My dad’s travel journal part 3
Friday, August 20, 2010:
We traveled about 399 kilometers today (about 248 miles). In America, that would be a long trip, but basically easy. There is nothing at all easy about a trip like that in Mongolia. Tiffany is a seasoned Mongolia missionary. She prepared many liters of drinking water and supplies that we would need to survive a trip of several days duration. Chris had secured the church’s microbus for our use and seemed to have a “trust” in it that I didn’t always share. However, I will say at this point that the mercy and protection that God provides is always sufficient for our needs. We traveled over precarious roads, took many chances, didn’t have a spare tire that would hold air, didn’t understand that the diesel engine had a separate idle control lever, banged our head on broken hand-holds, saw many drivers with mechanical failures, …and still had a safe and prosperous trip. Because we were bouncing continuously, my notes took on a different form. I quickly would jot down what I was seeing…in sentence form….didn’t have the ability to write legible paragraphs. So…this day’s journal notes may tell a story in a more disjointed fashion.
One of the most interesting things that one will see in Mongolia is the “ger”. You also may have heard it referred to as a “yurt”. This is the type of home that thousands of Mongolians have lived in for centuries. Even in the modern city, many of them live in a ger. Some of them have moved into a frame house, but go to their ger in the winter, as it is cheaper to heat. It is a circular “tent” constructed of wooden lattice walls, covered in wool, and a ceiling framework much like a wooden wagon wheel, covered in wool. It is heated by a stove in the center and has furniture around the outside. Mongolians have been nomadic people, following good pastureland for their sheep, goats, etc., …thus moving 3-4 times per year. Mongolia has thousands of miles of open range…mostly owned by the govt….with few fences. A nomad family will just “squat” wherever they need to be and then move on when they need to in order to feed their flocks. Many miles separate their homes. The thing that surprised us and caused us some mirth was the effect of modern technology on these people. They used to walk everywhere, use horses or camels for transport…and still do that in many cases. However, you may now see a ger with a solar panel, satellite dish, motorcycle, and maybe an SUV. They still may not have indoor plumbing (probably don’t), still have to gather dung or burn coal for fuel, probably wash their clothes in a river, and are miles from anything we’d call civilization. We would see young children at lakes or rivers, filling water bottles to carry back to their gers.
We bought diesel for our vehicle at 2:22 PM. Not sure why, but many of the vehicles are diesel powered. The gas stations are not self-serve. They don’t do much other than pump your fuel…but you never do it for yourself. The price per liter was 1390 tugrik…making it more than $1 (US) for a liter. I think this computes to somewhere around $3.50-$4.00 per gallon…depending upon the value of the american dollar against the tugrik.
At 2:40, we approached an area of the country that has long sand dunes. It has become a very touristy spot…several of the locals earn their living there. As we pulled into the parking area, our microbus was immediately surrounded by camels. Their owners made them kneel, and each of them wanted us to ride their camel. We had seen it demonstrated several times before, but again, we were impressed with the language skills that Chris & Tiff have developed. They conversed with these Mongolian people in their own tongue. It was gibberish to us…but, time and again, the Mongolian people were impressed by these white people who had taken the time to learn their language. We found that it would cost us 5,000 tugrik for a 30 minute ride (about $3.80). Chris & Joel rode one camel and I rode another. Elijah and the ladies decided to just stay on the ground and explore the sand dunes. Our camel drivers led us out across the dunes. My camel was very obstinate. It wanted to eat the uppermost limbs from almost every small tree that we came to. The young female driver jerked on the reins and talked to it a lot, but it was very, very determined. So….Chris & Joel had a much quicker trip than I. I don’t know if there are better saddles than the one on my camel, but it was painful. There is no way that I could stay up there and ride all day…and then ever walk again! My driver had hopes of getting my camel to run, so she instructed me on how to grab the hump in front of me with both hands. My camel had no intention of running, so the advice was of no value. While we were riding, Elijah was collecting animal bones. Another interesting, and sometimes distressing thing about Mongolia is that there are animal bones everywhere. We found them on the mountainsides, on the plains, in the dunes, etc. Sometimes you could collect leg bones, jaws (with teeth), skulls, etc. They were often bleached by the sun…and thus pretty sanitary. Occasionally, they’d still have fur and tissue attached. Mongolia lost approx. one million cattle during the last hard winter. Some people lost their entire herds, their only means of livelihood. As we left the sand dunes, Elijah had to make some tough choices…he had many, many bone,…he could only take a couple with him on our journey. Though it was a struggle of awesome proportions, he made he choice and we were soon on our way again.
I will stop here to tell you about the roads. The road to the “countryside” is mostly paved. However, you will never see a “weigh station” for the trucks and they may be stacked 15 feet high with freight. That may not be the only factor that affects the roadways, but it no doubt, takes a toll on them. Perhaps the construction methods are not the best…and maybe some of these roads are old. Whatever the reason, they have become very broken and dangerous. There are large potholes that might break your axle or destroy your tires. So…….many of them are currently being repaired. In the U.S., we put up a bunch of barricades and provide detour routes. In Mongolia, they pile several loads of dirt on the road as a barricade. You leave the roadway and drive through the grass alongside it. After several months of that, with some rain thrown in,…and you have a rutted, pock-marked, rugged path to drive on. When one path gets bad enough…drivers just start a new one. You may have 4 or 5 options to drive on (on either side of the road). One may look good for awhile, but soon you are wishing that you had chosen a different one. When you think you have reached the end of the construction zone, you drive back up onto the paved roadway…sometimes taking a chance of dragging your oil pan or other parts of your car.
Today, we were traveling for many hours. Alongside the road, out on the plain some distance from the car, we saw a ditch that had been excavated …probably to bury some type of cable. It was about 3 feet deep. We stopped to hunt for a geo-cache…a hobby of Chris’s. This particular cache was maybe ¼-½ mile from the roadway. We jumped over the ditch and went to a stone outcropping where the cache was hidden. There was a large falcon nest nearby it, but no birds. I discovered one of the joys of Mongolia as we walked. As a boy, I lived in Wyoming. We had a tall grass there that we called “spear grass”. You could pull a handful of shoots out of the top of the plant and they would resemble little spears (complete with tiny spearheads). If you throw them at someone, they will imbed themselves in their clothing, and sometimes stick their skin. Immense fun! Mongolia has tens of thousands of these plants…and I had a blast teaching my grandsons about them. As a matter of fact, I probably just became downright annoying. After finding the geocache, taking an item from it and adding our own…and logging that we’d been there, we headed back to the car. Most of us had found a private place to take care of our bathroom needs. Carol had decided to wait for a better opportunity. I began to tell her that we were in Mongolia and that opportunities would not arise very often, and sometimes would be less acceptable than the present options. So, she begrudgingly climbed down into the ditch and did her business. She had on white sport shoes (sneakers) and they met with a bit of a dilemna as we pulled her up from her improvised bathroom. Dirt fell into her shoes and ground itself into their clean sides. She took it well!
My notes seem to be missing a few things, and my photographs tell me that other things happened on this particular day. I’m not sure if I’m confused or not. I think that our lunch on this day was alongside the road. Around 1 PM, we pulled to the side of the road to hunt for another geocache. This time, Chris and I climbed all over a big rock formation, moved aside spider webs, but were unsuccessful in locating it. While we were up there, Tiff cooked our lunch,out on the prairie, over a one-burner stove with a little gas canister. Actually, she heated water…but when we returned we each had a large bowl of Ramen noodles…very tasty and filling. We had purchased a sack with many varieties of cookies in it, so that became our dessert. We were once again struck by the idea that you make the best of your situation. If there is not a fast-food restaurant nearby, you come prepared. As I recall, wet towels or spray hand-sanitizer helps to get some of the bugs killed before you use your hands to eat.
While we were in Mongolia (late August), the weather was very pleasant. Some days I thought it was absolutely perfect. It probably ranged from the upper 30’s or lower 40’s on some of the coldest nights…to nearly 90 degrees on the sunniest days (at least in the upper 80’s). On this particular day, we enjoyed most of the day, but by the time we arrived in Kharkorin, our destination, it was very windy and chilly…so much so that we put on jackets. We arrived there at around 4:45 PM. This village was the original capitol city of Mongolia, though the original city is just a small bunch of ruins, difficult to find.
Though Chris & Tiff had never been to this part of Mongolia, they knew about it and had read much about it in the book, “Lonely Planet-Mongolia”. Tiff was a good navigator, though there were seldom any signs or any directions to guide you. We arrived at a hotel that they had selected. (At this point, I want to note something very important. Carol & I were often shocked by our surroundings. We are spoiled! We live in a nice house, in a nice country,…have everything we need, and most of the things we want. Chris & Tiff are “gifted” by God to adapt to whatever culture they are placed into. That very fact makes them effective missionaries). Having said that…back to my story. This hotel was the most ratty one I’d ever even considered staying in! At least that is what my first glance decided. It looked like a large, square, two-story house. It was run down. The yard was full of 2 foot tall weeds, the parking lot was dirt. It was cold & windy outside. What we weren’t aware of yet was that there was no heat in the rooms. We were shown to our room…4 twin size beds in a room that was probably 10 feet wide and maybe 20 feet long. The wallpaper and carpet was old. The lighting was dim. A single bathroom in the hall outside would be shared with other guests. As time went by, we discovered that the shower, which maybe worked…was an extra charge. The toilet had a broken seat, and the toilet paper was a bit of stuff that looked like brown crepe paper…unrolled from a larger roll so that we’d be conservative with how much we used. Later that evening, we were to discover that the water wasn’t working during the night, so we couldn’t flush. Thus, some of us chose to restrain nature’s normal functions until another time. That is NOT a good plan! In Mongolia, it is good to put your car in a secure area….so Chris rented a garage space for about $1.50. They lock it and maybe retain the key. I think we paid about $30 for the room…not too bad considering that we had 6 people. Okay…enough whining!
After moving into our room, we set out to explore a bit. Tiffany had read about a particularly interesting park. It is a bit difficult to explain here, but I’ll try…because it IS something that we saw. Some background information: There is a very large, very ancient monastery in Khorkorin. The monks supposedly used to look up to the mountains nearby and see a valley that very much resembled to them…a woman’s private parts. Being celibate, that caused them to have trouble with lust. In an effort to turn their minds and eyes away from that valley, someone constructed a statue of a phallus nearby. They could see that from the monastery, and somehow that helped (go figure). This has become a hugely popular tourist attraction. People sometimes come there for good luck with their pregnancy…or for better health for their kidneys. The road to the park was so eroded and precarious that we feared that it might collapse and overturn our vehicle. When we arrived, we saw that there were tables (flea market) full of antiques for sale. We looked at them and watched as Mongolian people were observing Joel. Often, they took an interest in this cute little American boy. Elijah was sometimes observed by them, but I think the Mongolians were taken by the younger American. Frequently they would bring a Mongolian toddler over to interact with Joel. Lots of smiles and laughs would result from that. When you are trying to reach a people for Christ, you use whatever means are given to you. Other than looking at the strange statue and shopping for antiques, there was not much to do at the park, so we soon headed back…by a safer road this time. We stopped at a playground and let the boys be entertained for a few minutes. Again, the decay that happened to Mongolia as the Soviets left…was very evident. Only a few of the pieces of playground equipment were not broken. A shelter house had been filled with trash. Coming back into the village, Tiffany directed us to a restaurant formerly known as the Crown Café. I’d tell you of it’s history, but I don’t remember what was said. Horses were tied up at the rail outside. You might think that would be “Old West” and strange, but that wasn’t such an uncommon sight in Mongolia. Inside, the restaurant was nice, though we wondered how people stayed warm while eating in there during the winter. There was a nice fireplace, but only the people near it would be very comfortable. We had meat pies (not by that name), fried chicken, goulash (not like any you have ever seen), etc. Elijah played with a little Mongolian boy while there. They had sword fights around the empty part of the restaurant. It began to rain while we were eating and our waitress ran out back to shut the opening in the roof of her ger. We came out after our meal …to a double rainbow. Running through the drizzle and mud, we went to a little store nearby. They had no lights on, so you could barely see the product. However, Tiff was able to purchase choco pies…a dessert appreciated by all of us. While there, I began to realize that a scratch on my hand (from some sharp object in the car) was now infected. It becomes a bit more of a problem when you can’t reach under the sink for some peroxide. I squeezed undesirable liquids from it occasionally and tried to get soap down into it. Eventually it healed. There are medicines available, but you often have to self diagnose and self prescribe it. You can even buy antibiotics at little stores if you know what to use.
We ate our chocolate pies back at the hotel. As the sun settled down behind the mountains, we played some cards, ate candy that we’d brought along, and drank hot water from a pitcher provided by the hotel. We tried to stay awake as long as possible, because it was going to be a long night. The mattresses basically didn’t exist…they were rock hard. We had to order breakfast the evening before we wanted it and tell them what time to serve it. We assumed that they went out and purchased the food after getting our order.
Because we knew what time breakfast was served, we calculated that we had 12 hours to survive until then. Chris & Tiff each had a boy sleeping with them in their twin beds. Carol & I had our own beds, but found it very difficult to sleep. Carol said that she got almost no sleep at all. I did better, but know that I turned over at least once every hour and squeaked the bed each time. Chris read the next morning that this was a “mid-range” hotel. He also told us that there were possible plans to one day return the capitol of Mongolia to this sleepy little village. I have very many doubts about that, but who knows?