"With Heaven's aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you."

-Genghis Khan

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Roads? Where we're going we don't need... roads

Many of you will recall months ago, I made an open invitation for anyone and everyone to come out and visit me. While most people wrote off my invitation as the incessant ramblings of a lonely and troubled soul, two very lucky ladies heeded my words and made the long journey out here to see the intricacies of my life that can't be revealed in blog form. Three weeks ago, my lovely sisters, Emma and Jesse, arrived in Mongolia and the three of us prepared for the adventure of a lifetime: an epic road trip from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Olgi, the westernmost province of Mongolia.

While most people are aware of Mongolia's diversity in climate and landscape, few realize that Mongolia also possesses amazing ethnic diversity. It ranks as the world's least densely populated country, but this population is made up of over 20 different ethnic groups. Bayan Olgi is comprised almost entirely by one of these ethnic minorities: the Kazakhs. Bayan Olgi is the only Kazakh province in Mongolia and due to its extremely remote location has been left almost completely untouched by both Soviet and Mongolian influence, making it more like Kazakhstan than Kazakhstan itself is these days.

Jesse and Emma arrived on a Sunday night and our trip began the following Tuesday. Most Mongolians refuse to start any sort of trip or project on Tuesdays, as it is considered bad luck. I wrote this off as foolish superstition, but there were several times during the trip that I couldn't help but thinking we should have reconsidered this very rash decision.

The trip to western Mongolia is one that few tourists and even fewer Mongolians ever get to make. The drive is a trek at over 1500 km on traditional Mongolian roads, meaning roads that aren't really roads at all. Most of the time you are just driving across the expansive steppe, where the sheep to car ratio is in the thousands.

We slowly made our way west, stopping to camp in a Siberian pine forest, enjoying a night at a luxury hot springs resort, two nights on the beautiful white lake, and a night camping next to a salt lake, to name just a few of the highlights. Pictures of the entire trip have been posted on Facebook. If you are not friends with me, or have not joined the Facebook revolution, click here to see them.

It was somewhere around our 5th day, where the scenery got boring, the days of heavy driving began, and the decision to start the trip on a Tuesday began to haunt us. The day was Monday May 25, a day forever etched into my mind as it was one day after Mongolia's presidential election. We were making our way to our final destination of Olgi city in Bayan Olgi when our car smashed into a rock, bending our back drive shaft, and eliminating any possibility of four wheel drive for the rest of the day. This forced us into an unscheduled pit stop in OmonGobi, which is hands down the worst town I have ever been to. That's right. Even worse than Castlegar. We must have been the only foreigners ever to come to this town, but were treated more like lepers than celebrities. After four hours killing time, playing round after round of "would you rather?", we determined that it would be more favorable to lose a hand than to spend a month in OmonGobi. Luckily, by this time our car had been fixed and we got to leave, hands intact.

We made it to Olgi, thinking that the next day would be a nice leisurely drive to the Five Saints National Park, perched on the borders of Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Sadly, bureaucracy kept us from leaving until the late afternoon, and we ended up with another long driving day. In these far reaches of the Earth, the people speak neither Mongolian nor English, so even our guide and driver were unable to communicate. We drove for hours, seeing no signs of life, in a place where our driver had only been once. On instinct alone, he managed to find the Kazakh home where we would be staying for the next two nights. How he did this, I will never know.

After spending the next day holed in due to a blizzard, which are apparently commonplace in this part of the world at this time of the year, we finally made it to the Five Saints and got stunning views of Russia and China. It was a spot that I have dreamt about going since I touched down in Mongolia 10 months ago, and a great finale to an amazing trip. We had been through hell and made it to the end of the earth, and the most amazing part is that the three of us managed not to kill each other even after spending two weeks driving all day and sharing a tent/room/ger at night. Our parents are very proud of us I'm sure.

11 more days of nomad living and I still haven't united the hordes, but at least I've got the Kazakhs on my side.

Only 19 more ethnic groups to go.


Bet said...

Your parents are proud of you ... and envious. Hope you don't plan to visit Castlegar when you get back to Canada

ji said...

I just found your blog -- Mongolian and toilet in Google (or Bing) brought my here, and I looked over your posts. My son (he's a Boy Scout) and I are going to the Asia-Pacific Regional Scout Jamboree in Ulaanbaatar in July-August 2017. Thanks for the background. I hope we do have toilets, even like the mal-designed toilets you had -- but I'm this thinking squat holes.