Our first visit to the Mongolian countryside (Cindy and Alex)

“Are you guys ready for this?” Steve and John asked us before we began our journey to the countryside of Mongolia.  Doogii our tour guide and Chuuka our driver greeted all of us with a big hug before we got into the infamous Russian van.

Our first stop was to visit the mighty Chinggis Khaan statue, which stands over 130 feet high.  Once inside we were able to dress in ceremonial Mongolian attire, which is generally worn during festivals and weddings.   As you can imagine we all had to be careful of General John and his sword.  We then climbed the stairs to the top of the horse’s head and enjoyed the beautiful panoramic view.

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Standing in front of Chinggis Khaan statue

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Standing on top of the horse’s head of Chinggis Khaan statue

With great anticipation we made our way to Blue Lake, our first Ger camp.  The true journey began when we took a quick left off of the paved road to begin our off-road experience.  One quickly appreciates the Russian van, which does not come equipped with seat belts, as Chuuka expertly navigates the maze of dirt roads in the countryside.   We were in constant awe of Chuuka’s amazing inborn GPS that enables him to choose which fork in the road to take, as there is not a road sign to be found.    Steve and John continually egged Chuuka on to run through the lakes and streams and to make the Russian van hit 45 degree angles.  Once we reached a 45 degree embankment on one of the many turns, the chanting started: “Chuuka, Chuuka, Chuuka . . . next we want 60 degrees!” The highlight of the day came when Chuuka came upon his first dilemma.  To go left through the soggy marsh (in which many vehicles had previously gotten stuck and needed towing), or through the flooded road which looked like a small lake.  He got out of the van and assessed the situation, which included tossing a rock into the lake to determine its depth.  When he returned to the van his mind was made up–he put the pedal to the metal and through the lake we went.  We all sat in amazement as we came out victorious on the other side, this time with all of us chanting…”Chuuka…Chuuka!!”

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Chuuka deliberating–through water or swampy mud?

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Through the water!

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Our view from the window as we drove through

At last we reached our final destination, Blue Lake.  Where do we begin?  Perhaps with the millions of flies which greeted us upon our arrival?  We tried to focus and learn the history of Blue Lake from our historian, Professor Steve, while fanning away some of the biggest flies we had ever seen.  Nothing sounded better at this moment than a hot shower. However, imagine our despair when we found that there was no hot water.  So we retreated to our cabin, where the catch and release of say 50 – 100 flies began.  We were, however, grateful for the one flushing toilet on the men’s side of the bathroom.  Our experience was topped out overnight at Blue Lake (which we affectionately termed “Fly Camp”) with howling wild wolves of the countryside just outside our window.

On day two we headed out to our destination of Khuduu Aral.  Along the way we stopped at a Ger to visit a family.  The parents were out in town for the naadam festival, but we were able to spend time with the five children who lived there and present them with gifts.  They eagerly accepted the shells, flashlights, and lanyards that we had brought for them.   The experience truly gave us an appreciation for the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people.

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With the children at their ger.

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Our second detour of the trip was to an open field with a pen which housed approximately 200 sheep which were in the process of being sheared.  Cindy tried to console the sheep while each of us tried our hand at shearing.  We were quite proud when we left no incisions or wounds.

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Cindy consoling the sheep as we all took a turn shearing

We reached Khuduu Aral Ger camp and checked into our rooms equipped with TVs and scoped out the ever so important matter…..the bathroom and showers.  Hot water – check.  Flushing toilets – check check.

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The guys relaxing and enjoying the “upgraded” accomodations

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Can you tell we are happy about the bathroom situation?

After having lunch and getting settled we went to visit Chinngis Khaan monument (honoring the completion of The Secret History of the Mongols) and a spring that is known for helping with stomach issues.  Somewhere along the way our decision to not drink the water changed and we all took a swig from a bottle Doogii had filled.  Little did we know that the next day this water would look cloudy and brown in the bottle – ugh!  Cipro – CHECK CHECK CHECK!

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“Fresh” spring water – yummy!

Once back at Ger camp we walked down to the lakefront, which was popular for locals and tourists alike, and went ankle deep into the frigid water.  We headed back to take our highly anticipated “hot showers” (with the exception of Steve who ended up with just cold water) and got dressed for dinner.  Three bites into our salads, which consisted of vegetables and meat, John asked, “What kind of meat is this?”  The server replied, “Cow tongue” – great!  Our forks went down.

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Ahhhh – now this is the life! Relaxing in a ger

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Horseback riding along the banks of the Kherlen River.

On day three of our journey we headed to Steppe Nomads tourist camp in Gun-Galuut, where we were able to stay in Gers (traditional Mongolian dwellings).  Once we checked in – you guessed it, we checked out the bathrooms and showers, all of which exceeded our expectations.  We headed to lunch – which was BEEF!  With full bellies we made our way to the horses for some horseback riding.  Steve and John had done this on their previous trip and eventually took the reins from the guides.  We, however, allowed ourselves and our horses to be led.

After horseback riding we headed to raft down the Kherlen River.  We all gathered at the landing waiting to get into the raft while Doogii chatted with the staff.  We had no idea what all was said, but one by one we piled into the raft.   We all then looked at our feet which were submerged in at least 6 inches of ice-cold river water.  We asked if this was supposed to happen.  Doogii inquired and responded, “They said it’s OK.” Once afloat we realized there was no guide in the boat.  Again Doogii assured us “it’s OK.”  Just like that we found ourselves going down the river with horses on one side and cows in the pasture on the other.  At times we found ourselves drifting into rocks and turning circles.  After observing Doogii’s attempt at paddling we learned that this was Doogii’s first experience at rafting and furthermore that she cannot swim.  Oh boy! When we got to what we thought was the spot where we were supposed to land the raft, the staff member and Chuuka were waiting.  We spun a 360 degree circle for them when suddenly they yelled to not go around the corner of the river.  Not wanting to find out what was around the corner, we paddled as fast as we could to get to the shore.  Once back to the camp we made our way to the showers where there was hot water for everyone.  To top off the evening, we enjoyed fresh grilled lamb (thank you Chuuka), a glass of wine (which Steve, our wine connoisseur, rated as “crap wine”) while taking in the beautiful countryside view.

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Our beloved tour guide & grill master/gold-medalist driver

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John and Steve playing the ancient Mongolian game of anklebones.

DSC_3578We planned to hike to the top of the mountain the next morning after breakfast to take pictures of the river, but rain spoiled our plan.  However, on our way out we asked Chuuka to stop so that we could take pictures.  Fully expecting to climb to the peak of the hill, we were all shocked when Chuuka drove up the side of the hill, hitting what we deemed a 55 degree angle, so that we could take pictures of the beautiful view.  It truly was spectacular.

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View of the Kherlen River from the hilltop.

So were we ready?  Hmmm probably not – but we had an amazing journey and so much fun along the way.  A huge thanks to Doogii and Chuuka – we agree with Steve and John, they are Mongolia’s BEST tourist guide and driver!  The countryside trip would never have been so much fun without Steve and John!  “Professor” Steve’s knowledge of Mongolian history and language is quite remarkable (not to mention his expertise in wine) and John provided constant entertainment with his comical outbursts and his renditions of Mongolian throat singing.  It was truly amazing to experience Jonathan’s dream and we know that he was with us in spirit throughout our journey.

Cindy & Alex’s Top Ten Most Memorable Countryside Moments:

10.  Climbing to the top of Chinngis Khan Statue and dressing in traditional Mongolian wardrobe

9.  Finding out that your appetizer is cow tongue (thanks, John)

8.  Horseback riding in the beautiful countryside

7.  Experiencing nomadic lifestyle (visiting with children in their Ger and spending the night in

our camp Ger)

6.  Hot Showers & Flushing Toilets (or lack thereof)

5.  Grilling fresh lamb, drinking “crap wine,” and playing ankle bone while enjoying a

spectacular view of the Mongolian Countryside

4.  Driving to the top of the hill (hitting a 55 degree angle) for a spectacular view

3.  Experiencing “Fly Camp”

2.  Rafting without a local guide and your tour guide who has never been rafting and cannot

swim.

1. Driving with Chuuka, Mongolia’s gold medalist driver, through the back roads of Mongolia

and through small rivers

Mongolia 2015 Team – will you be ready?

-Cindy & Alex

 

Day 1 in Ulaanbaatar (John)

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Zaisan Monument

We have arrived! After a very very very long flight… I have finally returned to Ulaanbaartar – City of Red Hero! After settling down in the hotel and a quick nap, we enjoyed the company of Rita, Margie, and their wonderful kids who have come all the way from Inner Mongolia! Steve was right. MANY have been changed in the city: construction projects every where, high rise buildings replacing many of the ger camps, less potholes on the main roads (!), and the very last statue of Lenin was removed! What remain unchanged are the eternal blue sky and the hospitality of the Mongols! We spent the morning with Rita touring the city the Mongolian way (everyone stuffed in a regular car). We revisited the Zaisan Russian monument and had an overlook of the city, Sükhbaatar Square, and Megjid Temple & Monastery. We then joined Margie and the kids for lunch. It’s AMAZING how much they have grown in just two years!!

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The team dining with Rita, Margie and her kids at Millie’s Cafe, an expat pub in UB

 

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Driving through rough side roads with major potholes, we visited the “ger district”. They have mostly people who had a rough time in the countryside and decided to make a living in the city. These people have no money, no resources, no place to live… only the strength, toughness, and perseverance in their nomad blood to live. They often rely on the kids to sell firewood to make a living. We stopped at a water station It was heartbreaking to see the kids pulling very heavy water carts coming all through the district to get this very basic element of life, while we just turn on the tap and have endless running water.

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Driving into the ger district

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View of the ger district

 

We then had the pleasure to tour the “Children’s Place Orphanage” nearby the ger district and actually hear the history of its ministries. Personally I was very grateful to spend an afternoon with Margie, who with Rita started this ministry. I worked primarily with Rita two years ago in the hospital, so although I got to tour Children’s Place, I haven’t had the opportunity to know more about its history and struggles. Just like our mission, it was started when one person feels the burden for the orphans in Mongolia, often left to die in the bitter winter. She followed her passion to help one infant at a time. Now after MANY struggles with the government, with God’s grace and her obedience to His call, it has grown to be a beautiful home serving up to 30+ children left on the street, denied parental love and the right to live. Here they learn love, compassion, courtesy, discipline, and how to help and take care of others.

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Sleeping quarters at The Children’s Place

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The kitchen and dining hall at The Children’s Place

We didn’t see the kids as they were in Summer Camp (happiest time of the year!), but I was still blessed standing in the kitchen, remembering the little ones helping their younger “siblings” finishing their plates, everyone cleaning up after lunch… a BIG contrast to the “serve-me” generations in the West and in Hong Kong. The ministry also grown to include after-school programs for the ger kids to avoid getting into trouble on the street and physical & speech therapy centre for kids in the countryside. May He bless His own ministries to continue serving the ger communities and spread His love. We will be departing to the countryside for three days visiting this beautiful land and meet up with our old friend Doogii the amazing tour guide and Chuka the fantastic Russian Van driver before we come back and work in the hospital and soccer camp. We are scheduled to visit the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan and follow his footsteps in the vast Mongolian Steppes!

Steve’s Return to Ulaanbaatar

Chinggis-Khan-Airport-Ulaanbaatar-MongoliaUlaanbaatar. Two years ago, as we rode in the car together traversing the pockmarked road to Chinggis Khaan airport to pick up my daughter Natalie, who was coming in the night after the rest of us, Rita asked me, “So. . . . do you think you’ll ever come back?” I had been in Ulaanabaatar for only 24 hours and was still incredibly overwhelmed by the foreignness, the poverty, the sheer chaos we had encountered. Sheepishly, I responded, “I . . . don’t . . . think . . . so.” But over the two ensuing weeks something happened: Mongolia grew on me. Like a nomad welcoming you into his ger, the country has a way of welcoming you, embracing you, and warming your heart. By the time we departed two years ago, I made sure to tell Rita (“Remember that conversation we had on the way to the airport that night?”) that I had changed my mind and hoped to return to Mongolia one day. And here I am. Back in the night air of the Mongolian steppes, with the mint-dill scent of the steppe grass wafting over us even in the airport parking lot. Our 2014 team left Jacksonville early Sunday morning and, after a very full but mostly uneventful day of travel (Atlanta, Detroit, Seoul), we arrived in Ulaanbaatar (UB) at about 10:30 Monday night. Rita, her son Luke, and friend Dolmaa (sp?) met us at the airport and, in true Mongolian fashion we crammed our luggage and passengers into Dolmaa’s minivan and drove to the hotel. Even in the darkness, I was surprised by how much UB has changed in just two years. Building continues at a rattling pace, and even the road into town from the airport has been repaved. The national Naadam Festival has just ended (along with the World Cup–Mongolians are crazy about international soccer), so the city is relatively quiet. View-of-Ulaanbaatar I am excited to be here. Ahead of us lie several days in the countryside retracing some of the key events in Chinggis (Genghis, in westernized spellings) Khaan’s early life, and then a week at the children’s hospital and helping out with the soccer camp we established two years ago. I’m excited to see old friends like Rita, Margie, and their kids; make new friends in UB and in the countryside; and to make a difference here, all in Jonathan’s memory.

Letters to Jonathan- Day 5: Dinosaurs and Goodbye

Jonathan-

Mongolia has approximately three million residents, and one million of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. That’s a lot of people for one city. We started this morning by going to a local Buddhist temple. We happened to be there while the lamas (monks) were chanting. They wouldn’t let me take any photos inside but it was an amazing sight to see and hear. There were tons of men and boys talking (or singing?) at the same time. They would intermittently stop to blow trumpets as large as the room, or hit drums above their head with big sticks or play various sort of other instruments. Jenna even caught one of the guys checking out Facebook on his iPhone, which he kept hidden in his robes.  We saw a set of giant golden feet which will eventually be a statue of Buddha bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

You would have loved the Mongolian history museum, it was very weird seeing history told from a perspective other than a European one. It was interesting seeing the Europeans portrayed as the “enemy.” We did see some of Marco Polo whose travels and writing introduced Europe to Mongolia and China (at the time ruled by the Mongolian Kublai Khan.)

One of the coolest things we saw was a dinosaur that the Mongolians had recently recovered. It is a Tarbosaurus bataar which is the Asian cousin of the T. Rex. Apparently, a University of Florida professor stole the fossils from the southern part of Mongolia in the Gobi Desert where lots of dinosaur fossils can be found. After attempting to sell the dinosaur for a million dollars, the US courts were able to return the dinosaur to the people of Mongolia and put the professor in jail.

We only had a few hours left to do some shopping. Dr. Sandler recommended a store called Mary & Martha  which sells crafts to help disadvantaged people (such as prisoners or reformed prostitutes)  to sell crafts so they can help support their families. We also went to the State Store which use to be the only big store and was run by the Russians. It’s now a giant mall with lots of goods. Dr. Gayle found some nice cashmere scarves for his wife, Dr. Abram bought a cool Mongolian mask, Dr. Sandler and Jenna bought a bunch of leather wallets for their family, and I bought some jewelry for my wife and daughter and a cool Mongolian wresting cap for my son. You would have looked good in a wresting cap.

Dr. Sandler had eaten at a North Korean restaurant last year and it was recently recommended by a New York Times article. When we got there we realized it had changed ownership and now served Mongolian food (mutton!) but didn’t bother changing the décor or name. Having had eaten enough Mongolian mutton we decided to check out the Sky Lounge in the Blue Sky Hotel and Tower. This recently finished 5 star hotel is a distinct shape on the landscape, with breathtaking views of the city. The name pays homage to Mongolia’s title as “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.” Sunset overlooking the top of the city was a perfect way to end our stay in Mongolia.

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

Jonathan, I’m so glad you fell in love with this country. After spending two weeks here, I understand the amazing mixture of unique landscapes, incredible history, and the kind and giving people that makes Mongolia so special. Thanks for being on this journey with me.

Adam

Letters to Jonathan- Day 4: Statue and Singing

Jonathan-

Today we get to head back to the city. I wanted to climb the mountain by our camp and watch the sunrise but the 5:45am wakeup time, 30 degree temperature, cloudy and rainy weather made me rethink my plans. My bed in the warm toasty ger was too much to give up. I have a feeling that you would have made me get up to enjoy the sunrise though. I did climb the mountain again before we left to get one last look at the countryside. It still took my breath away.

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A view I won’t ever forget

On the way back to the big city we stopped so Tsegi and Bazaara could buy some more airag from a local family. Yuck! We were all too scared to get out of the van because we thought they would make us drink some more. Whenever Americans rest somewhere we just lean against a wall, but whenever we see Mongolians resting they seem to squat with their feet flat. OUCH! Today we decided we are gonna try to squat like Mongolians as much as possible, so keep a close eye out for our group squats.

We stopped at the Chinggas Khaan Statue Complex. This 131 ft tall statue of Genghis Khan was amazing. It was very shiny all in silver, with a gold horse whip and gold accents on his belt. It’s reported that Genghis found a golden horse whip in the area and it was an omen signifying his power and importance and foretelling his ultimate rise to power. I’d just be happy to have found something made out of gold. There’s an elevator in the horse’s tail that allows you to ride up inside the statue. You get to stand on top of the horse’s head and get a close up look of the statue. Awesome!

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Standing on top of the horse of the Chinggas Statue

While at the Statue Complex we had the opportunity to try on some clothing from the 1300s when Genghis Khan was in power. I think the power in the helmet went to Dr. Abram’s head.

We stopped at a local city for lunch and guess what was on the menu again: MUTTON! We are all so tired of sheep! Dr. Gayle even asked if they had any goat. When they said there wasn’t even any goat Jenna convinced the cook to make us the same meal but to use chicken instead. Our waitress thought we were crazy, but it turned out really good.

The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is insane! Crazy drivers who make up their own lanes is only half the problem. Since they get cars from all over the world the steering wheels could be on either side of the car. It took us several hours to get back to the motel.

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

After a quick shower we made it to a traditional Mongolian performance. We got to see their throat singing called Khoomei and some of their musical instruments made with horse hair (I told you, they love their horses!). The best was the contortionist. This girl could rest her chin between her ankles. OUCH!

We ended the evening at a French Restaurant. Dr. Gayle loves French food so he was super excited. We were all happy to have another meal with no mutton.

Dr. Gayle's French restaurant!

Dr. Gayle is so excited for his French restaurant!

We only have one more day in Mongolia. Tomorrow we get to explore the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

Adam

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