Thursday, September 14, 2006

Yaks A Plenty

Gana's Guesthouse hosts an eclectic lot. The largest contingent this morning at breakfast were middle aged Finn couples who really looked their age. Then there was the young East German hippie couple who had brought along their two year old girl. You get the picture.

The East Germans and a couple of Poles and us arranged, for fifteen dollars each, to rent a car and driver for the day. Off we went through the eastern suburbs of Ulan Batur and on out towards outer Mongolia. The driver was taking us on the scenic route to the Terenj National Park, and within about 45 minutes we came upon our first major scene: a herd of domesticated yaks.

So we stopped and started walking towards them, snapping pictures as the shambled away. Then the driver drove us up a grassy incline where nomads stood by a ger waiting to sell us a drink of fermented mare's milk. After that a quick stop at a Mongolian version of a Tibetan roadside pile-of-rocks-with-flags-on-top (Mongolians learned their Buddhism from the Tibetans).

Then a stop for a quick meal of Mongolian deepfried flatbread. And finally, after many hours of slow driving, at 3:20 we were at the 'National Park'. Trees, almost entirely spruces, had started out being few and far between, but by now we had gotten high enough so that they were common. The hills had finally gotten respectable, there were even outcroppings of rock, and it was fall foliage season in Mongolia, and the spruces (!) were turning yellow.

It was all rather pretty, but it still looked like some of the lower mountains in Wyoming. I guess living in the western United States spoils one grandeur-wise. On the other hand, it WAS Mongolia.

We only had an hour to hike, so we walked up a hill to (you guessed it) a Buddhist temple, where we both spun all the available prayer wheels. (I definitely need a better incarnation next time.) Then it was down the hill, into the minivan, and back to UB, this time on a bad version of asphalt.

And tomorrow at 13:50 I board the train for Moscow.

Now you might be wondering why I went to all this trouble to get to Mongolia, and then I'm leaving after 48 hours. Yes, it seems weird to me, too, but there are two good reasons for this.

The first has to do with train schedules. If I don't go on Friday then I can't go until next Tuesday. Of course, there's always the daily midnight train to Irkutsk, but that is excruciatingly slow, and then I'd have to negotiate a Moscow ticket from there.

The second and more important reason is that, outside of Terenj National Park there's not much to see in Mongolia unless you take a ten or more day expedition, which gets really costly both time and moneywise. What's more, after just 24 hours in UB, we've already walked just about everywhere one can, and it's not like they have an amazing skyline of postmodern skyscrapers.

Indeed, although there are many relatively unimaginative buildings being built and there is somewhat of a commercial buzz around UB, most of Mongolia is still dirt poor. The amazing thing, though, is that the Mongolians don't act poor. They seem relatively content with their lot, and, outside of a few grubby taxi drivers, they are genuinely friendly and un-scam oriented towards foreigners.

So if I had to stay here for several more days, I'm sure that I would find them pleasant. But although Sumi's going to, I'm not. I'm off for the insanity that is Russia.

And since they don't have Wifi on the Trans-Siberian, you won't hear from me again until Tuesday. I know that it's going to be hard, but hang in there.


At 8:54 PM, Blogger Jill said...

What an interesting blog! Keep up the good work!


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