Feb 19, 2007 — Beginnings
The road from Moron to Lake Hovsgol is more the suggestion of a pathway for vehicles than a highway. Deeply frozen ruts, mostly, interspersed with rocky patches. The two-and-a-half hour trip becomes smoother once we reach the lake, as the lake turns into the highway. It begins to freeze in late September, is solid by about December, and remains that way until June. The ice is now about three feet deep. The temperature upon our arrival was 1F, but they don’t calculate wind chill factors here.
The sky at night over the lake is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before — there are more stars than there is sky to hold them.
Despite the hardship, this is an incredibly beautiful land. In the winter, it’s stark and dramatic, with bare trees etched against the skyline. The lake is rimmed by some low mountains. Mongolia doesn’t get much precipitation — about two months’ worth altogether. There’s been a little bit of snow in the past few weeks. The wind, which is ever present here, blows the snow from the sides of the hills, leaving parts bare and brown. The sky is a spectacular shade of blue; it’s said that Chinggis Khan worshipped no god, but the blue skies of Mongolia.
Feb 20, 2007 — Crack the Whip
The first day of the Ice Festival begins unofficially with horse racing. It’s scheduled to begin at 11AM, and we all pile into vans to get to the starting point. There are approximately ten people staying in the ger camp: five from the US Embassy in UB, an Australian couple working for an NGO in UB, an elderly woman from the UK who’s come with her own food supplies, and two German men with an incredible amount of camera gear.
The race will be 10 km with “jockeys” who are 5-year-olds. Tomorrow, the 6-y/os will race. It begins when all who want to race today have registered. This seems to be a lengthy process as there are many horses and families milling about. The children are all excited, and expend their energy by racing about and wrestling.
The race begins about 1PM, and it ends quickly. Despite the large number of horses present, there are only fifteen entrants. Why it took so long to get everyone registered, and why there are so many other horses and riders around remains a Mongolian mystery. We all agree that we’re glad we’ve layered ourselves up –it’s about -10F this morning and there’s a brisk wind.
We go back to the camp for lunch and afterwards set off for the official opening of the Ice Festival. The stage is carved from blocks of ice taken from the lake, and there are flags and banners flying in the fairly brisk wind. There’s a long series of ceremonies, including the reading of names of all the “honored foreign guests” at the Ice Festival. Each guest is given a gift from the province — a Lake Hovsgol shopping bag with a bottle of vodka, one of grape juice, some Mongolian tea, and a packet of dried curds.
After dinner, it’s party time. There’s to be fireworks — at 10PM. Real time, not Mongolian time, we’ve been assured.
One of the events scheduled for tomorrow is a horse-drawn sledge race. However the horses, sledges and drivers are all wheeling around the stage, dodging children and adults slipping and sliding on the ice. The lake’s surface is lightly rutted in spots, but the festival workers keep spraying it with water, making the surface slick and treacherous. There are as many Mongolians sprawled on the ice as there are those trying to walk on it. Since it’s still officially part of the Lunar New Year holiday, the adults are dressed in holiday finery — beautiful brocade dels in jewel-like colors (lined with lamb’s wool or padded) and wearing mink, sable or fox hats. Many of the men are wearing the traditional upturned toe boots with embroidery on them. The women wear flat boots, but some of the younger, more fashionable ones are wearing high-heeled boots. On the ice. They mince along, holding onto each other, and occasionally skid sideways.The horses have spikes driven into their hooves to give them traction. Their manes are braided with colorful yarn, and there are bells that jingle on the sledges. The horses are skittish, responding to all the activity around them. Some of us hitch a ride on one of the sledges — essentially just a wooden flatbed, with a place for the driver to sit. We set off at a reasonably decorous pace, but then something spooks the horse, and he bolts. Off we go, careening down the center of the lake at breakneck speed. The driver manages to check the speed a bit, but the next thing we know we’re caught in a game of crack the whip, with our driver competing against two others to see who can make the sharpest turns without overturning the sledge.
I think my hair’s a bit grayer than it was before I set out on this trip! Still, I didn’t all off the back of the sledge, and I consider this a major accomplishment along with managing to stay upright on the ice throughout the entire festival. I’ve spent a great deal of my time clinging to my very patient guide and watching my feet. The patterns in the ice are incredible, prompting me to take a full series of shots -— the cracks and punch marks remind me of abstract paintings. In some spots, the ice is clear enough that I can see the rocks below.
February 22, 2007 — The Shaman of the Bonfire
Last night, there was a party to end all parties on the lakeside, just below our ger camp, on the lake.
The staff at the ger camp, along with some of the festival organizers, built a display out of ice: replicas of an old sailing ship, a Buddhist temple, and a ger, complete with a bed and an ‘Ice Bar.’ It’s magical at night, lit from within. The leftover blocks of ice lay around on the grounds of the camp like some sort of frozen Mongolian Stonehenge. They, and the other ice sculptures, will remain in place until they melt into the lake, probably by about June.
People from all around came last night to walk/slide through the displays — including the governor of the province and his wife, decked out in ceremonial dels.
A huge bonfire was lit, and people bobbed up and down in time with the music that blasted over a loudspeaker powered by a truck generator. Several local singers performed, and then a shaman who came to bless the festival and its participants. The wind blew sparks from the bonfire over everyone in a spectacular shower that rivaled the fireworks themselves. The shaman danced around the fire, striking his drum with the thighbone of a sheep — or maybe a yak shank. I wasn’t sure. I was more concerned with he shaman’s costume, which had many fringes that came perilously close to the fire. The shaman wore a mask with fringes that came down over his eyes, partially obscuring his face. He whirled and chanted, and eventually fell to the ground in a complete trance.
Then, we danced and partied.
Someone in the group produced a bottle of vodka (what else?) from one pocket and glasses from another. It was so cold the vodka became syrupy, but it was welcoming. The next thing I knew, a Mongolian man of indeterminate age wearing a fairly grimy del approached me and invited me to dance. To my surprise, he turned out to be a very good dancer. We danced at the edge of the fire, waltzing and dipping as if we’ve danced together for years. When the music ended, he thanked me gravely and disappeared into the night.
Finally, the fireworks were over, the teepee shaped bonfire had burned down to embers, and everyone drifted off. The vodka glasses were collected, and we headed for our warm gers. The toilet building stoves emitted huge clouds of smoke, forcing us to make short work of face washing and teeth brushing. It had been another glorious day in frozen Mongolia.
Feb 22, 2007 [continued] — Three Camel Lodge
The vast expanse of sand/dirt/rock that is the Gobi never ceases to amaze and surprise me. There are mountains in the distance, and here and there you can see patches of snow, reddened by Gobi sand. The wind is almost constant. It’s warmer here, at least by contrast. During the day temperatures are in the mid thirties, and can get much colder at night. It’s almost balmy, compared to Hovsgol.
The Three Camel Lodge is really the only place to stay, not just to see the Camel Festival, but to hike in the Yol Valley, see the Flaming Cliffs, etc. Wonder of wonders, I have a small appendage to my ger – a baby ger if you will. It contains a second stove, a sink, and a flush toilet! I think I’ve just gone to Gobi heaven. For a shower, I must walk the equivalent of a city block. Still . . . it’s got hot water and is warm.
As it turns out, all of my former guides are here, and I’m greeted like an old friend with outstretched arms in traditional lunar New Year greetings.
Feb 23, 2007 — Camel Racing
I’m of several minds about the Camel Festival. On one hand, I think it’s a good thing because it draws attention to the dwindling population of Bactrian camels. On the other, it runs the risk of having tourists outnumber the camels.
There are two days of activities. It takes a while for the participating camels to gather, so first there’s a parade of paired camels, with prizes for the best “couple.” I couldn’t figure out if it’s for the couple astride the camels or the pair of camels they ride.
The camel race is to start approximately 15 km from the center of Bulgan. This means that now that the camels have assembled, they must all walk/parade to the starting point. It’s absolutely hilarious to watch tourists climb all over each other to get photos of the camels starting off for the starting point. Truth be told, it’s almost more fun to watch the tourists. They all scramble into vans and take off in a cloud of dust to find a vantage point to see the camels coming. This is repeated several times before the camels even reach the starting line.
Once the camels get near the starting line, they whirl around, and take off without warning. The race has begun. The tourist race now also begins. So off we go, spewing Gobi dust everywhere. Then we stop, and wait for the camels. Some camels decide they’re bored with the whole process and veer off to chew on a dry hummock of grass. Others just sort of stop, despite desperate whipping by their jockey. This goes on for what seems like an eternity, but finally a camel reaches the finish line and is greeted by throngs of tourists.
It’s been a relatively mild day with a piercing wind. The Gobi grit gets into your hair and teeth.
In the late afternoon, there is a ‘concert’ at the local town hall where the local students perform. One reads a poem in Mongolian. Another sings a Mongolian rap song. There are young dance students prancing around wearing camel costumes; another singer, about 6 years old. A tiny tot of about three comes out and sings a song about her slippers. She brings down the house.
It’s over and we all file out, heading back for a well-deserved meal (with wine!). There’s a fire in my ger stove, and the air is lovely and warm. The bed has been turned down. We all sleep like rocks.
Feb 24, 2007 — Gobi Grit
Today’s activities are to include a baby camel race and a camel relay race, concluding with the closing ceremonies.
To my surprise, the baby camel race is much more fun than the adult one yesterday. Two-year-old camels with younger riders (although some of the riders from yesterday are riding again today, including one really spunky little girl of about ten) participate in this race. The “course” is shorter — not that it’s marked out in any way. I watch the tourist vans repeat yesterday’s performance. It’s quite comical.
What comes as a pleasant surprise is that this really does become a race. There are three camels, so perfectly aligned that sometimes it’s difficult to determine that they’re not one. This goes on for about half the course, until one camel decides that he’s done for the day, and turns around to go back the way he came. The other two keep at it, and then one slips back. It goes on like this, with them alternating the remainder of the race. At the end it’s almost a photo finish, except – to complicate things – the herder/owner of one of the camels leaped out to grab his camel before it officially reached the finish line.
Bactrian camels are stubbier than Indian camels — with shorter legs. Their hooves are enormous, with two “toes” each. The legs have “booties” of thick fur up to their knees, adding to their stubby look. Under their chins is a thick growth of fur/hair, which makes them look like they’ve got goiters. They’re sheared in the summer, providing wool for hats, socks, blankets, sweaters, and more. All of them have pegs through their noses.
After lunch, there’s what can only be called a camel rodeo. And it’s as rough-and-tumble as any in the Western world. Five camels are roped and thrown to the ground (no small feat, as a camel is NOT a small animal — it has feet that could stamp out a small child). Once the camels are down and all feet are secured, the hair under their chins is sheared. All the while, the camels are screaming (and they do make the most hideous noise). There are at least six Mongolians sitting on each camel to hold it down while this goes on. The owner of the camel must then braid the hair into a rope, and this is part of what he’s judged on. Once the camel is allowed up, the fun really begins. Several Mongolians were thrown by irate camels. And several camels went careering off into the throngs around them. It didn’t seem to make any difference where you stood through this as there are no barriers between the spectators and the camels. Not exactly my idea of a good time. Nor, I think, the camels’.
That night when we got back to the ger camp, there was an incredibly strong wind blowing, kicking up an inordinate amount of dust. Welcome to Gobi weather, I thought. I can now add a small to moderate Gobi dust storm to my list of experiences. I think I could’ve done without this one — it took three washings of my face to get it clean. Quite literally, the washcloth was muddy each time, as was the water in the basin. My ears are full of it, and my hair is now this odd shade of red/yellow/white. No point in considering a shower — by the time I walk back to my ger from the showers, I’ll be just as sandy as I was before I showered. Each time I swallow, I can feel the grit in my teeth and on my tongue. It’s like having sandpaper jackets glued to my teeth.
I doubt that I’ve gotten many good shots this time around. But I’m having a wonderful time, and remain fascinated by Mongolia.
Tomorrow we’re off to Yol Valley, where there’s ice even in the middle of the summer. I’m looking forward to the quiet majesty of the gorge.
Feb 25, 2007 — Silence
It’s a two-hour drive to Yol Valley, and it’s bumpy and dusty. There aren’t many mountains in this part of the Gobi, but there are what the Mongolians call the Three Beauties. The gorge is spectacular. The wind’s died down a bit, but not that much. It’s another sunny day. Mongolia averages less than 100 days of precipitation a year — it makes for a really hard life, trying to find grazing lands and water for the herds.
I visited Yol Valley in 2004 during the summer, and it was beautiful. It’s equally beautiful in the winter, with patches of snow and a frozen creek running through the center of the valley. Better yet: there’s no one else here! We hiked for about two hours, with the guide holding me up now and then when the ice got too slick. It’s much easier walking on the ice here, in contrast with Hovsgol. But it’s also deceptive, because there are patches that appear to be solid and turn out to be slush — only lightly frozen. In other places, it’s solid ice down to about 3 feet. We slip & slide, walking on the turf wherever we can, and revel in the silence. Once in a while, we see a swallow or a pica (like a chipmunk), but no other wildlife presents itself.
When we get back to the Jeep we feast on cold dumplings, filled with potatoes and carrots, and cold minced lamb patties on a roll with hot tea from the thermos. Perfect, in every way. Then, another bone-shattering, teeth-loosening drive back. Today – wind or no – I’m having a shower, and washing my hair.
Tomorrow we’re getting up early and heading to the Flaming Cliffs at sunrise. They truly glow in that light, and I doubt that there’ll be anyone else there.
Feb 26, 2007 — Camel Milk and Vodka (for breakfast!)
And snuff. AND cold fried mutton dumplings. AND butter tea!
The objective is to get to the Flaming Cliffs before sunrise, and from there to visit a nomadic family. After infusions of hot sweet tea, we set off.
Sunrise in the Gobi is spectacular — a brilliant red-orange sun slides quickly above the horizon, illuminating everything with an almost iridescent glow. The cliffs have lived up to their name, and I can only imagine how Roy Chapman Andrews, et al must’ve felt the first time they saw them. They’re a bit of an anomaly here, as it’s flat almost all the way around. Then, suddenly, there are these incredible red sand cliffs, sitting in sort of a depression. When the first rays of the sun strike them, their color becomes intensified – almost pulsating.
Our visit to the nomadic family is great (slightly alcoholic) fun. The patriarch is the proud owner of an enormous flock of goats and sheep – probably 400 or so – with a goodly number of lambs from last spring. He also owns at least 200 camels, some of which he keeps just for racing. It was his camel that came in second on the first day of the festival, and his two-year-old camel was first in the baby camel race. He proudly shows off his medals — sixteen in all, accrued since the beginning of the Camel Festival just four years ago.
Since it’s still the New Year, I am given first salty butter tea, and then some snuff. After this, the vodka bottle comes out, and we toast. A plate of cold fried mutton dumplings is passed. I am urged to take some dried curds from the New Year centerpiece, and a glass of camel mare’s milk is passed around. My prayers go up, once again, to the travel gods. After one gulp, I find that camel’s milk is sour. Extremely sour. The vodka makes a good chaser.
We “chat” via Od’s interpreting. The two little girls peering shyly around the stove are his nieces, come with his sister to visit for New Year. They’re three and four years old. Next year, the four year old will ride in the races. This year, she’s industriously combing her hair, washing her face, and brushing her teeth, all the while encouraging her younger sister to do the same. I give the girls pencils and postcards of NYC, thus prompting another round of vodka. This man is very much the patriarch of a large extended family — he has four daughters and two sons, all of whom help with his herds. The daughters are now too old (and too heavy) to ride in the camel races, so instead they race horses. The sons both ride, and help with the herding. The ger is tidy and immaculate. The sister brings in the nine-month-old baby sister of the two little girls now playing peek-a-boo with me. At nine months, this girl is more developmentally advanced than many Upper East Side infants. She sits without assistance, pulls herself up, and walks, barely holding on. Within another week, she’ll be walking without holding on. Already, she has four teeth. She’s a sturdy little girl, unfazed by the strangers around her. Her older sisters clearly adore her, smothering her with kisses and combing her hair. It’s fun to watch. There’s no artificiality to this — it’s more than obvious that this is an everyday routine.
After a last round of butter tea (but, thankfully, no more vodka), we take our leave, thanking the family profusely for their hospitality.
It’s only 8:30 AM.
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