Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mongolia 2017 - Day 5. Karakorum to Tsetserleg

Today we got a slightly later start. In general we have settled into a rather nice routine, where I get up first and take a shower, then John wakes up and showers while I work on this blog, and finally Zoe wakes up around 7 am, normally because her dad or I come stomping in the room and wake her up. Well, today it didn’t quite work like that because the shower house was locked, so I worked on my blog waiting for someone from the guesthouse to wake up, and then laid back in the ger waiting for action. Finally, at around 7:20 am the ladies started milling around, and I was able to go for my shower. The guesthouse is in the middle of being expanded, so for the time being you have to get out of the complex to get to the door of the shower complex. Because this door gives to the outside it is normally kept locked. Anyway, one of the ladies grabbed the keys and kindly let me in. I luxuriated in a warm shower and at about 7:40 came out ready to head for the ger. To my surprise I found the door of the shower house locked again. Rats! No doubt the lady felt she couldn’t leave the door unattended and had locked, probably planning on coming back in a few minutes to let me out. So I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited, but to no avail. Finally I spotted a window I could open, but it was a good 5 feet off the ground, and not very big. Still, big problems require desperate solutions, so I pulled a chair nearby, and working like a contortionist wiggled myself out of the little window. Pity nobody was there to witness my fine exhibition. When I finally stomped back to the ger Zoe woke up with a smile, pleasantly surprised of having had the chance of sleeping an extra hour.

Our travels took us north of Karakorum, because we were intent on visiting the small Ögii Nuur lake. John is an enthusiast fly fisherman, and like all enthusiasts he wanted to have bragging rights at having fished in Mongolia. The official fishing season doesn’t start for another week, but Zoe had been referred by a fellow teacher to an alumnus who was currently Fishing Inspector in this lake who was sure to allow a special exemption for John. Unfortunately the paved road ended after 20 km, so we had the first of our dirt road driving experiences. The road was actually not that bad, so we did reasonably good time, and by noon were saying hello to a smiling young Fishing Inspector, who at that very moment was busy erecting a ger. In another of her amazing displays of command of the Mongolian language Zoe joked with him for a while and expressed our interest in fishing. “No problem” said he with a big smile, and he pointed us to a nice spit that extended like a finger of land into the lake.

The Ögii Nuur lake is very beautiful, but serves as home to gazillions of flies and gnats, and all of them came to say hello as we approached the shore. Fortunately none of them are aggressive, so after a moment of panic we settled into a continuous swatting motion and walked down the spit. Aha, this is why we had been directed here: The flies and gnats do not like being on the spit, so after a while we were able to relax. John enjoyed a good hour of fishing (he did catch one fish), and Zoe and I sat down on the gravel to watch the birds and chat. After a while the sky started getting cloudy, and the breeze picked up, so the spot became idyllic. Mind you, there are still no trees on sight, but the breeze and the coolness made it feel like we were on a High Sierra lake.

From there we continued on the dirt track until we reached the town of Ögii Nuur proper, where we stopped for lunch. No sooner had we sat down that one of the ladies excitedly told us that we had to meet her friend Emma, who was a Peace Corps volunteer down in town. Emma arrived 10 minutes later, and she and Zoe established immediate rapport. She had been in this little town for 8 months now, and was looking forward to being one of the leaders of the summer camp, and to her second year teaching English in the integrated K-12 school. Ögii Nuur is the biggest town near the lake, and many of the 500 children at the school come from distant shepherds camps and board at the school for the year, so the school actually provides a myriad of good services to the region. Zoe and Emma knew a lot of the same people, and happily chatted about their international experiences in general, and Mongolian experience in particular. I was reminded that, following the sabbatical cycles of her parents, had lived in Chile for six months while in first grade (she speaks amazing Spanish), France and Switzerland for middle schools (so she speaks fluent French and German), and the Czech Republic for high school (so she also speaks Czech), and now can add Mongolian to her repertoire! Is it any wonder that we are all so proud of her!

Emma was amazed that we were taking this trip on our own, without a guide. It is simply not done here in Mongolia. Zoe had heard the same admonition, partly because of the language barrier, and partly because once you leave the paved road there is a maze of dirt roads leading to shepherders’ encampments and it is really difficult to navigate your way through. Still, she described for us the road to Tsetserleg and even walked us to the edge of town to point the correct track (and I have to acknowledge that it looked just like any other of the dozen tracks in sight). In a land without trees there are not many landmarks to navigate by, but she did mentioned some wheat fields somewhere along the lane. Ah, but she didn’t take into account John’s amazing navigation skills; he had bought a rather detailed road atlas, with the mountains shaded in, and based on this he took us through the first half of the trek (making a couple of corrections to the atlas as we went along), and Zoe followed on his footsteps with unerring instinct until we it the paved road.

As we were moving west on the paved road we spotted a line of trees in the distance! It was the Zuun Modny river, at the banks of which was the charming town of Tsenher. We were tempted to stay there for the night, but at the end decided to push into Tsetserleg, which is the provincial capital, also along the banks Zuun Modny river. It is quite the attractive city, with trees and parks, nestled against the granite mountains to the north. Coming from the steppe you really feel like you have reached a new world, not unlike the feeling you get when leaving the Argentinian pampa and reaching Bariloche in the foothills of the Andes. I definitely could live here!

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