THURSDAY, JUNE 15, 2006. ULAAN BATAAR TO KHARKHORIN, MONGOLIA. Yesterday I joined a nine day tour organized through UB Guesthouse, run by a nice Korean and Mongolian couple, Kim and Bobby. The itinerary covered central and northern Mongolia. Originally there were three people on tour: Mark from San Francisco, Trudy from New Zealand, and me. In the morning, I learned three others would join us: Inka from the Czech Republic, Hans from Malaysian Borneo, and Nam from South Korea. Our vehicle was an olive green Russian minibus owned by our Mongolian driver, Lawyer. Lawyer spoke about as much English as I speak Mongolian. We left at 11:00 am for a long drive to our first night in Kharkhorin. Unlike most roads in Mongolia which are dirt tracks, the road to Kharkhorin is mostly sealed (paved). Upon leaving Ulaan Bataar proper, we immediately encountered Mongolia's steppes--vast, generally treeless grass-covered plains. Grazing on the plains were horses, sheep, goats, yaks, and cattle. It was difficult to tell whether these animals were domesticated or wild. For me, the highlight was seeing all the horses in their various shades of brown, black, grey, and white. There are 13 horses per Mongolian person, probably giving Mongolia the largest horse to person ratio. As we drove through the steppes, we would see the traditional Mongolian homes called "gers", a one room round felt tent used by nomads. About half of Mongolia's population live in gers. There is one rectangular door to the ger, usually orange in color. In the middle of the ger is a wood stove/heater, with a chimney poking through the roof. We would stay in gers all eight nights.
On the drive to Kharkhorin, I learned a little about my fellow travelers. Inka is from the Czech Republic and has just finished almost a year of teaching English in Mongolia. Hans is a petroleum engineer from Malaysian Borneo currently working in China. Nam is a computer programmer from South Korea. Mark, a fellow American, lives in San Francisco and does computer graphic related work. Trudy most recently worked in accounting and was moving from London back to her native New Zealand. Finally, Lawyer, our Mongolian driver, has been driving travellers for UB Guesthouse for a number of years.
We arrived at our ger camp in Kharkhorin in the early evening, just in time to see the sun set over the steppes. On our way to the ger camp we would be staying, we passed the Buddhist monastery called Erdene Zuu Khiid, where we would visit the next morning. Inka, Nam, Hans, and I did a short walk with two of the ger camp family's young girls to watch the colorful sunset over the Mongolian steppes.
The facilities at ger camps throughout Mongolia share many of the same qualities and facilities. Toilets are of the pit variety--a hole between wooden floorboards. In the more upscale gers, there will be a standard toilet seat over the pit. Water (non-potable) comes from a very small tank above a portable sink with a bucket under the sink's drain to collect the waste water. If there is electricity, it's usually limited to a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the ger.