Mongolia is a country that has stolen my heart.... the people, the landscape, and the sheer beauty of the countryside makes you stop and sigh. I have ventured far and wide, but Mongolia has no equal. Here was where I learned to breathe... here is where I learned what silence truly is.
I left for Mongolia via China in mid-May, the best time to visit if you want to beat the tourists. I took the Trans-Mongolia train out of Beijing and met my two friends at the station in Ulaan Baatar. Barbara and I had graduated with our bachelor’s degrees (her’s in Russian and theatre and mine in history) that same year, and met through a mutual friend. A few months before she left for a language school in Irkusk, Russia, we met and decided to meet in Mongolia to do a little backpacking. Khulan, a Mongolian exchange student and best friend, was also there and would be playing hostess to us during our 3-week stay.
The first week in UB was spent getting oriented, sight-seeing and buying supplies for our backpacking trip. Barb and I planned to go to Terelj National Park and hike to the Gunjiin Sum Monastery. On foot it is 3 days in, 3 days out, weather permitting… however, in our case it was 1 day in, 3 days out, and a trip to the doctor.
Before heading into Terelj, play it smart and find a map. Barbara and I were fortunate enough to beg and plead and pay our way into a photocopy of a 1986 map, thanks to the sympathetic women at the Map Shop on Ikh Toiruu ( In UB, located in a small shopping center, next to Lamrin Sum). Be warned... if you go into the countryside of Terelj without a guide, you will be hard pressed to find a reliable map with Gunjiin Sum on it. If you are fortunate enough to find a map and venture to Gunjiin Sum, keep in mind that the rivers you see on the map may or may not be there. Depending on the season, the rivers may look like nothing but a trickle, so keep an eye out.
Day 1: Barb, Khulan, Khulan’s friend ( I cannot venture a guess at how to spell her name), and I arrive in Terelj by car and stay at a tourist ger camp. It was a little spendy, but quaint.
Day 2: We say our goodbyes to Khulan and her friend and set out on our adventure. It takes us a while to get used to the 25-pound bags on our backs, but after about 2 hours we don’t even notice they’re there. Barbara and I are forced to cross about eight rivers, the largest one was crossed with the help of some locals and their horses, before we reach the open countryside. All along the way we met various people who would practice their English or Russian with us, asking us questions about where we are going, our names, or where we are from. Many of them think we are crazy to hike without a male escort or guide, one of the women offered us her son as an escort… we gracefully declined.
About half way through the day, Barb and I decided to get our bearings and wandered into a ger camp to ask if we were going the right direction. They instead invited us into their ger, fed us the most amazing yogurt I have ever tasted and offered us salty tea, a traditional Mongolian drink. Barbara and I were grateful for the break and a glimpse into Mongolian home life. Sitting on the left side of the tent, closest to the door (out of respect, all visitors must sit to the left side of the tent nearest the door. Only if you are directed otherwise should you move closer to the head of the ger.) Barb spies a baby boy on the opposite side of the ger swaddled up to his neck and propped up of the bed. Swaddling a baby like this serves two functions: keeping warm and keeping it out of trouble. Of course, like all women do, Barb and I were oooing and aaahing and asked permission if we could hold the baby. After having our fill of yogurt, tea, and babies, Barb and I thank the woman and handed out chocolate to the gaggle of children collecting around our ankles.
Following our map, and the directions we received, we walk another few miles up the “road” and crossed the final river. It was only later we found out that we crossed the wrong river, the Boorinbayaan Gol, the river we were meant to follow north. It wasn’t until much, much, much later that we realized one of the rivers dried up, leading us to miscount the landmarks. So, heading in the wrong direction Barb and I trek on, unaware of the calamities that await us.
After a few more hours, we decide to rest and set up camp along the river we are mistaken into believing is the Boorinbayan Gol. With dinner cooking, two men, one young and one old come over and say hello. After about an hour of using sign language and drawing in the dirt, he communicated to us that we were heading in the wrong direction. He urged us to move our tent next to his family's ger and in the morning he would take us on a short cut through the hills. After much debate Barb and I finally conceded and packed up our tent and set it up next to his ger.
During this time, Barb was nursing some pretty nasty blisters, and by the next morning she was limping.
Day 3: We woke up to a light drizzle and ate breakfast with the old man's family. We set out much later than we would have liked, but we had to wait for our new guide to get ready. As we listened to him talking with his family I had a feeling he wanted us to pay him for services rendered, but rather than bring it up now, I figured I had better wait.
Well, this shortcut through the hills nearly killed me. My lungs burned because of the altitude and Barb's limp was getting worse. When we finally reached the Borinbaayan Gol and thanked the man for his help he demanded payment. Barb and I only had enough money for cab fare back to Ulaan Baatar and not much else, so we hid the cab money and showed him the remainder of our funds. Seeing our meager amount, he felt sorry for us and only took about $4. Well, tired and wet, we set up our tent to wait out the rain and rest for the remaining journey. Our rain gear proved to be unreliable, and both of us were soaked.
After a much needed nap, Barb and I talked about what to do. Hiking through the hills had pulled a muscle along her knee and made any further hiking unwise. Both of us wanted to reach the monastery, but we risked getting stuck there if Barb's condition worsened. Depressed by our joint decision to return to base camp, we packed up our tent and headed back the way we came. Despite the early morning rain and the disappointment of turning back, the rest of the day was beautiful.
Day 4: After packing up the tent, we decided it was best for me to carry all the gear. Barb's knee had worsened overnight, and if we were going to traverse the rivers she need to lighten her load. So, with about 45-pounds of gear on my back we headed out. The day was windy and bright, a perfect day for hiking. After finishing our lunch of canned meat and bread, the skies to the south of us started looking gray... oh no, not again.
We made camp early that day on a very nice spot along the river. It was excellent timing because just as we crawled into the tent and took of our boots the sky opened up and it POURED. It rained like this intermittently for 4 hours. When the rain stopped the first time, a curious young man that was about our age approached our tent to introduce himself. He told us that we need to move our tent to a protected area because of the wolves nearby. Well, I never saw a wolf. Anyway, just to make him happy we moved the tent into a three sided log enclosure... an area too small for our tent. We wrestled with our tent, but in the end ignored his advise and set it up next to the enclosure rather than inside.
As we ate dinner the man approached our tent again and told us we need to leave for the base camp tonight because the rivers were rising... the the bottom of a horse's saddle to be precise. If we left tomorrow it would be above a horse's saddle and we would be stuck in the park until the levels went down. So, at 9:30 in evening we packed up our tent and got on this young man's horses. We traveled across these VERY flooded rivers, without a light or a moon to travel by, and made it to the base camp around 1 or 2 am. Riding the horses was an amazing experience, and the danger of being swept away by a raging river added to the excitement.
That evening, after thanking the man and surprising him with a generous payment for his help, we settled into our tent—a tent that we pitched in the pavilion of the hotel. Barb and I were freezing and damp after our all night escapade, and since we couldn't sleep because of the cold we giggled and laughed until 6am... when we caught a cab back to UB.