Sunday, August 29, 2010

Big Trip 2010 – Our Route, Some Statistics and Final Thoughts (August 30, 2010)

Our Route

We can hardly believe we’ve completed our journey. I dreamed up this adventure about 10 years ago while staring at a map of the world on my wall and now we’ve done it.

In our own car, travelling west to east, we crossed Europe and Asia. From Dunnet Head in Scotland we drove southeast to Esfahan in Iran, north through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, then east through Mongolia and Russia to finish our trip on the opposite side of Eurasia in Vladivostok, Russia. Our route was determined by these things:

1) Travel from Atlantic to Pacific Ocean on roads with own 4WD vehicle
2) Visit the places that we were most interested in (everything but especially Scotland, Turkey, Iran and Mongolia)
3) Only go through places where we felt it was safe enough to travel through
4) Where governments would allow us to drive through

A Few Statistics
18,521 miles (29,800 km)
124 days
14 countries visited:
Great Britain, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia

More statistics for engineering or accounting types:
898 gallons of gasoline used (3393 L)
20.6 mpg average fuel consumption (11.4 liters per 100 km)
34.8 mph average moving speed (56 km/h)
532 hours moving. This averages to 4:20 hours moving each day.
Most expensive fuel purchased: Great Britain at 2.02 US dollars/liter (7.65 dollars/gallon)
Least expensive fuel purchased: Iran at 0.30 US dollars/liter (1.15 dollars/gallon)
Turkmenistan fuel was cheaper but not if you consider the km based road tax that foreigners pay

Final Thoughts
Now that our Big Trip is over it is back to life’s other challenges but we will always remember our Big Trip. We are proud that we, our car and our belongings made it through this adventure. We challenged ourselves, learned many things, and had a great time. We want to thank all of the wonderful people we met along the way and all of the people at home that helped make this trip possible. I hope that we were good ambassadors and guests to the people and places we visited and that we can also be ambassadors for the people and beautiful natural places we visited by bringing some of their good will, culture and beauty to our family, friends and country. Bye-bye and happy travelling!

Vladivostok (August 19-30)

Mid afternoon on August 19th, Stani and I arrive at the final destination of our Big Trip, the city of Vladivostok. We are filled with mixed emotions as we roll into town. Excitement, thankfulness and amazement that we made it, but at the same time sadness that our trip is now really coming to a close. This was always the ending point of our trip, and now we are actually entering the city.

Stani in front of the Vladivostok city limit sign

Vladivostok was founded in 1860 and quickly became an important naval base. Due to its seaside location and close proximity to neighboring Korea, Japan and China, this city also became an important merchant city in the early 1900’s. Foreign presence declined however under Stalin – he deported or killed most of the foreigners - and during the Cold War from 1958-1992, Vladivostok was a closed city to the outside world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was reopened, but a new problem emerged – the mafia. Things have begun to calm down (although several locals we spoke with complained about corruption), and this city is in full swing getting ready to host the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in 2012.

Our most important task to take care of in Vladivostok is arranging the shipping of our car back to the U.S. Stani spent a lot of time researching and arranging this before we left the U.S., but now all these arrangements need to followed up on and secured. While we’re in Vladivostok, Stani spends a lot of time communicating back and forth with all the parties involved. I’m grateful that he has such patience and good sense when dealing with this complicated process. We have a customs agent, Yuri Melnikov at LINKS, who helps us with filing all the necessary documents to clear customs. Ro-Ro (roll-on-roll-off) shipping from Vladivostok to Yokohama, Japan is arranged with the shipping company, FESCO and after a lot of back and forth, we’re told that our car will ship on Sept 9th. From Japan the car will be shipped Ro-Ro to Longbeach, California by Orient Maritime, our Japanese shipper. If all goes according to plan, the 4Runner should be back in the U.S. the end of September. From there it’ll need to clear customs and be put on a semi-truck and transported back to Ann Arbor.

Since we are going to be in Vladivostok for such a long time, we decide to leave the city on August 20th for the weekend to explore something different. Our customs agent, Yuri, suggests we do what the locals do and take a ferry to nearby Russky Island. This island was completely militarized until earlier this decade when it was opened to the public. We line up for the ferry around 5pm and are told that the ferry can only take 4 vehicles at a time, so we should expect to wait in line 4-5 hours. Since this appears to be a popular attraction, we decide to stick it out and wait. Around 9:15pm, we finally are loading our car onto the ferry. The ramp is steep so many cars scrape their undersides as they get on and off the ferry. While waiting in line, Stani meets a local, Ivan, who works for FESCO. Ivan invites us to join him and his group at a camping site on the island. Ivan is nice and so is his girlfriend, so we agree. Once we’re all off the ferry, we follow them to a beach on the other side on the island. There are many other vehicles and tents set up, clearly a popular spot, but eventually we find an ok place to put our tent. Well this turns out to be the party beach. Music blares from one car equipped with a gigantic speaker in its trunk until 4:30 a.m. The music resumes at 6:30 a.m. I am very annoyed by the music, but worse than that is a horrible itchy rash that has spread over my entire body. I must have brushed up against some kind of plant, and I’m reacting strongly to it. I get very worried when my lip and tongue start to swell. The next day I take some Zyrtec which I get from Ivan’s friends and in about an hour, the rash is completely gone. Ivan’s friends say they think I brushed up against the plant ambrosia. We thank Ivan and his friends for their hospitality, but decide to leave the party beach in search of a quieter place to camp.

On the other side of the island, we find a camp with many tents set up on platforms. I walk in and find out it is an Evangelical Christian camp. I ask if they have space for our tent, and they are happy to let us stay. What a difference this place is compared to the party beach campsite! It’s so peaceful here and everyone is really nice. After setting up our tent, we drive and explore the island. We find a navy museum where you can see big guns built into the hilltops and other navy equipment used to defend this part of Russia. On Monday morning we pack up and head back to the city. We feel like we’ve had a vacation from our vacation.

Ferry to Russky Island

Once we’re back in Vladivostok, we check into Hotel Azimut, our home for the rest of our time in here. Our room is definitely old fashioned Soviet style with a musty smell (Stani calls it musty sweet home), but the view of the bay from our porch is great, the room is clean, breakfast is included and there’s free wi-fi in the lobby.

Hotel Azimut

Our room as we prepare to pack

Even after a long weekend away, we have plenty of time to explore Vladivostok. We follow a walking tour listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We start at the train station and see the marker indicating the final stop for the famous Trans-Siberian Railway – it’s a 9,288 km train ride from Moscow to Vladivostok. We walk past the home where Yul Brynner, the famous actor from “The King and I”, was born and visit an interesting regional history museum. Included in this tour is the beautiful Triumphal Arch and an S-56 submarine. Our final stop on the tour takes us to a great look-out of the entire city. Other days are spent exploring the city, seeing a Fort Museum, Car Museum, reading and preparing to leave for home. We also have lunch one day with an American from Minnesota, Jeff, who lives in Vladivostok with his wife Renetta, a local, and their son Sebastian. We met Renetta at a gas station when we came back from Russky Island.

Trans-Siberia terminus

Triumphal Arch

S-56 submarine

On August 27th, we meet up with Yuri, give him the keys to the 4Runner and he drives it into the port. Since we are foreigners, we are not allowed in the port. We are sad to be separating from our vehicle that has been with us for so many km. It’ll be parked in a parking lot next to the port until it is loaded on the ship to Japan.

One day after we drop off the car, on his way to the car museum, Stani sees a chopped up car that frighteningly looks like ours! He studies it from a distance for about 20 minutes before finally concluding that it really isn’t ours because it has gray fabric seats. This chopped up car business we later learn is done as a way to avoid paying the 100% vehicle tax that the government charges on imports. Since the pieces arrive as parts and not as a complete vehicle, no tax is charged. Once the pieces arrive, they are then welded back together and then sold. It’s crazy to think that people would rather buy a Japanese car that has been welded back together than a Russian built vehicle!

We are also told that the Russian government will be implementing a ban on importing Japanese cars starting in October in an effort to try to get people to buy Russian made vehicles. As a result, people are importing Japanese cars like mad before the new law goes into effect.

On August 30th, we get up early and pack all our belongings from our nearly 4 month adventure. Because we’re shipping the car ro-ro, nothing could be left in it. Amazingly we are able to fit everything into our allotted four pieces of luggage and two carry-ons. The taxi picks us up from the hotel and takes us to the airport. It’s hard to believe that we are really going home. What an adventure we have had - it's truly been the experience of a lifetime!

Big Trip 2010 traveling companions – Stani, Kirstin & the 4Runner

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Driving through the Biggest Country in the World (August 12-18)

The next several days we focus on driving the many kilometers from Ulan-Ude to the final destination of our Big Trip, Vladivostok. Before the trip, I had read that the roads, especially past the city of Chita, were horrible, and we had also heard that maps are wrong and navigation is really difficult. But after talking with Sandra and Holger, I’m much more optimistic. A lot of road construction has occurred and is still happening as we drive. Unlike Mongolia, whenever a road closed due to construction, they take the time to make a decent detour.

The back page of our atlas says it all

It rains on and off pretty much each day, but since we’re in the car, it doesn’t bother us. After about 1.5 days, we reach our first big city, Chita. Here we find a restaurant with wi-fi so Stani can work on trying to arrange shipping for the car once we reach Vladivostok. After lunch I walk into the city while Stani continues working on the computer. Even though it has been just one day since we registered our visas, I know that we will have several days ahead of us where we will not be able to register, so I want to try to find a way to do it while we’re in Chita. Lonely Planet mentions that it’s sometimes possible to register at the post office, so I make this my first stop. Unfortunately I’m handed some forms, but told I cannot register on my own – I need a hotel or tourist agency to do it. After some walking around, I find a tourist agency, but they say they cannot do this for us either. I walk back and meet Stani. The lights had gone out at the restaurant for him, so he hadn’t been able to get as much done as he needed, so we find a hotel with a café & wi-fi. I ask the receptionist about a room and if they can register our visas, but she tells me they can only register us if we stay there for more than one night. This whole registration thing is really a pain! Since the hotel won’t register us, we decide to save our money and find a camping spot outside of Chita and hope we’ll be able to register somewhere else.

Before leaving Chita we stop briefly to admire a beautiful Russian Orthodox church near the train station. Then it’s back on the road again (did we ever mention that Willie Nelson’s song, “On the Road Again” is our theme song for the trip?). Just outside of the city we switch from the road M-55 to M-58. This new road will take us all the way to our next big destination, Khabarovsk. There is even a km marker at the start of M-58 reminding us that we have 2,165 km to go!

Perfectly proportioned domes of the Cathedral in Chita

Only 2,165 km to Khaborovsk!

We spend the next 3.5 days driving to Khaborovsk. The road fluctuates between fair, great and excellent. I almost feel like I could be on a road in the U.S. Along the way we try to find a place to register our visas – even asking the police in one town – but no one seems to be able to help us. We camp each night in a spot that is unique from the previous night (gravel pit campsite, shopping mall campsite, pretty swamp campsite). At gravel pit campsite, there are quite a number of mosquitoes and the sky looks like it may rain, so we decide to sleep in the car for the first time. I’m excited to get to finally test the platform, curtains and screens that Stani worked so hard on designing and making before we left on the trip. I love it and think it’s super cozy but it’s a little too short for Stani to really stretch out. Shopping mall campsite is another gravel pit but it is so large that Stani says they could build a shopping mall here.

A stretch of the excellent section on M-58

The car camping set-up

We notice that as we get closer we get to Khaborovsk the number of police speed traps and checkpoints increases. I had been bragging to Stani that whenever I drive, the police let me go through without a stop, but now this changes and I average at least one police stop per day. They’re always interested in seeing our car documents and after a brief scan, they send us on our way. I did however getting pulled over once for speeding (going 60 kph instead of 40 as we enter a village). Thankfully the police look at our documents and let us go without a fine.

In the afternoon of August 17th, we finally arrive in Khaborvosk. Located on the Amur River, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the Far East of Russia. We check into Hotel Tourist and have trouble getting our visas registered because it had been more than 3 days since we last registered. I explain that we had tried numerous times to register and after a phone call, the manager eventually agrees to register us. She says it is the law to register every three days and that in the future we must insist that people register us. She then proceeds to say she can register us through August 19th even though we are only staying there through the 18th. The logic makes no sense to me! After unpacking a bit, we walk into town passing Lenin Square and find a delicious pizza restaurant called Manhattan Pizza. We end up liking it so much that we go back there for lunch the next day. We wish they could open a chain in Ann Arbor!

Lenin square near our hotel
The next day we follow a walking tour of the city which is listed in our guidebook and see many nice things including a renovated Russian Orthodox Church called Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi. With a bit of sadness, we leave Khaborovsk and start our last leg of the trip - the nearly 500 km drive to Vladivostok. We see a big roadside sign telling us we’re on the Moscow-Vladivostok highway. It’s a big sign for a big road in a big country!

Khram Uspenya Bozhey Materi

Big roadside sign

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back in Russia & Lake Baikal (August 6-11)

Anxious to continue our journey, we arrive at the Mongolian/Russian border about 8:45 a.m. Until now, there have not been too many other vehicles waiting at the border crossings with us, but here at our final land border crossing, we arrive to find ~20 RVs lined up ahead of us. We learn that they are from France and are part of an organized 3 month driving tour from Paris to Peking and then back to Paris. In addition to the convoy of motor homes, an adorable Citroen (a.k.a. “The Duck”) is also taking part in the adventure. After what we have experienced in Mongolia, I’m in shock that such a vehicle could make it out alive! Vive le France!

The citroen – a beast with panache!

Unlike the quick border entry into Mongolia, the exit takes 2.5 hours – most of this time is spent running around to different officials, getting stamps, having our name recorded in multiple logbooks and having our car inspected multiple times. We even get recorded twice in one log book by two different officials, once as Stani Bohac, and three lines down as Bohac Stani. Once we have completed all the tasks, we still wait, for what I’m not sure, but the official says we can’t leave. We keep asking, and she finally says we can go. When we reach the Russian side, it’s like a breath of fresh efficient air. The officials are very thorough and check our passports and visas numerous times, but after completing their checks, we are allowed to enter Russia. We buy liability insurance at a bank in Kyakhta, a town near the border since it’s not available at the border crossing.

Then it’s on to the city of Ulan-Ude which we reach after about 250 km on decent roads and stay at Hotel Ayan a few km outside of the downtown area. It’s so great being back in civilization! We celebrate by eating a nice dinner at an Irish Pub in the city. Unfortunately the next day, Stani has stomach problems so we stay an extra night in Ulan-Ude so he can recover.

With Stani feeling a little better, we decide to head out of the city and on to our main attraction, Lake Baikal – the largest freshwater lake in the world. Before leaving the city, we can’t pass up the opportunity to see the world’s largest Lenin head statue in the center of town.

After leaving the city, we come to an unexpected ferry crossing. While we’re waiting, we witness a tractor pulling a car out of the water – hopefully our car will not see a similar fate – and meet two Germans who are also travelling with their own vehicle, a 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser. Sandra and Holger had been living in Perth, Australia and are now driving back home to a small town near Hannover, Germany. How cool! They could have just packed up and flown home, but instead they’re taking the long way home. We’re thrilled hearing their experiences of driving from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude since we will be travelling that way and that we can share our experiences of Mongolia since they’re headed that way. We’re doing some of the same route, just in reverse! We decide to caravan at least to the first town on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, Gremyachinsk.

The road is great and we’re happy to have new travelling companions. We stop for Sandra and Holger to fill up with gas. A few hundred meters after the gas station, their vehicle putters to a stop. Holger tries to start it without success. After much discussion and examination, Stani and Holger think that the problem is bad gas. Stani tows Holger back to the gas station and incredibly, Holger just happens to have a siphoning tube which he uses to remove about 60 liters of the bad stuff into the station’s containers. He exchanges the 92 octane gas for 95 octane and we all hope the result will be different. At first it doesn’t want to start, but after quite a bit of revving the engine, it finally does. Yeah…Lake Baikal here we come!
We continue to drive on so-so roads to Gremyachinsk and find a great spot past the town nestled in the trees on the shore of Lake Baikal. What a day! We make a fire and enjoy the sunset over Lake Baikal with our new friends.
Unfortunately several young locals who have consumed too much vodka decide that our campfire looks cozy too and nestle up and overextend their welcome. They finally leave, and we go to bed only to be woken up from a near sleep with their shouts of “Russian vodka? ” and “Kristina!” How did I become so lucky for them to remember my name? We waited in our tents and eventually they went away.

The next morning we were thrilled to discover a nerpa seal resting on a rock nearby our camp. I was really surprised to see the seal since I thought they lived further north and west, but here it was. So cute! These seals are unique because they are one of only two types of seals in the world that live in fresh water.

The nerpa seal taking a rest

View of Lake Baikal from our first campsite

We are enjoying being in such a beautiful location that we decide to stay a little longer and continue further north to Svyatoy Nos Peninsula. We had heard that it is one of Baikal’s most impressive sights with rocks jutting up from the water. The road to the peninsula is pretty bad – a lot of washboards, rocks, and construction - but we’re all still in good spirits when we reach our second ferry crossing. Next to the loading area, there are stalls with different kinds of local treats. One of the most common is a smoked fish called omul. Although we passed on sampling it, supposedly it tastes a lot like salmon.
Vendor selling omul

The second ferry ride

After more off-road tracks, we reach a stretch of campsites all beautifully positioned right on the water. We select one of the few remaining sites and set up our tents. Holger and Sandra do some vehicle maintenance, and Stani and I take a nice walk to scope out a possible hike for Stani for the next morning. The mosquitoes come out in full force, and I wonder what pest I’d rather be with, mosquitoes or drunk young Russians?

The next day, at the wee hours of the morning, Stani sets off for a hike to the highest point on the peninsula. Below is his description of the hike.

My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m., I start walking from the tent at 4:35 and reach the trailhead that we found the night before at 5:00, where I start up the trail.

The trailhead is at the level of Lake Baikal (1500 feet) and the top, called Makarova, at 6100 feet. It is about a 4 mile hike from the trailhead to the top. For the first 30 minutes it climbs gradually in a nice forest path.

At about 5:30 the mosquitoes wake up but just as they get bad I rise to a higher elevation where the underbrush and trees are less dense and the mosquitoes are gone. Just about now the sun also rises and I can see some of the sunrise through the trees. It was chilly until now but now the temperature is perfect and there is a clear blue sky. The trail climbs steeply for the next hour. There is a trail sign that says 50% grade. I don’t know if this is accurate but the trail does just go right up the mountain.

After about 2 hours from the trailhead I reach a beautiful cross on a small peak. After this the trail is less clear but mostly still ok to follow. It either follows the ridge or the ridges right side. A couple of times it gets scary because the way becomes a boulder path with a pretty steep grade on one side and it isn’t clear if this is really the path or not. This photo shows the ridge and the lake behind it, looking back.

After a couple hours on the ridge (four hours total) I get to the top. I can see the sand bar, the lake in the sand bar, the bay where we camped on, much of Lake Baikal, the shoreline, even the shoreline on the other side of the lake. I also have a nice view of the plateau that I’m on. The weather is really nice.

 After a short while I meet Tom and Marina. Tom is an American from Cincinnati and Marina is a Russian from Irkusk. They climbed the peak together yesterday, camped on top and are now coming back down. Tom came to Lake Baikal by the Trans Siberian Railway and did a 2-week trail building program on the northeast side of the lake. We hike down together and it is fun talking to Tom. It makes the descent seem to go much faster. Route finding is also much easier going down because you can see where the trail is for some distance ahead. We get down in 3 hours and after a quick swim in Lake Baikal I jump in the car and we hit the road.

While Stani is hiking, I sleep in. Sandra and Holger pack up and leave in the late morning and I relax on the beach reading my book, “The Life of Pi”. After Stani gets back, he jumps in the lake to cool off and then we start the drive back. We have to wait at the ferry crossing for 2.5 hours and end up camping near the lake again. The next day is our last glimpse of the beautiful “Blue Pearl”. We soak it in with a picnic lunch and then it’s back to the first ferry crossing and the city of Ulan-Ude for one more night. We enjoy the evening at a cozy restaurant on the main walking street where I try my first bowl of borsch in Russia – yummy and devour a delicious Greek salad.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mongolia Part 4 – Amarbayasgalant Monastery and North-Central Mongolia (August 2 – 5)

After a wonderful time at Khövsgöl Nuur it is time for us to begin the final part of our journey across the top of Mongolia. On the morning of August 2nd I recover from my food poisoning and we take care of a bunch of necessary things: do laundry in our hotel sink, buy food, gas, get a haircut, and buy a Mongolian SIM card for one of our phones because both of our phones have stopped working. We have been getting a good signal in the towns but our phone calls won’t go through. Our Mongolian SIM card works fine. On the way out of town we pass the town’s wrestling stadium with some statues in front of it. Wrestling is one of Mongolia’s national sports. Below is a photo of one of the statues.

At 1:30 p.m. we are on the road out of Moron. Today the road is a gravel and dirt road but it is much better than what we had before Moron. We are able to average more than 20 mph for the first time in a long time. Plus there are kilometer markers, which is so nice because each one reassures us that we are still on the right track. Along the way there is a beautiful rainbow that stays with us for a long time.

We cover 120 miles today and make it half way to Bulgan. We camp on the side of the road at the edge of a Birch forest. After dinner as it is getting dark a herd of horses comes to us once again. They walk straight to us, then feed and hang out close by. They’ve done this 3 times now. We wonder why they do this. Is it because they are curious? Or do they feel secure around us (from wolves)? But then after a while two Mongolians on horseback round them up and lead them to the yurts close by.

The next day, August 3rd, the roads are unfortunately not nearly as good and our average speed for the day drops way below 20 mph again. It starts to rain and the road becomes a greasy, muddy mess.

After a while we come to an area where a paved 2-lane highway is being built. In places we can drive on the gravel that has been built up but at other times we have to drive next to the road being built and there is no road there to take. Sections of trees, extremely deep mud, super greasy sections of mud, and standing water all must be negotiated. How can people build a highway and not have a detour while it is being built? Plus each time we have to get on and off the “highway”, there is no ramp to do this. You are on your own. Below is a short movie showing one of these ramp-less exits.

After getting down one particularly greasy hill we stop for lunch and watch in amusement as many vehicles try to get up and down the hill. Some make it and some get stuck. There are cars, SUVs, mini trucks, a sheep wool truck and a convoy of fuel tanker trucks. We nickname some of the vehicles: “Baaaaaad news for sheep wool (a truck overloaded with a gigantic cargo of wool, with some of it falling out the end), oh, little truck is REALLY stuck now, u-oh it looks like the tanker convoy is ditching their trailers!” Eventually everyone seems to make it. Our last day on dirt is a real challenge!

Eventually we reach the section of road that is finished and it is really nice pavement. We arrive in Bulgan (a larger town), buy some gas and groceries, then have trouble finding the paved road to Erdenet, but eventually do find it. The map in Lonely Planet is totally wrong but the locals tell us where the road is. We drive 20 km, pull off the road, drive across a field and behind some trees for a really nice camping spot. Tonight I add pressure to our tires. So far in Mongolia I’ve been running ~18 psi and now I optimistically put 25 psi into the tires for the roads in the rest of Mongolia that should be much better.

On August 4th we drive the last 30 km to Erdenet on a great paced road. The 30k are covered in a flash! Erdenet is a large and modern (for Mongolia) town. It has a population of 73,000 and the main street is lined with concrete buildings about 4 stories high. We check internet in an internet café with modern computers and a decent internet connection and get some groceries but are unable to see the mining museum (closed until September) and copper mine (they want 20,000 Torog just to drive in). The copper/moly mine is one of the largest in the world and consumes 40% of Mongolia’s energy! We get back on the road toward Darkhan, stopping for lunch at the top of a pass. Then after asking we find the gravel road that goes north to Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of the most significant and beautiful Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. The monastery is at the end of a 35 km gravel road with a few muddy spots and a couple stream crossings. As we get there a boy rides past us on a horse and I’m able to quickly snap the photo below.

Amarbayasgalant Khiid is beautiful and is set in a stunning valley. It is Mongolia’s most intact archeological complex and is filled with beautiful Buddhist artwork. It was built 1727-1737 by the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng. It is a Mahayana Buddhist monastery (same as Tibetan Buddhism). For 200 years it was a flourishing monastery, but in 1937 the Soviets executed the 200 monks living here and destroyed many of the religious relics, books, sutras, thankas and Buddhas, but thankfully tore down only 10 of the 37 temples, probably because the local military chiefs were sympathetic and procrastinated. After Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the artwork, religious meaning and symbolism, and culture are overwhelming. Today 30 monks, mostly young boys, live in the monastery. I think the hope is to rebuild a community of monks here as this batch of boys grows up. There is also a lot of restoration going on.

Before visiting the monastery we check into a really nice ger camp next to the monastery that is run by the monastery and profits go to help support the monks and restoration. Our ger has painted artwork on our table, chairs, support posts, ceiling rods and door.

After moving into our ger we walk to the monastery, whose front side is shown in the photo below.

Upon entering the monastery you first walk through a building containing four protector gods, two on each side. There protector gods are common in all of the Mahayana Buddhist temples I’ve seen in India and now Mongolia. Their purpose is to protect Buddhism. Usually they are painted near the entrance, but these are huge, larger-than-life figures are especially impressive.

In the monastery most of the buildings are open to visitors and contain beautiful temples. We see some of them on our own but are soon joined by a boy monk that proudly shows us around and tells us exactly how many prayer books there are, how many columns each building has, how many statues in each hall, etc.

The photo below shows the main prayer hall.

The boy monk we meet shows us a small stupa next to the main hall, climbs in, spins around three times and climbs back out. Then he says I should do the same. The stupa is really small but the monk is so nice and I’m feeling playful so I squeeze in and do the same. But just as I’m extricating myself from this holy symbol the supervisor monk walks by and gives us both a cold stare. I feel really bad and try to explain that this wasn’t my idea and that we were just playing. The next day, I see some other Mongolilan adult visitors doing the same thing so I feel much better about the whole thing. Below you can see the stupa and me standing next to it.

The monastery is closing for the day so we walk back to our ger but on the way we walk up to a giant golden Buddha being built above the monastery and then a huge stupa. Below are three photos showing the monastery and the valley it is and the giant stupa.

We are really, really impressed by everything here and take lots of pictures. What a wonderful last sight and experience in Mongolia! We enjoy nice pasta dinner on the lawn in front of our ger and then retire to our cozy, wood-stove heated home.

The next day (August 5th) the ger camp serves us breakfast and then we visit the morning prayer ceremony. We are surprised that it is just kid monks with only one older one. They are a little disorganized and the kids are being kids. But it’s cool to see the service. Below you can see the monks gathering in front of the main prayer hall.

After the ceremony we pack up our things and head back down the gravel road. At the first stream crossing we wash our car. It’s gotten super dirty and it looks so nice being clean and shiny again. In an hour we are back on the paved highway heading for Darkhan. After Darkhan we pass through Suhbaatar, which will be our last town in Mongolia. We buy gas and some groceries but still have a little money left and can’t find a bank that is open so we buy a bottle of Ghinggis Khan vodka. Ghinggis would travel with us all the way to Vladivostok.

We drive out of Suhbaatar and find a really nice camping spot about a kilometer off the road. It’s a really, really nice camping spot. The Russian/Mongolia border mountains are to our north, we can see a stupa to our south, we are in a little valley where nobody can see us, and there is grass to camp on. We have a nice Ramen-noodle style dish for dinner with a candy bar and some vodka for dessert. A great last night of camping in Mongolia!

Mongolia Part 3 – Khövsgöl Nuur (July 29 – August 1)

At 8:45 p.m., after 4 really long and difficult days on the road we arrive in Khatgal on the southern end of Khövsgöl Nuur, a beautiful and huge freshwater lake surrounded by mountains visited by Mongolians and foreigners alike. We stay in our first ger (yurt) at MS Guesthouse (photos below). I marvel at the efficient construction and the cool and simple wood stove. It gets cold at night after the fire in the wood stove goes out.

The next morning we drive about 30 km up the west side of the lake (on a great gravel road) to Toilogt Camp, where we stay in a tepee typical of the reindeer herders that live up in the mountains (photo below). Our tepee has a queen bed, a wood stove, 2 small tables and a clothes rack. It’s really cool.  

Nearby are buildings with bathrooms, hot showers, and sinks, as well as a round building where you can buy meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There are lots of foreign and Mongolian guests staying here and it is great getting to know a few of them. We meet an Australian family, two physics professors from Indiana, and even a guy from Arlington Heights (he went to Rolling Meadows High School and knows Scott Applequist) that now works for the US Embassy in Ulaanbaatar.

In the evening we go for a walk along the lake (photo below) and then ride horses with a guide for a couple hours (also below). My horse goes nuts when she sees her two foals with the rest of the herd across a field but I manage to stay on her and we all get back to camp ok. It’s so great not to be in the car!

The next morning (July 31st) we rent a couple of nice kayaks from our camp and paddle south along the coast for about 5 ½ miles. We are surprised that there isn’t anyone on the water on such a nice lake. Many Mongolians run to the shore to take pictures of us when we paddle past them.

We have a picnic lunch on a small strip of land with grass and pine trees that stretches into the lake to form a loop. The views in all directions are just beautiful. After a little while we are joined by a herd of yaks that walk past us and into the water.

It’s a tough paddle back because the wind has picked up and now we have to work against a headwind and decent sized waves. But after a little rest and some food I’m ready to go back out and experience more of this beautiful place. I go for a 45 minute run, only the third time I’ve gone running on this entire trip (Germany, Czech Republic and now Mongolia). After my run I jump in the lake but it is ice cold (it just thawed on June 15th!) so I only stay in for about 30 seconds.

The next day (August 1st) we drive back to Khatgal and Moron and stay in a hotel there because I’ve come down with my second case of food poisoning on this trip. I violently throw up, feel nauseous, have bad aches and pains, my skin hurts, my arms and hands tingle, and I have bad stomach cramps. It’s incredible how painful food poisoning can be. But we are in a nice hotel and I’m able to recover quickly.