The biggest challenge for me was finding the LA airport, as I haven’t flown since I retired ten years ago. We managed to make it in time to fly to Seoul, Korea on Korean Air Lines (the one the Russians like to shoot down), and then onward to the capitol of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar via MIAT Mongolian Air Lines. The airplanes barely made it off the ground because of the weight of photography equipment carried by Steve and Larry. The plane also listed to the side Joe was sitting on. He is one big man (and the only one I was afraid to mess with even if he did seem rather nice). We were met by our two indispensable English-speaking guides, Gongor and Anya. Gongor was the boss and Ms Anya did the work. Ha! Not one for homework, it was a surprise for me to see cars running up and down the streets instead of wild horsemen. The women are not fat peasants either; they are attractive, slickly dressed ladies who would fit in anywhere. Too bad I didn’t leave Marian home. A few of the men wore the native costume of a long overcoat tied at the waist with a bright orange sash, but most wore Western dress. The Mongolians converted from Communism several years ago when the USSR collapsed and privatized the economy. In many ways it is typical of a third world country, but there is little sign of abject poverty. The people are, without exception, very friendly toward foreigners. The language was derived from Turkish so my few words of Spanish were no help at all. Russian Cyrillic replaced Mongolian script when the communists took over back in the 1920s, but many signs are in English. Ulaan Baatar contains 25% of the country’s total population of 2,600,000. They have eclectic tastes in food as we went to a different ethnic restaurant every night.
After a couple of sightseeing days in the capitol, we took a Russian-made turboprop which landed on a dirt runway in the middle of a vast level plain next to a ger tourist camp in the Gobi desert. The gers we stayed in were the round tent-like structures desert nomads live in. When the Russians were in favor, they were called yurts, the Russian word for a ger. Now that the Russians are gone, ger is back in. They are constructed by putting felt made of sheep wool and a canvas cover over a wooden framework that can be dismantled in a day and moved wherever the camel/horse/yak/goat/sheep grazing is better. The Gobi is a high-elevation grasslands where the winter temperatures reach 30 below zero.
The next day, we took a drive/hike through Eagle Canyon where some large sparrows were observed. The recesses of the canyon were supposed to have permanent ice in them due to the high elevation and concomitant cold temperature, but the rains had melted it. Marian and Reda managed to get on top of a horse belonging to one of the locals that came to gawk at the tourists and were led around the valley for a while. We also drove to where the sand dunes sprawled over the plains for 100 miles (but only a few miles wide). On the way, we had lunch where dinosaur bones had been found and Marian got to drive a Russian jeep just as the guide decided to take a “short cut” to get to a road over “that way”. There was no road going over “that way”, but we went thataway anyway for about ten miles before finding the road. When found, like nearly all the roads in the country, it was a two track ungraded dirt path. The country is too poor to have a good infrastructure yet. Steve also drove one of the jeeps for a while but had to quit because he could not keep up with Marian. Paul, who came all the way from Point Roberts, WA via Canada, did not get to regale us with his usual learned travelogue over the CB because the jeeps had none.
The Flaming Cliffs (eroded reddish formations) were visited, and a camel herdsman and his wife were visited in their ger. Marian and half the others went for a camel ride safely ensconced between the two humps. If I had wanted to ride a camel, I would have gone to the petting zoo.
Some years ago my abs had turned to flabs, and what with a stomach ache (the Gobi Gallops) and the pounding of the iron-hard jeep ride combined with the local drivers keeping the pedal to the metal, the combination made skipping the next three days seem like a great idea. I caught up with my reading in a hotel while the rest of the people experienced real life in the far western part of the country. They camped out in gringo tents using sleeping bags and mattresses brought from home for this specific part of the trip. The snow-capped 13,000 ft. peaks in this region were spectacular. Western Mongolia seemed more arid and desolate than the Gobi. The high point was a visit to an eagle hunter’s camp where small game is hunted using trained Golden Eagles - no little falcons for these guys. The eagle man let Larry put the glove on and hold the big bird. While the overgrown sparrow was getting settled, he managed to miss the glove and put a talon an inch into Larry’s arm. It didn’t seem to hurt the eagle a bit.
Back at Ulaan Baatar, we went to a nearby national park where true wild horses (Przewalski’s horse, “ takhi” in the Mongolian language) are being bred and released into the wild after nearly becoming extinct. They are the forerunners of the modern horse. At one point the only living horses were in a few Western zoos. There are now approximately 160 living in their natural Mongolian habitat. Gongor, whose father was the Park Director, arranged for a great welcome and tour.
On our last day, we went to another national park for a picnic on the banks of the lovely Tuul River flowing through an idyllic valley abundant with shade trees turning red and gold fall colors. It was one of the prettiest spots seen on the entire trip and a fitting end to a great adventure. Thanks, Reda for all your hard work that made a good trip possible.
Here are a bunch of photos by John Page, from the September, 2000, trip to Mongolia taken by Joe Daly, Larry Reese, Paul Ferry, John Page, Neal and Marian Johns, Steve Bein, and orchestrated by Reda Anderson.
Our apologies for misspelled names of people and places