18 August, 2005

As we drove out of Ulaan Baatar, we saw a number of modern looking apartment buildings springing up.

This complex was one of the older ones.

This one, still under construction, is named after Moscow.

One of the many buses around town. Note that license plates here use the cyrillic alphabet much more than their Russian counterparts.

We made a stop at a grocery store and were taken by the display of "American" beer.

This is one part of the world Heinz has not ignored.

We came upon a camel herd and they were as pleased as we were to see each other.

These weren't wild camels but they had a hell of a lot of space in which to roam.

Remember, camels have two humps, not one.

And the humps don't always stand upright.

And this is what the droppings look like, in case you suspect there's a camel in your neighborhood.

This one was much whiter than the rest.

Eventually our presence got to be a bore.

This was a posse of cows and yaks, none of whom were very friendly or open to having their pictures taken.

This was our first look at the ger camp where we would be spending the next few days.

And this was one of the first bits of wildlife we saw in the camp, an enormous insect, more than half a foot in length.

As the label on our door revealed, we had regrettably just missed the Asiatic Wild Ass Conference.

The inside of our ger. This is the low doorway we kept slamming our heads into.

This is what the beds looked like. It wasn't really my idea of roughing it.

We found the wild horses rather easily.

They lingered around for a spell and then wandered down the hill and out of sight.

This is what a scared hedgehog looks like. And he didn't even know how close he came to being stepped on.

18 August, 2005

Day 33. Today started out as another challenge. Actually, it began late last night when I finally signed off from my 28.8 connection after dealing with only the most urgent crises and updating the travel log. Since I had to do "Off The Hook" at eight in the morning and we had to leave for the ger camp immediately afterwards, I figured a 7:30 wakeup call would be nice. But that's not how the front desk saw it. In broken English they told me I had to ask for this in the morning. I tried to point out the absurdity of waking up later to request a wakeup call but I could tell I was getting nowhere pretty fast. So I sent an SMS to Mike in New York to ask him to call my room half an hour before the show. We had a pretty good setup involving Voice Over IP that cost a whole lot less than a "normal" call from New York to Mongolia. It was odd that the show from Mongolia would probably have one of our better sounding connections and certainly one of our more stable ones. In fact, it would be the first one to be done completely using a land line on both ends. I always figured when we had to do a show from here it would be next to impossible. Of course, if we had done it a day later when we were out in the wilderness, our only option would have been the satellite phone.

Anyway, I woke myself up a few minutes before the call came and got myself alert for the show. It ran a lot smoother this week, although it was definitely tricky with the big satellite delay. But I think we're starting to get used to doing these weird shows. So for the first time ever, my day began right after "Off The Hook" ended. I went downstairs and waited for our ride to the ger camp.

As God is my witness, I will never complain about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway again. There are no potholes there to compare with what is defined as normal pavement in Ulaan Baatar and this doesn't seem to bother anyone. I can't imagine how people are able to travel without seat belts but judging from the length of time it took me to dig mine out of the depths of my seat in the minivan, very few people do. Our driver and guide both didn't. I definitely would have hit my head on the roof several times were I not strapped in. And then we hit the dirt. Actually, I was looking forward to the dirt since I thought that would make our driver slow down a bit. Well, not quite. In fact, this guy even managed to pass another vehicle on a single lane dirt road that obviously had seen its share of flash floods judging from the deep gullies on the sides. I thought back to the taxi rides in Moscow and just thought of the whole thing as another attraction at an amusement park. But this was one hell of a scary ride.

We made a couple of stops at scenic spots. The one I'll never forget was when we saw a herd of camels grazing off the side of the road. These are some crazy looking animals with some of the best facial expressions I've ever seen. They also seem so incredibly mellow and in control. They had no fear at all of us as we walked over to them. I'm told not everyone gets to see camels quite so easily so it was indeed a bit of luck.

It took about two hours but we made it out to the Hustai National Park. I was actually (once again) very surprised by how accommodating it was. I mean, this was where we were supposed to really go native and yet this ger camp had running water, electricity, and Western style food. Hell, they even had a makeshift baggage cart to help bring your bags to the ger! This was something else.

We settled in realizing that if we were planning on being uncomfortable, this wasn't going to be the place to do it. The ger was pretty spacious, with easily enough room for three people. Hanneke and I both managed to slam our heads into the door frame while trying to exit since it was even shorter than we had compensated for. But that's about as close to discomfort as we were able to get. Come to think of it, I seem to be hitting my head on things a lot in this country. Usually this happens only to Sasja since he's the tallest in our group. But I suppose he's used to it and is managing to be extra careful. I'm sure that door will get him at some point.

We had lunch in a dining hall that consisted of chicken, rice, and some kind of other meat. It was sufficient but it wasn't Mongolian. I was determined not to leave this country without knowing what their food was like. I noticed there were some American tourists at another table and it brought back memories hearing the accents. But for some reason in places like this, tourists seem to ignore each other and everyone sticks with their own group. There are always exceptions but that seemed to be the dominant attitude.

Hanneke and Sasja went for a walk in the hills and I decided to avoid the noontime sun and do some writing. I didn't expect to actually have power to charge my laptop while I was out here so it was like getting a new lease on life. The afternoon flew by and before we knew it they were feeding us again. As dusk drew near, our tour group (which was basically the three of us plus our driver and our guide) took a trip out into the hills to try and spot some wild horses. Mongolia is known as home to the Takhi, the world's only species of wild horse.

We drove for about a half hour on a really bumpy dirt road that I assumed our driver was very familiar with. At least I sure hoped so, judging from the way he was driving on it. We passed occasional structures, a few gers, and even some other vehicles. We got to the spot where the horses were likely to be seen. And then we spotted them. Tourists. A group of about a dozen wandering in a field. These ones were French and of course we all ignored each other. As they slowly filtered out, we became the only tourists there - at least for a few minutes. In the distance we were able to see horses so we started walking in that direction. As we drew closer, Sasja discovered a hedgehog curled up in a ball on the ground. Another first for me.

The horses were quietly grazing and didn't seem to pay us much mind. We took a bunch of pictures and marveled at the fact that these were indeed wild horses who could do as they pleased but apparently were predictable enough that packs of tourists always knew where to go to find them. A Japanese group appeared next and moved a lot closer to the horses to take pictures. That's about when the horses decided they had had enough and slowly ambled away into the distance. Those horses must be pretty damn content.

So we headed back to the ger camp and did a bit of stargazing. Believe it or not, this was the first really clear night of stars I had since leaving from New York in mid July. There were a few stars visible one night in Moscow but nothing like this. Of course, it was only a fraction of what it could have been if the goddamn moon hadn't been nearly full tonight. But it was a good conclusion to an interesting day. Tomorrow we would see quite a bit more of the countryside. Tonight we'd all get to sleep in a ger for the first time.