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(April 8-9, 2013)

(Posted by Kristin, embellished by Xavier)

When our Mongolian family asked if we wanted to go to the countryside to visit their cousin Bilgee (henceforth known as Countryside Bilgee, to avoid confusion with brother Bilgee), we said “heck yeah!” We wanted to explore as much of this country as we could in the little time we had. Next thing you know it was all arranged. The next day as we were preparing to head out to the train station, Chimgee pulled out some cold weather gear for us, insisting that we would need some camel-wool shoe inserts… ooh …toasty! We headed out, stopping by Tumru’s shop to pick up some food item gifts for the countryside family, and off we went.

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In a nice change from our usual travel MO, the logistics were stress-free as Oyuka handled the buying of the tickets and getting us settled into the right train car. So there we were on a train with Oyuka and a carload of Mongolians, trundling through the countryside to adventures unknown. All we knew was that we would be staying in a ger (yurt) — yay! — and meeting more of the family.

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After about four hours on the train, enjoying the company of our fellow Mongolian cabin mates (Xavier was really digging the variety of fashionable dells being worn by the Mongolians walking through our cabin), we got off at Zuunharaa.

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We were greeted by strapping Countryside Bilgee — and the Camel Man! It turns out Countryside Bilgee had heard that I love camels and had spent all day calling all over the countryside to find someone with camels! This part of the country does not typically have camels, but he had managed to find the one man who had a herd of them, and he was there to pick us up. Bilgee wore jeans and a baseball cap. Camel Man was a real nomad, straight out of central casting with his del and hat.

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We exchanged greetings and piled into Bilgee’s SUV — only to find more of Camel Man’s family! There is always room for one more in a Mongolian vehicle, so we squished in, with three or four kids in the back. And we were off!

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It only took a few minutes for me to truly understand why the guidebooks said you need a GPS if you are traveling in Mongolia; once you get out of the city there really aren’t any roads (other than the main roads between cities)…if you are lucky there are dirt tracks!

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So there we were driving over the beautiful barren plains, with Camel Man occasionally telling Bilgee to turn left or right. But even he got a little twisted around when we got to a little creek next to a pig farm and he couldn’t figure out how to get across.

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No worries, Bilgee asked the pig farmer for directions and we were off again. This is what a bridge looks like in the countryside! Remember that winter was just ending here and many of the rivers were still slowly thawing.

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Xavier was riding shotgun and occasionally he would glance back at me with a look of “where the heck are we?“ On and on we went, for what seemed like hours traveling across this vast Mongolian landscape of gentle rolling hills, until a ger and livestock shelter finally came into view in the distance.

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Oh, and what is that? It’s a baby camel and mama camel! We had arrived!

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But where were the rest of the camels?

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We got out of the car, eager to stretch our legs, and were ushered into the ger for some milk tea, rice pudding…and eventually some vodka.

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New family members kept appearing out of nowhere.

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We felt bad that we hadn’t brought anything for this family (a must in Mongolian culture!), as we had only found out while we were on the train that we would be visiting them. They still treated us with that wonderful Mongolian hospitality, making sure we were neither hungry nor thirsty (we did give Camel Man some money later on — it was the least we could do to thank him for the amazing experience!). These were humble surroundings but we were attended to as if we were royalty.

At one point after Xavier had mentioned to Camel Man several times how similar the food and customs were to Mexico’s farming communities, the Camel Man was moved, and reached out and told him that he believed there must be a link between the two cultures. We sat there for a while reconnecting our cultural links; meanwhile it turns out we were waiting for the camel herd to get back, and it was taking longer than expected.

No worries. We went outside and hung out with the family as they went about their chores. It was spring and there were lots of baby goats and sheep frolicking around.

Family members were busy brushing the goats for cashmere. It turns out this provides a large portion of their income.

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Of course the human kids were adorable too! I played a little game with this cute cherub who was hanging out with her brother in this old Russian jeep. Every time I pointed my camera at her she would close the window, and when I put the camera down she would open the window with glee. Luckily I am a quick draw, and I got her a few times! These are some of my favorite pictures from the whole trip.

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All of a sudden a herd of sheep and goats appeared, coming home for the day. It was wonderful watching everyone work together to get the animals into the pen. Grandma was a particularly cool cat, with her dangling cigarette.

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It was wonderful to see the kids run across the hillsides herding the flock together. Kids will be kids and it’s the simple joys that always make an impression on you.

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At some point I thought it might be a good idea to avail myself of the facilities, so I asked Oyuka where I should go (partly I was just curious about that aspect of nomadic life). She asked our hosts and conveyed their response with a sweeping arm gesture across the plains.

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Basically, go anywhere you want. Hmm…I walked around the ger to find a good spot, but then just decided to hold it. Maybe I am not cut out for this nomadic business after all.

Meanwhile, Camel Man was getting increasingly stressed out, on the phone with his brother trying to locate the camels. So he decided that we should just go find them instead of waiting for them to come home. We bid adieu to our hosts and piled back into the truck, and off we went in search of camels! Over the plains we wandered, everyone keeping their eyes out for a herd of camels. Soon enough Camel Man’s brother (also a camel man!) appeared out of a thicket of trees and we knew we had arrived! We crossed over a frozen creek, through the thicket of trees…

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And a most magnificent sight greeted us:CAMELS!!!

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They were just beautiful, perfect furry beasts, staring at us in the Mongolian plains. (Note: I exercised a huge amount of restraint in the number of camel pictures here!)

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Camel Man asked me if I wanted to ride one. YES PLEASE! Next thing you know Camel Man’s brother was swinging a rope and immediately snagged one lucky camel by the nose.

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Down went the camel, and I hopped on right between the two humps (this camel’s humps were kind of saggy, depleted by winter). And there I was, riding bareback on a camel in Mongolia!

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This was even better than the tourist camel I had ridden at the 13th Century Village (and we know that was fabulous). I wandered around a bit, then Xavier had a turn.

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By then the sun was starting to go down and we knew we had to start heading out, since Bilgee wasn’t familiar with the area and we had to find our way back without Camel Man — and without roads; we didn’t want to do that in the dark.

A man on a motorcycle appeared out of nowhere to take Camel Man back to his ger, and we piled back into Bilgee’s truck. I was giddy with excitement from a wonderful day; I think we were all pleased with how the day had gone. The amazing sunset sure didn’t hurt.

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Somehow we found our way back to the train station, and Bilgee was back in familiar territory — good thing, since it was already dark. It turns out it was almost another hour from the train station to Bilgee’s house, but he knew exactly where he was going, cruising over hills in the pitch black, onto our next adventure.

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