A day with camels at Elsen Tasarkhai

As anticipated, not everything went according to plan on our trip around central Mongolia for Tsagaan Sar (lunar new year), but everything went very well, and we had a great time. The first change of plans happened the night before we left, when we found out that the horse racing we were planning to see on Wednesday wasn’t happening after all. A few days before, some boys had fallen off their horses during a race, and one of them had been killed. The government of Mongolia responded by banning winter horse racing. The jockeys in Mongolia are children; in the national meets, they are 8 years old and up, but in the local ones they can be as young as 4 or 5. Whenever a jockey is killed, it’s a tragedy, but when it’s a young child, even more so. So while I was sad to not be able to see the horse racing, I could definitely support the reason. (We did manage to see some informal racing/training on our way to Kharkhorin, which I’ll write about soon.)

We left Ulaanbaatar an hour earlier than planned on Saturday, February 2, because the traffic was building up as people were preparing for Tsagaan Sar. Many people were already out and about, buying what they needed for the holiday. A lot of people from Ulaanbaatar head out of the city to visit their relatives in the countryside for the three-day holiday, and they stock up on food, drink, and gifts before they go. Traffic had been terrible the day before, as well, when I had gone to Emma’s school for the Tsagaan Sar assembly and then ridden home with her. The route to her school goes past Naran Tuul, the big open-air market in Ulaanbaatar, as well as another large shopping center, so there’s always bad traffic, but this was exponentially worse. We were happy to leave the city an hour earlier (though Emma wanted a day when she didn’t have to get up in the morning). Boogii and her husband Jagaa picked us up outside MIU at 8:00 am in their minivan, and we were on our way.

On the drive out, we picked up an extra rider—the son of the folks who owned the camels we were going to ride—and got something for the car, and then we were on our way. As we were driving through the area just outside of the city where there is a concentration of animal slaughterhouses, I noticed piles and piles of animal skins stacked by the side of the road and in the walled enclosures. I didn’t have a chance to ask about it until our drive back, but it turns out that China stopped importing sheep skins from Mongolia, and the herders are having a hard time selling them. The price has gone down to 1,000-1,500 tugrug each (around 50 cents), too. It was a sad sight to see so many skins piled up. Yet another sign of what it’s like being neighbor to a capricious giant like China.

Finally, we were completely out of the city, and on our way to Elsen Tasarkhai, also called Mongol Els or the Mini Gobi, sand dunes where we were going to stay overnight and ride Bactrian camels. After a couple of hours, just past the town of Lun and across a large river, we stopped at a roadside rest area that had toilets, a convenience store, coffee shop, and cafeteria, all together in a large, new-looking brick building. We had lunch (for us, salad, fried eggs and rice, and I had milk tea while Emma had a Minute Maid punch). Then we were on our way again.

The rest stop

Suddenly, by the side of the road, I saw a herd of animals that didn’t look like the usual horses, cows, sheep, or goats. Sure enough, it turned out to be around 75 to 100 Mongolian gazelles, grazing peacefully not far from the road. They blended in well with the golden-brown landscape, unlike the domesticated animals. We stopped, and I got out to take photos. I walked towards them until I could hear them grunting at each other. They alternated between watching me and grazing, and continued moving in a line parallel to the road, towards the west. When I felt like I was starting to make them nervous, I headed back for the car, only to find it coming towards me across the grass. I had my photos, and I didn’t want to disturb them any further, but Jagaa had other plans. After I got in, he started chasing them across the steppe with the van. It was exciting to seem them run, but Emma and I felt bad about frightening them and making them expend so much energy when it was already so cold out. After a few moments, we drove back towards the road, and the gazelles had a chance to settle down and get back to grazing.

We had one more stop to make en route, picking up Boogii and Jagaa’s kids from their grandparent’s place, out in the countryside. Suddenly Jagaa veered off the paved road onto a dirt track. After a while, he made another turn onto a track, and then veered off of it and seemed to be diving across grass for a while. We stopped on a hillcrest, and he and Boogii conferred for a moment, before he drove towards a ger sitting next to a small animal enclosure. This was Boogii’s parents’ ger, where their two kids had been staying for the winter holidays.

Boogii explained that her parents had lived in the nearby town of Erdenesant when she was growing up, working as a driver and a shopkeeper, until they decided to move back out in the countryside and raise animals again. This was their winter camp, where they would stay put until March, when they would move to their spring camp. They would move several times over the summer, depending on the needs of their animals, and then they would settle back at the winter camp again. Everyone recognized everyone else’s winter camps and wouldn’t graze their animals there during the other seasons so there would be enough grass left to winter over. This is the closest nomads come to “private property,” recognizing others’ rights to certain areas. The other seasons work on a first-come-first-served basis, with those arriving early at a site having claim to it. (I’ll write more about nomad life in another post.)

We got out and went in the ger, where we were immediately served milk tea (the traditional welcome drink). Boogii’s mother had made vegetarian khooshoor as well (fried dumplings), but we were both still a bit full from the earlier meal, so we could only manage a few each. The kids were, there, as well as a younger daughter’s family who had also just arrived. Emma claims I nearly killed a toddler when I sat down on a small stool, but I didn’t see her around my voluminous black coat, and she must have been walking across the ger behind the stools. (I have been going without my glasses here because it’s so cold out, but my vision is not that bad!) She did look at me warily for the rest of our stay there, but it was probably because I was this huge black monstrosity more than anything else. (My long black down coat was a Christmas present to myself when we were back in the US for Christmas, and I love it, but it does make me look like a big black blob.)

After our second lunch, Jagaa went out to rearrange the luggage so there would be room for all seven of us in the van. Emma and I walked around a bit, and went up the hillside in front of the ger. It was cold and windy at the top. The winter ger sites seem to all be nestled into hollows between the rolling hills of the steppe, protected from the worst of the winds. We came back down, said goodbye, and piled into the van once more. Next stop, camels!

And indeed it was. After about an hour we were pulling off the paved road again, down a dirt road that led to a cluster of ger. We piled out of the van and went into a large ger, where the owners of the ger camp had invited us for milk tea. We sat down, and I had my bowl of tea and Emma’s (she dislikes it, so she just hands hers to me when I finish mine). There was also a bowl of biscuits, another standard offering when you come to someone’s home here, but I was still feeling full from the two lunches. I was just finishing the tea when the ger door opened and two women came in, speaking English with French accents to a Mongolian man who must have been their guide. We weren’t the only people who were crazy enough to travel around in this sub-zero weather.

This was our cue to go back out and bring our things into our ger. Emma and I chose the smaller one with four beds. There was already a fire going inside, and it was nice and warm. Emma started reading, while I headed back out to look, take some pictures, and (after all those cups of milk tea) find the restroom. The restroom turned out to be an outhouse, enclosed only on three sides and quite drafty, but with a lovely view. (Emma and I really had to talk ourselves into using it later that night; we felt like our pee froze before it hit the bottom of the pit, though it didn’t, really—it just billowed steam. The best part about going out at night was the stars; you could really see the Milky Way.)

The restroom

When we arrived, there had been a lone camel tied to the fence around the animals’ enclosure alongside some cows, and I noticed a horse tied to a pick-up truck as well. There were a couple of black Mongolian dogs wandering around, and a small but very furry cat. Suddenly, a large herd of sheep and goats started streaming in from the sand dunes, heading for the open enclosure. They knew exactly where home is and when they needed to be there. Then, from the other direction came a man riding a camel and leading four others. The camels were shorter than the one-humped variety I was used to, and they were covered with incredibly thick wool. Their humps were very slightly floppy and wobbled as they walked. They looked like they were well-adapted to the Mongolian winter.

Shortly after that, the French women returned from the dunes on camelback; we were scheduled to go out in the morning. I heard someone ask them in French how the ride was and if they’d been cold; one of them replied in French, “If one is well-equipped.” I made a mental note to put on all our clothes for the camel ride in the morning. It was already so cold that my hands were red and painful when I took them out of their gloves to use my camera. I only needed deglove the right one, I discovered, and I could take a few photos before I had to put it in my pocket to warm up. And this was the warmest part of the day, as well. It made me wish I had remembered to buy fingerless gloves at some point. The French woman was right—if one is well-equipped, the cold is manageable, but I had been living in a warm climate for so long I had forgotten how to equip myself.

Emma was not willing to go outside, for the most part. She’s lived just about her whole life in San Diego County, California, so this level of cold is totally alien to her, and she really doesn’t like it. She did come out for a bit to look at the animals and make friends with the dogs, but then she retired to the ger to read for the rest of the day. To be honest, I was happy to join her, though I’d go back out from time to time to see the animals and the sunset.

Reading in the ger

The woman who worked there came in every hour or so and stoked up the fire in our stove with dried animal dung. When it was time for bed, she added a few chunks of coal, which presumably would burn longer, but she still needed to come back later in the night. When we got up in the morning, Boogii told us that she had come in at 1:30 in the morning to build up our fire, and someone else had come in a couple of times as well. I remember waking up at one point while a man was adding more fuel to the fire and then using a gas jet to get the fire going again. When he left, I watched the firelight flickering on the ceiling of the ger, making patterns of motion against the fabric, and smelt the burning animal dung, which is a pleasant smell. I felt transported back in time, thinking about how people had been living this way for generations upon generations.

The fuel for the stove, plus the battery that powered our light

When we got up, the same woman from the day before was back, and she added some wood to the fire which burned noticeably hotter than the animal dung. It reminded me of our overheated ger in Terelj back in October, but this time the extra heat was welcome. I felt like I needed to store some up for our camel ride at 10:00. I went outside again in the early morning to see the animals. The camels’ faces were covered in frost. As the morning progressed, the cattle left the enclosure in a line, heading out to graze. The sheep and goats continued to huddle together, though later I saw them out grazing as well, in the opposite direction from where I’d seen them coming back the night before.

After breakfast, we put on all of our layers: fleece-lined long johns, my warmest jeans (and Emma leggings and wool legwarmers), two pairs of wool socks, a waffle-knit Henley, my thickest woolen sweater, a couple of scarves, a wind-proof skull cap with ear flaps, a fuzzy gray hat-scarf combo I got from LL Bean, and my warmest ski gloves. All of that underneath my long black down jacket that I had planned to unzip the sides of and drape over my legs while sitting on the camel, only it didn’t quite work out that way.

Getting on the camel was pretty hilarious. I was so bundled up I could hardly move (kind of like the little brother in A Christmas Story, who couldn’t get up after he fell in the snow). I unzipped the bottom part of my coat and tried to get my leg over the camel. I ended up leaning to the side and sliding my foot between the humps while the guide pushed me up and on. Poor camel. Meanwhile, Emma was cracking up. My coat ended up bunched underneath me, so I couldn’t pull it over my legs as I had planned. At that point, I was just happy to be astride. The guide then shoved my already numb feet into the uncomfortably short stirrups.

Camels stand up hind end first, so you need to lean back when they do or you’ll fall off. Moving with an animal comes naturally to me after years of horseback riding, and I found the Bactrian camel to be way more comfortable than the one-humped camels I’d ridden in Egypt, Australia, and California. Emma and the two other kids were mounted up as well, and then we headed out into the sane dunes. We didn’t follow any particular path, but first we went past a large dune which became the backdrop for several photographs. I had handed my camera over to Boogii, and she and Jagaa took turns taking photos of us and their kids.

We wound our way between and sometimes up and over the sand dunes, which had a fair amount of vegetation on them, including trees, shrubs, and grass. Eventually, I saw more camels, which turned out to be part of the owner’s herd. He has about 50 camels, and we saw maybe a dozen or so, including a male who was getting ready for the breeding season. He was aggressively rolling over a bush when we came upon them, slime and foam flying from his nose and lips (hard to tell where it was coming from). He stood up and followed us around, while Boogii explained that if we had been riding male camels he would have attacked, but since we were riding females we just had to be careful. Good to know. The male camel was definitely not happy about our presence, and the camel owner had to fend him off a couple of times. It was fun to see the camel herd, especially a small group of camels that had been born the previous year, but it was also a bit of a relief to get out of the male’s range.

We wound our way back to the ger camp, and I reversed the process to get off the camel. Camels go down front end first, so you need to lean back again to not slide off. At that point, my feet were totally numb from a combination of the cold and the way too short stirrups, so it felt good to get off and walk around a bit. We took some more photos, and then we headed back into the ger to warm up. After a bit, Emma and I went over to Boogii and Jagaa’s ger, and Emma played cards and the ankle bone game with the kids. We had learned how to play with ankle bones when we traveled to Terelj with Boogii and Jagaa in October. This time, I was just going to let the kids play. Emma really enjoys the game, and we’ve been talking about getting a set of ankle bones (which are from sheep and goats) before we go back to the US.

After lunch, Emma and I went out to say hello to the dogs, whom Emma had befriended the day before. We had seen them earlier in the morning, covered in frost, but now their black fur had warmed up in the sun. The female dog looked like she might have a litter somewhere. She seemed really hungry, too. Emma noticed that she followed Boogii when she went to dump the water leftover from making lunch, and had sniffed around on the spot where she dumped it. We didn’t really have anything we could feed her, unfortunately, but I assume since she was a working dog that the people there fed her and the others as well. After the van was loaded up, we were on our way to the next stop, Kharkhoran, the site of the former capital of the Mongolian Empire, which I will write about in my next post.

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