The conclusion to my crazy horse-trekking adventures in Mongolia. Plenty of great people, sunsets and world-class scenery, but too many difficult people and physically threatening moments. I am glad I went to Mongolia… and I am glad I left. September 15th, 2011
Dear Friends and family,
Greetings from beautiful and green Bishkek, the great capitol of Kyrgyzstan. I have been here in Bishkek for the past six days, and I might just stick around here a while. I really enjoy it here. Lots of trees, parks, boulevards and open spaces. The people are very nice. Plenty of tasty (and cheap) restaurants and cafes, and a generally laid-back vibe.
After my scary and physically intimidating adventures in Mongolia, I am more than happy to unplug and re-charge my Lexicon batteries here in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan.
Before I go on, I want to congratulate my friend Bridget Szanti Kramer for winning my Lexpedition 50/50 Contest by guessing Kyrgyzstan. I emailed Bridget yesterday to get her mailing address so I could mail her the US$50 prize. She voluntarily wrote back to tell me to donate the money to The Spitler School project in Cambodia, which as you should know by now, has a huge space in my heart. So thank you Bridget. I will make the donation in your name. And thanks to the other 92 people who submitted guesses for the contest.
OK, where was I? Oh, yeah. I highly doubt if I will ever return to Mongolia. Many people along the way told me that they loved Mongolia. And many people told me that the landscape and natural beauty of Mongolia were stellar. I agree with them there. Mongolia is an incredibly gorgeous country, for sure. And many people told me that Mongolia was at times a very difficult and challenging place, as the people there like to wrestle, fight, steal, and drink. I agree with them there as well.
At the risk of being blacklisted for any future jobs with the Mongolian Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, you can add Mongolia to my list of countries I will not be returning to. Actually, it’s a very short list. I have now been to 50 countries, and I generally find fun things to do and people to hang around with in each country. It takes a lot for me to say, ‘I’m not going back to THAT country!’ So here is my exhaustive and complete list of countries I will never go back to.
That’s it. Two countries permanently off my travel radar. I could go back to the other 48 countries for another visit. Especially Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Ladakh (in India), and a few others. But you probably/definitely won’t be getting any postcards from me from Egypt or Mongolia.
Just to be clear, I met a huge number of people in Mongolia who were gentle, honest, helpful and friendly (Egypt, not so much.) The Mongolians will help you if you ask, and many offer help even without your asking them. Outside of Ulaan Bataar (or ‘UB’, the capitol city) the people were nicer and more mellow. The vast majority of people in Mongolia are good people. I just had trouble with the small percentage who were jerks. Total Jerks. Aggressive Jerks. Drunk Jerks. Thieving Jerks. Just Big Jerks! The jerks made it quite tough for me. That’s what jerks do… they act like jerks.
If you have already been to Mongolia, I hope you had a better experience with the people. And if you are going to Mongolia, I hope you have a different experience, and that you never cross paths with any jerks. This was just my personal experience, and yours may (or may not) be different. I have just had waaaay too many great adventures in my life with great people in great countries to stick around in a place where I feel threatened and scared on a fairly regular basis.
In Ulaan Bataar I met at least 5 other tourists who had been robbed or pick-pocketed in UB. Cameras snatched out of pockets and backpacks. Wallets or purses taken while riding the public buses or while at a restaurant. One friend told me that 3 men grabbed his friend one evening on the street. One man held one arm, one held the other arm, and the 3rd man helped himself to everything in the tourist’s pockets. I actually heard 2 stories of this happening, to 2 different tourists.
At the Dragon public bus station in UB, where Segev and I were trying to buy our advance bus tickets for Moron, a drunk man snuck up beside me and slowly stuck his hand in my pants pocket. He had his hand on my travel wallet (filled with my credit cards, US dollars, local money, passport, etc.) when I caught him in the act. I yelled (in English), ‘Stop! What are you doing!’ He took his hand out of my pocket and yelled back at me LOUDLY and angrily, (in English as well), ‘Shut Up!’ and then quickly walked out the door. He was mad at ME for catching him trying to rob me. Only in Mongolia.
A note from the above paragraph. Yes, there is a town called Moron in Mongolia. It’s on the way to Hatgal and the Khovsgal Nuur Lake. It’s pronounced more like ‘maroon’, but I think it’s a funny name nonetheless. Bunch of Morons live there as far as I could tell.
As Paul Harvey used to say, ‘And now, the rest of the story.’
This update is called, ‘This Old Horse.’ Not to be confused with the long-running home improvement TV show called, ‘This Old House’, starring the heavily-bearded and very talented Bob Vila.
This is Bob Vila, the host of ‘This Old House.’ Man, could that guy grow a beard or what? My buddy Segev could grow a mean beard too, as you will see in a photo later in this update.
Segev and I left Hatgal on horses for a projected 18-day horse trek with our horseman Bata to see the reindeer people of Tsaatan and the massive Khovsgol Nuur Lake. Turns out we only rode with Bata for 5 days before we broke up the Beatles and parted ways in Renchinlhumbe Village (pronounced like ‘renchen-comb’.) Good bye and good riddance, Bata. And the horse you rode in on! (FYI – click this link if you don’t know what this euphemism means. Don’t click it if you don’t like the ‘F’ word.)
Note: Bata is a common name in Mongolia, like John or Bill in America, or Dorje or Tashi in Ladakh. There are MANY horsemen named Bata in Mongolia. So if you try to hire a horseman near Hatgal, and his name is Bata, that does not mean he is the same Bata who terrorized us and threatened to slice my throat. For many reasons, I am not showing Bata’s face anywhere on this website.
And my good friend Bruce informed me that a Bantha was what the sand people used to ride in Star Wars. Bata was not a Bantha, Bruce, but maybe the Russian Horse Bandits rode Banthas as they robbed the tourists. I never saw them. Anyway, here is a picture of a Bantha with a sand person on top. Thanks Bruce!
So as you may recall, night 5 ended with Bata mumbling about ‘tourist vodka” and then threatening me and Segev, going so far as to say, ‘Alexii, no good’ as he moved his drunken finger slowly across his drunken throat. Like you see on TV when someone is showing you how they are going to slice open someone’s jugular. But this wasn’t TV. OK, perhaps it could be the first (and only) episode of, “So You Think You Can Drink Vodka’ or ‘Lifestyles of the Drunk and Dangerous.’
When we woke up the next morning, Bata was no where to be found. Normally he would be up trying to chase down the horses, getting the saddles ready, and drinking our coffee and eating our food. Not today.
Finally he stumbled out of his sister’s ger (the traditional Mongolian home, rhymes with ‘bear’, it’s called a ‘yurt’ in many other countries.) He stumbled over to us, looking like he had been up all night drinking crappy cheap vodka. That’s because he had. There were another couple of trekkers from Israel at the camp with us. We had told them about the threats and Bata’s behavior, so I asked them to stick around for a bit to make sure Bata was not going to be violent, and to make sure Bata would take us back to Renchinlhumbe village. They said no problem.
So Segev and I had a little chat with Bata. He said he would take us back to Renchinlhumbe, and then we would split up as he headed back to Hatgal. So I told the Israelis to go ahead, that we were OK. Shortly after they left, Bata changed his mind. We were now at his mercy. We had all of our food and supplies, our backpacks and tents, etc. Bata told us we had to walk back with all our crap to Renchinlhumbe. He was very upset and angry. Finally I convinced him that we had pre-paid for 8 days, and that this was only day 6. At the very least he had to get us back to Renchinlhumbe.
We called Gambaa (the nice man who arranged the horse trek for us in Hatgal), and Gambaa told Bata that we in fact had pre-paid for 8 days. Luckily, Bata hung up and started packing our stuff on the horses. 2 hours later we were back in Renchinlhumbe. We said goodbye and good riddance to Bata. Then Segev and I immediately started trying to find a new horseman to help get us back to Hatgal.
Luckily we found a nice lady who had a brother named ‘Preuhu’ (pronounced ‘Proo-hoo) who could take us back to Hatgal along the big lake. She called him and told him to meet us at our guest house the next day at noon. Sure enough Proo-hoo showed up the next day, loaded up our stuff, and we headed off again, back on track.
I quickly nicknamed Proo-hoo ‘Frodo.’ If we were talking to Proo-hoo, we called him by his name. But if Segev and I were talking amongst ourselves, we referred to him as Frodo. I joked that Frodo was taking us safely back from Mordor (crazy Bata and the Russian Bandits) to the Shire (Hatgal.)
This is Yoo-Hoo.
This is me with our horseman Proo-hoo, aka Frodo. Beautiful Khovsgol Nuur Lake behind us. Do you like my riding leg protectors??? Can you say, ‘Sexy Lexy?’
This is Frodo from ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Notice he’s wearing a similar coat to our horseman Frodo. Coincidence? I seriously doubt it!
Frodo was a 20-year old college student, getting ready to go back to school for the fall. He spoke very little English, but he was VERY nice, helpful and flexible. Unlike Bata, Frodo did NOT bring his own tent. He slept outside each night, piling up his horse blankets and cushions to sleep on, and using his long coat, a horse blanket and some plastic to keep him warm. On night 7 it rained a lot, and Frodo was very cold and wet in the morning. But he was tough and never complained.
It took us 3 days to cut across from Renchinlhumbe to Khovsgol Nuur Lake. Our first night camping next to this massive lake was very scary. Segev, Frodo and I cooked dinner over our big fire. Frodo set up his bed in an abandoned house where we were camping. After dinner it started to rain pretty heavily, so Segev went to his tent. After a while I was cold and wet, so I told Frodo good night and went to my tent. Frodo went into the abandoned house to his bed.
About 30 minutes later, Frodo came to my tent and started shaking it and saying, ‘Alex, Alex, wake up!’ I opened my tent to see Frodo standing in the rain. He said, ‘Flashlight, flashlight.’ So I turned on my headlamp flashlight and handed it to him. He said, ‘No, turn off. Flashlight, flashlight.’ I was confused, so I handed him my flashlight. Again, he said, ‘No, flashlight coming. Woorsk. Woorsk. Russians.’ Now I knew what he was talking about.
Bata and the other armed men on day 3 kept saying ‘Woorsk’ and ‘Ruskies’ and ‘Russians.’ Woorsk (I may not be remembering the exact pronunciation, and I’m sure I am not spelling it right) means thief or bandit in Mongolian. The F’ing Russian Bandits were back!
So I put my (wet) clothes back on and went back out into the cold rain with Frodo. He showed me how there were flashlights coming down the mountain toward us. It was maybe 10:00 pm. It had been pitch dark for about 90 minutes already. It was cold and rainy. Why were these flashlights coming toward us? Who were these people?
I asked Frodo what was going on. He just shrugged and said, ‘Maybe Ruskies. Woorsk. Woorsk.’ The flashlights were coming down the big hill towards us. But whoever it was, they were not leaving their flashlights on continuously. They would shine their lights for a while and turn them off. Then a few minutes later they would turn them back on, further down the mountain and closer to us. No bueno!
I yelled at Segev in his tent. I said, ‘Dude, wake up. We’ve got company.’ He asked, ‘Who is it?’ I told him I was not sure, but Frodo thought it might be the Russian Horse Bandits again. Segev stayed in his (dry) tent. Frodo and I stood outside of my tent, in the dark, in the cold, windy rain. It sucked. I was cold and wet. And there were flashlights coming toward us in the darkness. Frodo was scared. He held his hatchet in one hand and a small, dull kitchen knife in the other.
We stood there for another 10 minutes. No more flashlights. Where did they go? Maybe the bandits were very close. What’s going on!?!? This sucks! I want my daddy!
So after a few more minutes, I was drenched and shivering. It was just above freezing at that point. I was not having any fun. Finally Frodo and I decided to call it a night. He took the hatchet and knife into his ‘house.’ I went back into my tent. Somehow, I fell asleep within a few minutes.
When we woke up the next morning (day 10), the rain had stopped, but my wet tent had frozen overnight. I went in to check on Frodo and wake him up with some coffee. He had the hatchet under his arm on one side and the knife on the other.
This is where we woke up after the ‘Flashlight Night.’ Frodo slept in this cabin. Not pictured: My frozen tent.
As we made breakfast, somehow Frodo met up with some locals, and he asked them who the mysterious flashlight people were. It turns out it was just some local field workers, coming home late from their day working up on the mountain. Not ‘woorsk’ or bandits after all. But it was still a very scary experience. When your local Mongolian guide is scared and has to sleep with a hatchet and a knife… it’s not a good sign.
We made it back to Hatgal with Frodo on Day 12. Frodo was a good man, and we were very happy with his service, friendship and company. We paid him for his services, and we gave him a healthy tip. Segev gave him his Mongolian/English phrasebook, which Frodo had been reading along the way. We parted ways and relaxed in Hatgal at Gambaa’s MS Guest House.
Here is Segev, Frodo and me in front of a ger at MS Guest House in Hatgal. I told you Segev could grow a beard. I told him he had a beard like an Amish Abraham Lincoln. I like Segev, so Idid not shoot him in the back of the head. ‘Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’
A few days later Segev and I took a 3 hour mini-van from Hatgal to Moron. The driver was chain smoking, the young local woman sitting next to him and the young local man in the passenger seat were drinking straight vodka and sharing a 2-liter bottle of cheap beer. It was about 11am. They were drunk already, and getting drunker by the minute. The fat local lady next to me had a bag of stinky food, including a bunch of dried fish. It stunk like crazy. The road was bumpy. The driver was chain smoking and playing very loud Mongolian music. The speaker was right next to my head. I asked him nicely to turn it down a few times, which he did. But then a new song would come on, and he got excited and turned it back up.
Luckily it was ‘only’ a 3 hour ride to Moron. And luckily, because the locals in the front were getting trashed, they had to stop to pee a bunch. Which meant we (Segev and two other foreign tourists) could get out and get some fresh air and stretch our legs quite often. It was not a fun ride, but we made it.
We grabbed a quick lunch and then tried to find a (20-hour) public bus back to UB. But since it was going back to school time, the two buses a day to UB were already sold out, and also sold out for the next few days.
So we found a mini-van that was leaving in an hour. This min-van should comfortably seat about 7 or 8 people. But 15 is the average. That day we had 17. Plus a ton of luggage and junk that people cram under the seats and aisle-ways. And Segev and I were sitting backwards in the first row, but at least we had a seat and were heading back to UB. And besides, it was ‘only’ an 18-hour ride. Giddy up!
This is a picture I found on the Web of a Russian mini-van like the one we rode from Moron back to Ulaan Bataar. Our van was very new, but try to cram 17 people and lots of luggage into this vehicle for 18 hours over bad country roads. Facing backwards. Ouch! No bueno! This is what most of Mongolia’s roads look like… just tracks in the dirt.
We pulled out of Moron at 5PM. About 20 minutes later we pulled into a gas station to get gas and to cram yet one more person into the mini-van. It was a Mongolian man. He was big. He was loud. And he was DRUNK! You could smell the vodka on his breath from 5 feet away. They opened the side door to let him in. Segev was sitting to my left, and 2 local women were sitting to his left toward the door.
The drunk man (we nicknamed him ‘Kevin’ for some reason) motioned for me and Segev to move over. There was no seat to my left, only a few duffel bags in the small space between my seat and the wall. I told him no, this was my seat. Then Kevin got angry and again told us to move over. We said no. So he came in and sat down next to me on my right, on the duffel bags. He was mad. And drunk. He spread his legs wide to move my legs over. He put his arm around me and breathed into my face. I took his arm off my shoulder and tried to regain some of my leg space. I was trying to be nice to him but also trying to make sure my 18-hour ride wasn’t completely uncomfortable.
We stopped for dinner two hours later. When we were all getting back into the mini-van, Kevin started up with again with the seating arrangement. He told me to scoot over. I told him no. He got mad. The driver came around and tried to sort it out. The driver asked me to scoot over onto the duffel bags. I told him no. I was here first. So Kevin convinced the woman to the left of Segev to sit on the duffel bags while he sat down next to Segev.
Immediately Kevin started spreading his legs wide and scooting his butt into Segev’s side. Segev started scooting against Kevin. Kevin pushed back. Then Kevin started using his broad shoulders to push his right elbow into Segev’s chest. Segev elbowed Kevin. Bad move Segev! Kevin then violently elbowed Segev in the chest. Hard! An old lady on the bus yelled at drunk Kevin to knock it off. He yelled at her and then yelled at Segev and me. No bueno!
I immediately told Segev, ‘Listen dude. I don’t care what this guy does. Unless he gets very physical, just suck it up and don’t retaliate. He’s much bigger than we are, and he’s drunk, and we have 16 hours left on this miserable bus. It ain’t worth it buddy. He could really hurt us.’ Segev agreed.
The driver stopped the van and opened the side door. Now the driver was mad. The driver yelled at Kevin. Kevin yelled at the driver. Kevin yelled at me and Segev. It was very scary. Finally another man in the second row moved to our row so Kevin could have a different seat.
Pretty soon it got dark, and Kevin passed out in his seat. Luckily, we did not have any more issues from Kevin for the rest of the trip, but I had had enough.
When we arrived safely back in UB, I told Segev, ‘Listen buddy. I know we had plans to go for another trek or adventure in Mongolia. But I’m done. I’ve had it here. 5 physical threats to my well-being in 2 weeks is MUCH more than I want to experience. And all the pick-pockets and robberies here… I’m going to be leaving Mongolia as soon as I can.’ Segev was not happy, but he understood.
Just FYI, in the previous 8 months on this journey, I did not feel physically threatened once. Not once! There are waaaaay too many nice countries and people in the world – why should I stick around and roll the dice again with the Mongolian people. Peace out Mongolia!
A few days after we arrived back in UB, we ran into some travelers who had tried to obtain the (mandatory) permit for visiting the area where we were horse-trekking with Bata (we got our permits in Moron before our trek.) Turns out that, because of the Russian Horse Bandits and the robberies of horse-trekking tourists, the Mongolian Government was no longer issuing permits for that area. It was a serious problem and a dangerous area (for now.) No bueno!
Photos from Mongolia
As I have mentioned, I met MANY nice and helpful Mongolians, and the country is stunningly beautiful. Here are some more pictures of Mongolia and our horse trek adventures (click on them to see a bigger version or slideshow.)
A big bull at sunset on night 7. The sunsets in Mongolia go on and on and on (kind of like my stories.)
Our 4 horses at sunset on night 7. Wowza!
The colors were absolutely bonkers!
Frodo’s pack horse at Sunset. This horse carried all of our equipment and food each day. He was a cool horse. And he had cool hair.
My tent at Sunset – Night 7.
Our horseman Frodo posing with his magic hatchet. He was a nice, smiling young man. Khovsgol Nuur Lake at sunset in the background.
The very photogenic Khovsgol Nuur Lake.
Dinner time on the lake.
Our horseman Frodo’s silhouette against the glorious Mongolian skies.
Our pack horse relaxing as we ate lunch on Day 11 near the lake.
This is one of my all-time favorite photographs. A dead tree on the shore of Khovsgol Nuur Lake with the brilliant lighting. How cool is that!?!?
Back at Gambaa’s MS Guest House in Hatgal. This sweet little girl was eating a pinecone at sunset on the stairs. Mongolians love loud music, vodka, horses, wrestling, fighting, and pinecones. Luckily, this young girl was just interested in pinecones. So far so good!
All in all, the 12-day Mongolian horse trek with Segev was a great experience. It was fun riding horses for 5 or 6 hours a day, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner over a nice fire, and seeing some world-class lakes, sunsets and scenery. But I am happy that I left Monngolia.
I am now awaiting my visas for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Borat’s country of Kazakstan (‘Very nice. How much?’) In the meantime I will do some more horse trekking and hiking in Kyrgyzstan, which is a truly beautiful country. Soon I will be making my way through the ‘Stans and into the Ukraine, Central Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, and then over to Europe in the winter. I know, it’s gonna be cold, but I will just have to deal with it.
Many of you reading this are my friends that I met along the way on this trip or during my big trips back in 2001 and 2006/2007. And many of you live in Europe. I hope to see a whole bunch of you again as I make my way west over the next few months. Send me an email and let me know if you are up for a visit this winter. I look forward to many happy reunions with great people in Europe very soon.
September 14th was the birthday of my (late) amazing grandfather, Leonard Latkovski. He once said, ‘The most important thing is love.’ He was a very wise and loving man.
So for now I will be saying ‘so long’ from World Headquarters of The Lexpedition, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. And remember, the most important thing is love.
Peace & love from way over here. Now please leave some comments below. Extra credit for witty ones. 🙂
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Half Man, Half Monkey, Half BLT Sandwich