We’ve made it to Olgii!

July 26th, 2008 § 9 comments § permalink

We have made it to Olgii, the town from which we will depart to the Tavan Bogd National Park to camp and view the eclipse. We arrived yesterday after a very BuMpPy 5-hour journey via hired jeep from Hovd. Benjamin summed the drive up nicely when he said, “It was like driving from one landscape painting into another.” It was also a bit like a safari-I didn’t realize how exciting it feels to see animals in the wild, without herder or fence.

We saw bactrian camels racing each other across the steppe (bactrian camels have 2 humps), yaks grazing near shallow but fast moving streams, herds of goats and sheep, and of course horses. Some of the landscapes we traveled through were full of rocks (more rocks than I’ve ever seen in 1 place), and some reminded me of an underwater scene, by the gradation of colors that rose from the plain up mountainsides, shifting from unreal mossy greens to blue-ish green and then brown. We also passed through a multitude of weather systems: hot and cloudless sunny skies in one instant, gray skies with wind and rain another. All along the way are the white circular-shaped gers (maybe more recognizable to you as yurts), where nomadic Mongolians live temporally-they move up to 5 times a year.

Our time in Hovd is a story in and of itself-I have several pages in my journal devoted to the brief time period of having arrived there and leaving it (less than 24 hours). I’m not sure I’ll cover all the details here, but suffice it to say that it was on arrival in Hovd, in this dusty nowhere of a place with all the charm a crumbling communist-era desert town can offer, that we started to wonder if we were really stupid for coming to Mongolia on a DIY tour.

Arriving at the airport, there are no taxis or touts as we’ve become used to in even the most remotest places in our travels (sign number 1 that you might be in over your head). Having asked a kid (named Hasha) hanging around the airport if he might give us a ride into town, we did secure transport, but he had to stop at his family’s home on the way to pick up his father because, he said with a giggle after we were on our way again, “I do not have a license.” When his father came out to the car, he was followed by the boy’s entire family who joined him, apparently, to see what Hasha had picked up or gotten himself into. Benjamin and I joked that his parentslater scolded him, “Again with the tourists? When we let you borrow the car…”

It’s unclear whether it was a random event, this family-style taxi service, so Benjamin asked, “Do you do this often?” and Hasha said that he didn’t, but nadaam was the next day (nadaam is an annual festival that involves horse racing and wrestling competitions). ‘Crap’ I thought to myself-it might be hard to find a room or a driver that wanted to leave the next day due to the festivities-our goal being get to Olgii! Get to Olgii! Get to Olgii! Indeed, it was hard to find a room, but we managed to squirrel our way to an overpriced hovel for ‘one night only’, and in the dark and after having been to another hotel that Benjamin described as ‘scary’, we were happy to pay $35.00 for a dingy room with no hot water and only 1 pillow.

Before leaving us, Hasha promised to help us find a ride to Olgii the next day-suggesting that perhaps his uncle would make the trip. He promised to return the next morning at 9 am and that he did, to our delight, for after our 1 night in Hovd, with crap for accommodation, and with Benjamin waking ill, and me feeling as if we’d landed on the moon (with all the hospitality that would entail, which is little), getting to Olgii became more of a mission than it ever was.

After a confusing morning of walking around town with Hasha, which I won’t bore you with the details, we finally ended up at the family’s home (once again with the tourists!) and made the deal in the family’s ger over milk tea, bread, and pungent yak cheese-Hasha and his uncle agreed to take us to Olgii that day. We left an hour later, after picking up a friend of Hasha’s uncle who, Hasha said, “…knows the way; there are many tracks.” Benjamin whispered to me, “I thought there was a road.” But a road in Mongolian terms is a track in the dirt-or several of them actually, running in parallel, or parting in places to overcome obstacles, such as flooded rivers or muddy traps, and others that lead off to some other place, where we didn’t want to be.

One final hitch in our grand getaway was a police check point on the one road out of town, set up to catch drivers with expired (or without) licenses. As our luck would have it, of course, Hasha’s uncle didn’t have a valid license. It was confiscated and after about 20 minutes of pleading with the police to give it back and let him be on his way, Hasha’s uncle returned to the car and drove off without it, checking the rear view mirror to make sure the police were not in pursuit. The heavy nadaam traffic kept them distracted, as well as the another police man further down the road, who we evaded by pretending to be nadaam attendees headed to the parking area (undefined as it were). Once far enough to get away undetected, Hasha’s uncle veered toward the road, and sped off leaving the issue of his license to deal with on return to town.

Benjamin and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that the issue didn’t send us back to Hovd to start the process of finding a ride all over again, especially as we’d filled the jeep’s double tanks up with petrol ($100.00) and had been feeling unlucky up until this moment, as if there were some force working against the success of our trip. For me, all along during the planning stages, getting to Olgii was always the important thing and also became the one thing that proved to be the most difficult thing to arrange. I’d always thought that once in Olgii, we could relax about the success of our eclipse trip… and we can, weather permitting.

Despite one last hurdle of maybe not having a tent to camp with (the town is dry with all the eclipse chasers), we’ve not only secured one but also found another group of DIY eclipse chasers looking for 2 people to join their group and share the cost of petrol… it’s exactly the opportunity we were looking for and it found us, while sitting right here in this internet cafe, typing up this post.

We plan to leave the day after tomorrow, on Monday and camp for 6 days. Unless I find time to write more tomorrow, the next post will be a glorious, life altering description of the sight of the eclipse… or it will be a description of a really expensive, far-away-from-home camping trip.

I do have much more to say about Mongolia in general; I have 20 full pages in my journal since arrival but have had little opportunity to write about my experiences on this blog (or have been shut down by sudden power outages).

Clear skies!

Arrival in Mongolia

July 26th, 2008 § Comments Off on Arrival in Mongolia § permalink

July 24 – Day 2

The trip here felt like one of the longest days of our lives. Yesterday, our first full day in Mongolia, I crossed three days off the calendar in my journal-two of them fully spent in airports or in the sky. The third day crossed off was spent traipsing around Ulaan Baatar bleary-eyed and foggy-minded with jet lag, so I’m not sure if it even counts.

The temperamental nature of our trip-all the unknowns and things that could go wrong in regard to logistics and weather (clouds ruin a good eclipse) have become somewhat realized, although nothing is certain still, either good or bad-which, ironically, is the only consistent thing with this trip: that nothing is certain.

When checking in to our guest house yesterday morning, Zaya (of Zaya’s Guest House) called Aero Mongolia to confirm our flights to Hovd on July 24 (today). Hovd is part 1 of a 3 part journey within Mongolia to our proposed camp and eclipse site. Her call resulted in a lengthy conversation with the booking agent, during which I thought to myself how wonderful it was I didn’t understand the language, because if I could follow along, and due to the length and tone of the conversation, I’m sure I would have been stressed out-there was obviously some problem, but it’s easy to ignore and defer worrying about it when you don’t know what it is.

It turns out that in early July, during the riots that happened in Ulaan Baatar regarding election results, the airline’s office was burned down and they consequently had no records. Somehow, though, they knew the flight was fully booked and apparently Benjamin and I were not on their passenger list. Zaya threatened the airline with having to pay for our travels and they suddenly found seats, but recommended we get to the airport super early to get them. Later in the day, Zaya left a note on our door that the airline needed us to present ourselves to their office in person, as the departure time had changed from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm.

Having done that, somewhat skeptical whether or not we actually have seats, our plan is to arrive to the airport super super early instead of just super early as recommended to make sure we get a boarding pass.

Me No Speak is on Current TV

July 23rd, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

I’m taking a brief detour from the eclipse journey to promote our latest press mention on Current TV. Check it out!


Getting on Mongol time

July 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

I haven’t felt this way since I left on our last trip. Granted our last trip was more grandiose in scale and emotion particularly on a more personal level. If you aren’t familiar with it I suggest you yield and get a flavor of it and then read on.

While the scale and time frame are much shorter in comparison, the stress and anxiety level are still the same about leaving. No I am not selling all of my stuff (phew), no I am not worried to much about what to wear, no I am not worried about what I may have forgotten and need, no I don’t have to find a new job in a culture I left a year ago. I have a whole new set of unknowns: Why I am taking my tent, a sleeping bag, a GPS unit (oh thank you Molly D!)(which I do take comfort that I will be able to find my way back if I get lost), adopting an optimistic attitude about mutton, looking forward to fermented mares milk, man I hope we find a driver that will take us further into an already remote area of the globe that we have never been to, did I tell the guys at work about the idiosyncrasies of rebooting the server on a Friday? That last one was eating away at me on Thursday night, but after the smooth, painless and happy smiles of the stand-in tech team training on Friday I feel a great weight lifted. Smooth sailing Boys!

Five weeks total on the road and three weeks of those on literally no roads to nowhere to witness something that has been referred to as “a spiritual experience”, “seeing the eye of the universe”, “Amazing, brilliant, awesome, mystical, super, incredible, heavenly, and out-of-sight! , an emotional experience” “addictive” according to the eclipse chasers group on yahoo. I must point out that we have to be in the right place and the right time (in the right middle of nowhere) to actually see this phenomenon. All of this with little to no confirmation of transport or lodgings has me a bit stressed out and very excited at the same time. But hey it is Mongolia, I thrive in this kind of chaos, what do I have to worry about. Everything I have read indicates that Mongolia is actually the largest campground on Earth. Tent, sleeping bag, GPS, open mind, mmmm mutton, sense of adventure, seeing something few have seen, yeah here we go!
04:27=19:27 tomorrow in Mongol Time

Rusty Writing Boy

July 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

On our first trip to Asia back in (checking my passport) 2002 during the dotcom meltdown when we first got our taste of travel and were bitten I kept an ongoing email list of posts and reports mostly written by me. Our last trip was faithfully and frankly reported and beautifully documented on film by Ms. Cheryn. There were plenty of occasions that I contributed silently to if not in text but in action and always to amuse that bubbled to the surface in a lot of those posts. I am throwing my hat back in the ring for perspective.

I have to say that I feel a little overshadowed and daunted already with the surplus of Ms. Cheryns yarns.

Pre-trip musings

July 20th, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

Some say the sight of a total solar eclipse will make you cry. Others cite the experience as the closest thing to a spiritual encounter they can imagine (or have experienced), calling the sight of the glowing black orb in the sky the ‘Eye of God’–a lofty claim coming from astronomer-types, who are, most often, people with a proclivity towards a rational state of mind. Nonetheless, the sight of a TSE (total solar eclipse) is reportedly a soul-touching event… a connection between the universe and those who are lucky enough to witness it, as the sun, moon, and Earth align in such a way that for a short bit of time, in an area that covers only 1% of the Earth’s surface, a narrow track of the moon’s shadow sweeps across the planet, turning day into night, at a specific moment, in a precise place. Enter the Eclipse Chaser.

Eclipse travel, often to remote corners of the globe, is made that much more exciting and memorable from the feat of getting to the location in the first place. I know from my own trip planning that there are many more elements than the spectacle in the sky that contribute to the experience and the promise of adventure. For no other trip have I had to get so prepared and yet be so hopelessly in the dark about how things will unfold–it’s not easy to plan ahead for travel and accommodation within Mongolia. There is logistical research–I never imagined myself to be looking up latitude and longitude coordinates for a camp site; there is an extensive equipment checklist: solar viewing filters and glasses, telescopic binoculars and camera lenses, GPS apparatus, and camping gear. This, not to mention learning a thing or two about astronomy and solar eclipses, and careful attention to climatic conditions and weather predictions, all without knowing for sure that we’ll actually be in the right place to see it once we’re in Mongolia, and if the weather will cooperate. Eclipse chasers often sign off email with the same closing statement: Clear skies!

Not that one can do anything about the weather–and for eclipse chasers, who plan years in advance their vacations around these events that occur every year and a half, a cloudy sky can be the devastating factor of a trip taken for naught. Perhaps the gamble of good viewing conditions adds to the suspense and anticipation of an eclipse trip, but for me it seems an ironic twist of fate that an act of nature’s forces, timed so closely to the second and pinned so meticulously along coordinates on the Earth’s surface, can be ruined by nature’s own temperamental tendencies. It’s poetic, in a way, that the event can be so predictable with the same potential to be elusive–nature’s way of keeping us humans in our place? It’s surely a reminder of our place in the grand scheme of things.

And so (I think to myself now in the comfort of my home), even if after traveling thousands of miles and enduring the hardships and misadventures that are sure to come with it, I feel fortunate for this break in the routine of things, and this unusual encounter with nature, even IF (I think now) things don’t work out. It’s got me thinking about nature’s forces–life’s forces–that are out of my control… bigger things than schedules, and work, and the trivialities of life; it’s got me thinking about the forces that govern the planet upon which I live, and the mechanics of the universe I can’t understand and which no government or corporation can ever own or control. Man cannot tame it, and this, in itself, is a comforting thought when in my daily life I see the destruction of the natural world we leave in our path–when all is said and done, we are not the ultimate masters. And knowing that something so powerful, mysterious, and uncontrollable exists leaves me with a feeling of awe, fear, and comfort all wrapped into one undefinable emotion. Does it sound like a spiritual experience? Perhaps so, and I haven’t even witnessed the eclipse… yet.

Clear skies!

Welcome, armchair travelers

July 11th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Follow along as we travel from the steppes of Mongolia to Korea’s DMZ.

We arrive in Ulaan Bataar on July 22, where we’ll begin a journey to an area Lonely Planet calls the ‘wild west’– the remote and rugged Altai Mountain range, to witness the eclipse on August 1. While others are paying thousands of dollars to travel with tour groups, having flights, drivers, and accommodation all planned out for them (not to mention professional astronomers as guides, on hand to lead the group through the eclipse experience), we have chosen a more adventurous and less expensive DIY approach.

It took upwards of a month to organize a domestic air ticket within Mongolia (and I’m crossing my fingers we actually have reservations), there is little information to be found online, and beyond that we’ve read in LP that if we hang out around this or that market in 1 town, we can probably find a driver within a day or two to get us to the next place. Probably. And so, because I have had no other choice, I have deferred all trip planning to some distant point in the future up until now, having decided to ‘worry about it when we get there’ because there is no other way–and now that the trip is less than a week away, the excitement and anxiety is growing.

We depart Mongolia on August 8–conincidentally the opening day of the Olympic Games–and arrive in Korea, where we’ll be traveling for 2 weeks to test our next Me No Speak title. Back home on August 23.