After the successful conclusion of camp , it was again time to travel. After attempts to find rides out to Bayan Olgii, the western-most aimag in Mongolia, we realized that it wasn’t going to happen in time for us to get back to central Mongolia to train the new Peace Corps volunteers. Compounded by the fact that there were no methods of travel to get out there, we decided on alternative plans. Instead of going all the way to UB, we would get off the bus early at Tsetserleg, the aimag center of Arkhangai province to explore the town and visit some other Peace Corps volunteers.
Going into the bus station a couple days before our trip however, we found that there were going to be no buses leaving on the day of our departure. Instead we were going to have to take a Micro Bus, or meekr. These are the little vans that can, and in many places they are the only way of travel. While they are often the faster way of traveling, you sacrifice general comfort for the speed, as sometimes 15 people are stuffed into vans really only meant to seat 7. After some discussion ( really none) we decided to go for it and so began our first experience with long distance meekr travel…may it be our last.Told to come to the bus station at 4:00, we arrived 2 hours early, indicative of how not integrated we are to “Mongol time”. At 4:30 we got loaded onto the meekr and began our tour of greater Uliastai as our driver picked people up, visited friends, and just waited around to fill up the car. At 7:30, the van was satisfactorily filled and we finally headed out on the jeep track that is the road to Tosonsengel, Tsetserleg and finally Ulaan Baatar.
Just a note to myself, if there are no buses available, wait until there is one. It just isn’t worth it. Its common knowledge in the PCV community , or just smart people in general that meekr rides are uncomfortable, but they don’t tell you that’s not just because of 13 people being stuffed in a box on wheels. Its also because of the row of people smoking out of the car windows, basically people smoking in the car or the party drinking vodka and passing around large bottles . To be fair it might have helped the trip go faster, yet I didn’t want to experiment on a dirt track in the middle of Mongolia. The one advantage of having a lot of people squished into a clown car, is that it does offer a form of cushioning on a bumpy ride. Instead of being jolted awake, you are supported on one side by a small child and the window. But of course, the grab handle is at the perfect height to consistently knock you on the forehead the entire trip.
However the one advantage of leaving late was being able to see a different part of the route to Ulaan Baatar. By leaving so late, we were around Tariet soum by sunrise, where I finally got to see Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake. Usually passed by in the night on the bus, it was nice to see an area of Mongolia that I have been through before, just hadn’t seen. As we passed the lake, several hours later we finally hit paved road and then it was smooth sailing. At the 17 hour mark of driving we finally arrived in Tsetserleg, where our tired cramped legs got out us out of the meekr, and sent it out of the way. So began our Tsetserleg adventures.
Tsetserleg translates into ‘garden’ in Mongolian and it lives up to its name. It is probably one of the nicest aimag centers in the country. To contrast with the stark granite peaks around Uliastai, Tsetserleg is actually green and plants grow there. The first store I entered easily outrivaled the nicest store in Uliastai. Espresso coffee is readily available. The volunteers apartment that we crashed at actually has hot water. To quote a tourist website I found about Arkhangai “Tsetserleg is the only aimag capital in Mongolia that could, at a pinch, be called beautiful…Maybe it’s the mountain air, but the people of Tsetserleg seem to be friendlier than in other aimag capitals” Them be fighting words, but after some consideration it pretty much is true. Also being connected to UB by a paved road helps tourism and access to amenities, more so then dirt tracks do.
After arriving, part of our pit stop included camping along the river, which was extremely relaxing. We cooked horse meat and veggies in to coals of a fire we made, then drank our respective bottles of wine while the fire died down. We also got our hands on the most interesting tent ever. It was a legit triangle tend which I’m amazed didn’t fall over during the night. Wheras the night before we got dropped off by the river by a taxi, the next morning we trekked back into town. As my compatriot said, “my legs were feeling things” and “my glutes know things now”.
After getting back we had some respite, in the form of coffee and napping. When we felt less dead, we went to a local history museum for a little history lesson… or just to look at pictures mainly. The rest of the afternoon was spent bouldering Bulgan Mountain, which overlooks all of Tsetserleg. Decorated with large paintings of Buddha in various stages of enlightenment, it offered an awesome hike. We were even able to avoid a incoming rainstorm when we came back down for dinner. For the second time our trip, we ate at Fairfields, an absolutely awesome hostel/hotel that had espresso coffee and Ceasar salad.Which really was a salad with honey mustard sauce… Uh-Mazing. I’m pretty much convinced that its heaven on earth. If you ever end up in that part of the world… I would highly encourage it.
Wished we could have stayed longer but we needed to get on our way to train the new trainees. The little jaunt to Tsetserleg offered us a relaxed way to travel to Ulaan Baatar while allowing us to explore a new part of the country. Couldn’t have done it without that hospitality of the current Peace Corps Volunteers living there. Hopefully it happens again before I leave the country.