Moerdaoga: Tracing the Great Khan's Footsteps

Picture of Dan.

Gazing across Moerdaoga.

Sept. 29 - Oct. 2, 2014
Days 74 - 77
Northern Inner Mongolia Trip, Part II
(In case you missed it, here's Part I.)

According to legend, early in the thirteenth century a nomadic tribal leader went on a hunting expedition to a mountain at the eastern edge of the Eurasian Steppe. As he stood on the summit, the spectacular view of the surrounding grasslands and forests inspired him. The man suddenly realized his desire to unify all of the tribes in the region. He gazed at the golden sunrise and commanded to his tribesmen, “Moerdaoga!” – “Ride into the battle on your horses!” The man's name was Genghis Khan, and this land would soon fall under his rule.

Eight hundred years later, two bleary-eyed Americans stepped off a train in Moerdaoga, and the spectacular view of the surrounding forests and parking lot inspired them. They suddenly realized their desire to find a comfy bed. Gazing at the golden sunrise, they commanded to a group of taxi drivers standing before them, “Ungha ungha,” which roughly translates to “Drive us to a hotel in your car!” A mighty battle ensued amongst the great drivers of this land. In the end, one woman triumphed. The Americans hobbled into her car and she took them to her tribesman's humble inn, lit by candlepower in the long and cold nights. And they slept.

* * *

When Katie and I woke from our long nap, we went for a walk around town. There wasn't much to see – some Soviet-esque buildings, a Pegasus statue, a lumberjack monument – but our main goal was to stock up on supplies for the next few days. When I had told our taxi driver of our plans to camp at Moerdaoga National Forest Park, she had offered to drive us to the entrance the following morning. Two days later, she would return to pick us up.

We had no problem finding food in the village's small-but-vibrant market. The only issue was that we couldn't locate any fuel for cooking. My camp stove could run on anything from kerosene to gasoline, yet we had found it extremely difficult (maybe even impossible) to acquire any such fuels in China. (Trust me, I've spent many hours trying. Someday when my blood stops boiling, I'll write a blog entry about this frustrating experience.) Thanks to China's “safety” regulations, we wouldn't be able to cook with the same stove I had used hundreds of times in dozens of countries without blowing myself up (sorry, blood still boiling). Instead, we stocked up on bread, Chinese Spam, spicy tofu strips and a jar of locally-made blueberry jam. The latter would go well with the jar of peanut butter we had brought from Beijing.

It got dark and cold early in Moerdaoga, so Katie and I went to a restaurant for a bowl of warm soup. It was a romantic candlelit dinner – for reasons unclear, the electricity was off throughout the town. That was all right, though. It meant we would finally get a good night's rest.

The next morning our driver was at our hotel ten minutes early, with a big smile on her face. As we walked to her car, the owner of the hotel stopped us and took our picture. That's right, foreigners are a novelty in Moeradaoga, even to the local hotel owners.

Picture of highway.

The highway to Moerdaoga.

The highway took us straight through the forest, full of birch and pine trees, that had inspired Genghis Khan 800 years prior. We did a loop around the park and took several breaks to hike on boardwalk “trails.” The deep blue sky and natural beauty of the forest was stunning, especially after having spent the past few months in a big city. The best part of being there was that we could suck in long breaths of fresh air. The only downside was that we had arrived a bit too late to see the fall colors in full force.

During our drive through the park, we met some tourists from Hong Kong who spoke English. They were the first English-speakers we had met since leaving the train. We had been communicating with our driver using my limited Chinese, so we were relieved to have temporary translators. Our driver related to the Hong Kong folks that she was hesitant to drop us off in the forest for two days. What would we eat? How would we keep from freezing? Eventually we convinced her that we would be fine. After all, we were traveling with a large can of Chinese Spam and warm sleeping bags. What could possibly go wrong?

Picture of tent.

Our campsite.

After our driver left, we set up camp in the forest and went for a long walk along the highway. I listened to a podcast called “Wrath of the Khans” by Dan Carlin. It gave a detailed account of the life of Genghis and his descendents, their rise to power and the legacy of their empire. The Mongols were brutal (to put it lightly), and I could see why they terrified everyone they came into contact with. Nevertheless, I admired the Mongols' ability to live off of the land. They thrived in the face of near-daily life-threatening challenges. I, on the other hand, almost ran away when I spotted a fake moose.

Back at camp, we opened our Chinese Spam (not real Spam, please don't sue me). A thick, translucent layer covered it.

“Is that ice?” I asked. The air was getting cold with the coming night, but it was still above freezing.

“Nope. Just fat,” Katie said.

We scooped off the fat and reluctantly ate the “meat.” Luckily, a trash can was a short walk from our campsite. The half-eaten Chinese Spam and fat dollops probably made some critter's night.

* * *

Two days later our driver showed up fifteen minutes early, as we were finishing our spicy dried tofu breakfast. We wolfed down our food and broke camp. We had managed to stay warm during the cold nights, but the tent wasn't faring so well – it was sagging under the layer of accumulated ice.

Our driver convinced us that we should visit the Russian border. She took us along a bumpy road, through more birch and pine forests with cell towers disguised as trees (or were they trees disguised as cell towers?). Along the way we stopped to buy dried blueberries and mushrooms from a roadside stall. Eventually the forests gave way to grasslands and we entered Shiweizhen, where the signs were written in Chinese, Mongolian, Russian and English. A river ran next to the village; Russia was on the other side. Barking dogs and crowing roosters were barely audible. I couldn't tell what language they were speaking.

We walked around town and found several shops selling identical touristy stuff: Russian dolls, Russian vodka, Russian chocolate, Russian clothing. The only Russian attraction the village was missing was a bona fide Russian person.

Eventually we grew bored of shopping, so we did what came natural: we snuck across the border. Next to the river was a stage of sorts, with the flags of both countries in the backdrop and seating for around 100 people along the edges. Katie wondered what the stage was for. I speculated that it must have been located in “no man's land,” where there were no laws, and therefore, it was a cockfighting ring. Some college girls approached us for a picture, and one of them explained the less-sexy truth: This town was the setting for a popular TV show called “My Natasha,” in which a Chinese man falls in love with a Russian woman, but she's on the other side of the river. I still wasn't sure what the stage was for, though. Maybe there was a cockfighting scene in the show.

New friends.

Katie and I, with our driver in the middle.

Our driver was smiling when we came back to her car. She had gifts for us: “Twinkies,” filled with egg yolks instead of frosting. We couldn't get enough of those. Even though we spoke little Chinese and she didn't speak a word of English, we could tell our driver was a great person with a kind heart. We felt really lucky to have found her when we stumbled off of the train.

When we returned to Moerdaoga, we were delighted to see that not only was the power on, but our internet connection was surprisingly fast. Now that we were back on the grid, we turned our attention to our next destination in the land of the Khan...

What's next? How about reading Part III of this series.

More photos from Moerdaoga

External Link:
Hardcore History. For now, at least, “Wrath of the Khans” is still available for download. This is not a sponsored link. I don't get paid when you click on it. I'm just a fan.

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