Rain and Fog, Western Khovd Aimag
Over coffee with Dimitri Staszewski, a Fulbright Fellow who is collecting folk music
from non-professional musicians among the nomadic herders in Mongolia, I asked about his recent trip to Bayan Ulgii, Mongolia's western-most aimag, and particularly, since we were planning a trip there, how he got from place to place and if he could recommend a driver and guide.
We are on our third year of not having a car to rely on for transportation, something I have taken for granted my entire adult life. We walk a lot here, as well as take the bus, and occasionally a taxi, when we want to go somewhere. For longer trips the train is sometimes an option, though it's limited to the two directions out of Ulaanbaatar (north and south) where there are tracks. To travel in the west of Mongolia, we need to rent a vehicle which, because nobody would be so foolish as to turn a foreigner loose in a land with so few paved roads, usually comes with its own driver. And because we don't speak Mongolian, there is the additional problem of communication with the driver, an issue made much simpler with a guide. We have traveled both with and without a guide, and our experience both ways has always been good, though we have met other travelers who have not been so lucky. Most of our good luck has come from pursuing good recommendations.
Dimitri gave me the phone number for Nurbolat Len, (95 42 52 50,) told me that his English is good, and that they had a great time when they traveled together. A call that morning to Nurbolat brought me a good first impression. Nauriz was just getting started, several days of celebration with family and friends on the first day of spring for Kazakhs. He would be very busy with his family, but later, would be happy to help us. He took a few minutes to try to get a sense of what we would like to do, then told me he would get me a proposal in a couple of days. Two days later his proposal arrived by email. For a very reasonable amount of money, he and his driver would pick us up in Khovd on Wednesday morning, drive to Bayan Ulgii, spend a night with an eagle hunting family, hike to an eagle's nest, as well as some petroglyphs, spend two nights in a hotel in downtown Ulgii, and look for argali sheep on Friday afternoon. In the evening we would have a traditional Kazakh meal with his parents at their home, with an after-dinner concert by a father-daughter dombor
and singing team. On Saturday, they would get us to the airport in time for our early flight back to Ulaanbaatar. A few more emails and phone calls to arrange a deposit and our planning was done.
Road to Tsambagarav
It was raining on Wednesday morning when we met Nurbolat and Kuzjo in the parking lot of the newly renovated Khovd Hotel, whose empty shell we had walked by nearly every morning of the year we spent there. Rain is such an unusual sight here that even at the start of our trip, it didn't dampen our enthusiasm. As the morning progressed and we gained altitude over the long gravel ramp to the mountains, rain and fog turned to fog and snow, visibility plummeted, landmarks disappeared. The road disappeared. There is a good reason why drivers in Mongolia enjoy much higher status than drivers in the United States. If they bring you out of conditions like this, they earn your respect. If they don't, I thought at the time, nobody will hear you complain.
In the United States most travel is just a means for getting to a destination. This morning I was reminded just how much of an adventure it can be. We crossed rivers that were liquid, solid, and with breaths held, various states in between. There were times that we stopped to ask directions, and others that we would have if there was anyone to ask. Gradually the fog lifted, the clouds started to break up, and landmarks re-appeared. In Kazakh country now, we passed small isolated settlements tucked up against the windbreak of low mountains or rocky hills, darkly stained soil that feathers away from rock walled hashas into the desert marking the long presence of goats and sheep. At a track that led to one of these settlements we bore left, followed it to a group of whitewashed buildings that belong to Argalai, eagle hunter, and father of one of the most famous Mongolians in eight hundred years.