When I was 21, I moved from San Diego back to Boston (via Seattle). It was a classic “Love” adventure, wherein I took the Greyhound cross-country and stayed in hostels. There was some preliminary research but, for the most part, I went where the day took me. I found myself in Minneapolis at a hostel that rented bikes for $3 a day. Armed with a map supplied by the hostel, I set out for the Minnehaha Falls. I remember just about all of the ride was on bike paths and I enjoyed being surrounded by nature. It was a glorious summer day and, at one point, I hopped off the bike and took a dip in one of the 10,000 lakes. I felt as though I were going somewhere special, somewhere that few people would see, so, it was quite jarring, upon arrival, to see the parking lot for tour busses and a gift shop. I was disappointed that what I’d been looking forward to seeing, what existed in my mind as an oasis, was really a tourist trap. And, part of me thought that those who drove there couldn’t possibly appreciate it the way that I did.
This question of whether we appreciate something more if we have to endure something to get it, came back to me recently on a trip to Mother Mountain. The ladies from the medical college (the same ones who made Camel Day happen) organized this trip to Altai’s most revered mountain. Seven of us met at the town square at 8am, by 9am we were on the road out of town. There were a few only-in-Mongolia type of pit stops (chronicled below), but no matter how you break it up, traveling 200 km (120 miles) in 10 hours is a journey.
Pit Stop #1 – Overlook of the town
Ohh, I just had a flashback to the large bowl of meat that appeared as we were leaving Altai. You know, how you just eat meat from a communal bowl while you’re driving somewhere. Well, just when I thought our journey was beginning, we stopped. At a little hill overlooking the town, we looked back and said goodbye. It’s amazing how quickly it disappears.
Pit Stop #2 – See that ger over there
As we were quite far away, I don’t know how they could see what was going on—maybe they just intuitively knew via some Mongolian-radar—but we were told the folks at the ger had just slaughtered a goat and asked if we wanted to see. My M23 site-mate and I were in agreement, no thanks. But, the new guy, the M24, he said, ever so casually, “I wouldn’t mind seeing it.” SHARP RIGHT TURN! We pulled up, took some photos, were invited into the tiniest ger I’ve ever seen, drank some milk-tea, ate some aruul, and chatted up the herdsman. Turns out, he was the uncle of one of our coworkers. And, back on the road in 10 minutes.
Pit Stops #3, 6, 7 – Pee break
These have to be timed right because on stretches of desert there are no bushes to squat behind for privacy. Outside of that, we know the drill: bring your own TP and hand sanitizer (which Peace Corps Medical will supply, lest we get something requiring a trip to UB to treat).
Pit Stop #4 – Lunch
They fed us ham and cheese and bread. More milk-tea. That bowl of meat from breakfast reappeared at lunch. So. Much. Meat.
Pit Stop #5 – Camels!
So, the new guy hadn’t seen camels yet. A little more off-roading, and now he can cross that off the list. A few minutes chatting up the camel herdsman, taking photos, then we were back in the jeep.
And then, FINALLY, we see it looming in the distance. Mother Mountain.
Little did we know that it was still two hours away 😦 That is, an hour-plus to get to it, and almost an hour spent driving along side it, back and forth, to find the entrance. Once we found that road, we were met with a tiny sign, in both Mongolian and English—never expected that!—and then a gate with a guard’s quarters. The gate was up and in we went. There is a one-room structure that we were lucky enough to find empty—yay, squatters’ rights! The alternative was pitching the tents that they’d brought, and I, for one, was grateful for the brick alternative.
As the ladies set about boiling the milk-tea and cooking dinner, we three explored a little in the last of the daylight. After the long ride, and three full meals, we were all in our sleeping bags by 9 o’clock; absolutely exhausted.
We awoke before the sun, which meant it was possible to see it rise, as we had hoped. As the ladies set about boiling the milk-tea, we three began a 7am hike to the top of a nearby peak and were rewarded with this
Following breakfast, we went for THE hike—the one that brought us here: walking on sand, over boulders, between natural pools. Mother Mountain has terrain like I’d never seen. We saw the monk’s cave in the mountain, and the unmistakable shapes in the rocks. We were reminded that many people in Altai will never see this. And indeed it felt special.
The next morning, as Mother Mountain receded into the background, given its remoteness, I doubted that I would ever return. I imagine a future Mongolia with a more developed infrastructure, where paved roads connect the country and allow you to travel at more than 20km/hr. And I have mixed feelings about it. As with the rapid construction in my aimag, I have a sense that there is a trade that must happen; the cultural cost of progress, if you will. Without doubt, Mother Mountain is worth the visit. But I believe with equal intensity that it should be an experience, not a day trip.