Camping on the Mongolian Steppe

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.

12 Mile Ride

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’ backs.  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 in a meadow for a grilled cheese lunch.

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 on our breaks, 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 galloped 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 the side until he familiarizes himself with the terrain as opposed to darting abruptly.

Setting Up Camp

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 near a nomad camp, we were provided the opportunity to see how a lamb is slaughtered in the bush.

Butchering a Sheep

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.  Premium knives, care and skill are essential here. 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.

butchering a sheep

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 to me and lamb might be my favorite meal.

Fishing in Mongolia

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!

fishing in mongolia

Soccer Match by Moonligiht

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!

Hike to Mandal Mountain

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.  It was more like a shrine that both Buddhists and Shamanists use to worship their ancestors with an extensive ritual.

Ritual Around the Ovoo

We repeated the ritual upon our visit.  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 Mongolians, 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 for 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.  I have found that the traditions and rituals are very important among the Mongols.  At the same time, there are not hundreds of people passing through the vast steppe.  As a result, I wondered who would mess with the offerings.

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!!

view of camp from the base of the mountain
view of camp from the base of the mountain

Fly Fishing in Mongolia

While most guests enjoyed the nice weather with a relaxing afternoon off, Galen, Boynaa and Turoo took Chip and me fishing at another river about a 45 minute drive away.  The rocks were moss covered so the water color looked totally different from the other rivers we have fished.  I think my first five casts caught five baby grayling with the biggest one being eight inches!  While it is fun to catch fish, catching babies was getting a little aggravating, so I moved.

River in Mongolia

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 a 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 throwback!  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 Boynaa 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!

Another Celebration!

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 Boynaa 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. The moon was magnificent, though it did somewhat interfere with star-gazing.  Tonight, however, at least I spotted the big dipper.

21 Miles Back to Lapis Sky Ger Camp

We awoke on the final day of our journey and were blessed to see two demoiselle cranes which mate for life dancing around the meadow flirting. They weren’t too far from the horses tied off in the field, so I visited Mojo briefly as I ventured closer for a better photo.

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!

free horse on the mongolian steppe

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 nomads’ 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 as 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 he 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.

wild horses on the mongolian steppe

The Storm

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. 

Beth and Page

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.

The Shaman

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 woken?”  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 on the Mongolian Steppe!  ETB

The river at Lapis Sky Ger Camp in Mongolia

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purple flowers on the mongolian steppe

Activities on the Mongolian Steppe

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. 

Run to a Mountain Peak

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 and was 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.  We weren’t there long, 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 by 8:30 in the morning.

Photo Session

For our photography session this morning, we snapped pictures of a few staff members who posed with the horses.  After capturing some images of the lovely ladies dressed in their formal wear, we visited Ganbold’s summer farm.  We watched his morning chores which included bringing the horses in from the river.  In Mongolia, the horses are watered in the morning and the evening.  We also watched  Ankhaa milk the yaks again and observed how the mares are rounded up and the foals tied up to prepare for milking.

The Tos Ritual Again!

Page and I ended up sticking around with Liam longer than the rest of the group in hopes for a few more shots of their dog, children toys on the steppe, and yak carts. As a result, we 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.

Flying Fishing in Mongolia

After breakfast, a few of us went fly fishing with Galen in the aqua waters of the Tamir River flowed by our ger camp.  It was a good practice session for beginners, though the windy weather kept us from catching many fish.  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.

galen fly fishing

Camping at Tolgin Butts

In the afternoon, we mounted our horses and set out on our journey beneath sunny skies.  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 with the few camping tips. 

  1. Put the head of your sleeping bag uphill.
  2. Get out your headlamp now while it’s light
  3. Sleep in the clothes you plan on wearing tomorrow or put them in your sleeping bag, so they will be warm in the morning 

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!” 

Hiking in Tolgin Butts

After getting settled, we joined Galen and many other guests for a hike to an ovoo atop Tolgin Butts.  The hike followed the steep hillside with no trail.  I might add, none of the hikes I’ve done 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 guests 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 a patch of lovely pink fireweed to the summit.  As is custom, we rounded the ovoo three times before we relaxed and admired the panoramic views.  As a cool breeze kicked up, we headed down.  It was a bit of a scramble as we slid here or there on loose scree.  Overall, it was a great climb and a perfect way to spend the hour before our late dinner.

Silent, But Deadly

By the time we crawled in the tent, it was dark.  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.  What a wonderful action packed day on the Mongolian Steppe!  ETB

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