Right, after that hiatus of, let’s see, 23 days – I have been away from an internet connection to my credit – let’s pick up where we left off in the mystical land of Mongolia…
If you remember, I was out and about in Ulaanbaatar with a guy called Soki, who I’d met on the train from Vietnam to Beijing. After showing me around the edges of the city a little, he dropped me back at my hostel and we agreed that I’d call him the next evening – the next day I had already planned to spend with Zaza visiting a National Park not far from the city.
I rang Zaza the next morning, then fell asleep waiting for him to find a car and pick me up, which he eventually did with his friend Basa, whose car we’d used two nights previously to get home from karaoke. I see now that I may have tactfully forgotten to include the little tale of my karaoke night in the previous post… ahem.
Well, just briefly, I’m really not usually one for karaoke, in fact the only two times I can remember doing it in my life were a couple of weeks earlier in Vietnam and my second night in Mongolia. Jargal invited me out with her work colleagues, who were all absolutely lovely as you might expect from a group of women who all work for a non-profit children’s charity. We had dinner at a much more local (and I suppose “authentic”) place than the night before then proceeded down into the basement for karaoke. Look, I didn’t have any other plans, right, and I figured for the eight days I was in Mongolia, I would put aside some of my lifestyle choices to get fully immersed in how the locals lived. So, crossed off the list were being vegetarian, not drinking alcohol and avoiding night clubs… that’s right, after thoroughly embarassing myself with my rendition of some old Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel classics – the choices of songs in English weren’t helpful ok – and downing some sickly sweet Mongolian wine, it was off to the “Chicago Club” for vodka shots and dancing. Anyway, I had a good night but at the same time reaffirmed those lifestyle choices that I have picked up again since leaving the country. A diet of 80% meat is not good. Vodka doesn’t like your liver. Clubbing is for… well, not for me.
Moving on rapidly, there we were, driving out to the National Park – Zaza, Basa, Jargal and myself – in what I had just recognised was a hybrid car. Bonus points for low emissions. We stopped by the side of the road…
…where we spotted some crazy camels – if you imagine the camel equivalent of highland cattle, you’ve got it, but it was this little (or should I say enormous ) fella that caught my eye first.
and here’s my sloppy backlit photo of the camel:
It was really an amazing day weather-wise, though when I commented on it, Jargal said it was always like this in Mongolia – clouds have apparently joined the endangered species list. I’m not sure what words there are for some of the rugged and beautiful places we stopped at, so here it is without the waffle.
A Mongolian Visitor’s Centre in Winter:
Turtle Rock (it’s actually called that):
After driving around a bit, we headed up a long valley to what I think was the crowning glory of the day’s adventure. A Buddhist Temple (or Monastery?) was perched oh-so-photogenically in the cliffs at the end of the valley.
As we got out of the car, we could here melodic chanting drifting down the valley, though a faint tinny quality was distorting it and sadly this manifested itself in a set of speakers rather than a roomful of lamas. There are quite a few photos, so click here for another view. I even found the wooden boards laid down as a pathway interesting. Here’s a closer look from the bottom of the stairs:
but it was the view of the valley itself from the building that was probably most fantastic.
I also couldn’t go past some of the decorations.
Heading back towards Ulaanbaatar in the afternoon, we pulled off the road and drove across what semed like fields (under snow of course) before stopping at a ger with a solar panel poking out the side.
This turned out to be Zaza’s uncle’s place who he hadn’t seen for a couple of years. The conversation progressed in Mongolian, so I missed most of it, but I had a good look around the first real ger I’d been in and we ate a late lunch consisting of mainly horse, plus some stale bread that passed surprisingly well for biscuits and some hit-you-in-the-face sour frozen milk product.
I was also coerced into partaking of the old guy’s snuff box – something I’d read it was culturally insensitive to turn down. I still don’t know exactly what it is but I gather it’s some kind of drug similar to tabacco. We stepped out into a golden sunset and drove back to Ulaanbaatar, taking some crazy detour that despite my repeated questions I couldn’t extract the purpose of from Zaza and then I took all three of them out to dinner.
The next day was a disappointment. I tried to get in touch with Soki, but he had apparently disappeared off the face of the planet. I thought all my plans were pretty well sown up by this point, but they’d just unravelled and I only had until Friday before I left for Moscow. To cut a long story short, Zaza – someone with a hard exterior but a heart of gold – ended up promising to find me a way to see some of the Mongolian countryside. He said that he’d try to find a friend to be my guide for a few days but the next morning, there he was at my hostel, hurrying me into a local bus. He’d called in sick to work, rugged up and was taking me far out into the wild lands of Mongolia.
We took a 10 hour bus ride to Darhan, the capital of the Northernmost province bordering Russia. It was freezing waiting for the bus to leave but once we were going it turned out we were right on top of the heater and I slept most of the way. There was a funny scene when we got off the bus… a smartly dressed African American guy was trying to order a taxi to another town without much Mongolian to speak of and without much success. Seeing him, Zaza weighed in and tried to help, being the person most proficient in both languages around. My main thoughts centred around what the hell this guy was doing out here in Winter in rural Mongolia, but hey, I was there too.
Darhan wasn’t much of a capital – we arrived in the “newer” part and took a car to the older part in the North where the most active part of town was the makeshift long-distance taxi rank. It took us a good portion of the afternoon but eventually we got a ride out to a village even further North, apparently the closest to the Russian border at about 45km. I have to admit to sleeping for a reasonable proportion of the trip (another few hours) – I’d been up late the night before ok – but what I did see was pretty crazy. It felt a little like that scene out of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where Romeo’s cousin speeds out to him across the desert in a beat up old car to tell him that Juliet is dead. In fact, Zaza made a joke that it was like driving in a rally. Not quite Bathurst out the window though. When I woke we were speeding and sliding down hillsides and across fields of yellowed grass rolling back to rocky mountains reaching to a pink-tinged sunset sky. The road was two sandy ruts. I’ve said it before, but that rugged beauty is wedded to Mongolia and it etches itself in your mind. The sun shed a golden haze across the landscape as we threw dust in our wake and the world settled into stark relief with the growing dark.
As night properly fell we arrived in town and went to Zaza’s friend’s place where we were treated to a great dinner by Tikshe, the mother of Gunna – ok, bear in mind here that these names are spelt phonetically, I have no idea how they’d actually be written and it’d be in Cyrillic anyway. Gunna was Zaza’s friend, though he’d told me he’d only been out here once before. One thing I’ll never forget is Tikshe’s jams – she made them from wild berries collected on the mountains. There was wild pomegranite and strawberry and she made several others from native berries that grow only here in the North of Mongolia. They were more than delicious and to have such a treat out here in the countryside made it so much more enjoyable – this village had a population of 2000 and only because it housed both an army border patrol barracks and the local government offices.
The adventure didn’t stop there however, as we packed into another beat up car and drove even further North, to a nomad’s farm less than 10km from the border and exactly in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was very concerned about me being cold – out here away from the city it dropped to around -40°C at night – but when we arrived a fire was blazing in the middle of the small yurt and it was toasty. Sure, they let it go out at night, but there’d be five people sleeping in the one small space and I’d be rugged up in my woollen thermals, silk inner sheet and Winter-grade sleeping bag… no sense in taking any chances with temperatures like that. This trip, there weren’t even sandy ruts to speak of for a road, just expanses of crisp snow-covered ground that we snaked across until we reached a little valley with two gers and a few wooden buildings for animals. That night I met Dam and Doya, whose home we stayed in for the next two days and also Davasourin and Doya, an older couple who lived in the other ger. Zaza handed over gifts – for some strange reason the common thing was lollies for the women and children and vodka for the man, though everything was shared in the end. We stayed up late talking and drinking vodka – they were very interested in finding out about me, as I was about them. According to Zaza, these people rarely even visited the small village we had come from & had never been to a big city or come across a tourist before, especially not out here. Dam was particularly interested in horse racing in Australia, being the owner of a race winning Mongolian stallion.
Unfortunately, my knowledge in that area is limited to say the least. If I understood correctly, his prize for winning the provincial championship horse race was a thermos while I told him, with Zaza interpreting, that it would most likely be in the order of a few hundred thousand dollars in Australia (a few hundred million Mongolian Tughrik). That night we could hear wolves howling close by and one of the cows was attacked while a night or two before a whole sheep had been taken.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I got a chance to take full stock of my surroundings. I was one of the first to wake with the dripping golden sunlight oozing in through the one and only 30cm window and rippling along the blankets that had been piled on top of me the night before. The first thing was the traditional milk tea – this was served at every occasion – leaving, arriving, waking up, going to sleep, before food, after food, as a welcome and the cup was always bottomless. Here’s Dam in the ger with his milk tea in mid-sip. That’s the 30cm window off to the right, the hard-won thermos front and centre, the fire-place bottom-right with the slab of meat just behind it and to the left. The whole building can be packed down and on the back of a cart in 15-20 minutes.
This farm was their Winter lodging – the wooden buildings were permanent but they moved all their stock, possessions and gers two to four times a year. Another glorious morning.
Davasourin & Dogo’s ger:
The first job for the morning was cleaning out the cattle shed. Here’s Gunna with the bullock cart that took the crap away and the cow shed in the background.
Meanwhile, Doya milked some of the cows.
Next, the sheep and goats were let out so we could clean out their shed. Seriously, these animals were hilarious. I don’t know what we’re thinking with the boring shaved white goats we have in Australia. Look at the possibilities!
And then there’s the evil one.
It was time for a little horse ride. Zaza gracefully mounted up and trotted up and down the valley.
While I looked like a complete bozo, partly because of the length of my legs.
Later in the afternoon Zaza, Gunna and I went for a walk down the valley, across the pasture where the cattle had been let out to graze and up into the forest.
As you can see, the snow cover is very light and Davasourin, the oldest person there, confirmed that the snow cover this year was one of the lightest ever. Climate change, anyone? We were hoping to see some deer, but we lost them and at one point when we were near the herd of cattle Gunna thought a wolf was down in the creek bed nearby but that didn’t turn out either. Gunna still brought his rifle though and they had fun posturing with it.
Zaza by this stage had ironically started to actually get sick and was quite tired walking up the the snowy hill through the forest.
It was a really beautiful place, a beautiful afternoon. We spotted some of the native berries that Tikshe turned into jams and liquers. These ones were called nahongosho.
Here’s me looking ridiculous next to a very serious Gunna. I was trying to keep warm and carry all my camera gear.
Finally, we headed back to the ger in the beautiful afternoon light. Just over the hill behind the buildings is the Russian border. Later, when we were back in the village, we found out that it had been illegal for me to be there. Tourists weren’t allowed that close to the border unless it was at an official crossing point.
In fact, you had to be registered with the army’s border patrol just to be in the village. So, in a slightly concerning event, Zaza and I were hauled into the army barracks and asked a few questions when we returned to the village the next day, along with Gunna and Tikshe. Luckily, they knew Gunna and his family and trusted them so they just took my passport details and let us go.
For our second and last dinner with Dam and Doya I helped make boars – not sure how you actually spell that – which are traditional meat dumplings. Here’s the charming slab from which the meat was cut.
And that’s about it. Whew! We returned quite late the next day (Thursday) to Ulaanbaatar, while my train left about midday Friday. Here’s the only real street scene that I captured from the capital. This billboard was just on the corner where my hostel was and I had an imbecilic little chuckle every time I walked past it. Moron Karaoke. In fact, that’s how they spell “Mongolian” in Cyrillic.
The next adventure was the 100 hour train trip across Siberia, but that will have to wait once again. There’s just one photo I want to share from that journey. It’s taken inside Russia, but the lady is Mongolian.
There are a few photos I’ve left out (can you believe it?), so click here to see the full set. Also, if you want to find out more about Mongolia, my first recommendation would be the country profile done by New Internationalist a few years back: click here.