We are now as far north in Hentie Aimag as we will go on this trip. We have reached the small town of Dadal on the edge of Onon Balj National Park. We are about 80 kilometers -- or 50 miles -- from the Russian border. To go farther north would require special permission from the government (there is a border patrol post here), but the document granting us that permission is still in Ulaan Bataar due to a bureaucratic delay.
Still, there is plenty to see and do in Dadal.
We think of Mongolia as either Gobi Desert or grassland steppe, but there is a narrow section along the northern border of the country that is characterized by taiga forest. Taiga is the Russian word for forest; it is dominated by coniferous trees. In Canada, this kind of ecosystem is called the boreal forest.
Dadal is such a place. Culturally and ethnically this little town of 2,600 people seems more Siberian than Mongolian. The residents, all Buriats, live in log houses and dress as Russians.
In socialist times, Dadal was a local tourist destination with resort camps to which hundreds of worthy overworked workers were transported from nearby provinces in open trucks to endure government-sponsored vacations. Those camps were abandoned with the collapse of the old government , but new tourist camps are now being built in hope of recapturing that era with tourism from abroad or from newly affluent Mongolians.
So far they haven’t had much success. Except for ourselves, there are no tourists here at present, nor is there the ability to support them should they come. When we ask the director of the park about a place to stay and a hot shower, he laughs and points to the Onon River.
There is one hotel in down town Dadal. Like the rest of the buildings in town, it has no running water. It consists of two rooms above a general store, where we seek out the proprietor. The store offers a limited supply of staples: salt, sugar, flour, cookies, vodka, and some locally made butter. The only thing available in quantity is vodka.
Despite its small size (about 10 by 30 feet), the store is a busy place, for it also serves as the local health clinic. A white coat hangs by the door and a first aid kits stands by to help treat what the vodka can not.
Leaving sales to two other family members, the owner escorts us up the outside steps to inspect the hotel part of the operation. The better of the two rooms has a wall of windows overlooking the dusty (unpaved) main street below. Four lumpy sofa-beds are distributed around the edge of the room.
“There is a pool hall next door, and a bar” the proprietor observes by way of advertisement. “Would it be noisy?” we ask. “There is a lock on the door,” she replies.
The accompanying restaurant, the only one in town, is a dismal and deserted place just a few doors away. The smell from the kitchen suggests that the meat stew on the menu has been on offer for a few days too long.
Before taking up the park director’s generous offer of beds in a bunkhouse beside his office (at $2.50 a night), we visit one of the new tourist camps on the edge of town. It is perched on the floodplain of a boggy lake. Mosquitoes and horse flies blanket the windows of the car as we enter the large empty parking area. It seems tourism here may have to wait a while.
As we join a local family for dinner, we can hear the clock-like call of a cuckoo coming from the pine forest north of town. It is a reminder that we only have a few days left to complete our research in Hintie Aimag, before we must return to Ulaan Bataar.