The Long Journey to the Taiga

I am back from my trip to the taiga to visit the reindeer herders, and after uploading several hundred photos, I’m ready to write about the experience. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m expecting to have 3 posts about the trip. This one will be about the multi-day trip from my site to the camp where we would be staying for the duration of the Reindeer Project (as Peace Corps wants us to call it instead of Reindeer Camp). Since there’s not much else to do on a crazy-long bus ride, I took pretty detailed notes of what was happening as it happened.

As I mentioned in my last post, the bus from Uliastai to UB was supposed to leave at 2pm rather than 9am. Things didn’t get off to a great start as the bus didn’t really leave until a little after 3 because we were waiting for like half the people on the bus to show up. Then we finally started moving around 3:20 only to stop at the first gas station we came across. They filled the bus with gas and apparently discovered some mechanical issue with the bus because we stayed there for almost 30 minutes while a bunch of men went out to mess around with the bus. At 3:45 we finally left the gas station only to stop less than 2 minutes later at a shop for people to get drinks and snacks. Seriously people?! Maybe prepare a little by bringing some damn food and a water bottle with you on a 27-hour bus ride!
We finally got out of Uliastai around 4pm. So we were already 2 hours behind schedule, and I was not too confident that we’d be making it to UB in time to catch the bus to Huvsgul.
Around 6pm, after driving along the river valley that leads to Uliastai and passing tons of gers and herds of animals…

IMG_4207

…we stopped in the middle of nowhere for what I had hoped would be a quick bathroom break but ending up being a 30-minute long sit-around-and-wait break. Around 8:45 we finally passed the first soum, where we took a–thankfully much shorter–bathroom break.
At 9:15 we stopped again to deal with more mechanical issues (which I think had something to do with the rear axle, but I know next to nothing about cars). I decided that there’s no way in hell I’d be making it to UB in time to catch the 6pm bus to Murun the next day, so I called one of the PCVs in charge of the reindeer project to tell her what was going on. She said I could take the 8am bus to Murun the day after, though that would make me miss an entire day of planning and preparing for the trip with the others. We finally started moving again at 10:30.
Just before midnight we arrived in Tosontsengel, where we stopped at a guanz (canteen/cafeteria) to eat. I had already been munching on all the food I had brought throughout the journey and didn’t feel like eating an actual meal at midnight, right before I was hoping to get some sleep. So I just took a bathroom break, ate a small snack, and waited for the other passengers to finish eating.
At 3 o’clock in the goddamn morning we all had to get off the bus and walk across a bridge while the bus went down a different road a bit upriver (something about a new bridge being built and the old bridge not being strong enough to hold a huge bus and all its passengers). I couldn’t see what they were doing by the bus, but it took over 30 minutes before we met back up with it and could get back on (and it wasn’t exactly warm outside). The only benefit was getting a nice view of the starry sky and Milky Way.
Around 6:30am we stopped briefly in a soum where the lady sitting next to me picked up a kid who I assumed was her son and a bunch more luggage. This lady had already been taking up part of my seat, but now that she had an 8-year-old on her lap and was trying to hold onto 3 bags, she was really squeezing me into the window. The joys of public transportation…
At 9:30 we stopped for another bathroom break/fix-the-bus break in Arkhangai aimag, but at least we stopped next to some beautiful scenery:

IMG_4210

IMG_4212
The paved road that they’ve been building for a while from UB out west finally appeared, so the ride was quicker and less bumpy after that. At 11:30 we stopped for another bathroom break and for lunch. I think I slept most of the remainder of the trip, but I know we finally arrived in UB around 1am (which you may notice is 7 hours after the bus I was supposed to take to Huvsgul left, and makes a total of 35 hours on that freakin’ bus).

While I was still on the bus to UB, I had asked another PCV who was taking the later bus to Huvsgul to try to get me a bus ticket. She went to the bus station that evening but apparently they don’t sell tickets past 7:30, although the ticket lady did say there were tickets left. Apparently we didn’t get to the bus station early enough the next morning, because when I went to get my ticket, the lady said they were sold out. I got a ticket for the next bus (3pm) and went to find the other two girls who were taking the 8am bus. The combination of the stress of quickly packing up my ger, being on a bus for 35 hours, and only getting 3 hours of sleep at the hostel caught up to me, and I started crying while the three of us tried to convince the driver to let us squeeze into two seats or begging the passengers already on the bus to switch tickets with me, even offering to throw in some extra money. Either they didn’t understand or didn’t care, but no one took us up on the offer. Maybe the driver felt bad since I was still crying, but he eventually opened up the luggage hatch and let me put my bag in, then led me to a seat in the back of the bus. I don’t know if a passenger just didn’t show up, but I didn’t care and wasn’t going to move now that I was on the bus.
But then a couple hours later during our first rest stop, the driver approached me again and asked for my ticket. He went away with another guy and they both came back saying I needed to pay for my seat since my ticket was for 3pm. Uh, yeah, I thought we had already gone through this back at the bus station. And the driver was the one who had told me to put my luggage on the bus and led me to a seat, but now he was saying I needed to pay the full price of another ticket or wait there until the 3pm bus came by. As I had no desire to stand in the middle of nowhere, alone, for 7 hours, we at least convinced the driver to only make me pay half price. Yay for extortion!
We got into Murun just before 10pm. The other PCVs who were going on the trip had spent the day going over logistics, but those of us who were late were quickly caught up the next morning. We spent that day buying all the food we would need up in the taiga (we would be cooking all our own meals) and organizing and packing the donations we would be giving to the families:

Sorting clothing donations

Sorting clothing donations

The next morning, we packed ourselves and all our luggage into 2 purgons for the bumpy 10-hour ride up to Tsagaannuur, the soum closest to the reindeer herders’ camps.

IMG_4218

The part of northwestern Huvsgul aimag that we were traveling into is in a national Special Protected Area, so we had to get permission beforehand to cross the border.

IMG_4226

That evening we arrived in Tsagaannuur, where we stayed at a ger camp with a great location right on the lake:

IMG_4239

The next morning we divided into our East and West Taiga groups and set off for our respective drop-off points, where each group then took a 6-7-hour horse trek up to their respective camps (as you can’t exactly drive to those remote locations).

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The view

The view

View during our lunch break

View during our lunch break

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders' camp (we each named our horses)

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders’ camp (we each named our horses)

The guides seemed quite intent on getting to the camp as quickly as possible, so we spent a large portion of the ride trotting rather than walking the horses. Our butts and legs were sore for days afterwards!

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

While walking down the mountain, we got our first view of the reindeer!

IMG_4296

Once in the valley, we got back on the horses to ride the rest of the way into the camp, where we were greeted by the families and the camp dogs:

IMG_4303

 

Kids coming to greet us

Kids coming to greet us

And that is the tale of our journey to the camp; my next post will be about the week that we spent there living among the reindeer herders. Stay tuned!

Advertisements

Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

IMG_1580

When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

IMG_1614

But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

IMG_1640

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

IMG_1645

To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

IMG_1660

At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

DSCF5965

DSCF5978

DSCF5998

Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

IMG_1717

They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

Project at a Children’s Summer Camp

A couple days after Naadam we were told that we would be going to a children’s summer camp one day next week with our LCFs and our technical session trainers and that we needed to prepare activities for the kids. Well, that sounds like fun, right? Except no one seemed to have any details on how many kids would be there, how old they were, how long we would be there, etc. One person told us there would be over 100 kids, but they still weren’t sure of the ages. So we decided to split the kids into 6 groups and do rotations through 6 different activities, with 2 of us leading each activity. One station would be dancing, one singing, one drawing, one playing games, one playing soccer, and one teaching English. The day before the camp there were still no more details on the number and ages of kids that would be there, but our LCFs told us to be at the school by 8:45 so that we could leave at 9:00 to head to the camp, which they said was about 30 minutes away, and that we would be returning late in the afternoon. So that night I told my host family that I wouldn’t be coming home for lunch the next day because we would be eating at the camp, but that I would be back by late afternoon.

The next morning, we all gathered at the school at the agreed upon time, and they told us that there would actually only be about 30-something kids, so we had to figure out whether to have really small groups or to just cut a couple of the activities. We didn’t leave until after 9:30 because that’s just how things roll in Mongolia, but finally we all packed into a meeker (a Russian van often used for travel here) to head out. After we got out of the city we pulled onto a dirt road and proceeded to go off-roading for another 45-ish minutes (I told you, time is not really an important concept here), surrounded by nothing but grassy fields and rolling hills.

IMG_0716

Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Our meeker was also a nice fancy one that had a TV screen where they would play music videos, so we got to listen to everything from Mongolian pop to PSY to Pitbull and Kesha.

I don't know what this is, but we watched it

I don’t know what this is, but we watched it

Finally we arrived at the camp!

IMG_0731

The camp staff took us to a large room in one of the dorms and told us to rest for about 45 minutes because the kids weren’t ready for our sessions yet.

Resting...

Resting…

They later came in and told us that we would only have about an hour and a half with the kids before lunch and that we couldn’t do any sessions with them after lunch because there would be other stuff going on. So we decided to only do 3 of our sessions in a rotation with 3 groups based on age (since there were kids ranging in age from 7 to 18): singing, dancing, and games. I was in the singing group, where one of our guys played the ukulele and we taught them a couple American songs:

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game"

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

And then the kids tried to teach us the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” but our Mongolian language skills were much worse than their English skills, so they at least had fun laughing at us.

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Since I was busy with the singing group for all 3 rotations, I didn’t get to see the other activities, but they supposedly went pretty well.

We then had lunch in the camp’s cafeteria, which actually was not too bad: vegetable soup, something that looked like huushuur but was apparently some kind of Russian food, bread, and tea. After lunch we were told to take another break, so a couple of us taught our LCFs and a couple other Mongolians how to play UNO. After that break our LCFs gave each of us a sheet of questions that we had to ask to 4 different kids to have us practice our Mongolian. Once that was done, we were given free time with the kids. The boys went off to play soccer while some of us girls played volleyball with a few of the kids. There was one little girl who wanted to play volleyball with us for almost 2 hours, so I got quite a workout from that.

How can you say “no” to that face?

How can you say “no” to that face?

By this point the mayor of Darkhan had also shown up with his family, because apparently he has nothing better to do than hang out with us Peace Corps people. His 2 kids were a couple of the ones we played volleyball with! He had come to prepare dinner for us, which consisted of kebabs and khorkhog, which is a traditional Mongolian meal where pieces of meat (we had mutton, of course), potatoes, and carrots and a bunch of stones heated in a fire are placed in alternating layers in a cooking pot that’s then sealed and regularly shaken while it cooks for about 30 minutes. Then after everything is cooked and taken out of the pot, they pass around the stones (which are still burning hot at this point) for each person to juggle between their hands “for good health” (because nothing says “good health” like 3rd degree burns!). But the food itself was amazing! It’s crazy how just cooking mutton differently can make it taste so much better.

Taking the veggies out

Taking the veggies out

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Before we left the camp, we saw the kids participating in a group dance exercise that they apparently do every morning and evening. It looked like a lot of fun so we joined in!

By this time we were already much later than we had told our host families that we would be, and of course there was no phone reception where we were. But then the mayor wanted to take us to a family’s ranch right next to the camp where they would let us ride one of their horses, and we certainly wanted to do that!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

It ended up being more of a pony ride, because Peace Corp’s policy is that Trainees and Volunteers must wear a helmet when riding a horse, and since we didn’t have helmets with us, they agreed to just let us sit on the horse while the owner led him around in a circle. It was still lots of fun though, and I got to ride/sit on my first Mongolian horse!

IMG_0796

After everyone got a chance to ride the horse, we finally headed back to Dereven. It was after 9 (and almost dark) when we finally got home, which you may notice is about 4 hours later than we had told our families we would be. They were pretty worried, but it was worth it for all the fun we had at the camp!

Random Mongolia Fact #6: Sports in Mongolia

A few days ago, my family went to a hockey game (yes, ice hockey does exist in some parts of the South), and my dad asked me if hockey was a popular sport in Mongolia, to which I replied, “Uhhhhhh…”

It turns out Mongolia does have a national ice hockey team, but hockey would hardly be considered a “popular” sport there (note: sharing a border with Russia does not automatically make hockey a big deal in some countries). In actuality, the three traditional Mongolian sports are still the most popular and ARE a big deal: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. These three sports are the highlights of Naadam, the main national festival in Mongolia.

Which itself is kinda a big deal.

Which itself is kind of a big deal.

Mongolian wrestling is the most popular of the three sports. During Naadam, hundreds of wrestlers from across the country compete in the main competition in Ulaanbaatar, while additional smaller competitions take place in each aimag (province) and sum (district) around the country.

And yes, they all wear that outfit.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

And the wrestlers start very young:

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Horse racing is another of the sports featured during Naadam, as horseback riding is central to Mongolian culture. Unlike Western horse racing , where races are typically shorter sprints (up to about 2 km) around a track, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event (with races 15 to 30 km long). Also, the jockeys are typically children between the ages of 5 and 13.

Horse-racing

Naadam-horse-race

Recently, girls have been allowed to participate in the horse racing events right alongside the boys.

Mongol Derby 2013

And finally, there’s archery.

Both men and women participate in the archery events at Naadam.

Archery

Like horseback riding, archery has a strong tradition in Mongolia (think back to Genghis Khan’s army). Although mounted archery is not as widespread today in Mongolia (or anywhere really) as it once was (for example, at most Naadam festivals, the archery and horse-riding competitions are separate), there has recently been a desire to bring back the tradition.

Mounted Archery

Which is great, because if I haven’t learned to shoot an arrow while riding a horse like Legolas by the end of my service in Mongolia, I will be extremely disappointed.