son. They shared fantastic fresh homemade yogurt with us while I took a few pictures of Noni with her dad.

As a side note, we found it so interesting to see so many fathers interacting with, carrying around, and entertaining their children. Seldom did we see a child without seeing an indulgent and smiling father or grandfather nearby, plus since independence is highly prized in Mongolia, the kids were far more responsible and self-reliant than we expected, even at very young ages they often ride horses (or camels) long distances to help tend family herds.

This part of the countryside is stunning, with lovely trees and meadows, but lots of flies in summer, unfortunately. There was more of a chill in the air, as we neared the northern province of Huvsgul. On one of our very long driving days (more than 8 hours), we jostled our way to the Chuluut River canyon and nearby Zuun Mod, the "Hundred tree", covered with thick layers of blue prayer scarves.

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File Type: jpg Erdene Zuu.JPG (364.7 KB, 8 views)
File Type: jpg Hilltop Karakorum.JPG (304.4 KB, 11 views)
File Type: jpg Khorgo Lake.JPG (206.4 KB, 9 views)
File Type: jpg Steppes.JPG (327.0 KB, 8 views)
File Type: jpg Baagii.JPG (292.5 KB, 8 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:41 AM   #4
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A few more from the Gobi of Khongoriin Els at sunrise, camel riding, and a lovely horse we saw in Jaragalant as we traversed the steppes, as well as the Hundred tree covered in scarves.
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File Type: jpg Sunrise.JPG (151.2 KB, 4 views)
File Type: jpg Mongolia1.jpg (174.4 KB, 10 views)
File Type: jpg Tree.JPG (559.5 KB, 6 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:47 AM   #5
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Next up, Donald's wrestling practice and Naadam pictures: I should mention that Donald’s dream was to wrestle at Naadam, and he’d been practicing at home, as well as purchasing a zodog and hat in Ulaanbaater. As fortune would have it, our driver and friend Baagii was also a wrestling coach and phys ed teacher! He and Donald passed many miles discussing strategy for Mongolian-style wrestling, and those talks finally culminated in some wrestling practice at Khorgo camp in the National Park.

From there we went to the Naadam held at Khatgol, a small town near Lake Huvsgul. Naadam's are held all over Mongolia on July 11th, their national independence day. This smaller Naadam was similar to a county fair, with local heroes competing in wrestling and archery, and the fierce small jockeys (age 6-12) riding 10 to 30 mile cross country horse racing courses bareback, barefoot, and wearing paper hats--talk about tough kids! The crowds reminded me of a county fair, and they all tittered good-naturedly when Donald was called out by the name "Don America". As far as Nara and Baagii know, he's the only American to ever wrestle at Naadam there.

The costume consists of a special hat that is held by the judges during the match, a zodog jacket that is tied in front (the loser must untie his after the match), and also a very tight brief that many wrestlers eschew in favor of regular pants. The wrestlers do an "Eagle Dance" before the match and the winner circles the field and offers small pieces of cheese to fans after the match. Alas, Donald had many reasons for his loss: among them were that his new boots were slippery on the grass and more importantly he did not eat the roasted whole marmot that Baagii assured him wrestlers must eat (blech). After his match, Donald was delighted to have accomplished his dream of wrestling at Naadam and was reminded of the words of Pierre de Courbertin, the father of the modern Olympics: "The most important thing in the Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.".

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File Type: jpg wrestlers.JPG (252.8 KB, 8 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:50 AM   #6
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More from Naadam: The horse racing was amazing--I can't believe how little these kids are--and you should hear their screams of encouragements to their horses as they race for the finish line! We enjoyed lunch of traditional Naadam meat and onion mixed with rice that is put into patties and fried, and then afterwards headed off to the larger city of Moron to catch some of their Naadam festivities. At Moron, they had many more wrestlers (even a tiny little fellow that was a crowd favorite) and young jockeys--the winning horses get blue scarves tied around their necks and a special prize is given for last place in the two-year old horse race.
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File Type: jpg racing.JPG (207.6 KB, 8 views)
File Type: jpg Firstin.JPG (278.1 KB, 8 views)
File Type: jpg Jockeys.JPG (358.7 KB, 7 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 09:55 AM   #7
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Finally, an end!
And lastly are some pictures of Lake Huvsgol. The lake is second only to Siberia’s Lake Baikal in size and is stunningly clear and quite cold year-round. Northern Mongolia is also home to the Tsaaten (Duhka) people that live in teepee-like homes called Orts. They are practioners of Shamanism and raise reindeer that are used for every facet of their lives. The reindeer are used for riding and as pack animals, plus their milk is used to make milk tea, which we tasted while visiting with them. Their meat and hides are also used by the Tsaaten when the animals die. Reindeer generally live 15-17 years, however wolves often kill the babies--this family had 5 babies born this year and only one was left.

We rode horses around the lake and I got to ride a yak, which handles like a camel and rides like a horse! The weather was quite cold and it even sleeted on us as we drove to see the Tsaaten family. Near Huvsgul was the small town of Khatgol where we went to Naadam, fortunately we had very nice weather that day.

The trip was truly incredible, and we are seriously considering returning next summer to see more of the countryside and to visit Nara and Baagii again. It's that great!
Attached Images
File Type: jpg Lakeview.JPG (257.1 KB, 9 views)
File Type: jpg Reindeer.jpg (436.6 KB, 7 views)
File Type: jpg Me&Yak.JPG (189.3 KB, 11 views)
File Type: jpg Lakerain.JPG (166.5 KB, 3 views)
File Type: jpg Riding.jpg (537.5 KB, 10 views)
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:00 AM   #8
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AWESOME!!!! Thank you so very much for sharing!
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:27 AM   #9
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Sarah,

Thank-you so much for your post. Could I trouble you for some information on in-country costs? I'd consider making this trip myself.

Tom
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:31 AM   #10
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Sarah, sounds like a wonderful trip, though not one that is on my list. What's next on your list?
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:36 AM   #11
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Tom, we used a tour company that customized an itinerary for us. The 15 day trip (it took a day and a half on both ends travel time) included all meals, all transportation (we had two in-country flights) and all accommodations and entry fees for the museums, parks, etc. The cost per person was $2800. Our flights were another $2400 each. It was quite expensive by our usual vacation standards, but we wanted everything to be set up in advance, and this seemed to be the best solution.

I can't say enough good things about the wonderful (and very pro-American) people and the stunning scenery. It was the most beautiful place I've ever been.

BTW, I'd be glad to share more nitty-gritty with you via PM along with some ideas I have for going a bit cheaper on the trip we are planning for next year!
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:39 AM   #12
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Dangermouse, when we sat down to do a trip "postmortem" we couldn't think of anywhere to top Mongolia! That is one of the reasons why we decided that we should probably return there next year!

Many of our other trip plans (like Oz and NZ) will take much longer to complete and so can't realistically be done before we FIRE.
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Old 07-21-2008, 10:42 AM   #13
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Thank you for sharing. Simply amazing. What an adventure. Wow. I'm speechless and that doesn't happen often.
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:01 AM   #14
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Splendid!
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:04 AM   #15
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Wow, what an incredible trip. So that's what Outer Mongolia looks like.
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:22 AM   #16
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Quote:
The reindeer are used for riding and as pack animals, plus their milk is used to make milk tea, which we tasted while visiting with them.
I did know people ride reindeer. I didn't think them big enough.
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:29 AM   #17
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Sarah , Thank you for the amazing pictures and the explanations . It looks like a fascinating place .
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:30 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by Sarah in SC View Post
Dangermouse, when we sat down to do a trip "postmortem" we couldn't think of anywhere to top Mongolia! That is one of the reasons why we decided that we should probably return there next year!

Many of our other trip plans (like Oz and NZ) will take much longer to complete and so can't realistically be done before we FIRE.
Sarah

Glad to hear that you loved the place so much that you will return next year. Overall those prices don't seem too bad considering what was included. So is there another part of Mongolia you will go to or will it be the same area?

I'll admit that the lack of a Hilton puts it outside the area of my comfort level.
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:39 AM   #19
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Thanks for posting! Looks wonderful!

I was in Inner Mongolia in 1994, loved both the desert and the grasslands, but there were no lakes like you have here. Thanks again for sharing.
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Old 07-21-2008, 11:39 AM   #20
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I did know people ride reindeer. I didn't think them big enough.
Huh, for some reason I thought you were familiar with the area, Ghengis.
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