Archive for April, 2012

Nokho Khoro – The Great Gobi Adventure

Nokho Khoro – The Great Gobi Adventure

It wasn’t so much weeks of planning that preceded The Great Gobi Adventure, as it was weeks of asking “Are you nuts?”  For starters, all the planning was done by a striking Mongolian woman who lets foreigners call her Nara (because her real name is Narangerel Altangurgaldai, that’s why – you wanna hurt your tongue, you go right ahead, I’ll call 911).  My Mother will be happy to know she raised her son better than this, but I did pay money (yes, real USA greenbacks – and a lot more than a dollar-two-fortyeight) for the opportunity to sit, white-knuckled, in a AN-24 to one of the largest (and getting bigger, if not moving wholesale into China) deserts in the world.  But, I had no choice: the guy who suggested this fool-hearty excursion is much bigger than I am (but, since some of my readers know him, he shall
remain nameless).

DAY ONE – 22 August 2003

The Plan was: Jagaa would pick up Nara at 0500, then swing by and pick up The Out-of-Towners and me, and we would make it to lovely Buyant Ukhaa Airport in plenty of time.  ‘Cept Nara wasn’t ready by 0500, and they didn’t swing by until 0540.  No, I did not panic.  I just took it in stride (I’d been in Mongolia a year by this time, and had embraced the concept of “event time”).  Since the flight was scheduled for a 0630 departure, we rushed to the check-in counter!  Good thing, too: there might have been a line a mile long.  There might also have been a ticket agent to check us in.  The airplane (perhaps “aeroplane” might be more appropriate?) probably wasn’t ready, either.

It is possible we could have checked-in without Nara.  I mean, eventually someone would have asked us three foreigners where we were going.  Eventually.  Maybe.  And, I am sure I could have said “Dalanzadgad” in such a way that a native speaker would have understood instantly.  And the boarding passes would have made perfect sense to someone (written entirely in Mongolian, only the international symbol for No Smoking was decipherable to me).

The said aeroplane was made in the Soviet Union about 30 years ago and had seats (so to speak) for about 42 souls (accommodations for human beings not having troubled the designers at Antonov).  As it turned out, it was festival seating, and we found ourselves well behind the shrapnel pattern in case one of the props let go (amazing what one thinks of).  Little, round foam plugs were gently inserted into our auditory canals (I did think of something useful) and we all settled down to a good winter’s nap – oh, sorry, wrong season, wrong location, and wrong story – we tried to relax for the trip south.

Approximately an hour and twenty minutes later, we landed.  Perhaps “stopped” would be a more descriptive verb?  Whatever, it was on dirt.  Yeah, a nice level cruise, then a dive for the deck that reminded me of my previous life, then my first landing – ever – on an “unimproved surface” (no, not the smallest landing strip I’ve ever landed on; but, those really small ones were made of steel and had wires across ’em).  If you never knew what “unimproved surface” meant, think dirt.  That’s good enough.  Good landing though; a lot smoother than some I’ve survived at the hands of commercial pilots nominally in control of much, much larger airplanes, landing on state-of-the-art concrete and asphalt.  But, we didn’t land at “Dalanzadgad.”  In fact, we landed at “Juulchin Tourist Camp #1.”  The bustling metropolis of Dalanzadgad was about 35 km away.  Another feather in Nara’s cap for getting us to our destination, and not to the city (town? hamlet?) I thought we had bought tickets for (no doubt I had misunderstood; Nara was delighted to be there – maybe she was just delighted to have walked away from the ‘landing’?).

We deplaned and strode through the terminal building.  Yes, a real building; could have held your breath walking through it, however.  The other side of the building was the center of the tourist camp in which we were to spend two of the three nights of our Adventure.  We were immediately met by a member of the staff who showed us to our dee-luxe accommodations and invited us to lunch as soon as we were refreshed.

Now, I must point out that Nara worked her buns off – and I mean through-out the Adventure (I’m sure I didn’t notice half the stuff she did).  So, Rule #2 of visiting Mongolia and the Gobi is have a native in the party.  For example, had we landed at Dalanzadgad, I would have had no way to contact the camp and arrange transportation.  One of the many things that Nara handled extremely professionally.

We visited the dining hall, ate our forgettable lunch, met our driver (Davaa Ura – known as “Yo, Ura” to his friends, which we quickly became – his smile, like Jagaa’s, was infectious), and piled into the Russian-built mini van for our trip to Yolyn Am.

36 kilometers (or, “too damn long” in miles) from Juulchin Camp 1 to Yolyn Am, as the crow flies.  As we were to discover later, the crows here follow the roads, and the roads (for lack of a better term) are anything but straight – in any dimension.  “Yolyn Am” has been translated several ways, and this presents our first reader-interactive exercise.  Put on your Tour Agent Hat for a moment and translate “Yolyn Am” for the foreign tourist.  Your choices are:
1.  Eagle Valley
2.  Eagle’s Mouth
3.  Vulture Gorge

If you chose #1, then the Juulchin Tour Company would like you to give them a call.  If you chose #2, then you should consider poetry as an occupation. However, if you opted for #3, then you might have a very promising career as a writer of guidebooks.  In any event, “Yolyn Am” is very much a small, small valley with birds in it.  And tourists, and horses and camels, and the often heard – tho seldom seen – “pika”.  It was a pleasant walk, anyway. Even found a patch of rock-hard snow (in the middle of the Gobi? In August? Been into the airag?  No, that comes later.).

Both Nara and the manager of the tour company thought our visit to such a famous place would be incomplete without a visit to a local ger, and a ride on a camel.  While there seemed to be an unlimited supply of such in the area (if you’re willing to drive a while – a very long while), Nara and Ura decided his hacienda was as good as anybody else’s.  So, off we go; more hapless travelers there never were.

Now, our party consisted of a world-savvy traveler who speaks a half-a-dozen languages and would find friends in any corner of the globe, a rocket scientist (no, really), a native guide with a personality to match her smile, and well, the jury’s still out on me.

One would hope that Ura could find his way home, but I’ll be damned if I know how he did it.  The goat/camel/yak path we were following split and diverged a zillion times.  While the Gobi may be without roads, it is not without tracks.  At breakneck speed (“breakneck” in this case should be taken literally), our noble driver picked and chose and we soon turned off to two gers and not much else.  We poured ourselves out of the Van-from-Hell, pried our fingers from the handholds that were attached to the ceiling of the van and returned them to Ura (he just grinned),  and looked around.  Just miles and miles of miles and miles – and we hadn’t seen nothin’ yet (this is still the afternoon of the first day).

Ura hunched over and led us into his home-sweet-home, and our first lesson in Country Living (not to be confused with the magazine by the same name).  It was my first time in a genuine ger, so I will take some time to acclimate you.


I never did figure out who all the people were who gathered in Ura’s ger.  I had the impression that we were the local (as in the closest 10 to 15 miles) entertainment (for the week? month? year? eon?), so there were quite a few folks that may not have been related to our driver and host.  On the other hand, they could all have been related.  Ura sat down on the floor, farthest away from the door (I could have spit a watermelon seed clear across his home), his family and various hangers-on sat to his left (to the right of the door as we kinda walked in), and the Strange Beings from Beyond (i.e., us travelers) parked ourselves to Ura’s right.

As we asked Nara to ask Ura various and sundry inane questions, refreshments were served.  We can now speak with some authority about cheese made from a mixture of camel, horse, goat, and sheep milk (proportions completely unknown – essentially, whatever happens to be at hand, or “in hand” during milking time).  I mean some of us can speak with some authority about eating the cheese; one traveler, who shall remain nameless except to the Wide Open
Mongolian Sky, skillfully palmed her cheese.

And please, Dear Story Teller, relate some of your more incisive questions to the Curious Reader!  Since you’ve asked so nicely, how about, “What is that dripping from the bag?”  Nara understood the question well enough, but I am not sure we really understood the answer – or wanted to, considering what was in the bowl that was being passed around.  As near as I could ascertain, the herd gets milked, and some of the milk is put into a cloth bag – more like canvas than cheesecloth, I imagine.  This bag is hung by the front door, over a tin pot.  It was “whey” that was dripping; and, of course, it was the early phase of cheese that remained in the bag – we were eating the “aged” version of same.

Next question: “Not all of the milk is put into the bag?”  Uh, no.  Some of it is poured into a contraption that simulates a still, for the purpose of distilling the milk into the world renowned “airag.”  Well, I think so.
Actually, I am not completely sure whether airag is distilled, or fermented, or both.  I do know that my tongue will never be the same.  I also know that only airag will cut through the residue that the cheese left on some of our tongues.  I also know that Nara bought about five kilos of the cheese to take home; because, as she explained it, “You just can’t get this in the city.”  That was about the only thing that made perfect sense to me the entire time I was in Mongolia.

Conversation lagged.  We were rescued from our silence by milking time. Well, just not milking time, Camel Milking Time.  We did notice the string of baby camels literally strung outside the ger when we arrived.  A rope had been tied to a stake driven into the ground, and each baby was tethered to the main rope by a short piece that was attached to a stick in its septum (maybe “nose” is better?  do camels have septums?).  I guess there were half-a-dozen babes sitting out there until the mommies returned from lunch (and, when you “go out for lunch” in the Gobi, you do go quite a fur piece).

And, having grown up in the Midwest, I know that cow mommies get this urge to be emptied once-in-awhile; I’m assuming camel mommies work pretty much the same way.  Out of nowhere, this herd of camels emerged; must’ve been two dozen.  Ura’s wife (daughter?) grabbed a pan and went out.  We followed.

If you are thinking that camels get milked by sitting on a little stool,
then you are short-changing yourself – or, your arms are longer than most homo sapiens.  Nope, camels get milked by standing, stork-like, on one leg, while balancing a pan on the raised thigh between your hands, while you milk the beast.  While fighting off junior who is hungry.  While everyone else watches.  Ok, so it was just the four of us watching the milking, since everyone else was looking at the visitors.

Another difference between cows and camels is that camels don’t produce much milk, so in short order, it was Camel Riding Time.

Travelers’ Quiz:  How many different kinds of camels are there, and which kind lives in Mongolia?  (If you said, “black and brown,” you have to clean the blackboards.)

Ura extracted the matron of the herd as our mount.  Let it suffice to say that getting a camel down, and then back up again is not quite as easy as Peter O’Toole made it look in “Lawrence of Arabia.”  But, each one of us got a five minute ride around the herd.  Great photo op.  And yes, the real thing is just as soft as a blanket, or a coat (for you animal lovers out there, camel’s hair products are made from live camels, by combing a whole bunch of irritated beasts – use your imagination).  Yes, I will refrain from pointing out that the last rider’s ride was shorter than the other three, and the end was rather dramatic as the camel collapsed.

Many, many “bayarlalaas” and “bayantais” all around, and we piled back into Ura’s van for the “ride” back to The Camp for our evening meal, a quick shower, and our first night in The Gobi.

I believe we had an evening meal, but I’ve successfully repressed the
memory.  The showers were, well let’s say it may not have been possible to get clean, but the effort certainly made me feel cleaner.  Admittedly, the water was warmer than it often was in our flat in downtown UB – and not nearly as brown.  Anyway, more bone-weary travelers never piled more thankfully into bed that night.  Well, until the next night.  And, the night after that.

(I drew the WW2 “Kilroy was here” thing on the back of Ura’s van.  He was impressed: it was the only clean spot on his van the next time I looked.)

DAY 2 – August 23

Breakfast.  Must we?  Break fast, that is.  We obligingly filed into the
dining hall.  I seem to remember weenies cut into little pieces and what must have been scrambled eggs left over from Napoleon’s march on Moscow – but, that could be tomorrow’s breakfast I’m thinking of.  Anyway, since we were spending this night at…well, see if you can guess…we packed up our belongings and piled into Ura’s van (somehow, he had gotten the handholds stuck back into the ceiling – but, as it turned out, not for long).

Nara told us later that Ura worked really hard at finding a good compromise in speed over the roads between “lethal – due to internal trauma” and “lethal – due to boredom.”  Nara, God bless her, slept most of the way (truly a death defying trick).

With all due respect to readers from South Dakota, eastern Montana, or Kansas, there is no more “nothing” than the middle of the Gobi.  And we had set out on a 195 kilometer crossing.  One would think that it would take no time at all to cross a void, or a vacuum; and if one were traversing the Grand Canyon, one might be right.  However, while the Gobi is devoid of anything and everything, it is not a void.  So, Dear Reader you might be prompted to ask why we were trying to get to the other side?  Go ask a chicken.  Sorry, the reason is not very philosophical: the sand that the Gobi is famous for (look at ANY travel poster) comprises only about 3% of its area, and we were going to the mountain (of sand).

Just a couple of hours short of infinity, Ura pulls up on top of a slight
rise (which seems to be of Everest proportions in this land) and kills the engine (“turns off the engine” is much too sophisticated a term).  Lunch time.

Ura spread the red-and-white gingham cloth under the radiant branches of the acacia tree.  The silver, china and crystal were then carefully laid, the wine decanted, and in a style reminiscent of an African safari (sans lions, or any other wildlife), we brushed off the dust and reclined in our canvas lawn chairs until our luncheon was served.  Ah, this is truly the life. And, this is truly a mirage.

In fact, the August heat had not completely baked the contents of our
little, white cardboard boxes, though the dirt the van had kicked up had managed to “season” the contents.  We each found a spot apparently free of creepy-crawlers, and sticky-things, flopped down, and munched our mid-day meal in silence on the barren hilltop.  “Picturesque” simply does not do the scene justice.  Almost thankfully, we piled back into Ura’s van for the continuation of our penance, or search for sand, or our accommodations for the night.

So, how many of you were able to guess the name of our dee-luxe
accommodations this, our second night in the Gobi?  Anyone who guessed “Juulchin Tourist Camp #2” obviously skipped ahead – shame on you.

Our track, or road, took us through some rocky looking area that could have been a scene on the cutting room floor of some Indiana Jones movie.  Ura apparently said that if we got an early start in the morning we might see something here (while I think he was talking about animals, Nara had never heard of whatever it was, so what she relayed to us was just a touch too cryptic for me).  Anyway, through the rocks, over hill, dale, what-have-you (or, not), and presto, there it is: The Sand.

Well, it is obviously sand: it is sand-colored.  What else could possibly be any other color than the thousands upon thousands of shades of gray we had been subjected to, lo, these past interminable hours?  But, at this point, many miles away.  And, in the Gobi, everything of note is many miles away.

The road had smoothed out somewhat, or our behinds have taken a permanent set, and we drove into the parking lot of  “Juulchin Tourist Camp #2.”  Like #1, it is some twenty or thirty gers laid out with pointless precision, with a dining hall and a toilet/shower building.  An internal combustion engine, not nearly far enough away, supplied an ample amount of electricity for the 40 watt lightbulbs scattered sparingly about the camp.  We dumped our stuff in our respective gers and forced ourselves back into Ura’s van for the
fifteen minute ride to Hongoriin Els (“els” is the Mongolian word for sand; “hongoriin” is the Mongolian word for “where the hell am I?”).

This is sand – I mean the kind you are thinking of – whatever that is.  But, believe me, there is enough here for all the sandboxes there ever were, or ever might be.  If all this stuff is only 3% of the Gobi, then the Gobi is a whole lot bigger than it looks.  Of course we climbed to the top of the dunes, various photos prove that Darwin was wrong.  What in the world compelled us to climb?  Because it was there?  Or, because we were escaping from Ura’s van?  Or dinner?  After all, denial is not just a river in Egypt.

So, up we clumbed; higher, ever higher.  Could anything have been so
pointless?  Hardly; but, that didn’t stop us.  At the top of the nearest
peak, we were, in fact, able to see what was on the other side.  And that was what?  Well, pretty much more of what was on this side: gray stuff. Separating the two seas of gray stuff (I’m not a geologist, give me a break, wouldja?) was this enormous swath of sand, running from that horizon over there, to that horizon over there.  I’m sure you’ll agree: that is a lot of sand.

Then, when we had about all the excitement we could handle and decided to start down to the culinary delights of the chef, the wind started.  About that time, some poor sod in another tourist troupe decided it was time to change lenses on his camera (yes, there was another group out there; but, they sounded German, so that figures).  You might ask why I concluded the others were of German extraction?  Well, I came to this conclusion because the sounds that erstwhile photographer made while his camera was filling
with sand could have come only from a native speaker of a language that spends most of its time in the back of the throat.

We, of the digital age, did not fret about changing lenses: we couldn’t open our eyes wide enough to see anything, anyway.  No, the volume of sand that became instantly airborne wasn’t nearly so interesting as the sensation of having countless little particles of silica blasted off our respective corpuses (“corpi”?).  Given the temp of the day wasn’t exactly frigid, we really were under-dressed for this experience.  Take my word for it, there are places on your body that you really don’t want exfoliated.

Yes, we made it back to the van, to the camp, to the dining hall, to the
showers, to the gers, to our beds.  Where we collapsed, quite
unceremoniously.  I think it might have been about 3 a.m., the next morning, when the very last cell in my body stopped vibrating.

DAY 3 – August 24

Breakfast.  Oh, please God, not breakfast!  I’ll be good, I promise.
Fortunately, Ura roused us out of our slumbers so we could go see something before the cook knew we had left.  The downside was that we were now spending our third day in the Van from Hell on the same roads as yesterday; think of rubbing a porcupine – against the grain.

But, we certainly did see something in that rocky, craggy, pass: must have been a dozen or more teeny weensy little antelope-like creatures.  No, I don’t know the plural of ibex, just take my word for it that there was more than one.  Cute little things, far outside the zoom capability of my fancy-dancy digital camera.  Not that they were all that far way – they were certainly besides themselves wondering who was fool enough to drive all the way out there at 5 o’clock in the morning.  But, all I recorded was either small Mongolian antelopes a couple of hundred yards away, or huge Abominable Snowmen about fifty miles away – the photos are not conclusive.  But, Nara was right: we did see something!

Back into the van, we’ve many miles to go.

Most of the Gobi that we saw was very, very flat.  And, this is the kind of flat that leaves everything to the imagination because there simply is nothing there.  The local joke goes something like, “If you’re lost, stand on a brick.”  But, since we didn’t have a brick in our van, I guess it’s a good thing Ura never got lost.  The miles today were more interminable than they were yesterday.

We passed through a sleepy little hamlet called Bayanzag.  If you’ve ever seen a spaghetti-western where there is this “town”  right smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, you have a good idea of Bayanzag and its environs.  I could say that the Gobi wilderness starts right at the edge of town, but that would imply that downtown Bayanzag looks different from the ‘burbs. “Small Town, USA” ain’t got nothin’ on this place.  It would be easy to believe the entire world was flat if you grew up here.

Near to Bayanzag (as if anything could be near), is an area that looks like a miniature Bryce National Park: red, wind-eroded sandstone, the whole thing in an area about the size of a tennis court.  No, it’s actually an area much larger than just a single tennis court and does look a lot like the Bryce and Zion area of southern Utah (they probably also have Mormons in Bayanzag, though I didn’t personally see any name tags).

I think we ate lunch that day, but I can’t remember.

Back into the van, and the trip back to, you guessed it: “Juulchin Tourist Camp #1” for our third, and thankfully, last night of our Great Gobi Adventure.  In fact, I think we were able to have our same gers, and maybe the same weenies the next morning for breakfast; but, I could be mistaken.

And that, boys and girls, concludes this tale of Nokho Khoro.  My wife and I departed Mongolia fifteen months after we arrived (2003 September 29). Fittingly, she had to solemnly promise the border guard that she would never return to Mongolia.  My visa, on the other hand is good for another three years (my luck never fails).  After Mongolia, we spent two months in Beijing (yep, Great Wall, Forbidden City, Starbucks, all the High Points), and then I went to Shenyang for The Holidays (my second consecutive Christmas alone),
while my better half went back to Tokyo and civilization.

I made a couple of good friends in UB; obviously Jagaa comes to the fore – without him, I never would have made it through my Mongolian Winter.  Nara, and her smile – there was never a better personification of “unsinkable.”  The wife merely survived.  The Dog, too, survived, though not long afterwards.

Life being what it is, we now find ourselves, in Budapest, Hungary.  You readers of fiction will remember that the Mongols were here before….