Tuesday, December 18, 2012

12/18- Ready, Set......

We are now less than three weeks from the start of our next trip -- we're going to Easter Island and Patagonia, starting in Argentina, then crossing over into Chile and back to Argentina. We'll be in Chile's Lake Country, Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares National Park, just to name a few stops. We hope to be able to post as we go -- taking the laptop this time, since the tablet proved to have too many limitations for me. Watch this space after the new year!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Home again, photos ready -- 8/21

It has been a busy two weeks -- after arriving in LA, we visited my Mom in Oceanside for a few days -- a mini family (girl) reunion with my daughter, granddaughter, and niece in town in time for my mom's 92nd birthday. Poor Jim: 5 women to deal with!

We spent a day at Disneyland! (except Mom...) Some of us hadn't been there since the 70's and I discovered that 3 roller coasters in less than two hours was 1 too many. Still, it was a fun day.

Now that we have been home for a week or so, I have gotten the photos sorted out (posted fewer than 300 of the 2000 I took, so if you think something's missing, let me know, I can probably find one for you). The photos are at: http://picasaweb.google.com/LynnEichinger
 The albums are Mongolia and Yunnan. You can also click on the photos at the bottom of the page, but may have to go to the home tab to see all the albums available.

I still am looking at editing the blog to add photos to prior posts, but who knows -- this week we are helping Erika set up her new classroom and babysit Dylan at the same time.

No international travel plans yet, but stay tuned! Australia, Africa, and Europe are all possibilities!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Starting Home -- 8/6

The first half of the day, we traveled to UB (Ulaanbaatar). When we got there, traffic was nasty and the bus took an alternate route past the state store, so we got off and did a bit of shopping before walking to the hotel.  It was starting to sprinkle, and we considered the bus (cheap at 30 cents each), but they all looked crowded so we hiked. When we got back, we encountered two more shoppers getting back...they HAD taken the bus and one of them lost her wallet to a pickpocket on the bus. The thief had also found her passport, but returned it to a different pocket, so she had a bit of panic til it was located.

Traditional Mongolian fashions
Modern variation based on traditions.
By dinner time, it was really raining. We took our tour bus to a native show and then to dinner. In both cases, the traffic was nasty ...took over an hour to drive not much further than we had walked in 40 minutes, and then we discovered construction was blocking the entrance, so we had to slog around to the back. Dinner was much the same story...  slow drive, no bus access near the restaurant, and a long slog in the rain. On the way back after dinner, we discovered that a gate we had come through at 8 pm apparently locked at 9, so it was back the the restaurant for plan B. Amazingly, traffic at 9:45 was just as bad as 6 pm. I guess the adventures never stop.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Down to the Gobi -- 8/3

The main highway in the Gobi...
We were up early to catch our 7 am flight to Dalanzadgad, our starting point in the Gobi. It is greener than we anticipated and VERY flat. Nothing really to take photos of but the bugs and sunset. Our camp is about 60km northwest of Dalanzadgad, and the drive across the tracks in a minibus took a couple hours. The ger has an attached bathroom, a real luxury after dealing with separated facilities. The space is a bit cramped (3.5 x 7.5 ft) and amazingly, there is no tile or even paint on the plywood walls, but maybe the shower dries so fast here that it isn't a problem.
Attached bathroom = GREAT. Hobbit door = not so much

The restaurant area is very stylish and has a tv and game room underneath, the coolest place to be during the heat of the day. It was probably in the 90s today, but felt worse because it has not been hot elsewhere here. There were no activities planned for the afternoon so after lunch, I tried reading, but soon fell asleep, making up for two days of too-early starts. About 5, we decided to take a walk and basically walked the perimeter of the camp. We headed towards a herd of goats but turned away when they noticed us and started moving away. Then a small herd of horses approached and come closer as Jim called out to them. I wished I had had the apple I had saved from breakfast this morning. Perhaps tomorrow. We did see two teeny baby lizards along with two full-sized ones and a couple nasty looking bugs-- they were well over an inch long and half an inch wide and had a nasty looking tail like a stinger.
Nasty looking Gobi bug. NO idea what it is.
There is so much nothing here, it is kind of overwhelming.We discovered a nice breeze on the shaded restaurant porch and hung out there before and after dinner, til the sun went down. So far, the top vent hole of the ger  has been covered each night, making it really dark and kind of claustrophobic, but with no rain forecast, tonight it will be open. The breeze is cooling the ger off now so maybe it will be cool enough to sleep.

Camels and Cliffs -- 8/5

Out first adventure today was breakfast. This camp has had the best meals so far, but today was odd. We got two little oblong slices of rolled up scrambled egg. It looked like the eggs had been sauteed like a crepe, rolled, flattened, and sliced. They might have been great when they were hot, but not so much tepid. Along side the egg, was a nicely sauteed hot dog, which I initially thought was a sausage. No such luck. I wonder what dinner will be??

Camel herder family - the boy on the left is a nephew, the others are sons.
Then we took the bus to a visit to a camel-herding family. We started out in their ger, where we were served camel milk yogurt and fermented milk. Both were very sour and I would lose a lot of weight if that were the limits of my diet! Fortunately, they did not offer us the dried yogurt chips that have been an untasty staple of our other visits. This family, with 2 boys, ages 12 & 8 and another on the way in 2 months, was hit hard by three bad winters a couple years ago, which killed off most of their herds. They used to have 1,000 livestock in goats, sheep, and camels, and now they have 15 camels. They moved to town for a year to make money, but didn't like the lifestyle, so they are back in the desert trying to make a go with camels.

Lynn on  a camel
Jim (right) and Bob hoofing it up the dunes. They were so hard, it wasn't tough to do.
They supplement their income with visits like ours, giving camel rides, and selling souvenirs made with felt and camel fur. We got a short ride on the two-humped bactrian camel, which are easier to ride than the one hump kind because you ride in a saddle with stirrups positioned between the humps. Then we took a walk up the sand dues behind their ger. This area is one of only a few places in the Gobi with actual sand dunes.

Back in the bus (which, I might add, is devoid of A/C, a functioning ventilation system, or even windows that open, making it  the sauna bus), we headed to Bayanzag, also known as the Flaming Cliffs. It was given that name by an American archaeologist who found dinosaur bones and eggs there in the 1920s. It is reminiscent of Zion or Bryce National Parks with less stability and grandeur.  It is actively eroding and Billy says it looks different every time he sees it. It was a welcome change from the featureless desert, and we wandered around for about an hour.
Bayanzag (The Flaming Cliffs)

I also had a new experience. There is no potty on the bus, and I have always considered myself lucky to be able to avoid watering the steppe like everyone else has had to do on our visit here. Today my luck ran out and with very short vegetation and a lot of visitors,  I was challenged to find a spot private enough. As we started down a gully, a bus load of people pulled away, increasing the privacy quotient, and I spied a 2-foot high bush and fertilized the area. I am hoping that this is a one-time opportunity!

We didn't find any dinosaur bones on our exploration (if we did, we didn't know it), but we did add to our rock and sand collection.On the way back to camp after lunch at another ger camp, we came across a plot of land actually being used to grow vegetables,  an unusual occupation here. The water source was a large spring with a couple kids playing in the mud nearby.

Tonight, we pack up to begin our journey home, a three day trip. First to UB, then a day to Beijing, and finally back to the US. I'm not sure there is a lot we missed here, except maybe visiting the areas that were home to Genghis Kahn, but it has been great learning about this country and its scenery.

Ice and Chives in the Gobi! -- 8/4

Today we went to Yolyn Am (Vulture Valley) in the Gurvan Saikan Mountains about two hours southwest of our camp. After what seemed like a perilous drive on a 10km track to the trail head, we walked 2+ miles into the ever narrowing canyon. We didn't see any of the vultures it is named for, but on the way out we saw a large bird that a couple German tourists assured us was a Steppe Eagle. We also saw lots of little ground-based birds and picas. The picas look like baby bunnies with mouse ears and were really quick. We felt very lucky to get several photos of them. We also found some new wildflowers.
Little waterfalls
The trail was kind of dull to start out, but as it narrowed, it got rockier and steeper and we started criss-crossing a small creek that had a couple of nice waterfalls. At the end of our walk back in, we came upon the remains of last year's glacial advance and retreat in the form of 3 smallish but noticeable chunks of glacial ice. It was comfortably cool and often shady in the canyon, but about 90 everywhere else. We ate our lunch on a rocky hillside, which was quite breezy. The breeze was great til I tried to re-secure the lid on my lunch and the whole thing went flying away.
The biggest ice chunk we saw
Back at the entry to the park, we stopped at a museum which had stuffed versions of the animals we might have seen, but didn't and then visited a half dozen gift shop gers. I ended up getting a red suede cloth jacket, which I had been eyeing since I first saw them. All the others were either too big, too small, or bad colors, so this was a happy find.

Back at camp, we waited out the heat of the day before taking another walk. There is really nothing much to walk to, but we saw a small shed and went out to investigate. On the way we took a closer look at the vegetation available for the livestock....it is chives!!  I wonder if it affects the taste of the meat or the milk. Could be a good thing . The shed turned out to be an outhouse in very good condition....hard to understand who is using it. The nearest gers are too far away as is the camp where there are flush toilets in any case. Plus the nomads appear to prefer fertilizing the desert.

After all  this time away, it is strange to think we will be back in the states in 4 days. The time has really flown!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Return to UB Again -- 8/2

Yak milking
We were up early this morning to get to the airport in time for our 11:50 am flight back to UB. We left the camp at 7am and found the yak herding family from the other day milking their yaks along our route, so we stopped for a bit and took pictures. Despite the horrible roads, we got to Moron ahead of schedule. Although the facilities at the last camp were great, the food was not a high point. Today, however, they got it right: a yummy egg for breakfast and interesting dumplings and rice in our box lunch.
Typical roads in this part of Mongolia

The plane was about an hour late, so we got to our UB hotel at 4. Billy had thought our flight to the Gobi camp tomorrow would be at 3 pm, so we were looking forward to the best breakfasts in Mongolia as well as a chance to sleep in after our early start today. Alas, it was not to be. We fly out tomorrow at 7am, meaning we have to leave the hotel by 5.... so no sleeping in or fresh omelets, just a very early wake up to a box breakfast (none of which I have found edible so far.)

We spent our time reshuffling our possessions. Due to weight limits on internal flights we leave as much behind at our hotel as possible. We walked to the little market for snacks, enjoyed a room service salad (except for carrots and potatoes, veggies are in short supply here) and sandwich, and caught up with email. I doubt that we will have wifi in our camp, but it is supposed to be the best of all, with private bath facilities. We will see...

Go to Khovsgol Lake --7/30

Our next camp is on Lake Khovsgol, so we are flying to the nearest large town, Moron (sounds better in Mongolian) and separating the group into 4s and taking 4 off-road capable minivans to the lake camp. Roads in this north central area of Mongolia are either brand new and pretty good or non-existent in varying degrees. We stopped in a market for snacks and found some really good 3.5 oz chocolate bars for about 75 cents. I am hoping we can stop there again on the way back to UB.
The route to Lake Khovsgol: yaks, hills, trees, and gravel for a future road.
The 4 hour drive was punctuated with nice new asphalt and rutted gravel or dirt roads. If the driver thought the existing tracks were bad, he would create a new one. The best part of the drive was the scenery: verdant rolling hills with more and more trees as we drove north. We also stopped every hour or so for potty breaks, tho none of the facilities met my 3-star minimum criteria. The last part of the drive was the worst! The tracks were muddy and deeply rutted and we drove about 5 miles per hour to keep from shaking the car and passengers apart.
Today's view from our ger -- not too shabby
When we arrived, we found it was worth it. Each camp has been nicer than the last and Ashihai is no exception. The gers are all perched on timber platforms and face the lake. We got a queen sized bed again, but this one has a 4 inch foam mattress, a HUGE improvement over the 1 inch padding on the last big bed. The bath and shower facilities are nicer too and this time we are close to them instead of far away. We settled in and took a walk around the lake, the largest source of fresh water in Mongolia and the 14th largest in the world. It looks beautifully clear from the rocky shore, and Jim found a bunch of rocks for me, most of which I tossed back in the interest of not blowing thru our airline weight allowance.
Rock scavenger heaven -- too bad Mom missed this. I remember the piles of rocks she collected on trips when I was a kid.

Evening brought a rainstorm after dinner. The staff  covered the top vent to prevent leaking, which makes the ger very dark and claustrophobic, so we left the door open for light. This had the unfortunate effect of making the entry pretty wet. Oh well!

Explore the Lake -- 8/1

Jim on a horse. Guess who is happier?
We started the day with an hour horseback ride up a hill overlooking the lake. One of the horses had an unusual speckled coat, and I was eager to ride him. He was a good match for me and I felt pretty comfortable in the saddle, despite not having ridden for 20+ years. The only problem was the saddle, which was kind of rudimentary. Ropes held the stirrups to the saddle, so trying to get both sides even took some doing. Plus the stirrups were attached further back than I am used to, causing the ropes to rub against my calf and making proper foot position difficult. They gave Jim the biggest horse, who was happy to be at the end of the line. Mine was more interested in being first. All in all, it was lots of fun, and makes me think I could take up riding again.

It was a fine day and I sat in the sun and read for a while, waiting for the second horse ride group to come back. After lunch, we took a 20 minute boat ride to a spot further north on the lake, where we landed and hiked around for a bit, picking up yet more rocks. The 5 lbs of wine I brought with me will apparently be replaced with 5 lbs of small rocks...

Hiking the ridgetop peninsula where the boat took us.
We tried to get to the top of this hill.
So maybe I didn't get to the top, but the view is still pretty great.
Back at the camp, we decided to hike to the top of the hill behind the camp. Billy had told us he had taken his last group there and it took 50 minutes, but the route was too strenuous. He said we could find a path. HA! We walked across a pasture, thru a fence, and finally did find a path of sorts but it kept going further south than we wanted, so we took off cross country, straight up. At the 35 minute mark, we were 95% of the way to the top, in an open meadow with a glorious view, but I had had it. We had picked up an entourage of flies which were only kept at bay by swinging our arms. I found a rock to rest on and Jim went up a bit higher. We came down cross country too, as straight down as we could, and made it back to camp in 25 minutes... just over an hour round trip, when we had budgeted about 2 hours so I could be back in time for my massage.

The massage was great and I got done in time for dinner. After dinner, we were supposed to have a campfire by the lake, but it rained, so it was moved to the fireplace in the restaurant.  The Mongolian staff sang a song for us, then we discovered it was kind of a competition,  and we had to trade songs with them. Our group was a bit challenged and we sometimes sounded kind of sick, but it was a wonderful evening of cultural exchange. I found it interesting that most of the Mongolian songs were in a minor key, which gave them a sorrowful sound. Tomorrow we are up early for our trip back to UB.

Meet the People -7/31

Today we visited a yak herder's family, and a reindeer herder, had a box lunch at a lakeside spot, and then hiked up into the hills by our camp for a better view.

Making yak milk alcohol in the yak herder's cabin
The family had already milked the yaks (5:30am!) by the time we arrived, so the beasts were long gone. The family situation seemed a bit odd compared to our other family visits. The mother was nowhere around, the dad made himself scarce most of the time, and most of the conversation came from the 11 year old twin daughters. The two other young women prepared food for us but didn't talk much. We eventually learned that the mom was in UB with an older daughter in the hospital because of a bad motorcycle accident and that the mom's two college-age sisters had come to help out. The twins were charming and answered most of our questions about their lives. They live in a single room log cabin instead of a ger and have about 30 yaks, a smallish herd. However, they had a large fenced in area with two small rentable cabins and a ger for the son as well as a house in the nearby town where the girls went to school. They served us yak milk tea (the aroma reminded me of cream of wheat), clotted yak cream and dried yak yogurt... not exactly my favorites... and demonstrated how to make yak milk alcohol and dried yak yogurt with the leftovers of that project.

Temporary reindeer encampment
Next, we drove a ways to the reindeer encampment, which loomed like a major commercial attraction. There must have been 15 minivans parked there, and tons of people clamoring for photos. It really looked depressing. Young reindeer were hobbled with a rope tied to the hind leg and muzzle. This allowed them to walk and graze,  but not to lift their heads. When we had a chance to talk to the herder, it changed our view somewhat.

There are only about 250 Tsaatan  (reindeer people) left north of the lake... 10 families... and another 250 elsewhere in Mongolia. The herd size is down to 10 beasts, and the herder and his 11 year old son come here for 6 weeks each summer to make money for his family. Their homeland is quite inaccessible in the northern taiga, and the higher altitude and latitude are much better for the reindeer which do not do well in temperatures as warm as those here ( high 60's). They are aware of and concerned about inbreeding. Their children go to school in boarding schools and they want them to get an education and have a better life. At this rate, their way of life will die out in a generation or two. They live in orts, which are identical to Native American teepees, historically covered in reindeer hides, but now using canvas. These are not as warm as gers and require a lot more wood to stay warm in the winter. The people live widely separated in the winter...maybe 50-100km apart, presumably to allow enough forage for the herds but gather in small villages in the summer.

Our lunch companions along the lake
While I can certainly understand the country' s mandatory education requirements and applaud the state providing boarding schools free to the children of nomads, it seems that the dissolution of nomadic life is a natural outcome as the children become accustomed to village life and are distanced from the daily activities of nomadic life.
We continued on to another section of the lake for a box lunch among a couple small yak herds, then drove back to camp.

Lake Khovsgal from our hiking vantage point.
Later in the afternoon,  we took a hike in the hills for a wonderful view of this large lake.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Drive Back to UB -- 7/29

Road closed for repairs, no temporary road provided -- DIY
Today reminded us that our travel company's middle name is 'Adventure', tho this was not quite the adventure we signed up for. We had a long drive planned to get back to the capitol and prep for our next camp. On the way, we were scheduled to visit a national park and look for horses. We set out early and encountered two roadblocks right away....a pile of dirt spread across the road and the opportunity to create your own path around it....remember, we are on full-sized bus. The first one was no problem, but the drop off on the second was kind of steep, so we all got off the bus and walked around the blockade while the bus leaned precariously down the embankment and made it back to the road safely.

So here are the guys pushing, like it could help move a 9 ton bus...
Several hours later (about 30-45 min late due to bad roads), we turned off the main road to go to Khustai National Park, home to most of the re-introduced Prezwalski's horses in the world. They went extinct in the wild around 1969, and zoo programs brought them back. The 13km dirt road soon became sand and the bus got stuck. Seriously stuck. We all got off again and helped scavenge wood to throw under the stuck left rear wheel. Two buses came by..the first blew by, but the second smaller one stopped and called his bigger partner back. Soon there were 3 bus loads of people watching, and taking goofy pictures of someone pulling on the tow rope that appeared.

Three times the big bus tried to pull us out with all the men in back pushing and only succeeded in breaking the rope and digging in deeper. We were invited onto the other buses with Korean youth who had been planting trees in Mongolia for the last week. Jim and I ended up on different buses, so I had quite a long discussion with the young men next to me, who wanted to practice their English. One of them gave me a Korean name (sounded sort of like groom) that means cloud and said we should be facebook friends.
Prezwalski's horses on a distant ridge -- 18X lens helped a lot.
At the park, we had lunch and went on our tour. We apparently saw two horses on top of a hill 5 miles away and Jim said he saw a red deer a couple miles in the other direction. (The horses DID show up in my photo, but I couldn't see them.) We did see 3 marmots, but they were all too fast to photo.

At 4 we were done, and Billy commandeered a minivan to take him back to the bus. By 6, we were getting worried...we were still 2-3 hours from the hotel, and if the bus didn't get unstuck, we would need a replacement to come from UB....on a Sunday evening. Just as the worry factor was getting bad, Billy reappeared to say the bus was unstuck and we were finally on our way again.

He and the minivan driver had had quite an adventure looking for farm tractors willing to help and truly driving cross country. The farmer who pulled out the bus wanted about $95 to help, but the minivan driver didn't ask for anything. We are glad to be back in a bed of more American softness, and repacked everything for our flight to Khovsgol Lake tomorrow to meet their more severe weight limitations.

At Monkh Tenger --7/28

The hills we hiked up with our camp in the foreground.
Ovoo at the top and a clue to what we walked down
Today, there was an optional museum trip that Jim and I skipped in favor of hiking up the nearby hills. Our first idea was to try to get to the wooded area on our left, but unfortunately, a river blocked our path and the only visible bridge was to the right. So instead, we crossed the bridge and hiked to a ridge line with 3 high points and 2 informal monuments. It was pretty steep in spots, but grassy, easy terrain.  The way down was more challenging.... rockier, steeper, and less clear which way would work. A couple times we headed off in directions that I thought were dead ends, but Jim always found a way to continue. Round trip, it was about 2 hours and I got in  the 10,000 steps I try to walk each day very early.
I spent  the rest of the day relaxing for me, and Jim caught up with email on the camp's computer. 

At 6  pm we had an archery contest, men vs women. Everyone got two shots in each of 2 rounds. There were people on both teams who had  never picked up a bow before. The women had a slight advantage with a closer target, but a weaker bow. Women won 4 to nothing.....I hit the target once, but the woman who did best was a total newbie. If close had counted for the men, Jim would have scored. Too bad I didn't bring the camera to the contest!

To keep the bugs out of our ger at night, they covered up the central hole. Since gers have no windows, this makes it REALLY dark inside. It was a good thing we brought our headlamps. The overhead light in our ger was broken and the table lamp plug wanted to fall out a lot. We DID enjoy the double bed, tho it would have been better if there were more of a mattress on the solid wood platform.

Travel to Monkh Tenger Camp -7/27

At breakfast, we discovered that some of our compatriots had had a trying night-- at least 3 gers got so full of small beetles that the occupants abandoned them. Two folks slept in the bus and the guide ended up locking himself in and honked the horn to get someone's attention. Amazingly, since our ger was closest to the bus, Jim (Mr. wonderful hearing guy) heard nothing. We saw a couple bugs, but nothing scary.

Ovoo where we suggested to the gods that we had seen enough bugs.
The road west was a challenge to drive... heavily rutted, so the driver was swerving to avoid the worst ones and sometimes stopping suddenly. I was glad to be back far enough in the bus not to see the details. We stopped along the road at one place with a big pile of stones and a lot of prayer flags. We each added 3 stones to the pile and walked around it 3 times to be granted 3 wishes... a primary wish was for no more bugs.

Turtle Rock
Our first official stop was Erdene-Zuu Monastery, the first monastery in Mongolia, founded in 1586, which is now  a world heritage site. Altho much of it was destroyed by the Russians during the 1937 purge, many of the artifacts were hidden and someone convinced the military to save 3 of the 100 temples to preserve the heritage. We visited those three temples, dedicated to 3 stages of Buddha's life. I am starting to find temples relatively dull, so I was happy enough to be done. Then we walked to Turtle Rock, which marked one edge of the old capitol (from the 1200's ). I found a couple pair of silver earrings at one of the vendors set up there. Like I need more!! (I am now up to 150 pair...)

At our new ger camp, we scored a tent with a double bed (twins are standard) AND a sofa. Our next stop was the local market, kind of depressing. Most of the shops are semi trailers or shipping containers. We were challenged to find and buy 2 items for 500 T (37 cents) which Billy named for us but didn't spell, so our interpretations were all over. Everyone was teamed up and got matches and something else...we had cigarettes, others had toothpicks, and a onion. We all missed it...ice cream. Our pronunciation was so wretched that the locals were mystified. In honor of losing, Jim and I got an ice cream bar.

A double bed ger!
Our last official stop for the day was a monument to the various Mongolian empires. Since this was at the top of a hill with our camp in sight, we decided to walk back. Had there not been a 10-foot wide canal we had to detour to a bridge to cross, we would have beaten the bus.
After dinner, a local musical group gave us a performance.  There were 4 musicians, a singer, and a contortionist. They played a number of Mongolian tunes. The first song that featured the vocalist was a little too much of the Chinese style for my taste (loud, high, screechy), but the second showed that she had a very lovely voice. Two of the men were throat singers, who played horse fiddles, one of which was a bass version. There was also a Chinese - style harp. The best part of the show was the contortionist, a 15 yr old who always wore a lovely smile as she twisted herself like a pretzel.

Hoyer Zagal Camp- 7/26

Jim on the hill we hiked up
Breakfast was late today (8am ) and we had until 10 before our first official adventure, so we hiked toward the hill behind the camp. I wish we had started earlier and gotten to the top, but we did get to the rock outcroppings and had a great view of the valley below. The bus took us off to a nomad camp about 4 miles away. The parents, two sons, and several grandchildren share 5 gers. We met some of the family, tried the local brew (fermented horse milk-- very thin and slightly beer-y), some dried yogurt slabs, and fried bread snacks. The bread was pretty good. Then the grandma brought in a large slab of dried yogurt and showed us how to cut it with a string to make smaller portions like the ones we were served...then it was our turn and after everyone had tried the technique with a string, we still had to finish the job.

The brown goat in the middle is faking -- she is not tied in the line.
Next was goat milking. Their methodology was a bit different from what we saw yesterday and several of the goats tried to dodge the lineup by slipping between their tied-up buddies, but the nomads were wise and went looking for them. A couple baby goats also dove into the mob in search of lunch and they were rooted out too. Towards the end of the tying process( maybe 30+ minutes for 140 goats), Jim and I spied a couple dodgers and dragged them by the horns into position. They were not happy!  They planted all four feet and resisted the whole way. Goat milking took over an hour and I was starting to melt as it got hotter. We watched mare milking... the mare's foal is brought over and starts to suckle,then is replaced by the milker. Horses give a LOT of milk and are milked 6  times a day.

Restored monastery building
When the milking was done, we got an ox cart ride and then helped make lunch...mutton dumplings. We were about as competent at that as yogurt cutting. Lunch was a wonderful vegetable broth followed by vegetable and mutton dumplings. Back at the camp we got a short break before going to a Buddhist temple destroyed by the Russians in 1934 (when they also killed 18,000+ monks) that has since been rebuilt. Imagine driving cross country in a full-sized bus. That's what we did. Most of the road are dirt tracks, and after yesterday's rain, were heavily rutted. At one point two rutted tracks vee-ed together and the bus backed up the hill off the tracks till he could cross and make his own trail. Definitely an E- ticket ride! The temple was small and we could see the ruins of the old one.
The trip back was faster because now the driver knew how to avoid the worst ruts. After dinner, we were treated to a performance by the camp manager who plays the two-stringed horse fiddle and does throat singing, a try unique experience. We ended the day by taking done and then re-constructing a   ger...definitely a 2-3 person job, but amazingly quick. Tomorrow we head to another camp further west.

Horse fiddle performance -- 30 second video too long for here.
After dinner, the camp manager gave us each a small glass of wine and on odd kind of dessert...sort of a vegetable samosa or pop-tart. He also wore a beautiful costume and performed with his horse fiddle doing a vocalization called throat singing. This is very hard to describe, but quite haunting. Since the horse fiddle is two-stringed like the Chinese erhu, I had expected a similar sound, but the box is bigger and the tones much lower. He had a CD! So we bought it and got it autographed. I also shot a short movie, which maybe we can post from home.

Explore UB, Drive to Ger Camp - 7/24 & 25

Tuesday, we visited a history museum and an art museum.  I think my favorite parts were seeing the arc of Chinggis (Genghis ) Khaan' s life and his sons after reading a couple novels about his early days along with the petroglyphs and the applique art. We also visited a large square dedicated to Sukhbaatar, the hero of the independence from Russia and China in 1921. Unfortunately for the Mongolians, the Russians had other ideas and they became a satellite state until 1990.
Jim in front of Parliament, with statues of Genghis Khan and two lieutenants.
We were dropped off at a large state department store (our primary toiletries went missing in a room mixup with the hotel-- just try to find a good spf 15+ moisturizer when everything is printed in Cyrillic and Chinese and no one speaks reasonable English and we are at the 'thank you' level of Mongolian!). We found critical things, then wandered. They had good prices on some cashmere and leather, but sizes ran small. They also had a large souvenir shop but nothing we wanted for sure.
The view from Zaisan Hill -- high rent condos mix with low rent gers.
Wednesday, we hopped on the bus to visit Zaisan hill, a war memorial with a great view, then set off due west for our first camp. The road started pretty smooth and four lanes because it was the way to a  big national festival we had just missed. After the festival turn-off, it dropped to 2 lanes and lots of ruts, so we swerved a bit to dodge the big ones.

Our first ger experience
Along the way, we got out to stretch our legs at a river where hundreds of horses were roaming. Later, we had a pit stop where there were 5-6 foot high dirt berms on each side of the road...ladies utilized one side, boys the other. I wasn't desperate enough to try.
At the camp, we were assigned a ger in the front row (=good view--- selected because of the number of trips we have made with this company  ). We no sooner got in and got our bags than it started to rain. Lightly at first, but pretty quickly it got serious. Most of the gers turned out to leak, and ours was no exception. Our guide stopped by as it started to let up to see if we were ok and the mop brigade followed along. Luckily, the beds were against the walls, which were the driest spots. It stopped in time for dinner, so we stayed pretty dry.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Into Mongolia

Today was mostly travel. We met the additional 7 people in our group who did not go to China and our Mongolian guide....a 19 yr old university student who spent 5 years in England as a teen with his family, so he speaks English very well, if very Englishly.
Billy -- short for Bilguun-Ochir -- our teenage tour leader
Flying in, I was struck by the beauty of the green, rolling hills and the sparsity of the population. There are about 3 million people here and about a third live in the capitol of Ulaanbaatar (revised, preferred spelling) which is commonly called UB. There are gers here, mostly on the outskirts of the city, and many had what looked like (from the air) stone walls surrounding them, so they have apparently given up nomadic ways. Our guide Billy (vs Billguun-Ochir) says the nomadic ways are dying. The primary wealth here is minerals and mining is big industry, but it remains to be seen if that will find its way to the masses. Probably not. With the example of China and the Soviets before them, political corruption is rampant.
We walked around the hotel and visited a grocery store....since almost all the text is in cyrillic, its as bad as being in China from the standpoint of being able to understand what we read.
We've had two meals so far...and as predicted, both were heavy on meat, potatoes, and ice cream and light on fruits and veggies. Tasty, tho. We also are finally able to access picasa and blogspot,so before we leave tomorrow am, I hope to upload some photos. We will only have internet connections here in UB, but electricity is provided at the ger camps, so at least I can keep the electronics running.

Travel Day -7/22

It is really easy to lose track of what day of the week it is. We can hardly believe it is already Sunday...having our tablet and smartphone still on San Francisco time doesn't help!
Today we got up to leave the hotel by 5:45 am to fly to Kunming and on to Beijing. Tomorrow, we leave the Beijing hotel at 5:30 am to catch the plane to Mongolia for the main part of the adventure. Sometimes travel is not all glamour! The best part (sort of ) is that we got lots of exercise despite sitting on planes for 4-5 hrs... the Kunming Airport (brand new...opened in late June ) and Beijing Airport are both so huge and our gates so far from the center that we literally walked at least 4 miles today, hauling our carry-on bags too.
I am hoping that when we leave China, I will be able to sign on to picasa and upload photos and maybe even insert some into the blog. Once we get to Mongolia, we will only have internet access in the capitol and will be totally offline for 3-4 days at a time while we explore the countryside.

Lijiang - Naxi and Old Town, 7/21

Here's a photo instead. Apparently the video is too long...
We finally got a nice day with no rain...a good thing since Jim left his rain jacket in Dali and it didn't arrive here until 6 pm. The first event on the agenda was a presentation by a local Naxi shaman. The Naxi are one of the few Chinese minorities with their own writing system, using pictographs like the Egyptians did. Their written language is the last living pictographic system. He also demonstrated a dance done at the start of each ritual to ask the gods' attention. I videoed about 30 seconds and will try to post when I can get thru. China is apparently blocking online access to picasa and blogspot.

Next, we  walked thru the Old Town Market...another interesting place, tho a lot like other local markets.  New were fresh potato chips and mangosteen, a wonderful fruit we last saw in Thailand. From there we went to a museum of Naxi culture with a very good guide. Amazingly, they allowed photos. A lot of artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but many were saved because they had been shipped out of the country before then.

Next door to the museum was the Black Dragon Pool, named for the many springs that feed it, the result of dragon activity below. Unfortunately, there has been a drought for 3 years and the pool was maybe 3-4 feet lower than normal, but still pretty. There are a number of pagodas on the grounds and good spots for photos of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.  The clouds cleared away at the end so we could get a glimpse of it.
Pagoda at Black Dragon Pool

Then it was back to Old Town for jade and tea shopping. I has hoped to find a slender jade bangle, but soon realized that my bone structure prevented any bracelet from sliding over my hand.  The clerks were more than happy to slick up my hand with lotion to force one on  and didn't really get why I might want to take it off. I got a dog (my zodiac ) pendant instead. Then we went tea tasting. I do this a lot for my Chinatown tours and was interested in seeing what they had to say. This province is home to pu-er teas, which are aged and usually compressed and can be drinkable for years...kind of like fine wines vs grape juice. They had a green form I had not seen before that was quite good. On our way to the tea shop, we walked past a temple that had been rebuilt, but only at 1/3 its original size to make more room for tourist facilities, I suppose. Still impressive in the smaller version.
Rebuilt Temple
 We finished our day preparing to depart for Mongolia by way of China, feeling that this short sidetrip in China was a good addition to our knowledge of Chinese culture and the natural beauty of the countryside. Our first China trip was more museum focused and this one got us closer to nature and some of the minority cultures that help make the country so interesting.

Lijiang - Baisha and Dr. Rock, 7/20

We spent about 4 hours driving mountain roads to get to Lijiang, a famous (mostly internal ) vacation spot, considered very romantic and justifiably so. The drive was a bit more exciting than anticipated with dense fog for over half an hour. We were in the front seats to help minimize my carsickness and got a much more detailed view of Chinese driving than we would have liked. I would think with all the passing we did on hills and blind curves and into oncoming traffic that there would be LOTS more accidents than there apparently are.

Before we got to our hotel, we drove to Baisha to see some several hundred -year- old frescoes that are famous despite being in iffy condition due to age and the Cultural Revolution.Then we drove up the mountain to the former home of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist who came here in the mid-1920's to find plants and got intrigued by the Naxi minority culture and writing system and became key to translating and documenting it. The botanical specimens, research, and artifacts that he shipped abroad before fleeing the communists in 1949 were all key to these things not being totally lost in the wars and Cultural Revolution. His rented home was in the style typical of the region, except this village is built of rock instead of adobe brick. It gives it a much more substantial look.
Courtyard of Joseph Rock's home

Back in Lijiang, we had to walk to our hotel in the old city because it is vehicle-free except for a limited number of service vehicles. Although it was badly damaged during an big earthquake in 1996, it was rebuilt in the old style,  on (mostly) the original street plan, apparently using many of the original materials since several wooden doors and decorative elements looked naturally aged. The place is totally a maze and the available street map was more decorative than useful. We learned one route into the main square and ventured out carefully from there. Fiona insisted we carry a business card from the hotel and her phone number so that people could help us find our way or call her if we were REALLY lost. The streets are all paved in rough stone and the look is truly charming. At the same time, it is treacherous!  There are canals in lots of places and open rock-lined pits alongside walkways and sometimes in the middle of them. We learned quickly to watch where we were walking instead of the cute shops. Luckily, when Jim stepped into one, he only shredded the zipoff portion of a pair of pants and scraped his leg, and did not break any bones, as I feared when I saw him fall.
The dark slits on either side of the middle pedestrians are the kind of hole Jim stepped into.
We were left to our own devices for a couple meals and found a local yak meat and noodle shop that served dishes that were seriously spicy. Actually, all of our meals here have had spicy dishes where there was really a bite, unlike our trip in 2005 when every spicy thing was toned down.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kunming - 7/16

Today we drove to the Stone Forest, a large karst formation of rock pillars. Our guide (Fiona-- Bing Fen in Chinese) led us to an area far  from the crowds as found in other locations. We wandered up and down among the rocks and along a natural pool and it was all pretty spectacular. One of the Chinese minority groups, the Yi, are from this area and were found throughout the park, leading tours, selling handicrafts and performing in traditional dress. As we neared the end of our walk, we came upon a group of grandmothers (you can tell by the headdress) having lunch.  Fiona struck up a conversation and the next thing we knew, they were sharing their repast with us.
Lynn at the Stone Forest
The forecast had been for rain all week, and we were pleased that it was wrong...we got back to the bus just in time to stay dry for the ride back. Traffic in the city was awful because of aggressive subway construction, so it was dry again by the time we got to the markets.

Many of the old style buildings are being replaced (a blessing of sorts in the case of Mao-era apartments), but some were pretty nifty, tho in need of work. One dilapidated but interesting looking building housed an herbal pharmacy. It looked older than the ones in Chinatown, but otherwise was very much the same. 

The building on the right houses a pharmacy.
The market area looked like others we have seen, except it had a pet area...  puppies, bunnies, mice, hamsters, many birds.... all seemed familiar til we got to the dark brown squirrels,  chipmunks, eensy crabs, and snakes. We verified these were pets, not lunch, but were mystified by the big beetles. Fiona said they were put into bottles of alcohol to make a snake bite antidote.

Then we were off to walk around Green Lake, a beautiful park with lots of lotus, some of which were blooming.  We also encountered local music groups. After a leisurely amble, we went to dinner and a cultural performance featuring 8 of the 25 minorities in this province. The music was more tonal than most Chinese music, but repetitious.  The dances and drumming were very well done, but the highlight was a dancer of  exceptional grace who ended the show with a peacock dance. There was also a young girl, maybe 4-5 years old who totally stole the show when she was on.
The peacock dancer