Day 41: Orkhon Valley to Tsenkher , The van tour (Day 3)

A wide open vista and a half eaten sandwich.
Lunch stop perfection.

I slept badly again. The painted beds look nice, but they’re far too firm for this pampered tourist.

Peering out through the open doorway, I see sun on the hills which will take a while to reach us.

Our hosts oblige by firing up our stove, a multifunction model. We start in kettle mode, placing a bowl of water on top. When this has boiled, we switch to toaster mode, replacing the bowl with sliced bread. The iron stove top is hot and we need to flip the bread often to prevent it from burning.

A friendly farm dog watches us quietly from the ger doorway. We’d invite him in, but he’s not allowed inside and he knows as much.

We pack up and get out on the road. I wonder if our ger is being packed up like its neighbours were, and how our driver even knew that there was still a camp there in the first place.

The world is now evenly illuminated, but things are still taking a while to warm up. We pass by frozen streams and my feet are cold in the van.

My phone juggles different acronyms, EDGE and GPRS. Neither is familiar but both are slow. Email notifications appear quickly, but they’re truncated and difficult to interpret.

Eventually their expanded counterparts download and I see a reply from the head teacher at Nom-Ekhe (opens new window). It sounds like a cooking school, but this one teaches Mongolian language to foreigners. Communication is currently only possible through our driver and I’m worried how I will manage when I’m on my own. The teacher says that she can provide one-on-one lessons once I get back to Ulaanbaatar.

The 4WD road takes us to a river crossing, but the short bridge has partially collapsed and is impassable.

We leave the road behind and head up the river searching for another crossing. The van scurries over the rocky landscape, pausing every now and then to get its bearings.

We’re off the map, but I’m still glued to Zirka see this and asks me, Where is the bridge? I think it’s a rhetorical question, as my GPS has the answer but not the route. My GPS is the sun, moon and rocks, he says. I get it. Only natural navigation will transport us safely through this rocky sprawl.

Eventually, we do find another bridge.

Also wooden, this one looks like it’s in better shape. A sign for 7TH indicates a seven tonne capacity.

We drive over the bridge, carefully, each plank rattling as we cross it. Fearless motorcyclists blitz past us at speed.

Safely at the other side, we stop to wash our faces and record the moment.

A complex network of criss-crossed logs provide extended coverage over the watery divide. The design resembles a gentle wave, a carefully engineered work of art, faithfully reproduced in the still waters below.

A large herd of sheep and goats comes to the river to drink. Their meeeahs sound excited. Yeaaah! … water! The pulsing sound of a motorbike indicates that their herder is not far behind.

We drive on through the steppes, skirting sparse forests, thinned in readiness for winter.

Zirka is easy going and is happy to stop whenever nature calls or photo opportunities arise. But the latter is not always obvious, perhaps the Westerners are just easily impressed.

We’re headed to the hot springs, but apparently we can’t do this on an empty stomach.

We pull up next to a ger and Zirka asks us if we’d like some Airag, the infamous drink which Mongolians love and Westerners love to hate. We’ve all heard the stories, so we politely decline and watch as he raises the bottle and passionately downs the mystery beverage.

I’m not sure which of the milks the Airag is – the fizzy blue cheese, the overwhelming blue cheese, or the delicious fresh milk?

It could be the latter. I’m only here once. I join him and it turns out to be the first one. However it’s lighter than expected, bearable at least. We pass it between us, using our right hands. I turn down thirds.

A woman invites us in and opens a tin of butter biscuits, fat like fingers and smeared in fresh butter. They’re similar to some we tried at the last ger, but crunchier.

The woman starts to breast feed her youngest. Another child, a young boy, is watched over by an elderly woman. We learn that the husband is out managing the herd. Sun rays highlight steam drifting out of the half open skylight. It’s idyllic, but the boy looks bored out of his mind. I wonder if the kids are home schooled.

A wall calendar shows a more engaged child, riding a horse at speed. We’re told that Mongolian boys learn to ride between the ages of 5 and 12. Perhaps our boy has this to look forward to.

We drive on and Zirka looks at me as I stubbornly consult my GPS.

13km. Which direction? Left. No road. Road. We’ll go straight until the road allows otherwise. This is a loose definition of a road, though.

My thoughts drift back to New Zealand. A beautiful country, in a different way. But it felt stale to me, a tense standoff developing between those wanting to stay and those needing to leave. Travel is seen as a youthful pastime, but many of us don’t have the confidence or the means to act until much later. I’ll share my new knowledge all the same.

When we finally reach the springs, I wonder what all the fuss is about.

They’re small and hardly seem worth the 200km drive. The countryside is so nice that the destination pales by comparison.

Zirka shows us the spring source, on top of a low hill. It is protected by a teepee of branches held together with blue ribbons. A pipe carries the water to the hot pools and a hotel. The sprawling grounds are peppered with empty platforms. Apparently this place is cranking in winter.

Out of obligation, we strip down and choose the hottest of the three cobblestone pools. But they’re lukewarm and slimy, unable to match the hot sun.

I’m more interested in the nearby buildings, decorated with metal statues and log ends. They’re a flashback to Listvyanka.

A little further on, we stop for lunch.

The roadside is not a place of significance, but the views are stunning.

Sitting in the browning grass, just taking in the vista – this is the life.

Then it’s back over the hill to the guest ger.

My travel companions are chilling in the tent, so Zirka kidnaps me to watch some herding and meet the guest family. I bring the recorder to both.

While watching and recording the herding, Zirka explains the difference between yaks and cows:

  1. Zirka Mongolia.

    It's name, it's?

  2. Dan New Zealand.

    Cow? Ah, oh! Hair! Hair? Hair?

  3. Zirka Mongolia.


  4. Dan New Zealand.


  5. Zirka Mongolia.

    Hair. Um, it's, a.. cow.

  6. Dan New Zealand.

    Very long.

  7. Zirka Mongolia.

    It's hair?

  8. Dan New Zealand.


  9. Zirka Mongolia.


  10. Dan New Zealand.


  11. Zirka Mongolia.


  12. Dan New Zealand.


  13. Zirka Mongolia.

    Hair, Yak.

  14. Dan New Zealand.

    Yak. Yak Hair.

  15. Zirka Mongolia.

    No {rubbing} no hair. Hair.

  16. Dan New Zealand.

    Wool? Coat.

  17. Zirka Mongolia.

    No. Hair, hair, hair. No.

  18. Dan New Zealand.

    No hair.. Ah ah shorn! They, ah, they shear.

  19. Zirka Mongolia.


  20. Dan New Zealand.


  21. Zirka Mongolia.

    Yeah, go, go, no, go back..

  22. Dan New Zealand.

We ascertain (I think) that a Yak is a Mongolian Cow, and a Mongolian Cow is not related to regular cows (at least, they don’t get married!).

Such is the reason that one should attempt to learn some of the local language before travelling anywhere. I don’t expect our guide to fill in all the blanks. I actually think he’s pretty brave starting a discussion like this and I hope that he gets a lot more practice with his future clients.

The host’s ger is large but cosy.

One third is covered by a wooden floor and the rest is bare earth, but they’ll have a full floor for winter. They have an old school TV and two landline telephones. Next to the TV there’s a shelf displaying belt trophies from horse races won by the father, along with the winning bridles. Each win also had an accompanying cash prize.

The father is named Tumereg (sic). He wears a medium brown coat, which makes it easy to remember his name. He gives me his seat on the bed and sits on the floor. Through patchy translation I understand that he’s extending his friendship to me. It’s a nice gesture, though we appear to have little in common.

His wife is a strong looking woman and is making Mongolian Pizza. It’s like roti bread, deep fried in oil, delicious but of dubious nutritional value. One is shared, the other he eats alone.

Two of his three children live in Ulaanbaatar. The third is there, dressed in a Mongolian cloak and American cap. For better or worse, Mongolian culture is changing.