© 2006 jim

Mongolian Outback

I haven’t written in a while, partially due to a series of bad to non-existent internet connections, partially due to my own natural laziness. Having a bit of time on my hands today, I thought I would try to catch up.A lot has happened, enough for at least two posts, perhaps three. So I will start by describing my Great Mongolian Outback Adventure.

My assignment in Mongolia involves, among other things, examining the points of service in which services are offered to the people by the government agency I am working with. These services are offered in Ulaanbaatar as well as out in the smaller towns and villages in the countryside.

Outside of UB, Mongolia is for the most part very primitive. Few paved roads exist, and those are in various states of disrepair. Any trip to the outback will necessitate at some point going off-road and bouncing along the rutted, unmaintained dirt roads, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers.

In my case, I had a Toyota Landcruiser with a driver and three other people crammed in the back, and we set off to the southwest on our way to the provinces.

The Mongolian countryside reminds me somewhat of parts of Utah, or maybe northern Nevada. The land rolls along with mountains in the near distance. Herds of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, or camels appear occasionally, attempting to graze on the last of the autumn grass. Outside the temperature is -25-30 C, so the rivers and ponds are frozen, but there is no snow on the ground, and the people fear the animals will have a tough time of it because they typically eat snow for their own hydration needs. As a large portion of the population depends on herding for their livelihood, this situation portends a disaster for Mongolians if it doesn’t snow very soon.

Mongolian countrysideThe Mongolian countryside

As we pull into the various towns, each one seems more primitive than the last. A few things are common: little or no internet access, very poor phone lines, old Soviet-style buildings that are slowly crumbling.

We had lunch in a roadside place: lamb and noodle stir-fry, and to drink Mongolian tea, which is basically a small bowl of hot milk into which a small amount of brewed green tea has been poured, along with a dash of salt!
We headed to Arvikheer, the capital of Uvurkhangai aimag (i.e., province). It is a biggish town of approximately 10,000 inhabitants. The building we were visiting was brand new, having been built by a foreign grant. They even had DSL!

Outside this one building, however, things are more basic. Arvikheer has a large ger district, and a few smokestack industries, but primarily it is an administrative center in the midst of herding country.

The small hotel we stayed in was pretty basic: low, hard beds with tiny pillows, no shower or tub available, a toilet with no toilet paper. In the little restaurant downstairs, the meal was lamb with noodles. To drink, again, Mongolian tea (they had no other drinks).

We did remedy this situation somewhat by driving out to a small grocery and picking up a dozen or so Tiger Beers. Tiger is a Singaporean beer popular in Asia, and even out in the outback at least you could find Tiger.

The next day, as a concession to the gringo in the group, the hotel restaurant fried me an egg. More meetings, more lamb and noodle stir fry, and we were off to the Khujirt Sanatorium. At this point I could not stomach yet another helping of land-and-noodle stir fry and Mongolian milk tea, so I politely declined dinner and went to bed hungry.
It takes several bumpy hours to get from one place to another in Mongolia, but the scenery is very beautiful, if stark, and if you’re alert you can see quite a bit of wildlife. I saw eagles (including two large ones standing in the road looking at us calmly as we went by), hawks, owls, reindeer, camels, and of course the ubiquitous sheep, goats (the source of all that wonderful Mongolian cashmere), and horses. Occasionally we pass by an outcropping of sand dunes, the last northern fingers of the vast Gobi Desert to the south.

We arrive in Kharkhorin in the late morning of the next day. Kharkhorin is built roughly on the site of Kharkhorum, Genghis Khan’s ancient capital. In the fourteenth century his Grandson Kubilai Khan moved the capital to what eventually became Beijing, and the old capital was completely leveled. In the 18th century, the left over buildings and ruins were taken apart and their materials used to build Erdene Zuu, a walled complex containing dozens of temples. Many of these temples were subsequently destroyed by our friends the Communists during the 20’s and 30’s, but a few magnificent examples still remain.

Erdene Zuu

For such a touristically desirable area, Kharkhorin doesn’t have very good accommodations. The hotel we went to looked good, but the execution left something to be desired. Although their menu actually had something other than lamb and noodle stir-fry, that something was a spaghetti-and-meat-sauce that tasted suspiciously like lamb and noodle stir-fry. Aaargh. In the evening the heat was minimal, so that I had to sleep with three blankets, in my long-johns, to keep from freezing to death. In the morning, the fancy European deluge-style shower turned out to have only very cool, luke warm water that accumulated in the bottom of the shower and proved to have a significant amount of dirt mixed in with it.

Yet another sponge-bath later, then, I went to the breakfast room to find that the person who was going to make breakfast never showed up. So it was off to the supermarket for Russian chocolates and orange drink for breakfast!

Our last stop was Khashaat, the most primitive of the towns we were to visit. Khashaat does have electricity, which already makes it better off than about 150 of the large regional centers that are in the scope of our project. However, this town of several thousand inhabitants is serviced by a single telephone line located at the local Mongolia Telecom office in town.

Waiting to make a phone call

After our meetings we were invited to a ger, where we were served airag. Airag is the Mongolian national drink: fermented horse milk. It is even better than it sounds. However, I appreciated the hospitality of the local Mongolians very much, and pretended to drink and enjoy my airag, though not so much that they would offer me more!

We were also served buuz, which are steamed dumplings filled with meat. They look like Chinese dumplings, but are served in and filled with meat broth, so in this way they are similar to Russian pelmenyi. These were delicious, the best food I had had since leaving Ulaanbaatar. Come to think of it, they were better than most things I had even in UB. We ended up drinking lots of Mongolian vodka (also very good) and drinking several toasts to our project, Mongolia, America, and the leadership of the Communist Party, since one of our hosts was also the Party chairman for the local town.

After that, five more hours on dirt and semi-paved roads, rolling into Ulaanbaatar in the early evening. A new hotel, a hot shower, finally.

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