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Across the Steppe to Khövsgöl Nuur - Mongolia Travel Story

*****  (3 reviews)
Title: Across the Steppe to Khövsgöl Nuur
The crack between the glass and the window frame is causing a freezing cold draft to blow on my face. I have tried shoving a stained sheet into the gap with minimal results. My pillow smells slightly like sheep, much like everything in this country. The lights are flickering, giving me a headache and the train is swaying slightly from side to side, grunting and groaning below us as it pulls out of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital and the focal point for everything in the country, and begins its slow journey northwards to Darkhan, the second largest city in Mongolia. From here the train will turn eastward and head towards Erdenet, a copper mining town and Mongolia’s third largest city but with a population that barely reaches 75,000 people. From here the plan is to find a jeep that will take us on the next leg of our journey to Khövsgöl Nuur (Lake Khövsgöl), one of the highlights and top attractions in Mongolia. Khövsgöl Nuur is approximately 750km from Ulaanbaatar. 2760 sq km of pure water, the deepest lake in central Asia and the worlds fourteenth-largest source of fresh water, and situated among some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, it is no surprise the lake is as popular as it is. And here we were. The three of us playing cards to while away the time while the train chugged along at a speed barely above running pace, stopping constantly to let people on and off in some of the most empty countryside in the world (less than 1.5 people per sq km of land). The three of us – me, Mitch, a Canadian, and Paul, from the north of England - had just finished three-month volunteer placements working for various newspapers and news agencies in Ulaanbaatar and were ready for some proper adventure travelling. Fourteen hours later we arrived in Erdenet to find it snowing and the ground pristine white. Having wandered around the city centre aimlessly for an hour or so, failing comprehensively to find a bus or jeep stand, some Mongolians took pity on us and after some brief negotiations we were on our way to Bulgan. The three of us, our rucksacks and four Mongolians crammed into a small jeep with a padded roof. It needed to be padded. We were learning quickly that roads are luxury confined to the cities. A night in Bulgan was followed by some more negotiations, this time with the help of the local English teacher, and a jeep and driver were procured to take us east to a small town called Mörön, where we spent another night before finally heading north to the lake. As we are leaving Bulgan we pick up our first hitchhiker. He is a Mongolian of 50 years of age (discovered by drawing numerals on the head rest of the seat in front), who explains he needs a lift 20 km out of town to where his ‘machine’ has run out of petrol. Once we have dropped him off be pick up our second hitchhiker, this time a middle-aged woman wearing a stunning bright del (the national dress) and carrying a shiny black leather purse. We pull up outside a ger (a large circular felt tent that many Mongolians still live in – very cosy), and we are invited in by the woman in the bright del. Windproof and watertight, the ger is solidly built and has been the traditional dwelling of Mongolian people for centuries. Most Mongolians still live in gers, even the suburbs of Ulaanbaatar and they are surprisingly comfortable; in urban areas they might well have electricity but in the countryside candles and lamps are required. Toilets are outside in an outhouse. In this particular one we drank salty milky tea and ate doughy biscuits, surrounded by gawping Mongolian children, all young girls. A deformed boy lay on one of the beds staring at us with huge eyes. It all contrived to make us extremely uncomfortable and, unsure of the protocol (do we leave a gift?), I was glad to leave. Our third and final hitchhiker is picked up from the guanz (restaurant/café), where we ate a two-course meal of buuz (mutton dumplings) and noodle soup followed by mutton and rice, all washed down with more salty milk tea. By 4pm we were not even half way there. Things began to flatten out and we drive through vast open plains with nothing in sight apart from the dirt road that disappears into the horizon and the odd herder with their flocks of sheep or the grazing horses. Dusk arrives and the setting sun gives the whole thing a red tint. One horizon after another is reached and passed only for another to rise up in the distance; endless expanses of red earth are covered only for another to appear. It is dark by the time we reach Mörön at 11pm and we struggle for an hour so to find a hotel room. Eventually we find a back-street hotel with cheap rooms. It appears to be the local teenage hangout, with kids inside and outside getting drunk on cheap vodka and groping each other in their cars. The rooms have no shower or heating. We play cards with our driver and polish of a bottle of vodka ourselves. We left Mörön the next morning, having breakfasted and bought a supply of fresh water and pastries from the local shop. Twenty minutes out of town our driver stopped the jeep, began jabbering in Mongolian and pointing at the bottle of vodka we had bought at the shop. We quickly worked out that he wanted to drink it. It was not yet 10am. Refusing to budge until the bottle had been opened we had little choice but to follow his wishes. Once the first shot had been thrown out the window as tradition dictates, the bottle was polished off between us with shots being poured into and drunk from one of the light fittings screwed off from the inside of the jeep. Our driver clearly had done this before. We were beginning to worry about his drinking habits. Drinking copious amounts of cheap Mongolian and Russian vodka has become traditional in Mongolia, something picked up from the Russians before they left in the early 1990’s, ending 70 years of Soviet domination in almost all aspects of Mongolian life. No ceremony or celebration is complete without countless toasts involving numerous shots of vodka. Men and women, young and old; all participate. Drinking beer in the streets is frowned upon; drinking vodka on the other hand is tolerated. A day will not pass without seeing a drunk passed out on the pavement, people stepping around him or her without a second thought. Temperatures fall as low as -30˚C in the winter but alcoholics are not seasonal; perhaps the vodka in their veins keep them warm as they sleep of their inebriations on the icy pavements. We arrived at Khatgal, a town situated just south of Khövsgöl Nuur around midday. It was almost a ghost town, dusty and deserted. We knew it was out of season but didn’t think things would be this bad. Nothing appeared to be open; all the tourist camps were closed and there were very few people around. We drove through the centre of town, along a wide dusty road (everything is dusty), passing numerous houses with boarded up windows. The few inhabitants we saw stopped their tasks and gawped at us. It feels like the Wild West I have seen on many a western movie. We were told that we were the only tourists in the place. The lake was still frozen and the boats in the harbour where we were staying were going nowhere soon. Where the ice is not too thick we could see that the water was pristine clear. Having tentatively tested the ice we decided it was thick enough to take our weight. We carefully edge twenty feet onto the ice, have our picture taken, before hurriedly making our way back onto solid ground. We spend the night in the harbour masters ger and early the next morning we got a knock on our door and two local women entered carrying gym bags full of their merchandise, which they preceded to lay out on the floor to try and sell us. I am cajoled from my bed into purchasing a pair of socks made (apparently) from camel and yak wool. They are horrible. Our driver from Bulgan was still here, even though we had arranged for him to leave us and go home, and seemed to be causing quite a stir in the town. Something appeared to have gone wrong. The locals had begun running their fingers across their throats whenever we mentioned him. We knew he got drunk last night, but has he gone and done something serious? Communication was proving to be a big problem. Fortunately the guide we hired the day before and who spoke excellent English arrived and explained everything. It appears our driver got drunk last night after he left us and was caught drink driving and fined a considerable amount of money. He wants more money of us claiming he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the petrol to get him home. We refuse. The sooner he is gone the better. The two couldn’t have been more different; Oggie, our driver, a sweaty obese Mongolian with a chesty rasping cough and a penchant for vodka, wearing tracksuit bottoms, fleece jacket and white baseball cap. Ochie, our guide, tall, tanned and weather-beaten, wearing a traditional brown del with a bright orange sash around his waist. The two had spent the previous afternoon sitting around the stove in the ger discussing the up-and-coming Mongolian elections. Oggie, drinking shots of vodka, was arguing for the democrats; Ochie, drinking tea, was going to vote for the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the old communist party. As the political debate continued it became increasingly apparent that there were many things Ochie didn’t like about the new Mongolia: the lazy city folk in Ulaanbaatar, the young chasing the quick buck; he wants a return to good old fashioned honest hard work. But top of his list of things he dislikes are the Chinese and the impression I got was that many Mongolians shared these sentiments. I sensed a feeling of insecurity here: with a population in the billions the Chinese outnumber Mongolians by a ratio beyond my mathematical skills. Mongolia has a population of little over 2.5 million people, a third of who live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar while the rest spread themselves over a vast country three time the size of France. And spread themselves they do. Mongolia is a country of empty spaces, unfenced and free to all. The ‘Land of the Blue Sky’ as the tourist brochures will claim and it certainly is. The sun shines most days, except perhaps during spring where dust storms are common, whipping up the dust and debris in the city streets. It is easy to paint vivid pictures of vast open spaces, contrasting mountain ranges and green pine forests but sadly not all is so perfect. There is rubbish everywhere. On too many occasion I would climb a hill or trek through a gorgeous forest only to stumble upon empty cans of Korean beer, Russian vodka, and water bottles. And this is outside the sooty grime of the city in some of the most remote and beautiful countryside in the world. We had arranged with Ochie, the local guide, to go on a two day one night horse trek up the east side of the lake. The day was cloudy and cool but with a sun that burnt whenever it came out from behind a cloud. We half ambled and half trotted through pine forests and open meadows, crossing bogs and streams. All very idyllic. Unfortunately my wooden saddle made the whole experience distinctly uncomfortable and my horse pissing blood didn’t fill me with confidence. The pack horse collapsed after an hour under the weight of our three rucksacks and only rose again after been beaten and whipped by Ochie. Our sympathies were with him. Some time in the early afternoon we stopped for tea at a herder’s ger, a friend of our guide. Half the ger was given over to a pen for baby goats. It was very simple and sparse compared to some of the tourist gers we had stayed in before, with few fancy ornaments. The goats wandered in and out, fighting with each other while we drunk salty tea and ate dry bread, sprinkled with sugar. We arrived at the edge of the lake in the early evening, exiting the pine forest to behold the biggest expanse of frozen water I have ever seen stretching of into the horizon, the evening sun reflecting off the ice. We had to smash through the ice to get to the water. Ochie, our guide, chopped down a couple of tree branches, which he used as poles for our tent, a tent that had no ground sheet, allowing the severe wind to get in underneath. Sparks and smoke from the stove and a dinner of mutton boiled with rice, all very salty. It was clearly going to be a very cold night, even with the stove in the tent going all night. It proved to be. On a number of occasions the chimney from the stove became blocked and the tent filled with smoke, choking us and burning our eyes. The next day a snowy, sleety rain was falling and the wind was howling, shaking our tent. I wore almost every item of clothing I possessed. I was still cold. After a late lunch of hairy pieces of dried mutton and potato noodles, we left camp late afternoon and rode for five hours back to Khatgal, through the same pine forests and meadows. My horse, called Tsagaan (meaning white), became increasingly stubborn, cantering when I wanted to walk and walking when I wanted to trot. We made it back to our ger late, tired, aching, and dehydrated having eaten dinner at our guide’s home, cooked by his wife. More mutton. We were now beginning to wonder what would happen next. Somehow we had to get back to Ulaanbaatar and we all agreed that if we could avoid our obese alcoholic driver things would be much smoother. We were told that he was out drinking again. We all really smelt by now. We were dirty and our clothes were dirty; everything covered in a layer of grime and dust. Where is that next shower? The next morning we hired another jeep to take us back to Mörön, having apparently finally shaken of our first driver. In Mörön we found a minibus that was leaving for Erdenet and we cautiously got in. We left Mörön at around 5pm, having spent an hour driving up and down the sandy, dirty, litter covered streets of the town picking up passengers until the mini-bus was full. It was drizzling slightly and some of our fellow passengers had begun drinking. A twenty-four year old chain-smoking alcoholic Mongolian calling himself Birar and his friend Dulchelsunin (or something similar) led the way, consuming vodka and beer like there was no tomorrow. Birar’s mother frowned and scolded from the seat opposite, but didn’t intervene. Birar and Dulchelsunin found us particularly fascinating in their drunken state and plagued us with the same questions, via our phrasebook, for much of the journey until Birar threw up and passed out, head resting on the lap of the unfortunate guy sitting next to him, cigarette still hanging from his lips. The journey from Mörön to Erdenet can be described by one word only. Hell. I hope I never have to experience anything similar in my whole life. Bounced, jolted, shook, shaken, and banged, four of us squeezed onto three seats in the back of the mini-bus for sixteen hours through the night. I slept for half an hour, and then only because we stopped for a break. We appeared to have tried to take some short cut through the mountains, driving in the dark at ridiculous speeds along pot-holed dirt tracks through forests and across numerous rivers and streams. At one point we came across a jeep that had broken down. It was 3am and a huge fire had been lit, keeping the passengers warm. At no one point was I comfortable during the entire journey, my head constantly banging against the window and the roof. Every molecule in my body had been rattled. We arrived in Erdenet early the next morning. Erdenet is not the place to be if you have a spare day. A mining town whose top attraction is the mine, which we hastily agreed was not on our itinerary. Everything was shut so we dozed on a bench in the park until things began to open. Three coffees from the Millionaire Café later and we were all feeling a little better. The train wasn’t due to leave till the evening so we had a whole day to ourselves in Erdenet, tired, unwashed and not in the best of moods. We found ourselves in the classiest restaurant in the place, the Casablanca Bar, which served the worst hamburgers in the whole world. Sausage in a sweetened, sugar-coated bun. We drowned our sorrows with some expensive Heineken and watched horrible 80’s music videos on the TV. We are now finally on the train and on our way back to Ulaanbaatar. Our cabin stinks, our socks are off and a Mongolia businessman, who took one smell and asked to be moved to a different cabin, has vacated the fourth bed. Someone has lit incense outside our cabin door and Mongolian music is playing over the sound system. I can’t wait for a shower. And anything to eat but mutton.

Reviews (3)

If I wasn`t in Turkmenistan and kazakhstan, may be never would understood this story. A common heritage of soviet union for all Russian occupied places in Asia and Central Asia: ALKAGOL and TUALET BEZ WODA I BUMGA (Alcohl and Tualets without Wter & Paper)!! Ehh.., I`m tired...!
I feel pity for reading a ridiculous story in Mongolia. I am as Mongolian, I could imagine everything but they are too unlucky!
sour, prissy, but top notch within that category