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Thursday, 14 March 2019

Tell the truth – I am, on Western Mongolia

It’s always hard for me to write articles that focus on the negative.
I smile all the time and I’ve always been happy. Plus, I always want to underline the positive in all aspects of life, because it’s what keeps hope coming back.
However, when you witness wrongdoings, you shouldn’t sweep your opinions under the rug, but express them! Your wrongdoers may learn, others may be saved.

Our Altai trip, minus the days spent in Western Mongolia, was one of the best in our life. The Western Mongolia part was my worst travel experience. I keep adding ‘so far’.
What went so terribly wrong?    

To trust or not to trust Mongolian Kazakh travel companies
I don't like others making decisions on my behalf and I believe that many people feel the same. This is what the owner of West Mongolia did not understand. She knew that we were arriving, yet she overbooked the gers in her camp and transferred those who arrived late to her parents' home. The house is not fit for travel purposes, I didn't like the vibe there, many of the residents' things were scattered around the place. – From what I’ve read, many Mongolian travel companies disregard one very important aspect in their relationship with the customers: communication. –
We befriended three Russian travellers, who had booked their ger and paid in advance, yet they were put in the same house.
In the end, I demanded for my booking to be observed and refused to be transferred without our newly-made friends getting the same treatment. We did get our 5-bed ger, but were refused a discount (as we had previously booked two smaller gers). The employees at the ger camp were not helpful, we were barely provided coal and wood and froze during the first night. The owner's mother was verbally aggressive towards one of our Russian friends (after initially pretending that she did not speak Russian, following an innocent joke made by our friend).
Plus, after paying in full, we were left to freeze again during the last night, although having been promised coal and wood.
We had booked a 3-day horseback riding tour with the same company; with no trust in them left, we naturally cancelled it. 
The owner was very aggressive (in writing) towards me, trying to make me feel bad for disrespecting her culture, when the real Kazakh hospitality - as she pointed out - was never there.

‘Golden Eagle’ Festival Masquerade   
This was the main reason for our Altai trip. And one of our biggest disappointments. Depicted as an event exhibiting local traditions, it felt like a circus right from the start.
The thing that I can’t fight, in relation to the competitors, is that the riders were exquisite. However, the organising of the festival, the trials, and the overall vibe were AWFUL. I got bored throughout the two days, cried, and couldn’t wait to get back into town – despite disliking it, too –.
Golden Eagle Festival; Ölgii, Mongolia
I didn’t understand how people who seemed absolute beginners and couldn’t even call back their eagles once released were allowed to compete.
Golden Eagle Festival; Ölgii, Mongolia
Plus, the ‘travellers’ attending had no clue about what was actually going on, about the pseudo-festival that the show was, and they kept pushing and shoving their cameras in the horses’ mouths. In the end, if the public is of such type, this is the spectacle that it should get.
Golden Eagle Festival; Ölgii, Mongolia
The mystery was solved during our last morning in Khovd. At breakfast, we stumbled upon the only Mongolian organiser of the festival. He was fed up, telling us about how difficult it had been to work with Mongolian Kazakhs, that they all wanted money in order to take part in the show – no wonder I didn’t see them ask for money when being photographed! –, and that they were only about becoming famous – the way the girl rider had become a few years back –. He said that the ‘Golden Eagle’ Festival might not be organised again the following year. Either way, according to him, most of the competitors were phony – they didn’t even have their own eagles or use them for hunting anymore. Bingo!
Golden Eagle Festival; Ölgii, Mongolia
[When you truly wish for answers, they come.]    

Renting a car in Western Mongolia? Nah.
Cancelling the horseback riding tour meant some days to replan. Which we did. Marcel helped a little girl get down the mountain at the ‘Golden Eagle’ Festival. Her father came looking for her and thanked Marcel. When the two were reunited, we chatted for a few minutes, learning that he used to live in Australia and that he returned to Mongolia to set up a travel agency.
Golden Eagle Festival; Ölgii, Mongolia
He seemed very charming and friendly, even invited us to sleep over during our last night in Mongolia, and we fell for his ways.
We ended up renting a car from him. It was a good car, but it obviously had some flaws – which were not mentioned to us, of course. For instance, it sometimes stopped and wouldn’t start working anymore. When this guy came to fix it – luckily, we were still in Ölgii –, he had an attitude very different from our first interactions. Yes, we had already paid him. I told Marcel that I would under no circumstances sleep at his place on the last night. He used to call us every day, to ask about the car. He would also hang up the phone when he didn’t like the replies received.   
At one point, we were in an area without reception, were obliged to return to Khovd, and had a flat tyre, because driving on Mongolian roads is a huge challenge. The guy had searched for me on Facebook because he couldn’t call me! Go figure.
We were helped for two hours by a Mongolian family. They were the heroes of our day, they were kind and invited us for tea, sweets, and cheese when the tyre was fixed. We couldn’t have made it without them.
Along River Khovd, in a ger; Mongolia
When we finally got back to Ölgii, we took the car to him – it wasn’t even his car; I couldn’t tell you whose car it actually was, because he kept changing his story. A great liar!
Back to Ölgii, Mongolia
I was fed up, so I tried to tell him that he had been rude. I couldn’t communicate. He started screaming at me and started threatening us – that he would call his friends and that we would never leave Ölgii, that we’ve messed with the wrong man. Nobody had ever treated me that way and I knew that I was right to complain about all the lies that he had told us regarding the car. He wanted money for the damaged tyre and the additional half day. We paid. He later on called Marcel to say that he was sorry for causing a scene. Or maybe afraid that I wouldn’t keep it away from my readers.
Book confidently with Shery Travel. If you dare. :D

The most decrepit part of the world I’ve seen
I travelled through 66 countries and I wish to believe that I learned from my travels. I always go with an open heart – or, at least, I try to.
In my view, poverty does not equal lack of hygiene. That’s simply indolence. Unwillingness to make a change for the better. Nowhere have I seen doors to official buildings that looked like barn doors or such a detachment when it came to being given a clean dish (at a camp, where breakfast was USD 10 for 2 people, not at a market!) or being provided basic conditions, like water for shower and wood for heating.

If you are still not convinced, I should tell you that people are really not that kind
Some are. But only a few. The employees at ‘Pamuk’ and ‘Pamukkale’ in Ölgii were super-helpful; so was the family running Travelers Guest House, also in Ölgii. As for the lady who owns the yellow-door shop near the only museum in Ölgii, she is also kind and very talented.   
Most people don’t care. Or care only about your money.
I tried to understand why somebody wouldn’t take you from point A to point B for 5 or 10 minutes without making you pay for it, even if they were supposed to cover that same distance in the first place. There was only one person who wouldn’t take our money. That was nice of him!
There’s a sort of dissimulation in the air – and I detest it! The people that I came across tended to be ok with me until they had their way and then discarded me altogether. We were called names in the street, felt rushed and unwelcome in stores.
As you travel away from Bayan-Ölgii Aimag, things tend to improve and you leave the nasty pressure you feel every single day behind.
Tolbo Lake, Mongolia
In other places, like Khovd, the vibe was more relaxed. Children were playing, people were smiling – probably because Mongolian Kazakhs weren’t the majority anymore. We got along very well with regular Mongolians.     
Still, Khar-Us Lake, which should have been our stopover for the night, provided a not-so-funny surprise, when people started hovering around us on bikes, without even stopping to say ‘Hello’. We left. It didn’t feel safe.

Western Mongolia didn’t feel as the place described by so many writers and travellers.
I still wonder… why is it so hard to tell the truth when you’re in this industry?
Does money really weigh more than your dignity?

N.B. I wouldn’t like my experiences with Mongolian Kazakhs to be taken as generalised or to offend the good people who are surely found amongst them. I have also interacted with Kazakhs living in Russia or Kazakhstan and our encounters were nice. I have even become friends with a few.
What I truly wanted to express is that I didn’t perceive the gestures of Mongolian Kazakhs as genuine. The overall vibe screamed ‘fake’. And you can’t fight what you feel.