Sometimes in life, reality teeters into unreality. Most of the Gobi desert is just vague, unfertile scrub land but we finally arrive at vast heaps of sand. They look like a long line of whipped cream separating green grass from blue sky. The beige waves cresting over the Mongolian steppes looks almost totally fake. In this age of green screens and photo shop it was difficult to believe we were really, actually present in front of such an iconic scene. On camels, no less.
Once we get climbing however, reality bites back. David Evan, a typical teenage boy, tests his mettle by taking the hard way, scrambling and scrabbling straight up the mountain of windswept sand. The rest of us try to find a gentler route but zig zagging is really the only alternative and not a whole lot better. About half way up I decide I’ve climbed enough sand dunes in my life time and sit down to enjoy the view. Vincent and the girls keep heading up after David Evan who has completely disappeared.
After a bit, envisioning sandvalances, we yell and call to him but the dips and valleys of the soft peaks smother our voices and we hear no response. Swearing profusely, Vincent struggles upward till finally we hear a yell and see a tiny green speck racing down the hill towards us. He made it to the top and is on his way back. Thank god, now we can all leave. The girls and I whoop and holler as we run down the sand, first because it’s fun, then faster, because our feet are burning up. We had left our sandals, at the bottom, so far away, too far to make it in one go. By the end I am carrying one girl ten feet, dropping her in a huddle and returning for the other, repeat ad infinitum. Vincent, also barefoot, is too far behind to help but we finally make it to the shoes. And the camels.
Why the camels, those “ships of the desert”, couldn’t have carried us over the dunes is an unexplained mystery. I have no idea what the Mongolian herders think of western tourists flirting with heart attacks and sun stroke stumbling around on their mammoth sand dunes but they have clearly decided that is not worth risking their animals. So the deal is, the camels bring you to the hills and take you back but right when the going gets tough, you are on your own.
This of course is the famous Bactrian, two humped camel, the one that looks like a Dr. Seus concoction rather than the sleeker and much more common, one humped Dromedary camel. If you had a pillow to put behind your back (which we did not) they would be as comfortable as an armchair. These softer, smaller beasts were far less intimidating than their taller, crankier Indian cousins. They were definitely much fuzzier and furrier than any camel we rode in India and seemed positively sweet as opposed to always vaguely annoyed. They are so comfy in fact, I could envision months and months of travel transporting my valuable spices along the ancient silk road. On the other hand, a 4 wheel drive is pretty comfy too so it’s a transportation toss up (not).
One of the many astonishing things about this corner of the world is the sheer scale of the countryside. On no day did we drive less than 6 hours to get from place to place with very little in between. This was, remember, taking it easy, purposely stretching out what would normally be a one day trip into two. Mongolians think nothing of driving 18 hours at a clip. And what are they driving on? Outside of the three or four big cities there are no roads in Mongolia, just tire tracks scratched across the steppes.
Our driver does not like following another car and on the rare occasions we meet up with another car he inevitably speeds up to pass, at one time barely avoiding a massive ditch hidden by the bus he was trying to overtake. Generally speaking, however, there are so few cars this is, fortunately, not really an issue.
GPS is the bane of Tuya’s existence since tourists keep google mapping where they want to go and can’t understand that the drivers know there are no Straight Lines in Mongolia. Often they have to drive miles out of the way to go around hills or avoid ravines. The ground itself is both rocky and muddy so the slightest rainfall slows even 4WD jeeps to a crawl.
Whenever two vehicles meet, both drivers immediately confer over road conditions. This was particularly important for us since the rains had just begun and they could wreck havoc.”How is back where you came from?” “very deep mud, stay to the east, it is less washed out” or “pretty good but don’t try and ford the river, it is already too high”, etc. Of course, new tracks detouring around obstacles would criss cross with the old tracks and even seasoned drivers were constantly faced with figuring out new routes. You could think you were taking a detour around a herd of camels and end up driving up to someone's winter Ger
So a lot of the discussions were frankly asking where we were and how to get to where we were going. On both driver’s sides. A couple of days into our trek, Tuya pulled out a very detailed geographic map with lots little squiggly lines. When I asked what they were she said, "those are roads". Roads? Permanent roads? No, she explained, they were just suggestions of where roads used to be or were likely to be, more like clues to a road map than an actual functioning road map. Lest you think I am exaggerating - this photo is not an example of off roading, this was an actual road. A road so well used and so ordinary it was one of the larger lines on the map!
In Mongolia it is considered it very bad luck to ask “how long till we get there?” You get there when you get there. This did not matter so much to us. We had plenty of time and carrying our own food and tents we were not that much different from the nomads and herders bedding down where ever they found themselves at night. But I can’t imagine the tourist industry getting much more developed if tour agents cannot guarantee their clients that they will be delivered to some sort of rest spot and/or meal at the end of each day.
Today is our first official day of Trekking and it is not going well. Once Tuya and the driver finally show up after a bit of a delay, the first thing she says is “You have too much luggage. Can you leave some of it behind”? With a lot of last second decisions we jettison two full suitcases. But even so, the van is already stuffed to the gills.
At least we don’t have to worry about the kids having no seat belts - they are safe as eggs in a baskets snuggled in between all the pillows and blankets. When they tell us that we need to stop at a market to pick up supplies I seriously wonder where they could fit but the driver assures us we will be able to tie things onto the roof once we leave the city.
The market is a higgidly piggidly mess of recycled bits and bobs twirling away over mud soaked paths. It reminds me strongly of the black market scene of the Hunger Games with the same grey, drizzly atmosphere. After an eternity of discussion over of the merits of one rain tarp versus another, purchases are made and we are on the road.However, we then need to go to another market to load up on water. And then to another stop for fuel. And so on.
It is at this point, 5 hours past the point of our supposed departure time, that I wonder aloud if some of the supplies might have been gotten earlier, say, yesterday perhaps, and Tuya takes offence. It does not look good. What was I thinking? We will be squished together for the next 21 days! To make up the lost time, we drive and drive and drive till well after sunset. Our first night of camping means figuring out how to unpack, set up our tents and cook dinner in complete darkness before we can collapse into sleep. All of us are hungry, cranky and tired. Not to mention cold.
BUT, it gets better. We get better and better at packing till we not only have only leg room but all the essential bits right at hand while everything else is neatly stacked on top of the car. We so good at setting up tents it only takes 6 minutes from stopping to sleep ready. And most importantly we do all get along. Tuya learns that we do NOT want 8 hour drives and the driver gets used to Vincent taping him on the shoulder to stop every 20 minutes so he can line up a photo. We learn all about them and their families. We camp in amazing spots - on the endless steppes but also besides lakes and perched on the edge of cliffs, and we discover we like camping. Especially waking up in the morning to yaks and camels and cows milling about our tents. Not to mention goats.
After the nightmarish hassle of getting here. We decided Vincent and David Evan needed an extra day in UB to recuperate. Though mostly spent catching up on sleep, we did take them to a brief visit the last Bogd Kahn’s Winter Palace. Ironically, though Mongolia has spent the twentieth century tossed between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China - two governments dedicated to abolishing both religion and monarchies - its first independent leader was a revered Buddhist king. Kublai Khan decreed in the 11th century that his people would follow Tibetan Buddhism, and ever since then its ruler, like the Dalai Lama, was considered one of the three Living Buddhas. Little known fact - it was a Mongol Khan who bestowed upon a Tibetan monk in the 16th century the title of Dalai Lama thus creating the line which has continued to today's 14th Dalai Lama.
Sadly he may be the last of all three lines. When the Bogd Khan died in 1924 the, by now sovietized government declared an end to Mahayana Buddhism and refused to allow another Priest King, so the line died out. Technically there is a Panchen Lama of China but since he was selected not by religious leaders but rather by government officials his legitimacy is in doubt. Which leaves only the Dali Lama, now in exile from Tibet as the last recognized reincarnation of Buddha. Sadly, the atheist government of Mongolia went on to destroy all but a handful of the once 750 monasteries and killed 18,000 lamas. Today the Khan's once magnificent Winter Palace stands forlornly at the edge of town, overgrown with weeds and looking a bit woebegone.
Among the exhibits of his (and his wife's) throne and bedchamber are historical bits like Mongolia's Declaration of Independence from China in 1911. One rather surprising discovery was an entire room filled with stuffed wild animals. Some of them came from his personal zoo, others were gifts. I don't know why but I found this somewhat unexpected, not to say, disconcerting for a Holy Being, and a Buddhist to boot.
The second day we met up with our guide, Tuya, who was going to be taking us around the country. She is a charming, ambitious young woman who, along with her husband moved from working as a translator in a mining company to starting her own business as a tour guide. She will prove to be endlessly patient with us, responding to almost every request with a firm “possible, yes, is possible.” Since we have a spare day, as a special treat she offers to teach us Mongolian archery.
Each year in July, Mongolia holds its national competition of Nadaam, showcasing the three “Manly Sports” of horse racing, wrestling and archery. A mongolian foltktale tells of a woman who once slipped into the wrestling competition and humiliated the men by beating them all roundly. After that they changed the wrestling outfit to an openfronted vest (basically just two sleeves held together in the back) in order to ensure THAT wouldn’t happen again. Women are allowed to compete in archery however and the horses are ridden by children as young as five. Teenagers are considered too big and bulky for these open field, long distance races.
So, wrong sex for wrestling, too old for racing we found archery to be just right. We took a bus to the actual field used for Naadam where, despite the drizzle, we are kitted out with bows and arrows and speed coached through the complex Mongolian scoring system. I don’t pay much attention to this part since anything beyond “aim for the target” is clearly not going to be important for me.
I can barely pull the string on the normal, non competition bow - no high tech carbon steel or super light weight frames here. I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, shooting while at a full gallop, but this was the weapon the nomads used to conquer two thirds of the known world. Besides the usual, they liked to shoot flaming ones and, for fun, arrows that whistled and howled, just to terrify their enemies.
Considering the bow is bigger than they are, the girls do quite well. David Evan is the one who turns out to be a natural and Tuya quickly graduates him to a much heavier bow like the ones used in competition. I prefer to think that he is a gifted athlete but his pose and costume sure look a lot like the hit man in the TV show Arrow.
Vincent is a photographer and he travels a lot. He has been to India, South Africa, Prague, Argentina and Europe too many times to count for shoots. He is also Irish and thus endowed with a god given ability to charm the pants off people. Ergo, when he shows up to catch a plane he is almost always upgraded to business class or at the very least allowed to fly with three times the luggage limit. His biggest coup was flying to France despite showing up at the airport without his passport. Even pre 9/11, that required smooth talking.
So it was with a certain amount of shock to find out that my husband and son had been turned away at the airport when they tried to join us in Mongolia. Apparently Irish people require a visa - moreover, it is something the country is strict about. Worse, in order to get a visa, someone in Mongolia has to actually invite you to visit. Who knew!?
I could say, maybe someone who traveled as much as he did would google Mongolian visa requirements more than ten minutes before arriving at the airport. He could say, you organized the Chinese and Russian visas, why didn’t you get the Mongolian ones? Well, I would answer, Americans don’t need visas to enter that country and after 15 years of marriage I forgot he wasn’t American. Mind you, never once in all the countries we visited last year did we come across one that had separate visa requirements for each of us. Sometimes the fees were different, but there were no countries that required a visa for him and not for me or vice versa.
In any event, the question now became - how MUCH did he want to fly to Mongolia? He was just coming off of four transatlantic flights for work, not to mention driving 4 hours in each direction to pick up David Evan from camp. One would think he would jump at the chance to skip a 14 hour flight and go home for a well deserved nap. David Evan certainly wouldn’t mind an extra day of being reunited with his beloved electronics. But no, he immediately decided he could reschedule their flights to the next day thinking he could quickly pick up the missing visa and still make the flight out that evening.
He had only about 12 hours to get together all his documents before the embassy opened in the morning. Mongolia, naturally, asks the standard requirements - passport, greencard, photos, proof of onward travel and cash for the visa fee so Vincent needed to get an official photo taken and stop at the bank for a certified check before the embassy opened at 9 am. But Mongolia also has a couple extra requirements, namely a letter of invitation or “LOI”, plus a letter from your employer stating what you are doing while in that country and finally a detailed description of where you will be while in said country. The guide organizing our trek across the Gobi sent over a day by day itinerary and his agent wrote up an employment letter which left only the LOI. Fortunately with the time difference, Mongolia was just waking up while NY was going to sleep so the kids and I headed out.
We had met a Danish couple on the train into Mongolia who had mentioned their hostel had helped them secure their visas so we decided to start there. We rustled the manager out of breakfast and explained our predicament. Normally, he told us, they only write up letters for people staying with them but never underestimate the power of a ten year old. One look at the girls’ woebegone faces and he whipped up an extremely official looking document complete with stamps and signatures. So, armed with letters, documents, photos and fees, Vincent showed up at the embassy only to find - nothing. The consulate official responsible for visas was away until Aug 1. All the papers for visas were locked in his safe so even if anyone wanted to, it was impossible to hand out a visa in his absence.
It was at this point that I suggested to Vincent that he just pack it in and take the three days to rest up from his non stop traveling before embarking on a month long trek around the Mongolian countryside. But no, by the time I said this he was already in a taxi heading for Laquardia to catch a flight to the embassy located in Washington DC. Once there he jumped into a taxi and raced like the wind only to arrive and twiddle his thumbs waiting for someone, anyone, to return from lunch. Ten minutes after they officially opened, he had his visa and was back in a taxi on the way to Dulles airport. But, as he was looking up flights, he realized he had missed his return flight to NYC and the only other option was to fly out of Regan airport, ironically only ten minutes from the embassy but now thirty minutes in the opposite direction. He just made the plane and then had to sit fuming while it was delayed at the gate.
In the mean time, he had left frantic directions for my oldest daughter to look after David Evan who was at the hotel, without a phone, completely oblivious to his father's whirling dervish imitation. She however was deep in the basement at work digging through old records, cut off from all comunication. Fortunately, she returned to her desk and phone in time to drop everything, pick up David Evan and head to the airport.
Arriving on Laquardia, Vincent tore thru the airport and swept past the sixty people standing at the taxi stand shouting "my son is all alone at JFK!" And arrived, by dint of his Bagladeshi driver swerving madly through rush hour, at JFK, swooped up David Evan and made it to the checkin counter exactly two minutes before they closed the flight at 6 pm. They made it through check in, security and reached the plane just as they called for final boarding.
Which meant that after a simple 8 hour flight to Moscow, an 8 hour layover there and a final 4 hour flight to Ulan Baatar, they arrived. And were much appreciated.
One of the great things about traveling with kids is that you quite often get to see local attractions that most tourists don’t bother with. When we were in Russia, we spent one whole day visiting the Divo Ostrov amusement park just outside of St. Petersburg. While bumper cars may not be as “must see” on the guidebook trail as, say, the Hermitage, from my ten year old daughters’ point of view there was no comparison.
Besides just having a fun day, we also learned a bit about the local culture. I had been marveling at Russian women’s ability to stride along in 4 inch heels but was really amazed when I saw they don't even take them off when chasing their toddlers through the park. That is serious commitment to fashion. Clearly my trekking sandals were completely declasse. Mostly though I was just grateful that my girls had each other so I was exempt from the truly scary rides like the mile high swings. To the complete despair of my kids I now find even Ferris wheels too edgy. Fortunately, they are in that sweet spot where they are old enough to go on the rides themselves but young enough to still want me to watch them.
So after that Best Day Ever at Divo Ostrov it was a complete no brainer to add the Ulan Baatar amusement park to our international list. Taking a leisurely walk from our hotel down to the edge of town we passed by acres of the scruffy, unmowed and neglected “Children’s Park” where clearly no children had frolicked in many a year. Despite the entrance sign saying the park opened at 10 am, there were no signs of movement at noon. However we and about two other families were free to wander about while they leisurely started winding up the rides. If this was what it was like in high season, how many tickets could they be selling during the subzero winter season?
Have you ever been in an amusement park while they are still testing out the equipment? It is a fifty/fifty whether you are more relieved they are actually checking them or horrified that they are clearly held together with duct tape and sealing wax. Fortunately for my peace of mind, both the big, big roller coaster and the giant Ferris wheel seemed to be permanently out of commission. That left only about 3 or 4 creaky rides that were above toddler age. Even that was confusing because - at one ticket per ride - we had to figure out which ride we wanted to go on, return to the central ticket kiosk and ascertain from the long list of mongolian script which ride we were buying a ticket for. Each ride had a different price and there were no helpful pictures to tell which was which! We finally just decided to point to the more expensive tickets and hope for the best which seemed to work.
Wandering around the nearly empty park with weeds pushing up between the cracks with the occasional ride whining in the background was an eerie experience. I’m not sure not having to wait in line was compensation enough. Though it was bright daylight, it still had the spooky feel of a soon to be horror movie.
All became sunshine and light though when we got to the artificial lake with the huge swan boats. Naturally, every amusement park, even nearly defunct ones in Outer Mongolia, needs to come equipped with a Disney castle.