During national Nadaam, I was lucky enough to be invited along on my host family's summer trip. We traveled for six days, through 4 aimags (provinces), to a monastery that was 500 km away on dirt roads. Ten of us went in two cars. We drove through streams, got stuck in the mud in the pouring rain and had to push the car, and other such adventures.
We left on Friday, but only drove about half an hour away to spend the night. This was because its more auspicious to begin a journey on a Friday than a Saturday. My host sister and I went down to the river. She showed me how Mongolians put some river water on their head when they come to a river, which is supposed to make it so you don't get sick from drinking the water. (Neither of us tested that theory, given the number of livestock milling around who probably use it is as their outhouse.)
The next day, we were out in the countryside and driving through pouring rain on dirt roads. We drove through roaring streams, splashed through mud, and the other car got stuck trying to go up a steep incline. Then another car passed by (first one we'd seen in an hour) and stopped to help us push. Then their car got stuck and we helped them push. Eventually, the rain slowed up and the roads got less treacherous.
Somewhere in the middle of this we stopped at an ovoo (spelling questionable) - one of the roadside piles of rocks that you're supposed to circle three times. We all got out, the women grabbing candy and the two men grabbing bottles of vodka, and scurried to the ovoo quickly because of the rain. The men poured three shots and threw them in the air, then poured a drink for each of us before we ran around the stones, throwing the candy on as we passed, in the hopes that sugar rush on the part of the nature spirits would make them cut it out with the rain already. These ovoos are really cool - they have candy, money, scarves, empty vodka bottles, animal skulls, you name it, tucked in among the rocks.
We stopped at some old ruins, called Tsogtin Balgas, which was a castle of one of the last relatives of the Khan that got burned down in some major and probably epic story that I only caught 10% of. The rain had finally stopped, so we decided to make dinner and find somewhere to camp nearby. The ruins had a museum associated with them, and we ended up going back to the museum curator's ger to cook our dinner. This was example number one of Mongolian hospitality, in which a total stranger let us cook and eat in his home. This was totally normal to all of the Mongolians involved; in fact, we packed food that we would need a stove to cook despite not knowing anyone on the way. They just planned on people letting them cook in their gers, which is perfectly acceptable on both sides of the arrangement here.
After a night sleeping in tents, we awoke to a beautiful, sunny day with no lingering threat of rain, so we took out time, stopping frequently along the dirt roads to check out cool rocks, interesting views, or roadside shrines. We took lots of pictures, ate snacks, and generally had road trip fun without seeing another soul for miles. We blasted Mongolian folk music out of the car speakers and bumped along with the windows down. We saw the landscape change from grasslands with low hills to rocky mountains with a smattering of trees to increasingly sandy soil and finally to desert. I perfected the skill of peeing discreetly in a field with no trees or bushes to go behind (traditional Mongolian dels are the best clothing option for this process, but a sweatshirt around your waist works too). We were in the Ovorhangay aimag (I think), which isn't technically the Gobi desert but includes a Gobi-like desert. (This is made more confusing when explained in Mongolian by the fact that the word "gobi" is the word for desert.)
Here, there were CAMELS! Just hanging out, being ridden around, and I even spotted a herd of at least twenty out in a field. As we rounded a corner, we saw a sign advertising camel rides (in English, in case you weren't sure who this was intended for, haha). My host family knows how I feel about camels, so we stopped, and all paid our 2000 tugriks to ride a camel. It was essentially a pony ride, with the guy leading me around in a circle, but it was still awesome.
The next day, we made it to Erdene Zyy monastery, the oldest monastery in Mongolia at 800 years old. It was really interesting, and you should look it up - it's a major tourist attraction, and really cool.
After the monastery, when we stopped to collect more spring water, I heard a baaaa coming from the other car. Sure enough, the kids had a live sheep laying in their laps - bought from the last ger we spent the night at. I fed it some grass and patted it on the head, knowing it was fated to be lunch, no matter how cute it was.
I wasn't allowed to watch them kill the sheep, because only men are allowed to. (You can imagine how well I took that! But my complaining was of no avail.) They borrowed my knife to kill/carve it up, though. I got to watch them clean and prepare the sheep, which was really interesting. Nothing was wasted - although I didn't eat the innards myself! I wiped the blood off my knife on my jeans and used it to carve and eat meat off the bone, because I am hardcore.
On the way home we stopped to pick strawberries, lounge by a stream, and generally enjoy our vacation. It was a wonderful five-day weekend before diving back into class on Thursday!