JUNE 27, 2009: SATURDAY

GOODBYE MY FRIEND



...but before we leave, I want to pay ommage to the "Ger". I have been waiting for this post because I find the Ger to be most fascinating!


The Ger is the traditional Mongolian dwelling, most of us in the west know it as a Yurt (or maybe you didn't know that either ;) but this is the term the Russian nomads of southeastern Siberia use for their similar structures. On our trip, Melanie S. from Montana explained their shape best; Like an American Indian Teepee but in the shape of a Grain Bin. The outermost layer is type of canvas (usually dyed white) and underneath that there are several blankets of wool. One Mongolian explained that this is usually sheep wool that is put into vats of water, mixed together, pressed out in "blankets" and dried (they felt much like a saddle blanket). This layer provides cool in the summer and warmth in the winter.



The structure that supports this unusual shape is a series of foldable, accordian-like walls that are stretched out and shaped around in a circle. A center support is raised in the middle of the circle and then supports (wood sticks) are tied to the center and the exterior "lattice" wall.


They are incredibly ornate and beautiful. I was continually mesmerized with the ger from both the outside and the inside. They are practical in every sense and in every season and they are ingenousely simple. Most families can set up a ger in 1 hour and tear it down in 30 minutes.


The ger came to be out of necessity and it is not a novelty today, it is just as usefull as it was 2000 years ago. Over half of Mongolians are still nomadic and move their herds as many as 6 times a year. When the herd needs to be moved, the ger must be moved too.


The Ger is the defining symbol of Mongolia for me. Much like the people who live in them, they are strong, practical, simple, mobile and they are inviting and peaceful.


________________________________

HOME, SWEET HOME...after 27 hours of airplanes and airports...

We boarded our plane at 6am at Chinggis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar and were off to Beijing, China.
Thankfully we had a 3 hour layover in Beijing because we had to go
through 5 passport checkpoints and a few medical checkpoints. Then, we
couldn't find our luggage...hence the "luggage inquiries" sign above my head!

From there we flew to Seoul, South Korea, then to Seattle, Washington, then to Helena, Montana and finally to Billings, Montana.

The Seoul Airport had "arts and crafts" for weary travelers
like us with a 6 hour layover.
Christi and I painted Korean hand fans for Rigley.

After weeks of great Mongolian food, we
decided it was time to reintroduce our bellies
to fine American Cuisine! Hello to the King!

Because we crossed the international Date Line going back to the US, we arrived home 12 hours after we boarded our first plane but were really flying for 25 hours!


As stepped down the stairs at the airport toward baggage claim, we were greeted by my parents and Rigley; Danger was frantically wagging his tail outside...

as you can imagine...

the rest is too personal to write...



the end.

JUNE 26, 2009: FRIDAY

LAST FULL DAY IN MONGOLIA


We lazed around camp through the morning. We went for a hike up a nearby mountain to get one last look at the amazing landscape of Mongolia. We were to board a Sherman for Ulaanbaatar after lunch and we were beginning to realize that our adventure was quickly coming to an end.



At 2pm we piled in the Sherman for what would be our last chance to be "Sherminated" (shaken) in the Russian vans we had grown to love so much. They are slow and lumbering, noisy, and smell of gas; Yet they are practical in this landscape and in all of my travels, I never saw one stuck. Sure, they ran out of gas many times, but with only a stick to push into the gas tank to "feel" how much gas is left, this is bound to happen. Anyway, it added to the adventure.



We worked our way back into the sprawling city of UB, jockeying for road space with all the other insane drivers and finally made it safely back to the Michelle Hotel (which had become a second home for me).

For dinner we set out to find a world renowned Indian restaurant and after getting side tracked at the Cashmere shops (Mongolia is the Cashmere capital of the world! Oh...which reminds me, the goat we ate several days back at the Pallas Cat Camp, that was a "Cashmere" goat! Whoda thought Cashmere tasted so good!) As we followed our Lonely Planet map we began to notice police on every corner, soon we realized that there was a wrestling match at the Wrestling Palace and that they bring extra security for these events. Wrestling is one of Mongolia's "National Sports" along with archery and horse racing). We could compare this wrestling event to a soccer (football) event anywhere else in the world; Excited and rowdy fans, crazed over their favorite wrestler! Oh, and the food at the Indian restaurant? There is a reason it is world famous...nom, nom, nom!
Cashmere Goat of Mongolia


6am tomorrow, we will be on the first leg of our journey back home...

JUNE 25, 2009: THURSDAY

A PICTURE BLOG (...a plog?!)

It was an eventful day, and because a picture is worth a thousand words, I will let them do most of the talking...

Got up and had a big Mongolian breakfast then put on our swim gear for a rafting trip. The rafts were loaded on a yak cart and we walked with the yak (actually more of an ox) upstream for a couple hours. When we arrived at a good place to put in, we stopped, blew up the rafts and headed leisurely downstream toward camp.








Back at camp we dined on another oversized lunch (it seems that lunch at this camp is a 5 course meal every day!). After lunch we saddled up the horses and set out to explore Mongolia. With no fences in the entire country (not entirely though, some fences exist near Ulaanbaatar, but, most of the country has absolutely NO FENCES!) we were able to ride in any direction for as long as we pleased. The scenery was unexplainable; it was peaceful and relaxing. The only major scare was when Christi's horse when down right in front of me, but she held on like a seasoned bull rider and we were back on the trail before we could catch our breath!





...and they rode away, happily ever after...

Next: sleep. Tomorrow: back to Ulaanbaatar

JUNE 24, 2009: WEDNESDAY

OFF WE GO INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER

We boarded another "Sherman" for our trip out to Jalman Meadows (150 km northeast of UB) where we would be staying at an Eco Ger Camp for the next several days. We were accompanied by a group from Germany who were traveling to the camp to ride Mongolian horses across the vast countryside.

As we lumbered along, we began to notice an ENORMOUS silver statue appearing on the horizon. A private group is in the process of building a statue/tribute/tourist stop celebrating the life of Chinggis (Ghenggis) Khan. It was impressively large and in a country where most things are very basic this statue stands out quite clearly as something that would only be visited by the wealthiest few or by tourists.

Jalman Meadows is located in a Highly Protected Region of Eastern Mongolia. It would be comparable to our National Forests and grazing is limited so this area looked much different from most areas I had seen. The grass was long and green, the river was clean and garbage was scarce. This is what my vision of Mongolia initially was.

The camp is an Eco Camp, so, there is a minimal footprint on the landscape. Local people are hired to work and run the operation so money stays in the local economy. The food is supplied by locals whenever possible. The only source of power is from solar panels or the small wind turbine. It is as peaceful and serene a place as anyone could imagine!


Upon arrival, a man with a yak and cart piled up our luggage and set off toward our gers. No vehicles allowed anywhere near the camp!


We found our ger and relaxed...


Tomorrow, we would turn this vacation into an adventure!


video

JUNE 23, 2009: TUESDAY

IT'S NOT A VACATION, IT'S AN ADVENTURE!

Christi would define a vacation as laying on a beach somewhere and relaxing for days on end. So, prior to either of us leaving home, I continually reminded her that "It's not a vacation, it's an adventure!"

Most of the group boarded planes for home this morning but those of us who remained planned to spend the day exploring Ulaanbaatar.

Bayaraa, Muntsog's son, would be our guide through the city and one of his friends joined us. We set off to the Black Market first but it turns our this is the only day of the week it isn't open. So, we loaded into another taxi and headed off to another market on the other side of town. Cabs are extremely affordable. For trips under 4 miles or so, it seemed that it only costs us $2-4 US. Longer trips (10 miles) were $8 at the most.

View of Ulaanbaatar from our window at the Michelle Hotel

The market is where the locals shop for their goods. We had planned to find interesting things to take home with us but most of this expansive outdoor market sold only living necessities, not tourist trinkets.

On the way out of the market, we found a lady selling "Airag" which is the traditional Mongolian drink of Fermented Mares milk. We had her fill an empty water bottle for 1000 Tugrik (Mongolian money) which converts to $0.75 US. It tasted like Elmer's Glue with Turpentine mixed in. I don't think my American digestive tract was suited to digesting this concoction so I drank very little before I was forced to dispose of it.



Later we visited the largest Buddhist Monestary in UB. I expected the place to be very quiet and stale. It was anything but. People wandered around feeding pigeons and praying in various places. Christi and I thought we should really learn more about this religion.



For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant (seems odd doesn't it) and then it was off to the Hotel. Christi and I had to prepare for our departure to the wilderness the next day.

JUNE 22, 2009: MONDAY

Last Chance.
Note: I turned my journal over to Caitlyn at this point, so the last 8 or so blogs will mostly be pictures.

Today was our last full day in Mongolia. We got up, ate breakfast, and packed our things to head back to Ulaanbaatar. Not far from camp, one of the "Sherman" vans overheated, so once again, we were sitting and waiting for a Sherman to revive itself. It did, and we were on our way again.


We arrived in the capital several hours later and I was in a rush to get to the Michelle Hotel to see if Christi had made it safely! She had, and was exhausted from the 2 days of flying, but we were both elated to see each other.

After settling in at the Hotel and taking cold showers, we set out in small groups to explore the city. Christi joined us and we decided to go to the "State Store" which is the Mongolian version of Macy's. We purchased souvenirs for family and Christi picked out 10 pairs of Mongolian shoes for Rigley. She finally whittled it down to 3 pairs.

We all regrouped and walked to dinner at a Mongolian theater that showcases traditional Mongolian songs, garb and customs. On the way, one of our group was pickpocketed (this is a growing problem in UB) and Ghana, our guide, raced after the guy and came back with the wallet. We are not sure what transpired once he caught up to the guy, but it sounded like the other gentlemen may not have fared so well when Ghana caught up to him (he may have gotten pummeled...we're not sure).

The theater was interesting and the clothing was incredible. They played traditional instruments and the men sang Long Songs with their very low guttural throat singing.
After theater we went to MONGOLIAN BARBEQUE! I am sure that this place was built for tourists because it looked just like the Mongolian BBQ's in Montana but this was the only one we saw in a city of 1 million. We were excited to eat there though because we know everybody back home was going to ask if we had Mongolian Barbeque!

I tried horse meat for the first time. It remined me of moist jerky slabs or stringy roast beef, it was actually quite good. I samples Intesting filled with Beef and Stomach. The only way I can think to describe the flavor and texture comparing it to Meat flavored Jello with chunks of slimy tapioca thrown in. It looked like a tube of intestine (not stretched out like a sausage, just an intesting laying on the table) with pieces of dark meat with cubed white gewey stomach pieces stuffed inside. I enjoyed trying it, but I would never need to "try" it again!
Tomorrow, most people would be flying out. Some are spending time in China on their way through. Christi and I will start our adventure tomorrow.

JUNE 21, 2009: SUNDAY


Land of the Blue Skies


Five Mongolian students spent time with us at camp yesterday and today. They have traveled from the other side of Mongolia (the mountainous region to the West, very near Kazakhstan). Some of them took public busses for many days to be able to spend time in the capital of Ulaanbaatar and then be shuttled out to camp to meet us. The mission for the day was to produce radio show spots with the children for Mongolian Public Radio. We might refer to these short, scripted audio broadcasts as Podcasts. The children were to be the producers and recorders; we were to be their “interns” and help as needed. Due to language barriers, I am not entirely sure what transpired over the course of the day, but the kids seemed to have fun!


After recording our radio spots, we were asked to write something about what we appreciate in nature. I chose to write about: Clean, Cool, Fresh air. Below are the ramblings that spewed forth from my head and landed on my paper in blue ink.


Clean, cool, fresh air is a luxury in much of the world. But in the Mongolian countryside it is plentiful. The scent of the flowers on the Mongolian steppe is carried long distances and enjoyed by natives and travelers. Life giving seeds dance on the breeze and spread out across the landscape. The blue sky is dotted with ever-changing white as a kaleidoscope of clouds waft overhead.


Mongolia is the “Land of the Blue Skies” and Mongolians seem to embrace this slogan. They are proud of the wide-open spaces and cool, clean, fresh air. There is a real concern among them about the increased industrial pollution of the cities and an urgency to fix things before they get worse.


Today, here in HNNP, people from around the world have gathered to taste all that is sweet about Mongolia and slowly breathe in cool, clean, fresh air in the “Land of the Blue Skies”.


After writing this and reading it to the group, I realized that this splash of ink on the page was as much about Montana, as Mongolia. Change “Land of the Blue Skies” to “Big Sky Country” and I am transported back to the windblown slopes of the Rocky Mountain Front.

video

Winds of the Mongolian Steppe

Note: Christi is in flight right now, probably somewhere between Seattle and Seoul, South Korea. Hope all is going well.



JUNE 20, 2009: SATURDAY


A HORSE IS A HORSE...MR. ED.

Woke up early today, 4:45 am. We set out in the Shermans to look for Tahki in their beds. The windows on the vans were frosted over (it was a COLD morning. I wore my long johns to bed and I kept them on under my clothes all day!). We found two herds once we stopped and we were able to get within about 100 yards of one group. It is pretty miraculous to know you are in such close proximity to the only remaining wild horses in the world!

We had an inquiry activity after breakfast that took us into the woods. We chose to analyze "skat" (poo) from Red Deer (I guess they were on my mind from yesterday).

After lunch we got to ride Mongolian horses through the National Park! WOW! Mongolian horses are smaller than our horses and as far as I am concerned, they seem to have a better disposition. The park ranger put "softer" saddles on our horses compared to the traditional wooden Mongolian saddles. They were comfortable except for the short stirrups and their placement directly over the front shoulders. I would have rode all day had they let me!

This afternoon was pretty relaxed. Discussion then dinner then we played games with the Mongolian students that arrived at camp to visit us. More on why there are here in tomorrow's journal. We got a fresh shipment of cold drinks and water. It is nice to enjoy a cool beverage (most things we drink have to be warm because of lack of refrigeration) in this awe-inspiring valley with good food and good friends. I think it is now fair to call these people I have spend the last week with "friends", Americans and Mongolians alike.

Note: This is my second night in a bed. I miss the ger and sleeping in the dirt. Not sure why...just do.

Another note: It is 9:50 pm here which means Christi should be in flight between Montana and Seattle. I am jumping out of my skin anticipating her arrival. (Christi was flying to Ulaanbaatar to meet me when we came out of the wilderness and spend a week exploring Mongolia with me !)

GOODNIGHT FROM HUSTAI NURUU NATIONAL PARK, MONGOLIA!

JUNE 19, 2009: FRIDAY

OH WHAT A NIGHT...

Awoke their morning very well rested. The heat from the fire fire and the trickle of rain put me out like a baby. I missed shower time (water shortages only allow showers during certain times) last night so I was hoping to get my shower when they opened again in the morning; After-all it has been quite a few days since the last one. As luck would have it, the mens shower started on fire in the middle of the night. Apparently someone has used a candle to shower at night (because the storm knocked out the power) and it tipped over. So...once again...no shower for me...

Moilt Camp, in Hustai Nuruu National Park
Our headquarters for studying the Tahki Horse

After breakfast we headed out in the Shermans for Moilt Camp in Hustai Nuruu National Park (HNNP). Nuruu means mountain range. We saw several Tahki along the way and as we lumbered along, the landscape slowly transformed from pointed short-grass hills to jagged scree covered mountains. Because this park is protected, the grass is long and green and it makes a beautiful contrast with the weathered, rounded rock outcroppings.

After settling in at camp and going for a hike up the mountainside, Bayaraa (Muntsog's son) and I left the group in a saddle between two ridges above Moilt Camp and set out to find a heard of Red Deer we had seen across the canyon. Dinner would be happening soon but I did not care if I ate. I had flown all the way to Mongolia hoping to see Red Deer (similar to our Elk, also called "stag" in parts of Europe). I have a "thing" for Red Deer. They remind me of the most regal animal of Montana: the Elk. Only the Red Deer is exotic and new and I have always wanted to hunt them...and...there I was, atop a mountain at 5,700ft, in Mongolia, racing across a mountain ridge to hunt Red Deer with no gun. I am slowly finding that I don't have to carry a gun to enjoy a hunt. The spot, the stalk, the thrill is all included, only no dragging out meat in the end!

As we scurried across boulders and through the high mountain grass, several Red Deer erupted form the Birch trees in front of us. We stopped, they stopped, and as we watched, the females rounded up two small calves and we all stood and watched each other for a while, waiting for somebody to make the first move.

After our encounter we headed farther up the ridge toward the top of the mountain and spotted the original herd in a saddle at the top of the valley. I could have sat there with my binoculars for the rest of the day and watched the head of 10 eat and browse. There were 4 bulls. Two of them were massive, their pitch black antlers stretched high above their sturdy necks and they looked so powerful, and peaceful, and quiet. And I felt the same.


My heart and mind were still replaying the experience even 4 hours later when I penciled out my journal for the night. This place, these animals, these events are etching themselves very deeply in my soul and I hope they etch deeply enough that they last in there forever.

______________

Note: I thought I was going to finally get a shower at Moilt Camp. It is an outdoor "shower" with a water holding tank up on stilts and glass tubes that run through the tank. In theory, the sun warms up the glass tubes and the heat is transferred to the water above. Then, you turn on the shower head and warm, soothing, mountain water pours over your head. However, when I tried the shower, the water was soooo cold that I managed only managed to get my head wet before I ran out screaming bloody murder...still...no...shower.


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JUNE 18, 2009: THURSDAY

GHANA BIRTHDAY MEAL AND MOVING ON

John and I are sitting in our Ger at Hustai National Park listening to the pitter-patter of rainfall outside and enjoying the heat from the stove fire. We have left our former camp and relocated here to the park to start our studies of the Tahki Horse or Prezwalski's Horse as it is more commonly known. For the last hour or so we have been reflecting on our time at the Pallas Cat Research Camp, sharing memories and yesterday we capped off our last day at the Pallas Cat Camp with the most exciting meal imaginable.



Ghana's (one of our Mongolian guides) family butchered a goat for his birthday. All parts of the goat (meat, bones, fat, gristle) were placed in a large metal jug with a lid (it was an old large milk jug). We built a fire with grass and dung (cow, goat, and sheep poo) and threw rocks into the fire. When the rocks were glowing hot, they were placed in the jug with the meat. Ghana topped it off with potatoes, carrots and onion, poured in some salt, and capped it off.

Note: Normally this traditional "Mongolian Barbeque" isn't cooked inside an old milk jug. Traditionally the goat is skinned and all holes are sewn closed. Then the meat, rocks and veggies and hot rocks are put inside the skin and it is sewn closed.

Just imagine. You have dirt covered meat that is butchered out under the sun sitting in a large jug with burnt dung covered rocks thrown in as a source of heat. Believe me when I say, IT WAS INCREDIBLE! The meat was tender, greasy and flavorful! On my second trip through the food line, Muntsog gave me a thigh bone with meat, tendons and cartlige still attached. I ate until the bone was bare and then scraped the bone with a knife as instructed by the Mongolian men (who promised that the bone shavings would bring me "strong childrens")

Experiences like this make one realize how skewed our sense of life is at times. We expect the most sanitary conditions imaginable for food prep. We discard the bones as garbage when many cultures regard them as a delicacy. We feel we must be proper and "refined" at the dinner table. Here, the most important thing is enjoying good food with friends and family, and making sure each person has their fill.

Look at these Mongolian people. Look at their rich and wonderful lives. Have we gone wrong somewhere? Should we take a step back and re-evaluate what is important? Should we appreciate the small things in life a little more? I say it again, "I think we have a lot to learn from these people"!
_________________________

Quick recap of the day:
  • Set out after breakfast to look for fox. Found a mother with 2 cubs. It was neat to watch them play in the sun.
  • Some helped take down 2 gers as we prepped to leave camp. I joined the cooking team.
  • Crossed the Tuul River on our way to the new camp at Hustai National Park (where we are now). The Mitsubitsi got bogged down in the middle of the river. We all jumped in to push it out.


  • First "Sherman" (Russian Van) runs out of gas. All 9 people are packed into two remaining vans and Jeep.
  • Second "Sherman" runs out of gas. With the (working) van up ahead we are forced to grab our gear and start "The Long Walk" (as we dubbed it) to Hustai Nat. Park.
  • On the 7 km walk we pass the third "Sherman" as it sits alongside the dirt road; out of gas. Passengers join the rest of the group on "The Long Walk".
  • After 6 km of walking we are picked up by refueled vans and are taken the remaining 1 km to camp.
  • Dinner (buffet), then lecture, and now it is present time. I sit here and write this!

Goodnight!

In Mongolian: харанхуй
(actually means: night)

JUNE 17, 2009: WEDNESDAY

CAT IN THE HAT



I had the most incredible morning I have had in some time. Only a handful of people IN THE WORLD have had the opportunity to see and do what I experienced this morning...

We were broken into groups that would do several different adventures (like the ornithology from yesterday) Today our group was to take the radio telemetry unit and set out to find a collard Pallas's Cat (click to learn more). To make a long story short, I spotted movement on an outcrop of rocks across from our glassing position. Telemetry said the cat should be in that direction. When we got to the outcrop, we found no cat. Then, our guide looked into one of the holes on the cliff side and quickly looked back at me with big eyes, "CAT!" he exclaimed under his breath.

He decided to snare it out of the rocks with a stick and a loop (which he fashioned out of his shoe laces). He pulled the cat from its hiding spot, kicking, biting, clawing and hissing. The cat escaped with the shoelace neuce still around its neck and dove into a marmot hole. She was fished from the hole and the laces were removed before she escaped again. Apparently I watched too much "Baywatch" as a young man, because I tore after the cat down the mountain side and pulled my coat off as I ran (I call this the "David Hasselhoff Maneuver") and when I got near the cat, I dove on it with my coat!!!



We had hoped that she was a male cat so we could collect semen and place a radio collar on him, but she turned out to be female. So, we set her free one last time. If she could talk, I can only imagine what she would say!


This event is significant to me for several reasons. First, this stroke of luck in finding then capturing this cat is something only a handful of people have ever done. Secondly, this was a hunt, of which there was no killing. It has been harder and harder for me to "pull-the-trigger" on animals while hunting back home. So, this "hunt" was fulfilling in so many ways. I will always treasure the memory of this morning's events.

Note: The day before we arrived at camp, the biologists found a den with a dead mother cat. The litter of 5 kittens were taken back to camp to be monitored and fed as they would not have survived on their own. The biologists were constantly trapping field mice and gerbils in small metal live traps called "Sherman Traps". At feeding time, they would shake the Sherman Traps enough to stun and slow down the mice so that kittens could catch them and eat. This is how the Russian vans got the nickname "Sherman's" because the occupants in the vans feel like the gerbils being shaken senseless in the traps!!!

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