Monika’s Birthday – Mongolia 10-2014
What’s a birthday? Just another number on the calendar right? Not for Monika! Her birthdays are special and can last for days, depending on what she dreams up each year. Backpacking in the California Sierras, climbing to the top of Half Dome nearly 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley and 8,800 feet above sea level, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 18,000 feet to skydive over Monterey Bay, a week or two in Cuba—–are you getting the picture?
This year was no exception. She was set on a camel trek in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Fortunately, we were already in Mongolia in the Altai region of the Gobi, and there were plenty of camels.
We went to Kazakh Tours, (mistake), in Olgii to see what they offered. We should have taken a hint when the owner, Dosjan, came 15 minutes late for the 10:00 AM appointment we had made. Finishing the chunk of chocolate hanging out of his mouth, in-between yawns, he said no problem. He had arranged many treks by camel in the Altai Gobi Desert. Since he was an official ticket agent for Aero Mongolia, we also had him make round-trip reservations for our flight to Ulaanbaatar where we had to pick up the repair parts for our rear suspension sent by Hellwig from California, get Monika’s Mongolian visa extended and apply for our Russian visas. All that’s another story.
The next morning our driver, (I use the term loosely.), picked us up at the comfortable Travelers Guest House where Nazka Khavel, the owner, had graciously allowed us to parked The Turtle V. We headed off in his unheated rattle-trap UAZ into the mountains at off-road racing speeds. Turned out Dosjan, (Kazakh Tours), had changed the family/owner of the camels without telling us, and the driver didn’t really know where they lived. After several stops to make cell phone calls for directions, smoke a cigarette and others to ask locals where we were going, where to cross the river, (hum), and which faintly visible track to take, after two hours, we arrived at a typical Kazakh mud brick home in the middle of a huge valley instead of the expected Mongolian Ger (Yurt). We were invited in and enjoyed the typical hot milk tea while we warmed up and waited for the camels.
The camels were not too happy about having their morning interrupted and showed their discontent by belching and spitting, (really more like a “power barf”) of half chewed sour smelling grass, spraying our guide, Arman, and us with whatever else makes up camel cud. The cute little stick poking through their nose with a rope tied to it was the method of control. Hey! What would you do if you had a stick though your nose and your wife/husband etc. yanked on the rope and said, “Get down on your knees or I’ll yank on the rope again?”
So they knelt and we climbed on, and off we went for a 3–hour ride across the lumpy grasslands, splashing through creeks & mud holes and weaving our way around herds of sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses as the camels lurched behind our “guide”. We think he was a great guy and a talented golden eagle hunter, but leading tourists on camel treks was not really his business and his English was zit. It took about five minutes for him to understand that Gary wanted to stop and get off the camel for a few minutes.
We quickly noticed that something was missing—-like padding!! There was no saddle as we had seen in museums and even on the cover of our Lonely Planet Mongolian guide book. One of us sat painfully on a cover the thickness of a cheap beach towel. The other had a slightly better felt pad suitable for a ten minute tourist ride around the paddock. The bony backbone of a camel is rock-hard (think dinosaur). The extremely uneven terrain made the stride of the beasts even more pronounced as they stumbled along.
It was about 20°F/-7°C and after an hour we started to think about the ride back. Unfortunately, Arman, who was really a local stockman and more interested in checking on his herds of sheep and that of his neighbors, took the long way home. Returning to the simple three-room house, we were happy to be back on the ground. The mother and father were off in Kazakhstan but his 20-year old sister and their younger sibling had stoked up the firebox with a fresh load of cow dung and hot tea was waiting. There wasn’t a tree for miles around, so dried cow and horse dung are the main sources for heat and cooking. They had also prepared a delicious one-plate lunch of lamb, (mutton), potatoes and noodles.
We took some fun photos with Arman’s Golden Eagle and headed back to Olgii. When we arrived at the Travelers Guest house, Nazka’s teenage relative, Boba, knocked on the door and presented Monika with pencil drawing of The Turtle V as a birthday card, and her husband had brought a very pink birthday cake that the young kids and we devoured in short order. Nazka presented Monika with a pretty Kazakh-style hand-embroidered bag and had cooked a tasty meatball soup that everyone enjoyed after the cake. When there are kids around, cake comes first.
We retired to our warm camper to sip some birthday wine and inspect the memories on our butts that we will not show you photos of here.
After a week, the bloody sores on our rear ends had healed, the tailbones had recovered and the memories are fading to humor,— sort of.
Another memorable birthday. What’s next year? Climbing to Mount Everest’s Base Camp or up Kilimanjaro, spend a week with a Masai family?? Stay tune for Monika’s Birthday. Never a dull moment!!