Russia #1 – Arriving in Siberia – November 2014

February 15, 2019

Our emergency trip back to Ulaanbaatar, (the capital of Mongolia), to pick up repair suspension parts from Hellwig and get the necessary visas and extensions had been fun and interesting, but it definitely threw a wrench into our expected travel plans. We had hoped to drive back to the capital on the spectacular road we had followed to reach Olgii, stop at some ger (yurt) summer camps, and then head south and west again to cross the Central Gobi Desert.

Most of the Russian highways were in excellent condition.

Most of the Russian highways were in excellent condition.

Now, our visas for Mongolia were running out and winter was approaching rapidly. With all the repairs made, we decided to turn north to cross into Russia. Reports of that road had been good or not so good. After waiting for a change of guard and lunch hour to pass, crossing the border was slow but relatively easy except for paying a fine at the Mongolian border for Gary being late in registering at an immigration office.

Crossing the Mongolian-Russian Border

And then, an officer suddenly asked to see our insurance papers. At the entry port, no one required it. Quick thinking. Monika flashed her AAA card and claimed it was our international insurance that covered Mongolia. Quite surprised they thought it was a credit card. Oh no, it’s our insurance card. Baffled, they let us go. Entering Russia was efficient and uneventful.

Arriving in Rubtsovsk, there was no doubt that winter had arrived. Almost always below freezing.

Arriving in Rubtsovsk, there was no doubt that winter had arrived. Almost always below freezing.

The drive north along the beautiful Chuya River was relaxing after our trip across the Northern Gobi but first, we had to stop in Kosh-Agach. We had stumbled into this fly-spec of a town in 1996 on our way across the mountains of Tuva and the Altai Republic. Its personality had not changed in 18 years, and as our Lonely Planet’s 1996 addition of Russia, Ukraine & Belarus guide book clearly pointed out, Kosh-Agach was “in the middle nowhere”. Kosh-Agach is the driest inhabited place in the Russian Federation. 

Arriving in Rubstovsk, Altai Republic

We spent some wonderful evenings with our old friends. Thanks to Vitali who is fluent in English, the conversations flowed easily. We had much to catch up. Left to right, Svetlana, Vitaly, yours truly, Nina and Losha.

We spent some wonderful evenings with our old friends. Thanks to Vitali who is fluent in English, the conversations flowed easily. We had much to catch up. Left to right, Svetlana, Vitaly, yours truly, Nina and Losha.

Our old friends, Vitaly and Losha, in the city of Rubtsovsk, had emailed that they could help us with a second problem. Due to an unsigned agreement between Russia and Switzerland & Germany, residents of those two countries could not apply for the normal one-month visa outside their home country or country of residence. All Monika could get was a ten-day transit visa with her Swiss passport. Great, except it was about 4,000 miles east to our destination of Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast, and by the way, it was winter in Siberia, and we were driving, not flying!

Famous Russian Hospitality

Arriving in Rubtsovsk we were met with typical Russian hospitality. Losha’s wife, Nina, was busy making fresh crêpes with homemade jam. Losha had just left for a fishing trip to nearby Kazakhstan but turned right around and was back the next day. No one had ever dreamt of us returning someday. We immediately felt like we were back home! 

Since Vitaly wasn't there to translate, Mr. Google came up with some really strange interpretations of our text.

Since Vitaly wasn’t there to translate, Mr. Google came up with some really strange interpretations of our text.

After several phone calls by Vitaly and his wife Svetlana, who knew someone in the local immigration office, they filled out a flurry of paperwork, took Monika to a passport photo studio and a bank to pay fees. Unfortunately, the immigration office in Rubtsovsk did not have the authority to give her an extension so Vitaly was kind enough to call ahead to Barnaul, the capital of Altai, to advise them when we were coming and that they needed to have an English speaking person at the desk. He later set up another appointment in Chita, as we needed more time to cross the vast expanse of wintry Siberia.

Invigorating Banyas and Wonderful Parties

To present a man a knife is highly revered in Russia. Gary let the three guys pick a knife from his stash of gifts.

To present a man a knife is highly revered in Russia. Gary let the guys pick a knife from his stash of gifts.

While all this was being done we had a great visit with several old friends and enjoyed an invigorating Russian “banya”, (sauna), wonderful food and, well, it was Russia, a little vodka. Only our generous 1996 hosts, Loriss and Larisa, were sadly missing. Loriss had passed away several years ago and Larisa now lives with her daughter in Yekaterinenburg. The pleasure of seeing each other again was huge for all of us and brought back wonderful memories of Autumn mushroom hunting & campfire cook-outs, fishing excursions, rafting on the Katun river, saunas and jumping in a cold creek or a red heart shaped bathtub, and the most fabulous birthday party anyone had ever thrown for Monika (yup, here we go again). They were all members of a club called the “Rubtsovsk Tourist Club” where families got together and were involved in many different outdoor activities. 

Open Markets and new Super Markets

Ana is quite a performer. She takes dancing and singing lessons and competes successfully in beauty/talent competitions.

Ana is quite a performer. She takes dancing and singing lessons and competes successfully in beauty/talent competitions.

A couple of trips to the local open market with Vitaly, acting as our guide and chauffeur, brought pleasant memories and having been in Muslim countries for much of the last year, we were happy to see pork and tasty sausages again. While we were running around town, a friend of Vitaly was both a computer and a Garmin expert and he made quick of erasing our “turn-by-turn” Garmin China microchip and installing a detailed map of Russia which we did not have.

An annoying Clunk

There was also an annoying “clunk” coming from the front suspension. We visited a couple of mechanic shops in town and one guy said it was the front sway bar, but I knew that I had not checked or repacked the front wheel bearings for over 35,000 horrible miles, a service I would normally do every 20,000 miles.

A last parting shot with lovely Nina, our hostess, and Gary.

A last parting shot with lovely Nina, our hostess, and Gary.

In sub-zero weather we got a sunny day and a second mechanic agreed with me. He knew exactly what he was doing and without even taking the big Michelin XZL tires off, an inspection showed there was still plenty of grease on the bearings but he was able to get a full turn on both outside bearing retaining nuts. Very fortunately, we did have the Dynatrac Free-Spin hub kits that replaced the problematic factory unit-bearings. The Dynatrac Free-Spin hubs use normal Timken bearings and seals and can be serviced anywhere. I did carry a full set of bearings and seals, and I had the big locknut socket needed to remove the outer bearing nuts. The “clunk” was gone!!

Saying Good-Bye to our wonderful Friends

Saying a sad goodbye to our wonderful Russian friends, we started across a tortuous route with stops at the necessary immigration offices to have Monika’s visa extended for another ten days.

 

Mongolia #7 – Visas and Suspension – October 2014

February 8, 2019

With the excitement of the Golden Eagle Festival over, we were quickly brought back to reality and the fact that The Turtle V had a serious suspension problem. The good news was that repair parts from Hellwig Products in Visalia, CA were waiting to be sent. The bad news was that there was nothing remotely like DHL, UPS or FEDX anywhere close to the “middle of nowhere”. They had to go to an address in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, and being in “middle of nowhere”, we did not have an address in Ulaanbaatar. The good news was that there were regular flights from the “middle of nowhere”, and having found a very safe place to park our truck at the Travelers Guest House yurt camp, we were on the next plane out. The flight gave an interesting prospective on the road we had just driven.

Flight from Olgii to Ulanbaatar

The flight from Olgii to Ulanbaatar gave us an overall view of the landscape we had just driven through.

The flight from Olgii to Ulanbaatar gave us an overall view of the landscape we had just driven through.

Once in the capital we quickly established an address to where the parts could be shipped. In the meantime, we learned that US citizens, who do not need a visa for Mongolia, have to register within five days. Well, I was a little late and ended up having to file a bunch of paperwork and later pay a fine at the border. We were also waiting for the invitation needed for a Russian visa from a friend in Moscow. That too was being mailed as we settled into a small Airbnb type apartment close to the center of the sprawling city. We had a shared kitchen and nearby super markets sold products we would expect to find in Europe. We waited and caught up on emails, blogs and sorting photos.

Hellwig Spare Parts

In 1996, we had spent time Ulaanbaatar and it had grown considerably. It was still a friendly city to get around in. We were warned that the homeless boy-gangs were quite active and were incredibly clever at ripping unsuspecting tourists off. We had expected to return to Olgii within five days but that would not be the case and we had to cancel our return flight. The Hellwig spare parts arrived first. We had to take a bus to the airport to retrieve the package from customs after completing some paperwork and pay an import fee. We will never know what route the “Express” package took. We could see, with a grimace, that the final carrier was none other than Pony Express—-no joke!

Russian Visa Invitations

The letter of invitations for the Russian visa should have arrived at the same time. It didn’t. Both we and our friend in Moscow were starting to worry. Over a week passed and still nothing. Then, on a Friday afternoon, it finally showed up at our apartment, but it was too late to go to the Russian Embassy that day.

Ulanbaatar Culture

Sükhbaatar Square is the center of Ulanbaatar.

Sükhbaatar Square is the center of Ulanbaatar.

The classic Mongolian boots with toes turned up.

The classic Mongolian boots with toes turned up.

Making the best of our extended stay; we visited the National Historic Museum, some of the impressive Buddhist temples, the Sunday outdoor flea market, a wonderful Mongolian dance performance, and strolled around the spacious downtown plaza. As chance might have it, hundreds of locals had gathered to celebrate an Ulanbaatar anniversary. After music and speeches, everyone received a piece of an enormous birthday cake. With Antonello and Sara, a fun couple from Italy who were traveling around the world, we enjoyed some great Mongolian food. Ulaanbaatar just happens to be one of the best places in the world to buy cashmere products; hats, sweaters, scarfs and other incredibly warm and soft apparel. One non-profit store, Tsagaan Alt, is working with 12 co-ops employing 250 disadvantaged individuals.

Rediscovering Gana’s Guesthouse

We posed on the roof top of Gana’s Guesthouse in Ulanbaatar with Gana’s wife and his son who now helps manage the “yurt hotel”. Our old friend was off on a fishing trip.

We posed on the roof top of Gana’s Guesthouse in Ulanbaatar with Gana’s wife and his son who now helps manage the “yurt hotel”. Our old friend was off on a fishing trip.

When we arrived in Ulaanbaatar in 1996 by train to renew our Russian visas, we met a young English speaking man named Gana who offered us a yurt to sleep. That sounded like fun and a good alternative to the only expensive hotel in town. (Yes, at that time there was only one hotel in the capital!) He had just bought a second yurt and we were his first customers. The other was occupied by two Danish travelers. Since then, Gana grew his business exponentially, built a “yurt” hotel on the roof of his building. Here guests can still sleep in traditional yurts overlooking the city. Gana’s Guesthouse is a fun place to stay. Very pleased we found him again, he invited us to stay for dinner. His wife brought out an album with photos the Danes had sent them.

An unpleasant surprise awaited us in Olgii

When we boarded the Aero Mongolia aircraft in Olgii it had been sunny and in the 30s at night. We had left our Eberspaecher Airtronic diesel air heater on low, thinking that our four Odyssey Extreme batteries in combo with the two BP85 solar panels would keep things toasty for the few days we would be gone. Surprise! The day after we left for Ulaanbaatar, which turned out to be a 13-day adventure, the sun went south and the temperature inside our camper dropped to 20°F and lower at night. With no sun on the solar panels and the Eberspaecher running full time, the batteries were soon down below 11 volts. When we returned our Everpure secondary pre-filter had frozen and exploded, leaving us with no water until I could make repairs and splices to bypass the dead filter. The primary ADC Everpure filter had survived and thankfully, our Pentair Shurflo water pump also had not frozen.

Repairing our Hellwig Suspension 

A crowd gathered to watch the mechanic go to work.

A crowd gathered to watch the mechanic go to work.

Next, we had to find a shop where the truck could be worked on, and with a daytime temperature of 20°F, it had to be inside. After removing the rear storage box on the roof and lowering the tires to 15 psi, we were able to squeeze into the only mechanic shop in town. Having seen some of the work done on other projects around Olgii—like welding—we were concerned, but there was no choice. I had looked for a hardware store to buy a big bolt for the sway-bar drop-arm and found that the bolt selection in the only parts house in town which was part of the mechanic shop consisted of two military ammo cans, one for metric and one standard, all recycled. Pick and choose what you needed.

Bolts, Bits and Tools

The young mechanic was somewhat taken back by the job we presented. His entire tool kit was laughable. But like any good third world mechanic, he had no fear. I loaned him my sockets and wrenches and when it came time to enlarge a couple of holes in the new brackets sent by Hellwig, the shop had a drill, but no bits and no vise. We had bits and our Mac’s Trail D-Vise mounted on the back bumper proved its weight in gold. The work took about three hours plus another hour to reinstall the rear storage box and repack it. The bill was a $100, and that even included another truck wash!

With repairs made, we did take time to explore Olgii, the “middle of nowhere”, and found it was a cute little town with a great public bath. The open market was interesting. We stocked up on the normal stuff; potatoes and carrots, $.17lb, mutton, (lamb) and beef, $1.46 a lb., cucumbers, $.90 lb., apples, $.90 a lb., Genghis Khan vodka, $6.61.

Hey, we could afford to live here!

After doing a final wash of our travel clothes using the luxury of the washing machine at the Travelers Guest House, we hung them outside to dry. They were frozen stiff in half an hour so we moved them into the heated camper and cranked the Eberspaecher Airtronic heater up to 70°F. We had heard the road to the Russian border was good, unless it wasn’t.

Both Travelers Guest House in Olgii and Gana’s Guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar can be booked through all the online travel agencies.

Mongolia #6 -Monika’s Birthday in Olgii – October 2014

February 1, 2019

In order to complete the Mongolia series, we are reposting Monika’s Birthday blog. Only she can get away with celebrating two birthdays in one year!

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?

A Camel Trek in the Gobi Desert

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

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

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.

Holding a majestic Golden Eagle, what a treat!

Monika was excited to be allowed to hold this Golden Eagle, a three-year old female that had placed 5th (of 72) in the recent competition. (See previous blogs.)

Monika was excited to be allowed to hold this Golden Eagle, a three-year old female that had placed 5th (of 72) in the recent competition. (See previous blogs.)

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 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).

Spitting Camels

Stay back! He is about to spit you in the face.

Stay back! He is about to spit you in the face.

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. His voice was already changing!

Traditional hot salty Milk Tea

The older sister didn’t like her picture taken but when we mentioned Facebook she got excited.

The older sister didn’t like her picture taken but when we mentioned Facebook she got excited.

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.

A surprise Birthday Party for Monika

Boba designed a special birthday card for Monika.

Boba designed a special birthday card for Monika.

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 faded into a painful humor.

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!!

Mongolia #5 – Olgii’s Golden Eagle Festival – Day 2 – October 2014

January 25, 2019

It was 23°F outside under a blazing blue sky as the second day of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle 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 as the eagle had landed on the glove, breakfast was served. This too was all timed by officials and the Kazakh hunters 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.

Hunters demonstrating their Skills

Once the eagle landed on her trainer's glove the galloping horse was quickly brought to a stop.

Once the eagle landed on her trainer’s glove the galloping horse was quickly brought to a stop.

While the next competition was being organized, we wandered around the gers (yurts) 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 Kazakh Mongolians, 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 billiards with a Mongolian twist. Their accuracy was impressive.

Bloody Knuckles in Tug-a-War 

It was a fierce battle to the end until one of the riders ended up with the sheep carcass in his lap.

It was a fierce battle to the end until one of the riders ended up with the sheep carcass in his lap.

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. They were encouraged on by men on horseback riding along side with whips.

Archery Competition

There were several archery contests.

There were several archery contests.

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 role 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. Apparently there were some rules because there was an umpire watching the battle.

Ashol-Pan breaks the Male Tradition

The big sensation was 13 year old Ashol-Pan, the first female to become an eagle hunter, or is it huntress?

The big sensation was 13 year old Ashol-Pan, the first female to become an eagle hunter, or is it huntress?

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 foreign 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 wolves or rabbits and other small animals with an eagle instead of a rifle, we meat-eaters regularly kill deer, moose, elk for sport, and slaughter cows or cute baby lambs to eat. Eagle hunting has been a tradition in this part of the world for over 2,000 years.

Hand-embroidered Tus Kis were tempting

Beautiful “tus kis”, (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls were for sale.

Beautiful “tus kis”, (hand-embroidered tapestries) used to decorate the ger walls were for sale.

Nothing goes to waste. In these deserts and high mountains, natives eat basically only meat just like the hunter/gatherers in Paleolithic times. Gathering winter pelts is part of the hunter/herder’s livelihood and still provides the warm clothing for the severe winters. Some of their beautiful coats were a testimony to their hunting success.

It made us feel better to learn that when the trained eagle has reached the age of about 10 years, she is taken to a mountain top, 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.

The comical Camel Race 

Mongolia Blog 5 054

The camel race was quite funny. A couple of them refused to budge.

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. An email to Hellwig Products in Visalia, CA, set our rescue mission for replacement parts in motion. We get emergency product support from all of our sponsors and Hellwig was a great example. A new bracket and bolts were in the express mail the next day.

 

Mongolia #4 – Olgii’s Golden Eagle Festival – Day 1 – October 2014

January 18, 2019

After a harrowing 5-day/900-mile, (1,500 kilometers), drive across the amazing expanses of the northern Gobi Desert, (see previous blog), we arrived at the site of the 16th Annual Golden Eagle Festival just outside of Bayan-Olgii in Western Mongolia, and parked to join the growing crowd of spectators. Some of you may recall

This hunter was among the favorites of the crowd.

This hunter was among the favorites of the crowd.

that when we crossed Siberia in 1996 and reached the town of Kosh Agach near the Mongolian border, our Lonely Planet Russian Guide book said we were close to “the middle of nowhere”. Maybe we were closer now? We knew there were serious problems with the rear suspension, but nothing that needed our immediate attention. The sun was shining in a futile attempt to warm an icy wind gusting across the field of competition. The temperature was hovering around freezing.

Things were just getting started with the first big contest. Ethnic Kazakh eagle hunters from all over this part of the country had gathered, reportedly some 72 of them. Dressed in their finest attire, they were a fierce bunch indeed. The real stars were the Golden Eagles, huge birds of prey, some weighing over sixteen pounds with wingspans up to 8 feet. In these mountains of the Mongolian Altai, eagle hunting has been a tradition for over 2,000 years.

Ethnic Kazakh Golden Eagle Hunters

In the first set of competitions, each hunter, mounted on a stocky Mongolian horse, would start at the end of the field and call to his eagle, which at that moment, timed by the officials, would have its hood removed and be released by an assistant from a nearby hill. If the eagle was well trained and in tune with the game, she, (yes, females are normally used because they are larger than males), would hear the call of her owner and spot the dead rabbit or Corsac fox pulled behind his horse at a full gallop.

The close relationship between the hunter and his golden eagle was amazing to observe.

The close relationship between the hunter and his golden eagle was amazing to observe.

Approaching at speeds up to 199 miles per hour, (320 km/h), the eagle would zero in on the bait, and braking slightly at the last few seconds, hit the target, sharp talons extended, with up to 700 pounds of impact. Normally, in a real hunt, this would kill or at least stun the prey instantly. At this point, the trainer would quickly dismount and retrieve his bird to its perch on his thick leather glove, offering some tasty pieces of mutton or perhaps a rabbit leg. For the eagle, it may be sport. It may be a challenge. For sure, it’s about getting food, so in the mountains where hunting is done in the winter, the trainer must remove the eagle from the dead prey before the pelt is damaged.

It’s a fiercely competitive Event

If you look at the series of photos below, you may get an idea of the action which took mere seconds to photograph at a “high-speed continuous” setting. It was a very impressive demonstration of speed and power. Imagine being hit in the back by 700-pounds of razor-sharp talons at over 190 miles an hour. Ouch!!!

The old hunter in the center was last year's winner.

The old hunter in the center was last year’s winner.

Each eagle contestant was timed from her release to final impact on the target. A fast kill could be 14 seconds from start to finish. In some cases, the eagle would circle for a few minutes, just enjoying the freedom of flight. In one case, spotting the dead rabbit drug behind her trainer’s horse, as the eagle came in for the kill, her attention strayed to a small dog in the crowd of spectators and, looking for something more filling, suddenly veered off and hit the poor dog. The trainer quickly rescued it, but we don’t know if the dog survived. The eagle was just doing what her instincts told her to do……get food.

Retreating to the luxury of our warm Camper for the Night

Exhausted from our drive, we retired to the warmth of The Turtle V to take a shower and cook dinner. A nasty wind whistled outside. As we had many times on this trip, we were very glad to be in a warm hard-sided camper with the luxury of hot water and the convenience of our Thetford Porta Potti. With not a tree or bush in sight, the standard blue portable toilets we might be accustomed to at a large event were not to be found in these countries. The Espar Airtronic air heater purred away at its “maintenance” mode and our Espar D5 Hydronic, working with the FlatPlate fluid heat exchanger, gave us all the hot water we could use.

After a shot of Genghis Khan vodka, we slept soundly, glad to be off the road and looking forward to the next day’s competition.

 

Mongolia # 3 – Heading west to Olgii – October 2014

January 11, 2019

In the morning we gently headed out. The rear suspension seemed to be doing fine without the help of the air bags. Turning back to Ulaanbaatar was not an option. We already knew how bad that road was. We could only hope it would get better. It didn’t!

This young shepherd just wanted to check us out. Well, maybe he was hoping for a treat.

This young shepherd just wanted to check us out. Well, maybe he was hoping for a treat.

We were not lost. We just didn’t know which of several two-tracks might go to the next village and stop, or maybe just to an abandoned ger (yurt) site. Fuel was not a problem yet, but it could be if we ended up wandering around the endless grasslands too long.

Driving and navigating for the next three days through the northern edge of the Altai Gobi and adjacent deserts was very intense. I was in charge of finding the best track with the least washboard and not over stressing our damaged suspension. This was not a good place to break. There is no good place to break when you are thousands of miles from home on a different continent in the middle of a third world country. While I focused on the next 100 yards in front of us, Monika scanned the horizon making sure we didn’t veer off the general direction.

What are you looking at dude, I live here!

What are you looking at dude, I live here!

Just follow the Telephone Poles!

At one point, she insisted we stop because the best track turned toward the right while all the others continued straight. As chance would have it, a Mongol man in a Russian Lada Niva 4X4 came from the other direction. Monika got out and stopped him. Speaking Russian, he drew lines in the sand indicating how many tracks we had to cross to get back to the main one and then gave us a tip, one that I recalled the American Camel Trophy team had used to navigate through a lengthy stage crossing in waist-deep grass during the 1997 Madagascar Rally. He said ,“Just follow the telephone poles”. That got us to the next village, but then they ended and Monika was again just guessing.

Crossing No-Man’s Land

The next section was the most desolate one. We drove for a whole day and never saw a soul on horseback, motorcycle or in a vehicle in either direction. Checking the map, it appeared that this was basically no man’s land between two provinces. In this endless desert, she began noticing that every 10 kilometers or so, there was an odd looking rock placed next to the track and realized they must be the main road markers.

When there were hills the track just wandered in and out of the valleys. It was an overland travelers dream road.

When there were hills the track just wandered in and out of the valleys. It was an overland travelers dream road.

As our Russian motorcycle friend had warned, one section of the track was completely under water, but we could see where others had entered and exited. A low area nearby was used for harvesting salt, always a valuable commodity in any country. We continued west until the dying light made driving unsafe. Even with our high-powered PIAA auxiliary lights, these roads held dangerous surprises in the dark. The potholes of the Stans had taken their toll on our suspension but it seemed fine as long as I watched the bumps. Looking for a place to camp, the track wove its way through a strange rock garden. It begged us to stop for the night.

As we approached small towns they were well marked but actually finding them on our paper map was difficult. Mini markets were well stocked with Chinese goods, often with American names. A bottle of good cabernet was not to be found, but Genghis Khan Vodka was available. There were more yurt camps near settlements. A couple of times when we stopped to have lunch or to inspect the suspension, young boys came galloping across from nowhere to check us out. Always very friendly, we wished we had not been in a hurry. Herds of goats and horses seemed compelled to cross the road just as we approached them. The occasional small group of camels were totally unimpressed by our approach.

Finally, arriving in Olgii at
the Annual Golden Eagle Festival

We arrived just in time for the beginning of the competition.

We arrived just in time for the beginning of the competition.

By afternoon on the fifth day we rolled into Olgii and headed straight for the festival outside of town just as the competition was warming up. For the moment, our mechanical problems could wait. We were about to witness one of the most exciting events in Mongolia, the Annual Golden Eagle Festival. If we had parked any closer to the main arena we would have had to own an eagle!

 

Mongolia # 2 – Heading west on the Main Highway – October 2014

January 4, 2019

Getting directions out of the sprawling city of Ulaanbaatar was a bit of a challenge at 6:00 AM. We did have a tourist map, but of course, it was not in English. We had no GPS chip for Mongolia, but knowing our destination was west, as long as we had the sun to our backs we couldn’t be too far off. With the exception of a few potholes the paved highway was remarkably good, a relief after the horrendous roads we had driven in Tajikistan. We stopped at dusk near the village of Nariyntell. Finding a good, safe place to camp was a joy! Just a matter of pulling off the blacktop for a hundred yards.

The first morning driving west toward Olgii brought us this spectacular sunrise.

The first morning driving west toward Olgii brought us this spectacular sunrise.

Our Eberspaecher Airtronic air heater kept us warm as temperatures dropped into the low 30°s. Not a single vehicle came by all night. Peeking out the window in the morning, the horizon was on fire. As the first rays of sun

To our surprise, we came upon a yurt camp right next to the "main highway".

To our surprise, we came upon a ger (yurt) camp right next to the “main highway”.

burnt through the low cloud cover, it was a spectacular show. Slowly, as the warmth melted over the distant hills, the entire sky took on a tangerine glow, reflecting off the dusting of snow that had fallen during the night. In the light of dawn, we saw we had neighbors. Cozy gers, (yurts) dotted the hills, portable homes for the nomadic people that follow the grass of summer. (The Mongolian word is “ger”; in English, we adopted the Russian word “yurt”.) In these times, many families have winter quarters in Ulaanbaatar where their children can attend school.

As the light show faded into a shocking blue sky, we came to Bayanhongor, the first town of any size. Here we found fuel and then, by following a horse-drawn water cart, we were able to fill our own tanks with water, one 5-gallon bucket at a time. There were no faucets nor hoses. We had come 350 miles, but it was still roughly 650 miles to go to reach Olgii and the Annual Golden Eagle Festival would start in two or three days.

Yes, one of these two-tracks wandering across the grasslands was the “National Highway”. Often the question was, which one?

Yes, one of these two-tracks wandering across the grasslands was the “National Highway”. Often the question was, which one?

The pavement ended here and the road signs were sketchy or nonexistent. The surface, or should I say the “surfaces”, were mostly dry, but the washboard was 3 to 4 inches deep. Normally we could stay on top of such corrugation at 35 mph, but there were enough “gotcha holes” that any sustained speed over 20 mph was difficult. The game was to find the track out of four or five that had the best surface, and they changed frequently. Checking our map, yes, this was marked as the “National Highway”. There were short sections of pavement that appeared for a mile or two in the middle of nowhere, but they ended very abruptly with an 8-10 inch drop-off back to the dirt.

A loud POP spells trouble

The bolts on the Hellwig air bag bracket on the passenger side were completely gone. Perhaps sheared off by the many potholes and drop-offs. The heavy duty bracket was bent beyond use. It was now pushing on the bottom of the camper box.

The bolts on the Hellwig air bag bracket on the passenger side were completely gone. Perhaps sheared off by the many potholes and drop-offs. The heavy duty bracket was bent beyond use. It was now pushing on the bottom of the camper box.

On one such drop-off I heard a loud pop that told me that something had broken. We stopped to inspect and found that the Grade-8 bolts holding the drop-arm bracket to the frame were gone. Fortunately, I had similar bolts in my emergency-it-will-never-be-needed repair box and we were back on the road. But not so fast. The big bolt on the drop-arm itself was also gone. We fixed that with a replacement almost the right size. Then the other real problem became more obvious. The bolts holding the Hellwig Airbag to the frame on the passenger side had been hidden by the inside fender skirt of the camper box. They were also gone, and the heavy bracket, still attached to the air bag, was now pushing up on the body of the camper, not on the frame. The bracket was badly bent and not useable even if we had replacement bolts. It was not pretty.

Soon, the yurts would be packed up and the owners return to Ulanbaatar for the winter.

Soon, the gers (yurts) would be packed up and the owners return to Ulanbaatar for the winter.

With the cutout I had made on the fender well back in China, we could see the missing bolts that had looked fine then, but had probably been loose for a thousand miles. I never suspected them because the airbag pressure remained a 40psi. With still hundreds of miles to go before any real civilization, we now had to trust our rear spring packs and Rancho shocks to carry the full load. We left the Hellwig bags completely deflated on both sides to stop the passenger side from cutting the bag.

Olec from Moscow showed us on the map where he had come from and warned us about the flooded areas ahead which had been difficult on a motorcycle.

Olec from Moscow showed
us on the map where he had come from and warned us about the flooded areas ahead which had been difficult on a motorcycle.

Just as we were finishing what repairs that were possible, we saw a lone motorcycle headed down the road. Of course he stopped. That’s what you do when you see a fellow overlander. His name was Olec and he was from Moscow. He had traveled across Russia and Kazakhstan and was headed east to Ulaanbaatar. Apparently he did not know about the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii where he only stopped for fuel, but he did tell us about the road conditions. Rain and snow had left parts of the track under water that had been difficult for him on his loaded bike. It was getting late so we invited him for a “home cooked” meal and enjoyed an evening of conversation in the warmth of our camper. Tomorrow would be another adventure, and the essence of adventure is not knowing how it’s going to come out. The absolute silence in this vast grassland was shockingly peaceful.

HAPPY NEW YEAR – 2019

December 31, 2018
HAPPY NEW YEAR

 

Life is an Adventure

The Essence of Adventure is not knowing
how it’s going to come out.
Live your dreams and have a great and healthy 2019.

Best Wishes
Gary and Monika

Our favorite Turtle in Baja California’s Rock Garden.

Our favorite Turtle in Baja California’s Rock Garden.

 

Mongolia # 1 – Land of Genghis Khan – October 2014

December 15, 2018

Mongolia!! The name of this landlocked Asian country has a magical ring to it. We could not think of Mongolia without our minds drifting on the image of the legendary Genghis Khan. Born in the 1160s, he spent his early life assembling a dedicated army of nomads from the immense grasslands of the Gobi, at 500,000 square miles, the fifth largest desert in the world. His fierce warriors were relentless. They could ride day and night, making a slice in their horses’ neck to drink the blood. By 1279 Mongols had gained full control of all of China, undeterred by the Great Wall. See how well walls work?

Mongolia! The wide open space was just the way we remembered.

Mongolia! The wide open space was just the way we remembered.

By 1280 they had stormed across Asia, conquering and burning major cities like Samarkand that lay hopelessly in their path. With perhaps 80,000 mounted fighters followed by a huge herd of spare mounts, they could travel 100 miles a day which was unheard of by other armies of that time. According to one source, they were sent out in teams of ten. If one was captured, the rest of the team was killed. They were unstoppable! 

Land of Genghis Khan

When Öegedei Khan, the third son of Genghis Khan and second Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, succeeded his father, he continued the expansion of the empire, and was a world figure when the Mongol Empire reached its farthest extent west and south during the Mongol invasions of Europe and East Asia. He led his ruthless cavalry from the windblown steppe of Central Asia into Europe to amass the largest continuous empire the world has ever seen. It covered 9.15 million square miles of land – more than 16% of the earth’s landmass and ruled over 110 million people between 1270 and 1309 — more than 25% of the world’s population at that time. Despite his and his father’s brutal campaigns, or perhaps because of them, Genghis Khan is still alive in the hearts of Mongols.

This nice man stopped just to see if we needed anything. In Mongolian tradition, we should have offered him a cup salty milk tea.

This nice man stopped just to see if we needed anything.
In Mongolian tradition, we should have offered him a cup salty milk tea.

As we drove across the seemingly endless grasslands, skirting the Gobi, free of fences and guardrails that had held us like a mouse in a maze crossing China, we had to stop and soak in the new freedom. It was hard to imagine Genghis Khan’s bloodthirsty hordes galloping across the endless plains. The highway remained good and traffic was light except for the occasional herd of sheep or an overloaded freight semi. Horses and camels grazing near the road gave us a feeling that we had entered a special place. Finding somewhere flat to camp for the night was simply a matter of turning left or right off the tarmac for a hundred yards and deciding which direction the sun would rise in the morning.

Animals are roaming freely.

Animals are roaming freely.

The first winter storm had kissed the hills with a frosting of snow south of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the country. Not wanting to deal with the congestion of a big city, we pulled off into a frozen field just outside of town and called it home. In the morning we blitzed the downtown, first finding a tourist hotel where we could do a quick load of laundry, and then getting lucky, we snuck into an empty space in the center of the mass mid-day confusion that was not marked “Зогсоолгүй”, (no parking). Finding a store where we could buy a SIM card for our phone and then the tourist office for maps and information was all within walking distance.

An early start the next morning got us out of town before the mad rush hour. We headed west for the small town of Olgii where the famous Golden Eagle Festival was about to begin. The tourist office had advised that the road was open and that it was a two-day drive.—That’s how long it took busses. It was not mentioned that much of the road was not paved and that busses drove 24 hours a day, usually in pairs because one often broke down. We would return to Ulaanbaatar again to retrieve parts for our suspension, but that’s another story.

 

The Magic Girl of the Pamirs – Update – November 2018

December 1, 2018

Many of you may recall back in Tajikistan Blog #8, we had met this amazing young girl. If not or if so, here is an update on the Magic Girl of the Pamirs.

At 11 years old, there was a look that clearly said, “Whoever you are or where you came from, I am here.” “I was waiting for you.”

At 11 years old, there was a look that clearly said, “Whoever you are or where you came from, I am here.” “I was waiting for you.”

It was another spectacular warm sunny day in the mountains of Tajikistan,— as warm as it gets at 14,000 feet. The intense blue sky almost hurt our eyes. We could feel why this is often called “The Roof of the World”, according to National Geographic “one of the last truly isolated places on earth”. Glaciers carved their way down peaks over 24,000 feet. Turning off the Wakhan Corridor along the Afghan border, once trodden by Marco Polo as he followed The Silk Road, we climbed over the 4,122-meter, (13,523 feet), Koitezek Pass and headed slowly down into a long valley following the turbulent Toguzbulok River. The dusty Pamir Highway was equally as rough in places as the Wakhan Corridor had been.

We looked at this young girl in amazement. What in the world was she thinking....

We looked at this young girl in amazement. What in the world was she thinking….

Spotting a small creek on the side of the road, a tributary to the larger swift-rushing river, I backed into it to wash off some of the silt-like powder that had hitched a ride on our truck. No sooner than we had unpacked our bucket and wash brush, three young girls who had just carried some old window frames across the road came back. As they walked over a small foot bridge, the last girl stopped, waded out into the water, took the brush from my hands and started to help me. Monika and I both looked at her and at each other in wonder. In these countries girls of any age don’t approach strange men. She spoke no English and little Russian, only Tajik and the local Shugni dialect. Words were not spoken nor were they necessary. There was magic of wonder in her eyes and frustration that she could not talk to us, but still a smile and eyes that said “I don’t know who are you or where are you from?” “Never mind. I’m going to help you.”

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, potatoes, carrots and wheat are the only crops that are being grown. No fruit trees and no vegetable patches. Wild bees but no honey bees survive.

At an altitude of 10,000 feet, potatoes, carrots and wheat are the only crops that are being grown. No fruit trees and no vegetable patches. Wild bees but no honey bees survive.

We were captivated by this young girl, only 11 years old. We camped there for three days and met her family who invited us for tea. Each time we saw her and those mysterious Asian eyes, always discreetly catching ours, we could sense her uncomplicated imagination fueled by her burning desire to communicate. Was it her innocent confidence that shyly said. “No fear”—Bring it on!”? Without a single word spoken, she had captured our attention and our hearts. How could we help her?

Fast forward a year through Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia, Russia, South Korea, Japan and back to California. Every time we looked at the pictures we had of this “Magic Girl of the Pamirs”, the feeling came back. Through a series of emails, we were able to contact a young man, Sheroz Naimov, the Director of the American Corner, in Khorog. The American Corner is a free learning center sponsored by the American Embassy designed to promote mutual understanding between the United States and Tajikistan and offer a place for young children and adults wanting to learn or improve their English.

Masha’s father was in disbelief when he learned that we wanted to sponsor his daughter in a special private school.

Masha’s father was in disbelief when he learned that we wanted to sponsor his daughter in a special private school.

Khorog is a small town, hardly a city, and the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). Situated in a valley at the confluence of the Gunt and the Panj rivers, at 7,217 feet above sea level, it is relatively low when you consider that 50% of the country is over 10,400 feet. Khorog was at least three hours from the village where Masha lived on a road that can be closed by snow or rock falls at any time. We had driven it twice.

We had learned there was a wonderful private prestigious school in Khorog sponsored by the Aga Khan Development Network, (AKDN). What is that? His Highness, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the founder and chairman of AKDN and is the 49th hereditary Imam (Spiritual Leader) of the Shia Ismaili, a very unique and liberal sect of the Muslim religion. For example, those of the Shia Ismaili faith have no mosques or minarets. Their home is their church. The women are not required to cover their heads or faces, but many do use a headscarf out of practicality and old tradition.

Magic Girl 052

Masha’s mother, a soft spoken woman, always had a ready smile.

Sheroz Naimov volunteered to help us. Hitching a ride with a friend to the girl’s village, he spoke to her and her father and explained that we wanted to sponsor her in the Aga Khan Lycée school. Sheroz told us Masha had tears in her eyes. Her father called Sheroz the next day to ask in wonder, “Is this really going to happen?” Yes, Sheroz told him, but now the first problem would be finding a safe place for her to live in Khorog. Secondly, could she pass the entrance test with her very poor math and Russian?

Searching for a home where she could safely live most of the year while she was at school, Sheroz’s father and his sister both opened their homes and their hearts to her. Extreme generosity and hospitality are a corner stone of the Shia Ismaili faith. The amazing warmth of these people whom had never met us nor this young girl truly astounded us.

Problem number two was that because of Masha’s limited schooling in math and Russia, she could not pass the Aga Khan Lycée school’s entrance test. After three months of intense tutoring, she made the grade. Now the story gets more exciting.

Monika explains a page out of our world atlas, probably pointing out California. Masha (in red) has eyes for the camera.

Monika explained a page out of our world atlas, probably pointing out California but Masha and her younger sister had eyes for the camera.

She was 12 and nearing 13. We supplied her with a phone so she could call her mother and father. Of course, she had to have a computer and printer and appropriate “city” clothes for four seasons. Sheroz arranged a modem and internet for her so she could Skype and WhatsApp with us. In the beginning, Sheroz had to translate for her, but her magic smile and the sparkle in her eyes told us she was making the transition from a remote village life, away from her home, her family and friends, where daily chores included gathering firewood and milking goats, to being a modern teenage girl in a “city” environment. Hard to imagine? Perhaps it was that No Fear! attitude we sensed from our first contact.

We recently celebrated her 15th birthday with her new school friends and family live on Skype, amazing when you consider that Khorog is 7,525 miles, (12,110 km) and 12 time zones away. She is essentially in her sophomore year of high school and taking 17 classes 6 days a week with special English and math tutoring after school before she takes a local taxi to her home-away-from-home to do her homework and help with household chores, including cooking.

When we first realized that our dream of helping Masha was actually possible, we wrote her a letter to have Sheroz translate.

I said “smile” and Monika did. Masha could not understand a word, but her face said, Wow! I am happy you found me”.

I said “smile” and Monika did. Masha could not understand a word, but her face said, Wow! I am happy you found me”.

Dear Masha,

You are about to start a new and exciting part of your life. We know you must be a little anxious with all the changes that are happening. The doors to the world are opening for you. You will need to study very hard. Sometimes it will be difficult. We want you to know that you can do anything you can imagine. Anything! You can be a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a ballerina, a musician, a professional guide, an airline pilot. Yes really, the sky is the limit.

We just want to make sure you know that you have a huge team behind you if you have a problem. You have us here in California. You have Sheroz and his family. You have the American Corner. You have your mother and your father and your sisters and brother. All of these people are standing behind you to catch you if you stumble or fall. You might find this hard to believe, but because of the Internet, there are also thousands of people all over the world right now who know about you and what you’re about to do. They saw your smile the day that you jumped into the water in the creek by your home to help us wash our truck, and they know that you will succeed in anything you can imagine. You are very special and you have amazing power. Have fun and don’t worry.

We send you our love and support. Soon we may even be able to talk with you and with Sheroz on an amazing system called Skype.

Gary & Monika

This past Summer we journeyed to Tajikistan to visit her and her family, a grueling 26-hour hop from Sacramento to San Francisco to Istanbul to Dushanbe (the capital) and then a 14 hour drive in a 4X4 Toyota to Khorog—still three hours by 4X4 to her village. The trip was a real eye opener. It is a unique way of life for the people in the Pamir Mountains who have survived in this remote part of the world for hundreds of years. Spending three days at her home made us realize just how poor her large family is. There were conditions we were not truly aware of when we were invited for chai in 2014. 

The traditional morning breakfast in the Pamirs is black milk tea with a touch of butter and homemade bread.

The traditional morning breakfast in the Pamirs is black milk tea with a touch of butter and homemade bread.

They had no running water. All washing, dishes, brushing of teeth etc. was done in the irrigation ditch, conveniently located in front of their traditional Pamiri home. The ditch took its water from the river where cows, sheep and goats grazed. Cooking was done on an old metal wood fired stove. Water for tea was boiled on an antique hotplate that resembled a burner on a 1950’s electric stove. Bread was baked daily in a dilapidated, rickety Russian electric oven. Sanitation facilities were a bit shocking. The “outhouse”, located on a steep path up a hill behind the cow & goat shed, was something out of a Li’l Abner cartoon. As is the norm, we all slept on thin mattresses in a communal living room where all meals were served and where any social activities took place. No tables or chairs. Despite these seemingly harsh living conditions, everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable. We had experienced the same in yurts in Tuva, Central Russia.

We brought gifts for the family and fruit, rice, chicken, eggs and vegetables to contribute to the meals. At 10,000 feet, their crops are limited to potatoes, carrots and wheat. Bread, tea, and potato, carrot & onion soup with a bone or a piece of meat from a recently killed sheep gave it some flavor. The community is not really a village as we imagined. It consists of perhaps 15 or 20 homes spread out across a wide valley, in-between potato and carrot fields laced with a web of small interconnected irrigation channels. Many of the families are related, so when a sheep or goat is slaughtered, the meat goes to many homes.

Ready for school in her winter uniform, she looks quite professional.

Ready for school in her winter uniform, she looks quite professional.

At this altitude, winters are brutal. Animals must be kept in closed sheds because packs of wolves are a problem. Wood, gathered during the short summer, and dried cow and sheep dung are the family’s main source of heat. The small sheet-metal cooking stove is moved inside the main room as the temperatures drop.

We now had a much clearer idea of where this young girl was coming from and the daunting change in her life that we were offering and imposing on her. At the age of eleven when we met, she did not have a dream of where the future would take her. We gave her unlimited choices, no doubt a little overwhelming at first. Now we watch how this adventure evolves. Her English is rapidly improving, thanks to additional classes and tutoring. With two and a half more years before she graduates in what is the equivalent of high school, her current aspirations of being a musician, an actress or a doctor may change more than once. We talk with her often by WhatsApp or Skype. Our primary goal has been to keep her healthy and happy while she is learning, and to teach her the power of dreams.

Masha is wearing a traditional Pamiri cap. Men and women seem to wear the same.

Masha is wearing a traditional Pamiri cap. Men and women seem to wear the same.

Before we left Tajikistan we took her and Sheroz’s niece to Dushanbe, the modern capital of the country. It was their first travel by airplane. We had fun spoiling them. It was a new world of museums, zoos, shopping malls, hamburgers, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, pizza, escalators, elevators, and even a 3D movie. Their own comfortable bed in a nice hotel with unlimited hot water was special. Masha also had her teeth cleaned by a professional dentist, all topped off by a manicure and a visit to a hair salon. The two girls returned to Khorog by themselves, by the standard 14-19 hour 4X4 taxi into the mountains. Their minds no doubt swirling with impressions from another world.

For the time being, we are taking care of all her needs. We know of other young girls and boys her age who have dreams of getting an education and could use your help, so if you are interested, send us an email, wescott@turtleexpedition, and put “Khorog Help” in the subject so it will not get lost in our junk mail. The average income in Khorog is about $100-150 a month and the tuition at Aga Khan Lycée school, grades 1 thru 9, is 460 TJS (Tajikistan Somonis) a month, which is $48. There are other expenses like computer, phone, internet, uniform, daily transportation, school supplies, etc. If anyone is interested, we can introduce you to another young person. On your part, it would be a person to person relationship with frequent conversations on Skype or WhatsApp. Our chance meeting of Masha and our ability to sponsor her (thanks to Sheroz Naimov who made it all possible) and watch her learn and grow has become one the highlights of our lives.