Mongolian Steppe

Monday, September 17, 2018
Ulaanbaatar, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
When we could not find an official taxi rank outside Chinggis International Airport, we knew we were back in place where the informal transport system prevailed. It was close to midnight anyway. We were approached couple of times with a questioning ‘taxi?’ thrown at us before we realized there were no options but to negotiate with one of them.  The driver weaved between potholes on the 20 minute ride to our hotel. The quiet roads close to midnight belied the madness that is UB traffic during the day.
We were also surprised to see the driver's seat on the right side. Do Mongolians drive on the left side of the road? Odd for a former member of the Soviet block! Unless the fall of communism was accompanied by a frenzy for all out change. It turned out that the driver drove on the right side of the road, having had to stretch across to the left side window to pay the airport parking attendant whose hands were also stretched for a Sistine Chapel-like connection. Oh well, we thought, another nut who had gotten himself a car with the wheel on the wrong side. Soon we saw every other vehicle was configured with the steering wheel on the same side. We got our answers the next morning.
As we discovered in the short time we spent in the city, if we needed a quick ride, you just stand at the curb with your hand outstretched and sooner or later a vehicle will pull up. This is the quickest and fairly cheap way to get around, though quick is not how anyone would characterize traffic movement in the center of the city.  Toyota Prius, Lexus and other mostly second-hand Japanese imports cram every inch of asphalt and while the lack of lane discipline is reminiscent of India, the chaos is devoid of the sound track of constant honking that is inescapable on Indian streets. Maybe the Mongols are  just a more patient lot.
With less than four full days allocated in our vacation plan for this vast country, we had decided to focus our visit to the central part of the country. Based on travel forum recommendations, we had corresponded over email with Bilegt and Mejet, a husband and wife duo who arranged for vehicle and driver for travelers. Mejet was on a month long tour with some guests, and it was Bilegt who came to our hotel next morning to finalize the arrangements. We were to meet our driver and car in a location slightly outside the city since there were license plate based restrictions on vehicles on certain days, a city measure to manage traffic. Enroute, she took us to one of the city’s major supermarkets so we could stock up on supplies for the next few days. Given Mongolia’s meat centric cuisine, it would be foolish to expect that our dietary restrictions would be adequately catered to, so we had to be fairly self-sufficient for the next three days. We had actually come prepared from home with a variety of MTR’s “just add hot water” based meals, so our shopping included a fuel cartridge to make hot water (the driver was bringing along a stove and pan), bread, cheese and the like.  The plaza next to the shopping center had a memorial to the Beatles (with a barefoot Paul standing apart from the rest!). We had this on our list of places to visit and were happy to have it checked off as “stumbled upon”.
We also noticed Ulan Bator traffic to be massively dominated by Toyota Priuses (Prii for the grammatically oriented). Which means that these can't be older than, say, 15 years. So what is the story behind this? Bilegt explained to us that used Toyota Priuses that are not deemed worthy of Japanese roads (or Japanese customers' sense of obsolescence) are shipped to Mongolia for resale, a country that cannot afford new car prices. Hence the right hand drive cars with the kana screen displays. Outside of Ulan Bator, SUVs dominate the land with Toyota Land Cruisers the most commonly seen. Most of them have a strange looking adjustment with an air intake pipe laid against the driver side windshield's edge to draw air for the a/c unit. 
After an excruciatingly slow ride across the city, we met up with Bor, our driver for the trip, whose English vocabulary was limited but had years of experience ferrying visitors around the country. While conversation was limited, he was pleasantly accommodating of our constant requests to stop so we could take photos of the scenery, birds and the like.   Once out of UB, the steppe took over; hours of wide open grassland and distant hills started to have an hypnotic effect. The monotony was broken only by the occasional solitary yurt every few kms (usually with motorcycle or a four wheeled vehicle parked outside and maybe a few horses).  More frequently we saw herds of grazing sheep, goats, cows and horses. Mixed herds of sheep and goat with zero survival instincts happily lounged in the middle of the road and paid no attention to warning honks from fast approaching vehicles.  While we saw a few groups of semi-wild horses galloping across the steppe, most just stood huddled around slushy watering holes alongside the road. They seemed to have a preferred radial pattern of huddling with their heads together near the center and their tails at the circumference.
Cows came in colors - all shades of white, black, brown and grey, many monochrome but also pied and mottled. Herders seem to have traded the traditional steed for the modern equivalent, it was common to see motorcycles zigging and zagging trying to keep the herd moving.
We craned our necks upwards for a variety of birds of prey, (vultures, kites and other unidentified species) some perched on electric poles along the road. The size of the imposing Cinereous vulture was particularly impressive.  A couple of heavy duty flaps were needed to get these large birds off the ground, but once they were airborne, they looked like 747s.
After crossing the small town of Lun, the driver indicated that we would cross a river and he would stop there for us to make some lunch (cook water was his - no doubt newly memorized – phrase for these weird foreigners who were in Mongolia with strange smelling powders manufactured in New Jersey). 
As the vehicle crossed the river Tuul, we spied a modern Travel Center with signs for Cafe and Restaurant. Not really optimistic about what would be on offer, we checked it out anyway and were pleasantly surprised to see a buffet type facility that had options that looked vegetarian. We chose a few and realized we were fooled by what looked like a creamy vegetable salad (it had pork bits mixed in), but the cucumbers (dressed with sesame) and cabbage slaw were winners and were good accompaniments to steamed rice (called budda in Mongolian – perhaps as a nod to its origin from the great country due south whence a great religion made its way up?)
Our destination for the day was Kharkhorin (new name for the ancient capital Karakorum, established by Ogatei Khan, son of our old pal Chinggis). The road west from UB passes through Khogno Tarna National Park, but we did not stop (except to get some quick photos of the dual humped Bactrian camels). We would be coming through here on our way back.  Beyond here, we left the highway and took a minor road (also sealed) towards the Orkhon Valley and Kharkhorin. Late afternoon we approached a T-junction, the left arm towards the town of Shankh and the right toward Kharkhorin.  The driver turned left and after only a few kms, swerved off-road for several more kilometers, coming to a stop at a small cluster of 5 to 6 yurts, one of which was our lodging for the night. Nobody was around at this time, and we found the women busy at work, milking the horses. Briefly acknowledging our presence, they continued with their chores and it was only a little while later that we were invited in to their family yurt for a bowl of sour mare’s milk as a welcome drink.  This was a family farm operation. Besides the horses, the family owned cows, goats and sheep. The obligatory dogs and cat hung around. The two women had nary a moment’s rest, getting along with their tasks with great efficiency. One of the men too was busy with a different kind of task that was quite unexpected. It appeared that this was laundry day and he was busy with doing the family laundry on a proper washing machine (yes, sitting outdoors on the grass powered by a generator), and putting clothes out to dry.
Before nightfall, we went out for a short walk on the steppe, visiting the family’s cows and goats that were feeding at a distance from the yurts. Spicy MTR instant upma made for a good dinner (after “cooking Mongolian water”!) as temps were dipping and the dung fueled oven was bought to life using our butane fuel canister fitted with a special blowtorch attachment!  We were prepared for the cold, but not for the intense heat generated by these ovens and had to leave the door open occasionally to let the heat dissipate to a comfortable temp so we could get some sleep.  Just as we were ready to turn in, the lady of the house knocked as the door and presented us with a bowl of specially prepared vegetarian steamed dumplings, delicious little packages filled with diced potatoes and shredded cabbage mildly spiced. This especially nice gesture to make us feel welcome was appreciated very much.
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2019-01-18