Mongolia Part 2: Among Riders

It’s funny how one tiny piece of equipment can turn an entire piece of machinery useless.

MILKY WAY
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This was the case for me with during our first night in the Ger when (while packing back in Korea) I left my CPAP mask behind, rendering my CPAP machine I’d brought to Mongolia, useless. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with sleep apnea and rely on this machine to help me sleep through the entire night, which is something I never did through my entire 30’s. I got up 4 times at night to go pee, although the stars were magnificent and worth the wake up which is what I told myself to offset my geriatric ruminations. After night skies in Namibia, they were the most brilliant I’d ever seen in my life with the milky way splashed across the cool canopy of night.

The ‘Ger’ Stay

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The ‘Ger’ is a common sight in Mongolia. They lend themselves to the nomadic herding lifestyle and families will move twice a year, to a winter and summer locations and take their livestock with them. I thought that families would migrate huge distances to get somewhat of a relief from bitter temperatures (Apparently schools closed in Ulanbator for a week last year when temperatures dropped to -25) but many winter camps are merely a few hundred meters downstream or down a valley from their summer sites. I wondered why families would take the time to move such a paltry distance.

In the center is a stove which doubles as not only a cooking place, but a central heating unit. A central pipe takes the smoke up through the center and a flap over the roof can keep in heat, or let it escape easily. Every night in Mongolia, our hosts would stoke a fire just before bed and again to wake us up in the morning. In the desert steppe for our first few nights, the stoves would burn horse dung as firewood was scarce. The beds line the inner perimeter with space to move around by the central stove for socializing.

That morning, we drove through the national park spotting Przewalski’s horses and stags in the national park. If there ever is an olympic sport for spotting things at far distances, Mongolians are assured to win the gold, silver and bronze medals as evidenced by the keen eyes of our guides, Saagai and Tugsuu. Every time we stopped, they brought out their binoculars and managed to spot wildlife that would challenge Superman, let alone most mortals.

“What are you guys looking at?” I would often ask.

“On that far ridge, a group of stags.”

“You mean those tiny specs about 3 kilometers away?” I would say, squinting.

“Yes Gary! Do you see them too?”

Bactrian Camel Riding

After riding a camel in India a few years ago, I swore I would never ride another camel again for the rest of my life. At the time, we had planned a one night, overnight desert camp, and envisioned an experience very might like ‘Arabian Nights’, trekking through the dunes, near the Pakistani border. The reality was quite different. The provisions of our camp were packed underneath our saddles, so we were sitting on a heap of clothes, pots and pans which caused incessant rubbing on the inside our thighs from the cooking equipment creating a swelling so great, it felt two balloons on the insides of our thighs, making us look like were were wearing a pair of jodhpurs with the bulges on the inside. We walked, bowlegged, most of the way back the next day as we couldn’t stand the pain. Back in our hotel Jaisalmer, exhausted from the ordeal, I overhead a group excitedly talking about their one week camel safari leaving the next day with the same outfitters. I wished them well.

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Bactrian camels in Mongolia are another story. The two humps and modest saddle make it quite comfortable to ride. Apparently, there are 285,000 Bactrian camels in the world and about 30% are in Mongolia with the rest in Tibet and other surrounding areas. Their two humps-which are mostly fat, and shaggy coats make them ideally suited to the cold, resource dry steppe. After mounting, we ventured out through the nearby sand dunes, visiting a local temple and watched the sun go down.

Care for some ‘Snuff’?

We had a meager dinner of fried rice and, you guessed it, mutton. After dinner, the son of the family we stayed with offered us some ‘snuff’ in an elegant snuff bottle as an after dinner treat to accompany our vodka shot.

Apparently snuff and snuff bottles are a big deal in Mongolia and even the process of how it’s presented can say a lot about the person and how things are generally going in their life. If someone offers you a snuff bottle that is open, it means that their life is good and they are experiencing good fortunes and bounties aplenty. If you are offered a snuff bottle that is closed, the presenter is undergoing hardship. Some snuff bottles are made of elegant rare earth minerals and can fetch up to thousands of dollars. Why someone would spend such money on glorified tobacco pouch and not a better Ger is beyond me.

That night, we fell into a deep slumber. I don’t know if it was the fire from the stove warming our limbs, vodka warming our bellies or the generosity of our hosts, but we were starting to feel like one of them. Hearing the group scamper of hooves outside our Ger, I nonchalantly said to Lisa before I drifted off to sleep:

“Herds on the move.”

“Yup.” She replied

Related Posts

Mongolia Part 1: Among Nomads

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