My pack-every-experience-possible-into-one-month plan is proceeding very successfully! Last week, that meant a fantastic camping trip at Lake Khuvsgul in northern Mongolia.
The bus ride to Khuvsgul was pretty much as harrowing/exciting as promised. It started out comfortable and pleasant, actually: the coach bus had individual seats, a functional heating/AC system, and a TV playing kung fu movies. The best part was just after dark, when the second kung fu movie ended and the TV started playing Mongolian karaoke. Unlike the karaoke that I’m accustomed to, in which one person screeches out the lyrics to a pop ballad, there was no microphone and no stage. Everyone sang together, blending their voices to create a sound more like church hymn-singing than like karaoke. Every Mongolian on the bus seemed to know these songs– from the super-fashionable teenager sitting next to me to the grandfather across the aisle. It was wonderful.
Our first flat tire came on a bathroom break in the middle of the midnight steppe: the passengers were stretching our legs when we heard the loud pop of a blown-out tire. We spent the night in a tiny roadside cafe, drinking salty milk tea and trying to sleep with our heads on the tables, under a single light bulb that dangled from the teeth of a taxidermied boar’s head mounted on the wall.
The next day, after the third flat tire, the bus just gave up and quit functioning altogether. Who needs a jack when you have a tree stump? This was flat tire #3.
We waited for a replacement bus. Finally, 48 hours later, we made it to Murun, the aimag capital. Then another wait and another 4 hours in a van to Khatgal, on the shores of the lake.
I was all prepared to have a solo backpacking adventure, but when I finally made it to Khatgal and the start of the trail, I met two French guys who were hiking the same way as me, for the same number of days. We decided to walk together, at least for the first afternoon. I found out that they were both 22 (!! a coincidence that wouldn’t seem significant except that I have spent the vast majority of this year hanging out with people who are not my age), from Paris, and that they travel a lot, camping/trekking everywhere they go. By the end of the first day, we were getting along excellently. And so it was that I went camping with the Frenchmen.
The cast of characters:
My new tent!
It was a very cold lake (and biiiigggg! It made me excited for Lake Superior).
But who can resist swimming with yaks?
Yakkity yak (don’t talk back)
I taught them essential English words like belly, flip-flops, dude, puke, brand, and trashcan. They fed me soup, imported French sausages, pate de foie gras (not kidding), and chocolate. We made fun of each other a lot. We hiked a lot.
We camped inside two half-built buildings to escape the cold. We learned how to do Mongolian vodka toasts from two men who came to share our campfire one night. We were fed fruit, candy, meat and vodka by the generous Mongolian tourists we passed along the way. We lost the trail at one point and bushwhacked along a hillside so steep and high above the rocky shoreline that we would have died if we slipped.
My shoe became a casualty when we got a little overenthusiastic about stoking our campfire. Hiking 25 km the next day in a shrunken-melted shoe was a challenge, and I have the blisters to show for it.
A sacred pile of sticks, bones, silk scarves, and (inevitably, in Mongolia) vodka bottles.
Nearing the end (two beautiful dogs adopted us and followed us for the last two days.)
We saw all five animals essential to a Mongolian herder’s livelihood: yaks, horses, goats, sheep, and… camels!!
We made it back to Murun, and in the public bathhouse there I had the best shower since the one in the Dubai airport hotel (yes, I keep track of these things). After several long days of hiking and eating camping food, we decided to eat at a restaurant. We wandered and wandered around Murun; all the restaurants were closed for the annual Naadam festivities. Finally, we found one that was open! It had real tablecloths and cloth napkins and they brought us hot towels to wash our hands– serious luxury. Ordering was comical: the menu was in Cyrillic and none of the staff spoke any English, so they called their friend, who stayed on the line as an interpreter while the phone was passed around between us all. They put on French music for us and served us three huge, delicious plates of stir fried meat and vegetables.
After we finished our food, however, Brice announced that he was still hungry. To avoid a repeat of the phone-interpreter situation, he asked for “the best thing you have.” One of the waiters ran to the supermarket to get more supplies, at which point we knew we were in for a feast. A few minutes later, they delivered about half a sheep, cooked with hot stones with carrots and potatoes. Then came a huge salad plate of vegetables. Then individual fruit salads for dessert. Somehow we managed to finish the entire feast (and it was amazing).
I’ve met tons of people during this year, and many of them have been amazing individuals who I will remember and keep in touch with for the rest of my life. It’s really rare, though, to find new friends who I relate to as easily and comfortably as I do with my friends from home. Thanks for that, Victor and Brice.