South Korea Part 5 – Masks and Toilets – 11/2014

March 26, 2015

Before we left the historic Folk Village of Hahoe, we had to take time to see the famous Mask Dance Drama called Hahoe Pyolshin-Gut Tal-nori, handed down by lower-class people since the middle of the 12th century. Village rituals were performed to appease the local goddess and drive away the evil spirits or to ensure much happiness and a good harvest for the village.

During the Summer, the play is held in an outdoor amphitheater but being November, we were sitting on the floor of a small auditorium. Tal-nori is one of four parts of the Pyolshin-Gut drama and portrays the conflicting relationship between Yangban (ruling class) and Sangmin (ruled class).

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This dance is made up of 6 episodes with a satirical story of a nobleman, a fallen Buddhist monk and it delineates the joys and sorrows of the ruled people. Musicians play native instruments and singers narrate the dance. In its essence, it allows the commoners of the village to poke fun at their superiors without repercussions since, after all, it is just a play. Even though the performance was in Korean, it was pretty easy to follow the rather entertaining story. Of course we missed the many punch lines locals were laughing about. Originally 11 masks, only 10 have withstood the passing of time. When the performance was over and the masks were removed we recognized several gentlemen we had previously met at the rice straw sewing work party. One turned out to be the famous woodcarver Kim Jong-Heung of the village. (See South Korea Blog 4.)

The Yangban (aristocrat) mask is believed to represent the highest artistic value of the Hahoe masks and has become a popular symbol throughout this part of South Korea. We even saw it on the signs for public restrooms, which, brings up an interesting subject.

Without a doubt, South Korea has more clean public toilets than any other country in the world, including United States and Western Europe. In London for example, I can’t tell you the number of cups of coffee we ordered at cafés just to use the restroom. In South Korea, public bathrooms are everywhere, and we don’t mean the dirty slit trenches we found in China. We’re talking about real ultramodern toilets. Some even had heated toilet seats, a feature you could get used to. Others had the modern butt washers and warm air dryers. Some played classical music as you entered. Yeah really! Others had special seats to strap your child in while you did your business or a miniature toilet or urinal for little kids. Sometimes you could push a button to play a rushing water sound so the person next to you wouldn’t be bothered by your, well you know what it means. It served to remind us that we were back in “civilization”.

PS. Check out this website for more information on the Hahoe Mask Dance Performance.





South Korea Part 4 – Hahoe Village – 11/2014

March 18, 2015

While traveling through South Korea we were constantly reminded of just how modern this country is. Sometimes it was hard to find anything that would be ancient or historic, so we were delighted to stumble upon the Hahoe Folk Village. Located near Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do, it was established in the 16th century during the Joseon Dynasty. It has been a one-clan community (the Ryu family) since that time. The village maintains old architectural styles that have been lost because of rapid modernization and development in South Korea. Aristocratic tile-roofed residences and thatched-roof servants’ homes allowed us to step back in time. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.      

South Korea Blog 4 46One of the more interesting things about Hahoe village was the extensive use of rice straw for many of the roofs. Rice is one of the main food crops here, but it seemed almost as important for the continued use of the thatched roofs which must be redone periodically. Once the rice has been harvested, the straw is gathered and stacked in the fields to dry. As we walked around the village through the narrow dirt streets we happened upon a group of men using an interesting sewing machine to gather the rice straw into bundles. As friendly as Koreans are, they invited us to join them for their midday meal and get a closer look at how they were preparing the straw for later use.

Peeking into open doors of private homes, however a private home can be when it’s part of UNESCO world heritage site, we were fascinated by some of the old traditions. Persimmons, cabbage and chilies were being dried and preparations were under way for making kimchi, a staple dish in Korea. We stopped by one dry goods store where they were selling an interesting snack, sort of like an egg omelet or crape on a stick cooked in a seaweed broth and basted with a soy sauce. It was quite tasty on this chilly day.

The Nakdong River flows around Hahoe in an S shape, which gave the village its name: “ha” means river and “hoe” means turning around. Some say, it resembles a lotus flower floating on water. On the highest point in town we found the 600-year old zelkova tree. The Goddess Samsin who resides in the tree is said be in charge of pregnancy and prosperity. You can make a wish by writing it on a small piece of the paper and then when the paper is burned on January 15th, your wish will come true. We asked for a safe trip to Japan and back to California, and time to celebrate Gary’s birthday in Mexico. More on that later.

South Korea Blog 4 50Driving into the visitor parking area where we would camp for a couple of nights, we noticed some interesting woodcarvings and Korean totem poles. We later met the artist, Mr. Kim Jong-heung, who, as it turns out, is quite famous, having presented his works to Queen Elizabeth II on her 73rd birthday and even to both Presidents Bush. He invited us for tea and oven roasted sweet potatoes in his shop. After meeting his family and seeing his many carvings he kindly presented us with the token gift, a smaller version of his large totem poles more suitable for packing in our truck.



South Korea Part 3 – Cave & Penis Park- 11-2014

March 8, 2015

Returning from our visit to the DMZ, we took a side road to visit the Hwanseon Cave. Personally, I’m not a big cave person. I (Gary) would put spelunking next to ice climbing at the top of the list of things I never want to do, but big cavies are always interesting. The Hwanseon Cave is located in Gangwon Province. It is one of the largest limestone caves in Asia, and the biggest in Korea, with 6.2 km, (3.8 mi), of known passages and a total suspected length of 8 km, (4.9 mi), a mile of which are visited by over 1 million people a year. Situated in a rugged Karst Range near the city of Sachiko. The cave’s 32 ft tall entrance is a grueling 30 to 45 minute uphill hike from the ticket office. To our delight, there is a monorail that we took one way, Swiss style; ride up and walk down.

South Korea Blog 3 39Once inside, the temperature varies between 10° and 14°C, (50°F and 57°F). The walls spout water from several cracks and seeps, which join to make good-sized streams, waterfalls and ten large pools. Some rooms in the cave are vast, 100 m, (328 ft), tall. Bridges have been built across chasms. The usual fanciful names have been given to the various formations, but the high rate of water flow has prevented the building up of many stalagmites or stalactites. Flowstones, rimstones, popcorn, pipes and curtains are more abundant. A labyrinth of stainless steel walkways allow the visitor to wander for an hour or more through the various chambers. The use of multi-colored LED lights along the walkways adds a fantasyland effect.

Back on the main highway, we couldn’t resist a stop at Haesindang Park, (more commonly known among Westerners as ‘The Penis Park’). As the name would suggest, it’s a park full of penises!!! Before you write this off as a sleazy joke, or an advertisement for a porn shop, consider the history.

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According to local legend, a young virgin girl had been dropped off by her lover on a small rocky islet in the bay while he went to check his traps. A storm was brewing and before he could rescue her, she was washed into the sea and downed. Around the same time, the local fishermen began to notice a steep decline in their catch. The fish, it seemed, had all but disappeared. Concluding (as anyone would!) that the young girl’s spirit was haunting the ocean, angry and frustrated after dying a virgin, the locals decided to take drastic action to appease her presumed spirit. And what does a virgin spirit want most??

Well, they used their imagination as you might, and a park was constructed, full to the brim with phallic monuments and statues. Meanwhile, the local men were encouraged to (ahem) ‘relieve’ themselves in the ocean, thus providing some very real offerings for this virgin ghost to sample!

The artistic skills of carvers and sculptures over the years have made this a popular tourist stop, mostly for busloads of older Korean women from what we could see. Clearly, in the fishing village of Sinnam, size does matter.


South Korea Part 2 – DMZ – 11-2014

March 3, 2015

Meanwhile, returning to the real world, some of you know and others may have guessed, we are back in California at our home base in Nevada City and The Turtle V has arrived via Ro-Ro from South Korea without a problem. We are now consumed with unpacking from our two-year/40,000-mile expedition, repacking for the next adventure, refreshing all the engine and gear oils, changing all filters, and more than I can list here, all in-between various doctor, dentist and optometrist appointments for long overdue checkups. Whew. Is it fun yet?

Before we pick up again with our blogs and photographs starting in Greece where we more or less left off, we want to show you a little bit of the amazing friendly country of South Korea or correctly called, The Republic of Korea. (See South Korea 1 for an introduction.)

Tearing ourselves away from our comfortable campsite in the beach town of Samcheok, we headed north to the DMZ, (Demilitarized Zone – East Coast). Just to give you a little history, at 4 o’clock in the morning on June 25, 1950 North Korea carried out a sudden attack against South Korea led by Russian tanks. That was the beginning of the Korean War. Countries from around the world came to South Korea’s rescue. Under the banner of United Nations Forces, 40,896 soldiers from 17 countries gave their lives to protect the Republic of Korea against the communist aggression.

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The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, China, and the United Nations Command Forces in 1953. But the “war” is not over. 28,500 United States Forces Korea (USFK) troops still assist the South Korean military in guarding the DMZ. ——We did not see any US forces but the South Korean Army certainly made its presence all along the east coast (where we traveled)——South Koreans see the U.S. military presence as a sign of Washington’s steadfast support in the event of a North Korean offensive. Sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999. Coils of razor wire along the beaches and costal highways were clear evidence that the threat from North Korea is still very present as we found out in Samcheok. The excellent DMZ Museum near the entry to the controlled zone was a real education.

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At this DMZ check-point, our papers were carefully checked and entered into their log.

We filled out all the necessary forms and received our pass to drive as far as the Unification Observatory north of the village of Myeongpa. We were not able to actually see any of the military posts, but the viewing deck left much to our imagination. The natural isolation along the 250 km (160 mi) length of the DMZ has created an involuntary park, which is now recognized as one of the most well preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world —- except for the land mines.

A couple of weeks later, we visited the UN Memorial Cemetery of Korea, (UNMCK), in the city of Busan.  Beautifully landscaped and maintained, in 1973, the cemetery was transferred from the UN to the Commission for the United Nations Memorial Cemetery (CUNMCK). It is the only UN cemetery of its kind in the world. The Wall of Remembrance was especially impressive, with the names of the 36,492 Americans and 4,404 other nationalities that died in the fight for South Koreans’ freedom, many of whom are buried on sight. An eternal flame burns over a reflection pool.

It was a tragic war and terrible loss of men and women, but looking at South Korea today, the monument in the American section says it all. “HONOR, FREEDOM, PEACE”. It’s a goal that seems to have been reached in this modern nation.


Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year – 2014/15

December 24, 2014

We are in Japan now and our trusty Turtle V expedition truck is on its way to California from South Korea. We will be celebrating another unique Christmas in historic Kyoto and later, since our flight to Sacramento leaves Tokyo on December 31, crossing the dateline and arriving on the 31st, we will enjoy the longest New Year’s Eve we’ve ever spent.

Christmas Season is subtle here in Kyoto with Christmas music playing softly in stores, coffee shops and shopping centers. We just bought tickets for a very special Kabuki (old style theater) performance on Christmas Eve at the Minamiza Theater, founded in 1615. For Kyoto residence, the opening of the Kabuki season (now) is as important as the traditional December performances of Nutcracker Suite and Dickens’ Christmas Carole in the US. We are excited to be able to attend this unique event.

We are wishing everyone a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays and a super New Year!

Gary and Monika

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Even in this far-away land, home of Toyota, Honda, Sony, Nikon, Canon and everything else so familiar to us, Christmas is alive and well and Santa Claus is looking for the nearest chimney. Didn’t we see him do this in Italy last year climbing the side of a motor home?

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We are looking forward to spending Christmas Eve in the beautiful historic Minamiza Theater, founded in 1615. The famous 4 act – 4 hour Kabuki play and dance performance, anticipated by people from Kyoto and all over Japan, will be our Christmas gift to ourselves.


South Korea Part 1 – 11-2014

December 7, 2014

South Korea! What most Americans and perhaps Europeans know about South Korea (or correctly called The Republic of Korea) is its caustic neighbor, North Korea. As it turns out, South Korea is a modern and well developed country ranked 15th in the Human Development Index, the highest in East Asia. In terms of average wage, it has Asia’s highest and the world’s 10th highest income. It is the world’s most research-and-development intensive country and the most innovative as measured by the Bloomberg Innovation Quotient. South Korea is the world’s seventh largest exporter, driven by high-tech multinationals such as Samsung, Hyundai-Kia and LG. A highly advanced information society, South Korea has the world’s fastest Internet connection speed and a female President! What’s not to like about that?

Disembarking from the Eastern Dream ferry on which The Turtle V had been safely parked in the lower deck, it was nearly dark when we finished with customs and insurance paperwork, we turned onto Hwy 7 and headed south.

Drivers were shockingly polite. No honking of horns. A few miles down the road, we turned off at the Samcheok Beach exit, not knowing what we would find. As yet, we had no GPS or paper maps. Monika had downloaded the Lonely Planet South Korean Guide from iBooks on the mothballed iPad that we never got to work properly but however useful those books are, they are not aimed at overland travelers driving their own self-contained camper.

Shortly we came to an intersection with an underpass clearly marked 3.6 meters!! We generally go with 3.5 meters on the Turtle V that includes the custom storage box on the rear of the roof. Our most accurate measurement is 3.3 meters. We held our breath, waiting for the box and the Yakima rack bars to be sliced off. Wheuu!! We made it!!

Turning right at the beach, well lit so the military patrols might spot a North Korean trying to sneak in, we parked in a huge empty parking lot, our home for the next three days. It was a beautiful beach with a boardwalk and swings, clean restrooms and water, and half a block from our truck no less than six cute “coffee dessert” cafés with high-speed Internet and electrical plugs by the tables. (Who needs Starbucks?)

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The next day was Thanksgiving. Forget football, but what’s for dinner? Looking at the photos outside restaurants down the street, we could not identify anything that looked like comfort food. (A lot of it looked like “bait”, used for getting food!) Our Thanksgiving feast was multinational, as it should be: Hors d’oeuvre included hot buttered popcorn, (US), slices of dill pickles and cheese, (Russia), along with a shot or two of Mongolian Genghis Khan vodka. The main course was a rich Mole Poblano sauce, (Mexico), over chicken (canned from the US), bulgur from Turkey and sautéed carrots from Russia. Sorry, no pumpkin pie. We settled for some creamy JIFF peanut butter (US), on vanilla cookies, (Russia), and homemade apricot jam from our stash of frozen apricots from Kyrgyzstan. All the while our Espar Airtronic heater purred away, keeping us warm and cozy. We haven’t seen a turkey since we left Greece.

Thanksgiving morning a guy designing on yet another coffee shop brought us hot coffee and welcomed us. Next, the police stopped by, just curious about the strange truck but very friendly. The day after, a group of sea kayakers arrived and camped just down the beach. Real campers!! One guy, Lee, had a big teepee with a unique pellet-burning stove inside. A couple of them spoke English and invited us that evening for a taste of their local food and some homemade pumpkin/rice wine. (Not even close to pumpkin pie.) Lee, who also spoke excellent English, invited us the following evening and we sat in his warm teepee looking for a way to download a South Korean map on Monika’s i-Pad. It worked. In the morning he invited us for rice-cake soup and Monika prepared REAL Turkish coffee, something he had never had. He knew from a movie that Turks read their fortune from the left-over coffee grounds poured onto the saucer so we laughingly tried our luck at it.

Later he kindly drove us to the fishing village of Samcheok for some grocery shopping and a map from the Tourist Information Office. The smell of drying fish was in the air. Among other specialties it was squid season and many hung on drying lines in the sun. At night fishing boats use long strings of bright lights that attract the squid to the surface where they are netted. Other fish come along for the ride.

It was also cabbage season—–tons of it. A dish called “kimchi” is part of Korea’s national identity. Making kimchi from Napa Cabbage was historically a way for people to preserve vegetables for the long harsh Korean winter before the advent of modern refrigeration. With the introduction of chili peppers to Asia from the New World by the Portuguese in the 1600’s, it didn’t take long before people figured out that the capsicum in peppers had an antimicrobial effect aiding in preservation, while adding a little spice to the bleak winter days. 

Looks like the next Ro-Ro ship to take our Turtle V back to California will sail on December 16, so we have some time to explore a little of this beautiful country.


Russia Part 2, 11-2014

December 2, 2014

Arriving in Vladivostok, the port city on the far southern coast of eastern Russia, our first priority was to meet Yuri Melnikov, our shipping agent. Yuri would arrange our customs exit from Russia and our ferry passage to South Korea. Next, we had to wash off the grime from The Turtle V of over 4,000 miles of Siberian winter roads. Then we took advantage of a day of rest to explore this old Russian port. In 1860, the military supply ship Manchur, under the command of Captain-Lieutenant Alexey K. Shefner, called at the Golden Horn Bay to found an outpost called Vladivostok.The name Vladivostok loosely translates from Russian as “the ruler of the East”. The city had been closed to all foreigners until 1992.

We give ourselves a thumbs-up having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East.

We give ourselves a thumbs-up having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East.

Signs of the crumbling Soviet empire were still to be seen, but the city was warm and inviting and many of the old buildings have been beautifully restored, including the historic train depot, the terminus of the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway. There was a feeling of being in a “city by the bay” like our own San Francisco, with amazing suspension bridges, some of the highest in the world, and relaxing promenades along the waterfront. A street guitarist played the Beatles’ song, “Let it Be” when we strolled by. As we had felt 18 years ago, despite political differences, Russians still want to identify with all the images of the European and Western world, clearly evidenced by the street ads and billboards. In fact, despite the recent problems of Georgia and the Ukraine, all the people we met here and on the road were very friendly and a few were genuinely excited to meet both Americans and Swiss foreigners for the first time. The USA and CH country stickers and the Swiss and American flags on the rear of The Turtle V just above the California license plate were met with the same extension of Russian hospitality we had experienced in 1996. We were joined at the port by a nice French couple, Maéva and Remi, traveling in a huge Mercedes motorhome with two big dogs. Having already experienced several mechanical problems with their overloaded vehicle, we again felt lucky that we had only relatively minor difficulties on our whole Trans-Eurasian adventure. As The Turtle V was driven away to load on the Eastern Dream ferry, we gave ourselves a big “thumbs up”, having completed our second crossing of Eurasia, this time from West to East, and with only South Korea and the Pacific Ocean on the horizon, our second adventure around the world. Standing on a pier at the water’s edge, yes, we could see the back porch of Sarah Palin’s home in Alaska.


Russia Part 1, 11-2014

November 28, 2014

For those of you who are wondering where we are at the moment, when you find out, please send us an email so we know too. In the meantime, here is Russia in the blink of an eye. Yes, we will get to the gory details when we catch up with our blogs.

You may refer to the last blog on Monika’s birthday and recall the stick poking through the camel’s nose with the rope tied to it. Since we left the beautiful country of Turkey and headed east on the Silk Road, we too have had a “stick” in our nose, a stick called “VISAS”, and the rope has been the incredible bureaucracies of the countries we have driven through. We did not spit at them, but there were many times when we wish we could have.

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After wading thorough the Mongolian border exit paperwork, (four hours), and a relatively quick crossing into Russia, we headed for a safe haven in the city of Rubtsovsk where we had many friends awaiting us with open arms. There was a serious “clunk” in the front end of The Turtle V, and as we suspected, it was our wheel bearings getting loose, the result of thousands of miles of the worst imaginable roads possible; 6-inch washboard, deep sand, mud, toilet bowl-size pot-holes, hundreds of lock-to-lock mountain hairpin corners, temperatures from below 0°F to over 120°F, and a few thousand miles more of normal high-speed highways. We do carry replacement bearings, races and seals, but the quick fix for our Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs was simply to have a local mechanic adjust the outer bearings. Had we not had used the Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs with their rebuildable and adjustable Spicer bearings, the problem would have been a catastrophic total failure of the Ford factory “unibearings”.

With that problem solved, we were able to spend a few days with our friends that we had met when we crossed Siberia in 1996. They helped us buy a SIM card for our phone, took us on shopping trips to the local open markets and arranged all needed paperwork for Monika’s Russian visa extension. Being Swiss, she had only been able to get a 10-day “transit visa”, hardly enough time to drive the 4,521 miles, (7,115 km), from Olgii, Mongolia to Vladivostok on the far eastern Pacific Coast of Russia where we would take the ferry to South Korea.

A few wonderful dinners and a super “banya”, (Russian sauna), with the traditional birch branch beating gave us a rest from the “visa stick” in our nose that was being constantly yanked. We had safe parking in Lyosha’s driveway with water and power if we needed it. Lyosha’s wife, Nina, insisted on cooking up some of our Russian favorites while someone was filling our glasses with vodka. Vitaly was our constant guide, chauffeur and interpreter while his wife, Svetlana, filled out the documents in Russian for Monika’s visa extension.

After a final goodbye, we hit the icy roads of Siberia with memories of our crossing in 1996. Many good changes had taken place but it also included much more traffic. Now instead of frozen dirt and gravel roads, they were mostly paved, covered with treacherous ice and hard-packed snow. The plows were busy but they could hardly keep up with the storm we drove though. Passing semi-trucks would create near whiteout conditions in the dry powder.

Daylight hours were getting shorter as we headed north around the hump of China, demanding that if we were to make any real progress, we needed to drive some at night. Uncapping our PIAA 510 ATP XTreme White Driving Halogen Lamps and aiming them low gave us an idea of the centerline and sides of the narrow two-lane highway, sometimes in blizzard conditions. The 580 Driving XTreme White Plus Halogen Lamps were pointed about 60 yards down the road, giving us ample time to see potholes or other unannounced obstacles. Oncoming traffic was quick to let us know if we were slow in turning off the incredibly bright 580’s.

Our Michelin XZL tires had been a concern even back in Turkey. With already some 18,000 miles on them then, would they last on the bad roads through the Stans and then all the way across China? Much to our relief and amazement, even after the horrendous crossing of the Altai Gobi Desert in Mongolia, we had no flats. Even running at reduced pressures, (40psi front 50psi rear), for three months when paved roads were so rough and potholed that they were worse than the dirt washboard of Mongolia, the XZL’s had not lost a single pound of air during the entire trip. Now at nearly 40,000 miles, the treads still had plenty of bite in the snow and slop. Nothing will stop on ice and packed snow. We did have Pewag Mud & Snow chains for all four wheels, but that would have reduced our speed to 35 mph. Without chains or studs, it made for some white-knuckle driving on the corners and passing slow big rigs.

As temperatures dropped to -23°F we reflected that driving up the frozen Lena River from Yakutsk to Lensk for 680 miles and then another 700 miles on winter roads through the Taiga forest in 1996 was infinitely easier and more exciting in a different way.


Monika’s Birthday – Mongolia 10-2014

November 11, 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.

Yes, another birthday wish of Monika’s comes true!

Yes, another birthday wish of Monika’s comes true!

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!!


Golden Eagle Festival Part 2 – Mongolia 10-2014

October 26, 2014

It was 23°F outside under a blazing blue sky as the second day of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Hunters Festival began. Different from the previous day’s event where eagles had to attack a dead rabbit or fox being drug behind their trainer’s horse, today they had to zero in on their owner who held a chunk of meat in his gloved hand while riding at full speed across the field. Sharp talons extended, as soon the eagle had landed on the glove it was breakfast time. This too was all timed by officials and the Kazakh hunter would race by the judging stand with his eagle enjoying the ride with wings open in an impressive display of the close relationship of man, horse and bird.

While the next competition was being organized, we wandered around the gers where beautiful “tus kis” (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls and other souvenirs were for sale. Several locals had set up grills to cook “shashlik”, skewers of mutton and fat sprinkled with their own special spices, served with raw sliced onions and bread.

Among the local Mongols, there were several archery contests. In one competition, instead of pointed arrows, they used blunt tips and the goal was to hit small leather balls that had been lined up about 30 yards away. It looked like bocce ball with a Mongolian twist. Their accuracy was impressive.

Golden Eagle Festival, Olgii, Mongolia 009

Meanwhile, the camel race was being staged. It was not as action-packed as we might have imagined, since the ungainly bactrians are not really into galloping across the stony desert.

Back in the main arena, the final competition for the eagle hunters was getting under way. A sheep carcass was tossed on the ground and the riders, two at a time, would pick it up and get a firm grip for an exciting tug-a-war that could last several minutes until one of the riders succeeded in wrestling the bloody carcass away from the other. The horses played a critical roll in the battle and the skill of the riders was amazing as they kept their grip on the carcass and used the power of their stocky Mongolian horses to the best advantage. Competition was fierce and we spotted quite a few who were nursing their bleeding knuckles.

In past years, the winner of the eagle contest was allowed to send his eagle after a live fox or a small wolf pup as a final demonstration of the eagle’s skill for the crowd. The fox this year died or was killed, so a wolf pup was to be used. However, there were so many sympathetic spectators that someone purchased the poor wolf to spare its life. How it will manage in the wild of the coming winter in the mountains full of other hungry eagles is a good question. As cruel as some may think it is to hunt cute little foxes or wolfs or rabbits and other small animals with an eagle for “sport”, we meat-eaters regularly kill deer, moose, elk and even a cow or a lamb to eat. Eagle hunting has been a tradition in this part of the world for over 2,000 years. Nothing goes to waste. Gathering winter pelts is part of the hunter/herder’s livelihood and still provides the warm clothing for the severe winters.

As a side note, when the trained eagle has reached the age of about 10 years, she is taken to a mountaintop, presented with a dead sheep as a going-away present and released to the wild to once again live a life of freedom and to breed.

All in all, a very exciting two days of a spectacle we could probably not see anywhere else in the world. Now it was time to make a new plan. As much as we would have liked to drive back to Ulaanbaatar, taking our time to visit some of the remote families herding their sheep, yaks, cows, horses, camels and goats along the way and then heading for the Central Gobi desert to celebrate Monika’s birthday, The Turtle V needed some repairs on the rear suspension and a full check-up after its grueling 900-mile crossing of the Altai Gobi. The first step was to wash off the mud and dust. Clean trucks run better.

Note: Click a photo for a bigger picture and then scroll quickly through the first few frames to get a feeling for what transpires in just a few seconds!