Sunday, October 13, 2013

On the Road, Off the Road

There is little I dislike more in life than pooping outdoors.  I grew up on a farm, and I can cope with it, but while 6.5 years of living in Asia has resigned me to peeing over a hole, I have yet to take a poo over a squatter.  Luckily, for me regularity means once every three days, so when I disappeared with my book into the lovely flush toilets at the Blue Wolf ger camp in Olgii, I figured I'd dodged that bullet again.
I did not poop behind these rocks, but it would have been a good place, if not for the snow.
But here's a little fact for you: nomadic families have milk running through their veins instead of blood.  Okay, not really, but the way that they put back milk tea would convince you otherwise.  Since it's rude not to drink, I've perfected the art of pretending to sip politely.  It's a double strike-out, when you're Mormon and lactose intolerant.  However, since I'm only mildly lactose intolerant, I make up for it by eating plenty of bread and cream.

Note: eat enough fresh cream, and you won't make it three days without pooping.  I'm just saying.
Not a house.  More like a barn.
Engrish, Geek, and I decided since we weren't coming back to UB until Thursday that we should get out into the countryside and take a stab at seeing Tavan Bogd, Mongolia's highest peak.  Canat, who owns the Blue Wolf, told us we could stay in tents at base camp, or go up a different valley and stay with a nomadic family near the glacier, which we would climb in order to see the mountain.  A couple of us (not to name names) were a little afraid of staying in tents up that high in October, so we went with the second option, and it's all for the best.  The snow that you see in the top photo blew in on us the second morning we were out, and we couldn't see the other side of the valley, let alone Tavan Bogd.  And from what we heard, the people who did go for the base camp all ended up staying in the same family's home - the woman we talked to said there were already 8 tourists hunkered down when she got there.

So we had a great trip, and except for eating more cream than I should, staying with families was great.  You have a little more space in a house than you do in a ger, and that's a wonderful thing.  The first family that we were with had the most laid back cat I have ever seen in my life.  Their two daughters manhandled it a LOT, and it just went along for a ride.  They also had a young goat which spent most of its time tethered to a corner of the "kitchen counter."  I'm sorry for the lack of pictures, but I kind of hate taking photos of people's homes.  I feel like it's an invasion of their personal space, and since I want to be a good guest, no pics for you.

We made the trip out there in one afternoon - leaving around noon and getting to the house just as it was getting dark.  One LONG, BUMPY afternoon.  We'd joked with Enkhe, our driver, about bringing us out here if our flight was cancelled, and he said that it would have been the Land Cruiser's last journey.  Having been over those roads now, I believe him!  Geek and Engrish seemed to fare alright, but my back was all kinds of strained and I had bruises from being jostled against the car door. We were in a Russian van that had 6 seats in the back, so we had plenty of space, and windows enough to enjoy the view.  During the journey I became convinced that whoever designed the Russian tank must have also had a hand in the design of the Russian van.  Those things are unstoppable.
Since we missed Tavan Bogd, you may be thinking that our time was wasted.  First of all, spending time in the countryside is never wasted (for me, it helps me to appreciate UB a little bit more...Engrish, on the other hand, has a more authentic appreciation for its charms).  But even if you hate fresh air and blue skies so bright they hurt to look at, you probably can't help getting excited at petroglyphs.  The petroglyphs scattered across the Altai mountains are one of Mongolia's three world heritage sites, and some are as old as 11,000 years!  You don't need to be a history teacher (Geek) or art teacher (me) to think that's fascinating!

I mentioned the Kazakh cemeteries yesterday, but I didn't mention another memorial: the anthropomorphic stone statues called balbals left behind during the Turkic era.  We read about them in Lonely Planet and Canat promised we'd be able to see one, but explaining what we wanted was a little difficult even with Engrish's mad Mongolian skills.  In the end we got there with, "It's a rock with the face of a man."  You can see our cook on the left and our driver on the right.  We weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into, hiring a cook, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of our trip.  Jemisbek produced the most delicious meals, and I swear he must have worked with foreigners a lot, because he didn't cook a single thing that we were hesitant to eat.  The pinnacle of our experience was besbarmak, or Five Fingers (because that's how you are supposed to eat it), a Kazakh dish of boiled mutton, potatoes, carrots, and this scrumptious steamed long pastry-ish roll thing that had cabbage and onion inside.  The last day of our trip, after our world class driver took us through a pretty strong river, we stopped by the river and had a picnic, with the food - which was delicious - cooked on the spot by Jemisbek. 
Total inclusive cost for the three of us out in the countryside: $550.  That included our driver, our gas, our cook and food, the border permits, some money for the families with whom we stayed, and I'm sure something else I'm forgetting.

Total value of being intrepid, outdoor-pooping explorers: priceless.

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