Gobi, Kharakhorum, Nadaam Festival!

Mongolia Travel Blog

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Yolyn Am (Vulture's Mouth)

Well folks, I'm afraid this is most likely the only other place in Mongolia that is likely to have internet, according to the other travelers I've spoken to, so I'll try to cram it all in, and also be brief, as I think my guide wheedled a favor out of the internet lady (I think the place is actually closed...she left us a key!).

After leaving Ulan Bator (UB), we spent 5 days in the Gobi Desert, staying in ger camps (I'll put pix up in a second).  On my trip are, strangely, 3 other Americans (I haven't run into many 'Mercans here):  Rod and Carolyn, scientists from Nebraska and Ed, a computer systems expert.  All of them are phDs and incredibly well-traveled.  My guide, Gana (a.k.a. Boss) is 28 and speaks mostly in American slang.

Inside the camel breeder's ger
  Turns out he spent 2 years in California (Santa Clarita and "somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, can't remember") learning English.  He's a miner now (learning to be a hoistman for a Canadian company), and just doing this for fun on his 2 months off.  Our trusty driver, He-With-Name-Nobody-Can-Pronounce (a.k.a. Sparky) reminds me of the big Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  He doesn't say much, but you get the feeling he knows everything. 

They took us to Yolyn Am, a mass of ice inside a gorge in the middle of the desert (beautiful), Khongoryn Els - massive sand dunes, about 2-3 times as big as the ones I climbed in Egypt.

Patty expertly riding the camel
..these took the wind out of me...the last mound of sand seems like a sheer vertical climb, with every step sending down a load of sand so it's 3 times as many steps to the top...and the sand "sings" these low notes while you climb near the top.  I was panting and wondering why the hell I was climbing, as Gana sat at the top, telling me there's a town on the other side...with a bar...and it's open!  Motivational speaking for Patty!  He was lying though.  No bars in the Gobi, dammit.  Had to settle for warm and sometimes slightly chilled Mongolian beer most of the time. 

Gana taught me how to play the game they play with sheep anklebones (it's actually somewhat like marbles), and we rode a Bactrian (2-humped) camel through the desert, hanging out at the camel herder's ger for a spell, watching the news about the protest in UB.

Somewhere in the Gobi

As far as I can tell, the protest in UB was supposed to be a peaceful one, and the protesters got drunk so the whole thing got out of hand - after they set the opposition's building on fire, they set fire and looted the Arts Building next store, destroying hundreds of instruments that were to be used at the opening ceremonies of the Nadaam Festival in UB today (the festival is held throughout the country, like 4th of July with horse-racing).  The general population seems to be pretty embarrassed about the whole thing.  Anyway, the state of emergency has been lifted, but it wasn't in place anywhere else in the country.  We couldn't get alcohol in UB, but we've been certainly drinking out here in the desert!

We drove to Bayanzag - the flaming cliffs - where they found dinosaur bones years ago.

At the top of the Khongoryn Els sand dunes with the Boss (Gana)
  No bones left, but the area itself looks like a mini Grand Canyon.  Lovely red rock formations.  Climbed all over those and headed out to the next thing.  But distances are far, so the tour folks have to break it up somehow.  Visited Ongi (pronounched Unk) Temple - which was also ruined by the Russians, and semi-rebuilt, but still a mess.  Lovely ger camp there though - right on the river.  Had to drive through it a couple of times to get to the camp.  I'm amazed at what these vans can do. 

The roads are...almost non-existent.  Dirt paths, really, with huge ruts, and often large streams to go through.  In the Gobi, there are a lot of different kinds of desert (only 3% is dunes...most has a lot of scrub), but no trees.

Climbing down from the dunes
  Makes it interesting for us ladies to relieve ourselves...  The weather changes rapidly - thunderstorm, then big beautiful clouds and sun.  Both of the guys have been sick the last couple of days, not fun while we're driving...distances are long on these crappy roads...but they've been slow, easy days...not a lot of hiking because of the heat...just checking out the odd monastery (Tibetan Buddhism here...most of the temples were ruined by the Communists in the early 30s, some in the 90s). 

The Nadaam Festival we're attending here in Kharakorum is actually a small, local one, unlike the one in UB.  It's like going to a high school soccer game instead of the Olympics.  Not well-organized, but a lot easier to see all the action.

Bayanzag (pretty - no dino bones left though)
  They postponed archery for tomorrow because the judge - or enough participants - never showed up (we never got the full story).  We watched the wrestling...they wear Speedo-looking bright-colored underpants, a chest-less shirt and a pointed hat.  They do a bird dance before they start and again afterwards if they win.  It's supposed to convey strength.  We watched a few horse races too - only the kids participate.  Kids learn to ride when they're 2 or 3 years old!  The festival was nuts...in the middle of the wrestling, everyone just started running or galloping (fully half the people here are watching the action from their horses the whole time) over to the horse race to watch the finish.  The kids ride for an hour without saddles.
Nadaam riders
  They're generally from 7-11 years old.  If they win they get a carpet, a special medallioned bridle for the horse, a medal, and bragging rights!

The food is nothing to speak of...they've adopted Russian/European dishes that will work when there's not much produce available.  But I'm already sick of potato salad, mutton stew, rice, potatoes & pasta (often, all 3 carbs on the same plate).  When you go into a Mongolian's ger, they always offer you some "white food" (dairy products like curds, tasteless cheese, plus either milky green tea or mare's milk...which tastes like thin yogurt) and fried dough bits.  I'm trying to take it easy on that stuff though, seeing the guys get sick! I like the ger camps...it's a bit like fancy camping.  All of them are clean, but the hole in the top is usually left open, so bugs can be a problem at night.  We often wind up playing cards outside if the wind isn't ridiculous (which it often was in the Gobi).  Our campsite here in Kharakhorum is lovely...there's a river and big green hills right beyond the camp - seems like a popular spot for the locals to hang out. 

 

puttyland says:
By Japanese van. No a/c (it works, but it brings in so much dust it's not worth it). Weather is usually fine at some point during the day. There's also generally a thunderstorm at some point during the day!
Posted on: Jul 18, 2008
ESTurqman says:
Hey, there must have been a NYTimes reporter there at the festival with you. See the story and photos at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/world/asia/13mongolia.html?scp=1&sq=naadam&st=cse
Posted on: Jul 14, 2008
AmberVM says:
Well, things sound like they are getting more and more exciting! I LOVE the pictures!! They are all beautiful!! I'm glad you are having such a wonderful time and taking it easy with the food thing (I knew you would)! ;0)

I was just thinking about you yesterday! Wondering how you were and how much I miss sharing thing's with you, especially at work! Keep posting updates on your blog and pic's! They definitely put a smile on my face! :0D
Posted on: Jul 10, 2008
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Yolyn Am (Vultures Mouth)
Yolyn Am (Vulture's Mouth)
Inside the camel breeders ger
Inside the camel breeder's ger
Patty expertly riding the camel
Patty expertly riding the camel
Somewhere in the Gobi
Somewhere in the Gobi
At the top of the Khongoryn Els sa…
At the top of the Khongoryn Els s…
Climbing down from the dunes
Climbing down from the dunes
Bayanzag (pretty - no dino bones l…
Bayanzag (pretty - no dino bones …
Nadaam riders
Nadaam riders