Transsiberian, Day 13: Streaking outside a Mongolian ger (yurt)

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

We wake up after a short sleep on the train, at six AM. We’ve arrived in Ulaanbaatar!

Our guide, Enda picks us up from the train station and drives us straight to a local coffee shop. The can we’re picked up in looks like a dilapidated VW Beetle from the sixties, except the inside is barely heated and it reeks of gasoline. I take my feet out of my shoes because removing them and wrapping them in my scarf is somehow warmer than allowing the rubber soles to touch the ice cold ground of the van.

Our guide ditches us here with an itinerary, but the driver stays. We hang out at Tom N Toms coffee, a coffee shop that has the usual Starbucks-type fare, but I am afraid there’s nothing but very fattening items on the menu. I don’t even think they make tea without cream and sugar. I am hungry and go for a snack, but the only options are gross items like pizza bread, cinnamon sugar pretzels, and something called honey butter bread, which looks like a thick slice of pound cake with a scoop of butter on top, drizzled in honey. Barf. I chose the pretzel. It was awful.

In the process of ordering, I do learn how to say thank you in Mongolian, "Bayerla" and hello, "Sain baina uu," which I keep repeating to the driver’s amusement. He’s sitting at a table not too far from us as we are recharging and using the free WiFi.

When it nears the time for sunrise, about 8:30am, we all head out to the nearby Zaisan Memorial monument, the first monument to celebrate Soviet soldiers. It’s up on a hill so we climb the hundreds of stairs to the top to get a view of the sunrise. We're wearing our N95 respirator masks due to the air pollution, making the climb even harder.

Only after waiting for quite some time in the subzero cold do we realize that the sun is rising behind some mountains, so even though the sky is lit up and we can see everything, it’s going to probably take another hour before the sun comes up over those mountains. I dance around, David reenacts the Rocky training sequence through air punching, and Calvin jogs circles around the monument but it’s just no use. I descend because I can no longer feel my feet in the -15*F (-26*C) temperatures, and I don’t want to have to amputate my feet before this trip is over.

I rush into the café and I am shortly followed by the rest of the group. Meanwhile, our driver sits at a table by himself and doesn’t talk or read or do anything but stare straight forward for the entire duration of our time in the café, since we arrived. Almost four hours have passed. We leave around 11am to start our journey to the gers (yurt is the Turkic language version, ger is the Mongolian one)!

The van still reeks of gasoline, and on the drive, we stop through a gas station, where an attendant fills us up or maybe just pours some gasoline on the side of the car as it equally smells the same. We all fall asleep from lack of rest, but David later suggests it is due to fume intoxication. Either way, the ride lulled us to sleep pretty quickly!

Shortly thereafter, we enter the snowy landscape of Terelj National Park. We make a couple stops along the way to the gers, first at a dinosaur park, which is closed but still picture worthy. Next we stop at Turtle rock, a massive formation on the side of the road that looks like a giant turtle. I really want to climb it, so I mention the idea several times, but no one takes me seriously and I fear I’ll drag the group down for time’s sake so I don’t do it. We get back in the car and we arrive at the gers. They are located in a gorgeous mountainside rural area. Our guide is there to greet us, and Calvin asks where there’s a market where we can get some booze. I laugh at him because I saw the surroundings, and the guide confirms that there is no market nearby as we’re basically in mountainland, Mongolia.

Basically, we have a host family that has their own ger (I am curious how theirs looks since I saw a satellite dish outside) as well as a handful of tourist gers that are decorated in the traditional style.

There is a wood-burning stove in the middle for warmth, with a chimney that rises outside the roof. The floor is insulated and made of wood (warmer than the van floor), and the walls appear to be a thick muslin fabric on the outside, a wooden structure insulated with fur or wool in the middle, and a thin brocade fabric for decoration on the inside. Wooden beds with thick cushions, sheets, and brocade blankets line the outer edge. A short dining table sits between the stove and bed opposite the door, along with a few stools. There’s a sign on one of the middle structural pillars with rules, some of which are: the guest is responsible for keeping up the fire at night, keep the ger door closed, and don’t pet the dogs!

We split up and sleep in two gers, with Calvin, JC and I picking the ger with a 23-year-old Austrian named Kevin. New friends! Our ger is larger, with five beds, and the other ger with the rest of the group has four. When we meet Kevin, he’s sitting outside the ger and I assumed he was a guide of sorts until I realized he just arrived a few minutes before us and has the same adventures that we had in store.

We met him bundled up, just like we had met the Swedes, and it is funny to meet someone in their Wildling state and then see them for who they really are. My personal look is a combo of the invisible man and Rorschach from Watchmen, wherein I leave no part of my skin exposed to light, covering my face with a combination of scarves, sunglasses, and masks. We met Kevin and he was wearing a furry earflap hat and reflective sunglasses, but his normal state was just a sandy blonde dude in a sweater.

It was nice to have a somewhat relaxing day that still felt meaningful. Yes, we’re just sitting around, but we’re in a GER! My inner Sarah Routh was coming out. A stoic little girl with glasses around the age of six enters, and very matter-of-fact says “lunch.” She brings in napkins and utensils, while an older girl with a red coat, a big smile and rosy cheeks, who tells us she is sixteen and named Anka through broken English, brings in a big canteen of hot green tea. The tea brand is Lipton and Calvin jokes about it. “What is this exotic Mongolian tea? Leap-tone? Never heard of it!”

When we tell the other half of the group that we learned Anka was only sixteen, they were surprised as they all thought she was in her twenties. I jokingly tell them, “and that little one with the glasses? She’s 45.”

The six-year-old returns with full plates for lunch, which is noodles with a meaty sauce and some vegetables mixed in. It was delicious and I devoured it.

After lunch we hang out a bit longer as our host dad, a waifish, short older man in his forties with a dark leathery face and shockingly bright grey eyes, comes in to fill our stove with coal. Well, if the bus fumes or the future exposure to the Beijing air pollution doesn’t kill us, then black lung surely will.

The ger gets super hot after the coal fire, and we attempt to leave the door open for some breathable mountain air and cooling, but any time a member of the host family walks by, they shut it. Luckily it’s horseback riding time!

I hurry off to the outhouse before the ride. You can pretty much imagine it, so I’ll just say this: outdoor (in freezing temperatures) squat toilet made completely of wood, with a rickety door. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, the view of the mountains was spectacular!

The family only has four ride-worthy horses, and since the ride is going to be at least an hour, we all bundle up. During my trip to the bathroom, though, my horse was given away to Calvin, so now I had to wait for the second group. Meanwhile, Kevin, Calvin, LaiYuen and Taylan rode off on the horses, guided about halfway out with ropes tied to the horse, but then Calvin and Taylan controlled the horses themselves for the other ¾ of the ride.

JC, David and I hung out in the ger (when is the next time I will type that sentence, I wonder) until the horses returned. When they got back, we were all assigned our horses, maybe by weight or aura match or something, and then we were off. JC and my horses were pulled by the silver-eyed host dad, and David and some other girl’s horses were pulled by Anka. The random girl was there with friends, or staying with her cousins, from Singapore, all of this information told to David in super broken English, so it could also be horribly inaccurate.

I got a little frustrated during the ride for several reasons. One, our host dad smoked a few cigarettes while pulling our horses, so we were in a perpetual stream of secondhand smoke.

Two, Anka didn’t have the proper coat and we kept stopping as she communicated this (I assume, since I don’t speak Mongolian) to her dad. Eventually he gave her his coat. Neither of them were dressed for subzero temperatures, in my opinion. Maybe their skin is thicker here? We stopped six or more times during our ride because of this, and also because some car drove by and it was that random girl’s cousin just stopping to chat. LET’S GO.

Three, when they finally gave us the reigns, my horse was the follower horse that wouldn’t go in any direction or trot faster or anything unless the horse in front of it was doing the same. No going off-course here, since my horse apparently needs permission from other horses. My personality does not match with this horse. Taylan later told me that the horses in general were only mildly trained, as even they had issues with steering. I tried to take a few pictures but the subzero temperatures really mess with your batteries. I had a hand warmer up against my camera in my pocket, but every time I’d turn it on, it would shut off and tell me the battery was dead. Despite the flaws, my hands didn’t freeze as I’d expected, my legs stayed warm, and it was a gorgeous ride through the snow-covered landscape.

We returned from our ride and the sun was still out. We had time to explore. Our guide told us there was a temple, as he pointed vaguely east, but never gave us any directions. We had plenty of time before dinner, so we all bundled up and went off to go for a walk.

Living in Chicago, I’ve perfected the fast walk. I think it’s the way I stay warm while walking to work in freezing temperatures. Therefore, when we stepped out of the ger, I charged forward, heading east, but the group lagged a bit behind. I kept up a good pace and walked through what appeared to be a few neighboring farms before trudging through a snowy valley and coming up to a clearing. In this clearing was a big rock with a vodka bottle pressed into the snow. It was empty. On the right was a hill covered in trees, and as I squinted, I could make out a deer walking around. Straight ahead of me, past some frozen crops, was a rocky landscape that was just itching to be climbed. Forward I went.

There were lots of footprints in the snow, both from boots and deer and dogs. Earlier we heard wolves, so in the snowy, windy quiet of the mountainscape, I occasionally would stop to hear if there was any rustling. You couldn't hear it unless you stopped moving, with all that noise of my coat swishing as I walk. I don’t want to be attacked by a wolf. Or maybe I do? It would make for a great story, if I survived.

I hear nothing but the wind, with the snow muffling any sort of distant noise. I get close to the rocky area, find a good walking stick, and up I go. It’s an easy climb to the top, and once I get up there, I hear the group shouting my name. I see them in the distance, but with our delayed responses, it’s hard to communicate. They shout my name and I respond, then wait, I hear nothing and begin to move again just as they respond. I give up and tell them that I’ll be fine and that they can head back.

Up on the hill, I can see what’s past it, which is yet another farm and a single ger in a large valley. Despite having been outside for about 45 minutes, I am completely comfortable. My feet aren’t cold and my hands are toasty, even though I didn’t do anything but hike and walk quickly. If it weren’t for the sun, I could have been out there for a while. The sun sets and I watch it go down a bit before reaching for my camera. My camera is missing. I dig through my purse and my pockets and it isn’t there, but I took a picture earlier on the walk so I know I dropped it somewhere along the way. I’d be devastated if I lost it for the remainder of the trip. I relax and trust that I will find it, and begin the descent as it starts to get dark.

Just as I predicted, I dropped it before ascending the hill, and there it was, sticking out of the snow. I picked it up and quickly brushed off the ice that crusted on it, hoping it will work. I attempt to turn it on, but as it’s been sitting directly in the snow for about a half hour, it gives me the low battery warning and refuses to work. I consider re-climbing the hill for a picture, but I’m afraid the sun will be down by the time I return, so I give up and head back to the ger, racing through the snow along the way.

The group is in the big ger and we all hang out and socialize until the little girl returns to stoically say, "dinner" and use her fingers to indicate that four will dine in this ger, three in the other. Before we sit, the host dad comes in to pour another pile of coals in the fire. Calvin tries to indicate that we don’t want that, but he presses and five pounds of coal are added to the stove.

Kevin, Calvin, JC and I enjoy our dinner of rice, beef and bell peppers, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumber strips and some sort of carrot coleslaw. Again, it was delicious, and all washed down with loads of that exotic Lipton green tea.

The other half of the group rejoins us after dinner in the big ger and we drink a little until Taylan realizes that the driver is in the corner of the ger, trying to sleep. It’s only nine or ten, but he’s over there curled up and rustling whenever we all let out a roar of laughter. Taylan feels guilty, so we decide to move to the smaller ger. One of the guys jokes about streaking there, as it’s only about fifteen meters away and why not? Kevin, maybe by his own volition or maybe by Stockholm Syndrome, starts stripping down to his skivvies and Timberlands. As this is happening, Anka enters to clear our dinner dishes and giggles at the sight.

Calvin the doctor informs everyone that streaking in subzero temperatures is ok as long as it’s less than two minutes of exposure. Calvin, JC and Kevin strip down to their boots and underwear, then step outside as we photograph them for embarrassment later. Meanwhile, that girl from Singapore exits her ger and looks over, letting out a horrified squeal before shielding her eyes and rushing off towards the outhouse. The boys dance around a bit and off we all go to the small ger.

We hang out and after LaiYuen starts massaging my back (that was awesome, thank you), we end up creating a massage train for a solid thirty minutes or so. I suggest everyone do this at some point; it’s fantastic. Oh, and the boys were fully dressed by now, don’t worry.

As we are hanging out, we realize the ger is very cold. I check the fire and there isn’t an ember in sight; the whole thing is extinguished. We poke around with a log to no avail. It’s about 10:30pm now, and none of us have matches or lighters. JC and I take turns going to the big ger and lighting logs on fire and attempting to bring them back, but they always burn out before we get to this stove. The driver is a light sleeper and murmurs some Mongolian to us each time we enter the ger to steal flaming logs. He’s not very happy. We try adding kindling and bringing the ash pan with a flaming log but it extinguishes. Our guide earlier had told us that the driver was supposed to keep up our fires for us in the middle of the night, and although we hated to do it, we woke him up to restart the small ger's fire.

After about twenty minutes of him doing similar actions as us, he finally gets it going, since he has a lighter on him. We thank him profusely and apologetically.

After our energy dies down, we split off and head to bed around midnight.

(48 hours since last shower)