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.