The Azores: Sao Miguel

This was an exceptional year for us, travelwise.  We decided to do summer trips, each one a week long.  We thought it would be great!  And while the trips were, it was somewhat exhausting – packing, travelling, unpacking, washing, packing, travelling, unpacking, washing…it just ended up feeling like we didn’t spend much time at home.

So after our end of June trip to Hawaii, we spent the first week of September on the Azorean island São  Miguel.  (The Azores are a set of nine islands, belonging to Portugal, located in the Atlantic Ocean.  Far, far from anywhere.)

Lots of people say ‘where?’ when we said we were going to the Azores, and after explaining the above parentheses, they said, ‘How do you know about these places?’ because I always seem to end up going places that other people have never heard of, or rarely think about.  I have no idea how I knew about the Azores, it was just one of those places that I’ve always wanted to go to.

We bought our tickets via the Sata website. Sata is the airline for the Azores, flying between the islands, and to Europe and North America (Boston and Toronto). Fair warning though – the seat pitch on the planes that Sata uses, is horrible.  31 inches, so if the person in front of you reclines their seat, say good bye to your knees.  But otherwise, it’s a good airline – the flight attendants were friendly, the food on the way to Ponta Delgada was ok (on the way home it was awful) and the flights were on time.

Town square

We started our trip in Ponta Delgada, the capital of São Miguel. While they are part of Portugal, they are also autonomous and have their own government.  The airport is very close to town (but don’t worry – there are no night flights, so the sound of airplanes landing/taking off will not disrupt your night) We were staying at hotel, VIP Executive, on top of a small hill, just off the downtown area.  This gave us the opportunity to explore the city a bit more, walking to and from the hotel.  The town has a few rolling hills, but the closer to the harbour you get (where most of the tourist sites are located) the flatter the city becomes.  There are quite a few cafés restaurants – some are located around the main square, others to the west, and then a lot around the harbour.

The widest sidewalk in Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada is small and compact, and it’s very evident that it was built for horses and carts.  Streets are narrow and windy, with cobblestone – meaning that even little old ladies going 5 km an hour squeal their tires as they go around curves.  Sidewalks vary in size but are mostly non-existent, forget walking side by side with your travel buddy.  The architecture is brown and white, very colonial looking.  It’s a very pretty town to wander in – even the houses look quaint, and the sidewalks tend to have tiled designs of white and grey.  (Easy to use as a navigation aid, in fact.)  You most likely won’t need a taxi to get around the city, but if you do – there is a taxi stand at the town square, and your hotel will be able to arrange one (say, if you wish to travel to a different part of the island, or to a different town.)

We were there at the tail end of summer, so it was still quite warm during the day (anywhere from 25C to 30C), so most restaurants had patios set up, even if those patios were only two tables and 4 chairs.  Most of these patios would have umbrellas over the tables to keep the sun off the patrons, but around the harbour the patios had roofs.

We popped into the fort one day (entrance fee of 3€) to see the military paraphernalia.  It was really interesting – there are a number of rooms to visit, in three different locations in the fort. They provide instructions on how to structure your visit – which rooms to visit first, how to get to the others – they are all located near each other, and there are also signs to help you find your way.  For military buffs, it’s definitely a must-see.  We enjoyed ourselves, but I could see it not being as much of an attraction to some people.  Towards the end of the tour, you can actually climb up onto the fort walls (accessed via a staircase) and look out over the city and working harbour.

Street art in Ponta Delgada

One tour guide that we had (when we did a half-day tour to Siete Cidades) told us that Ponta Delgada has a street art festival every year.  There certainly was a lot of different artwork on display around the city – and all of it amazing. We used some of it as a navigation aid, helping us find where to turn to get back to the hotel.  You never knew where you would find a new painting, they seemed to pop up in unlikely spots around the city.

On our first day, we noticed that a lot of people were swimming in the harbour.  There’s a section that is blocked off from boats, and people can swim (either do laps, or just splash around) as they want.  We also noticed that there was a platform that the  kids were jumping off of, into the water.  So of course Ross and I decided that we’re kids (well, we’re somebodies kids, right?) so one day we bought towels (travelling tip #34:  always bring towels.

Jump jump!

Even if you’re staying in a hotel, bring a towel.  Douglas Adams had it right.) and headed down to the harbour, where we proceeded to fling ourselves off the platform.  (We were, by far, the oldest people to be doing so.  The other adults were sedately using the stairs.)  It was actually a lot of fun, if a little cool at first.  Getting out was a little harder – the concrete steps and ladder are slippery with algae, and you had to time the climbing with the waves – wait while the wave comes in, then haul yourself up when the water rushes back out again.

There really isn’t anywhere comfortable to sit and dry off, other than a concrete step, or bench, but there’s plenty of room, and lots of other people doing the same.  For those worried about safety, there were life guards on duty while we were there.

From Ponta Delgada you have a plethora of tours to choose from.  We opted to a half-day jeep tour to Siete Cidades with Futurismo (they also do whale-watching tours).  The benefit (for us) in doing a smaller tour was that we got to go to places that the large tour buses couldn’t – for example, we headed up into the mountains to see two lakes in a  park.  We also got to go at our own pace – either spending more time somewhere or less time, depending on how we felt. It started out as a grey day, but the sun came out as we headed to Ferraria – where a hot spring meets the Atlantic Ocean.  During low tide you can swim in the ‘pool’, but unfortunately when we went, it was not only high tide, but also very windy, making it dangerous to enter the pool (we would have been dashed on the rocks had we tried.) For days when you can enter the water, there are ropes and a ladder available to help you.

View from the lookout
Siete Cidades

The other tour that we did was a whale-watching tour with Moby Dick Tours.  The day we booked to go ended up being very windy, so they shuttled us to the north of the island, to do the tour out of Rabo de Peixe.  (It’s only about 8 km from one side of the island to the other, so this isn’t as big a deal as it sounds.) We’ve gone whale-watching before (in Iceland) and if there’s one piece of advice I can give you (well, two.  I’m going to give you two) – 1) bring motion-sickness tablets.  It can get choppy out on the water, and you’ll be thankful to have them.  2) You’re most likely not going to see a whale leaping out of water, or the tail of a humpback.  Most likely you’ll only see the back of the whale as it surfaces.  If you think that sounds anti-climatic, it might be best to save your money.

On this whale watching trip, we ended up seeing a mama fin whale with her baby (it was one big baby), as well as a dolphin as we were coming back to shore. We spent close to an hour and a half watching the fin whales, they would breach, then go under, breach again.  I didn’t try to take any photos – it’s next to impossible to get a good shot, and you never know where they are going to breach.  I’d rather enjoy just watching them than stress myself out trying to get a photo.

Coming back to shore, we saw a beautiful rainbow over the coast of the island, which was unfortunate, as half the people on the boat couldn’t enjoy it. They were suffering from sea sickness (again, bring those motion sickness tables!) and were either lying down, or had their heads between their knees.

Our last few days we spent in Furnas, a town about 45 minutes away from Ponta Delgada (when the traffic is light).  Our hotel ordered a cab for us, and we took the southern route to Furnas, which cost about 45€, We were staying at Furnas Boutique Hotel and Spa, which from the photos looked faaaancy.  (It turns out that the place is very laid-back and chill, so we were comfortable in our jeans, hiking shoes and tshirts.)  We loved this place – the room was incredible, and even though we overlooked the restaurant and patio, we couldn’t hear any noise.  The room came with enough lights, which adjustable light, to give yourself a little light show (in fact, we did, trying to figure out which switch controlled which light, and how to get everything to turn off).  The hotel has two pools – an indoor pool, which is heated, and an outdoor pool, which is fresh, cool water.

We decided to do the hike around Lago de Furnas, a roughly 10km walk, round trip, from the town.  The first part of the walk is on a road, a winding road with no path alongside.  It felt a little unsafe at times – not quite dangerous, but often we questioned whether a driver would see us as they rounded curves.  Eventually we turned off that somewhat busy road to a quieter one that went along the lake.  We were given free entrance (I assume hikers get in for free, cars need to pay), and we stopped to check out the hot springs, where locals (and local restaurants) make Cozido – a local dish, where different types of meat and root vegetables are put in a pot, then lowered into a hole dug in the ground.  They cook for about 7 hours before being ready to serve.

The walk around the lake itself was very relaxing – it was a smooth gravel path, very even and very flat.  While the walk is 10km, it is not strenuous.  It is also shaded for the first half, but then becomes more open. Hats, sunscreen and water are definite musts for the hike, as well as comfortable shoes.  (Hiking boots not needed)

Halfway around the lake, we came to a small hill just off the trail.  We climbed the steps up, and found a large swing hanging from a tree.  Across from the tree was a lovely view of the lake, so we decided to take a moment and enjoy the solitude.  (In fact, at this point we had only run into two other people)  It was very quiet and relaxing, and a great place to take a rest.  The tires on the tree are to protect it from being damaged if it is hit by the swing.

After that the trail became more open, and eventually turned into a road (although we didn’t see any vehicles).  We passed a old church that had fallen into ruin (although it was still beautiful and picturesque) and started to notice more people, as there is a parking lot not far from this end of the trail. In fact, it’s possible to get a taxi to take you here and to walk back in the opposite direction, if the idea of walking 10km seems daunting.

As we rounded the lake, a sign pointed us up a steep hill (along a road, again) to a lookout over Furnas.  This part of the hike was strenuous – it was a steep grade, although it was partially shaded so at least we weren’t out in the direct sunlight.  We paused several times, before making it to the turn off for the lookout, which was a short walk off the road. The view was incredible, so we paused to soak it all in (and catch our breath), before heading down.  The down was just as steep as the up, but with the added insult of having loose gravel and leaves strewn over the cobblestone.  We took it slow, not wanting a fall to ruin our trip.

View of Furnas from the lookout

Our last full day on the island, we took a taxi (10€, one direction) to Faial de Terra, to hike to Salto do Prego waterfall.  We arranged with the taxi driver (who thankfully spoke English), to pick us up in 3 hours.  If you choose to do this hike from Furnas (or Povoação) you can ask your hotel to make the arrangements with your taxi driver as well.

This hike, while a lot shorter at 4.5km, is a lot more strenuous. The hike follows a true hiking path, and is steep and, at the time anyway, muddy.  There are rocks and roots to be careful of, as the trail winds its way along the stream, and through groves of olive trees.  We climbed slowly, with periods of steep ascent, before hitting the junction with the trail to the waterfall.
We were the only people there when we arrived around 11 a.m. We tested the water and it was cooooold.  We decided to don our swimsuits anyway, to at least splash in the pool around the waterfall, and to explore the stream in the opposite direction.

We quickly became accustomed to the water, and spent nearly an hour wading around the rocks and exploring the area, before decided that we should get dressed and continue on – we wanted to have enough time to explore Sanguinho, an abandoned village along the trail.  After putting our clothes back on, we climbed up, and explored the area around the top of the water (there’s a small lookout up there, as well as a trail that continues on.)

Just as we had started back, we ran into a German couple who were heading to the waterfall.  In fact, on our way back, we started to run into more and more people.  We had had excellent timing, arriving early and having the place to ourselves.

Sanguinho, the abandoned town, had some houses in complete ruins while others were merely overgrown with vegetation.  The most astounding part was that it had been abandoned after it had been wired for electricity – there were numerous street lamps along the cobblestone road. Several of the houses had been repaired and renovated, and we saw many tents – some Googling after we got home, and I found out that there was an  ‘Ecovillage Design Education’ group based there.

Our final day (half-day really), we took a taxi back to Ponta Delgada, this time via the northern route, and only 35€.  We had lunch and got a few remaining souvenirs, before heading to the tourism office, were we had arranged for the Aerobus to pick us up – at 5€ each, roundtrip, it’s a great deal.  A big plus for people who end their trip elsewhere on the island, the Aerobus will pick you up at non-hotel locations in the city.  We chose the tourism office because it was easy to find.

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That Time I Didn’t Fall off A Camel

Heading back to last summer (or rather, summer of 2014), and my trip to Mongolia with my friend Jason for this post. I’ve had this sitting around for ages, but hadn’t bothered to get any photos in, and then…..other travel happened, life happened, and I just generally forgot about it. Then I had my wisdom teeth taken out, and man – I had a lot of time on my hands. So here we go – Mongolia part 2!

The good news is that while there, I didn’t fall off a camel and break my arm.  The bad news is that my travelling companion fell off a camel and broke his arm.

Let me back up a little, and give you some context to this.

IT134After our tour with Intrepid (see here) we spent a day in UB, and then flew down to Dalanzadgad, to do a four-day tour of the Gobi, with Gobi Mirage.  Our flight was uneventful, although delayed by a couple of hours.  We arrived just before lunch, and were greeted at the airport by the owner of the ger camp, his daughter, our guide, and our driver.

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Driving toward Yolyn Am

They were all wonderful (more about this later) and we drove to the camp, dropped off our gear in our ger (hehehe) before heading out to see Yolyn Am, a gorge in the mountains near Dalanzadgad, known for having ice longer than the rest of the Gobi.

Upon arriving, the first thing we did was take a tour of the small museum, detailing the wildlife that was historically to be found in the area (things being what the are, unfortunately some of these animals are no longer to be seen in the Gobi.).  The museum was a little tired – some of the animals were a little…worn.  But it was still interesting – this is an area that I’ve always been fascinated with, but didn’t know all that much about the flora and fauna. (I knew lots about the dinosaur bones, but not much else.) After the museum, we headed into the gorge – with Jason and I deciding to ride horses.  Things started off okay, until my horse decided to be stubborn (alas, no one told the horse that you never argue with a Barrett girl.)  We had some tiffs – with me making the horse stop and wait before continuing, hoping to show that I was, indeed, in charge.  Alas, Mongolian horses are, apparently, just as stubborn as mid-aged Irish- Canadian women, and we did not come to an agreement about who, exactly, would be giving orders.  So off I popped – not one to invite more disaster – and declared I would walk the rest of the way.

Gobi1Only I popped off into a puddle.  And decided “%#?@ this &*!%” and turned around and walked back to the car. Where I proceeded to sit, relax, and stare at everything.

After Jason and our guide returned, we headed back to the camp, and dinner.  We had a free evening before heading to the sand dunes the next day.

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Myself, our driver, our guide, and my unlucky travelling companion

We headed out mid-morning, stopping once to watch how farmers water their animals in the desert.  I grew up in the country, and my mom worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, so this was actually pretty interesting to me.  We watched as one farmer used a bucket to haul water up from a well, slopping it into a trough for the animals.  Jason and I each got our turn to try – definitely harder than it looks.  Shortly, another farmer showed up – this one with a generator, who pumped the water directly into the trough – a much easier and quicker way to water the cows and goats!

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Setting up the generator

During this, I wandered away to look at the vast emptiness that you see in Mongolia.  After nearly 3 weeks, it still amazed me how empty this country was.  While I stood there, two Mongolians (a man and woman) came over to me.  The woman grabbed my right sleeve, yanking it up, and she started petting the tattoo there – a large tree with two birds (this tattoo stretches from my shoulder to my elbow.)  This wasn’t the first time that my arm had been manhandled by Mongolians, but I still wasn’t used to it.  I didn’t feel threatened, just weirded out.  “It’s still attached to me!  That’s ME you’re grabbing!”  I wanted to shout out.Gobi15

After my impromptu modeling session, and a few photos of the Gobi, we hopped back into the SUV and headed to a camel herders ger.  The camels didn’t look too happy, but then when do camels ever look happy?  We climbed aboard, and head off – first a camel guide, then myself, then Jason, then another guide (a young girl, about 8 years old), then our guide.

Everything was fine at first – we trundled over the ground, heading towards the sand dunes.  We saw another camel train off in the distance, and a few people atop the dunes.  Otherwise, it was empty, and very quiet.

Gobi28

When everything was going well

Until suddenly, the lead camel spooked, and reared up.  As if in slow motion, I saw the camel guide slide off the camel sideways, to land on the ground.  My camel took off at a dead run, and I could hear Jason yelling from behind me.  I tried to turn around, while still gripping the camel, to see Jason trying to wave while saying “I think I broke my arm!”  I turned around, wondering a) “how do you stop a camel” and b) “how do you get a camel to bend down so you can get off?” and also c) “what does he think I can do, I’m on the back of a camel running across the desert?”

The lead for the camel was trailing on the ground, and I tried to reach for it but couldn’t grab it.  I was on this camel until it decided to stop.

I think the camel only spooked for about 30 seconds – we stopped not far from the rest of the group (who had all been thrown off by their camels).  But I was still stuck on top of this camel, with no way to get it to kneel down.  It was too tall for me to slide off, and honestly – I was scared that it would spook and take off again.

Just then I noticed a car coming towards us.  I waved, and it stopped, and a man got out.  He came over and started to urge the camel down.  The camel was still a little spooked, and he got a little “dancey” – making me think he was getting ready to take off again.  Fortunately, the camel decided it wouldn’t, and knelt down so I could (shakily) get off.  At this point, I ran towards the group, and saw that our driver had noticed the problem, and was driving over to us.

Back at the group, everything was a little chaotic – Jason’s arm was broken, and everyone was trying to decide what to do.  Our guide-guide had a headache, and the little girl was a little sore, but otherwise the Mongolians came out unscathed.

We jerry-rigged a brace for Jason’s arm (the headrest from the front passenger side seat), and started to race off across the Gobi. Our guide turned around and told us that we were going to a “doctor” (her words. In reality, it was more of a field medic.)

We doused Jason with Tylenol, the only thing we had. We arrived at the “doctor’s”, had to wait while the dog was put away, then we trouped in. And trouped out, got back into the car, and took off for the nearest ger camp to buy vodka, to hopefully numb Jason enough to set his arm.

Back at the “doctor’s”, a quarter bottle of vodka later, Jason was sitting on a chair, the driver was gripping his shoulders, and the doctor was steadily pulling Jason’s arm down.  Just at the point where Jason screamed in pain…..the bone popped into place. The doctor used some stiff cardboard to brace Jason’s arm, used my bandana as a sling, and sent us off to Dalanzadgad (with a pit stop at the ger camp for our gear.)

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Our ger camp in the Gobi, where we only got to stay one night

A few (or 8) hours later, we rolled up at the urgent care clinic/hospital. We were met by the owner of the ger camp, and his daughter, who helped translate. Jason was taken off for x-rays, and I sat down to wait.

It was only a couple of hours later that Jason came out with a cast up to his armpit. They wouldn’t give him anything for the pain, and couldn’t do anything for his arm. We’d have to go to UB, to the international hospital, to have it fully looked at.

At this point, it was midnight. The ger camp owner got us a hotel room, and told us that a driver would pick us up the next day to take us to UB. Jason and I went to our respective rooms and crashed. The adrenaline rush was over, and exhaustion set in.

After breakfast, we  hit the road. 10 hours later, we rolled into UB, and went straight to the hospital, where we were met by….ok not the ger camp owner, but his son and daughter-in-law (who spoke excellent English). Somewhat anti-climactically, nothing was done. Jason had more x-rays, another cast, and was sent off with a note that he was to go home immediately for treatment, with a “non-medical personnel” so I could accompany him (Because someone had to handle the bags.)

 

Meanwhile, back home, the then-BF was working to get us on the next flight out. He worked with Flight Centre to get us on the next Air France plane. Jason and I again crashed out at our hotel room, and upon waking I had an email – we were booked to fly out that afternoon.

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Taken at the beginning of the trip, we didn’t have time to sight see on the way out

We scrambled for souvenirs (we had thought at the beginning of our trip to leave them until the end, so we weren’t trucking them around the country), and hastily packed. We had the hotel call us a taxi, and off we went.

But of course, the story can’t end there. Because Mongolia is, well….Mongolia, I noticed that the taxi driver spent a huge amount of time staring at me  in the mirror. (This wasn’t the only time that I was an object of fascination in Mongolia – it happened a LOT when I was in UB). And then, as I grabbed our bags out of the truck of the car, the taxi driver tried to offer me his jumper cables. What I would do with jumper cables, I don’t know. Why he thought I should have them, I also don’t know. I just shook my head, loaded myself up like a mule (2 backpacks and 2 carry-on backpacks) and headed into the airport to go.

Epilogue: Our flight to Beijing went off without a hitch, Ross had booked us a fancier airport hotel for ‘comfort’ (food and booze), and the next day we flew Beijing-Paris-Montreal, where Ross picked us up and drove us home. As for Jason’s arm: the doctor said it had been set correctly, but if he wanted to opt for surgery to repair a bone spur, he could. (Which he did, and everything is fine now.)

On a side note: Intrepid warned us that riding horses was dangerous. Horses in Mongolia are semi-wild, and can be difficult to control. However, riding camels – that was deemed safe.  Yeah, right.

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In happier (non-injured) times

A Dream Come True: Off to Mongolia (Part 1)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go to Mongolia.  I don’t know why – I don’t think I grew up knowing someone who went to Mongolia (this is why I fell in love with Russia – a friend of my parents went in the 70s.), and it’s not like Mongolia featured big in the movies in the 1980s.  Maybe it was the horseback riding, I don’t know.  But it’s been on my bucket list since having a bucket list was a thing to do (I started mine when I was 16.)

And we’re off!

So I decided to go, and I started my trip in Beijing, which I’ve blogged about previously, see here if you want a refresher on my first week in Asia.

Dawn over the steppes

Anyway – I arrived in UB on the Trans-Mongolia Train.  I’d spent 27 hours with my travelling companion, Jason, and two Dutch guys who were sharing our tiny couchette.  Thankfully, these guys were chill, and the trip passed quickly.  A few times we headed to the dining car, just to give ourselves a bit of a break, and frequently we zoned out to music and books in our bunks.  We watched the countryside slide by outside the windows – starting off as towering mountains near Beijing, and slowing giving way to rolling hills and farm land, to flat stretches with wind farms and not much else.  Dawn came in a soft purple, pick and yellow, illuminating the Gobi desert as we tracked closer to UB.  We saw the occasional Mongolia rider, and herds of camels (herds?  trains?  caravans?  flocks?  That makes them sound like birds.) but otherwise it was quiet.

We arrived at the train station in UB, and wonder of wonders – there is not only a place to change money (on the second floor of a building to your right as you walk away from the terminal), but on the first floor there is a booth where you can buy Movistar sim cards.  This was great for us, until I realized that it wouldn’t work in my phone.  I had gotten a sim in Beijing that worked (plus I’ve had sims from several other countries that have all worked) but for some reason I couldn’t get this sim to work.

Our taxi driver had trouble finding the hotel that the tour company we were using (Intrepid) had booked.  Very unhelpfully, the only address we had was written in the Latin alphabet, and Mongolian is written in Cyrillic.  It took several phone calls, both the driver and Jason, to get better directions to the hotel.

After we checked in and dumped our luggage in our room, we headed out to find me a working sim card and a place to eat.  UB is teeming with restaurants of all kinds – I saw at least two vegan restaurants, several Indian, Korean, and Japanese restaurants, as well as numerous British pubs and American steak houses.  The bellboy at the hotel had marked the location of a cellphone shop on our map, so we headed there first, and with the help of a Mongolian-speaking woman from Florida (it’s always Florida) I got a sim that worked with my phone!  Finally, after a week, I had access to Facebook and Gmail and could let the world know that I was ok!  (And fascinating in China.)

We headed to a Mongolian restaurant, Modern Nomads, that looked interesting.  The decor inside would fit in in any trendy, upscale neighbourhood in Ottawa (*cough*Westboro*cough*) and the food was good.  It was traditional Mongolian food, so we ordered a few plates to share.  It was a gentle introduction to our fare for the next two weeks on our tour.

 

At our first ger camp

Two mornings later we loaded up with the rest of the tour (whom we had met the night before, along with the guide) and headed out.  I chose to ride in the van with the leopard print seat covers (because leopard print, and I was missing my cats) and my first thought was “Dear gods, I’m going to die in Mongolia” as the driver barrelled around other cars, weaving in and out of traffic and scaring the crap out of the tourists in the back.  (It turns out that that’s just the way he drives all the time, and after a few hours you just get really into it and start to egg him on.
The tour would follow the same pattern for the next 2 weeks:  we would have breakfast at 7:15, if we were heading out that day, 8:00 if we were staying at that camp.  Dinner was always at 7.  When we were on the road, we would stop mid-morning for a pee break, as well as mid-afternoon.  We would stop in a town somewhere along the way (usually mid-morning, occasionally this was our pee break), and we could stock up on snacks for the rides, as well as water and/or alcohol.  We’d have lunch anywhere from 12:00 to 1:00, depending on if it was in a restaurant or if we were picnicking.  The food also followed a theme – mutton (sheep meat!), potatoes, rice, and carrots, in some kind of combination.  The food was good – it had flavour, it was filling, and it was tasty, but it got a little repetitive after a little while.  Each ger camp has flush toilets, and running water.  Most camps had hot water, although it did on occasion run out.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid

We headed up first towards Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the top three Buddhist temples in Mongolia.  We arrived at our ger camp to ominous skies.  After throwing our things in our gers (two people per ger) we headed to the monastery, and did a tour of the buildings and the grounds, before trekking up a set up stairs built into the hill behind the monastery, to turn the multiple prayer wheels.  From there, a small path lead over to another staircase, that rose to a giant, gold Buddha.  It was completely different, yet the same to, the Lama Temple in Beijing.  The elements were similar, but while the Lama Temple felt newer, more in use, this temple gave off a quieter vibe, as if it we had been transported back in time.  This temple appeared to be used less, but with just as devout worshippers.  We walked back to the vans, and drove back to the ger camp for dinner.  We were lucky and missed the rain this day.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid from the hill

The next day we were back on the road and drove north towards the Selenge River, with a stop off in Erdenet, for lunch and a quick visit to the carpet factory for some cashmere and, in my case, yarn.  We stopped off at another ger camp, and our luck ran out – the rain started as we headed towards Uran Uul, an extinct volcano that we were to climb.  The lot of us donned our rain gear, and set off up the slick path…that is, once the driver of the second van managed to get unstuck from the mud along the track road that led to the beginning of the trail.

storm off in the distance

I reached the ovoo at top, and began a clockwise walk along the crater, when I saw flashes of lightening off in the distance.  Used to the vistas at home (if you can see it, it can hit you) I sped up and jogged along the trail up top, hoping to reach the trail headed back down before the storm got any closer.  This was my first lesson about Mongolia – the sky is so wide, and so open, that often you can watch storms rolling across the sky that are nowhere near you.  This storm would hit us in earnest in about 3 hours, so I had lots of time.  Because I was so quick to head back down the trail, I missed the double rainbow that the others saw by the time they made it up.  Oh well, there’s always another rainbow.

During dinner that night, we watched the storm from the restaurant’s windows.  The lightening jagged through the sky, and lit it up.  The rain where we were had stopped at this point, so we thought the storm was moving off.  In fact, it rolled closer and closer, and finally broke around 10:30, right over our camp.  The thunder was so loud that it shook the ground, and rain pelted our gers.  Thankfully, the felted wool of the ger is incredibly tight and waterproof, not to mention warm, so I fell asleep to the sound of the rain on the roof, thinking “this isn’t anything like a tent.”

At our first homestay – families, drivers and tourists

The next day we went to visit a family, where we would stay for the night.  We actually stayed with two, related, families who had gers close together.  Half of us would sleep with one family, half with the other.  When we arrived, the woman at the main ger was making internal organ soup – which she offered to let us taste, if we wanted to.  Rather than bite into intestines or lungs, I decided to try to find the “toilet” – a ditch about a 10 minute walk from the ger.  Having grown up camping, peeing outside is never an issue for me.  Thankfully, the ditch added some privacy from the road; not that there was much traffic anyway.

Pointing at (beside) the peak we climbed

We had some time to kill before dinner, so I hiked up the hills behind the gers, with two others from the tour.  The grade was steep, and the ground was loose shale, with thin patches of grass in spots, so it was slow going.  Then it steepened even more, and the lady with us decided to call it quits there and just enjoy the view.  The guy and I pressed on, carefully as it would have been easy to lose our footing.  We finally hit a small crest, and walked along a short ridge line to the rocky summit.  The view was incredible – you could see gers dotting the landscape, sitting in valleys between the hills, and spread out in nearly every direction.  There was little sign of human habitation – other than the white dots of the gers, one paved road and several dirt tracks, there was nothing.  No cars hummed along the road, no motorbikes roared down the tracks, no hydro poles got in the way of a good photograph.  We spent a while just soaking it all in before making our way back down to the ger camp.

View from up top
My climbing partner while in Mongolia
Setting up “camp”

The other members of our group had spent the time reading, playing with the children, or visiting with the parents, with our tour guide as interpreter.  After dinner, cooked by the guides, and on the urging of one of the other girls on the tour, she and I set up our bed rolls and sleeping bags on the group just outside the gers.  The drivers helped us rig up mosquito netting, and we prepared to sleep outside under the stars.  Besides our sleeping bags, I had a fleece, hat, long pants, and a sweater on….just in case.  It was too bad the moon didn’t cooperate – it was near full, and dominated the sky.  No stars for us.  However, it was great sleeping outside, on the steppes.  We were both a little dew-soaked in the morning, so we hung our sleeping bags on the van doors to dry off while we had breakfast.

Lake Khovsgol

That day we drove over the Selenge River taking a break by the river to take photos of the landscape, and stopped off in Mörön to pick up a picnic lunch and mail off any postcards we wanted to send.  From there we headed north to Lake Khovsgol, stopping off at a small market set up by the reindeer herders, before heading down to the lake shore, and our ger camp.

We had two days to spend at Lake Khovsgol, and we planned to make the most of them.  The first thing I did upon arrival was pack up some dirty clothes to have the staff launder for me – between Beijing, the train ride and the few days on the tour, I needed most things washed, if I wanted anyone to sit next to me at dinner.  A few of us decided to walk along the shoreline, passing a few other ger camps, and families on the beach enjoying what we found out was an unseasonably warm day.  I have to admit – I had expected the Mongolian temperatures (especially this far north) to be cooler, but every day it was over 25C.

Even the yaks needed to cool off
Ovoo on the island

The second day at Lake Khovsgol, we all boarded a boat that took us to an island not far from shore.  Somewhat amusingly, no one (that I saw) wore a seat belt, but we all had to put on life jackets.  We sped across the water, somehow staying dry, to a small dock that I swear could not fit any more boats, but somehow we squeezed in.  A short but steep hike up the rock, down into a short flat col, and over to the spit at the end of the island brought us to an ovoo, where we could make an offering, walk around it clockwise, and make a wish.  The view was incredible from this vantage point, but unfortunately we were sharing the tiny piece of real estate with two other groups.  It made for some jostling around, as we all tried to manoeuvre and not fall.  Thankfully, the other two groups there left shortly after we arrived, so we had some time to pose for photos, and enjoy the views before heading back to the boat and back to camp.

Rocky ledges and endles vistas

That afternoon, five of us hiked up the three hills behind the ger camp – it was a short walk up to the first summit, where (another) ovoo awaited, this one with horse skulls clustered in between the ribbons and poles.  We did the obligatory clockwise walk around, and paused to enjoy the sun and warmth.  After a bit, we did the short hike along the ridge line to the second summit, this one with a couple of rocky ledges jutting out.  We took turns posing on the rocks, some of us more daring than others, and admired the views of the lake from our new vantage point.  We could see several ger camps spread out below us, but not many more signs of human habitation.  We quickly took off for the third, and final summit.  Then it was down the back of the hill, into the forest, and along a path until we came out in the field beside the camp, where we spent some time admiring a mare and her foal.  In all, we had spent nearly two hours hiking over the hills and through the woods.  Dinner couldn’t come soon enough!

Herding sheep along the road

We stopped over in Mörön again the next day, before heading to our second, and last, family stay, near Shine-Ider.  As we pulled up to the family ger, the driver motioned towards the stables, and asked if I wanted to sleep outside there, before breaking into laughter.  It was another moment to bring home how comfortable everyone was together – not just us, the tourists, but the guide and drivers as well.  We all meshed together as a group nicely.

Once at the family ger, and unpacked, We played a little with the kids, and again headed up the hill behind the family ger – this one was much larger than the others, and we made it to the first crest, about half way, before deciding to call it.  We sat and took in the view, before heading down for dinner.  If I had known that this would be one of my last “hiking” excursion, I may have decided to press on to the top.  Unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20.

Volcanic crater

The following day we arrived at White Lake (Khorgo Nuul), and Jason and I decided to jump into the lake.  Or rather, slowly ease ourselves into the lake – it wasn’t particularly warm at first.  But it was much like lakes at home – once you’re in, the water starts to feel a little warmer.  This was another two day stop, so our drivers and guide took us to another extinct volcano, which helpfully had a few concrete steps leading to the top!  We could again walk around the rim, so a group of us set off, joking around as we came to “cliffs”, taking turns having photos taken of our feet dangling over the edge.  At one point we lost the trail, and split up into different groups as we all tried to find the easiest (for us) way back.  We all made it back at roughly the same time, and hiked back down to the waiting drivers.

I spent a bit of time on rocky ledges this trip

On our way back to camp, we stopped off at a small shop for water, and a few of us got out of the vans and decided to walk.  Our guide told us to just follow the road and we’d arrive at the camp in about a half hour.  We slowly made our way back, stopping off to climb Turtle Rock.  It was a warm day, and clouds were building in the sky.  Dark, ominous clouds.  So we picked up our pace as we started back to camp, expecting rain to fall shortly.  Thankfully, the clouds moved off, and we got to watch the storm on the opposite shore while we sat out on the beach, enjoying the sun.

Storm on the opposite shore of White Lake
These are some bumpy roads

Back on the road, we had found our groove.  We shared snacks (deciding that the driver’s needed bowls so we could put our food offerings to them there, instead of on the console) and bounced around as drove down the dirt tracks.  If they were muddy, we could encourage the drivers to fishtail, resulting in more fun than I wish to admit.  When we were on paved roads, it was easy to fall asleep, but the bumpy dirt tracks can make it hard to do much of anything, other than chat with the others.  There was once when the roads were bumpy enough that one of the taller members knocked their head against the light on the roof.

 

Museum in Tsertserleg

On our way towards the Tsenher hot springs, which I think we were all looking forward to, we swung through Tsertserleg, for lunch, a stop at a museum, and some free time. The museum featured Mongolian history – a tradition ger, a stuffed horse (whose seams were coming apart), and various parts of daily life on the steppes – cooking pots, utensils, Buddhist shrines, and horse saddles.  Upstairs was a collection of musical instruments, clothing and hunting weapons.  Another building contained various games that children would have played, as well as history of the ruling parties of Mongolia, including the Communists under Soviet rule, and a brief history of the sole Mongolian astronaut.  There was also a section devoted to nadaam festivals. ,

After the museum, the tour guide took some people to the local market, while I headed to Fairfields for some coffee and baked goods.  Slowly everyone else dropped in after their visit to the market, and we all walked back to the meeting place for the journey to our ger camp for the next two nights, which was located near some hot springs.  The ger camps near the springs pump the water in their mini-pools – closer to a rather large hot tub than a pool.  Our ger camp had two side by side – one with warm-ish water and one with hot water.  A soak here was a wonderful way to end a bumpy day.

Our horses await!

Our second morning here saw our tour group split up as we all decided to do something different.  Some took a walk through the nearby forest towards the source of the hot springs, some signed up to get a massage at a nearby ger camp, and 4 of us got on horses. I took riding lessons as a kid in Canada, and I went horseback riding in Iceland, so I felt somewhat confident….until we had to sign a waver.

Sitting pretty during a break

Mongolian horses are semi-wild, but the ones we were on felt tame.  The guide picked up the leads of two of the horses, and myself and another guy were on our own.  We headed off at a sedate pace, past the ger camps and family gers, to an open meadow, where we picked up our pace to a trot.  (Unlike in Canada, to get a Mongolian horse to go, you say “chooo”.)  We eventually got to canter and gallop, as we went around and over a hill, and then back towards the camp.  We had all managed to stay on, and by half way through the four of us were all going solo.  My horse and I had one minor disagreement – it felt that it might just be more stubborn than me.  Alas, the horse had never been told “Don’t argue with a Barrett girl” and we quickly came to the agreement that when I said “turn around and go go go” we turn around and go go go.  A quick gallop back across the field, a turn that would make barrel-racers jealous and a race back to camp were definitely highlights of this ride.

Erdene Zuu Monastery
Erdene Zuu Monastery

By this point we were getting towards the end of the tour.  Things were still going well – everyone got along great, we were still having fun, but we were getting tired of being on the road.  So when we packed up and headed out, I think we were all glad that this would be the last stop before going back to UB.   On our way to the ger camp in Bayan Gobi, we first stopped by the Erdene Zuu Monastery, near the site of the ancient Mongolian capital Karakorm.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and seeing as I have a dream of visiting as many World Heritage Sites as my age….well, I was in heaven.  Plus – old stuff!  Fun!
We were given a tour of a few of the buildings, and then given time to walk around by ourselves.  Erdene Zuu Monastery was built in the late 1500s, and stones from the former capital were used in its construction.  We were taken into a long, low building, that had been seperated into small rooms – these are prayer rooms, where monks would sequester themselves to pray.  There’s also another building dedicated to the Dalai Lama, and several temples.  A ger is set up, where you can have a Buddhist monk pray for you; and near the enterance is a small gift shop, coffee shop and western toilets.

Prayer flags at the monastery
Stone turtle

I headed out to the gates to see the turtle, one of two that are the only remaining structures from the ancient capital.  It’s a short walk along a dusty road (follow the road and you can’t miss it) about 200 yards from the walls surrounding the monastery.  Set up near the turtle and several tables where people are selling various souviners, mostly Buddhism inspired, but also jewellery, statues and trickets that were Chinese in style.  The turtle itself is somewhat anti-climatic, but still worth the short walk.

This is one heavy bird

Walking back out to the van, I saw hunting birds, eagles and falcons that had been brought in by some eagle hunters, for tourists to pose with.  At only 3000MNT, or a little less than $2CDN, I decided to pose with an Golden Eagle, otherwise known as a Steppe Eagle.  They wanted to give me a little falcon, but I was having none of that.  I wanted to hold the bird that was bigger than me.  Weighed more than me, too, for that matter.  That was one heavy bird!

After our visit to the World Heritage Site, we stopped by a camel herder’s ger to take an hour long ride.  We were each helped onto our camels, and given the lead to another camel, forming a train that snaked over the land and towards a small sand dune not too distant.  Much laughter ensued as we adjusted to their unique gait. At the sand dunes we were lined up, and the camel guide gathered all of our cameras to take photos.  And wouldn’t you know it, during the photos with my camera, my camel decides it’s time to sit.   After posing for the photos, we were led back to our waiting vans, and then it was off to our ger camp.

Camel rides (and sits)

At camp later that evening, a few of us sat out enjoying the sunset.  Having heard the news about Robin Williams’ death just the day before, we stood, Dead Poet’s Society, on a picnic table.  The sky is absolutely amazing in Mongolia – it seems to go on forever, with nothing to block it’s view.

Monastery ruins

The next day Jason and I went horseback riding again, more confident this time than last.  It was just us, our guide and a horse guide, who spoke quite good English.  After a brief visit with the family, we hopped on the horses and were off, first at a walk, but quickly switching into a faster pace.  I should note that these horses were a bit more “wild” than our first set – most people choose to ride camels here, rather than horses. The time flew by, our hour was shortly up, and we walked back to the camp to join the others for a visit to another monastery, this one having been destroyed by the Soviets.  It has since been rebuilt, but the ruins remain.  The new monastery is building onto the cliff, so we gingerly walked up the steep, winding path, and then back down to the ruins.

New monastery on the cliff

The next day we woke up incredibly early to head back to UB.  Our drivers had told us we should leave at 6, but we (I) argued for 6:20.  My tip to you:  leave at 6.  We got stuck in traffic in UB, and since drivers in UB think that the lines on the road are suggestions, it makes for some interesting moments…and a nearly lost right arm, in my case.  That night we had our farewell dinner, treating our guide and drivers to dinner, and then drinks at the Blue Sky hotel, which has a lounge on the 23rd floor with amazing views of the city.

Last three standing!

TL:DR version
The Intrepid Wild Mongolia Tour includes
– hot water, flushing toilets, except for the 2 homestays
– the two homestays are close together, at the beginning of the tour
– gifts for homestay families that went over great were toys (balls), food (tea, onions, potatoes), toothbrushes/toothpaste, stickers, crayons, notepads
– waivers to sign if you want to ride horses
– lots of food.  Lots and lots of food.
– but it’s almost all mutton
– lots of monastery visits
– a guide who speaks excellent English and crazy drivers

Mongolia is good to visit because
– wide open vistas, with little to no signs of human habitation
– friendly, welcoming people
– things to climb
– horses and camels
– gers

Mongolia may not be good to visit if
– you are vegetarian.  UB has vegan/vegetarian options, outside the city even ‘Vegetable soup” includes meat.  Rice, potatoes, carrots, eggs, cucumbers, and bread were plentiful though.
– gluten-free?  Definitely bring rice cakes to supplement the meals.  While most things were GF (hard to go wrong when it’s all rice, carrots, potatoes and sheep) there were occasionally ‘thick’ sauces and wheat noodles
– you’re not so big on mutton
– you’re not too big on nature,
– you don’t like bumpy roads and long car rides