The morning sun shined into the yurt through the small clear covering in the center. The inside was round with a hard floor covered in stained and warped linoleum. Twin beds lined the perimeter, homemade wood frames with a thin cushion over the wood plank to provide a small amount of comfort from the firmness. In the center a wood burning stove and a metal bucket with various twigs, dung, and small logs. The fire had gone out and the yurt was chilly, the air so cold it takes will power to climb out of the sleeping bag. There was no outhouse this time, only nature – bare bottoms in the winter breeze.
Outside was surprisingly warm compared to the past few days. The sun shined heavy down on the desert and there was nothing for miles. Mountains popped up here and there in the distance but between us and them were long expansive desert plains. The family had three yurts and a wood structure for their cattle. One yurt to live in, one for storage, and one for travelers like us. Their black herding dog was more than eager to enjoy the company and relish in the loving pets that aren’t common in Mongolia. Dogs are for protection and work, they don’t come inside and they aren’t touched.
Our host made us breakfast and luckily my stomach had stopped dancing from the night before and I was a willing consumer. She made us various pieces of bread – one with Nutella, one with a fried egg, and one with blueberry jam. The smell of coffee, albeit instant, was a soothing aroma I’d been missing. Outside the dog chomped away on his leg bones from a recently slaughtered lamb.
The host family brought over a number of their camels including three baby camels with the most curious big wide eyes. The three of them, standing closely together, and eyes all personality, followed us as though we were unknown entities. Mongolian camels have two humps and are quite staunch and furrier than those I rode in Egypt. The camels knelt down clumsily falling to the ground in the front with a thud, then in the back. On I climbed nestling my body between the two humps and trying to find a way to hold on to the poofy tuff on the front hump.
As we rode the camels through the desert, the wind was calm and sun was bright. Unlike the horse ride from the prior days, it was so comfortable in the saddle and the temperatures enjoyable we could really take in the moment. Getting closer were a small set of sand dunes with their silky tan mounds that slid one into the next. Just before the dunes was a skinny river that had partially frozen over so the camels couldn’t cross. Their mammoth un-hoofed and furry feet weren’t meant to cross slippery surfaces.
We started on our way, jumping carefully over the icy river only to see behind us a heard of sheep leaping and bouncing toward the water with more glee than I ever imaged lambs could have. As they bounced toward the water like the commercials for counting sheep, we started making our way back to get a closer look. They one by one scampered for the water and started drinking not minding the three tourists watching in wonder and snapping photos left and right. It was a sight to see.
The sand dunes were small mountains of silky sand, untouched from the evening’s wind the sand had taken on the look of small tight wavy lines. As we walked up our foot steps making imprints that looked like postcards. The tip of the mounds were jagged as if the wind was trying to push the sand and created a visible crease at the crest. Sitting down we felt the sand between our fingers and it was the softest, most smooth sand I’d ever felt. We wondered how it got there – perhaps a historic ice age or maybe just erosion.
As we headed back to the sheep and the frozen river, a herd of wild horses had joined and were pawing trying to break the ice and free up more drinking water. Their backs glistened in the sun in their varying shades of browns. A bit competitive at times, they’d nay and butt each other. We stood in awe on the other side of the river just feet away from countless sheep and horses with camels, desert, and mountains in the background. It was amazing at a level I cannot articulate.
Dodging the livestock, we made our way back onto the camels and to the yurts only to be greeted by our fluffy doggie friend and the ever eager eyes of the baby camels. After playing a bit of fetch with the pup and teasing him by picking up the leg bones fresh with fur, leg and hoof, it was time for lunch. Trying to be western friendly, our tour guide made us spaghetti with a tomato sauce that tasted a bit more like a sweet and sour sauce of sorts. Coupled with traditional Mongolian dumplings of mutton and onion. I could barely finish half of it there was so much food.
We said our farewells and were off onto the dirt roads heading west. As we were skidding back and forth through the desert on an unmarked path we came upon a group of vultures just chilling in the mid-day sun. Startled by our van, they spread their enormous wings and carried their dark brown bodies overhead with an impressive size that could easily have swallowed an eagle. The temple walls of Baruun Zuu with it’s 108 white stupas was visible on the horizon as we made our way into the town.
A guide walked us through the site, much of which has been preserved and still in active use. Proudly they taught us that it was Mongolia that came up with the name ‘Dali Llama’ and that the fourth Dali Llama came from Mongolia. The buildings looked a bit like those in Kyoto Japan with oriental roofs and ornate coloring. Inside were large statues of gold Buddhas. The complex consisted of a number of buildings, each with it’s own purpose. A young munk played with his school friend off in the distance as we turned the prayer wheels hoping for good fortunes.
The route back into the desert was bumpy and rough, half on paved roads and half on unmarked paths leading across mountains and down into valleys and around ravines. The sun began to set in its pinks and oranges behind the endless mountain range poking up in just the right places to create the most idyllic silhouettes. Nestled back into the mountains was the family we’d be staying with. Two yurts behind a tattered wooden fence, one for them and one for their neighbor. Outside the fence, a small white yurt with four twin wood frames and a small wood burning stove for us.
Inside their yurt the mother was hard at work making us homemade noodles with mutton. The Argentinian man had joined the father on his moped to go round up the sheep into their pen for the night. Me and the Argentinian woman chatted with the family and joked with the two kids who were around 3 years old. Although their hair was long and in braided pig tails, they were in fact boys. The tradition is that at the age of 4 (which includes 1 year of pregnancy) they get their hair cut like a coming of age celebration.
The yurt was toasty and as we ate the delicious dinner we learned that in the country they prefer just noodles and meat. Since meat is considered more expensive, diluting the meal with veggies is seen as a sign of poverty. However they realize many of us westerners love our veggies so add them just for us, but prefer a straight meat and carbs meal. We brought out the wine and beer we’d purchased from the super market outside of the temple. The family enjoyed joining in and it seemed wine was a bit of a delicacy.
Climbing into our wooden beds for the night, the darkness was upon us and although it was sweltering hot within the yurt, we rested our heads for the night knowing the fire would soon to go out and the cold would return.