Sunday, September 6, 2009

Sept 3 - 6: Erdenet to Darkhan, "Of Mice, Monks and Misdirection..."

Mike and I decided to, on our way east towards Ulaanbataar, take a short detour off the pavement to a famous monastery, the 2nd largest in Mongolia (I think?) and likely the most important tourist attraction we've heard of so far, 35km north of the highway, about halfway between Erdenet and Darkhan, the last big city before Ulaanbataar.

We planned to take two days to the monastery from Erdenet, camping somewhere along the way, and two days from the monastery to Darkhan. The trip there went very quickly, benefitting from both the new pavement and our more seasoned biking legs, and once we were off the pavement only 35km away from the monastery with rain clouds gathering overhead and still lots of daylight hours to get there, we decided to push through and sleep someplace warmer and drier than our tent for the night. This ended up being the longest biking day we've done yet, and after about 110 km we rolled into a ger camp, right before it started to pour.

The scenery for much of the trip there on the pavement was pretty boring, but after a bit on the dirth paths it got quite lovely again. This was the last valley we passed through, just teeming with animals on all sides.

We stayed that night at a ger camp that had remarkable facilities - 20 gers, flush toilets, hot showers, etc. - all of which was turned off because we were the only ones there. This turned out to be a common theme of the trip. We've been told at other touristy locations (like Khovsgol, the big lake about two weeks ago) that it's been a slow summer for tourists, but this is SO slow compared to the significant capacity that there is here for tourists (there were two other camps by the monastery, both similar to or even better than ours, and both also empty) that it also must be that the tourist season is winding down. Our host mentioned that he moves back to the city in October for the winter, though the traffic we saw hardly seemed to even justify staying open in September. That said, we definitely didn't mind, and both realized that this will be a totally different experience than what we will see in a month or so touring through the hotspots in China...

We spent the next morning checking out the monastery via self-guided tour ("self-guided" to be interpreted as literally as possible). To start with, we weren't quite sure where even to enter (or if we were allowed to), but just went around trying the various doors and going in the ones that were unlocked.

Jen opening the first unlocked door we found...

It was a lovely place, if slightly abandoned. Throughout the whole day, we saw one group of fellow tourists and four "monks" - one that was about 15 years old that unlocked the door so we could see inside, and three others that were about 10 - 12 years old (we're not sure if that young is technically called "monks" yet.) Apparently there are still about 30 monks that live there and there were 2,000 back in the heyday of the monastery. You could see how so many people could be acommodated there - it was definitely VERY big for 30 people, but there were also alot of run-down buildings that hadn't been restored which would have made it even larger.

For more pictures of the monastery, check out our full album: Monastery Pics

From there we wandered around a bit, looking for somewhere to get some food and eventually found a huge ger camp + sauna + hotel? that opened up their very fancy but very empty restaurant for us, and woke up the cook who was sleeping upstairs to make us and the staff some Tsuivan for lunch...

Mike waiting for his lunch, all alone...

That night, our second night in the ger camp, turned out to be quite an adventure. Earlier that morning, I opened up one of our bags and pulled out a notebook to see a HUGE mouse fly out and scramble away. Luckily, there was nothing valuable (food, etc.) in it for him to eat, though he did do a number on a plastic bag and a pair of my favourite underwear :(

Anyway, after ensuring that there was nothing vulnerable to further attack, we came back the next evening giving ourselves (me mostly) pep talks about the fact that of COURSE there's bound to be mice - we're living in a tent with no real walls (there is about 5 cm of space all along the bottom of the walls where the tent doesn't entirely cover.) I psyched myself up for an evening with earplugs, our beds and baggage safely away from anywhere a mouse could climb up on, but as night fell and the mice started to visit our nice warm ger, I will admit that my resolve faltered a little.

Throughout the entire trip, there have definitely been many moments that have tested the boundaries of my "comfort zone," but I feel like I've managed to work through them quite well. I now talk myself out of panic mode as soon as a dog comes chasing us, as I know that almost all of them will stop and bark a polite hello as they actually get close to us. At night when we are camping in some random field and I imagine the sounds of strangers creeping up to steal our bikes and attack us in the tent, I have realized, with the help of some earplugs and a slightly less active imagination, that it is either a horse or a sheep or a slightly stronger than normal wind, and that between both the scarceness and extreme friendliness of the local population, the odds of it being a malicious person are so low that I would be better to waste my energies worrying about a lightning strike burning down our tent or something....

All that progress and, lo and behold, fearless Jen then finds herself standing on top of her bed in fear of the mice, holding a block of wood that had no chance of ever killing a single one of them, trying to keep Mike awake with questions like "A mouse couldn't ever JUMP it's way onto my bed as it climbs up the wall, could it?" and other ridiculous nonsense.... I will admit, it was pretty yucky, as by the time we went to sleep there were three or four mice nibbling at crumbs on our floor, noisily scampering around showing no fear of us whatsoever, but it is amazing the effect that such tiny little relatively harmless animals can have. All that to say, after a restless night's sleep (me waking up every now and then to worry about the mice, Mike waking up to make sure I wasn't), we were both quite glad to get going the next morning in anticipation of a nice, four-walled, mouse-free hotel room.

We set off nice and early, expecting to make it all the way into Darkhan that evening. We'd realized how fast pavement could be, and were told that the road from here to the pavement (going southeast) was alot less hilly than the road to our southwest was that we had taken going in. We had only gotten about 3 kilometers from the ger camp when we got to a river that the road seemed to cross. Our friend at the ger camp hadn't said anything about a river crossing, so we motioned to the following friendly fellow and asked him whether or not we needed to cross the river to get to Darkhan. "Yes, yes..." he says as him and his family watch us cross the freezing water in 5C weather, laughing a little and helping us out of the other side of the river.

Friendly as we may look in this picture, we are not this guy's biggest fan. He made us come in for tea and cheese after the river crossing and we had barely left his ger when they started to motion that we had to go back to the right. We were confused - the river was back to the right?? So we went a little toward the right and then back over to the left when we were out of earshot of their ger - obviously the road was over there? Over the next couple kilometers our stomachs slowly sank as we realized that, after one hour and barely 5 kilometers of river crossing and bumpy riding, the road was in fact on the OTHER side of the river, that we should never have crossed it in the first place. Maybe our friends had misunderstood, and thought we wanted to cross a freezing cold river with nearly a hundred kilograms of bikes and luggage for tea and cheese? Maybe they thought we wanted to bike over the bumpy valley instead of using the perfectly good dirt tracks? Who knows... either way, it did not put us in a fantastic mood, especially considering that we had now spent an hour and a half travelling only to have very cold toes, no idea where the real road was and had travelled less than 5 kilometers from where we started...

Mike, on his eighth river crossing that morning (he insisted on crossing my bike for me due to the slippery rocks and steep push up out of the river)

Jen pushing through the bumpy valley on the other side of the river, in search of a rideable dirt path...

After a bit of pushing our bikes through the bumpy valley, we finally found a good dirt path and started rolling at slightly quicker clip. After a quick pass and a bit of a rocky descent, however, our next setback hit us. The rack we'd repaired in Erdenet snapped on the opposite side from the tension of the bend and weld on the other side, forcing us to duct tape it together and swap the back and front bags on my bike so that the broken rack (formerly on mike's back, with the heaviest bags we've got) now supported nothing but our sleeping gear, which we could have carried in backpacks if need be.

The next river crossing only about 5 km later (the first and only we SHOULD have had) did not totally delight us, but turned out to be quite quick and painless now that it was warm enough just to cross it in our sandals and keep them on to dry while we rode on.

The rest of the ride to the pavement that day is still something we have not fully managed to piece together even between ourselves. Was the worst part really the swampy mosquito land, or was it the tens of kilometers of sand that forced us to push our bikes after successive falls? Was it twenty or only fifteen kilometers longer than we expected going in? Were the steep rocky passes actually worse than back in Bayan-Olgii (the start of our trip), or was that just our imagination? It was absolutely beautiful scenery, but suffice it to say, we would have been MUCH quicker and more confortable had we just retraced our steps back along the known and relatively benign dirt path back to the highway along the way we came, and accepted a few more kilometers along the pavement.

Some pics from along the way...

By the time I reached the pavement (we had spread out a little to avoid feeding off each others' bad moods and spiralling into a collective depression), Mike was doing "pavement angels" with the kind of happiness in his eyes one usually only sees in a small child experiencing the first snowfall on Christmas morning after a long, cold, dry winter.

Needless to say, after the six hours it took us to travel the 50 kilometers to pavement, we didn't have enough daylight or energy to make it another 60 - 70 km into Darkhan that night, so we stopped in a town about 55 km from Darkhan called Hotol.

From the road, it looked like a miserable little place, between the cement factory puffing smoke and the fact that 100% of the town seemed to be made up of those huge, bland, rectangular soviet monster apartment buildings. That said, as we rode in, we wondered whether it might actually be the happiest place on earth, as teenage boys gave us high fives, what seemed like hundreds children played merrily on the sidewalks and everyone over high-school age toted happy little newborns in their arms... either that or a real-life version of "The Lord of the Flies," with nary an adult to be seen (in which case we decided to get the hell out of dodge early the next morning because we all remember how "Lo├Žd of the Flieds" ends!)... By the next morning we realized it was in fact the former, as the adults that now dominated the streets at about 8 am proved just as happy and friendly as their kids did the night before, asking us loads of questions about the trips, driving by with thumbs up and friendly honks and wishing us all the best in every language they could muster on the rest of our journey. Even in the incredibly friendly Mongolia, this was an exceptionally congenial town.

The next day was a quick bike in from Hotol to Darkhan, where we are now maxin' and relaxin' (enjoying our first english MOVIES in about a month and a half..... our hotel has HBO!!!) and getting ready for the two-day bike into the capital city, Ulaanbataar, which we'll leave for tomorrow morning. This will mark the end of what we'll see of rural Mongolia, which is a bittersweet thought for us both. It's been such an amazing trip with experiences so far from what we are familiar with that we know we will miss it very very soon. That said, after just over a month in the country, we are very excited for China and the complete culture shock it will offer (and, I admit it, the slightly more comfortable biking and sleeping conditions.) It's still a ways off, with a week or more in Ulaanbataar to apply for our visa, fix our broken rack, etc. but as we get closer we are realizing how very much our trip is about to change. We've started thinking of it as a series of about five or so very different trips, since this year is unlikely to feel like one continuous stretch of anything other than being away from any sense of normality or routine.

With that, we're off for lunch! Stay tuned for more from Ulaanbataar!

1 comment:

Adrian said...

Wow, the image of fearless Jen attempting to smite the vicious mice with a wooden block had me laughing! What is it with women and mice?? They are so cure!