Mongolian Road Trip
Be Here Now
Silence. It is a zen moment. Sitting at the top of a hill (the mind later ponders the question' is it a hill? or is it a mountain? What is the difference?), looking out over the Mongolian landscape. A monastery in the distance. A stream cutting through the valley, meandering, looping a lazy route towards the Arctic Ocean. Our tent down there by the following waters. Silence. Stillness. For once the mind is at complete rest. The internal chattering has stopped. Totally Here. Now. Totally Zen. This is what it is about. Oneness. Togetherness. Me, Lindsey, here, now, complete. Harmony. I'm liking Mongolia.
On the road
We Left Ulaan Bataar by Mongolian time. This is as opposed to Western or 'planning time' which involves getting up at the crack of dawn and venturing out onto the streets when no-one else is around, followed by a couple of hours waiting, adjusting to the time difference of Mongolian time. Indeed, I was assured by Gumber, a stocky Mongolian 'Mr. Fix it' who I met in our guest house that, "in country we have just three time. Morning, afternoon and evening.) So we left Ulaan Bataar in the _morning_ Seven of us, virtual strangers, in the Russian made van. A cross between a Volkswagen kombi and a jeep. Heading out into the country for seven days of Mongolian wilderness.
The first stop was to fill up with petrol. After the stress of trying to work out how much each of us owed, it was decided to set up a kitty. Funny thing travelling with budget travelers. We are all sooooo tight, penny pinching over the odd torog here and there, despite the exchange rate of 1600 Mongolian torogs to the pound.
Stop two was at a, ovoo, a mound of stones with blue flags intertwined in sticks protruding from the top. Custom has it that you walk round the Ovoo clockwise and throw something at it, usually a stone, but there would always be an empty vodka bottle or two on the pile. And unexplainably, crutches at a good number of these monuments. They are supposed to bring good luck and this was seen to be an auspicious start to the journey.
Going clockwise round an ovoo is all well and good on foot, but in a vehicle it usually presents an uncomfortable detour. Bold, our driver, seemed intent on taking the clockwise route at every ovoo. But when I say 'uncomfortable detour' uncomfortable is a relative term. Once we had left the tarmaced road out of the city, the whole journey was uncomfortable.
The tarmac out of the city was smooth. As smooth and free of blemishes as the face of a beautiful woman. And then it metamorphised into the complexion of an adolescent youth. No longer silky smooth, but ridden with acne, pockmarks, large boulders, like pimples, fresh white-heads, bouncing us up and down. Craters, like the scars of dead spots sending us flying in our seats.
We hit an outpost. A solitary petrol pump, dilapidated dirty white washed building and a wooden shack covering the hole in the floor, two planks above the shit pit. And an army of blue bottle flies challenging in the assault of the senses. What is worse? The smell of the fetid latrine, or the touch of the flies, landing on your face, knowing they have earlier sat on turds below? More petrol, directions and a change of route. If the 'road' to here has been of the complexion of adolescent youth, the track we are now on is one of death. No, that is a bad analogy, for there is barely any road at all. It is more a track. And then we are lost. Detour to a Ger encampment and ask for directions.... And off again, sometimes following tracks, sometimes just through the fields. Always being thrown around.
About the gers
The landscape is one of undulating hills, occasional patches of trees - pine and larch, rocky outcrops, and a feeling of expanse. We are in the middle of nowhere! And just when you think this barren landscape could support no life, we run into a Ger encampment. Gers are the traditional nomadic home. A circular tent with a domed roof, made with a wooden frame covered in felt. Spartan furniture inside. In the middle is a wood-burning stove, with a chimney rising to the opening at the centre of the roof of the Ger. They are usually surrounded by the families herd of sheep, horses, and occasionally goats and always dogs. Approaching the Ger it is not customary to knock on the door ( and there is no door bell to ring here - not for lack of electricity, many of the Gers have wind powered generators). No to announce your arrival, you holler 'Nohhoi Khorio' which means 'hold the dogs. Essential instructions given some of the rabid, manky state and demeanour of many of the canines that ventured to bar our passage to the entrance of the Gers.
Eventually after eight hours or so of driving we arrive at Amarbayasgalant.
We've got two tents between six of us. Nothing is said, but being a couple Lindsey and myself get the two-man tent and Adel, Cheryl, Tristan and Don get the four-man tent. Don is not really into this and he elects to sleep outside. Don is the old timer. An American from Wisconsin, Don was retired and his occupation was travel. Sixty-nine years old and he was seeing the world, alone. Leaving his wife behind as he went on long jaunts. His wife used to travel with him, but something had happened in China and she vowed not to hit the road again. Leaving Don to go off by himself for many months at a time. Lindsey did not approve!! His next trip is a short sojourn to the Antarctic, before selling his condo and spending several years living in Europe (his wife hadn't ruled Europe out!)
It didn't seem right to leave an OAP out in the bitter cold overnight, sleeping beside the van to the mercy of the elements, and the dogs, but Don was a stubborn sort and insisted he would be happy outside. (I heard that in a previous trip to the Gobi desert he slept under the van, and woke up one morning to feel his face numbed by the cold - an ice storm was blowing around him). Don kept himself to himself. We went walking; up to the top of the surrounding hills that is where I started telling you about Mongolia.
South as the crow flies
Day two and we headed south. A long day of driving, through what was almost alpine scenery. Crossing rocky passes (and the obligatory ovoos - clockwise), our route more than once blocked by herds of dozy sheep, running into our path. Every now and then a lone horseman, guiding his herd grazing through the landscape. Everything grazing, cattle, horse, yaks and camels. And the white felt Gers punctuating the yellow-green hillside and plains.
We stop at a Ger. "Sain Baina uu?" - How are you? "Sain ta sain baina uu" - fine, how are you "Sain' - fine
There then follows the question "sonin saikhan yu baina?" which translates as "what's new". The answer to this is invariably nothing. When you live in a circular felt tent in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by your sheep and horses, it is not surprising that the answer is invariably 'nothing'.
Mongolian hospitality is surely unrivalled. The nomadic people are so very friendly and are always welcoming. We are invited and enter the Ger. We sit towards the back on the right hand side. This is where guests always sit. The Ger has a familiar smell. Mutton. That is THE smell of Mongolia, mutton. We are offered tea. A salty milk drink that offends my palate, but is drunk anyway. Well almost drunk, to finish the cup, suggests the drinker wants more. You must leave the dregs to show you are satisfied. Our driver, Bold is offered food. He eats and we are on our way again.
We travel miles through beautiful countryside. And then suddenly, out of nowhere a large town appears. It owes its existence to the large copper mine on the outskirts. The tenth largest in the world, a major earner of foreign currency for the Mongolian government - it is still state run, and a consumer of 70% of the countries electricity. The mine is, to use a cliché, an ugly blot on the landscape. It is an open cast mine, similar to the Gold mines I saw in Ghana. Of all the ways we exploit our environment, mining is the one that troubles me most, (not that I'm an eco- warrior or anything, don't get me wrong, I don't loose sleep over it). Trees, you can chop 'em down. They grow back. Clear cut forests? Why not? Trees are only valuable to the reduction of carbon dioxide whilst they are growing- dead trees give off CO2. So a few species may loose their habitat, but their brethren live elsewhere. Cutting down trees is like having a shave. Open cast mining is like gouging out your flesh, leaving permanent scars that will never heal. But then I put my hat on that I have worn since university. That of an ergonomist, with keen interest in occupational health. Better open cast mining than mining underground with all the inherent dangers that that brings...
But I digress. Let me bring you forward a couple of days, to another campsite (I use the word with caution, it is a place that we are camping on, somewhere we happened to have stopped. Nothing official about this site), by a meandering river against a backdrop of rocky hills opposite a vast grassy plain. We have lit a fire, A few tins of beer are keeping cool in the eddies of the fast flowing river and conversation is flowing as freely as the water.
Tristan is from France. He is tall, skinny with round framed 'John Lennon' glasses and a healthy goatee beard with a good inch of growth from the chin. He has been in Mongolia for a month and has spent much of this time in the country horse riding. He is one of those travellers who really absorbs himself with the country, dressing in local clothes (heavy Russian boots and heavy felt overcoat) learning to speak the language and adhering to local customs (although as a vegetarian this is often difficult - mutton is frequently offered; he politely refuses, sticking to a religious diet of cheese, cheese and more cheese. No wonder he has lost 15 pounds since arriving in Mongolia). Tristan is well informed and whilst he speaks little (not because of the language we communicate in, his English is very good) he seems content to listen and provide interesting vignettes, anecdotes and comments when someone makes a factual error.
Cheryl is from New Zealand, although has not been home for a couple of years. The most striking aspect of Cheryl's face is the stud pierced below her bottom lip. Some of the Mongolians we meet point at it, shake their heads and grimace in disgust. They point to the ears, yes, earring is all right, but facial piercings are a no no! A qualified physiotherapist, she has been in Taiwan teaching English. Her scientific background comes to the fore when Adel starts talking about spiritual healing.
Adel is from England, Brighton to be precise, although her claim to this as her hometown is more from residency than family. Her father is an engineer, spending his life building roads around the globe; consequently Adel has spent much time seeing the world as a junior ex-pat. Now she is a backpacker, doing the trans Mongolian route on the cheap, with a final destination of Singapore where she will stay with her sister and teach English.
It is not that Cheryl doesn't believe what Adel is saying, not that she finds Reiki or any other 'alternative' treatment bullshit, indeed she has a healthy interest in such practices, it is just that she has Scientific Method in her mind and looks for rational explanations for physical phenomena. I am in agreement with her. Cheryl is incredibly active, wanting to do so much. When the bus pulls to a stop, she will get out and go through her kung-fu moves, and she will be studying kung fu in a centre in China. She wants to do Tai Chi, Chinese medicine, and physiotherapy, work in England, and have children....
Both Adel and Cheryl are strong, girls. Independently minded they are tough and hardy, travelling by themselves. At first this made me feel uncomfortable, in particular Adel would challenge me, such as when we were buying food for the trip. Maybe it is that I always feel uncomfortable around strong personalities, preferring to shy away from conflict. But having spent time with them I saw that they were both incredibly friendly and genuine. Both Lindsey and myself got on well with them, and with Tristan. Don was another story.
Cheryl in particular challenged much of what Don was saying. And when he started talking about New Zealand, how it was formed, she vehemently disagreed with him.
I later found myself in heated debate with Don. We were talking politics and he was proud of the fact that he had never voted. Given that many people have died for the vote, I think it is both our democratic right and duty to vote, even if it means spoiling the ballot paper to register a point against the system. Apathy never got anyone anywhere. But Don got quite animated and told me that he had fought for Democracy so who was I to talk about democratic rights? I backed down. Later still, I found myself facing his wrath, quite rightly, for tarring all Americans with the same brush. I must be more careful and avoid saying loaded statements like 'you Americans love your guns...' Don for one was not a paid up member of the NRA, never having owned a weapon.
But despite his seriousness and occasional aloof demeanor (which on several nights seems to correspond with his drinking Vodka on the sly - Cheryl had earlier taken a swig from a water bottle assuming it to be water, only to find a mouthful of strong Vodka in place of the water), Don could be funny. As we built the fire up with drift wood from the river, he would go round picking up dried cow dung for fuel, throwing it on the fire he would announce 'I'm the turd hurder'.
Language differences would also be a source of amusement. Bold the driver would express an interest in English- his vocabulary was limited to a handful of words, including a good rendition of "I'm hungry". Bold pointed to the river "Golch." "Guch" I repeated. He shook his head. "Golch." "Gorch", still wrong. No matter how I tried I could not get the pronunciation of the end of the word. A throaty, flematic sound that just wouldn't come. Now it was Bold's turn. "water." He couldn't get it, 'er-ter'. Just like I didn't/ couldn't hear the correct pronunciation of his word for river, so he could not hear the correct pronunciation for the first syllable of the word "water". Don then jumped in, informing everybody that I couldn't pronounce it correctly anyway. Us Brits get it so wrong saying "war-ta." Look at the way it is spelt, "war-ter" he said with his North American droll. Cheryl then spoke and her New Zealand accent cut through with its tone that rises at the end of every sentence. Even Bold could pick up this inflexion.
A couple of ducks flew by, quacking loudly. Bold raised his arms and gestured firing a shot gun. Arrrr, shooting ducks must be an international pastime.
On the third day
Location: Ikh Tamir. Activity: horse riding. Lindsey ummed and arred, but in the end her dislike of animals got the better of her and she declined to get on any of the beasts. So it was me, Adel and Cheryl who rode off into the distance. It wasn't quite meant to be like that - I said to Lindsey that we'd be back in five minutes after a practice ride, but the horses and our guide kept on going and by the time I realized we were out for the day it was too late. Lindsey was left behind, at the tent by the river, reading and stewing over my 'be back in five minutes' porky pie.
The old nag
Mongolian horses are smaller than their western counterparts, small, strong, stocky creatures that are more wild than the gee gees that young girls have a passion for looking after at the Pony Club. They don't trot up to you in the field- they need to be caught with a stick and lasso. They are not shoed, and grooming is something your Mongolian hurder would not understand. They just ride. Of the three horses we have, mine is the most wild. And for the first half an hour I have to be led. Slowly I am beginning to get to grips with the beast (who has no name) and I now have the reigns to myself and I'm kicking it shouting 'chor' come on! And the idle amble turns into a trot, into a canter and into a gallop. Yee-har! And so I am riding at speed, dust being kicked up by the hooves, across the dry, threadbare plain towards the hills in the distance and in my head the soundtrack of the good the bad and the ugly is playing but is interrupted by a loud airy rumbling tone. What is that noise? It is coming from the behind. The horse is farting as it travels.
Cheryl meanwhile has got the quiet horse. Hers is a nag that refuses to move faster than a slow trot. When our guide leads it, it is almost pulled along reaching a maximum speed of slow canter. 'As I'm getting the hang of this horsy lark I offer to swap. I'll get this thing galloping. So I mount it (with difficulty, the stirrups are just too small for my wide boots) and I give it the Mongolian 'gee up.' "Chor" I chide it. It refuses to budge. "Chor." I raise my voice. "Come on, Chor you bastard" I'm yelling, kicking it trying to get it moving. We do a slow trot. Then stop. "Chor" echoes round the valley, and I'm kicking it and now whipping it and any horse lover would be horrified by me, but it's no less than the hurders do. But it still won't budge. And our guide is laughing at me. He points down at the floor, between the mule's legs. Horse going pee pee. No wonder it won't move. ho hum. Still I never get it to gallop and am glad when Cheryl has had enough of my wild stallion!
But I exaggerate my riding skills somewhat and am soon realising that riding horses is not my forte. Walking was OK, but as soon as the equine beast started to trot I was out on a limb. No idea. My arse is like a sack of potatoes. There is no grace in the way I am riding, my bum is thrown up and slapped down on the padded saddle. Thank goodness it is a padded Russian saddle. Local Mongolian saddles are made of wood. Ouch. Slap, slap, slap. And some people pay good money for this kind of 'madam whiplash' pain. My rear was heavily slapped. And then when we went to a canter I moved to the back of the saddle and now the pain was of my buttock cheeks being pinched by the upward slope of the rear of the saddle. Ouch. And then a gallop. More comfortable, but oh so hard work keeping the horse going in the direction I wanted him to go in. But I could endure all this. I was John Wayne. No, Clint Eastwood. The man with no name. "Ma Mule" I would slur. Ride 'em cowboy!!
We trotted (painfully) up to the foot of a rocky hill. (There's injuns in those hills there). We tied the horse up and scrambled up the rocks to a cave, high above the grassy plain we had rode across. Peace. Silence. Tranquility. Things we never hear in the city rat race at home.
Hot. It was getting hot. Having expected to return to the camp before setting off proper we had not brought any water. Thirst. I have a thirst. My mouth is as dry as the desert, my tongue feels like old leather. I need liquid. Quick! To the nearest Ger!
We gallop across the plains, down through a valley and find a couple of Gers. "Nokhoi Khoroi" hold the dogs! We go into the Ger and are offered salty tea and a plate of some delicacy that looks creamy and slightly rancid. You go first Adel. All eyes are on her; She politely takes a large spoonful and puts it in her mouth. She tries to smile, and her hosts return the expression. They are happy. She swallows. She passes the bowl onto me, a nice slight of hand as the family are now looking intently at me. They miss her quietly gagging. Great. My turn. I take a spoonful and quickly pop it in my mouth. Foolishly, rather than swallowing immediately, I leave the stuff in my mouth too long. It sits where the taste receptors are at their most keen. A foul dairy flavour that has gone off, combined with that ever present aroma of mutton. This stuff is horrible. I swallow quickly, hoping that it will meet no resistance as it travels down my gullet. This is the sort of stuff that comes back up as quickly as it goes down. Cheryl is the last to eat. By now we are all amused with this foodstuff, to the point of giggling. I know not what our guests thought of our laughter at their food. But they continued to smile and seemed to accept that the food wasn't quite to our taste. Cheryl took a mouthful and washed it down with more salty tea. Adel offered the men cigarettes. It seems the women do not smoke here, certainly not those in the country.
Mongolian ghetto in da valley
In an attempt to please their western guests, the younger man in the Ger, went to change the tape in the casette player. In the tent were his father, a gnarly old man who sat behind us, his wife who breast-fed one of his children and his mother who was preparing the food and drink. He removed the local, Mongolian tape and replaced it with a new tape. He smiled a smile that said 'you guys are going to love this. Gonna be a taste from back home...'
Heavy gangsta rap now thundered out of the small tape player. The bass distorting the small tiny speakers. I wondered if they knew what they were listening to. Judicious swearing, angry rap. 'East coast or West coast?' said Adel with a smile. There was something oh so incongruous about this idyllic pastoral, nomadic, rural setting in the middle of nowhere. And this music of the American street ghettos here? Not quite right. We made our polite goodbyes and the music changed back to the local fare as we mounted the horses and rode off again.
Back at the camp and Lindsey is stewing. Again! That is the longest five minutes she has known. We've been gone the best part of a day. But we are friends, and I have been punished by the grueling sun that has turned my skin to a shade of strawberry and we go for a swim and wash our clothes in the fast flowing icy river by our tents.
Washing. Before we went on this trip to the country Lindsey had two fears. One, toilets; two, washing. Both are now worries of the past. Toilets? Well she will squat down pretty much anywhere now, and washing? Well she has got the art of washing in icy streams down to a tee now, and is slowly becoming more accustomed to grime. We have even gone three days without her washing her hair, an all time record I believe.
So we swim and wash and dry off under the intense sun that refuses to bow down below the mountains until well after ten. And then at midnight a bright full moon rises, red in its hue, its light blocks out the stars, alas the intensely starry nights I was expecting on the Mongolian Steppe do not materialise. My other expectation of the Steppe did however. To ride in the footsteps of Genghis Khan.....
We went as far west as Terkin Tsagaan Nur, a vast lake that was still half frozen over. Our food supply was running pitifully low., We bought an enormous fish exceeding two foot that had just been caught from the banks of the lake by a youth for a few torogs and a carton of cigarrettes. The area around the lake was barren, with Larch trees growing through the volcanic rock. Many millennia before, a mountain had blown its top and strewn lava for miles around. We climbed what was left of the mountain and peered into the crater below.
We stopped at a restaurant and Bold commandeered the kitchen and prepared and cooked the fish. This made a change from my efforts of cooking, as somehow I found myself on kitchen duty throughout the trip. Which Bold sometimes thought was good, other times bad, and he would tell Lindsey, pointing his little finger to the ground "Marc bad," and when I would jump out of the van for a wee he would say 'let's go' then point at Lindsey with a broad grin and pretend to sob. A joker was Bold. But now I was his helper in the kitchen. 'Marc Good' and the fish was served up and it was soooo good after a diet of tinned fish, pasta and tomato sauce, that staple student diet I thought I'd long since tasted the last of.
Back to UB
Up early in the morning on the last day we had to be back to the city before the banks closed. Bold put his foot down. He took great pleasure in overtaking other vehicles, and on a single tracked road this was no mean feat, going cross country, speeding past other jeeps, taking his eyes off the road, turning his head to us all in the back and smiling with the cheesiest grin. 'Bold good!' Racing must be in his blood, for he was telling us how when he was a child he took part in the famous Naadam festival, jockeying horses in the horse races that are a highpoint of the festival. His name says it all. Bold means 'strong'. We got back to UB in ample time, and our trip to the country was over.