We next passed through a small impoverished coal mining settlement named Khotgor and then over Bairam Davaa, a pass where we stopped for lunch on the alpine tundra at 9,000 feet from which there were spectacular views down to Uureg Nuur Lake, ringed by high peaks
. We managed to get stuck in the mud on the way up and both the ascent to and descent from the pass were harrowing, with Tonka passing over rocks so large the drivers later said there were many instances the truck could have rolled over had we hit them in the wrong way. Charlie and Ben said it was the worst road (if you want to call it one) they had encountered in their Dragoman driving careers and would probably recommend future tours take a different route across western Mongolia to avoid it. The terrain further east was a mix of lush rolling grasslands and low forested passes with nomadic people living in a natural state and herding some of the most enormous heard of livestock I've seen anywhere, a virtual Serengeti Plains of domesticated animals - cattle, yaks, horses, camels, goats, and most of all sheep.
The June temperatures in northern Mongolia were very pleasant by day if a bit chilly at night, so it's hard to imagine that it sometimes gets down to - 60*F in winter with what must be almost unimaginable windchills in this coldest part of the country. According to our guide Vanya, nomads in Mongolia actually move their flocks to somewhat higher elevations in winter to take advantage of the partial shelter mountain valleys provide relative to the lower windswept plains that provide good summer grazing.
Ulaangom was the first significant town we encountered in Mongolia and the rather depressed capital of Uvs Province, which according to Vanya has experienced a rapidly declining population as residents either move to the national capital (Ulaan Bataar) or return to a more nomadic lifestyle in the countryside. As the only town we would see for several days, Ulaangom was a place we'd have to stock up on necessities like water and petrol, clean ourselves up at a banya, and three cook groups including mine would have to go shopping for food at the market for the days ahead in the wilderness. Ulaangom was a town like no other I had seen so far in Asia, one where most of the dwelling were gers surrounded by fences, many of the people rode around on horses, and the market was full of wild-looking men and women traditionally dressed in long tunics. Wow! "Stay away from drunk people", was Vanya's warning to us, but having just come from Russia that's something at which I had already become quite skilled. To the east of Ulaangom we drove for the rest of the day through drier grasslands around the south side of Uvs Nuur, a shallow salt lake known for its bird life and the largest in surface area Mongolia.
As time progressed and the daily hardships and stresses of life on the truck and unrelieved camping became greater, people in the group began drinking more and more
. Frequently people would decide to "get pissed" and have what we came to call Vodka Nights, on which they would get drunk on vodka, a much more potent source of alcohol than the lager beer most of us had been drinking. Vodka seems to have a greater capacity than other forms of alcohol to erase one's memory, and almost everyone who had a Vodka Night would wake up feeling absolutely fine in the morning but have little recollection of anything they did personally. I tried to avoid the poison for as long as possible and stick most nights to a few beers or some really bad Russian wine but succumbed to the stress of cook group duties that night camped on plains near Uvs Nuur. I spent the evening enjoying Bloody Marys and Screwdrivers as I was cooking Sauerbraten, Potatoes, and Red Cabbage and ended it eight hours later still drinking Screwdrivers. My Vodka Night ended sitting on the truck late into the night with me performing mocking impersonations of many of the characters on the tour who had irritated me in recent days and exhorting the men I was drinking with to take back the truck from the Feminazis who had taken it over and were trying to tell us where we could pee.
Crossing Uvs Province in northwestern Mongolia took a full two days of driving through varied and spectacular scenery, first taking a long detour around the south side of Achiit Nuur Lake because rumor was that the more direct route to the north of the lake was currently impassably boggy. Achiit Nuur is a large lake surrounded by red desert and snow capped mountain ranges and marks the boundary between lands inhabited by Moslem ethnic Kazakhs and Buddhist ethnic Mongolians. According to our guide Vanya, Kazakhs and Mongols have different style gers with Kazakh gers being significantly larger, but from a distance they all look the same to me.