danger, will robinson
i’m going to begin this travelogue with a warning to those thinking about car travel in Mongolia:
For safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure, heart, back, or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not ride.
i kid, somewhat. but yeah. why? most of the roads are not paved, and those that are, are so pothole-ridden the driver will be jerkily swerving left and right (sometimes going off-road) to avoid them. yes, we off-roaded in a minivan today. oh and seatbelts? of course not. if you’re thinking of driving yourself, think again. unpaved roads branching off and leading to the great beyond, WITHOUT SIGNAGE? good luck. i’ll never complain about the big pothole that’s by our freeway exit at home ever again!
on our way!
we (the driver, me, and two friends from the UK: one an actor[!], the other a jazz pianist[!]) left the hostel a little before 10 on a day trip to the giant Genghis Khan Equestrian statue and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
a word about toilets
we stopped at a small roadside market on the way to the giant statue and ran into some Americans my adventure/hostelmates met earlier in the week at Lake Baikal. those brave (due to the toilet situation; you’ll see what i mean) women (from Philadelphia!) are staying in a ger tonight and will be joining us in our hostel, actually, tomorrow. but i digress.
i asked to use the toilet and the driver motioned that it was around the corner. i thought it was in the building that housed the market.
it was in this outhouse a hundred feet away.
this was the most basic toilet i’ve ever used. just a big pit dug into the ground topped with two wooden planks for your feet. there was a similar “toilet” at the camp where we ate lunch — and if this is what you have to deal with when you overnight in a ger…well, count me out. shit (ha, see what i did there?), i’ll never complain about squat toilets ever again. those are a giant step up from this! just going number one in this was enough. i couldn’t think about going number two (though clearly MANY people have), not only because it was so gross (flies everywhere), but because it was so sketch. if your foot slips or a plank breaks…you’re waist-deep in shit. i didn’t even turn around to get out (not sure you even could). i just backed out like a car in reverse.
to be clear, i’m a-ok with this style of toilet, just not long-term. once or twice a day, ok. dealing with it for more than one day? i’ll pass.
a word about roads
it looks like they started installing asphalt highways but never finished (and again, what is installed is pretty much potholes as far as the eye can see), so roads will often abruptly end with these signs, at which point you are to turn off the road and continue parallel to it, but on (pothole-y) dirt:
again, it’s important to note that most of the way, the roads looked like this:
i’m only bringing this up as a warning that you will be bounced around the car (ahem, no seatbelts for us) like an amusement park ride, and to discourage you from attempting to drive yourself (not sure if that’s even an option). traffic is bad, people are jockeying for space on the dirt roads, it’s unmarked…avoid avoid.
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
well, if you’ve researched Ulaanbaatar you’ve probably heard about this giant statue of Genghis Khan out in the middle of nowhere. and yes, it’s giant.
now, i don’t know how often people here have to replace their cars, or at least their axles or suspension given the condition of the roads, but our minivan was at least a decade and a half old. it was a bit frightening when we noticed the right front tire sort of flat and the driver doing this in the statue parking lot. (we had scraped the bottom of the car several times on the way there on the bumps in the road.)
luckily the car seemed to be OK enough to carry on (and indeed we didn’t have any trouble for the rest of the journey, but i think we were all expecting to break down). speaking of breaking down, we came across some stranded people and the driver was nice enough to stop and offer them a tow. we ended up towing them for about a mile (very skeevy when you have to swerve to avoid potholes with a car behind you with sketch brakes) before letting them off again at the side of the road. i don’t know how they managed after us since there was no service station for miles and i don’t think they have an automobile club out here…
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
it’s 3000₮ (~$2) per person to enter, for a “Protected Areas Service Fee”. to be honest, i’m not sure what the fee goes towards. the ticket you get explains that it helps pay for activities and information and signs, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any such thing on the park grounds!
our first stop was Turtle Rock, so-named because it looks like a turtle, i suppose, although no one had any idea at the time what it was. (i only found out when it showed up on my instagram places list when i got back to the hostel and had wifi.) we just called it “The Rock”.
we then proceeded deeper into the park to have lunch at a family’s yurt (ger). from what i can tell, families set up tourist camps where they live and offer up room and board to visitors.
yes, our yurt had electricity. and satellite TV, surround sound, and a karaoke machine. no, there was no fire burning in the stove, nor did we drink fermented yak milk (sadly).
sure, i’ll have some milk with my tea. surprise! it’s salty!
I thought I’d be like the driver and try my tea made with milk instead of hot water. What he neglected to say was that it was SALTY MILK. As it turns out, I had suutei tsai, or Mongolian salty milk tea, which is actually quite pleasant once you sweeten it (sweet and salty isn’t bad — think of Cracker Jacks!). (Keen-eyed observers may note that the brand of sweetener is Gut & Günstig, my favorite German brand. They really import almost everything here.)
after lunch, we were to either go out on a hike or go on a horseback riding session.
on the way home
more bumps and bruises (i actually found one on my knee, not sure where it came from), but some great Mongolian music the driver turned up (and sang along to). if anyone knows these songs (especially the second one, an epic duet with key changes that kept going higher and higher with similarly stacked crescendos), let me know!
autotune (that’s a “yup” from one of the Brits confirming that indeed, that was a Cher-esque autotune)