It was chilly in the yurt when the sun started to shine in through the small clear opening by the vent to the wood stove. I poked at the burning embers and added a couple logs as though I had any idea what I was doing. The yurt was tucked into a small valley with mountains closing in on all sides. A couple of us bundled up and dodging mounds of cow and horse dung, made our way up the rocky slope behind the yurts. The sun peaking over the mountains so bright you could barely look.
The mountains were rocky with a mixture of pine trees of varying shades of green to browns. It was a rather remote and isolated area with few dwellings in sight. The wind whipped around us and it didn’t take long before my toes reminded me I still hadn’t devised a solution to keep them warm. Tingling and numb, we walked further up the mountain to get a full view of the beautiful landscape before us. Breathtaking. I closed my eyes and could feel the sun’s warmth shining down and the sound, the sound of absolutely nothing. This was unlike any place I’d ever been before.
As the wind picked up and my toes started to feel a bit frost bitten, we made our way back down trying not to trip over the rocky slope. Inside the yurt, the group was awake and the energy of the day had begun. The wood burning stove was roaring with a welcoming heat and my toes began to thaw. Our tour guide came in carrying plates of breakfast and jugs of hot water for tea. The breakfast was incredible – fried egg on toast, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a piece of bread with cheese and a cherry tomato. It was the perfect morning.
After breakfast we bundled back up, this time I added another layer of socks (one wool, one cotton). Down the dirt ‘driveway’ and around the wood structure for the cattle, we passed the cows grazing freely. They turned to look at us as we walked within feets of them and carried on with eating. Down the crevice and back up again a beautiful white monastery appeared off in the distance. It was tucked up in the middle of the mountain just beyond the rather steep 108 steps.
As we started to make our way up the stairs, in the distance we heard the roar of school kids bounding towards us. The closer they got, the energy and laughter and singing became increasingly distracting and the perfect backdrop to this mystical monastery tucked on the mountain. The small doorway did no justice to the enormous room just behind. A Buddha statue with colorful fabrics lining the columns and benches – yellows, blues, reds. We sat down trying to take it all in, the colors, the sounds, the chill in the air.
It wasn’t long before the empty monastery was taken over by the tiny feet of the school kids excited to be on a field trip, excited to see Westerners, and excited to practice some English. ‘sain bain-uu’ I’d say to them (means hello in Mongolian), smiley shyly they’d say ‘what is your name’ or ‘how are you’. It was adorable. The excitement in their eyes was contagious. We made our way back down the 108 steps and into the valley.
Before hopping in the bus, we decided to take a quick bathroom break. Down at the main entrance to the monastery was their restroom which consisted of a small wooden shed with some wood planks to divide in into two small 2×3 spaces, one for men and one for women. The ‘stalls’ had no doors, but the shed itself had a small 2’ high ‘fence’ so that when you squat over the open wood slats in the ground the only thing visible is your face and upper torso. Wobbling over the gaping slat with many feet drop below you can only pray that you don’t accidentally fall in or drop something, as there would be no retrieval. The odor is that of a latrine that’s never been cleaned, years and years of ‘activity’ below you.
We headed back West toward Ulaanbaatar, the rocky mountains getting further away until we entered the brown grassless prairies. City buildings started to appear with small stucco houses and stores, the raw dirt roads turned to padded dirt roads with walking paths. We turned into what felt like an off the beaten path part of town and went inside a ‘city’ home. The walls were stucco and the rooms were small. The kitchen consisted of very basic appliances, so old and small they wouldn’t even exist in NYC. We huddled around a small dining room table in the main room which functioned as their dining room/living room/bedroom.
Soon after we arrived the family brought us mounds of bread with butter and blueberry jam, platefuls of ground mutton with carrots, sliced beets, rice and pickles. The small TV in the corner showed the Oahu surf tournament. As waves were crashing, palm trees swaying, and the sun shining bright, we bundled back up with our winter layers, hats, gloves, scarves, and headed back out into the cold. Three of our companions finished their portion of the tour and took off to Ulaanbaator for their next journeys.
The ride to the Kharkhorin area was a long one. Leaving the city we headed West back into the brown prairies. Mountains began to appear, with soft browns and yellows the treeless mountains grew taller and taller as we continued our journey. The road was rough and the van bounced through the rivets and valleys in the road. Without seat belts we clung on trying not to fall out of our seats.
The journey continued as the deep red sun set against the mountains shining pinks and purples across the sky that carried on for almost an hour as though the multitude of mountains were able to preserve the colors just a little longer. As the sun set and the dark came, the bumps of the road became even more as it was harder to see the punctures or the cattle crossing requiring faster breaking and maneuvers. We stopped at a small grocery store for supplies. Eager for coffee I happily jumped out.
A small white stucco building in the corner of nowhere on a small dirt road with dogs passing by and dust flying in the wind. Inside was a large open room empty on one side with a long counter on the other side. Behind the counter was the groceries – soda, beer, cookies, pasta, etc. A limited selection of the essentials. Dust covered the counters and everything looked old. I bought my 5 packs of instant coffee and was back in the car.
It would be another two hours in the dark of night bouncing along the untamed road before we would reach our destination. Starting to feel a bit queazy, I crawled in the back of the van and laid down on the seats doing my best not to slide out at every bump. The van was cold and I created a blanket of my jacket and scarf and everything I had with me to try to cover completely. The Argentinian couple playing cards in the seats in front of me occasionally having to hit the ceiling to get the van light to come back on as it would short out every few minutes.
By the time we reached the family, it was around 9:30pm and my stomach had been doing summersaults in the bumpy van for far longer than it’s tolerance. It was all I could do to keep it under control the last few miles. There was nothing for as far as the eye could see, the midnight sky was deep and endless. The stars everywhere and a quiet, a complete quiet. The family had made a large homemade noodle and mutton soup and in their sweltering yurt my ability to power thru it ended rapidly. I stepped out into the cold of night, so ill I didn’t even grab my coat and the freezing temperatures didn’t phase me.
In the pitch black and the still of the night, there was an odd vulnerability that set in like a sitting duck that the preying wolves could see. With unknown movement heading toward me, the Argentinian man was a total gentleman and was kind enough to be on guard while I did my best to not throw up. As the dark shadow came closer, a tail started wagging and the most adorable doggie was upon me. All excited and looking for love he bounced around me happily. In that moment I wished more than anything I wasn’t sick and could enjoy being there, in the chill of the night, under the most immense and vast star scape I’d ever seen with the adorable cuddly puppy. Instead, I headed back to the yurt for medicine and to temper the tummy.