Galloping hard on the plains

Our last day on the steppe is even better than the previous. Clear blue skies, hardly any wind and about 10°C. Following breakfast we get to see the ger being built, quite interesting, but not in a way worth writing about. A cute kid running around sporting a new breed of mullet stole the show though. He had short stubble all over except for two long pigtails.

Then we’re free until lunch to I read a bit in the sun until just before lunch when we all gather for a group picture. After lunch it’s time for our second stint on horseback, this time for three hours instead of just one. I get a different horse this time, and boy is there a difference! I hardly have to kick at all for him to set off like a rocket. So me, Johnny and Andreas set off like Zeb in the opening of the Macahans over the steppe, it’s unbelievable fun!

The tour is a bit is a bit on the slow side with many stops. Mainly because Batu has to dart back and forth between the two groups. After two hours or so we reach the monastery that was our goal and we climb up to catch the view (it’s situated halfway up the mountainside). The walking party beat us by by a good 45 minutes though. It’s a great view of the whole valley that we rode through to get there.

From up there we discover that we missed a really cool suspension bridge on the way up so we make sure to walk it on the way down. It’s a bit scarier than it needs to be since many of the planks are in an advanced state of disintegration…

On the way home we split up and get our own guide so that we won’t have to wait for Batu so much. He’s the silent type and only communicates through an occasional wave. We keep a rather brisk pace and get to take an alternate, shorter, route back as well, so I get my fill of both galloping and scenery.

Back at camp Batu says he’s impressed with us since tourists normally don’t handle horses that well. I guess the Pink Caravan isn’t your average bunch of tourists though…

We proceed with some cold hanging in the afternoon sun, eating chips and having some beer. After a while the rest door neighbor comes home with his herd of Yaks and we head over for a photo-op.

I was surprised over how small they are, almost like a large Berner Sennen. There are some awesomely cute calves in a pen nearby as well (the grown ups are roaming free). Another surprise is that they’re virtually odorless! I couldn’t discern even the slightest hint of smell from any of them, weird!

While we’re oogling the Yaks the owner and his wife step out of their ger with a milking bucket. They proceed to get one of the calves out and it sprints over to its mommy and starts drinking. After a while the calf is pulled away and they start milking. Interesting process really. The milking gets old real soon though and we head back to catch dinner.

Since it’s both ours and the Mongols last day on the steppe there is a bonfire after dinner. We take turns with the Mongols singing songs, they treat us to a couple of Mongol ones and we respond in kind. There are a couple of Japanese there as well and they sing what I think is their national anthem. Matilda brought her guitar and brings out cheers and marriage proposals from the Mongols (too bad she’s taken already). The camp owner announces that he’ll keep the dining ger open until midnight if we want to sit there and sing, probably forgetting that we’re supposed to leave at 5 am the following morning. Andreas also entertain with his uncanny ability to remember every song text ever written. The Mongols seem especially taken with ABBA.

As the bonfire die down we head back to camp. Everyone is eager to run off to bed but me, Peter and Jacob decide to take some more long exposure pictures before calling it a night.

Lazy ass horse!

Morning brings a clouded sky but by the time we’re done with breakfast, a piece of blue sky is peering through. It’s rather windy though so we put on lots of clothes for the horseback ride scheduled at 10.

I opt for the faster group and get assigned a horse. The stirrups are really high up so I sit like a frog but don’’ pay it much mind. When we start riding I have a really hard time getting my horsie to do what I want, it seems like every chance he gets he starts walking and I have to kick him in the sides again. Both me and Sanna seem to have gotten slowpokes and we lag behind considerably. Batu rides back to get us (at this point we’re mingled entirely with the slow group), and after a lot of maneuvering we finally manage to break out.

We keep straggling though since even getting the horse into a trot is a constant struggle. The parts of the tour when we do get them to trot (I never managed to get mine to gallop) are great though and I hope I get a less lethargic horse for tomorrows, longer, ride. I think the short stirrups might have something to do with it as well, since when I tried to kick with my heels it was mostly my calves hitting the horse which I don’t think he minded that much. They also made it difficult standing up in the saddle, which seemed like one of the tricks for getting them to pick up speed.

During the ride all the clouds disappeared, leaving an unreal blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon. Coming back into camp we learn that the planned ger-raising is postponed until tomorrow due to too much wind, resulting in the whole afternoon being free. So after a delicious lunch, me, Jacob and Peter go back up to our hangout cliff to read, write and just relax.

Up top we spy some mountain goats down below and Jacob heads down again to get some pictures. They jump around on vertical cliffs like mountain goats do most and are really entertaining to watch.

After a good 40 minutes or so it gets a bit windy and we decide to switch to another spot, so we walk some more and find a really cozy spot atop the mountain north of camp. There we sit down and read and write some more until I’m done with yesterday’s account in the journal.

Back down in camp we get a serious craving for chips and buy a Pringles clone (tomato flavored) in the dining ger. Then we find Elin and Sanna sitting by their ger drinking some beer and catching some sun. The only thing missing are our chips and we fetch some beer left over from the railroad and join them. Soon almost everyone has joined up and we sit there enjoying life until the sun goes down.

At dinner I get to spend some time to know Renee, Inger and Ann a bit better which was fun. We also split a bottle of Chingis vodka and things go downhill from there. We end up in Johnny and Matilda’s ger, singing once more. I even attempt some improvised harmonizing with Matilda. Being tipsy really helps with the “don’t mind if I’m off-key” part and we pull off a few really nice harmonies. I also speak a bit with Batu at dinner to get some tips about Mongolian music (the guy also works as a DJ at Mongolian radio), he tells me that the Mongolian music scene doesn’t have any metal bands worth mentioning, but lots of crappy HipHop. If he is to recommend anything it would be the folk rock band Altan Urag who incorporate traditional elements such as throat singing into their music. Sounds like something I definitely will have to check out!

Into the wild

Monday morning after an unimpressive breakfast at the otherwise nice hotel we hop on the bus to go out into the national park. Barely out of town the gravel road starts and we are forced to drive at a leisurely 30 km/h. After a while it’s paved once more and we can go faster again. Curious to see just how fast I lean over to look at the speedometer only to realize that it’s broken…

We make a stop at one of those towers/rock piles you might have seen in Tintin. Batu explains that you’re supposed to throw three rocks onto the pile and then walk three times around it in a clockwise fashion and you’ll get rich. You should also tie a blue ribbon to the pole in the middle to please the gods.

There’s also a guy with a hunting eagle there that you get to hold on your hand for 2000 tgr (15 sek). It’s really a bigass bird, weighing in somewhere at 2-3 kg. We’re almost at the park at this point and we cross a rickety bridge over Mongolias longest river into the park.

Driving deeper into the park we pass no less than three golf courses. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a golf course though since the only green thing about it is the actual green, the rest is as brown as the rest of the landscape. Apparently there are several semi-luxurious hotels in the park, which I guess explains the excellent 3G coverage throughout the park.

We reach camp Mirage at about 11 am and I share a ger with Jacob, Peter and Andreas. Apparently ger and yurta are the same thing, except that yurta is Russian and Mongols aren’t too fond of Russians anymore.

Seeing as there is a good hour until lunch is served we immediately go about climbing one of the nearby mountains. Sitting up top provides a great view and we decide to climb another peak. The weather by the way, is excellent, about 8°C, tiny clouds and very little wind. Couldn’t have asked for better!

Lunch is served in a very large ger, easily seating 50 people. Imagine our delight when we realize that lunch is a four course meal. It’s also delicious btw, those Mongolians sure can cook. Camp is really out in the sticks even if it doesn’t sound like it, but there are still real toilets and even hot water so that you can shower (not very long though). You can buy beer and snacks in the large ger as well. But in spite of all these modern amenities you still get the wilderness feeling. It truly is a grand place to be!

After lunch we make a short excursion to turtle rock. It’s a large rock formation that really looks like a turtle, not terribly exciting but fun nonetheless. Afterwards we get to meet a real Mongolian nomad family. They live in a ger all year round and move to and fro on the steppe with the seasons. During the summer they don’t have any means to store meat, and as a result are practically vegetarians. Wintertime they live off the herd. Batu tells us that eight years ago 75% of all Mongolians were nomads, today it’s down to 45%. He blames television for glorifying city life, sending nomads into the city with a skill set largely useless in the city. The sad fact is that many of them end up as homeless pickpockets.

We also get to sample some traditional Mongolian nomad cuisine. First up is fermented horse milk, tastes like apple cider vinegar with a hint of dairy at the end. It also has about a 3% alcohol content, hence the popular name “horse beer”. Next is dried curd that tastes more or less like really old cheese with a hint of dried yoghurt. Finally there’s some sort of dried cream that you put on a piece of bread. It tastes like cream really and is quite good.

After the nomads we get the rest of the day “off” and immediately go climbing again. We go for the highest one, west of camp, but it proves a bit too hard to get to the very top. Andreas and Rickard get up with a helping hand from me and get a few aerial shots of camp and surroundings.

On the way down we split up and me, Peter and Jacob find this fabulous lookout spot where we just sit down and play the “silent game” for half an hour. Sitting there we see a couple of ravens playing and everything is just bliss, definitely the best cold hang so far.

Going down I finally find what I’ve been looking for all day: an untouched patch of snow, just large enough to make a snow angel! The fact that it’s on a 45° slope presents a problem, but I manage to make a half-decent snow angel. In September. In Mongolia. Life is good.

Back at camp it’s dinner, and this time it’s only three courses, scandalous! It’s a traditional Mongolian dish with homemade pasta, strips of beef and various vegetables. Dessert is a water melon no larger than an orange! After dessert we hook up with Sanna and Elin to go out stargazing. But first we play around with Jacob’s camera setting it to long exposure and drawing stuff with flashlights (just like Dali did). We get a bunch of really cool pictures and resolve to do some more tomorrow.

Then we head up the hill a bit to get away from the lights in camp. Light pollution is so low here that you can see the entire Milky Way! It’s really hard to pick out constellations since you see so many more stars than usual. They’re also all turned about compared to home, making it a bit trickier. We just lie down on our backs and play the silent again, counting shooting stars. This is how it always should be.