The next stop on our trip was a soum called Tariat. Tariat itself left very little impression on me – which is unsurprising, considering that we spent approximately fourteen hours there, over half of them asleep. So this post, like my memories of the soum, will be framed by the things that we saw on our way to and from Tariat.
We left Tsetserleg around 4:30 on Monday afternoon. It had already been a long day of presenting and being presented to, so none of us were particularly thrilled about getting back in the cars and driving onwards. But in we got and on we went. The paved road ended abruptly about five minutes out of Tsetserleg, but the gravel that replaced it was reasonably smooth – for the first half of our journey, at least. For that I was most grateful: I was about halfway through the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire at this point and unwilling to put it down. But I was eventually forced to do so, as reading, rough roads, and I are not a good combination. But the scenery was interesting and afforded us plenty to see and talk about.
We had quickly left the mountains surrounding Tsetserleg for the more open steppe that covers much of the country, but there were always more on the horizon, whichever way you looked. Steppe and mountains alike were still the dead, dry brown of winter, but we had blue sky above us and a good road beneath us; not a bad way to watch afternoon fade into evening.
About an hour outside Tariat, a canyon opened on our right, growing larger with every minute we drove. Dashaa carefully maneuvered our car off the road, around the ditches, and through the intervening herd of yaks so that we could pile out for a closer look. The canyon was deep enough that little sunlight reached the base, even during the height of the afternoon. Snow still covered the near bank, reaching all the way up to just below the lip, and the river’s surface was still frozen solid. Some of the ice retained its coating of snow, but green swirled unexpectedly through the the white of the exposed ice. This would be no calm stream come summer.
The other cars had pulled ahead while we dawdled at the edge of the canyon, but we soon caught up: they too had stopped not far ahead. We jumped out again, to take more pictures. The canyon walls sloped less steeply here, and more trees grew on the banks. I would have loved to see this canyon in September; larch trees hold their green, needle-like leaves until late in autumn, turning a lovely golden color after aspens have dropped all their leaves, before they too succumb to the cold. But Чулууд, as I learned the canyon was called, had begun to leave the throes of winter behind. A stream of liquid water snaked its way through the ice here, only to be subsumed by it further downstream.
It was past dinnertime when we arrived in Tariat, but we’d had sandwiches and snacks in the car to tide us over. I was glad of my sandwich; I consistently forget that ноготой шөл doesn’t translate to “vegetable soup” so much as “soup with vegetables.” Mutton soup, in other words. I’ve already expressed my general dislike of mutton, and boiled mutton is my least favorite preparation of the meat. The milk tea wasn’t really to my liking either; I’m not generally a fan of the stuff, and this struck me as unusually gamey. I’m glad I at least tried, it though – we later learned that the reason for the unusual taste was that it was made from yak’s milk.
We were joined at dinner by Mike, the PCV at whose school we’d be presenting the following morning. Mike is truly what my friend Eric would call a “hudoo rat” : he’s a ger-dweller as well as a soumer, and his soum is six hours by mikr from the aimag center. Eric has a modem and can sometimes get Internet access in Delger, if he sits in exactly the right place and the Internet gods are willing. But Mike doesn’t get Internet in his soum at all. For him to get online, he has to make the six-hour trip to Tsetserleg. Suffice to say, he doesn’t spend much time on Facebook. The Embassy had provided us with the contact information of the PCVs we’d be meeting along the way, so the Lisas had asked whether any of them wanted goods from the capital. Mike’s requests were simple: baked goods and macaroni and cheese. He got both.
Mike had plenty of entertaining stories to tell, including several about his dog. Peace Corps pets tend to be adopted/rescued strays, and Mike’s dog was no exception. Her name caused a double-take for a lot of us, though: “you named your dog Tumpin?” But while most PC pets are “rescues” in the sense that the were taken in off of the street, so to speak, Tumpin was truly rescued as a puppy – from an outhouse. In the summer. And then rescued a second time, when she fell in another outhouse after Mike adopted her. Her name, it would seem, is well-earned.
Our one presentation at Mike’s school the next morning flew by, and before we knew it, we were on the road again. But not the road to Tosontsengel – at least, not yet. First, we made a quick side trip to Khorgo.
There aren’t many volcanoes in Mongolia, but Khorgo is one of them. And even though it’s been extinct for seven thousand years, it still sticks out from the surrounding area. The rocks are darker, sharper; the mountain, strangely rounded. There are trees, but they’re sparse and scrawny.
We bounded out of the cars and up the mountainside, ignoring the wind and impending snow. Khorgo is clearly a tourist destination; while it doesn’t have marked trails, like you would find in America, the steeper part of the climb had concrete steps that cut through the strangely-mounded scree. For that, we were all grateful; screes are never fun to climb.
We only had an hour to explore, but we reached the lip of the volcano in far less time. The volcano itself might not have been very tall, but its crater was impressively deep. Phil warned us to stay away from the edge, telling us that the had lost Fulbrighters to volcanoes before. We tittered nervously, waiting for the punchline, but there wasn’t one: two live volcanoes, two lost Fulbrighters. This one, thankfully, wasn’t active, but falling into the crater would certainly result in serious injury at the very least.
I would have liked to climb higher but was informed that we didn’t have time. So back to the cars we went. We reached the base just as the first flakes of the threatened snow began to fall, and then we were back on the road once more.