Bye bye Russia, hello Mongolia
On 12 august, we woke up together with the sun, and walked towards the train station of Ulan Ude, floating in a bubble of warm feelings, having been so spoiled by russian hospitality.
The good thing about travelling by train, is that you have plenty of time to prepare for crossing the physical and cultural borders. Like when your coach waits, abandoned for 300 mins, at a side track of a russian border town.
Slowly, slowly, something happens, passports get checked, and re-checked, and rechecked again. We can hear the engine before it is there, and finally, the train begins to move. The landscape is different, I was accustomed to taiga passing by outside the window, now it is softly rolling hills, another shade of green.
Excitement, as we roll into an mongolian border town.
– Change money, change money – the corridor is full of pleading voices. We change a few rubles for a terrible rate, and a later visit to the stations ATM turns me into a tugrik millionaire. The day fades, and we roll into sleep.
Ulan Bator – in game as Ugliest city?
Around 5 AM I wonder, why these insane times of arrival, as our train brakes to a stop in Ulan Bator, and our “provodnitsa” has been banging on the door several times.
We stumble out into the crisp morning air, the city still asleep, after several attempts we are allowed to leave the backpacks in the luggage store, we wave goodbye to our fellow passenger, that is assembling his bike on the platform, and venture out to explore, but beaten by the early our, end up in an european style cafe, hanging over mugs of coffee.
The city is ugly, no doubt about it. Post-soviet, built by nomads used to moving on, crazy traffic that stands still most of the day, nothing green kept alive in the center, still not Kathmandu-bad.
We have arranged to be picked up by Stepperiders, and half an hour later, traffic jams forgotten, I am greeted by a puppy, a kitty, and some horsey noises. We unload into a ger – and wonder at the lush, soft green hills that surround us.
I have never learned how to ride, and the next 2 days I am making up for the neglicence with my very sore ass. But hey, its FUN to gallop!
Olgii – the wild west
We want to go to Bayan Olgii, a province in the nort-western corner of Mongolia. Mongolia does not have to many kilometers of asphalted roads, and the 1500 km drive is masochistic 56 hours bus trip. After a long family discussion, and a very bumpy jeep ride, we decide to get some plane tickets.
When we arrive in Olgii, we are greeted by a desert mountain scenery, some snow capped peaks shimmering in the back ground, and a sky full of falcons, that soar and play with the winds like childrens kites.
We meet our guide, and embark on another bumpy jeep drive to Tavan Bogd, the national park that houses Mt Khuiten, 4374 m, the top of Mongolia. Our mountain guide, Ms Gangaamaa Badamgarav from Mongolia Expeditions, the first mongolian woman to summit Everest is a bundle of energy and mountain tales.
Khuiten means “cold” in Mongolian, and it is cold to sleep on ice. It is hard to crawl out of the sleeping bag in the morning, when everything inside the tent is iced over from the humidity in ones breath. It is steep, the glacier gaps with crevasses, and crampons must be placed with care. We move slowly upward, roped up all the time, the sun shines from a perfect blue sky. The view from the ridge and the top is amazing. All these untouched mountain peaks on the chinese side, soaring needles with ice.
Kazakh eagle hunters
Back from the trek, we enjoy a few days of relative civiliation, with hot shower, internet and laundry, before embarking on a magical, cultural adventure.
We are greeted by the extremly friendly Osban, a man that is a journalist on the Olgi newspapers, hunts, edits radio shows, and also can arrange a home stay with a local nomad family.
We go, again a bumpy jeep ride, featuring a few break downs, and stay over a week with a family of Kazakh eagle hunters, where we eat together, ride together, laugh together, play various silly games. Not to mention drink together the vodka, and the fermented horse milk.
– Kha, kha – I crouch and call the eagle, waving enthusiastically with a chopped off goat leg.
The eagle flyes towards me, dives, and straightens the curve into the sky.
Everybody follows running, calling and searching, and this is how I learn, that I am no material for a good eagle hunter.
Luckily my son Pawel saves the family’s honor, and I am consoled by the view of my daughter, the looks of a Kazakh princess. Slowly, with patience, we learn the forgotten art of milking, fetching water from the river, living a simple life, in harmony with the land, and what it has to offer.
The nomads make the best of the land, the soil is not rich in nutricients, but can be grazed by animals. Every family has about 50 horses, cows, goats, sometimes camels, sometimes yaks. The food consists of dairy products, meat, a few potatoes, and lots of salted milk tea. With butter, for better taste.
The flocks of animals wander freely around, there are no fences, the neighbor is also living in a ger, and its easies to go there on a horse.
Time flows at a slower, more satisfactory pace, as the water boils, goats are milked, and we learn and practice kazkh words for “heart”, and “thank you” and “thank you very much”. Our moments together are magical, we are blessed to be together with this family, to experience their harmony, love, engagement.
Next stop china!
Goodbye Mongolia. You have been mind blowing, a continuos how-can-it-get-any-better-than-this experience. Climbing, riding, eagle hunting and staying with nomads … it was pure magic. Next stop, China.