Did you know Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world?
WANT TO VACATION SOONER? IF SO, THIS VACATION CLUB IS FOR YOU!
Did you know Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world?
I’m sad to say, today is our final day in Mongolia, aside from the 10 hour bus ride back to Ulaanbaatar tomorrow and our flight out the following day that aren’t likely worth mentioning as the travel is never as fun as the destination.
Anyway, we enjoyed a late morning horse ride to Ganbold’s winter farm which wasn’t that far from his summer location and a fifteen-minute walk by horse from our ger camp. As such, we experienced a relaxing morning riding and exploring his winter camp. Continue reading “The Cowboys and Musicians of Mongolia”
If going to Mongolia, attending a naadam festival is a must. Each village and city holds a naadam, many of which coincide with Mongolia’s Independence Day on July 11th and 12th. We were blessed to see a countryside naadam a few days ago in Tsenkher, and now we were getting to visit another in Tsetserleg a few hours from camp. It is my understanding, that the country naadams are friendlier and more photogenic than the city naadams like the one in Ulaanbaatar that are more like large sporting events with lots of traffic and screeching loud speakers.
We hurriedly loaded several vans at 7:45am to get to Tsetserleg in time to watch the first horse race. In typical Mongolian fashion, the vans raced each other across the steppe, and arrived later than the scheduled event! Therefore, we had time to kill, as the opening ceremony and wrestling events in the arena didn’t begin until 10am. While most of the group followed Carroll to Fairfield for a real cup of coffee and internet service, I wandered around the fairgrounds with Ingrid and Anna.
While the featured events, horse racing, wrestling, and archery are far different from any events at a fair in the United States, the activities taking place outside the arena, very much mimicked what would be seen at a state fair though in a more rural fashion. Balloon popping dart games could be found in multiple locations. Locals threw the darts from behind a line scratched in the dirt. Many crowded around the basketball hoop, a very popular sport in Mongolia. There was also face painting and a game similar to spill the milk that required the player to knock cans off the shelf with a ball. Little kids could even enjoy a few carnival rides.
Vendors lined up around the arena to sell their wares which included toys, clothes, nice leather belts, and several knock offs including Calvin Klain, Addidos, Pamu, and Nikei. Food stands sold khuushuur, mutton pancakes which is a favorite treat among Mongolians along with Cokes with curly straws. We actually had khuushuur for lunch though the meat stuffed, pita bread was purchased from a local restaurant nearby rather than a food stand.
Many of the spectators dressed in their “Sunday best” (this was far different than a fair in the USA). Ladies donned all white, hats, fancy dresses and high heal shoes. Men generally wore jeans, a nice shirt, and hat. Many came on their horses. Families posed in front of the giant billboard sign that featured winning wrestlers from the previous year for their portrait.
Inside the arena, wrestlers waited to compete. Wearing their wrestling suit (bikini bottoms and an open-chested jacket) beneath their deels, they rested in the shade of the stands with the spectators until they were introduced to compete. Legend has it this open-chested design came to be after an Amazonian female thrashed her male competitors. To prevent such embarrassment in the future, the open-chested jacket would expose any female competitors!
Upon introduction, the large, heavy men strutted onto the grassy infield to their hat holder. After completing the eagle dance around their hat holder, the six wrestlers in the first round joined each other as they waved their arms like birds and strode around the Mongolian flag. Next they returned to their hat holder to whom they handed off their Janjin Malgai (colorful, pointy hat) in preparation for their competition!
Soon the single-elimination, wrestling tournament began. Three matches were held at once. To win the match, the wrestler must cause a body part his opponent other than his hands or feet touch the ground. The wrestlers may grab the belly rope, stick their leg out to trip one another, or somehow tackle their opponent to the ground, but kicking and punching is not allowed.
Without weight classes, sometimes little guys got paired against monsters. When the little guys somehow pulled off the miraculous, loud cheers erupted from the spectators. Some matches lasted a minute, while others were quite long. If the wrestlers appeared to be in a stale mate, the judges would place the wrestlers in certain positions, providing the leading wrestler “the upper hand”.
Once the winner knocked his opponent to the ground and the loser picked himself, the winner walked beneath the loser’s arm and then pranced around the flagpole with his arms waving in a victory dance. The once almost vacant arena, was now packed with spectators most of whom had abandoned the shade of the stands and circled the wrestlers in the sunny infield. It was quite the spectacle!
As horse racing and wrestling are the most popular, at the smaller naadams, many times the archery competition is not held. The schedule of events posted on a giant banner inside the arena didn’t mention archery, so I didn’t think it was taking place. Anna, however, noticed the archery competition outside the arena. As many times as I circled the stadium, I can’t believe I missed this. Admittedly, I was a little bummed!
Oh well, we were all fortunate to see the second horse race of the day. Six to thirteen-year old children (mostly boys but some girls) galloped four-year horses over a 17km track across the steppe. Through certain connections, we were able to load one “chase car” that followed the horses across the countryside. There was only room for a few guests and Page was one who opted for this route. I chose to go directly to the finish line as I found from our chase the other day, it was very hard to snap a photo as we bounced up and down.
Scenes before the racers arrived:
The hot, dusty day took a toll on the sweaty horses and dirt covered riders. They were tuckered out as they reached the finish line. A bay horse came in first with a very strong lead. As each of the top five riders crossed the finish line, the judges rode with the jockeys to a holding pen where spectators flock to comb the sweat off the winning horse as it is considered lucky! I had hoped to capture this moment, but I mistakenly remained with the group at the finish line too long. Regardless, it was quite fun to watch the crowd and see the kids, some in “body armor” and others in capes and tennis shoes approach the finish line with priceless expressions.
In the top five:
While I expected to remain at the festival all day, storms were threatening, so I took the early van back to Lapis Sky Ger Camp at 3:30pm. I’m so glad I did, as the later vans were considerably delayed by missing drivers and heavy rain just as we were the first day of our trip across the steppe!
I, on the other hand, got to enjoy some quiet time at camp and then learn the ankle bone game. Nomin and Boynaa taught me, Ingrid and Kate how to play a variety shagai games. One game was similar to the “Magic 8-Ball” for those old enough to remember this Matel toy developed in the 1950’s used for fortune-telling. Instead of shaking the eight ball, we rolled ankle bones with four distinct side representing horse, sheep, goat and camel. Our fortunes depended on how they landed.
The next game, and the most common, is called moir uraldulakh or horse race. Several ankle bones are lined up as a track. Additional ankle bones are rolled and depending on the roll, we got to move our piece forward to the finish line. A roll of four of the same (like four camels), earned four spaces. A roll of four different animals earned one space. A space was earned for each horse rolled as well.
I found this game to be somewhat mindless over time, so we learned one more, which was fun. The first player led with rolling the ankle bones and picked up all the horses. Then the player would flick like sided ankle bones into one another, sort of like marbles. If a goat hit a goat, then the player got to pick the pieces up. If it missed or hit another ankle bone, the turn was over. The goal was to end up with all the ankle bones. The game included additional rules where players could run out of ankle bones and get back into the game, but the versions changed depending on the teacher, and its slightly too complicated to explain! Anyway, it was a fun game to learn before our late dinner. ETB
Our first night of camping went smoothly. We awoke and prepared for our next two nights and three days in the wilderness. After breakfast this morning, we took out on horseback. When in the wilderness, the horses are either hobbled together or staked to the ground with a 20-yard lead. Usually two horses are tied to each stake.
As usual, our horseman led our mount already saddled to us to climb up. Interestingly, the saddle is left on the horse for the rest of the day until the sun sets as they believe the sun hitting a sweaty saddle mark causes soreness in the horses’ back. Today, we rode horses for five hours and covered approximately 12 miles. Along the way, we stopped three times, including at an ovoo amongst fantastic wildflowers, at another ovoo in the high meadow and for lunch for a grilled cheese.
While the stops catered to bathroom breaks, snacking, and sipping water, I think the stops also gave the Russian vehicles time to make it up the hills, as they have to stop and add water to radiator after any duress. While we relaxed at the stops, the cowboys rough housed as it was Ganbold’s 50th birthday! I’m not sure it is good for Mongolians to know when it is your birthday. He was wrestled to the ground, harassed, carried around the ovoo and more. Of course, all in good fun!
Our ride included a lot of fast trot through the high meadow. I was thankful that Mojo was so small he could canter at the same pace, as the fast trot gait is back breaking. Eventually, we formed a single file line and walked down through the canyon to an open valley. Here, we split into groups, and those who wanted to go fast got to gallop toward camp. It’s a hoot to ride these pack animals that like to spook at the strangest things. We passed by a million rocks, but suddenly Mojo seemed to think one was going to jump out at him. Fortunately, for me, he pauses briefly or slides just slightly to side until he familiarizes himself with the terrain rather turning abruptly.
Upon arriving at camp, we set up our tent more successfully this time, though the boys still provided help. This time, we pretended to like everyone and found a spot closer to the action. Just kidding…we had a great group and conveniently found a closer site. Soon after we settled, we were offered the opportunity to see how a lamb is slaughtered in the bush.
While I felt sad that this animal was dying for our dinner, the Mongolians butcher the animals quickly, carefully, and I suspect as pain free as possible as the lamb didn’t even bleat when Boroo cut open its chest to severe the aorta with his hand. The Mongolians use all parts of the animal, including the blood. Severing the aorta kept all the blood in the chest, and none flowed onto the ground. Slowly he skinned the animal, and then butchered the pieces as necessary.
So I claimed Boroo butchered the sheep, but honestly I am terrible at telling apart the cowboys. I knew my handler, Jagi, but to me Moogi, also barely in his twenties and maybe even a teenager, looked similar Jagi. I think Boroo and Aruinbayar possessed similar characteristics too, but what do I know. Anyway, I never saw the spelling of their names so I had a hard time just pronouncing them, much less knowing who was who until we got a list of their names at the end of the trip. The other cowboys were Nema and Ganbold. In an effort to not misname them any further, I’m going to continue with the term “the cowboys”.
Admittedly, watching the sheep slaughter was tough, and I didn’t digitally record much of it. Though I will say it made me think twice about the food I eat. We, in America, are so far removed from the food chain. The thought was fleeting, however, as being a vegetarian would be quite challenging and lamb might be my favorite meal.
The rest of the evening included fishing, dinner, and a soccer match by the moonlight. I reveled in my good fortune at fishing. While I tossed back a couple of small grayling, I caught three healthy lenok. They were all 17+ inches and a good addition to our dinner!
The soccer match amongst the cowboys, interns, Galen, Liam, and a few guests (me and Chip) was a “play at your own risk” type match. Liam and Galen were both spectacular players who sped past everyone in their bare feet while juggling the ball. The cowboys played a more Kamakazi style, while the rest of us tried to get a touch in here or there. We marked off small goals with posts. The out of bounds was the river on one side and the trucks on the other. I quit when the score was 3-3, and we could hardly see the ball in the darkness. At that point, it was last goal wins…I don’t know which team was triumphant, but it was a fun night!
After another peaceful night in the steppe, we spent the morning hiking to the sacred Mandal Mountain. We first followed the tire tracked, grooved road which is on the map and then turned right up the mountain slope. We hiked past a few wildflowers and scrambled on some scree before we finally reached the peak with another ovoo and spectacular view. This ovoo was far more elaborate than the others we have seen and was more like a shrine that both Buddhists and Shamanists use to worship their ancestors with an extensive ritual that we repeated.
First offerings such as candies, objects or bottles of vodka are placed at the altar. We provided Twix and cookies before kneeling down and bowing three times. Next, we walked around the ovoo clockwise while flicking mare’s milk in each direction beginning at the North. Then we circled the ovoo while tossing vodka each direction. Finally we made our third lap around the ovoo before tying prayer flags to the ovoo’s sticks. While the ritual honors the ancestors, the prayer flag honors all beings.
The ovoo is very sacred to the Monoglians, so when Carroll said bottles of vodka are offered and no bottles where in the shrine, I wondered aloud, “Who takes them?” While the question wasn’t appreciated, it was legitimate. Religious or not, I wouldn’t go into a shrine and take something in fear of bad karma. There weren’t any bottles there, nor were they broken, so I wondered what happened to them. In addition, the interns Parker and Rose offered a painted horse skull last year at the altar, and it was replaced with other items, including a burned goat’s head. So my question remained unanswered, as I have found that the traditions and rituals are very important among the Mongols, but it is not like there are hundreds of people passing through the vast steppe.
Since I was the first one up to the ovoo and on the summit for an hour before the last guest finished with the ritual, I started down. Page followed, as we zig-zagged across the steep mountainside. Upon our arrival back to camp, we were pleasantly surprised to find bacon with lunch. This was a treat! I added it into the pasta with pesto, and it was delicious!!
While most guests enjoyed the nice weather with a relaxing afternoon off, Galen, Boyna and Turoo took Chip and me fishing at another river about a 45 minute drive away. The rocks were much more moss covered so the water color looked totally different. I think my first five casts caught five baby grayling with the biggest one being eight inches! While it is fun to catch fish, this was getting a little aggravating, so I moved.
I found another hole around the bend with a glassy surface by a rock cliff and the fish kept biting. I had my eye on a big guy resting below. I’d cast my dry fly and nymph just above him. As soon as I’d enticed him just enough to jiggle toward the surface, another fish would dart from the shore and hit my fly with vengeance. Ah, I snagged fish after fish, while sometimes trying to yank my fly out of reach so I didn’t have unhook another 14 incher just to throw back as the graylings were all smaller than the lenok I caught yesterday. The big one, however, got away…he never humored me with a strike.
While I was having great luck fishing, the boys did even better. After Chip lost the tip of his own rod, he used a regular fly rod for one of the few times in his life and enlisted a very unconventional yet successful way of fly fishing. He tossed the fly in the middle of the heavy rapids and yanked it up to the surface. This jig (which I know is common with lures) would attract the lenok from the depths of the river to the surface in a second. I was quite impressed. I’ve never learned to fish in that manner, though I have never “nymphed” so perhaps this technique is something common among fly fishermen. Even more impressive, however, was Boyna who landed a 19 inch lenok on a broken rod (two rods accidentally got closed into the car door which snapped seven inches off the top). At the end of our two-hour fishing expedition, we had probably hooked nearly 100 fish, though only kept a dozen. It was quite the experience. How many people can say they went fishing with the former Mayor of Bulgan, Mongolia? Yes, that’s right, Toroo was once the mayor of the small town closest to our ger camp!
While we were off fishing, the cowboys were showing off some of their skills which included playing polo and a jumping competition. It’s all about the horse in Mongolia! That would have been fun to see. Anyway, we got back in time for a mutton BBQ and vodka ceremony for Brigitte’s 65th birthday. She was honored with a sweat scraper and hat before we circled around a giant bonfire and sang campfire tunes. Emma led the way with a few Irish songs. Then Boyna sang a few Mongolian songs. Eventually, Emma played us some American tunes, before many of the Mongols stood to sing.
As much as I wanted to stay for the entire time, the wind really picked up, making the night chilly beneath the full moon. I huddled under a dell for a while, but soon I succumbed to the cold and turned in for the night. Camping under a full moon was certainly a treat as the moon was magnificent, though it did somewhat interfere with star-gazing. Tonight, however, spotted the big dipper.
We awoke on the final day of our journey, and we blessed to see two demoiselle cranes which mate for life dancing around the meadow flirting. They weren’t too far from the horse tied off in the field, so I visited Mojo briefly. After breakfast, we prepared to ride the 21 miles we had covered over two days in four hours back to our ger camp. The trek was broken into three segments so people with less experience riding or those that tired could opt out at certain stages. Four folks opted out at the beginning, but the rest of us cantered out of the valley and trotted through the canyon which was rocky to our left and forested to our right. We exited the canyon into the high meadow where we again stopped at the ovoo. Here we enjoyed a cheese sandwich before we mounted for the next segment.
Everyone who completed the first stage, also rode this section. We trotted across most of the segment due to the uneven terrain. Oh how I wished we could have cantered! My stirrups were slightly too long to post up and down, but even if I’d had the opportunity, I’m not sure I could have kept up with the speed of the gait! It was rather impossible. I was looking forward our final leg.
Soon we ended down in the meadow, where only one additional rider bowed out and joined the get-away vehicle. The horses whose riders traveled in the van were set free to run with us or were led by a cowboy. Without a job, they had a tendency to kick, especially the ones on the line. We were careful to avoid them, but one of the cantankerous fellows not on the line stopped and swerved his butt in toward Mojo to take a swipe. Perhaps, Mojo should stop pinning his ears at all the horses!
Anyway, the rest of us remained mounted. Most of this section was along flatter terrain, so we got to canter. Mojo has a lovely canter, and being such a small horse, even when the pack slowed to the painful trot as we neared herds of goats and yaks as well as nomad’s gers with their dog, most the time I could keep Mojo in a beautiful, cantering rhythm. Even Carroll commented on how nice we looked as a pair. The slow canter also kept Mojo at the front of the pack, which is where he liked to be as he perked his ears forward in happiness. As soon as a horse challenged him at his rear, however, he pinned his ears back until his forward position was guaranteed.
We dropped to a slower pace for a short rest when a light shower fell from the overcast sky. Soon the shower increased to a heavy, cold drizzle which cooled and dampened our rain-jacket free torsos. Fortunately, our lead cowboy picked up the pace again, so we cantered through meadow until we cleared the rain cloud and slowed to a walk to cross a ditch. With little warning, we were instructed that we could gallop as fast as we wanted up the hill in front of us. The horses knew this, and as soon as we crossed the ditch, they kicked into high gear.
I quickly pressed my heals down, only to have my stirrup, slick from the rain, shoot forward. Now I was galloping with one leg in the stirrup and the other gripping the side of Mojo as tightly as possible while flicking my foot around trying to catch the flailing stirrup. Back in my horse riding days, being without stirrups would not have bothered me…this was a common requirement in our lessons. On the steppe, in a gallop on an unfamiliar breed of horse that tends spook at the slightest things, I just hoped that Mojo would continue straight and remain at his smooth, yet fast pace. If jumped sideways, I would have likely been on the ground!
By the time I caught the stirrup on my foot and was ready to encourage Mojo onward, we were about to reach the narrowing, steep section of the hill where the horses tuckered out, so our gallop time was over. The top of the crest provided a magnificent view of the misty valley. As we slowly descended toward camp, a herd of horses commanded by a roan stallion came charging toward us. We shooed them off to the side, and they continued into the valley where they visited Ganbold’s ger. Ganbold’s protective stallion, was nicer than expected, but he protected his herd as he directed the free roaming bunch toward our ger camp. Soon they were wandering through our camp just as goats and yaks had in previous days.
We had a great ride with the horses and no sooner did we dismount than the rain came again. First in light sprinkles, but by the time we made it to the ger, a storm whipped up. Our örkh that covered the top of the ger came untied and flipped around in the gusty wind. It caught the chimney to our stove which was lifted in the air and then came crashing down inside. Carroll’s ger had water flowing through the bottom of it while the supporting posts in Diane’s and Kim’s ger came tumbling down. Stephanie and Brigitte lost the örkh completely! The poor boys, donned in raincoats with water dripping from the brims, were racing from ger to ger checking to see if we were OK. It was quite a storm that left just as fast as it came, so we were only trapped inside for an hour.
Once the chaos dissipated, it was nap time for me. Sleep is limited while camping, and I needed to catch up. We had a few hours before we were to meet a shaman. Page came in and asked, “Would you like to be awoken?” In my groggy state, I thought I had only slept thirty minutes and responded, “No.” As such, she dutifully left.
Little did I know it was 7pm and the shaman was here! Oh well, I missed the ceremony. From what I understand, the young, college aged man who is the brother of a staff member at camp pursued Shamanism as thirteen-year old boy when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition which required a heart transplant. He seeked advice of a shaman who told him he was sick because his ancestors were calling him. He needed to become a Shaman to communicate with his ancestors. As such, he studied to be a Shaman, is no longer sick, and now heals others.
He performed a ceremony where he dressed in his robe. He went into trance after the drums were banged, and he stayed in trance to speak with the ancestors. When he came out of his trance, he didn’t remember anything. Questions and answers came after the ceremony. The guests seemed to enjoy the interaction. I joined in at the very end after wandering around down by the river, just before our 9pm dinner. What a nice camping trip! ETB
Today we prepared for our three day camping journey which included a little packing for the guests and a lot of packing for the staff. The preparation coupled with the run-off election for which the nomads had to go in to town to vote made for a busy morning.
In the meantime, however, Thomas and Carroll’s sons offered different activities which included photography hikes, fishing, and runs up to mountain peaks. I joined all three activities. The run to a distant ovoo where Ganbold buried his father didn’t look that far away. Boy was I wrong! We jogged for a while across the meadow and up a gradual incline past 3,000 year old graves marked with rocks in the form of a circle or a square. Since I was the only one participating in this activity, winded, I told Galen I needed to walk up the hill. We scaled some rocks and eventually made it to the peak topped with the ovoo.
It has been tradition since the 16th century for nomads to lay the deceased on the mountain top to be eaten by scavengers such as eagles and wolves. It is believed, that feeding the dead to wild animals will sustain the predators and protect the prey. In addition, the body’s purpose is to nourish the Earth. This open-air offering or sky burial was banned during the communist times and with religious freedom restored, the nomads like Ganbold have since reinstated the practice. We visited the ovoo where his father’s body was offered to the animals just briefly, as in order for me to be back in time for the photography session, I had to finish the run/walk in 45 minutes. I got my 10,000 steps 8:30 in the morning.
For our photography jaunt this morning, a few staff members posed for us near the horses. Then we went over to Ganbold’s and watched him bring the horses in from the river. In Mongolia, the horses are watered in the morning and the evening. We also got to see Ankhaa milk the yaks again as well as to observe how the mares are rounded up and the foals tied up to prepare for milking.
Page and I ended up sticking around with Liam longer than the rest of the group in hopes for a few more shots, and then got invited into Ganbold and Ankhaa’s ger as Liam has a small gift for them (some chips and chocolate). Because we were guests, the ritual began! We sat on the cot and waited as Ankhaa provided us milk tea and tos. Oh my gosh, we felt so bad that she had to do this for us…breakfast was just around the corner. At the same time, it was neat to experience, as this wasn’t a planned tourist activity.
After breakfast, a few of us went fly fishing with Galen. The aqua waters of the Tamir River flowed by our ger camp. It was a good practice session for beginners though there was not a lot of fish catching as it was terribly windy. I’m told, however, the waters where we are camping are spectacular for hooking Lenok and Graling, so I suppose I will try my hand again in the next few days.
In the afternoon, we mounted our horses and set out on our journey. We rode about nine miles in three hours to our first camp in Tolgin Butts. Upon arrival, the trucks were there with our gear. We dismounted, picked a tent and some sleeping pads and found some flat ground in the meadow that wasn’t peppered in yak poo (that was hard to do). Setting up the tent with Page, who hasn’t camped in forty years, was entertaining to say the least. Fortunately, the staff gave us a hand, and we crammed into the three person, orange Marmot, that really sleeps two side by side and fits some gear at the bottom.
I provided Page the few camping tips I knew like: put the head of your sleeping bag uphill, get out your headlamp now while it’s light, and either sleep in or put in your sleeping bag the clothes you plan on wearing in the morning so they will be warm. Furthermore, those who know Page, knows she packs the kitchen sink. As such I warned, “While you get ¾ of the hotel room and 2/3 of the ger, you only get ½ the tent!” After getting settled, we joined Galen and many other guests for a hike to an ovoo top Tolgin Butts.
The hike followed the steep hillside with no trail. I might add, none of the hikes I’ve been over the last few days have been on a trail. We climbed up the grassy slope dotted in wildflowers, onions, and rhubarb until we reached the first false summit. This ridge offered a sweeping view of the valleys around us, and some didn’t see it necessary to continue further. I don’t blame them. There were no switchbacks to follow…we just clambered upward.
Soon we conquered the next short hilltop, before we finished with a surge through patch of lovely pink fireweed to the summit. We rounded the ovoo three times before we sat and admired the panoramic views. A cool breeze kicked up, so we headed down. It was a bit of a scramble as we slid here or there on loose scree. It was a lovely climb and a perfect way to spend the hour before our late dinner.
It was dark by the time we crawled in the tent. In close quarters, I thought it might be polite to warn Page that I needed to toot. Oh my, the “silent but deadly” phrase held true to form! Page started giggling so hard, she couldn’t stop. Soon, I had stitches in my side and tears rolling down my cheeks. By the time we were done laughing, Page had already rolled uphill and taken over the tent. I looked at her in dismay, “I’ve never seen anyone roll uphill in a tent before…move over!” The laughing continued. Fortunately, our tent was the furthest away from camp, as I’m certain anyone that could hear us was ready for us to shut it down. It was an action packed day…ETB
I skipped Pranayama this morning and opted for a walk with Galen up to the top of the hillside. The expansive landscape is deceptive. From the valley, the hill looks small, but in reality, the climb is a 1,000 foot gain in a short distance. Fortunately for me, the altitude is lower than it is in Colorado, so it wasn’t too difficult, but I certainly broke a sweat. The peak provided a sweeping view of the valley below as well as the valley across the river and distant ones.
After our hike, we crossed the saddle and joined the photography group who was practicing landscape shots with Liam. I added macro shots into the mix as there was a smattering of wildflowers which I love. We futzed around with our cameras until breakfast time which thankfully included an omelette station. Hooray…tasty protein!
We were back on the horses after breakfast exploring the rolling hills. A few of us got to do some galloping. In Mongolia, a full gallop across the steppes in known as a thunderhoof. While Page and I wanted to go faster, a mad dash wasn’t quite what we had in mind, so we asked for a “drizzlehoof”, a name Stephanie came up with for a slow gallop. It was fun! I find myself smiling and giggling while I’m on the horse even when Mojo decides he would like to lead the pack without encouragement from me! Fortunately, as soon as he gets ahead, he settles down, so I don’t have to worry he’ll run away.
Our ride, once again, lasted a few hours, so by the time we arrived back to camp, a pasta lunch, french fries, and vegetable salad was served. I can promise by the end of these two weeks, I will have eaten more carbs than I have all year, but whose counting. At least I’m getting a lot of exercise as I’m piling a bunch of starch on my plate.
Our afternoon ride included a visit to a ger to meet a nomad family. The riders that wished to go fast rode to one ger while the riders that wished to go slow rode to another. Before our journey we discussed ger etiquette.
These were the basics, but more customs came into play when we were served food. Because nomads have to survive harsh conditions, they accommodate anyone who visits. While a knock on the door isn’t necessary, a shout to call off the dog may be. Regardless, visitors are greeted graciously.
We visited a gentleman whose family was away at Nadaam. With his wife, kids, and grandchild away, he was left to do the cooking. He first served us bread, yak butter, cheese, and aaruul (dried curd). The dried curd is rock hard, hangs from a string around the top of the ger and to me tasted like a sour, dried yogurt stick. While the aaruul wasn’t my most favorite as I am not much of a yogurt fan, the milk tea called suutei tsai was good.
Our host heated up a quart of yak milk with a quart of water and added a tablespoon of green tea and some salt in a cauldron on the wood burning stove before serving us the suutei tsai in bowls. As custom, we accepted the milk tea with our right or both hands and sipped it before setting it on the table when we were finished.
The next serving was tos which they always make for guests. Tos is similar to a raw cake batter. It includes flour, sugar, yak milk and butter. The cowboys took turns stirring the tos which again was served to us in bowls that we accepted with our right hand. It was good too, and I understand the kids are always excited when guests come and there is tos leftover so they can eat it.
Along with the food ceremony, of course, is the vodka ceremony. How could I have almost forgotten to mention that. In fact, it was likely the first thing we were offered. The shot glass was filled, we dipped our right, ring finger in the glass, flicked the alcohol in the air, and then sipped from the glass before returning it to the host who then filled the glass and gave it to the next person to repeat the process.
The same type process was also followed with his grandfather’s snuff bottle. The snuff bottle is heavy, carved from precious stone, and is the most prized possession of a Mongolian man after his horse. Snuff bottles are a sign of well-being for the nomad. Each of us took the bottle with our right hand, unscrewed the cap, took a whiff, reinserted the cap, and returned it to our host.
With the ceremonies behind us and the help of Boynaa our translator, we exchanged questions and ultimately sang. In our exchange, we somehow started showing photos on our phones, and the cowboys were perplexed by Page’s mini horses. They kept asking about their size and finally said they could carry the horse! Haha…so true.
Soon our singing interchange began. The Mongolian cowboys sat on one side of the ger with the host, while we ladies sat on the other. It was like a seventh-grade dance with the boys and girls separated. The Mongolians love their music and can sing countless, meaningful songs by heart. We, one the other hand, had a tough time singing more than a verse. Fortunately, Emma, a young Irish lady with a love of music was with us, as she kept us going, but eventually we had to resort to childhood tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” just to finish a whole song! Overall, I really enjoyed the customs and this was one of the highlights of the day to me.
In line with customs, all nomads zigzag a rope back and forth inside the roof of their ger. This reminds them that there are both good and bad times, and they hope for the good. Other items that can be found in the ger are two-three cots, an alter with family pictures, and a TV. Our host had an excellent racing stallion, so all of his medals were hung up as well.
After a few hours, we said our good-byes and left the ger, which felt like a sauna after all the cooking on the wood burning stove, for a picnic beneath the cottonwood by the river. Along the way, we passed by other nomad families.
At the picnic, the Mongolians placed hot rocks from the fire into an urn with goat to cook what is called khorkhog. When eating the dish, it is customary to pass the hot, greasy rocks from hand to hand in order to bring good health! Of course, we participated in this custom too. After eating the regular pieces of goat, the scapula which is considered the best meat is presented. The oldest person at the dinner must cut the scapula into the correct number of pieces to give one to each person. The oldest person, Ingrid, couldn’t have been a better choice. After all, she butchers bears back in the states! Along with trimming the meat, she had to punch a hole in the bone to release its soul.
The night was just getting started by this point. It was Chip and Kate’s delayed honeymoon trip, so they were presented with anniversary gifts during song. Kate, always kind, and Chip, always joking, make great couple. They live in Ohio and somewhat randomly picked Mongolia for their vacation.
Soon, the focus switched to Boynaa and Emma who played the guitar and fiddle, respectively while they alternated between Mongolian and Irish music. Finally, the dancing started when Nomin translated that Ganbold, one of our cowboys and nomad neighbor wanted to dance with Ingrid. What entertainment…another highlight!
Finally, our first day in Lapis Sky Ger Camp! We awoke to see what our ger looked like in daylight. It included two cots, a sink with river water dispenser, some shelving and hooks for our clothes, a table and a wood burning stove. The furniture was quite colorful. The door as usual faced south to protect from the cold of the winter wind. The cart-wheeled shaped opening at the top of the ger known as a toon was covered by an örkh which could be opened and closed via ropes from the ground. We opened ours so we could see given the ger lacked electricity.
Breakfast wasn’t scheduled until 9:30am as we needed to wait for the yak milk to come from our nomad neighbors. In the meantime, several activities are offered. I tried Pranayama for the first time beneath the cottonwood trees by the river. Two yoga oficionados and me…hmmm. I crossed my legs and my knees were supposed to touch the ground. That was a joke! I required rolled up yoga matts beneath my rear cheek bones as well as beneath both knees to simulate resting on the ground. I don’t know how my counterparts could sit with their feet in their crotch with their knees touching the ground. Even with practice, I’m not sure I could succeed at that. Anyway, we practiced a few breathing techniques, which I did backwards. By the second breathing exercise of the thirty-minute session my left leg was asleep and my hips and back were aching. Clearly, this was not the exercise for me, but at least I tried it.
After Pranayama, it was time for our photography walk. Our guide Tom Kelly is a National Geographic photographer which is quite impressive as that is tough to acquire. His son Liam, who was born and raised in Katmandu and now attends Prescott College, is quite an accomplished photographer as well. We walked with him to the neighbor nomads where we got to photography Ankha milking the yaks. The yaks are milked once a day, the goats and sheep twice a day, and the mares four times a day! Needless to say, the women are very busy in the summer and clearly have the technique down. I, on the other hand, gave it a try and managed to eek out a few dribbles. If it depended on me to deliver the yak milk for breakfast, we wouldn’t be eating today!
Eventually, it was breakfast time. A simple meal of bread, pancakes, oatmeal, and fermented mare’s milk (extra sour) yogurt was provided in buffet style. I’m so used to eating eggs and fresh fruit in the morning, that this breakfast of mostly carbs was a bit challenging to me, but it is not an easy feat to get any food to these camps. Regardless, we filled up our bellies and prepared for our first horse ride and assessment of our journey. Our group of tourists ranged from never having ridden a horse to professionals, so our experience ran the gamut.
Mongolian horses are small and compact compared to other breeds. They have a quick gait and are known to spook. The Mongol cowboys brought their horses over the hills from different camps for us to ride. When my handler Jagi led his horse from the hitching post to me to mount, I asked his name. My horse’s name was Mojo and it was the only horse of the entire group that had a name as Mongols don’t name their horses. Instead, they have 56 words for brown!
Feeling special, I wondered how I ended up being assigned the only horse with a name and I was curious to know how he earned it. There had to be an iconic story. Sarah, a staffer from Montana who came to manage the cowboys after being a guest on the trip seven years ago explained, Galen, Tom and Carroll’s younger son, came up with the name because he had a lot of energy. Somehow, I think there is more to the story than that, but they probably didn’t want to scare me.
After everyone mounted their horses which required a staff member or cowboy to stand by the horse so it took a while, we headed away from the camp through the beautiful green Valley of Teel. We stayed on flat terrain and mostly walked as we familiarized ourselves with the horses and vice versa. Getting back on a horse after a twenty-five year hiatus was fun. Mojo was responsive, though spent most of his time shaking his head and kicking at the atrocious flies. Fortunately, he didn’t spook ten-feet sideways at a patch of wool resting on the ground like Page’s horse did. Without “riding legs” which use completely different muscles than any other sport, I may have hit the dirt. Given Page still rides regularly, she remained seated!
Lunch came next and then a quick shower. I opted for an afternoon shower while it was sunny and warm as the evening air cools substantially as the sun goes down. Having said that, I think I will be showering sparingly as the make shift shower house with solar bags filled by heated river was crawling with earwigs. While bugs don’t bother me much, sitting my bare butt on an earwig or having them drop onto my head didn’t appeal to me.
Our second ride took us across the Tamir River which runs by camp, through the valley, across the river again, and up and down a hill before we returned to camp. We got to go a little faster…a little trotting and a select few galloped up one hill. At the top of the hill was a deer stone believed to be erected by nomads around 1000 BC. Our rides were about two hours each across simple terrain which will become more demanding each day.
Upon our return, we tried out our archery skills which were rather lacking! We used an off balanced, man-made bow and drew the arrow back on the outside as the Mongls do as it is quicker to load the arrow this way while on horseback. The arrows rarely flew straight, but eventually, the few of us that tried our hand, finally hit the target. Our success rate was about one in ten attempts.
From archery, we entered the dining ger and met with Badambazar and Doljin, grandparents who once lived as nomads, but now live in town. We discussed the life of nomad with them. Nomads tend to move about four times a year in order to feed their herds which rely on the natural grass. They pack up their ger to move to their summer, spring and fall camps and settle into a more stable structure with their ger for the winter.
Most nomads raise yaks, goats, sheep and horses. Owning diverse herds of lifestock ensure the nomads won’t suffer a complete misfortune should their animals succumb to a hard winter known as a zud which cause animals to starve to death from the inability to graze. Today, a nomad is considered successful by the number of animals in their herd…the benchmark is 1,000. This, however, is tough on the land from which the animals live, and some believe it might be better to own less, but healthier herds.
Most nomads have several children at a young age. Badambazar and Doljin had eight! The kids go to boarding school during the week and come home on the weekend, weather permitting. Interestingly, the animal herds go to the youngest child rather than the oldest, and the herd is not split up among the children. As such, the youngest stays a nomad while many of the other children will move to the city in search of better opportunities. Because men must attend to the herds, women tend to hold the skilled jobs in the city.
We had a nice conversation with them, though I’m sure they sat wondering about our terrible ger etiquette. Virtually everyone sat with their legs crossed…a no no! Anyway, it was finally dinner time and we enjoyed great chicken and pineapple along with several sides. Little did we know how hard it was to get chicken. It is too cold in the winters for chicken in Mongolia, so they are imported from China!
After diiner, Liam’s girlfriend, Emma who is Irish, played Irish tunes on the ukulele and sang beautifully. She even belted out a Britney Spears’ song. What fun! Not only is she a talented musician, she was the resident massage therapist for the trip and made a mean muesli. The Irish really know their muesli…it was some of my favorite when I visited Ireland. It was a nice day in the countryside. ETB