Bayan Olgi Province, Mongolia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Mongolia  , Bayan-Ölgiy,
Saturday, June 9, 2007

Leaving Russia we suffer another bout of the same absurd Russian bureaucracy that we've come to know and detest - exit procedures that take the sole immigration agent on duty 5 minutes to process and stamp out each person for a total of nearly three hours at the border.  This time, however, it's not Tonka but I who almost doesn't make it out of Russia.  I admittedly have a rotten passport photo and have lost about 40 pounds since it was taken four years ago but until now had never had any question whether my passport was really me. Anyway, the immigration agent looked me over up and down half a dozen times and then called over another guard to compare my passport photo to my face.  Still unconvinced she sent me to the back of the line.  "What's the deal?  Why is it so hard to get out of Russia?  I thought people have been free to go since Communism ended?"  Once everyone else was processed, the English-speaking supervisor came over to me with my passport, quized me on my birthdate and the dates of when I had visited several other countries for which I had stamps in my passport, and finally asked me for my signature to compare with the one in my passport.  OK, finally I'm out! 

Mongolia was a breeze to get into a truly felt like a breath of fresh air after Russia.  Vanya and Tamir, our guides for Mongolia, met us at the border, an absolute necessity since there are absolutely no road signs in Mongolia. At the 8,000-plus foot high border post the paved road ended and we entered an even more wild country of high mountains, desert valleys, and wide pen grasslands.  One of Mongolia's statistical superlatives is that it has the lowest overall population density of any nation, so this is real Big Sky type of country with plenty of open space.  A large part of the population now lives in the capital city, Ulan Bataar (which we will not visit), and with nearly half the population nomadic or semi-nomadic there are only a few other small provincial capitals and villages scattered around the country.  It's said that someone can still ride a horse all the way across Mongolia without ever crossing a paved road.

Vanya grew up as a real nomad and can probably teach a wannabe like me a thing or two about the nomadic lifestyle.  Nevertheless, he comes equipped with a fancy G.P.S. device which he claims stands for "Ger Positioning System".

We descended from the border through a spectacular desert canyon inhabited only by a few ger (yurt) dwellers and their herds to a flat spot in the desert surrounded by standing red rocks near Achiit Nuur Lake.  Within minutes of our arrival people seemed to be coming on horseback from miles around to watch us, this clearly being an area tourists never make it to.  The westernmost province of Mongolia, Bayan Olgi, is mostly Kazakh and the people who joined us this night were ethnic Kazakhs rather than Mongolians. They were eager to show us around the rocks, have their pictures taken with us, and stand and watch us, seemingly most entertained by the fact that several men were actually involved in the cooking.

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