Kazakh Dance Party

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Coffee and tea. These seem to be two items that this trip evolve around. Baku keeps a sturdy Stanley thermos filled with hot water so that during our breakfast tea time, lunch tea time, afternoon tea time, dinner tea time, and pre bedtime tea time there is water to go around. Our choices of flavoring to add to our hot water include lemon tea, green tea, blueberry tea, Akhbar black tea, Lipton black tea, and instant coffee. Once you had your base beverage you then could put numerous sugar cubes (or just dunk a sugar cube in the tea and eat the sugar cube), powdered coffee creamer, butter, sweat cream, or caramel flavoring to make it just right. Needless to say I stayed away from various flavor adjuncts.

We had our obligatory breakfast and then headed out in the furgon for a rather long day of driving with an average speed of less than 20mph. We passed by where we were planning on camping, which had several large cranes hanging out and stopped near a large man with binoculars. It turns out he was a famous Kazakh wrestler who was out bird watching, and our driver wanted to say hi.

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We resumed our journey and eventually exited our valley and came across a Kazakh cemetery. Katy had little interest in seeing the cemetery, but I stepped out of the car and briefly looked around. It was interesting because the architecture of the cemetery was such that you could say it was in Pakistan, and I would believe you.

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Resuming our journey in the furgon, we then passed through a rather wet bog land and came across our largest river crossing to date. Most of the rivers/streams that we had previously crossed were less than fifteen feet long, this one was a solid fifty feet across. We successfully made it across and only a little water seeped into the furgon from where the door was. After another three hours in the car we made it to a region that had three lakes. The first lake, Dayan, is known for being mosquito infested, so we didn’t even think of stopping there, and then we came to the distal end of the second lake (Khurgan) where we stopped at the fuel station. If we hadn’t filled up on 80 octane gas, I would have never known the tank buried into the side of a hill was a solar powered fuel station.

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We then crossed a real bridge that we did not doubt the structural integrity of and went up to the ranger station. Elka and Baku took their ID cards and our passports and got us a border permit ($2 per group), so we could continue onto the third lake, Khoton.

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We then setup camp near the third lake. The area was rather buggy, but we soon discovered that most of the bugs were harmless annoying flies, not mosquitos which was a solid win in my book. Khoti started fishing, and Katy and I played some settlers, and then we had dinner. After dinner we took the furgon back to the bridge so Khoti could try fishing in a new area. Elka, Baku, and Katy then took Katy’s selfie stick and spent thirty minutes taking various iterations of bridge selfies. I did not enquire too much as to what was going on.

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When we got back to our camp on the lake Baku tried her hand at fishing. I would have to rate her casts as substandard, and then she got a snag. Khoti tried to undo the snag, but was unsuccessful, so Baku stripped and went into the water to retrieve her snag. Khoti erected another, smaller blue tent which matched our dining tent, and I discovered it was a bathroom tent. Yes our budget tour did include a bathroom tent if you were staying the night on wide open group.

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I discovered the next morning that our budget tour also included Vienna sausages for breakfast. I have very few foods that I won’t eat, but the sweet processed meat flavor of Vienna sausages splayed open is just a little much for me. We then headed off a little inland to go to a waterfall and came to another bridge. This bridge was built three years ago, but one of the supports was damaged last winter, and it became a cross-at-your-discretion bridge. We again watched from the far side of the bridge as our furgon made it across without a problem.

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We then continued our drive and stopped when the road became rather slanted, even for the furgon. We then got out and walked to a waterfall. After some locals tried to talk me into jumping into the pool and going for a swim, we continued farther to the top of a hill. This put us about 3km from China, the closest we would come at this point of our trip. We saw a herd of ibex in the distance crossing a snow bank, but they were too far away to see clearly. We then headed back, trying to not get our shoes wet.

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Our driver was fishing when we arrived back, and they wanted to stay near one of the local gers where Khoti had relatives. They asked us if we wanted to stay in the ger with them and the family, but 12 people in a ger (which normally slept a family of 7) seemed a little crowded and free of personal space so we graciously declined. They tried to find a flat spot near the ger to setup our tent, but we were unable to locate one that wasn’t strewn with rocks. We took a break from the search and had some tea. The tea was Kazahk milk tea. You take boiling water add, two scoops of a fresh mixture of milk (goat, sheep, cow), one shake of tea leaves, and a decent amount of salt, and you get Kazahk milk tea. Most areas in Mongolia don’t add the salt to the tea, but Kazakhs and people in the Gobi do. They had bread which was chewy and butter (made from the same milk mixture with more salt than butter in the US), which was really really good. Twenty two products are made from milk in Mongolia, but they have a very narrow definition of cheese and only one of the products we tasted would they consider a cheese, but we would consider many to be cheese. The family had the mother (42), father (47), and five children between the ages of 6 and 22 living with them in the ger. We decided to go down the hill two hundred yards and set our tent up there for the next two nights.

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After we setup camp the table was moved outside, and Elka produced a bottle of vodka and four beers to celebrate Khoti’s birthday, and we produced another bottle of vodka (I figured having a couple spares in my bag wasn’t a bad idea). The parents came from the ger up the road, and we starting toasting and having a decent amount to drink. Baku then brought out some fresh goat and onions which was the most tender meat I have had in Mongolia. Then the dance party started; how can you have a birthday without a dance party? I am not sure how much music was on the USB drive they used to play music, but there is one song that I swear we heard over fifty times on the trip, about Astana, the capitol of Kazakhstan. After the impromptu seven person dance party, we decided to go up to the ger. Katy was exhausted of people and forced dance parties at this point and wanted “me time”, so she headed off to read.

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At the ger, the father promptly was put to bed because it was 7pm, and he had had too much to drink. They produced another bottle of vodka at the ger, and I produced another one as a gift. Thankfully they saw fit to put the bottle I gave away for later. The oldest daughter then began making the noodles for the stew for dinner. They buy 100kg of flour at a time and keep it in a corner of their ger. The stew consisted of goat and noodles. It was more traditional than a lot of the food that we had been eating since any vegetables are pretty rare in traditional cooking. The kids of the family then went outside to play basketball for an hour before it got dark. I decided that after the amount of vodka I had consumed trying to play basketball was not a good idea. Throughout the region I did not see a single soccer goal, but a good number of homemade basketball hoops, which I found pretty surprising. Wrestling is reportedly the favorite sport of most people we have asked. We then called it a night after the third bottle of vodka was finished and headed back to camp, where Katy made me drink a bottle of water, and I took a couple of prophylactic ibuprofen.

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I promise we did not go to Russia or China and stayed in Mongolia

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We started one of the long drive days of the trip, heading towards Tovan Bogd National Park which is located about 10km from both the Chinese and Russian borders. It was a good six hour drive on roads that google maps shows as highways, but are really one lane rough dirt roads that you can go a solid 40mph on some of them. Other roads we were going less than 10mph on. We only got stuck once in a bog, and the driver had to dig us out and reroute ten feet away. Some of the roads were pick-your-path roads, and you had a choice of about six tracks to follow, while others were narrow, rocky, and well defined.

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Oops, furgon got stuck in the mud, time to get rocks to add traction

The National Park has a rangers’ station that you need to register at and a cluster of about five gers, with probably  another 15 gers within a mile. It was raining when we arrived, and they setup a kitchen tent with a table. We spent the remainder of the evening relaxing and playing games.

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We woke up to surprisingly few clouds in the sky, but they claimed it was going to storm later in the day. After breakfast, which partially consisted of slaw with tomatoes and pickles (I have some limits and this slaw approached them), we got on horses for a  couple hour ride. Mongolian horses are rather on the small side, but at least the stirrups of these horses were able to be adjusted relatively long. We had a very pleasant ride to the Altai Tavan Bogd (“five saints”) mountains where China, Russia, and Mongolia meet. At the base of the mountains sits Potanii glacier and a heard of yak. Our speed on the horses wasn’t much faster than a walking pace, but at least these horses would trot occasionally, and they didn’t care about the muck that they were walking through. We returned from the glacier a different way than we came (a much steeper and more precarious way, Katy notes). We passed various flocks of sheep and goats, herds of yak and cows, and horses. The river leaving the glacier was large and fast moving. Most of the gers along it were positioned close to accessory water flows since the main river was moving too fast and too sandy for water consumption.

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Kids trying to sell their ware

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Horses hanging out near the glacier

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It started to rain with about an hour of riding to go, but it was a gentle sprinkle. We dismounted when we arrived at our tent and had to walk around a bit to get our knees functioning again. It continued to rain for the rest of the evening, and we played some games and drank a bunch of tea/instant coffee.

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Dinner

The game plan the next day was for the driver to cross the rickety bridge and drive us over a couple large water flows where we would start a hike up a hill/mountain and then come down the other side. The driver would then drive around the mountain and pick us up in the next valley over, and we would then find a campsite. The day started rain free, but all of the rain from the previous day made the grass very wet, and soon our shoes were wet. Elka had rain galoshes that she was wearing and was wondering why we didn’t have rain boots. She also commented that most people bring a lot more stuff than our carryon size backpacks. My backpack also contains our sleeping bags, and Katy’s contains travel-edition Settlers of Catan as well as all the guidebooks, but traveling in the same furgon for so long we were able to decompress and keep the sleeping bags out of the backpack and are using a shopping bag for dirty clothes.  Needless to say our boots got wet quickly as we trudged through the grass up the hill. At times the ascent got steep and it looked like there was one way to reach the top of the mountain. We went up the steep part, and it plateaued into soft wet grass for a while and then changed to grey shale that was sticking out of the ground at oblique angles. The rocks sticking from the ground combined with fog that had rolled in and the utter lack of vegetation made the top of the hill appear other worldly.

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Jagged ground

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Stark terrain

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Micro colorful flowers

As we were trudging along on the stones we spotted a herd of ibex about fifty yards away and after giving us a good look they took off down the shear side of the cliffs. It always amazes me how some large animals like ibex and mountain goats can cling to the side of the cliff. It then started to sprinkle, and we started our descent and ate our lunch of spaghetti. We had Mongolian spaghetti, which differs from Italian spaghetti by a wide margin. I will give them credit that the noodles were spaghetti, but the “sauce” was made by combing BBQ sauce and ketchup which falls a little short of my definition of spaghetti sauce…

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Looking back on the mountains on the hike

The descent started off a little sketchy when our guide started by darting into an unknown abysses and then coming back and trying another gully that disappeared into an abyss. She then declared that she had found our easy descent route that went down a horse trail. It was small loose gravel that rested on the angle of repose with a fine sheen of fresh rain on top of it. Katy was not happy during our twenty minute descent down the sixty degree slope.

After we descended we then crossed into the neighboring valley and began our descent down. It continued to sprinkle, and we caught site of our trusty green furgon chugging up the valley road. We hopped in and went for about half a mile before we exited to view some petroglyphs during a brief respite from the rain. The petroglyphs were oddly interesting, but it did show us why we go through lengths to limit access and protect ancient sites because interspersed among the 2000+ year old etchings were various newer etchings, including etchings of a furgon.

We bundled back into the furgon and our driver, Khoti promptly lost the way. The roads in Mongolia varied between well worn single track dirt roads, to engineered dirt roads (normally ones that went up a hill with switchbacks or along a river), to six parallel paths, of which you could take your pick to less travelled roads that sometimes involved some imagination to figure out. After a couple minutes walking around Khoti spotted a brand new looking bridge that didn’t really have a defined road leading to or from it. Well without a second of hesitation he had the furgon going straight down the hill to the bridge. We then all got out in the rain and with all of our various expertise in determining if a bridge could hold a large Russian van, we examined the bridge. After five minutes of examining the bridge it was “determined” that it could hold the van, but no one went to get back in the van except the driver. Our determination was correct, and we piled into the van after it had crossed the bridge, which it turns out was just built 10 days ago by some locals that had pooled together some funds.

We continued to travel out of the valley and got to a stream crossing and the decision to spend the night there was made. It was not where we were planning to spend the night, but it was flat, not super wet, and most importantly not filled with mosquitos. They said the place we were planning on spending the night was known for being filled with mosquitos so we thought it was a wise choice.

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Brand new bridge that we had to exam to see if they did a shoddy job building

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Random campsite by the road, we weren’t worried about other cars

A little after we ate dinner two Mongolians that spoke Kazahk so well they could be mistaken for Kazakhs came to our tent, and we offered them tea. I was very surprised at their arrival since we were literally in the middle of nowhere, up a valley with very few gers. It turns out that their furgon, an untrustworthy white one, had broken down 4 kilometers up the road, and they had seen our blue mess tent and came ambling  over. Khoti and Baku (our cook, his wife) went in our furgon to attempt to fix our new friends’ ride. Once they left we had Elka teach us a Mongolian card game. It was slightly confusing at first because it involved trump, and the goal of the game was never mentioned, and we couldn’t figure out the point in taking tricks, since whoever took a trick never kept it, but eventually we figured it out. After a couple games our furgon returned successful, and we went to bed shortly after that.

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This is actually not one of the sketchy bridges

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Nearing the top of the hike

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Looking back on the mountains on the hike

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Naadam in Ulgii

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The Soviet era theater in Ulgii

The reason that we came back to Ulgii was to experience part of the Naadam festival. Naadam is an annual multiple day festival celebrating ”the three manly sports”, which are horse racing, archery, and wrestling. We wanted to experience a provincial festival instead of the large one in Ulaanbaatar, so we arranged the trip to be in Ulgii for it. One thing that we didn’t really think about was that we are in a region which is 80% Kazahk, watching a Mongolian festival. It was interesting when Elka pointed out the difference in the traditional Mongolian and Kazahk dress.

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Opening Nadaam festivities

The day started with a lackluster breakfast at the hotel, which necessitated a stop at a coffee shop. Surprisingly the coffee shop had blistering fast internet and solid coffee (although, Katy claims there is no difference in their lattes and cappuccinos, the travesty). Mongolia is a lot like South Korea in that it is not a morning country. At 930am we had to hunt to find a place that was open and sold coffee.

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A little gambling going on

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Chinese trinkets for sale at Nadaam

One thing that Kazahks/Mongolians take liberty on is time. Katy and I have discovered that every time we are given is a rough estimate. The same went for the start of Naadam. It was suppose to start an hour after we were told it was going to start and holding true to fashion they started 40 minutes after that. The area around the arena had a bunch of venders selling everything from water ($0.25) to Chinese trinkets, to balloons, to kebabs, to ice cream. The festival started with impassioned speeches in both Kazak and Mongolian followed by local community awards (like best builder) and the obligatory military jeep and marching band. Following the military marching band a troupe of Kazahk musicians emerged from the bus which was parked behind the stage and served as “back stage”. There were various musicians and singers that performed in traditional dress who were then followed by a large ensabmble of dancers.

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Mongolian meat on a stick for sale

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Fair grounds

The action came to a pause and went wandering around the grounds and ate a $0.40 (the most expensive) ice cream. We then watched the start of wrestling. Even though a lot of the wrestlers were Kazahks, since it was Naadam they competed by the Mongolian rules. There are no weight classes, and anyone can participate. The loser was the first one to touch the ground. It was interesting for about 11 minutes, but I have to admit a lot of the subtleties were lost on me.

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Wrestlers getting ready to knock each other to the ground

We decided to not stick around for all the wrestling and went to lunch. We then had a free afternoon and Elka took our laundry and gave it a much needed wash. We tried to buy bug spray but were unsuccessful. We did succeed in purchasing sunscreen, which claims to be 90 SPF, but we seriously doubt that claim. We were also able to find a super market and stocked up on vodka and other necessities for the week of camping ahead of us.

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Wrestlers doing a dance to get to the center where they will square off

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Brushes used to clean off your boots

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Ulgii

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I got eagle drool on my pants

 

 

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The eagle hunter’s summer camp. They will stay here two months between moving to a new spot

I am not talking about a Dungeons and Dragons potion, but legit golden eagle drool.  

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It all started when our three hour long propeller plane ride landed in Ulgii, Mongolia. We disembarked onto the tarmac and gradually wondered into the Soviet train station looking “airport” at the same time the next set of passengers was loading. 

We were wondering if there was going to be a sign with our name or how we were going to meet up with Nurbie. It turns out that Nurbie had been studying our passport photos and came up to use along with a crowd of three people. After introducing himself one of the first things that Nurbie said was, “America ! Great country, great cars, great BIG people!”. Nurbie himself is a slender 4’10. 

It turns out that Nurbie had another tour with 12 people, so he arranged another women Elka to be our guide, and a husband and wife to be our cook and driver. We were slightly disappointed to not have Nurbie be our guide, but Elka is a 37 year old English teacher who has been guiding during the summers for the last five years. Her English is intermediate plus, and she is very enthusiastic so it will work. 

 

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Katy milking the goats. They get about 5 liters a day from their herd

We then bundled into our vintage furgon which is a Russian van. The back is equipped with a forward facing bench seat and two rearward facing bucket seats with a small table between them.  The sound system is a hot wired Phillips five inch speaker that rests between the driver and the passenger seats. On the roof are large assorted pieces of wood that I have no idea what they are for. As we headed out of town the driver remembered that he had forgotten the jack, so we made a quick detour.  

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Inside of the furgon, after market seats

The asphalt roads of town quickly run out (read within five minutes), and we get to experience the off-road capabilities of the furgon. After two hours of being jostled around, we arrived at a bug infested area. Being honest there were a decent number of bugs in Olgii, but where we stopped there were so many that I had fears of the entire trip having it be uncomfortable/unbearable to just be hanging out. We put on long sleeves to give the mosquitos a smaller target area and then started trudging up a hill. It turns out we were going to an old eagle’s nest, which was unsurprisingly huge. The view was super impressive. There are rolling hills of various colors along with snow capped peaks in many directions (including looking in at Russia across the nearby border). We came down the hill and had lunch that Baku had prepared. It turns out that she prepared one meal sans meat for Katy and a different one for everyone else. Katy only accumulated a pile of 14 mosquitos that had dive bombed her lunch and 26 mosquito bites. Needless to say we didn’t stick around that area long and headed out. One thing about the diesel smelling furgon is that it does not close tightly so there was equal density of bugs inside as there were outside. After driving for 15 minutes the bugs were either killed or left in our dust. We then passed Atlai, a famous eagle hunter’s winter house. His daughter is an eagle hunter too, and there was a documentary that has appeared at a couple film festivals featuring her. 

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Many people in this area have a winter house which is a built structure either in a town or in the country that has various pens for animals. During the summer they leave that area so they are grazing the land (leaving it for winter) and make camp with their gers. Frequently extended family camps within close proximity of each other. The area that we are in is 90% Kazakhs, who speak Kazakh (along with Mongolian). Kazakh, in my opinion, is a much easier language to learn the basic words, compared to Mongolian (Katy disagrees). We bumped along for about another two hours until we arrived at the eagle hunter we stayed with. They have four Kazakh gers (which are wider, taller, and decorated with more colorful weavings compared to a Mongolian ger). One is for guests (us), one is for the grandparents with their youngest son and his new wife. The other two are for various other family members. They positioned the gers in a green valley close to the river and in an area that has considerably less mosquitos compared to earlier in the day. 

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Dinner table and the two single beds for the parents/grandparents

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Dinner. They insist on giving me way more food than anyone else.

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Once you get married you stay in your parents ger. You get a privacy curtain. You are expected to produce a child within a year.

We then met other the grandfather and grandmother in the ger and drank milk tea, a very sharp cured cheese, and Kazakh bread. Through Elka, we talked to the grandfather for a bit, mainly about the customary introduction topics. 

Katy and I then went outside and played two games of Catan (I dominated both). We then got in our furgon with the eagle hunter, his son, and the eagle. An eagle is a rather large animal to have in a van in my opinion, and it promptly took a poop on the floor. All of which, the eagle hunter found hilarious. His laughter may been fueled by Katy’s nervous laughter, which there was much of. We arrived at our destination, an out cropping of rocks that looks into the valley and disembarked from the furgon. They then decked us out in traditional garments (I got the fox skin one), and they gave me the eagle to hold. There was a slight issue during the hand off (Katy elaborates: the eagle fell upside off Todd’s arm but was still clinging there upside down until it’s handler rescued it/Todd), and we had to restart the process. The eagle is a three year old golden eagle that weighs about 20 pounds. They then tried to give Katy the eagle and after much debate she decided that she would hold the “blood thirsty creature with a sharp beak and huge talons”. Luckily she survived with all of her eyeballs intact.

We finished up taking photos and got back into the van and headed back to camp. This time they positioned the eagle with its head towards the  center of the van so if it pooped it wouldn’t poop on anyone. This resulted in the eagle drooling on my pants. I had never had eagle drool on my pants before. 

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The eagle hunter handing over the eagle to Katy

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We then ate dinner and drank a bottle of vodka with the eagle hunter and went to bed around 1030p. The rest of the group stayed up past midnight finishing the vodka and merrymaking. 

The next morning we had a rather late start and went for a horseback ride. We left the min valley and went through a pass to mother valley. The main valley had  a good number of gers  and the plateau and valley that we traveled to had a lot fewer. The views were spectacular and speckled with various yak, goats, and horses all of which someone owned even if they were not in site. I had named my horse rainbow fire and Katy had named her horse star sparkle. It turns out that rainbow fire was a rather lazy horse and star sparkle got distracted by any sparkle. 

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Our destination was a waterfall which was rather anticlimactic compared to the mountain landscape around it. The Mongolians were rather enthralled by the waterfall. We then began our journey back and got back to the ger camp around 5pm. All of the times that they said things would happen at were loose estimates at this point, except dinner was early this time. We ate dinner and the grandfather brought out a small bottle of vodka which we shared. Our guide told our driver that he wasn’t allowed to have vodka before we started the two hour drive back into town. After dinner, we then drove to Ulgii and had a night in a hotel. Katy was very excited for the shower even though it had only been one night without one. The next portion of our trip will be about a week without one. 

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Tokyo->Beijing->Ulaanbaatar->Ulgii, now no planes for awhile

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Bike shares have really caught on in Beijing since I was last there. The cart in the background was redistributing the bikes

We had an early morning departure from Japan. By early I mean 9am, but unfortunately the very convenient airport bus that leaves directly from our hotel does not run before 830am. Fortunately we were pros at the specific train line we needed to take to get to the airport (as we had taken it the night before on our ramen adventure) and arrived without a hitch, and it was $4 cheaper than the bus

We processed out of Japan quickly and spent some time in the ANA lounge which isn’t as nice as many other lounges we have visited. It did have some solid whiskey, sake, and tea, just what everyone needs prior to a 9am flight. One word of warning is that the shochu is terrible (Katy warns everyone to stay away from it).

We had an on time departure on our Dreamliner with the same lie flat seats as our transpacific leg. I promptly lost my iPad into the abyss beside/beneath the seat. This might sound trivial; it was not. The seat is contained by a giant plastic piece, and the iPad slid between me and the wall into the dark space below with minimal options to retrieve it. I found a small plastic flap and tried to reach it that way, multiple times, and failed. The unfortunate byproduct of each attempt was various scratches on my hands/arms of varying depths. Shortly after we got in the air Katy came to the rescue and had me index my seat forward and she was able to retrieve it from the abyss without a single wound to show for it. While my iPad was still in the abyss I was told that I couldn’t get my preferred meal and had to get the international course because everyone else wanted the Japanese meal, and I was the only westerner on the flight who had ordered the Japanese meal. Well, they didn’t say that last part out loud…

The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we landed in Beijing and started the process of figuring out how to get our transit visa. It was clearly marked by signs, but the difficult part was that the signs had you go through gates with Xs, against the flow of traffic. We followed some other brave souls who elbowed their way through. The rest of the immigration process was surprisingly fast (I put on a long sleeve shirt to cover my war wounds from the seat), and we were soon in a taxi on our way to our hotel.

We were staying at another hotel on points, the Renaissance Wangfujing, which turned out to be really really nice. We were upgraded to a club level room overlooking the Forbidden City, which you could even see through the smog (Katy notes that the smog was at least as impressive as the view). They had decorated our room with flower petal bedecked towel swans in honor of our honeymoon and gave us a bottle of wine.

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We then started our stroll towards the forbidden city, a giant temple complex that was initially established by the Mongols as an oasis inside the city where they could live in gers and let their animals graze. Unfortunately, after much searching, we discovered that tickets were sold out for the day, all 80,000 of them. It actually was very believable because of the huge hordes of people all over the place. We then went to Tian’anmen Square and had a quick look. While it had looked ominous but stayed dry to this point, our weather luck did not hold, and it started to rain. We tried to catch a DiDi, the Chinese version of Uber (Uber sold their China business to them for a decent stake in the company), but failed due to high demand. They need to get better at surge pricing.

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This photo does not capture the hordes of people that were at the forbidden city

We arrived back at our hotel slightly less wet than dogs that had gone for a swim, after a quick detour to stock up on $0.50 beers and some fancy green drink that Katy wanted (Katy says it was delicious) . After four days of pretty nonstop travel we ended up having a low key evening in with a little Catan in the lobby. It is hard for me not to try to see and do everything, but sometimes, especially on a long trip you have to slow down a little and be okay without seeing everything.

The next morning the lounge was closed for an “urgent air conditioner repair”, so we ended up being given access to the buffet breakfast. It turned out to be a super super impressive buffet. It was so expansive that I measured that it took me 43 paces to walk the length of it. Neither of us had the patience to count the numerous dishes available.

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Smog + Forbidden City

Luckily, it was not raining when we departed for the airport, and we were able to get a taxi without an issue. Since we had the fancy award ticket, we were able to check in without a line to our Air China flight. If you have flown mainland Chinese airlines, you know that they tend to have giant lines and less than excellent customer service. Our last experience with a Chinese airline ticket counter (en route home from Korea) ended poorly, with me standing there saying that I don’t care if we are going to fly that day or not (we had been delayed and so missed our connection), but that I just wanted to know either way, and then we stood there until the agent slightly chuckled, which we took as a no, so we went to United and booked a flight home for that day.

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Train station or airport?

We arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia after another uneventful flight. We took out cash at the ATM and started to make our move to get into the city. One thing that makes travel easier than 20 years ago is the ease with which you can get money. We have a Schwab debt card, which doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees and reimburses all ATM fees, which beats needing to exchange money ahead of time or obtain travelers checks. We got slightly ripped off by the taxi driver, paying about $5 too much ($17 instead of $12) for our 30 minute cab ride to our hotel.

My first impression of Mongolia was that it is very green, has warm Colorado-like sun (Ulaanbaatar is at 4,000+ feet), and is pretty cool (60F). After we arrived at our hotel, we set out to explore and discovered that I needed a Cyrillic refresher. The Mongols created their own written script about 700 years ago with 42 characters but have since switched to Cyrillic characters. There are talks of reviving the old written language, but it is a vertically written one that doesn’t easily lend itself to horizontal adaptation, which is an issue with all the technology that depends on horizontal script today.

My impression of Ulaanbaatar was that it is like a Soviet Colorado. The architecture is very stereotypical of soviet apartment blocks, but the climate and the strength of the sun are very Colorado, as are the surrounding foothills. We ended up eating Chinese food for dinner. We figured that we had three weeks of basically straight Mongolian food coming up, which is not known for being the best food in the universe, so we wanted something different for one more meal. The prices seemed really high, about $4-$10 per dish, but we discovered after we ordered an appetizer and two normal dishes that this was because they were meant for two people each. A couple Golden Gobi beers, tea, and enough food for a small clan set us back $23. Despite being stuffed, we walked by a shack selling soft serve ice cream, and $0.40 later we had one ice cream cone. The ice cream was actually really interesting. It was vanilla but wasn’t very sweet and was very rich and had a strong dairy taste to it.

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Dinner with our small mountain of food

We went to bed as soon as we got back, around 930pm, to prepare ourselves for our flight the next morning that our guide Nurbie said we needed to be at the airport at 4am for. Turns out, you don’t need to be there that early, but regardless we got there at 4:15am, and the flight boarded promptly at 5:35am. We were heading to western Mongolia on a full (of white tourists) 80 passenger propeller plane. The domestic side of the airport has a single “gate” and no signage. We went to stand up when a flight was announced but were told by a Mongolian passenger in line that it wasn’t our flight being called. He could tell because at least 80% of the people going to Ulgii are westerners, compared to one who was on the other flight. It is prime tourist season right now, but in rural Mongolia that still doesn’t add up to a lot.

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The topography is very rolling with mountains and varies between brown and lush green

 

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Eagle’s nest above the white eagle poop

 

Sorry for the lack of photos, the internet’s upload speed is pretty nonexistent where we are and want to get a quick post published.

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Tokyo Objectives: Ramen and Sushi

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The last week has been a whirlwind. It is not until now, sitting in business class on ANA flying to Japan that I am finally starting to relax. I have even chosen to read a book instead of watching a movie. 

I want to thank everyone for an awesome wedding and coming to Colorado to celebrate it with us. Monday and Tuesday morning we packed up the rest of our stuff and left our condo ready to be AirBnB’d while traveling. It had been so long since I packed my house that I forget that the last 5% takes as long as the first 25%. 

Katy and I took the bus to the airport hotel  Tuesday afternoon. We were pleasantly surprised when we were upgraded to an executive suite on the top corner of the W at the Westin. My only other suite upgrade  happened in Vienna with Chris when we were cyclotouring, and we ended up with a balcony, but only one bed….

We then grabbed the train from the airport to the Rockies stadium and watched the game with Allyson and AJ. Honestly, we mainly talked and then watched the fireworks after the game. The display was pretty impressive. We then took the airport train back to the airport. I think taking two airport trains and one airport bus in a day without flying is a record for me. 

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Fancy airplane seat with miles

We were able to get five hours of sleep before we needed to get up to begin our journey. We flew United to LAX and had a 3.5 hour layover scheduled since we were on separate tickets and wanted to allow time for “issues”. After a pleasant wait on the lounge terrace, which I used to wrap up some loose ends, we got on our ANA flight to Tokyo. The flight was pleasant, and the Hibiki whiskey was very good. 

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The lounge in LAX was celebrating the 4rth of July with hotdogs and watermelon

 

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One course of the

When we arrived in Japan we cleared customs/immigration pretty quickly, a benefit of being the first people off the plane. Katy and I then took the more local, less advertised (1/3 the price) bus to Ginza, the district we were staying in. The first thing we noticed when we stepped off the plane was that is was over 100F outside and really humid. Luckily my hair has learned to love humidity and locked in a little extra curl and shine (no comment on Katy’s hair). 

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Room 919, prime number on prime floor

After checking into the hotel (no suite upgrade this time) we decided it was time for conveyer belt sushi so off we trekked. We ended up getting some good pieces, but I noticed that they didn’t send the “expensive” sushi, like the fatty tuna, on the belt, and you had to ask the sushi masters to make it special. After establishing eye contact with one I was able to stumble out a few Japanese words and five minutes later we had some of the special sushi, win. Fifty dollars later, when our bellies were stuffed, we wandered back home and went to bed after 10pm. 

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The start of our sushi eating. Each colored plate is a different amount ranging from $1-5

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Ginza at night

The next morning we were up before 6am and grabbed our free breakfast. Unfortunately the forecast proved correct, and it was raining. I seem to attract the rain lately when we travel (Italy, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, snow in Morocco, Barcelona), but at least with the subway system it is easy to manage.  

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Fancy sushi

We went to the National Museum in the morning and then headed to a special fancy sushi lunch prepared by a delightful 75 year old man and a women who took the fish encyclopedia out to tell us what we were eating (featuring among other things, blood clams and “kissing fish”). I can tell you for sure that the fish was of better quality and better prepared than the night before. We then went to a neighboring temple which is known for their fortunes. You pay 100y ($0.90), shake a box, extract a rod that has a symbol (read number in Japanese), match the symbol with the corresponding drawer (more difficult if you don’t know Japanese), and then pull out your fortune. I ended up with a good one, Katy not so much (“It is a bad time for marriage and moving house”). She had to tie her fortune on a rod that then did something to negate the bad fortune,since you only do this with the bad ones. 

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The fortune booth with shaker and drawers

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We then had a nap and headed to the Ramen Museum. The issue with this plan is that it is not actually in Tokyo, it is in Yokohama and takes over an hour to get there. Eating sushi and going to the ramen museum were the two things Katy wanted to do in Tokyo, so we decided to make the trek. You pay admission into the “museum”, and two levels underground had been transformed into a 1950s setting with nine ramen shops from different regions of Japan. You purchased a ticket from a vending machine outside each shop and then went in (or waited until there were seats). Each person had to order a bowl of ramen in order to be seated, but you could order a half portion which was still huge. We visited three shops and split 6 different bowls of ramen which were wildly different. The stocks were either soy, miso, or fish based and the noodles were either crinkled, straight, thick, thin, chewy, or soft. We quickly discovered we liked the spicy versions the best. When we were full of ramen we headed out and discovered it was down pouring (again), and we hadn’t taken our umbrella or rain jackets with us. We ran 100 yards to a convenience store and bought one for $5 (alas, there was no room in our luggage, so it had to remain in Tokyo). We then trained back to Ginza and capped off a great day in Japan. The next stop on our trip is a quick one in Beijing. 

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Ramen Museum

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Don’t loose your train ticket

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Baby Elephants on parade

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One nice thing about Sri Lanka is that even when it rains so hard that it floods your hotel room, six hours after it stops you can’t even tell it rained. The country seems perpetually damp, (my hair loves it) which might be a side effect of the 90% humidity. Along with the rain drying, morning brought a Katy that was no longer feeling sick (which she attributes to her immune system of steel) which was AWESOME. The previous night, I got cocky when I was able to stay awake past 830pm and didn’t take a sleeping pill, so of course I woke up WELL before 6am. We decided to go to the Temple of the Tooth before our driver picked us up at 9am.

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Outside the Temple of the Tooth, my eyes only watered a little bit

We were two of three foreigners at the Temple when we arrived, but being Sunday there were a ton of locals.

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Offerings in the Temple of the Tooth

One thing with Sri Lankan tourist sites is they have foreigner pricing which ranges from $6-$30 for a site, which is disproportionately more expensive than local pricing.

We then had a prebreakfast coffee and went back to the hotel so Katy could have a quick dip in the pool before breakfast. The British first tried to grow coffee in Sri Lanka and that did not work out too well (disease), so they ended up switching to tea. Today some coffee is grown in Sri Lanka, but a lot of it is recent cultivation and not coffee plantations that are still in operation from the first attempt to grow coffee.

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Katy about ready to enjoy her Sri Lankan coffee. Sri Lanka primarily grew coffee until a coffee blight reeked havec. They then switched to tea

We then hopped in the car for a couple hours to the Dambulla Cave Temple. Along the way Suminda pointed out peppercorns that were growing along the road. I would say Suminda has intermediate English; he understands 70-80% of what we say and speaks slightly less than he understands.

We then reached the cave temples, where Suminda dropped us off on the back side, and then we walked down the main way up. This was a win because of course the caves are on top of a hill, and the front approach seems about three times as long as the back approach, and if I forgot to mention it, Sri Lanka is humid and hot. I mean a constant 1-3mm of perspiration on your skin humid and hot. I mean melt your sunscreen off your body so it runs hot and humid.

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Lots of hot stairs to go

The main draw of the UNESCO heritage site are the cave frescos which originally date more than 1000 years ago and are in surprisingly good shape. There is also an important reclining Buddha statue that was carved out of the rock wall.

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We met Suminda at the bottom in front of the Dambulla Golden Temple, which has a statue of “the world’s tallest Buddha”. It is not the tallest Buddha, but it may be the tallest Buddha in that particular pose.

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We grabbed some lunch and then headed to do a safari. I had not arranged one ahead of time since you normally do it through your hotel, and we were not checking into our hotel yet and left it to Suminda. I knew the price should be between $60-$100 with a good ballpark of $80-90. The place wanted $200. I was not happy. I then entered into bargaining without knowing I was bargaining. My unintentional tactic was to stand there with my mouth gaping open in silence after confirming the price. After a rather long uncomfortable silence, he came up with a new price of $80 for 2.5-3 hours to visit Kaudulla, not the more famous park we had planned to visit, stating that Minneriya was closed (which I knew for a fact it wasn’t). He also couldn’t guarantee that we would see elephants because it was rainy, and they were not congregating in the “tanks”. We went with it anyway and hopped in the back of a jeep without seatbelts, which Katy loved, and began our 40 minute drive to the National Park. There were a bunch of jeeps at the park when we arrived, which decreased my concern that we had been swindled.

The national parks are around “tanks”, which are large man-made bodies of water that during the dry season recede uncovering new growth, which attract animals including elephants. This area is suppose to be in the dry season, but has been unseasonably wet, so Minneriya, which is usually the last tank to dry up thereby attracting the region’s elephants, wasn’t full of elephants since the surrounding tanks still had water, which is what I assume he meant by “closed”.

We turned around a bend in the park and saw about 10 elephants grazing and admired them until they turned tail and headed back into the jungle.

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The first batch of elephants we saw

We then went around another bend and encountered a group of about 50 elephants with multiple babies. The star was a baby that our driver estimated was about 5 days old. It had a hard time going 5 minutes without toppling over and was a blast to see. Along with seeing 70+ elephants, including multiple elephants with tusks (less than 5% of Sri Lankan elephants have tusks), we saw some spotted deer (which were tiny), Sri Lankan foxes (which are like small coyotes), peacocks, and a wide assortment of birds.

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Nursing time

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Five day old elephant giving up on nursing and standing

I thought the safari was going to be pretty lame, but it was actually way more enjoyable than I anticipated and turned into a 4h+ trip where we didn’t get swindled and were very happy. (Katy would like to note that she takes all credit for this idea)

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Peahen. They are like colorful turkeys except without the head bobble

We then headed to the hotel and after a slight navigation error got there a little after sunset. We picked this hotel because Katy wanted to stay in a treehouse, and she wanted a pool. Our treehouse was fan cooled and shortly after we arrived so did the monsoon. The monsoon knocked out the power and made its way inside the room, unfortunately dripping on the bed. Power was restored; a dry bed was not, but fortunately the wet section was only about a foot in diameter. The pool went unused for the night, as we were already quite cool and wet from the rain.

We ate dinner, and I had my first beer of the trip, which turned out to be my undoing for the night, bringing on the sleepiness.The fan cooled room turned out to be quite adequate because the rain brought wind, a cross breeze through the room, and a good drop in temperature. I made it until about 8:00pm (after several “Hey! Wake up!” prompts from Katy) and then crashed hard, really really hard.

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