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028

I survived Dog Sledding in Mongolia

~ OR ~

…How to put what’s left of a good face on travel adversity

“So I went to the doctors,” Bijani said.

“Oh good, what did they say?” The phone-line went quiet for a few seconds.

“Well, that I’d probably lose my big toe and parts of both ears.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, they’re pretty black and peely right now. You know marshmallows, after they’ve been on fire? Kinda like that.”

“Oh—that’s bad! Did you get a second opinion?”

“I think it’ll be ok,” Bijani laughed. “They found a doctor who’d lived in Alaska, and he says as long as everything stays warm I get to keep my nose, earlobes—all that good stuff.”

“… Does your mom know?”

“No—but she’ll kill you when she finds out.”

***

I’m a thoughtful dude: I do dishes; I put the toilet seat down at night; onetime I read the Little Prince and told people I liked it. So, never, in a million years, did I imagine this could happen to me.

Even Bijani’s mom’s parting words didn’t offer a hint. “Mongolia’s not the world’s safest place,” she said. “Don’t let ANYTHING happen to my beautiful daughter.” Frostbite would surely count as a kind of “anything”—and on her second-to-last-day, all because I’d agreed to have “fun” against my better judgment.

Oh, we’d had fun before—my kind of fun—the kind that involves working long hours at a newspaper office and watching Singapore-based sports TV in an apartment. But given her imminent return to California, I couldn’t say no. For our last, most memorable adventure in the land of Genghis Khan, Bijani chose dog sledding.

***

“At least the dogs were cute,” Bijani said.

“Oh yeah, great.”

“And I liked Noel.”

“That crazy French guy? He’s insane—case of permanent brain freeze.”

“Look on the bright side…”

“Easy for you to say. You just got frostbite. I’m going to be murdered by your mother.”

“Well…”

“Aghhhhh. How did this happen?”

***

It started with us setting off for sledding on one of those unusually mild, Mongolian January days. It was zero degrees. For the first time in three months I felt overdressed in long underwear, snowpants, gloves, and two jackets. One small victory in the battle of Man vs. cold.

The Silver Storm company van drove us out of Ulaanbaatar city northeast toward Terelj National Park, while I sweated past wrecked cars that served as “don’t drink and drive” reminders, through stiff yellow hills and finally the famous rock that looks like a turtle happily sunning itself.

We arrived and I couldn’t help feeling a little optimistic about the expedition. Three felt tents beside a log shed made up the camp, where lean, eager huskies and the bemused voice of Noel, our energetic guide, greeted us.

“Is zees all you brought?” he prodded our clothes dubiously and left, returning a few moments later with massive, traditionally-pattered wool jackets and pants.

“Now you will not freeze,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was colder by the banks of Terelj River than in the city, but I felt impenetrable in my woolen armor. Noel wore a jacket, ski-pants and a fleecy headband. I figured we were being treated with big, woolen, kiddie mittens.

We met Black and White, the skinny lead dogs, and learned the essentials—hold on, lean left to turn left, right to turn right. And that was it—we mounted our wooden sleds and plunged down a powdered ice ramp onto the hard river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stony riverside and lines of crisp alpines whipped by at seven miles per hour. Black looked over his shoulder as if to say: “Isn’t this fun?” It was fun, for five minutes.

Then I felt something else. Pain.

Freezing pain.

***

“Remember how the wind cut through seams in your clothes and your boots?” Bijani asked?

“Oh yeah, but how’d it get through both pairs of socks?”

“Weird, huh?”

“You should’ve said something; we’d have gone back.”

“I just couldn’t make myself do it, but I wanted to turn around so badly,” she said.

“I wanted to cry, but my tear ducts froze.”

***

At some point, we stopped for a third time. Bijani started with a neat fur hat and scarf wrapped around her face. Now frost caked her eyebrows and yellowing scarf; the hat was long gone, blown off and replaced by my lopsided wool cap. She looked like the disconsolate runner up of Miss Abominable Snowwoman 2008.

I should have given her my balaclava, but it was too cold to really be considerate.

“Should we keep going?” I asked.

I wanted her to say no. She opened her mouth and nothing came of it, just a headshake. (Later she’d tell me her brain had lobbied for a nod, but some frozen synapses misfired).

“Only 15 kilometers to go!” Noel said.

I knew we would die. Black glanced over his shoulder again, and I saw resignation on his face. “Yes, you are going to die,” his look said. “And if no one’s looking, I’ll probably eat you. No hard feelings, though.”

The wind howled. We crossed more frozen water. Sometimes it made cracking noises and we could see the water running under our feet. Sometimes rocks or debris formed a line across the icy track and we had to get off and run behind the sleds. I cursed nature. Bijani fell. She fell again.

She looked at me and I’ve never seen a face I know registering that much pain.

At last we reached the halfway point, a river bend that provided some shelter from the wind. Noel lit a fire and heated mutton dumplings and tea. I thought it was the best meal I’d ever eaten.

“At least we won’t die hungry,” Bijani said.

Miraculously, the wind at our back made the homeward journey easy. Bijani got a lift in Noel’s sled. I laughed the whole way to camp, partly from relief, partly from borderline hysteria that made me careless with the reins a few times. Black peeked at me, looking concerned and a little disappointed. He licked his lips.

Once inside a safe felt tent with a dung fire going, we took off our huge coats and pants and took stock of our situation. Bijani removed her hat.

“Uh oh,” I said.

“My ears feel funny,” she said.

They were humongous. The backs had bubbled into deep purple blisters.

“Is this going to be ok?” I asked Noel.

“Oh that,’ he laughed. “That iz just from the cold. The elephant ears. You feel just like an elephant because ze are so…”

“Floppy?” Bijani offered

“Floppy!” He made wiggly elephant ear motions with his hands.

“Will she be ok?”

“But it iz nuffing. It’s happened to me at least five times.”

Noel’s headband remained conspicuously over his ears for our entire visit. We drove back in the dusk. Against the frozen brown backdrop that signature rock looked like a turtle trying to squeeze out of its shell and run, run for the hills, far away from its angry, future mother-in-law.

Things looked even worse when we got home and Bijani took her shoes off. The big toe on her right foot was black. I spent the evening breathing on her feet trying to keep them warm.

“This is just the romantic last evening I wanted,” Bijani said.

We got advice ranging from ‘put the affected areas in snow’ to ‘pray,’ to ‘everything will be fine.’ The next day, Bijani left for California with burn traces clearly showing on her face. She called me 20 hours later.

***

“So you’ll really be ok,” I asked.

“I think so.”

“I am so sorry. What a perfect end to a perfect stay, huh?”

“You know, I actually had a lot of fun.”

“Really?”

“Ha ha ha. Of course, didn’t you?”

“Except that it was the most awful, difficult, painful experience of my life, yeah, I guess I did.”

“Good. Plus we have a great story and I’ll have cool scars to prove it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“It won’t be so bad. They won’t last more than a few months. Speaking of which, when are you coming home?”

“Dunno, after your mom has cooled down for a year or two… “ There was another silence on the line. “So, where to next? Somewhere really nice like Iceland, Antarctica, the frozen void of space …?

“Don’t get any ideas, buddy. I’m taking you somewhere warm.”

 ~Will~

For more on Will’s escapades in Mongolia, check out these additional EY articles:

Second Chances: UB Mongolia

EY Travel Tips: MONGOLIA

and coming soon:  TAJ MONGOLIA

Some say adversity is the fuel on which true love feeds…it certainly seems true for Will & Bijani who continue to surprise, delight & inspire us at every turn!  Read more about their engaging love story here.

 

Typical Countryside Residence

EY Travel Tips: MONGOLIA

Why visit Mongolia?

Well there’re just about a million reasons. For starters the world’s second largest landlocked country (Nearby Kazakhstan ranks first) houses geographic diversity that rivals pretty much anywhere. There’s the snow capped mountains and Kazakh eagle hunters to the west; the vast Gobi Desert and great Central Asian Steppe in the south; reindeer herders in the Siberian forests of the north and the grasslands populated by native gazelle or Oryx to the east. Writing this, I’m wondering why I’m not there right now.

A successful population of the critically endangered Wild Asian or Przewalski’s Horse resides in Mongolia, as does 2-million year old Lake Khovsgul, which itself holds half-a-percent of the world’s potable water. Famed naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews—sometimes credited as the proto-Indiana Jones—discovered dino eggs in the Gobi and Genghis Khan launched an empire that linked Beijing to Baghdad to Babenberg, Austria. With the end of Soviet communism and institution of a capitalist democracy, Mongolia experienced incredible socio-economic change over two decades, but step a mile outside the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and enter a world where the felt tents and herders carry traditions held by the Mongols for millennia.

Now that you’re convinced, here are five tips for your trip.

1.       Dress Warm. Nuh-uh. Warmer

Mark Twain famously said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. Frankly, Mark Twain is a liar and moreover he’s never even been to Mongolia. The average temperature in Ulaanbaatar is freezing, meaning when you ask what’s the temperature, at any time of year, it’s quite probably freezing. Ulaanbaatar’s the coldest capital in the world. That means Reykjavík, that city in a land which, from my understanding, is literally made of ice, is warmer. When visiting Mongolia in winter, prepare like you would for a polar expedition: long underwear, solid winter jacket, winter gloves and liners and probably some sort of heat trapping mask. Summer days are warm, but like San Francisco, it can get nippy, especially at night, so bring clothes for hot and cold.

2.       Sunscreen

In addition to being one of the planet’s colder nations, Mongolia paradoxically ranks as one of the sunniest spots in the world. It’s generally accepted that the country gets over 250 cloudless days per year without a cloud in the sky, more sun than Yuma, Arizona. So for those afternoons out on the wide-open steppe when it’s just you, the Great Blue Sky, and the really hot, bright sun, UV protection makes the awe-inspiringness of nature less blistery and painful. You can buy some in UB, but selection may be limited, so consider bringing some from home.

3.       Make room for mutton.

There’s a good chance you will be offered a lot of mutton in Mongolia. “What’s on the menu?” you ask. Well, there’s mutton. Mutton with flour. Mutton with onions. Mutton with a side of mutton. There can be more—Ulaanbaatar has everything from Korean to vegetarian restaurants to fried chicken joints—but outside of the city your options are generally limited, so you may want to accustom the palate to boiled sheep meat. Unusual dairy products like dry curdled sheep milk to fermented horse milk is everywhere, so bring lactase tablets if you have difficulty digesting milk and want to sample the traditional food. Fun fact: Mongolian BBQ is as Mongolian as McDonalds is Scottish. The closest thing to barbecue in Mongolia is Boodog: goat or marmot cooked by placing hot rocks in its stomach. Less fun fact: marmot meat can carry bubonic plague. I recommend the goat.

4.       Be kind to the Khan.

Mongolians have a deserved reputation for hospitality and generosity and while pick pocketing does occur in the capital, it’s generally a pretty safe place. Mongolia is a peaceful democracy that’s managed to maintain good relations with both North Korea and the United States, but the heart of the nation is still ruled with an iron fist by Genghis Khan. In the wrong company, a bad word about national hero Genghis Khan is considered a fighting word. Yes, by some estimates he killed 10 percent of the world’s population in his day, but he was also brilliantly innovative and remarkably tolerant of the freedom of his subjects given the time period. Mongolians view him as a Goergebraham Roosevelt, the embodiment of everything great about the nation, a one-man Mount Rushmore. After being barred from revering their national hero under Soviet rule, the adoration has returned in force. His name appears on everything, from the airport to hair salons, so the temptation to bring him up is everywhere. If you’re at a bar, keep it positive.

5.       A little Mongolian goes a long way.

Sain Bainuu (hello) and Bayarlaa (thank you) are good to know. Mongolians are very responsive, and sometimes amused, when foreigners speak to them in Mongolian. When you’ve been in town for a bit Zuun, Chigiree, Baruun Tiish, the words for left, straight and right turn respectively, can be very handy for getting around. Street names aren’t commonly used in the country, so directions are often given in a series of turns. For transportation, licensed taxis are rare (although word is this may be improving)  and while nearly every car in the capital is willing to serve as an unofficial cab, they may not know where you’re asking them to go.  Provided you know where you’re going, you can help them.

~Will~

A world traveler hailing originally from the hills of California, William Kennedy currently resides in London, England.  His time spent living in Mongolia left many lasting impressions. 

“Did you know?

That the number of livestock in Mongolia is 20 times more than the country population? Number of livestock is 42 million and the population number is 2.9 million people.

That Ulaanbaatar is a True Nomad? The city changed its locations 29 times before settling in its present day location.”

For more tidbits visit the Official Tourism Website of Mongolia

Sukhbaatar Square Celebration

Second Chances: UB Mongolia

Sukhbaatar Square Celebration

August 24th, 2008 – a symphony of fireworks exploded over Ulaanbaatar, (or UB as it’s locally known), as crowds jumped and shouted in the streets. 

Passengers slapped high-fives with strangers from car windows; horns blared; people danced across the sidewalks. Mongolia, a nation of three million, had just won its second Olympic gold medal ever—its second of the Beijing Summer Games—and the city’s population had gone bananas in a wildly infectious way. 

Standing amidst a swell of humanity in UB’s Sukhbaatar Square, I contemplated how incredibly fortunate I was to experience this celebration and how second chances have a peculiar knack for emerging soon after you think you’ve really blown it. Just 10 days ago I’d felt differently when Mongolia won its first gold medal and I had foolishly missed the festivities.  

 That proved particularly painful because I’d come to Mongolia specifically with the goal of chronicling the nation’s Olympic aspirations and hopefully exploits. During my last semester of college, I’d made up my mind to work for a Mongolian-owned, English language newspaper (yes these actually exist) in Ulaanbaatar, inspired by my love of sports journalism and my anthropology advisor’s passion for all things Mongolian. 

 After making contact with one of two such papers in Mongolia’s capital, I sent out my resume and secured a spot as an English editor, booking a plane ticket for the summer. Within weeks of my arrival at Genghis Khan International Airport, I found myself in the ideal situation, covering Mongolia’s national team of pistol shooters, wrestlers, boxers and other athletes from my office in Ulaanbaatar as they represented their country in Beijing. 

Perhaps the best part of my job was getting to watch broadcasts of Mongolia’s athletes with their compatriots in my host country at the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The nation had waited its entire forty-five year Olympic history for a gold medal, and virtually everyone seemed hungry for success.   

And then it happened. On August 14th, an unknown judo wrestler from the city countryside Tuvshinbayar beat a series of heavily favored opponents. I watched the final match at a gym, enjoying the cheers and laughs of my fellow spectators. That was nice, I thought, walking back to my apartment, where I promptly climbed into bed, exhausted after a long day of work. 

As I drifted off, I noticed the city’s perpetual honking sounded unusually consistent and loud, and some popping in the distance that could have been fireworks. The next morning I found out in my office that those noises I heard were the entire city of Ulaanbaatar, the entire nation of Mongolian, locked in celebration. Over 10,000 people had taken to Sukhbaatar Square where the city exhausted its fireworks supply for the year, and rival politicians toasted one another and their suddenly ascendant homeland. 

Well, I thought, that’ll never happen again. What a remarkable moment to sideline myself in an apartment. I spent the next few days alternately covering the remaining Olympic events and kicking myself for my missed opportunity. And then, that second chance presented itself. 

Mongolia’s boxing prodigy E. Badar-Uugan won his gold medal match, and after waiting its entire Olympic History for one gold medal, Mongolians saw no problem holding a second celebration. 

The match ended at 2:30 pm and the horns, high-fives and shouts didn’t end until early the next morning. I had learned my lesson. When something important happens, go to Sukhbaatar square. That evening, a raucous crowd surrounded the courtyard’s statue of Sukhbaatar, Mongolia’s great revolutionary hero. 

People climbed on top of one another, danced, and sang as they waved Mongolian flags and embraced. An old, intoxicatingly happy man approached me. “This is a great day for Mongolia,” he said. “I am very happy.” 

The city had literally exhausted its fireworks, so the scene was not as raucous as it had been the first night, but the earnestness and joy of the celebrations made the night a magical one, and the perfect ending to my coverage of Mongolia’s Olympic endeavors in 2008.

-Will