Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Travel: From Olgii to Ulaan Bataar

We had just spent three weeks travelling around Mongolia, enjoying the scenery and interaction with the locals. True to form I had just had the obligatory traveller’s bout of ‘Montezumah’s Revenge’, or whatever the local term for a stomach upset was. Now this part of the trip was over and I was looking forward to a trip with my wife to the north of Mongolia, to visit the nomadic Tsaartan people. We were in the regional town of Olgii, having spent a night there after clambering over some mountains to the west, and were looking forward to getting back to Ulaan Bataar and spending a day looking around the city.

Getting to the airport for our flight back to Ulaan Bataar was no major operation, now that my stomach had settled down! We were up and breakfasted by 6:30am and at the airport by 7:00am. We milled around aimlessly until they opened the small terminal for checking in baggage. It was a long, drawn out process that appeared at the same time chaotic and ordered. It’s hard to explain! Anyhow, we eventually got our luggage in, but no sooner had this occurred than we started hearing rumours that the flight had been delayed. This, of course, turned out to be a rumour and not true at all. Our flight had not been delayed, it had been cancelled! There was some story about how the Turkish ambassador was flying through the airspace, and that all other flights had been cancelled for security reasons. How important could an ambassador be? Surely not so important to close national airspace and ground all other flights in a region! However, apparently this was the case.

We were told that they would try to get a new flight for 7pm that evening, so we all had a reason for hope. It did mean that we were going to miss our free afternoon in the capital, but we would have the next day do some sightseeing before our flight to Moron. By now problem number two had become apparent. Our checked in luggage had been locked away in the airport and was not reachable, so we were left with whatever we had with us in our hand luggage.

With nothing else to do we spent an enjoyable few hours in the town of Olgii where we visited the Khazak Museum and wandered around the city centre looking at the local rugs, two of which we bought. However, there was only so much that we could see and do in such a small town and so, other than the odd passing conversation with local who spoke English, we were soon thinking about lunch.

Our guide had excelled again successfully negotiated the use of the Gers (traditional Mongolian tents) with the owner of the Ger camp, that we had stayed in the previous night, and so we headed back there for lunch and an afternoon rest. As the camp was on the Khovd River, which happened to be flowing rather quickly, we had our meal sat in the grass watching the local birdlife prey on the poor old fish in the river. After this there was precious little else to do other than complete our diary entries and laze about in the sun. This was certainly not an unpleasant experience, but by mid-afternoon we still had not heard about our flight and a vague suspicion was creeping into our minds that there was no flight coming for us that night.

We spent much of our time watching two yaks that had somehow managed to get through the torrent of water that was the river, on to an island mid-stream. They seemed to be content to stay there and we took some solace from this, after if they were content to be stranded and in isolation, perhaps we could relax too. It soon came to pass that the yaks were considered an omen for our own predicament and that until the yaks moved from their island, we too were going to be stranded in Olgii.

On a brighter note, I did manage to skip a stone twelve times on the river, a fact that was doubted by other members of the party, as I had no witnesses to confirm my momentous achievement. However the lack of other entertainment options meant that I took the opportunity to invite a whole group down to witness my attempt to repeat the feat and promptly skipped a stone fourteen times. The point was proven and another half hour was occupied with further attempts at glory. It was certainly a highlight of the afternoon.

There was some brief excitement when a plane came in to land in the late afternoon, however after speeding off dramatically in dust cloud, our guide returned with the news that this had been a regular flight in from Kazakhstan and would not be taking us out of here. By six o’clock that evening we were still sitting in our Ger camp and had learned that our flight was indeed not going to arrive that evening and would be leaving the next day. This caused some consternation among those people who were scheduled to fly out of Mongolia the following day; however, they were all re-booked successfully on alternative flights. Thankfully there were no more guests due that night so we had use of the gers once again. At about this time we learned that some of the local goats had got into one of the gers and had started eating the bedding. It was all happening!

Despite the assurances that we would indeed be on the flight the next day there were still some doubters and doomsayers predicting that we would be stuck in Olgii for some time, but to me the omens seemed promising. Our two yaks, for so long stranded on their island, had now successfully reached the comparative safety of the riverbank and were wandering away towards the town. To me this led to no doubt that we were indeed flying out the next day and I could sleep easily during the coming night. ‘Don’t be an idiot,’ I was told!

So I was left to lie on my bed and reminisce about the day that was now coming to an end. I remembered how I spent hours watching the ants and other insects climbing up and down the frames of the beds and gers and deliberating on the plight of the yaks that had been stranded. It had not quite reached the heights of a couple of days previously, where I had spent the best part of an afternoon watching the raindrops hitting my tent flap and forming little rivulets as they succumbed to the forces of gravity, but it was close to it! And then there was a summons to the main ger where had our meals.

Our guide, Dashka, had again moved heaven and earth to organise some entertainment above and beyond the call of duty. We arrived in the ger to find the premier traditional dancer and throat singer for the Kazakh region, and his son, ready to perform for us. So in the soft light of candles we were treated to some throat singing and some traditional dancing, including a performance of the ‘eagle dance’. How Dashka had managed to organise this at such short notice I have no idea, but it was a magical performance. I certainly went to bed happy and content that night.

The next morning we were successful in finding a plane to fly us to Ulaan Bataar. It flew in sometime around mid-day and that meant we might even make our flight to Moron that evening, which was to leave at six-thirty. However, we were told that this would be tight and that we ‘should’ make it time!! We weren’t exactly brimming with confidence, but then again, Dashka had done a good job so far.

The aircraft that we flew in was an old Antonov 24 and to start us off on our journey it felt like it bounced three times before it managed to get airborne. Some further inspection revealed that there was a family sitting on top of bags at the rear of the plane in a luggage compartment. There was no wasting space on this flight! Being an old twin-prop plane it wasn’t going to be able to get us to the capital without a refuelling stop after two hours. The landscape we flew over was dry and barren desert with the odd lake dotted here and there and I wondered at what town we would be landing to refuel. Were there any towns out here? That question was soon to be answered as we began descending.

We landed at a non-descript airstrip and all got out to stretch our legs while the plane was attended to. In the distance we could see what looked like a substantial town but there was no indication of where we were. The sign on the airport building was in Cyrillic form, or some other form that I could not understand.
‘Where are we?’ I asked Dashka.
‘Moron,’ he replied.
‘Moron?’ I repeated. ‘Isn’t this where we need to fly to tonight? Can we stay here and wait for our luggage?’ Our luggage that we had left in Ulaan Bataar was to be reunited with us today.
Unfortunately, Dashka told me, no-one was allowed to disembark from the flight at this point as it was only a fuel stop and not a scheduled stop but we were all entitled to our ‘in-flight’ meal. This was served in the airport building and consisted of a rather nice combination of mutton and assorted cooked vegetables.

Then once more we were in the air heading towards our destination, hoping to arrive in time for our flight to Moron. It was going to be a close run thing too. We landed in Ulaan Bataar at 5:45pm. This was followed by a nervous wait for our luggage at the carousel, before we were rushed through to meet our new tour leader and check in for our flight back to where we had just left. Thankfully we made it, and were soon in the air and on our way to start the next leg of our trip.

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