Published on July 10th, 201211
Heading to Chinngis Khaan-Land (a full month in MONGOLIA!)
I wanted to entitle this post “Itchy Feet” but was afraid that Google would start pointing all those “psoriasis” searches here to TravelnLass (eeeuuuuwww!)
Still, that’s pretty much the long and short of it. I’ve dutifully stayed-put here in Ho Chi Minh City now for more than six months (an eternity, I tell ya, for a lass like me with a hobo gene running through my veins). Six months of same ol’-same ol’ much like most everybody on the Planet – diligently commuting (albeit by death-defying motorbike) to and fro work, grocery shopping, dentist, haircut, the occasional Happy Hour, movie, etc.
(well o.k. same ol’ if you don’t count that I’ve been tucked into arguably THE most nutso city in the world, with no few side trips to wiggle toes in island sands on the Gulf of Thailand, and gawk at ancient Khmer temples in Cambodia). But still…
Itchy feet I tell ya. High time to dust off the backpack, and skip off to some new corner of the globe. After all, that’s pretty much the entire reason I dismantled my comfy life in my beloved Seattle – in favor of basing myself here in Asia so as to explore this half of the world.
And so I shall. My next adventure du jour? The vast and mysterious land of a lad by the name of Chinngis Khaan – MONGOLIA! (yes, yes, turns out it’s “Chinngis” not “Genghis”, who knew?)
Not sure how I settled on Mongolia from among the delectable array of exotic countries that surround me (Burma beckons, as does Bangladesh. Likewise Nepal, Bhutan, and still many corners left in Indonesia to explore. And don’t even get me started on India!) But for some reason, I kept coming back to the lure of the remote reaches of Mongolia with that darn Gobi desert of myth and legend.
LOL, the truth is – I do believe that the decidedly COOLER climes of Mongolia were the tipping point. After the sultry tropical temps here in Saigon, I simply can’t WAIT to don a pair of long-johns!
So Mongolia it is – for a full MONTH! But first… a little side trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Why Chiang Mai you may ask? Cuz…
My 6 month teaching contract is up the end of July (and conveniently, likewise my apartment lease here in Saigon). And… you may recall (if you read TL diligently, every blessed post, memorizing each and every mot – as. you. SHOULD.) then you already know that after finishing the CELTA course last December, I really, really, really had my heart set on moving up into the cool, emerald hills of Dalat (about 8 hrs. northeast of Saigon.) But then ILA kindly offered me a sweet part-time teaching contract, and I’d have been a FOOL to turn it down. So I (wisely) put off my dream of living in cooler, quieter, Asian climes for a spell. After all, Dalat wasn’t going anywhere, it would still be there after I got some good teach experience under my belt, yes?
Uh, but… why CHIANG MAI?, you may well ask AGAIN. Cuz…
Well I’ve heard really good things about it – indeed, apparently Chiang Mai is presently the sweetheart of Asian expats. And I very nearly took the CELTA there ‘cuz it’s such a nice quiet, fairly small (much like Dalat) place. So…
Before I settle down in Dalat, I just want to take a peek at Chiang Mai, to see what the expat vibe is, the EFL teaching situation, and the general cost of living, etc. compared to Dalat here in Vietnam.
So the “Plan” is thus:
31 July: Fly to Bangkok from HCMC, connect to a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand (I already have the air booked on Air Asia for just $289 rt.)
I’ll spend 5 nts. in Chiang Mai checking on English schools, apartments, the expat scene, etc. and then fly back to Saigon on 5 August.
Just 5 hrs. later, I’ll hop on a red-eye flight to Beijing, connecting to a flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, arriving UB the morning of the 6th. (This flight too, is already booked, $795 rt. on Air China)
I set my return flight from Mongolia back to Saigon for 9 September, giving me more than a month to wander the vast Mongolian plains, mountains, steppes and Gobi desert – woo-HOO!
And speaking of the Gobi – as distances are V.A.S.T. in Mongolia, naturally transport is expensive – especially for a solo traveler like me. So…
I popped into the Lonely Planet (of travel guidebook fame) travel forum for Mongolia, and put a shout out for anybody that might be in the UB neighborhood wanting to do the Gobi in early August. The response? Within a week, I’d gathered a fine group of 4 “travelnlasses” – 1 likewise from Seattle (!) and another from London (both coming by bus from Russia) plus 1 from NYC and the 4th, a Canadian presently likewise teaching EFL in Korea. Clearly an international hodgepodge are we. We’ll all rendezvous on the 8th of August to do a 7 day tour through all the major sites of the Gobi (including Khongor Els dunes – 800 meteres high and 150 km long!) We’ve researched the different Mongolian tour operators ad nasueum, and finally settled on an NGO (Lotus Child) that runs a school for Mongolian kids that also can put together a a tour staying in nomadic family gers and camping. Cost for transport (more than 1,600 miles rt!), food, lodging, etc. for the week? $420 pp.
All well and good. And don’t get me wrong, I am SO looking forward to the Gobi! But…
My main-squeeze for Mongolia is the two week trip I booked with Back-to-Bek – two weeks of horseback riding and trekking with the Eagle Hunting nomads of far western Mongolia. We’re talking milking goats, and gathering yak dung for fire, people. Just my kinda adventure!
I mean, if you’re gonna do Mongolia, you may as well DO. MONGOLIA. no? Down ‘n dirty.
And when I inquired on the Back-to-Bek site, I got extremely lucky. There was a small group of 4 (apparently 3 women and 1 lad, in their late 40’s – perfect!) already booked on a two week tour departing 15 August – 29 August. Check out the rough itinerary Bek (the owner, a local Mongolian that grew up among the Eagle Hunters) sent me:
|A mixed tour of horse riding, experience Nomadic Kazakh people lifestyle, see eagle hunting and training with Golden eagle, hiking, photographing of Altay Mountains, etc|
The itinerary is as follows:
You will arrive in Olgii, have your lunch at the local restaurant, start driving to Altay Village which is about 120 kms from Olgii, and after reaching Altay after 3 hours of drive, you will continue to drive to Shegirtay Valley where our eagle hunters family will be living, (his name is Ardak, the best eagle hunter as well as a good chap). After reaching there, you will start enjoying the nomadic life, learning how to herd, milk animals and deal with other daily activities that make nomads busy
Experience eagle hunting, learn the process of training an eagle, see how nomadic life is busy, and what the daily activities are. Stay in the eagle hunters family.
Same as previous day: learn milking of animals, sheep, goat, cows and female horses, learn how Kimis (fermented horse milk) is prepared.
Having 9 horses (you five need 5 horses and your guide needs 1 horse and 2 horses for back pack, luggages and 1 horse for the Wrangler) start riding horses heading to see other Altay Mountain ranges close to Chinese border, very impressive landscapes, hiking, and overnight at any family (guide will arrange the accommodation with nomads that you do not have to worry about, at the end of the day)
Day 5: Same as Day 4
Day 6: Same as Day 4
At the end of riding horses and trekking on foot, you will reach throat singing man’s family, stay with the family , and they will be entertaining you.
Next morning you will start riding in a new direction heading north west of Altay to a unique place called Shalgar, on horseback, riding along the other side of Shegirtay Valley, you will overnight on the way in a nomadic family called Karakol.
Continue riding on horseback, towards Shalgar, reach Shalgar and stay in nomadic family. (this day will be the end of riding on horses) start hiking on foot.
Note – Shalgar is the summer place of Nomads where you will not meet with any other tourists and only nomadic people, and it is a place with 3 layers (stairs) of mountain, up to the 2nd layer of the mountain, you will see very unique rocks and stones on deep water called mirror lake. It is a forbidden lake for children to go. In the past this place was a secret place for a hero who used to hide his horses he stole from other herders. Return in the evening, stay with the nomadic family.
Start hiking to other direction where you will see a high Valley Called Sala, you can pick up wild berries, the nomadic people make jams by them. This is a great scenery for photographing. This physically tiring hiking will take a full day. Return in the evening and overnight at the family.
Attend a local nomadic festival in the area, such as nomadic wedding ceremony etc, (we will make sure you attend it – please be informed that you will attend to this festival on one of the days of your trip, could be any of them depending on which day where the festival will take place)
Driver will pick you up and drive northwest to Tsengel Khairkhan Sacred Snow Capped mountain. Your driver will stay there waiting for you and you will hike closer to it, go to the Natural sacred water resource that cures all sicknesses, overnight with a Mongolian family there – stay in the family ger.
Hike back to the family where the driver will be waiting for you. Overnight there.
Start driving back to Olgii, have dinner and enjoy a family concert. Overnight in Olgii.
Yesiree, I can hear you now – a bit rough, dontcha think, Dy? I mean for a dodderin’ lass “of a certain age”? And… OMG ain’t that an awful lot of time on a HORSE!
Yep, the rigors of the horseback trekking rather daunted me at first as well, but I inquired as to whether there were errr… any other options to so much time in the saddle, and… Bek swiftly replied:
“Yes possible to reduce the horse riding , You can in this case just walk around separating from the group for few days and regroup after few days for the rest of the trip. (During your separation, we would suggest you to visit some families separately from the group)”
Even better, the price for the two week Eagle Hunter tour is just $750! ‘Course I still have to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Olgii in western Mongolia, but still… Indeed, the airfare for all this whizzing about comes to nearly $1,600. Ah, but, it would cost at least TWICE that were I trying to visit Mongolia from Seattle
And for the last 10 days (the Eagle Hunting trek ends on 29 September but I deliberately allowed an extra 10 days to roam “wherever” in Mongolia), I might hop on a short leg of the Trans-Mongolian train (to Choir) or perhaps head north to play with the reindeer.
In any case, I’m doing a great big ol’ woo-hoo happy dance here in Saigon these days. A bit sad to be leaving my teach job (I really like it, and ILA is a fantastic school), plus the friends I”ve made here in HCMC. But it’s time to move on. Have a little adventure, and then settle down in some new corner of Asia. Upon my return to Saigon in early September, I will have determined where I’ll next call “home”. Who knows? I may end up teaching English and milking yaks in Mongolia for a spell!
And finally, for a real treat – checkout the BBC’s video on the Mongolian Eagle Hunters.