Having only showered once in the past 10 days, luckily in the middle, my hair was struggling to not turn into a ball of greasy tangled mess. With just a few baby wipes left, I quickly ‘bathed’ before starting the day as we did every day, with a walk to the outhouse. The small tattered wooden structure with no door, overlooking the valley as far as the eye could see, and wobbling nervously over the slat in the floor to the deep foul hole.
The sun was rising ever slowly over the rocky mountain range as we made our way through the valley, stepping around bushes and over dung to a crevice. The opening had steep rocks on both sides and a narrow middle with some boulders that made a perfect sitting spot as we waited and watched for the sun to complete it’s rise over the mountain range. Just down below us was a dirt track leading toward a handmade Buddhist monument tucked into the mountains and draped over rocks.
On our way back we could see the father taking the sheep out to pasture, their multiple colors scampering in the distance. Down thru the valley we followed the dirt road as it veered to the left and then navigated through a dried lake. This was the desert and the sheep would walk another 6 km before they would find any source of water. The kids were out playing with their tricycles pushing them up and down the dried out river bed then racing down the hill.
Our tour guide was making us a western style breakfast, I suspect she must get requests for this often, though we were all quite content with the Mongolian feasts. The pancakes were made of flour and water, flattened into patties like a pie crust, sautéed in oil until they got hard and crispy, then cut into slices and covered in blueberry jam. The French toast was a piece of bread draped in a fried egg. It was a peculiar take on the western standards and we graciously partook.
As we were finishing breakfast, the mother wrapped a plastic bag around the father’s neck like a tiny cape, grabbed a pair of scissors and went out side. Our driver was giving the father a Mongolian style haircut. Trim on the sides and slightly fluffy on the top. Nearby the kids were still playing, eating pieces of the remaining pancakes, and watching as dad got his hair cut. The sky was blue and the temperatures were mild, none of us were wearing coats.
We headed up behind the yurts, climbing into the mountains over the rocks and around the bushes to a small white stucco temple surrounded by two small white stupas. Brown clay-like remains of the original temple lie below in ruins. From the temple we could see down the valley and mountain ranges from hundreds of miles away. The ground was tan and flat, desert like, and the mountains rising up on both sides were tree-less with small bushes and tan soil. We couldn’t help but sit down and enjoy the view.
Back down at the yurts, the kids were playing in the dried river bed and I joined them for a game of hide and seek. They would run and hide in a hallowed out tree, wait until I appeared and then giggle endlessly until we repeated it all over again. After hide and seek they each tried to pull me, one on each leg as they stood on my feet and clung to each knee making it near impossible to walk. I couldn’t help but laugh as they were so silly. We raced back and forth through the river bed until it was time to head out. Piling all our stuff back into the van, we drove the mother and son over to where they keep their sheep.
The small yurt by the sheep was modest and used as their ‘summer’ home. They were a nomadic family like many Mongolians that move their yurt as the winter sets in. The summer yurt was in an open area, the wind was wicked, and the bitter cold was back. Their winter yurt was tucked into the valley, hidden by the wind, and drenched in so much sun we didn’t need coats. It’s a way of life, every year, every season.
Today we would make the 5 hour drive back to Ulaanbaator. Remembering how sick I got last time, I downed a Dramamine for the journey. Given the high cost of petrol and the challenges for country families to get back into the city, we filled our three extra seats with the father and mother from the day prior and another guy. The mother needed to go to the hospital, which was in the city, for liver issues which apparently are pretty common in Mongolia.
A couple hours in, we pulled off the side of the road into the desert for lunch. The wind was wicked and repositioning the van to protect us from the wind didn’t help, it was strong and bone chilling. We ended up huddling in the van with the door open as our guide heated up our pasta lunch of noodles and mutton over a small battery powered burner. The food was filling and the guide more than happy to eat all of the fat pieces us westerners cut off.
As we drove down from the highest point in Mongolia, the mountains changed to prairies and herds of live stock covered the fields. Wild horse crossings and cow crossings were common. Everything was wide expanses of yellows and browns in tree-less prairies. Crossing past a frozen over lake we watched the wild horses navigate the ice as they searched for water, glistening in the sun.
The host wanting to chat with her Mongolian friends as well as keep me from getting sick again, asked me to switch seats. In the front, I could see everything. The wide world of Mongolia ahead cut through the center with a long straight paved single-lane road. Every dip, every puncture, every speed bump, and every crossing livestock. Whether the Dramamine or the front seat, I didn’t get sick at all and enjoyed the drive immensely.
We got back to Ulaanbaator around 5pm and back to the Golden Gobi Hostel where they had our rooms ready. Knowing I would be there for two days, I sloppily dissected my duffle for everything needed for a nice long shower as well as washing a bunch of clothes so they could dry before Beijing. Although the sink soap isn’t perfect, there was something nice about having myself and my things mostly clean.
By the time I’d caught up on emails, notifying family, friends, posting photos it was well into the evening. The Argentinian couple was planning on joining me for dinner though the lady was feeling ill and had a bit of a fever. I felt bad for her as being sick abroad is never fun. I ended up finding a restaurant off Google Maps, the Veranda, that turned out to be quite nice. It was a 10 min walk from the hotel on well lit streets and I discovered a walking underpass to get over the large 6 lane road. Despite the fact that everyone respects livestock crossings, pedestrians do not have the same regard. Crossings are at your own risk and cars do not heed to people. It is a delicate process that only a city like NYC could have prepared me for.
The Veranda had a top floor – a veranda – that was completely full so they put me in their swanky downstairs lounge with plush black sofas and soft curtains dividing the tables. I was the only westerner in the place. The waiter spoke perfect English and the wine selection was sizable. My capers salad came out first and at first look appeared western, though the top tomato layer was a boiled tomato and they didn’t use balsamic or basil. It was still quite lovely. The main course was lamb, as though I hadn’t had enough lamb twice a day for the last five days! The lamb was done kabob style with grilled vegetables and a side of hummus and babaganoush. American music playing on the radio from Maroon 5 to Lana Del Ray.
On my walk back from the restaurant, I could hear the hostel host reminding me pick pockets were everywhere and I looked different so I was a target. It was so cold outside I bundled up completely the only thing visible were my blue eyes, which if I kept looking down the only distinguishing differences were the shape of my eyes and my western clothes. I didn’t see anyone wearing a wool trench coat, the common coat seemed to be a puffy down coat with fur around the hood. The streets were well lit and I didn’t run into any issues.
Back at the hostel, the Argentinians were getting ready to head out to dinner. Their last night in Mongolia. They had been traveling for two months covering Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, and next would be China, Laos, Vietnam then Indonesia. I was impressed how incredibly in love they were after four years together and two months of 24/7 travel. A perfect fit it was admirable. I was sad for our journey together to end, though was happy for their upcoming adventures.
Exhausted from the day it was time for bed.