Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Hiking Fiasco, Part III: Ikh Tenger

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.

(New to this story? Click back to read Part I and Part II of our rather disastrous hiking trip.)

Unfortunately, getting home was not going to be easy. Though we set off chilled and aching, we hadn’t been walking long before we started stripping off our extra layers as we clambered through field after field of boulders. Dehydrated as we were, and without enough water to remedy the problem, we overheated quickly and stayed that way. The exhaustion of the previous day’s hike and general lack of sleep had taken its toll as well, and our progress toward the distant city we caught in tantalizing glimpses was slow. But we were making progress, at least, and so we trudged onward, making our careful way downhill.

As usual, I’d fallen behind the others during this downhill stretch, and so at first I didn’t see anything different about their having stopped ahead of me; it just looked like  another break. But as I approached, the depressing truth appeared: though compass and city lights told us to keep marching forward, we’d have to disregard their beckoning and turn aside. We’d trudged straight into a barbed-wire fence.

RESTRICTED AREA – DO NOT ENTER, declared the signs posted at regular intervals. Moreover, they said so in English as well as Mongolian, which I found entertaining; very few signs in this country boasted translations. Why bother here, when the barbed wire shouted stay out in a universal language?

Having made extensive use of our guidebooks, we knew where we were now, and it was not where we wanted to be.

Be careful not to drop too soon or you’ll end up at Ikh Tenger, one valley short of Zaisan. Ikh Tenger is where the president lives with machine gun-wielding guards, who will be none to pleased if you drop by unannounced. If you see a barbed-wire fence you are in Ikh Tenger; to get out, just continue west along the fence and over the next ridge.

So we did as the book advised: we turned left and tried our best to follow the fence west. Alas, it mostly didn’t go west – we were forced to backtrack as it turned ever more south, leading us up a ridge and through brambles tore at our hands and arms. We paused as we trudged through to strip them of raspberries and rose hips, exacting our small revenge. Up and back, up and back we climbed single file, warning the others as we encountered bad footing. Despite our care, Krysta and I both slipped and fell into rosebushes, while Valerie went sliding into a brush-filled hole. We took the setbacks as best we could, giggling at the falls and grateful that none of us sustained injury.

At last, we were able to continue northward along the side of the ridge the fence has led us to. Abruptly, we found ourselves out of the woods and in the merciless sun. This ridge was desert-like, covered in gravel and larger stones – the kind of surface that sends you sliding back a step and a half for every two you try to take uphill, or jerks your feet out from under you altogether when you’re waking your way down. We considered our options: up, down, or across? I left the others to make my slow way uphill, but when the long journey up a hundred feet left me far from the top, we decided to try our luck amongst the forested base of the ridge. We could make our way between ridge and woods, we figured, at the border where the brush wasn’t too thick.

We seemed to be in luck. Upon reaching the base of the ridge, we found ourselves upon a path – a path! – that followed a little stream. The barbed wire appeared to have receded back into the woods; there was none in sight, but visibility into the thick tangle was limited. As we followed the path, a ger appeared before us, bringing smiles to our tired faces. At long last, we were nearing civilization.

But as we approached, Ginny noted that it was an awfully nice-looking ger – nicer than you’d expect from a family squatting near the presidential compound. As the ground before us cleared, we found that it had been erected, not on grass, but on astroturf, which I’d seen only once or twice in this country. Sensing that, despite our best intentions, we had found ourselves somewhere we were not supposed to be, we made to turn back to the ridge.

And that was when we saw the man with machine gun.

He’d been walking at an angle to us originally, following a path we couldn’t see, but he stopped when the five of us caught his eye. He looked at us, and we looked at him, and when he started in our direction, the five of us walked to meet him without a word. What else could we do? You don’t run from men with machine guns.

In our limited Mongolian, we apologized. “Passport?” he demanded, though of course none of us had them. I handed over my photocopy, and the others driver’s license or student IDs. He radioed a partner and led us away – where, we didn’t know. He asked if we spoke Mongolian, and I answered, “a little.” But that was the end of the conversation. No questions, no explanations. But at least we weren’t made to enter any of the buildings we past, some of which had no windows.

As we walked, I tried to prepare an explanation despite not knowing any of the key words – hike, trail, lost. The best I could come up with was something like, Yesterday we went to Zun Mod. We saw monastery and then wanted to walk to UB. We saw road and walked and then didn’t see road. So we slept outside. Today we walked to here. We want to go to UB.

We stopped along a road as the guard escorting us waited for another to join us. Despite our exhaustion, we were not allowed to sit, nor did we have the nerve to press the issue. The next guard again asked for our passports, which we once more explained were at home. V produced a business card the new Fulbrighters had been given in case of emergencies, one that said in Mongolian, “Take me to the US Embassy.”

The second guard considered the card and held onto it, leading us to building alongside the main gate. He entered and told us to wait outside, so we took seats along the curb. There was the road to the city – just a few feet away, but separated from us by a tall, spiked fence. Unlike the pack of stray dogs that raced by, we could not simply slip between the black bars that stood between us and our destination.

Finally, they led us into a room with a single couch and told us to sit. It was a tight squeeze for the five of us, but we sank into it gratefully. More waiting ensued. It had been at least an hour since we’d stumbled into the compound, and who knew how many more would pass before we’d be allowed to leave it.

My ringtone broke the silence.

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”

Another phone rang shortly thereafter. We all exchanged nervous glances when the name came up – it was the Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy.

Finally, Alisa volunteered to take the call. More explanations of where we were and how we’d gotten there, peppered with frequent apologies. We’d received a call from the Duty Officer night before and had been dismayed that our friends in UB had thought it necessary to call the Embassy; it seemed like overkill. Now, however, we were glad that our friends there had been apprise of our trip and surprise overnight, as it helped them to explain our current predicament to the guards detaining us.

We sat quietly for awhile more after Alisa had finished apologizing to the Embassy folks for the inconvenience we were causing them, but eventually, a guard came in to see us. He demanded our cameras and looked through them to make sure we hadn’t taken pictures of anything we weren’t supposed to. He also examined our bags, confiscating  my pocket knife when he came across it at the bottom of mine.

After another hour of waiting, the Duty Officer finally arrived to pick us up; we weren’t allowed to leave on our own. I asked if I could have my knife back, but was denied – apparently they’re not allowed in restricted areas. I was bitter at the loss; it was a good knife that had served me several years, and it wasn’t like I’d brought in a machete. But I tried to keep it in perspective as we climbed into the Duty Officer’s car and exited those dreadful gates, our adventure coming to a close at long last. No one had been killed or injured; though our hike had taken more than twice as long as the guidebook had indicated, we’d never gotten truly lost; despite wandering into truly forbidden ground, we hadn’t been arrested.

“Well?” I had asked the others over an hour earlier, before we knew when – or if – we’d be allowed to leave. “Would you do it again? Was it worth it?”

“Absolutely,” said Krysta with a smile, while the others nodded in agreement. “But next time, we’ll bring a tent.”

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Hiking Fiasco, Part II: Survival

“Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”

Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”

Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”

“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”

But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.

(Apologies for the absurdly long wait after the last cliffhanger in this story.  If the segment above wasn’t enough to remind you what happened in Part I of the Hiking Fiasco, I don’t blame you; feel free to click back and reread. I’ll wait.)

As dark began to fall in earnest, we took stock of our resources. I had a plastic bag containing one box of wind- and waterproof matches, about eight feet of ultra-lightweight rope, a pocket knife, and one of our two flashlights. We all had cell phones, most of which even had service. Valerie had her iPhone, which had served as our compass all day and was now running low on batteries. We had a little water left, and some food. All of us had rain jackets, but only about half of us had other layers to put on. Several of us were still in short sleeves, myself included, and my rain jacket’s sleeves were not insulated.

The day had been hot, but the temperature was already dropping, and it would fall even further once night set in. Those of us who wouldn’t sweat right through them put on our jackets in order to conserve what heat we had, but even so, we knew we were in for a miserable night. We had no tents, no sleeping bags. Fire, then, was to be our first priority.

Alisa fretted aloud about our predicament, our unpreparedness, whether we’d get hypothermia, and how much trouble we’d be in, her voice growing more panicky and high-pitched with every sentence. “Firewood,” I said, looking her in the eye. “You’re in charge of the big sticks. Nothing alive or rotting. Go.”

She drew a deep breath, nodded, and went.

We chose a largish, flat expanse near but not directly under a tree and piled our bags together, moving flashlights and other important items to our pockets so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark. I set the other girls to collecting wood as well, while I sat down to sort it according to size. I grinned when they returned with a thick piece of birch and again when I was presented with a branch thick with the tiny pieces of pine deadwood we call “itsy bitsies” at camp.

“More of these,” I said, gesturing to both. “Birchbark is campfire gold, and the little pine twigs make the best kindling.” The light had dwindled so far that they couldn’t clearly see what I was asking them to get, so I held up the pine for them to feel its distinctive scaly texture. Once they knew what they were looking for, I was piled with armloads of the stuff.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so well with the fire. I’d started with the classic log cabin fire but failed twice to get it lit. Wind- and waterproof these matches might be, but they were horrifically difficult to light, and once I did get them lit, their weatherproof coating burned down much faster than an ordinary match. I couldn’t reach into the log cabin structure and light enough tinder for the twigs to catch without singing my fingers. At this rate, I would run us out of matches before I got anything lit, and we’d be at serious risk of hypothermia.

In frustration bordering on desperation, I resorted to the most basic fire-making technique of them all: bunch up some toilet paper, light it, drop a few handfuls of kindling on it, and blow. I heaved a sigh of relief when the twigs caught, or would have if my lungs weren’t already busy supplying our fledgling fire with oxygen. One of the other girls handed me sticks of increasingly larger sizes as the tongues of flame increased in size and brightness, and slowly we built the blaze into a more stable size and shape.

Fire lit and compatriots notified, it was time to get what sleep we could. Four of us bedded down a flat stretch of moss a few feet from the fire, chain-spooning to conserve heat, while the fifth sat the first fire watch. We’d evenly divided the approximate hours until dawn and allotted an hour and a half to each person, during which they were to keep an eye on fire and firewood alike to keep the fire from either dying out or spreading to the downed and very dead pine only a few feet away. Given my difficulties in starting the first fire, none of us wanted to wake shivering in the dead of night to stir desperately at a pile of ashes that refused to reignite.

The first fire watch was really a formality; I don’t think any of us actually got any sleep as the night grew darker and the thunder louder and more persistent over the next hour. I think the others were plagued with the same worries that ran though my head, their frequency increasing with the thunder. Our raincoats could keep us only so dry; we had no way to protect the fire. Visions of sodden huddles, chattering teeth, and genuine hypothermia danced before my open eyes.

When the first few droplets fell, we all leaped to our feet in unison. If it really was going to rain, we needed shelter, and we needed it fast. We cannibalized our woodpile  for the biggest sticks, wishing we hadn’t broken so many when we gathered wood earlier. Then we broke into groups to gather more materials.

Alisa watched me as I lay long branches between a log and a stump and then used them to support smaller ones, creating a framework about two feet off the ground. “How are you making this?” she asked, and I explained that we needed the frame to be dense enough to support pine boughs that would shed at least some of the rain. “Oh!” she said. “Like a sukkah!”

I grinned. “Exactly.”

Given her greater experience in the field of sukkahs, I left Alisa in charge of the construction while I joined the pine-collection effort. The local pines sported dense collections of needles at the tips of their branches, but only there; the rest of the branch was bare. It took an awful lot of branch tips to cover even a small section our 5’x3.5′ framework. Thank goodness for the moss. Even if it just absorbed the rain rather than repelling it, it was still a roof of some kind. With a little care in peeling and carrying, we were able to detach two-inch-deep sections of nearly a square foot. I felt a little guilty about killing so much moss and cutting off so many live pine branches, but not enough to stop.

Our finished shelter wasn’t about to win any contests for beauty or comfort: the roof was patchy and small, leaving most of our legs exposed, and too low for us even to sit up underneath it. But it was more shelter than we’d had before, and building it had given us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It had also kept us moving enough to accumulate some more body heat, which we knew we’d need. We crawled back in, curled up together, and tried once more to sleep.

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Oh, moss, how we love and hate thee.

It was a long, cold night. Even with my arms pulled into the body of my jacket, I wasn’t dressed to withstand temperatures in the low forties (single digits, for the Celcius-minded), and no one was much better off. The moss beneath us made a soft bed, but also a damp one that refused to warm. Even packed together like sardines we were cold. One by one, we left the shelter for spots closer to the fire. Alisa remained curled up in the shelter for nearly half an hour after the rest of us had abandoned it, but eventually she too awoke at the loss of shared heat.

Fire watch turned out to be unnecessary: even curled up as near to as we dared, none of us slept soundly, and there were always a couple of us awake. The shelter, too, proved superfluous; despite its loud and frequent threats, the promised rain never fell. On us, that is. We learned later that the city had gotten drenched, while our area remained miraculously dry. Perhaps the shelter wasn’t so superfluous – if we hadn’t built it, it probably would have poured in our part of the mountains too. Murphy’s law is not to be tested, especially when it teams up with mother nature.

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.


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Hiking Fiasco, Part I: Manzushir Khiid

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”

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“We’re going hiking tomorrow if you’d like to join us,” one of the new girls mentioned as sat in their apartment, preparing dinner. So it was that the next morning, I found myself in my hiking gear in a minibus headed to Zuun Mod, provincial capital of Tuv aimag. The plan was to take the one-hour ride down to Zuun Mod, hike the seven kilometers to Manzushir Monastery, and then pick up the trail from there. We were told it was roughly a six-hour hike on a well-marked path, though the guidebook did caution us to come well-supplied and let people know where we were going – the markers were painted only a few years ago, after a foreign tourist got lost and died of exposure. So we left early, with a ton of food, raincoats, and about a liter and a half of water apiece.

We took our time perusing Manzushir first. It had a religious museum with a few lama masks, instruments, and paintings, but most of it was stuff I had seen before. We spent a lot longer in the Nature Museum, asking questions about the various stuffed animals that occupied it – deer, foxes, bears, wolves, vultures. The guide spoke a little English, and between that and my limited Mongolian, we muddled along. We oohed and ahed over some really spectacular paintings (mosaics?) made of sand, bark, moss, and colored sugar and rock salt. I would have liked to climb into the enormous bronze cauldron that sat just outside the door – large enough to boil up to ten sheep at once, according to the sign – but refrained.

Ruins of the old monastery

Ruins of the old monastery

We did, however, make our way up to ruins of the old monastery, a set of tumbled down sandstone walls atop the hill at the back of the clearing. I ran my fingers across the rough surface that had been eroded into rounded shapes by centuries of wind and rain and giggled when Ginny made the discovery that she was just barely short enough to stand upright in the doorways. I’m no giant, but I certainly could not have done so.

We also checked out the first of the cave paintings, which were shielded by be-khadaged walls partway up the mountain.

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

The pigment on these eighteenth-century depictions of Buddha had begun to fade, but the outlines etched into the rock were still clear. We would have liked to see the others as well, but the day was getting away from us and we had at least fifteen kilometers of walking ahead of us, so we settled down to our feast of leftover Indian, pasta, and horse sandwiches. Before heading off, we also purchased an additional three liters of water to replenish our already significantly-depleted supply.

From the beginning of the hike, we could tell this wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d though. For one thing, the directions in the book did not seem to match the actual terrain: we were told to head left when facing the museum, which would take us northwest up the hill and past a stupa. As we climbed, however, we discovered that the stupa topped the opposing hill, to the south; walking towards it would take us away from the city. Confused but not unduly worried, we relied on the compass on Valerie’s iPhone instead, trusting we’d find a second stupa in due time.

Yep, that rock face.

Yep, that rock face.

Instead, we found ourselves scrambling down a steep face of mossy boulders, scooting on our butts when we didn’t trust our footing. I grabbed at a tree or two to steady myself and snatched it back quickly, surprised by spiky spruce needles instead of the soft larch common in Erdenet. Upon closer inspection, I noted a wealth of conifers: not only spruce, but pine and cedar as well. Tuv, it seemed, sported a far more selection of trees than Orkhon.

“Let’s try a bit more to the west,” we said when we reached the base of the rock face; “this surely can’t be the right way.” So over we tramped, Ginny in the lead; Krysta and I, at the rear, joked that at this rate, we’d be out here for days. “Well, at least we’ve got plenty of food,” she said. “And there’s water everywhere,” I added, so that shouldn’t be a problem either.”

She asked if I could make a fire with sticks, and I answered that while I knew the principles, I’d never actually done it. I do know that it’s hard, especially with wood dampened by the wettest summer anyone can remember. We didn’t have any flint, so flint and steel wouldn’t be an option either – a shame, since this method I could manage quite handily. We’d batteries in our flashlights, but not 9-volts (though as we’d no steel wool, it mattered little). Three of us wore glasses, so we might be able to try the magnifying glass method. And, of course, I added as an afterthought, I had a pack of wind- and waterproof matches.

Then, as I paused at a creek to wet my bandanna and tie it about my head, we heard a shout from up ahead. “Yellow marks!” Ginny called back to us. “We found it! We’re not going to die out here!”

We stopped to take pictures, proud of ourselves for having found the thrall despite the terribly misleading directions. It led us along a stream, across a clearing full of echoes, and past a pyramidal ovoo. The path was easy, the trail almost insultingly clearly marked, with yellow blazes to guide us every ten feet or so.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. The trees ended at a hillside dotted with crimson patches of rhubarb, and with them, our trail. We took our time in the ascent, pausing often to collect rhubarb until our arms were overflowing the vermilion stalks, the ground behind us littered with leaves like Christmas-colored flags. At the last clearing, the marks had resumed with the trees, directly across from their endpoint; after an hour of constant easy guidance, we’d no reason to assume the case would be different here.

But it was. We scoured the tree line, our eyes peeled for the tiniest splash of yellow, but to no avail. When we came across a set of tire tracks we followed them instead, thinking they would take us to a path. They too ended just beyond the edge of the trees. But path or no, we’d come this far already and weren’t turning back now, so we took out the compass and forged onward.

The rock scrambles that peppered our forested tramping were fun at at first – I’ve always been a bit of a mountain goat, and I consider leaping from boulder to boulder, picking my way across precarious footing, to be good sport. But as the day wore on and my joints began to complain of the repeated impact, the experience lost some of its novelty. I’d already rolled my ankle several times throughout the day – never seriously, thank heavens, but the repeated strain made it unwilling to bear weight at the awkward angles our scrambles required. Many of the boulders also bore a thick coating of moss, something we blessed and cursed in equal measure: though the extra cushioning was a boon to oft-compressed knees and ankles, its tendency to slide out from under one’s feet made for a few scary slips for all of us.

The water situation didn’t help, either. The sun beat down relentlessly on us all day, and much of our journey had been uphill. Even the downhill stretches often required a degree of leaping and scrabbling that left us all panting and wiping the sweat from our eyes. We’d stopped for frequent water breaks until realizing, around mid-afternoon, that we’d less than a liter and a half between the five of us. While we could fill our bottles in one of the many streams, we’d no way to purify the water, and none of us wished court giardia if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

But even before our collective realization, I’d known I was in trouble as I watched the contents of my bottle dwindle. Water breaks might have been frequent up to that point, but we’d made only one potty break since our eight a.m. departure, and I’d not felt the need to participate. Sudden movements now sent my head reeling, more than doubling the difficulty presented by the fields of boulders that we seemed to face with increasing frequency – when dehydration hits, my balance is the first thing to go.

We were headed downhill at this point, determined to get off the darn mountain and onto what looked to be clearer ground down in the valley. Between my weakened ankle, blistered heels, and general difficulties with descent, I’d long since begun to lag behind the others, but a rumbling overhead quickened my step. It wasn’t the first I’d heard, but this sounded louder and closer. The rumbling continued to grow louder and more frequent as I caught up to the others. A glance over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions: the clouds behind us were dark, ugly, and coming on fast.

“Is that thunder?” one of the girls asked, and I nodded. “Oh, let’s hurry!” she cried. “I don’t want to be out here if there’s lightning!”

But as we rounded a bend, it became clear that the storm was only the beginning of our problems. There before us lay the city: visible at last, but distant yet. even on the flat, I thought, that would take us nearly two hours to walk, and the light had already begun to wane. That might just be from the storm, whispered a tiny voice in my head. It wasn’t very convincing.

I knew, at that point, what our course of action would have to be, but I kept the thought to myself until we reached the river that ran along the valley floor. We’d thought to follow it down to the city, but we now saw that it ran through yet another field of boulders, this one with no end in sight.

The rocks on the other side were large, reasonably flat, and thick with moss, so I called a halt. “Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”

Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”

Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”

“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”

But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.


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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


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Hiking

I started to go on a hike the other day. I did this quite often in the fall; Erdenet is nestled between several mountains, and since my home is on the northern edge of town, I can be out the door and at the top of the nearest one in under half an hour. Since I had scads of free time on my hands, I spent many an afternoon wandering the slopes with camera in hand, meandering amongst  larch and aspen and searching diligently for a good walking stick.

And then the snows started.

I’m no stranger to hiking in the snow; I joined the mountaineering club during the semester I spent in Ireland, and a number of the mountains we traversed in November and December had at least a thin coating of the stuff (even if it was only at the top, as was the case when we hiked Ben Nevis). But a wintry Irish day could be mistaken for summer here, and hiking is a lot less fun when every breath pierces your lungs like a knife. Besides, I’d had other people to hike with in Ireland. It’s one thing to go it alone on a sunny day in September (though even that worried my roommate), but quite another to do so in December. The chance of slipping on ice, breaking an ankle, and then freezing to death was not one I was willing to court.

But it’s spring now, though the snow is still fighting to maintain its title as predominant form of precipitation. They turned the heat off yesterday, after all; that must mean it’s almost summer.

Spring, like this statue, is of divided mind here.

Spring, like this statue, is of a divided mind here.

So a few days after the thick, stinging snow of the most recent spring storm had dissipated, I picked a sunny afternoon to head back up into the hills.

Earlier that day, my mother had asked whether leaves and flowers had begun to make an appearance here yet. I said no; the slow greening of the grass was the only reappearance of color I’d yet witnessed. But almost as soon as I left the town limits, I found that I was wrong. A few brave flowers had indeed begun to bloom – tiny, groundhugging blossoms of yellow and pink, as well as larger purple blooms.

There were a few reminders of death scattered amongst the stirrings of new life, of course. In a country where herd animals run free, dogs run wild, and even city-dwellers slaughter sheep in their yards or on their balconies, you can’t walk far without tripping over bones. Usually its the dogs who move the bones about, but people will as well, to adorn this or that ovoo with the skull of a horse, sheep, or cow.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse's skull up here deliberately.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse’s skull up here deliberately.

Even the mine seemed decked out to celebrate the changing seasons. It had never seemed anything but ugly to me before; the great grey hills with their unnaturally flat tops might be the reason this town exists, but they do little to improve the scenery and less to improve the local water quality. You can always find southeast in this town, even on a cloudy day. That scar on the land is unmistakeable.

Today, though… today I was seeing the mine through new eyes. The weather of the past few months had gone to work on it, streaking its sides with rust red and pale blue-green patina. Erdenet’s mine is not the largest or the most famous in the country, with a name as uninspiredly utilitarian as the Soviet bloc architecture of this town – GOK. (It’s a Russian acronym, though what the GO stand for, I can’t say; the K is kompani.) Looking at it from the mountains on a sunny spring day, however, I could see why the great copper mine in the Gobi had been called Оюу Толгой – Turquoise Hill.

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My hike never made it past the foothills. Sunny it may have been, but the wind that day was vicious once I left the shelter of valley and apartment buildings. In my halfhearted ascent of the first hill, I also noticed a Mongolian man making for the ovoo atop Bayan-Öndör – my destination as well. I decided I didn’t want to disturb his praying, or drinking, or both. Besides, Dances with Dragons was calling my name. Another day, I thought, and headed back.

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Just so long as that day doesn’t look like this.


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Really, I Swear I’m Not Cold (Yet)

Mongolian people have thus far proven to be very protective of me where cold is concerned; in fact, “overbearing” might be a more accurate word for it. I’m forever being told that I should put on slippers if I’m indoors, or a hat or a coat if we’re so much as passing through the courtyard on my way to class. More than a few of them have looked at my current cold weather apparel (a raincoat layered over a sweatshirt) and told me that it isn’t warm enough and I need to switch to my winter coat.

I beg to differ. I know they’re just trying to look out for me, and in January, I will doubtless heed their wisdom gladly. I’m sure that the dead of a Mongolian winter will teach me the real meaning of the word “cold.” But for now, I wish they’d lay off. I don’t think they quite grasp that America is a pretty big place, and parts of it, Chicago among them, get pretty darn cold. A Chicago winter has nothing on a Mongolian one, certainly, but it’s no picnic at the beach either. While I haven’t seen a temperature north of freezing for at least a week and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t again until spring, the weather here hasn’t been exactly frigid – daily highs in the high teens to mid-twenties, nightly lows around 0. (All temperatures in Fahrenheit; if you’re a Celsius-user, convert accordingly.) To me, it still feels like an average December week in Chicago, except a month early. This is nowhere near the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced. We’ve yet to equal the coldest week I remember from college in southern Ohio, much less Chicago (or for that matter, Minneapolis or Colorado at New Years’, both of which I’ve experienced on multiple occasions). Thanks for the advice, friends, but I know how to manage this level of cold. It’s the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina residents you should be worried about.

Moreover, I know my own body and how it handles changes in temperature. My body is excellent at heating itself up and terrible at cooling itself off, which means that I overheat quickly and easily. My ideal weather for any sort of outdoor activity (with the exception of beachgoing, since sunbathing does not qualify as an “activity,” and Lake Michigan never gets “warm,” only “less cold”) is 65 and sunny. Most of my friends would prefer it a good ten degrees warmer, but not me. It was 40 degrees when we hiked up Maol Réidh, and so foggy that the mist was condensing in our hair; I started the hike in a rain coat over long sleeves over short sleeves, but by the time we’d been walking half an hour, I’d stripped down to a T-shirt. That’s why I prefer cold to heat: you can always put on more layers, but there are only so many you can take off.

I’ve even found myself too warm here, outdoors, in the past week. When I walked to the gym on Monday morning, the temperature was probably around 0 (the Internet said -1 when I left and -7 when I returned, so who knows), and the walk to the gym was a good 15 minutes, so I’d layered up: tights under my pants, raincoat over sweatshirt over long sleeves, and my bank robber hat instead of the usual Russian grandmother way I wear my scarf. (A million thanks for that, Corry – it’s the warmest scarf I own, and I wear it nearly every day here!) And man, was I tempted to remove a few of those layers by the time I’d been walking for five minutes.

So please, coworkers, do note: my current “coat” is perfectly sufficient for the moment; it’s what I wear all winter in Chicago. It’s my fingers, toes, and nose that are more problematic, and no coat is going to keep them warm.

I think a big part of the reason the cold seems minimal so far is the weather that accompanies it. I lived through 13 full Chicago winters, plus a few weeks in the middle of another four – and let me tell you, they are a drab and dreary affair. The cold is so much colder when it’s accompanied by clouds and that vicious wind.

But the sun and the wind most come from different directions here, so it’s usually possible to walk on the lee side of a building without having to stay in the shadows. And there almost always are shadows, because there is almost always sun. Mongolia is known for its blue skies. The last few days were completely cloudless, with only a few to be seen today or yesterday – no uniform skies of grey stratus here! It means colder nights, without clouds to trap the days heat, but it also means the days here are infinitely more cheerful. And being in the sun makes a huge difference in the apparent temperature. We’ve only had one miserable day so far, and it wasn’t the temperature (probably around 15) that made it so, but the sharp wind and blowing snow. It felt more like 0; in fact, I’ve felt warmer in 0* weather.

Earlier this week, a friend asked if I fear the coming winter. A little, I said. I’m nervous about January. But for now, I’m doing just fine.


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A Day in the Life

Ways in which today was successful:

  • I spent all afternoon hiking
  • I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck before leaving
  • I climbed a rock face that was probably a little too steep for me to do this safely.
  • I managed said climb without injury.
  • I completed about 3/4 of my intended route
  • I made some Russian friends! They were having a barbecue up on the mountain, and when I walked by, they invited me to join them at their table for food and “maybe a little vodka” (ha). So I hung out with them for an hour or two. They taught me the Russian words for please, thank you, hot, cold, and dance, effectively doubling my Russian vocabulary.

Ways in which today was not so successful:

  • I neglected to bring more sunscreen with me
  • Even though I spent five hours up in the mountains, I never managed to make it out of earshot of other people. Sound carries really really well over the steppes, and apparently Saturday afternoon is when everyone heads for the mountains.
  • I had wanted to find a quiet spot in the forest to write for a while. But since no quiet spot was to be found, no writing was done either.
  • I still haven’t found a way to listen to .wma/.odm files on my mac
  • I’m going to be late to join the other Americans at a bar across town.

Overall, I’d say today was pretty good.