The evening of the race we all crawled back to camp to nurse our wounds with food and beer. The more experienced runners among us weren’t doing so bad, but the rest of us were left with extremely sore muscles and blisters a plenty. Even though I was running in hiking shoes I somehow managed to escape getting any blisters, so I was thankful for that. The next morning we got our stuff together, had breakfast, and jumped into the minivan once more for the long ride back to Ulaanbaatar.
This time around the group was a bit different. The two French ladies were still there, along with Deborah, the one-time Brit who now lived in New Zealand. We had also added Carl–the guy my age from Australia who decided at the last minute that driving back would be more interesting than flying, and the older German guy who had done 180 marathons. Together along with the same driver and a different guide that made eight of us inside the minibus–it was cozy to say the least. On the trip down I had the entire rear-facing seat to myself and I could splay my legs off to the side, this time every seat was full and we were all jockeying for leg room the entire way. This wouldn’t have been such a hassle is my legs hadn’t been incapacitated by the marathon. Every step was fiery agony (and no, I’m not exaggerating the pain in any way).
We were taking a slightly alternate route back so that we could see some sights on the way back. Our first stop was at Yolyn Am national park, which is situated relatively close to Bayanzag. We spent about half hour at the visitor welcoming house/trinket store/Gobi Museum at the park entrance, which was filled with poorly stuffed animals and random pieces of desert ‘memorabilia’ (they’re in real need of some skilled taxidermists in Mongolia!). After that we had a few hours of walking through the narrow canyons of the park, taking pictures of the herds of cows, goats, yak, and other wildlife while enjoying the views. Seeing a herd of semi-wild yak climb down a steep cliff face is a pretty amazing thing. They’re much more skittish than I thought they would be, running in the other direction as I tried to get close enough to snap a few good photos. The entire time we’re walking I’m doing my best to limp along and keep pace with everyone else–they weren’t getting any better just yet.
That afternoon we had lunch at a restaurant in a decent sized city halfway to Mandalgovi (Doloon?) that even had a small stretch of paved road. Leaving the city we stopped to admire (and take many pictures of) a pair of goat herders on horseback that were doing their thing. After that it was a long, long ride back to Mandalgovi, which we arrived at around 10:00PM. Seeing as it was so late already there weren’t many options available as far as accommodations were concerned. We found one place in the middle of town, the Gobi Hotel, which had rooms available. It was our only option, so we got all of our stuff out of the car and hauled it inside. There was only one private room left, so the women would take that one upstairs while the three of us guys slept in bunk beds in the common room downstairs. I grabbed my bags, took them into the room, and started chatting with the German guy but then I looked over and saw somebody was sleeping in one of the beds already! I pointed this out to our guide and she checked with the owner who confirmed that everything was ok–it was just her son sleeping there for the night. Imagine letting your young son sleep in a room with three foreign strangers for the night! When we learned of the fact that there was only one bathroom to service the entire establishment there was some groaning, especially from the women. They all took turns and headed up to bed while the other two guys and I stayed up a bit longer to grab a bite to eat, which the owner graciously cooked for us even at that hour of the night. The beds weren’t the most comfortable, but after that long, jarring minibus ride we slept quite soundly…at least until junior’s parents came in and woke him up to go to school early the next morning.
The next day our main stop was at a Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere. It was a practicing monastery, not something concocted for foreigners, and it was definitely not the easiest place to find. We had to stop and ask several groups of nomads where the place was, and most would reply, “well, I know what direction it is from my ger, but have no idea how to get there from here!” We eventually found the place and explored the giant ger housing the Buddha statue (The Majestic White Shining Palace), talked with a junior monk about the history of the place (it had been around since the mid-nineteenth century but most of the present buildings were erected within the last ten years), and was invited inside the head monk’s house by his mother for sweets. Her son, she said, was in a ger out back, meditating. He had been there by himself, with no outside contact, for over two years. One of the apprentices brought him food and water every day, which he would slip through a door so as to not disturb the monk. I believe she said he was going to be in there for another three years.
Soon after we left the monastery we came across a family of nomads milking horses outside of their ger. We stopped to watch them and take some pictures and ended up being invited inside to have some airag (slightly alcoholic fermented mare’s milk) with the men (the women and young men did most of the work it seems). I had heard many things about the drink, namely that it tasted horrible and did bad things to your stomach. It’s because of this that I was quite hesistant when they were overly generous and I was given a huge bowl of the stuff to drink by myself. I took a few sips…didn’t taste too horrible. And of course, one of the big Mongolian guys challenges me to finish the entire bowl, so that’s exactly what I did. Although it’s not something I would drink on a regular occasion it turns out you can’t always believe everything you hear! Thanking them for their hospitality we left after we had each had our fill so that we could get back on the road and try to make up for lost time. It was another long, bumpy stretch of road from that point to Ulaanbaatar. Along the way we were lucky to see a huge herd of rare black-tailed (Gobi) gazelle that we viewed from a distance (they were very skittish and very fast), and ended up stopping in the same one-road town for dinner as we had for lunch five days before.
It was after 9:00PM by the time we finally reached Ulaanbaatar. I hobbled my way back to Brigitte’s apartment, rested my weary body, and enjoyed a nice, comfortable night of sleep.
Pictures have been posted in the gallery.