We had fairly low expectations for the day today. We had thought all we had going on was a drive back to Ulaanbaatar (or UB as the cool kids call it). We woke up early, showered in the bathroom with the previously kicked in door, and headed downstairs to breakfast. Our first surprise of the day was a western breakfast instead of goat meat, featuring a fried egg and toast with margarine and jam and a mug of Lipton tea. It wasn’t very filling, but tasting something other than lamb/goat/mutton was a very pleasant surprise.
After breakfast we packed up our stuff and squished into a Land Cruiser for the drive back. Lynn, unfortunately, was stuck with the middle seat, jammed between Nolene and I as Otgoo setoff along the thankfully paved roads towards the capital.
The first few hours were pretty uneventful and we passed the time fairly quickly chatting with Nolene about South African and American cultures and similarities and differences between the two. If we have not yet mentioned it, she is from Cape Town (“best city in the world” as she calls it) and runs a tourist lodge in an animal park in Zambia. The park, as she describes it, is not for your first safari since they don’t have the animal variety that some of the other parks do but if you’re into bird watching it sounds like the place to be.
After three and a half hours of fairly uneventful driving, and a little sore from being crammed three across in the back row, we arrived in Mandalgovi, the half way point, for lunch. We had stopped here previously for lunch on our way out into the Gobi and we all remembered it as a tiny, ramshackle frontier town. After six days in the vast emptiness of the Gobi, it now seemed like a sprawling metropolis, full of eateries serving a wide variety of the three basic Mongolian dishes: dumpling soup, tsuivan, and mutton stir fry with rice. Lynn, always excited about more lamb, chose the stir fry while I reluctantly ordered the dumpling soup and was delighted to find it was the least muttony tasting thing I had eaten all week.
Getting back in the car, Ganchimeg told us we had more rocks to go see before we headed the rest of the way back to Ulaanbaatar. Niether Lynn nor I were very thrilled with this news. We were kind of tired of the long car rides every day across what could only be called roads by the loosest definition of the word, and we both felt we had had our fill of rock outcroppings. Nevertheless off we went, bounding over the ruts and bumps of a dirt road towards yet more rocks.
An hour or so later we crested what seemed to be just another in a long line of grassy hills in what our friend Jim describes as looking “just like western Kansas” and were might with a spectacular view. These rocks, were in fact, not at all like the other rock outcroppings we had seen and Lynn and I were suddenly both glad we took the detour, even if it meant more time in the car we had both grown sick of. (Though not car sick – Lynn had Dramamine). We got out of the car to stretch our legs and climbed up the nearest rocks to admire the view. The rocks looked like they were made out of layers and layers of concrete dumped upon each other and then slowly eroded away to accentuate the boundaries between them. We were at the head of a giant grassy valley completely surrounded by cliffs and spurs of these rocks on all sides. After taking our fill of pictures we climbed back down and got back in the car, thinking we were done.
Otgoo drove down into the valley towards three men hanging out by a pair of motorcycles. He chatted with them for a while before paying them some money and getting a certificate of some kind in return. It turns out these men were park rangers and Otgoo was paying our entrance fee to the park, so we were all curious what else there was to see.
We headed up the sides of the valley to a little canyon full of yellow aspen trees that stood out against the grey rocks and the blue sky. We again unloaded and saw that the ranger was following us up the path towards the canyon. He led us on a tour through the it where we learned this had been another hiding place for a lama during the soviet persecution in the 30s and that a temple had later been built here and a single aspen planted. The single tree had clearly multiplied because the canyon was full of them, their leaves rattling in the wind as it swept down the canyon from time to time. We walked up the canyon and climbed the rocks at the end to find that the rock outcroppings stretched off to the horizon and on top of each them were hundreds of ovoos that had been erected with blue, green, yellow, red, and white ribbons tied to them.
The first thing that came to my head was this terrible Cameron Crowe movie called Aloha that Lynn and I had watched on the flight to Japan. In it there’s a scene where Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are walking through the forest and one of the comments that the forest seems like a magical place with a lot of “mana.” Well if anywhere was ever deserving of that description it was this canyon.
Reluctantly, we headed back down the canyon and climbed back into the car, again thinking we were done. We were wrong yet again, there was another place we had to see in the park still. Otgoo drove around for a while, clearly looking for a road that he couldn’t find, talking quickly to Genchimeg in Mongolian. At one point turning around and wedging a giant rock under the front axle of the land cruiser.
Nolene was quick to jump out and start kicking the bottom of the rock, hoping to dislodge it. She encouraged me to do the same, but the way the rock was angles, if a kick dislodged it the full weight of the rock and the SUV would come down on your ankle. I politely declined and deferred to Otgoo and his extensive Mongolian outback driving experience. He got back in the car and just drove over it, scratching the underside of the car along the way, but getting the front tires back on the ground. A final kick from Nolene knocked the rock out of the way and we were off again.
We finally found the area we were looking for, and honestly it was not as good as the previous spot, but we walked around for a little bit and took some pictures before heading back to the car. Having now seen everything the park had to offer we headed back down the dirt roads to the highway.
With four hours ahead of us, Lynn and I both put on podcasts while Nolene, always curious to learn more about Mongolia, peppered Ganchimeg with questions about things we drove by. We occasionally would pull over to the side of the road for pictures, or for Otgoo to chat with someone in another car we had just passed that he knew (he seems to know almost everyone in the Gobi).
After a while we came to the point we had driven before where the highway was under construction and a very rough dirt road connected the completed portions. By this point it was getting towards rush hour on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, where we were, and traffic was starting to back up as drivers took their time navigating the large sink holes and mud ruts in the dirt. Otgoo, we learned, not only doesn’t care for traffic, he does not tolerate it. He zig zaged around cars, driving off into the grassy sides at points to bypass slower cars, forcing his way back into traffic when necessary, and not slowing down at all as he let the suspension of the land cruiser really prove its worth. At one point Lynn turned to me and said this was the best rollercoaster she had ever been on. Giant clouds of dust formed around us and we were all thankful that the sun had not fully set because I don’t think we would have been able to see anything with headlights shining into the dust.
Mercifully, Mr. Otgoo’s Wild Ride finally came to an end and we settled into standard city traffic. Well as standard as it can be when driver’s treat lane markers as polite suggestions and don’t seem to put too much value and keeping their cars dent free. After another 30 minutes of stop and go and a brief layover at the Stone Horse office to drop off used supplies we made it to the hotel. We said our goodbyes to Otgoo, Ganchimeg, and Nolene and immediately headed back out to the streets.
We had been told by Nolene that she had seen water bottles at the State Department Store and we had 20 minutes to get there before they closed. We were initially excited to find them, only to realize that they only had tiny sizes, the biggest being 12 ounces. A little dismayed we headed back downstairs to the grocery part of the store to stock up on snacks for our train ride tomorrow. Making our way through the grocery store, low and behold, Lynn spotted real life, adult sized water bottles. I chose a nice green one and was very excited that our long search was finally over.
We paid for our groceries and headed back to the hotel, stopping for a kebap on the way back. We headed to bed early, knowing we had to wake up at 6.45 to catch our train to Beijing.
Daily walking miles : 4
– Sheep tails look like butt flaps that bounce while they run.
– In Mongolia you can buy almost anything at the state department store. It was formerly the department store run by the state when Mongolia was communist but had since privatized.