2 September 2011

Paper Mache Monsters and Breast Pumps [Mongolia]

After a harrowing journey, I arrived back in UB. Yes, you counted right, the third time on this trip. I was determined to get out of the capital as soon as possible, but I ended up spending a couple of days as I was waiting to hear about a Gobi tour (which unfortunately never eventuated). But it was nice to spend two days with comforts like power, flushing toilets, running water and a shower. Of course I was staying with Danny, and of course there was a lot of partying going on. I also managed to meet up with Anna again (Austrian girl I met in Kharkhorin) which was cool. We made a plan to meet up again in China.

I got a bus to Dalanzadgad, the capital of Omnogov (South Gobi provance) early Sunday morning. It was a grueling 15 hour journey on unpaved, bumpy roads in stifling heat. Sometimes there weren't even dirt roads, just wide open desert. It only took a few hours for the environment to change completely; from rolling green hills to nothing but sand and dirt, maybe a herd of camels wandering about.

In true Mongolian style the bus was way overfull. I was lucky to have 2/3rds of a seat, as a lot of people had none at all! There was not enough room for my bag in the rear of the bus, so it was thrown inside somewhere - I didn't see exactly where. It wasn't until about 2pm when we stopped for lunch that I saw someone had been using it for a seat. And when everyone was filing out of the bus they were just walking right over it. Usually not a major problem but my laptop was inside! Thankfully was OK.

The restaurant gave me another reminder of the queuing system in Mongolia. Basically the rule of thumb is those with the least manners get served first. One guy just blatantly pushed right in front of me. I was too exhausted and hot to even attempt to communicate with him. I ordered my lunch and received a ticket. From there it is the same scenario. You need to give your ticket to one of the waitresses, then they go away and get your food. Those that are blatantly rude get served first. A nice white boy, raised with please and thank you has no chance. After lunch more people somehow piled on to the bus until there was hardly space to move in the isle.

The afternoon sun was harsh, and I happened to be up the front near the engine. It was unbelievably hot. Even if it was cool enough to get some sleep, I was crunched into some guys ribs. And even if I did have a whole seat to myself, it was so bumpy there was no way I could stay asleep for more than five seconds. It didn't help that the driver was mentally insane; the bus got air on more than one occasion. The one saving grace was watching the beautiful orange sunset over the Gobi desert. That and I was sitting across from a couple of very nice Mongolian girls, one of which (Ebe) could speak English. She was in Dalanzadgad for the week so we made a plan to meet up.

We finally arrived into Dalanzadgad at 11pm. I had no accommodation organised so was hoping someone would take in a poor lost tourist. It turned out that one of the guest houses had people waiting for the bus. Well, it wasn't so much a guest house as a spare ger they have beside their own. But I didn't care - it was 5000 Togrog a night (about €2.80). Right on my budget. They also bought me some hot tea and a big plate of noodles! The only strange thing was they told me to lock the door and not to open it if someone knocks in the middle of the night. The stranger thing was that not once but twice did someone try to get into my ger at around 3am.

There are two small boys in the family I'm staying with. At first they were very cute and a lot of fun. I spent a lot of time playing all sorts of games with them. Then they got a little crazy... It turned into a game to try and hit me in the nuts. Almost every time I saw them my nuts were public enemy number one. One time I managed to get them outside my ger and they pounded on the door like crazy wild animals! Once they had had enough of that, then they climbed on the roof and tried to get in! Madness!

The family who run the guest house also run tours. Well, not tours, but they have a jeep and a guy that can drive it. You can go wherever you want. And the price is very reasonable. The only problem is it is not at all cost effective traveling by yourself. So I spent most of the following two days hanging out with Ebe and trying to find someone to travel with. But had no luck at all! I thought this would be like Kharkhorin, where I bumped into other travelers without even trying. I didn't even see one tourist the first day, and the second I only saw a couple. I was starting to get worried so asked about a shorter tour. With discount it was going to be just over 200,000T, about €160. While that is not much for a jeep, driver and gas for two days, if I had 3 more people I would pay a quarter of that! And €160 is my budget for almost a week. That night I went with the family and tried to find more travelers at the bus stop, no luck. Same again in the morning.

I ended up going out into the Gobi alone. Expensive, but time was ticking on my Mongolian visa, and there was no way I could come all this way and miss it out. The first stop was Yolin Am; a massive canyon that is filled with ice for the majority of the year. That is right, a canyon of ice in the middle of a desert. Being the hottest month of the year; there was no ice, but it was still really beautiful. Massive rock faces on either side, with a tiny stream running through the middle. For a couple of months the ice is replaced by grass and wild flowers. Picture perfect.
 

Next up was Bayanzag, nicknamed the 'Flaming Cliffs', an area where where there have been some major discoveries of Dinosaur fossils. The cliffs give some amazing views over the Gobi, and they are really beautiful in themselves.


Our final stop was Moltzog Els, an area containing huge sand-dunes. While they are not quite as big as the most famous - Khongoryn Els, they were very cool. I spent a few hours climbing up and down, taking about 200 photos of sand. By the end of the trip I was literally coated in a mixture of sand and sweat ,in every crack and crevice. Not an ideal situation when you do not have access to running water.


When we got back to Dalanzadgad there was a little dispute over the cost of the trip. We had agreed on a per km trip, and the number of kms was significantly less than the number they had quoted/I had paid for. But they were very good in dealing with it, and in the end agreed to refund me some of the money. On the whole I was very happy with both the Guest House and the tour. So if you ever find yourself in the South Gobi and are after some decent/cheap accommodation, with very hospitable people, you can contact Dembe, email or phone: +976 99535413. Same goes for the tour.

I wanted to go directly from where I was in the center of the Gobi to the Eastern Edge - the location of the border crossing to China. Every time I had mentioned it to anyone in the week leading up to my Gobi trip I was pretty much told to forget it. Again, transport runs to and from UB. It is almost impossible to get anywhere without going through the capital. But I had a stroke of luck - the woman running the guest house asked around town for me. It seems that a lot of people who own stores in Dalanzadgad make the trip to China to buy their goods. And there was a van leaving the following day. It was an old Russian van with no seats, but it wasn't too bad. There were 7 of us in the back for the 15 hours trip across the Gobi Desert. Not a comfortable experience. The driver didn't help; the whole journey went something like "Ruuuuuuuuuuum, screeeech, BANG!" as he floored it, slammed on the brakes, then hit a huge pothole. To top it off I had some.interesting co-passengers. One woman just got her boobs out right in front of me and started using a breast pump. Not once but about three times over the journey. Another woman kept applying wet paper towels to her face in order to keep cool. She looked like a paper-mache monster... Something like this.

We arrived in Zamyn Ude at about 9pm. It is a dusty outpost town that looked as though it had never seen a tourist. It was dark and I had nowhere to stay. Luckily a couple of the woman took me under their wing and gave me a bed for the night. They even took me in their arranged transport over the border the following day... but that needs a whole paragraph of its own...

The crossing from Mongolia is like nothing I have ever seen. The main way to get across (other than train) is in an old Russian jeep. On the Mongolian side it is like bumper cars. The drivers are on a mission to get through as quickly as possible. They literally ram into one another as they jockey for position, with little regard for their vehicles. Our driver was mentally insane - he almost ran over one of the Mongolian police man that was signalling for him to stop, but he just kept on going (seriously, it was so close! The guy had to jump out of the way). Then the jeep in front of us wasn't moving so he just drives up behind it and floors it... sand flying out everywhere from under the tyres, and pushes the guy along. At one point he called one of the border guards over and gave him a bottle of Airag (fermented horse milk) as a bribe I guess. The guard promptly stuck it down his shirt. I think the reason was because jeep didn't have any plates? Driving up to the Mongolian border exit one of the woman lay down behind us and we had to kind of sit on her to hide her. I was wondering what the hell was going on! But it turns out you are only allowed 3 across the back and we had 4. So they made her get out and walk the 100m or so to the border. After which she just jumped straight back in. While driving from the Mongolian to Chineese border the woman stuffed about 20 new and boxed cell-phones into the jeeps roof lining. I would have thought cell-phones would be cheaper in China but evidently not. The Chinese border was no problem and they dropped me at the bus station.

My final few random observations from Mongolia -
Mongolians are world champions at snot rockets. Most countries would frown upon this type of behavior. Here it is not only accepted, but almost encouraged. EVERYONE does it, men, woman, children. And almost anywhere is acceptable. It does not really surprise me though, especially in the Gobi. Is it dry and very dusty. The dust gets up your nose and irritates the hell out of it. It is so bad that you can go outside for 10 minutes, then run a finger across your forehead and you'll collect a black dirt/sweat concoction under your nail. Nice eh?
A lot of restaurants have the most shitty exterior that you don't even know they are restaurants  and if you did, you would never eat there! But inside they are VERY nice. I just thought that was strange.
For some reason Mongolian men like to roll up their t-shirts and expose their bellies. I'm not really sure why as I could think of a lot better ways to keep cool. I guess they just think it is fashionable. It is also normal to have one hand rubbing your belly, or playing with your belly-button.
There are a lot of neglected animals here. I guess mainly strays - so they are skinny as anything, but many of them are also injured. Some I saw were pretty horrific, but the worst was one dog that hung around the guest house. Both of its back legs were broken, so it would pull itself along with its useless legs being dragged along behind. I felt sick looking at that dog and wondered why somebody didn't just put it out of its misery.
Mongolians seem to have no awareness of the negative effects of littering. It was common to see people just throwing plastic bottles and wrappers out of their vehicles, especially out in the middle of the desert. I saw it all the time. I thought it was really sad - they are just ruining their beautiful country.

That's all for Mongolia. It was one of the more interesting countries I have visited, and definitely an adventure! The only problem is that it is difficult to travel there independently because the infrastructure is just not in place You either need a lot of time or a lot of money. So I recommend going with a group of friends. That way you can hire a jeep and driver for a week or two, go everywhere you want, and the per person cost is still relatively cheap. Either than or join an organised tour.

TO CHINA!

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