We booked a weeklong tour with Sunpath, one of the most popular tour arrangers, run by a small Mongolian lady named Doljma whom we referred to as Grape Leaves for obvious reasons. Since our friend Sivani could no longer join us, it would just be the two of us unless Grape Leaves could find a solo traveler to take the third spot. We would have an English speaking guide and a driver, and would see a huge amount of the country. We were eager to have a week being super active - hiking, climbing, horseback riding, walking a lot. I was excited. I was naive.
To cope, I wrote diary entries every day of the trip. These are their stories.
Otherwise, the rest of you are going to hear about my diarrhea.
Of course my body decided early on that it hated Mongolia and figured, “hey, THIS is the right place to get a strong case of Travelers’” Yes, the time leading up to a week of camping and long car rides is EXACTLY the right time to go absolutely berserk, body, good job! Thanks for that! You’re not a total shitbag at all! Both figuratively and literally!
I was nervous, but I was feeling relatively okay that morning and figured I could hold it together by sheer strength of will. I’ve been doing without television for a month now; I could use that same mentality to CONTROL MY INSIDES, RIGHT? No you idiot you can’t. Luckily for the few hours outside the city, we saw enough gas stations with outhouses that I was okay. But they quickly became, like, REAL country living outhouses, like not actually worthy of a title using the word ‘house’. These were delicately balanced planks of wood, with doors that didn’t close. Soon, at another gas station, I used my first toilet hole with no door. It faced away from the road, thankfully, and faced into an endless field...of goats. My insides exploded while approximately 150 goats stared and bahhed at me. Do goats bah? I can’t even remember the sound a goat makes. I think those moments, when I was sick while making eye contact with a wild goat, will prove pivotal in my life.
After maybe four or five hours of driving and a line of toilet pits ever decreasing in safety and cleanliness, we stopped for lunch. I was actually hungry - I hadn’t eaten and my body was apparently shedding itself from the inside out since it had no food to shed - and eager to stop for a decent amount of time.
The restaurant Guido had planned to go to was closed. For Naadam, probably. His failure to check in advance that a place we just drove five hours to would be open for us was the first sign that he was a total diddadoof.
He decided we would eat at a khuushuur shack on the same bit of expanse, and asked if I had snacks since he knew I didn’t eat meat. Great first showing at what kind of guide you’ll be! I had a bag of really weird breadsticks we found in UB that somehow tasted like the fried noodle things that American Chinese restaurants will put on your table before you order. I ate some of those. It wasn’t a smart move. I used the nearby toilet shack hell hole while holding the door closed with one hand and trying to get my toilet paper out of my purse with the other hand. A small girl peed outside the crack in the door while I was in there.
You’d think maybe the worst was over, at least for the day, but you would be wrong. The horrible feeling of my entire body was no match for the aural onslaught the driver caused with his horrible music. He listened to CDs of I THINK songs written to help people learn English, like ESL music edition. The lyrics were very simple sentences, the musical equivalent of See Spot Run or donde esta la biblioteca, and Guido and driver were alllll about them, singing along kind of proud that they knew the words. It was kind of nice to see that, but the music was still bad. It got worse - they started playing famous songs that I knew the words to like Abba’s greatest hits, Hotel California, and an impressively annoying song called Hands Up that I remember playing at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. The kind of songs that you suffer through without too much actual suffering because they’ll be over soon, but knowing the words makes it worse. But Driver played each CD three times in a row. I was screaming inside. Every time Hotel California came on (6 times that ride), they would both sing along with slightly incorrect words and looked like they were having the goddamn time of their lives. I was full on batty by the end, singing along to Abba’s ‘Mamma Mia’ with the obvious lyrics change - “Diarrhea! Here we go again!”
Tonight marks the first night in years that I didn't floss.
We left at 9am to get to the Tsenkher hot springs by afternoon. Remember how Guido promised that the roads would be better? LOLLL. They were the same, except this time there were more little ponds and lakes to ford! Is it bad to ford in a Toyota? Thank goodness my stomach has decided to stay in one piece since yesterday morning, so praise to the Mongolian god of intestinal tracts for at least removing that challenge from this experience.
So, I am sure some people are like ‘but how wonderful is it to see another culture and how they live!’ And I'm sure people are thinking I'm being rude to them and disrespectful of their way of life. Maybe I am. But I am unwavering in my belief that would be better for most Mongol people and for the public health if their toilets were cleaner or existed at all and if hygiene was promoted and oh yeah sewage disposed of more appropriately. And it would be better for the people if roads were paved, and people's cars didn't break down or pop tires when they tried to drive to the next village. So many cars we saw were a mess or more often were stuck in the rock piles passing for roads. It's treacherous. They have to pay for repairs and they lose time, which is usually losing money. A road, just one paved road in this valley, would boost tourism and save time so people actually want to be there and see things. It's a mess and I'm not afraid to say that out of some way-too-common liberal traveler tendency to over-extol the virtues of every shithole they go to. It's a real common annoying problem, ignorant in the other direction, for travelers to rain praise on a place for no reason other than that they've been there and think that exaggeratingly exalting the exotic makes them seem worldly. It just makes you a jerk. I’m being a jerk too but at least I’m honest.
(I forgot to take pictures of the hot springs)
The hot springs were indeed incredibly hot but so enjoyable. They are just little jacuzzi-looking jawns just behind the bathroom building - which is, I am sad to report, a full 250 paces from our ger. I count every time. The first night was about 80, the second (awful) one was about 150. This is 250!! That is too far for middle of the night peeing! I guess that means we’re going right outside the door again.
It started raining, really heavily raining, that night, and the top part of our ger was open. Guido and a guide friend had to climb up on top of the ger to secure a tarp. Guido popped his head in and asked Z if he had any rope for tying it down. No we don’t have rope.
Dinner was finally my tofu cutlets that we found at a grocery store when we all went food shopping a few days ago to stock up on everything! They were good! With more potatoes and carrots, of course. And bread. Guido likes to give each of us at least like 8 slices of bread throughout the day. It’s ridiculous.
After dinner in a bit of silence, Z looked up at me and said “Why would I have any rope?” We died.
That night the people in the next ger were SO loud until about 3am, and they were outside talking (even though it was raining, beach umbrella sort of thing) so I had to keep trekking to the bathroom, back and forth, back and forth. If I wore one of those dumb watches I’d have hit my steps just from peeing.
After lunch, my god, it was actually a paved road to White Lake! Cannot believe!
My kidneys actually hurt from holding my pee for weeks now, it seems. On the way, we stopped at a camp so I could pee in a hole where the planks were literally covered with caked human feces, at least six months worth of buildup. And this was in a ger camp. I hope ours would be better that night.
Haha the paved roads didn’t last very long. In fact, the roads got so bad that we had to get out of the car and walk up a mountain while the driver went crazy trying to get up this.
The only difference was, we would stay here for two nights. Cool. Cool cool cool cool.
The boys swam while I went in the lake up to my knees. It sucks to not fully participate but if I am not able to shower again for four more days there’s no way I’m putting on a still-wet bathing suit and going into a dirty lake and then just being gross for four days. I am not voluntarily adding ‘yeast infection’ to my list of troubles.
He also is in the lake screaming about how he can’t see without his ‘googles’ and I am cackling at that too. Both things are too cute to correct.
Guido brought us breakfast (fruit! canned but still! and 5 pieces of bread.) at 10am, and when he came to collect our plates (oh, after that first night’s dinner in a kitchen, all of our meals have just been on our beds. I hate nothing more than food in the bedroom soooo), he said lunch would be at 1pm. JFC we were like no that’s not necessary! Can we just go on the hike to the Khorgo Crater finally? But he does not do well with plans changing and begrudgingly pushed lunch back to 1:30pm. Lunch was actually good, rice of course and a succotash type thing, but like give us time to actually work up an appetite dude!
However, my unwillingness to trek to the outhouse 5x during the night paid off in one way, because when I was outside the door peeing at 12:30am, I looked up and saw the universe. I’m not kidding. Guys, I didn’t know there were that many stars. I’ve seen the usual suspects, but this night looked like a planetarium. I woke Z up and we both just stood there like, holy shit, is this what is out there? The sky was like a dome that was COVERED with billions and billions of lights that we could actually see. We clearly saw the Milky Way galaxy. If you had told me before that the Milky Way would be visible, I would have said ‘but how do you know which thingy it is?’ There was no questioning it here though - you could clearly see the swoosh plain as day. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I really didn’t know that the naked eye and just plain open sky could lead to such a sight. I did not know there were that many stars. IN THEIR MULTITUUUUDE.
It almost makes this whole week worth it.
Guido: “My favorite song? Cash me outside.”
Sea Bass: “I don’t know that, how does it go?”
Guido: “Mm, mm, cash me outside” -- JUST SPOKEN
Again, nausea from trying not to laugh-cry.
After Sea Bass was pushed onto a five-hour bus that he didn’t sign up for, we told Guido that it was unacceptable to do that to him and to us, considering how dangerous it was to speed like that. It’s okay, he said. Um, no, we are telling you it’s not okay. The language barrier here really posed a problem. It's a shame that they clearly cannot talk back to or disagree with their employer, because she is super wrong here.
For the first time in a week, at lunch we were given a menu to choose from instead of being brought whatever the restaurant made for us. I was so excited when I saw fresh vegetable salad on the menu. Obviously I ordered it. And - obviously guess what it was! CUCUMBER AND TOMATO YOU GUESSED IT! I didn’t even care.
The Semi Gobi at least was cool to see, with its typical landscapes that you'd expect of the Gobi in full.
We went on a hike to get away from it all. The landscape nearby was nice, more deserty obviously being in the Semi Gobi.
When we came back from the hike, we found this in our ger:
A little later, the old lady came in to grab a pot and didn't mention the boy.
About an hour or two later, Guido came in and we said, "Hey, um, do you know who this is, what he's doing here?" He laughed and said, "Haha, I think that he is someone's kid," and left. YOU DON'T SAY, GLINDA. (Opening number of Wicked: "After all, she had a father! She had a mother! As so many do.")
This is really hysterical but it's getting late and we cannot go to sleep with a random child in here. So inappropriate! This is such a mess. Oh and I realized why it smells like poop. That huge overflowing box of wood in the middle of the room, for making a fire in the central stove? Not wood. It's dung.
The only good part was this HILARIOUS little girl running around the whole time and making the cutest faces.
All Day 7 is is the drive back to UB! HUZZAH! We successfully got them to leave at 8am instead of 9am (I'M A CELEBRITY GET ME OUT OF HERE!) but even though we arrived in city at like 11:30am, it was the hardest thing yet to convince Guido that we didn't want to stop for a ridiculously unnecessary and long lunch. They were so concerned that we wanted to deviate from the plan (just go to lunch after you drop us off!) that they got Grape Leaves on the phone because, of course, turns out SHE is the one who hates any deviating from the plan. It was so ridiculous. We had to tell her on the phone that we just wanted to get to our hotel. JFC it's like she never wanted us to be FREE OF THIS WEEK. I just want to get to the incredibly fancy hotel we booked tonight to treat ourselves after this week and before our next sleeper train tomorrow (to China!). I was so excited to SHOWER! And eat SALAD! And pee indoors tonight in a real toilet!
Finally, FINALLY, we got out of that car for the last time! Oh my god the joy! The joy would continue beyond belief, because we walked into the Kempinski hotel, and it was the fanciest, most incredible hotel I've ever seen.
Best of all...I'm so excited to tell you...what's better than going from peeing in latrine pits in the woods to using a real toilet?
This past week was truly insane. I don't know if I'm glad I went through it or not. I can say for sure it changed me though -- I went from wishing to find bathrooms on long car rides to wishing to find a toilet to wishing that the hole in ground had a door to wishing that just not too many people could see my bare butt from the road. I have come so far. What an absolutely ridiculous experience. Humans invented stuff for a reason, Mongolia. Wash your hands.
*This marks the last post on this Trans Mongolian Adventure page of the Travel section! On to China!