“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.
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!!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
We 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.
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
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