Zavkhan Province, Mongolia

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

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Flag of Mongolia  , Dzavhan,
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

As we passed into Zavkhan, the province with the highest average elevation in Mongolia, the "main road" across northern Mongolia passed through a series of sand dunes that is supposedly the world's northernmost sandy desert.  Needless to say Tonka quickly got stuck in the sand and once we freed ourselves we had to take a longer route around them to the south. We spent the two days through Zavkhan mostly on the truck but experienced some of the most magical scenery in Mongolia, true "Out There"/"Off the Beaten Track" travel through a wild region almost no tourists ever visit.  I keep wondering why it seems to take so long to travel through what looks like relatively short distances on the map but then realize we're rarely moving faster than about 20 MPH, frequently getting bogged down or having to take detours, and stopping almost hourly for toilet breaks.  Along the way we also frequently encounter wooden bridges across shallow rivers, some of which appear strong enough to carry Tonka's weight (most of us get off and walk across ahead anyway, just in case) while others have much lower posted weight limits and the drivers must find a place for Tonka to ford.

In the evenings we slept in our tents on the spongy permafrost ground at beautiful lakeside campsites, bathed in their frigid waters, sat around the campfire under a star spangled sky, and listened to wolves howling through night.  The night Vanya and I had our wrestling match Little Ben decided to head off with his huge rucksack full off camping and survival gear, hike up a nearby mountain, and sleep in his billybag under the stars for a true wilderness experience.  I was neither so brave nor so well equipped to camp out on my own on a mountain but decided to join Vanya for a night-time hike by flashlight up the mountain to check up on Ben, easy to locate by the roaring fire he had going.

The few small settlements we passed had names like Zuungov, Tes, and Bayantes and appeared almost deserted, most of their residents having relocated their gers out to the countryside for the summer or having moved permanently to Ulaan Bataar.  Even the very well maintained looking temple we visited on a hill on the outskirts of Bayantes seemed closed for the season.  Meanwhile, many of the yurts we passed along the way had satellite dishes and solar panels besides them or on their roofs and some of the men we saw tending their herds on horseback or motorcycles carried satellite phone with them, amazing adaptations of some fairly advanced technology to a very traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Nevertheless, Mongolia is still a natural paradise and one of last free places on earth, a land without paved roads, industrial smog, night light pollution, utility pylons, telephone poles, fences, or private land ownership.  Mongolia is not only everything I had dreamed it to be but also corresponds to what I have always envisioned the American West must once have been like before so much of it was disfigured by the blight of modern civilization's dams and open pit mines, tract house developments and golf courses, strip malls and fast food joints.

As in other parts of the world I've traveled with Dragoman, we frequently have visitors to our campsites in Mongolia.  However, the Mongolians whose territory we camp on generally behave a bit differently than people in other countries towards a group of foreigners in a truck the likes of which they've never seen before.  While in China, Central Asia, and Africa large groups of people typically congregate around us and stare at us and stare from the periphery, in Mongolia usually one or two men arrive together on horseback or motorcycle, stop and get off, and wander confidently into the middle of the camp to take advantage of the customary hospitality that is expected.

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