If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know “timely” isn’t a particularly apt description for it. Brevity isn’t exactly a strong point of my writing, and it sometimes takes me a while to record everything I want to. I write most of this twice, too – longhand in my journal first, and then I retype it in Word and paste it online. Mostly, what it means is that what you read here is what I want to tell you about, not necessarily what’s most current in my life. And the weekend chronicled here was worth the time it took to record it properly. I want to remember it in detail.
August 27, 2012
Our visit thus far has been a strange mixture of quiet and eventful. Just getting here was an all-day ordeal. We left at 9:30 am, meaning to stop once on our way and arrive around 3 pm. But the place we went to pick up food for the weekend didn’t have large bottles of water, so we had to stop again, this time at a gas station. Then the boys saw a vendor selling айраг along the roadside, so we had to make a quick stop for them to buy some. And then it was around 1 pm when we came to the last good-sized town along the way, and everyone wanted to stop for lunch. We were back on the road around 2 for what we were told would be a three-hour drive.
The roadsides as we left Ulanbaatar were lined with all sorts of interesting things – lots of tourist-trap photo ops with camels and the trained hawks the Kazakh people hunt with. But the real fun began when we left the paved roads for the dirt tire tracks that pass for roads throughout much of this vast, uninhabited country. They are not only dusty, but uneven and bumpy, which doesn’t sit very well with my stomach. I had been okay before lunch, and had avoided greasy foods like the хуушуур I’d been craving, but bouncing along had me feeling queasy nonetheless. I moved up to the front of our little bus when it got really bad, sitting crosslegged between Lucas and the driver above what I later learned was the engine. I couldn’t read during our drive, but that was really no loss; I was too busy looking at the mountains and laughing at the cows who dared to play chicken with a bus.
The real problem with our journey was that Mongolia has lots of rivers, and at least in the countryside, most of them don’t have bridges. Even when they exist, people avoid them, since they don’t know how well they’re maintained and whether they will bear the weight of a car. Instead, they find a shallow spot where the banks aren’t too steep and drive straight through the water. We managed to make several such crossings without incident, but then we came to a particularly wide stretch of water. We splashed our way through and had climbed halfway up the far bank when the flooded engine sputtered – and died. At least our driver was a mechanic. We prepared for a long wait while he set the air filter out to dry and made other repairs that included banging engine parts between two rocks to straighten them.
We passed the time by taking pictures, wandering over to the nearby bridge we hadn’t used, and watching a family lose their license plates trying to drive across. Finally, the driver got the engine going, though the exhaust now spewed oil droplets fanned across the water behind us in dark streaks. So we piled back in the bus and continued onward.
This time, we made it as far the town of Mungunmorit, where, out of concern for his floundering vehicle, the driver refused to take us any further. Once more, we found ourselves stranded as we waited for the car we had been told would come to take us the rest of the way. We ended up piling in the back of a pickup track, squished together in the light rain. It didn’t rain for very long, thankfully; but some people did come out of the adventure with wet clothes – we broke out the beer and had a grand time. The road was uneven, though, so there were some spills, not to mention painful landings when the bigger bumps launched us into the air. But at last we made it to our destinations, splitting into two groups. Lisa D, Cooper, Sunigel, Yoki, and I stayed with two families in their little cabins, which were about a ten-minute walk from the other group’s cluster of gers. Our host greeted us with a late dinner – бурц шөл, a soup made with vegetables and dried meat. It was after 9 pm at this point, so the nomads went to bed, and after a failed attempt to visit the other group, we did the same.