That afternoon we drove to a national park and stayed in a couple of ger by the side of a large, blue lake. The next day was bright and sunny, so we decided to hike to the top of a nearby mountain. We climbed up and up, the summit always appearing just over the next hill. After three hours we arrived at the top. We turned to look back at the blue lake spread out below framed by a wonderful panorama of mountains. The air was so clear that we felt as if we could see forever. We circled along a nearby ridge and descended into an adjacent valley through a thin pine forest before meeting Ogie and Nima, who drove us back to camp in the van. Another 4x4 had arrived, with another group from the same hostel. We were surprised to see Rachel and Teva, whom we had met a week ago in Baikal. Their driver and Nima were good friends. With some vodka, we had all the ingredients for a party. Nima showed us the correct way to drink. First, you accept the filled glass with the right hand, the left hand supporting the right elbow. Then, dipping the fourth finger into the vodka, you flick a few drops to the right and left before touching your forehead. Then. down the hatch, in one gulp. After a few rounds, Nima thumped his chest and gestured for attention. With a strong, deep voice he sang a “horse song”, as if he were riding across the steppes, singing to his mount. Later, after heavy drinking, Tsingal, the other driver, crashed a motorcycle and banged his head. He was all right, but in the morning there was a large bump on the side of his head and one eye had swollen shut. He wore dark glasses and avoided Ogie, afraid that his job might be in jeopardy.
In caravan with two vehicles, we drove across a large valley, heading towards a camp with hot springs. Tsingal managed to drive despite having one good eye and being hung over. Our van became stuck in the grassy mud, and we all had to get out to push. Ogie made dinner for us, but Nima refused to touch any of the pasta with vegetables, preferring to eat boiled meat. He and Ogie sat on the floor of the ger, gnawing the bones clean, then cracking them open to suck out the marrow. That evening we relaxed in the hot springs under the stars with a beer, drank vodka and danced in the camp disco.
At Tsetserleg we stopped to visit the local market and to see one of the only remaining Buddhist temples in Mongolia. Before it became communist in the 1920s, there were many temples and holy sites in Mongolia. Most were destroyed, a sad loss of cultural heritage. What remains provides only a glimmer of the former splendor and richness. Karkorim, where we stayed that night, is the site of a huge walled monastery. The thick, whitewashed walls are punctuated by large stupas. Only a few original buildings, some under renovation, remain intact. A German-speaking guide showed us around the site. A wooden fence, supported by posts in the form of an “X” to keep demons out, surrounds one of the temples. Along the paths inside, hawkers sold “antiques” to tourists.
Ogie prepared a special meal for us that night. After buying some fresh mutton, she put it with some vegetables in a large milk can. Rocks were heated over an open fire, then dropped into the container. The whole thing was tightly closed and left to simmer over the fire. Soon the delicious smell of cooking meat filled the ger. After cracking the can open, we sat around the stove eating the vegetables and gnawing the meaty bones. It was impossible not to have our hands and faces covered with sticky, mutton-smelling grease. Most of us balked at eating the thick, white grissle clinging to the bones. We gave it to Ogie, who was happy to have as much fat as possible. How could she maintain her slender figure while eating so much?
Later, a pair of musicians dressed in traditional costume turned up. The older one, a stately man with a bristly mustache, played a two-stringed wooden violin with a horse's head on the bridge. After playing a few numbers with his cohort, he stood up and bade us to watch carefully. With a small wooden stick, he tapped out a tune on his pursed lips, making different notes by changing the size of his mouth cavity. We applauded wildly, but with an emphatic gesture he bade us to watch further. He played the same tune on his nose, then on his forehead, then proudly on the top of his balding head. Bowing, he accepted our emphatic applause. But there was more to come. With a glimmer in his eye, he made a fist, and played the same tune on his closed hand, before sitting down again and belting out a tune on his violin that would make a bluesman cry. Ogie later told us that he was the only person in Mongolia that could play on his hand like that.