“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mongolia Day 5: The Hills are Alive

Two years ago Galdan was in a serious car accident.  His car rolled 25 meters and he flew through the windsheild.  His tailbone shattered.  The doctors couldn't even put steel rods in to stabilize him because of the numerous fractures.  He spent $10,000 and a year the hospital to heal.  I said he was lucky to be alive.  He said, "Lucky? I'll live to be 100!"

He lost his driver license as a result of the accident, but he can still ride a horse.  This is how he makes his living.  Last night he found us a place to make camp, and this morning started a large warm fire in the chill of the mountain shadow.  The sun was peeking over the mountain tops and mist was rising.  The distant valley was full of fog.  But the sky was clear and it was going to be a beautiful day.

I wasn't as sore this morning as I had anticipated.  We rode off up the mountain through the pine forest.  We were barely an hour into the ride when my left knee was in excruciating pain.  The old skiing injury left it vulnerable and this was a more inopportune time to happen.  The angle of the leg when riding a horse is such that my knee feels as though it is twisted.  So I couldn't trot with the horse without more pain.  We rested at the top of the mountains where I could take some Tylenol and gave some to Galdan for his back, which still can bother him as a result of the accident.  

But what a view.  It was the best view of the trek.  On the mountaintop we stood, overlooking the valley with the river running through, and forested mountain peaks as far as we could see, perhaps a 100 miles. Gers dotted the landscape and horses grazed below us.  Fay and I twirled like Maria VonTrapp. She picked wildflowers and we laid them atop a pile of rocks where other travelers had passed.  

We walked the horses down the mountainside and headed for the river which was another hour's ride.  Flies were abundant and the horses were feisty with itchiness.  They were tough to control and it made for a challenging ride.  The sky was blue and the sun shining warm on our shoulders.  We couldn't have asked for a better day.  Lunch was a welcome relief by the riverside.  

It was the final stretch home.  Or Geldan's home, that is.  Another hour ahead of us, and we broke into song... Oldies, goodies, Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, BeeGees, on we went, delirious.  Wind in our hair and song in our hearts.  Okay, a bit sappy, but we were happy.  Tonight we would be spending the night in the ger from two evenings ago.  And so here we are... Our final night.  We made it.  Tomorrow we have a couple sights to see in the morning then we end at the hotel in the afternoon.  

Once we made it back to the ger, Fay, Eku, and I walked into town.  I was craving a cold Coke.  The mini market only had cold beer, but room temperature Coke and bottled water would do just fine.  We crossed some makeshift bridges and made a stop to soak our feet in the river.  I couldn't resist rinsing my arms.  We were sweaty and hot from hours in the sun, and the cold clear mountain water was a welcome relief.  Cold water on my feet... Which surprisingly didn't hurt after the 5 days of activity we've had.  This is my ode to my Merrill trekking shoes.  I learned a lesson from the book Wild (I hear Reese Witherspoon is starring in the upcoming movie). Buy hiking shoes a half or full size larger.  It was necessary.  And blessed... Mud, water, rocks, tall grass, heat, you name it, my feet stayed comfortable, dry, and free of blisters.  Yay!  Along with my backpack, I love these two purchases. 

Randomly, did you know that horses lay down when they sleep?  I didn't.  

Fay's horse took the lead again today, she was merely the passenger.  Her horse was grey with a black mane.  She was wearing a grey sweatshirt and has black hair.  They matched.  Poor Fay, though, kept trying to make her horse go faster and catch up with the group but it preferred to lag behind.  Tchoo! Tchoo! (Go! Go!) she repeated and finally resorted to slapping the horse's ass to make it move.  By the end of the day her right hand was filthy from spanking a dirty horse.  Take that as you will.  We had some good laughs over it. 

At any rate, tonight we rest.  Eku is making our final meal and I can't wait to start up a fire and relax.  We've been talking about where to eat in UB when we get back.  After a shower and some relaxation, of course.  Tse Pub, perhaps, a cold drink and some pub grub sounds delightful. 

Mongolia Day 6: The Final Days

late start was had on our last day in Terelj and we were already tired of living outside.  We were eager to get to the hotel in the afternoon.  It would be a relatively easy day, with our first stop at Turtle Rock in Terelj on the way to UB.  The rock was a massive boulder in the shape of a turtle - representing longevity - standing alone in a valley surrounded by rocky cliffs.  It had to be at least 15 stories high.  We climbed up the back of it, into crevices and sat overlooking the valley.  Below lay a village and a children's summer camp.  Another beautiful day of clear, sunny skies.  

Our final lunch was alongside a brook before we headed to UB. The drive was uneventful, through small towns and industrial areas in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. We took a left turn south of the city which appeared to be newly-constructed and a bypass around downtown.  It was the nicest road we had been on all week.  Soon we found out why.  A massive iron fence with decorative painted stone pillars enclosed an estate in a valley full of evergreens.  Through the trees we spied a complex: the president's palace.  Lucky dude had brand new roads paved right up to his front door. 

The Ramada in the city center was a sight for sore eyes.  One of the nicest in the city, although it is showing some age.  Regardless, the beds were soft, the linens fresh, and outfitted with robes and a Japanese toilet to boot.  I may have taken the the longest shower of my life and scrubbed a few layers of skin off.  We were going to meet Eku and his friend for drinks later so Fay and I first went to a neighboring shopping center where I picked up some nicer shoes than just my flip-flops for the evening, then a quick stop at the grocery for additional supplies.  

Dinner was nice and basic, some sheep and beef skewers with rice, and also a sheep patty with fried egg and sauce.  I loved that dish the best.  We polished off a round of drinks and a bottle of wine, then capped it off with another round at a nearby jazz club where we sat outside in the warm summer breeze.  We were exhausted then crashed in our hotel.

Oh what a fabulous sleep.  Fay was dreaming that she was still fighting with her sleeping bag and forgot where she was when she woke up.  I slept like the dead.  And woke up with a hangover headache.  Breakfast was free and possibly, definitely, the best free hotel breakfast EVER.  The selection was enormous, from dumplings to traditional American breakfast foods, to Chinese and Japanese, salads, soups, breads, meats, cheeses, on and on and on.  We both made numerous trips back to the buffet.  A nap was in order afterward before we had to check out and head to the airport. 

We needed that one day to do just nothing, nothing at all.  Nothing in the luxury of a hotel.  We actually wanted to stay another night because the bedding was so comfortable and the breakfast amazing.  It has been a tough week.  A tough, amazing, adventurous week.  It tested both of our limits.  We are ready for the comforts of modern civilization. Onward we move to the other side of the Great Wall.

But we did it.  We made it.  Through the tough moments and the laughs.  Through the cold and the heat of the evening fire.  Through sunrises and sunsets.  And throughout the vast green landscapes.  A truly amazing country, indeed.  Not for the faint of heart, but for the strength of the soul.  We made it.

Mongolia Day 4: This is "Roughing It"

Doing the laundry in the river.  Dipping a tin pot into the river to boil and use for tea dinner.  Setting off to find a place to camp.  Bug spray.  No shower.  Using the resources at our disposal to make do... Washing up, airing out, keeping warm.  Fay has been good at gathering firewood; she sets off immediately to find good, dry timber.  Today I helped Eku set up the tent in the rain.  He's been making hearty, delicious meals every night.  The kid is young but has skills.  He might be about 23. This is his third year with Tseren as a guide.  He's a movie buff.  I think he's seen All of the Movies, which is impressive since he's never left Mongolia.  We talk about movies and The Simpsons and Family Guy. 

Today began our horse trek.  We had two pack horses.  Fay rode the same horse as yesterday. I rode a beautiful tan horse which is much more responsive and has been good for my skill level.  Very easy to ride up to a trot and loves being at the head of the pack.  I'm glad we took some lessons before we went, but the style of riding here is much different and the horses are trained differently.  The reins are held in one hand and the commands and body language also differ.  But it was good practice for balance and basic skills.  Fay said she thinks her horse is riding HER.  It follows along and randomly trots when it feels like it.  They seem suited to each other.

What a fantastic feeling, being in the open valley surrounded by evergreens and winding rivers.  At times we'd run ahead with the wind in our hair, riding openly in the wilderness.  THIS is riding, not some nancy trail back home with one horse behind another.  There is a degree of paying attention, guiding the horse through bogs, around rocks, under trees, through herds of cattle and sheep.  Then trying to keep the horse going when it wants to stop for a snack.  Eku's horse is feisty, a former racehorse that sometimes just takes off in a zip with him on the back.  His hands are red from pulling on the reins and I wonder how long until they're raw.  But he seems a tough kid.  Geldan is funny... One of the pack horses has some serious gas, and he likes to point to someone and blame it on them.  He was kind enough to carry my camera under his jacket so it wouldn't get damaged on the pack horses, and so I could ride openly.  He is weathered from the countryside and his life as a guide.  I enjoyed riding alongside him as he sang Mongolian songs.

We passed other tourists along the way, really the first ones we've seen days.  They were taking pictures of us and we waved back.  Geldan always greeted everyone we passed.  We saw other tourists riding past yelling Allez! as the horses galloped past.  It's been raining on and off all day, but only when we stop for rest.  I'm at least glad it hasn't rained while we've been riding else our pants would have been more damp than they already are.  Speaking of pants, by the time this week is over, these jeans will be able to stand on their own.  I'm doing an entire load of laundry when we get to Beijing.  My knee is sore from the ride, my inner thighs tender, and my calves bruised from the stirrup straps, but not in nearly as much pain or ache as I had anticipated.  But let's see what tune I'm singing in the morning. 

First, I'm glad we brought half chaps.  Geldan gave us a smile and a thumbs-up when he saw them on us.  Eku also donned a pair with his boots.  Geldan has the original Uggs, really.  Leather boots with wool lining and toes pointed and turned up with Mongolian markings on the calves.  I'm also grateful I brought a rain jacket, as bright yellow as it is.  So thank you, Nat Geo Channel, for the Wicked Tuna raincoat.  I'm not entirely sure I'd wear it often in Chicago but here it's godsent.  And thank GOD for the gloves that I brought, which I first used when I learned to ride a motorcycle, and now are doubling as riding gloves.  Yes, I have a lot of Things, but they've all been useful. 

This is tough. This is a mentally and physical tough trip.  It's the most adventurous I've ever done and definitely not for everyone.  Fay is holding up incredibly well considering she's never been camping.  And good lord, I'm not sure she was certain what she signed up for.  If she had known the details, she may not have come.  I purposefully didn't want to know the details because I didn't want to set any expectations.  But I knew we'd be camping.  It didn't phase me.  

Last night was spent in the ger and I slept reasonably well.  We built a nice fire in the stove also this morning.  Tonight we're back in the tent.  There are no cots.  We sleep on a thin pad with two sleeping bags.  Third thing I'm grateful for is bringing my sleep sheet/sleeping bag liner.  It's clean and it's mine so I feel a bit of comfort.  I also have a small travel pillow that I brought along with a fuzzy blanket tucked inside which I'll use tonight for more warmth. It is very cold at night.  I could have been more prepared, but I'm far more prepared than I expected so I'm faring okay.  But oh how I dream of a hotel at the end of this.  And a 30 minute shower.  And a clean toilet.  ANY toilet.  

Two things keep running through my head: Dances With Wolves and Long Way Round.  Like Dances with Wolves, we had a pack of dogs follow us out of camp, then a couple hours later another pack followed us for about an hour.  Like Two Socks the wild wolf.  In Long Way Round, Ewan MacGregor and his best friend Charlie Boarman ride motorcycles across Europe and Asia, my favorite reality program.  They found Mongolia to be one of the most difficult stretches of the journey.  They considered giving up but found the country so beautiful that they wanted to conquer the trip and push on.  So they did.

And so do we.  I chose this trip for many reasons.  One of them is that I knew it would be hard, but lately I have enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment I get after facing a hardship.  Overcoming fear and comfort has been my latest journey the past few years.  This is yet another.  It puts my first world city life in perspective, when things get rough, I can look at the time I spent here, sitting in this tent with the rain tapping at the roof, muscles aching, sticky with bug spray, and know that I can overcome almost anything. 

Today's entry can be summed up in two beautiful little passing moments.  First was Fay on her horse, yelling out MONGOLIA!!  And the other was Eku exclaiming to me, "I love my mother country!!"

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mongolia Day 3: The Real Adventure Just Began

Terelj National Park was only a hour away on mostly paved roads, along which we passed a few army bases and a military radar station.  As well as a Kazakh cemetery and Buddhist cemetery with a massive golden Buddha near then entrance.  We passed yaks, falcons, a Bactrian camel, Mongolian restaurants inside gers, and toll booths.  Into the park we headed As the landscape changed to more mountains with smooth boulders, rock faces, and more evergreens.  

Just outside a village we had to cross a river, but stopped just on the riverbed where we saw a car stuck that had also tried to cross.  A family had waded to shore, and the father was still at the wheel, door open, and water filling the inside.  We all hopped out of our vehicle and Achiro and Eku leaped into action.  Achiro our driver turned our van around, backed into the river, and undid the tow line.  I stood on shore and took a selfie with one of the girls who was wearing a Yankees cap, with me in my Cubs visor.  The men of the group (including Geldan, who turned out to be our horse guide for the upcoming trek) rolled up their jeans, waded into the river, and tried to find a way to attach the tow line to the other car.  Surprisingly the engine wasn't entirely washed out so they attached the line under the front bumper, and Achiro towed the car back to shore, everyone cheering and clapping. When they opened the car doors, water flooded out to the ground, the entire inside soaked through.  We were able to cross the river in our van with no consequence.  And this was just the morning. For reference, the car was a Toyota, and our van was a Mitsubishi. 

We would next make camp for the night in a ger of our own.  Inside we have 4 beds, a small table, and a little wood burning stove in the middle with a pipe through the roof.  These gers can be assembled and disassembled in under 2 hours, as we had seen some families do this morning so they could move into the mountains for the winter.  The mountains offer protection from the cold winds, then they move into the valleys in the summer for their animals to graze. There are no nails used in the construction: some of the joints are either pegs, or hinges made out of horse hide, which is incredibly tough and durable.

After settling in we walked over to Geldan's family ger to say hello.  In this country it is perfectly acceptable to walk up to a home and invite yourself in for a visit, even to a stranger.  Inside were two young teen girls and one teen boy.  They offered us milk tea, which is twice-boiled milk.  In this case, cow's milk.  It was homemade, unpasteurized, and delicious, just like warming up milk before bedtime.  I'm curious what this will do to my digestive system, but no maladies to report as of yet. They had three beds, two chests, a desk with a small computer and stereo, and a light bulb, all hooked up to a car battery. They also had a small solar panel outside near the kitchen tent for supplemental power.  

The young boy invited us out to a ride on the family horses, so this was our chance to practice for the next few days of riding.  Southward we rode for a couple hours with our little teenage friend, who looked to be about 9 but was actually 13, and had been riding his horse since he was 5. He was a chatterbox.  Adorable.  It took Fay and I a little while to get acquainted with our horses, meaning, just to get them to GO.  We got them up to a trot a few times but couldn't sustain it.  The weather was gorgeous, the sun warm but not oppressive, the breeze gentle, and the countryside peaceful.  On the way back we were all getting more comfortable in the saddle and with each other so we began singing songs... Old classics, The Beatles, modern songs, mostly out of tune.  We rode over hills, through rivers, and under low-hanging branches.  When we returned to Geldan's ger and hopped off the horse, my legs felt like spaghetti.  That was just two hours.  We have three days of riding ahead of us.  

Geldan's wife had returned home and invited us inside for a snack.  We didn't turn down her hospitality and went inside to find more children.  Some were Geldan's and some were just "neighborhood" kids.  The youngest was an adorable boy of about 5.  The milk tea was served in bowls and they offered us bread and orom, which was the consistency of butter.  I had a sense that we were in surreal surroundings, yet at the same time felt completely normal and comfortable.  

Geldan's son, the eldest with us on the ride, had been kicked by a bull a couple weeks ago and his knee was very swollen and he had difficulty walking (yet apparently no problem happily riding  a horse).  Geldan asked Eku if he had a bandage, so Fay and I rummaged through our supplies.  Between the two of us we were able to flush the wound out with hydrogen peroxide, clean with an alcohol wipe, and apply bacitracin to a tough bandaid. He winced as the peroxide bubbled in the wound, but I gently blew on it as I told him what I was doing and Eku translated. He was a good sport.  We believe his mother will finally bring him into town to see a doctor tomorrow.  I hope his knee will be fine again soon enough to play basketball again... Which seems to be the national pastime here.  Outside nearly every ger and inside every village is a basketball court. Eku knows more about the NBA than anyone I've met.  

Night is upon us and we're in our own ger now with the wood stove glowing red.  We have firm beds but are happy to be less exposed to the elements.  Tomorrow we begin our horse trek up into the mountains.  Every day is better than the day before.  We are roughing it for sure, but I love the simplicity and I'm so glad that Fay is just as adventurous and having a marvelous time.  Although I won't deny I will bask in the four-star luxury of the Ramada at the end of the week.  For the time being, we are feeling Mongolia through and through.  

Mongolia Day 2: A Road is an Opinion

The air is fragrant with the scent of juniper and eucalyptus.  The air chills quickly when the sun sets.  Dinner was beef noodle stew, the beef so tender and, well, beefy as it should be, since cows here actually eat grass.  Free range, roaming, pasture-fed beef.  Every animal around me has the potential to be dinner.  It was welcome, with cups of hot tea simple snacks for dessert.

I crossed the river opposite the camp, finding a trusty stick to help steady myself as I skipped across the rocks and climb up the opposite hill.  Below was our camp, and from the top of the hill the setting sun was casting shadows upon the mountain ridges in the valley, the silence so absolute I could nearly hear the blood pumping in my head.  A cow's skull lay nearby, bleached by the sun.  Dusk was upon us.
Along Khustai National Park

We lit an impressive fire after dinner and Eku recounted a Mongolian fairy tale about 8 brothers that made up the stars in the Big Dipper (here called the Big Spoon) and the North Star.  Eventually we retired to our tents.  Night one.  It was cold.  I'm sure that each night that passes we'll find better methods of settling in, making up our beds, and staying warm.  Fortunately the weather is supposed to continually warm up through the week.

I awoke at sunrise just as the orb was peering over the horizon.  With my camera in hand and still in my pajamas, I slipped on my jacket and hat and went exploring.  Back toward the river, the remains of a sheep were scattered in a field.  A hoof here, leg bone there, a jaw... Someone else had also camped here recently, as a cow's skull was hung up on a tree staring into the rising sun.  The quiet of the morning, rippling of the river over rocks, and the skull standing sentry lent an eerie sense about the place.  

I continued back over another river, climbed up another hill and onto a vast plain with mountains in the distance.  Once again I was overlooking the valley and able to see for at least 50 miles.  Alone again with only the sounds of the the birds to keep me company. When I returned to camp after crossing back over the river, I discovered my pajama pants were covered with dew and mud.  After breakfast I took the pants and a bottle of shampoo down to the river to wash them.  This was roughing it.  Was this how the locals did their laundry?  It was a successful venture, meaning I didn't fall into the river, so I had half the mind to do the rest of my wash.  The pants are hanging to dry in the sun and breeze, and all is well again.


Outside Khustai National Park
After packing up camp we headed out on a 4 hour drive through the steppe toward Madsujir monastery. Before I get into detail about our hike, it is worth devoting space to discuss the road situation here.  I use the term "road" loosely. Very, very loosely. Not even a dirt path.  Sometimes tire markings to follow.  Sometimes, just turn.  Right there.  Turn.  No road.  No markings, just drive wherever.  If the animals roam free, so do the vehicles.  Where there is a dirt road, part of it can become washed out and a new path is made around it.  There could be an number of trails woven and cross-crossing the countryside.  At one point as we neared a strip mining area, there was no telling what was a road and what looked to be bombed landscape.  Construction vehicles, cows, and ravines.  When we finally did hit tarmac again, Fay and I cheered.  I didn't care where where we went next, as long as we stayed on pavement.  Just trying to hold on inside the car was exhausting enough.  Turns out this is all completely normal for Mongolia.  

We followed a river through the valley for a while and passed an army base where a female legion was running drills.  Instead of driving through the madness of UB again, we took a "shortcut" south of the city through an industrial zone.  More mining and factories.  Burning tires.  This time the "road" was a dried out ravine.  Eventually we made our way into Tov province into the provincial capital of Zoormud.  A quaint little town where we stopped for some reinforcements.  There was pavement! 

Right outside this town was where we stopped for the afternoon to visit the Madsujir monastery.  The landscape changed from grass-strewn steppe and hills to mountains of rocky cliffs and tall evergreens.  The higher the peaks, the more plentiful the conifers.  Buddhists set up a monastery on a cliff side because they believed the site was magic: trees usually grow in a valley along a river, not in reverse.  We parked for a quick lunch and began our hike.

Madsujir was built in the 18th century but destroyed by Stalin's thugs in the 1930s. By the 1990s it started to get some restoration attention, but work has been slow.  The site used to host 1000 monks.  A large iron cauldron set nearby, once able to feed the entire community.  Ancient stone carvings stood nearby, either figurines or writings in Sanskrit or ancient Mongolian script.  

Mandshiir Monastery
We hiked throughout the site, up to the main temples, then upward yet still to smaller temple huts with rock paintings of Buddhist spirits.  Each site was blessed with gifts of colored scarves, money, milk, and other offerings.  We decided to head yet higher up the steep cliff face.  There are no railings, no steps, no signs, no direction.  This isn't America. This was the wild East.  We made our own path until we reached a section of the cliff where we could sit, rest, and soak in the vista.  We were high above the site where kids below we're shouting up to us and we'd whistle in return.  We could see for miles and miles, mountains of grass and evergreens.  Eku said it was one of the most beautiful places in the country.  And there we sat, the three of us, the only ones a thousand feet above the ruins, relaxing.  We wouldn't be able to do this with a tour group.  

The climb down was adventurous, being careful to find our footing amongst the boulders and pebbles, our grip against other rocks and minding some of the plants that were itchy to the touch.  Instead of heading straight down, we marched diagonally across the ruins, leaping from rock to rock of what were formerly foundations of the buildings.  Into the evergreen forest we went until we found a white temple topped with gold scimitars and the Mongolian mark.  We were again alone amongst the pines, just us and a shrine and the sunshine peeking peeking through the branches.  We paused to take in the silence, then made our way back to the car.  Nothing here is straightforward.  On the walk back, we encountered a herd of horses amongst the trees, and the local tourists were just as giddy as we were, if not more.  We finally made camp that night in an open valley just outside town and watched young boys on horseback herd their animals back to their corrals.  Eku once again delivered a delicious beef and rice stew.  The night was silent, and Fay and I slept  a bit better now that we're getting the hang of how to configure our sleeping bags.  The next morning we would set out for Terelj National Park, but not before we were awakened by the neigh of horses surrounding us.

Mongolia Day 1: Truly the Middle of Nowhere

Rolling green hills and mountains.  Jagged rocks.  A bright blue sky dotted with cotton clouds.  A crystal clear brook cuts through the flood plain.  A ger.  A herd of horses, branded by the nomads nearby.  A wild takhii trots through camp, more interested in the other horses than by us, and pauses to stare at me.  A wild cow keeps watch.  The sun is setting over the hills casting long shadows behind the few trees that line the brook.  

This is Mongolia.

A breeze sweeps over the steppe, the only sounds those of the wind in my ears and the grasshoppers holding court.  A small lunch of bread, cheese, Nutella, and tea.  The sun warms our shoulders and we relax, nettles nipping our legs.  This land is vast.  

As early evening sets in, we have made camp by a river in a flood plain, dried out for months after the rainy season.  The tents are pitched, dinner is being prepared, and I'm sure we'll sleep like the dead in the silence of this truly wild wilderness.  

It was two days of traveling to get here, and we flew into Chinggis Khan Airport with no consequence, into the cool air that was a refreshing break from the stuffiness of Beijing.  A new language, a new alphabet.  We didn't sleep long as our schedules haven't synced with the new time zone, now 13 hours ahead of Chicago and our internal clocks are upside-down.  As I write this, I've had three days to acclimate, but I am finally exhausted and have fought off a nap, saving it for after dinner when I'll surely begin to doze in front of the campfire.

Two years of planning went into this trip.  I am fortunate to have friends that also love adventure and travel, so Fay is along for the ride to Mongolia.  We snoozed long and hard for moments at a time and for the final flight into Ulanbaatar.  Neither of us remember takeoff.  Checking in and heading to bed was uneventful.  But I was a little on pins and needles until our guide Eku and driver Achura picked us up.

I had been planning with Tseren Tours since the winter.  Things were going well until two weeks before the trip when their email was hacked and the hacker had attempted to steal my email password, and tried to get me to wire funds through Western Union to an account in Texas.  I could no longer communicate with Tseren through email, but fortunately I finalized details with them via phone during late nights in Chicago when I was awake and they were open for business half a world away.  All went according to plan when we met at the tour office in the morning to pay our deposit and begin our journey.  

And we did, rolling out of Ulanbaatar and into the countryside.  The open road was fine enough but we shall never complain about potholes in Chicago again.  We stopped on occasion to take pictures, in one case pausing by a shrine and ceramic statue of a Mongolia shaman by the roadside.  As we pulled off the main highway, the side roads quickly deteriorated to nothing but washed out dirt paths and a couple tracks.  Now I know why there are handles inside the vehicle.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon exploring Hustai National Park, home of the ancestor of the modern horse, the takhii, or Prezwelski horse.  A few were sent to zoos in the late 19th century, then the were finally extinct in the wild.  In the 1960's, a dozen were re-introduced into the wild of the park, and today nearly 300 roam free.  They are beautiful beasts, with short manes, a milky coffee coat with black legs and tail.  We sat for a while to observe a few herds in their watering hole.  Water of which is so clear one can't see where the surface begins, where nearly a whisper of a breeze is the only indication that water is present.

Camp has been made, the sun is setting, and a chill is seeping into the air.  Mosquito bites mark my initiation.  It is quiet, the only orchestra that of the birds and toads, the occasional thunder of hooves nearby.  

Behind me Fay is practicing her karate into the sun, breathing the fragrant air.

This is Mongolia.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Packing 2 Weeks of Vacation into a Carry-On

Three years ago I was so proud of myself for packing only a mid-sized suitcase and a carry-on bag for a 16 day tour of South America, with room to spare for souvenirs.  This time I'm heading off to Mongolia and China for some time on horseback and hiking for 2 weeks.  I can't imagine putting a suitcase on the back of a pack horse, let alone lugging around more than 2 bags.  Which is why this time I decided to buy a single 55-litre backpack and take one day bag.  Plus I don't want my luggage being checked and possibly delayed to start the vacay, so I feel safer with a carry-on.  I have all I need, the trick is now to edit and compact.
Baggalini tote and Gregory backpack

Space Bags
They're my best friend.  They should be your best friend.  Easily picked up at BB&B and bring a coupon! Shirts in one bag, pants/skirts in the other.  Nine shirts for 2 weeks, banking on changing clothes at least 2-3x a day.  One pair of jeans, 1 dress, and 2 pairs of shorts.  Undergarments in another bag.  You can fit about 6 shirts in a single medium bag.  Fold (don't roll), put in bag on the floor, kneel on it, seal it, then fold the entire bag in half and kneel on it again, therefore letting the rest of the air out of the valves.

Do laundry halfway through the trip.  If your hotel/hostel doesn't have laundry service, either take it to a laundry service or I tend to wash my items in the bathroom sink.  Two small bungee cords can act as a clothesline and binder clips as clothespins, and I throw those in my accessories catch-all bag.

The trick to packing only half of what you need: MONOCHROMATIC.  Pack blacks, whites, greys, or pack earthtones.  This way you can easily interchange outfits and minimize the number of shoes you bring (I  know, I know, I once brought 14 pairs on one cruise... before I learned how to slim down).

On the Plane
Wearing hiking shoes onto the plane will save space inside you luggage (and in weight!).  I slipped a pair of flip-flops into a small bag inside my handbag so slip into these once on the plane (and taking a pair of ankle socks to sleep in).

Wearing linen pants, tee, and hoodie to be comfy for a 14-hour flight, plus now I don't have to squeeze a hoodie and another pair of pants into the bag.  If your cabin class doesn't come with an amenities kit, then pick up a couple disposable toothbrushes at the pharmacy to freshen up when you land.  For immediate access to things I may need the most during the flight, I pack my favorite multi-pocket bag with earplugs, headphones, eye mask, Tylenol, Tums, eye drops, tissues, iPad/iPhone cord, passport, in-flight Rxs, wallet, socks, and disposable toothbrushes.  The little loop on the end lets me hang it on the tray table clip on the seat in front of me, or tuck into the seat back pocket.  Loving Flight 001 for their clever packing accessories.
Flight 001 in-flight accessories bag
This goes into my day pack, which is a durable tote-turned-backpack from Baggalini.  This bag will also include paper copies of travel plans, camera equipment, flip-flops, and a scarf.  Always bring a scarf/wrap.

You don't need to pack your entire medicine cabinet.  But if you're susceptible to picking up illnesses, pack some basics and you can refill at your destination.  Don't pack the whole container; put pills into plastic baggies, label them, then roll up.  Keep all medications inside a single pack.  Target has good $1 accessory bags in their travel items section in-store.  Bring liqui-gels if possible instead of the full liquid versions of some medications so they don't take up space in your single allowable 3oz/1qt liquids bag.  If you're carrying prescription meds, ask the pharmacist to put them into small bottles, if possible, but keep them in their original pill case with the Rx attached because you may need to justify to some Customs officer why you're carrying them, especially if you have to carry needles or other medical devices.
Label everything that's not in its original packaging

On my ganeral must-carry list: Imodium, Tums, Zyrtec/Claritin, Tylenol, Gas-X, Zithromyacin, DayQuil, Benadryl (for allergies or cold), bug spray, Benadryl stick (for bug bites).  In a separate bag I keep a first aid kit: band-aids, moleskin, alcohol wipes, and if you have any special emergency items (EpiPens, inhalers, etc).   I like keeping the sample sizes of toothpaste that I get from visits to the dentist to repurpose for traveling. One more pack could carry jewelry and hair accessories, and another carry makeup.  But where to put all these small bags?

I love my Swiss Army toiletry bag to keep everything together.  Keep all the small bags in here, along with a small comb or folding brush, razor, toothbrush and paste, and when you arrive, unroll it and hang in the restroom.  If you're freshening up at the airport, this is easy to hang by the sink in most cases.
Swiss Army toiletry bag keeps it all together

You can also reduce your toiletries: Shampoo can double as laundry detergent.  Conditioner can double as shaving cream.  PLEASE don't bring the entire shampoo bottle.  Grab sample sizes from the store.  There are sample sizes available for nearly everything you'll need: hairspray, deodorant, shamp/cond, lotion, etc.
Keep it simple, sample size everything

Balance Your Bag
It's like Tetris
For some leftover items like chargers, power adapters, a little bag works to keep these getting lost inside your luggage.  Put the heaviest items at the bottom or lower portion of your bag so it doesn't tip over when you stand it up.  If you're packing a backpack, as you pack it, try it on.  If it's pulling to one side, reorganize to put the heaviest weight down the center.  I'm also bringing fabric shopping bag in case I fill that up with souvenirs and want to check my bag on the way back.  If you plan on doing a lot of shopping, haggle for a cheap small bag to check for your return flight.