Roald Amundsen, one of the great Norwegian explorers who we hear very little about in England, but who beat Scott to the South Pole, once said that adventure is just bad planning. I guess it is a credit to Ger to Ger that our travels in the Mongolian countryside continued to feel like an adventure, despite us (mainly) moving to a well planned itinerary.
The plan had been that we would stay with four different nomadic families over the course of eight days and seven nights, with someone from each family leading us on horseback to the next. The changes began when we turned up for our orientation session, briefing us on nomadic culture and how we should behave. It turned out that the bus we would be taking to the Terelj National Park had moved to a winter timetable. Perhaps that should have told us something, but the immediate effect was to delay our start from 7:30am to 3:30pm, and our return from 4pm to 8am the following morning. We would now be staying eight nights. Initially this seemed like a really good deal. By night four, as our water bottles froze inside our tents, it seemed less so.
It was a great privilege to be staying with nomads and seeing something of their lives, particularly as the plan appeared to fall to pieces still further and one of the families we were supposed to stay with had gone to Ulan-Bator to have a baby. Instead we ended up staying with his sister for one night and then travelling onward on foot to the sister’s mother’s house, lead by our absent host’s deaf mute brother in law. After pitching our tents we were invited for milk tea in a ger which seemed to contain an unending flow of people. Milk tea is a salty, milk drink almost (but not quite) entirely unlike tea. The family we were staying with was large, and the relationships between them seemed only to become less clear as time went on. Everyone was introduced to us in terms of their relationship to the absent host we’d never met, and they all seemed fascinated by us. Most were around our own age, and were brothers and sisters of the new father we had not met, but there were also several small children about who’s parentage I mostly remain confused. With this family more than the others the experience felt somehow authentic. Everywhere we were welcomed wonderfully and had a great time, but here, in two nights, where they were not used to regularly hosting western travellers, we felt we became more a part of the life; rather than being shown a carefully prepared front. Some of them would simply sit and watch us, which was slightly uncomfortable. One of the older brothers and the youngest sister, however, tried their very best to communicate with us. One of our guidebooks contained a translation for the phrase “my camera battery is empty”. I would never have imagined that to be so useful. Their gers were situated at the end of a long plain, at the foot of rocky cliffs leading up to the mountains. Aside from their few tents and livestock there was nothing else to be seen. When, at one point, a couple pulled up in a people-carrier blaring 80s sounding foreign synth-pop the contrast created a scene that appeared almost post-apocalyptic, as if they’d arrived to sell guns to Sarah Connor.
In the middle days of our time away we were due to visit the “Princess Temple”, a ruined shrine to the wife, or possibly daughter, of some long dead Mongolian ruler. Details are sketchy, and it doesn’t seem to have an entry in Wikipedia. We’d been told before we left that we were due to camp over night there, but as we neared the area and begun to hear of it’s remoteness, stories of terrible weather in the area and rumours of wolves nearby we were less keen, and rather concerned about the prospect of being left there alone. The evening we arrived with his mother in law’s family our mute guide communicated to us in sign that we would be leaving for the temple the following morning. On the morning of our fifth day, awaking to find the small river between our tents and the family gers frozen over, we set out by ox-cart unsure of what we would find.
What we found were some of the most spectacular landscapes we’d yet seen, a ruin with a truly magical atmosphere, somewhere nice to have lunch and, thankfully, a safe return to our tents by the family ger before nightfall. So far we had been travelling mainly in lowlands and grassy plains. In this trip we set out into the mountains. We had been told in the International Intellectual Museum in Ulan-Bator that Mongolia is “the homeland of the dinosaurs”. We were travelling nowhere near the areas famed for dinosaur finds, but it was not hard to imagine giant lizards roaming the rugged landscapes we passed through. Towering rock formations contrasted with the falling golden leaves of autumn and marshland which the ox was none to happy about pulling us through. Facing off the back of the cart watching the world disappear, it all felt rather like something out a dream, a feeling only reinforced on our arrival. Hopefully Tansy might upload a couple of her photos, but only the bare frame of the temple remained, with the remains of a caved in burial crypt visible behind. The whole complex was surrounded by what was clearly once a high wall, presumably enclosing well tended gardens. The whole place was now overgrown with wild trees, and carpeted in a think layer of fallen leaves. It was the kind of place where the loot would be purple, if only it wasn’t so peaceful. We had lunch outside the walls, around the blackened remains of someone else’s camp-fire before setting off back.
We stayed with two more families before returning to the city, each a little closer to the village. The last even had mains electricity to their three gers. One of them was empty, so we were fortunate enough to be able to sleep “inside”. The fire kept us warm, and returning to the ger from the toilet at night, the skyward pointing lights created a sight like three miniature pyramid stages. The experience was amazing, but after eight nights I was very much ready see Ulan-Bator again. It felt like coming home. I heartily recommend Mongolia, but come here for the scenery and the people, not for the food. Nine days of goat and noodle soup, goat dumplings, milk tea and, worst of all, salty black tea were quite enough. I can’t help feeling that what we’ve seen here can’t last long. Our children will never have this experience. At the absolute outside I give it twenty years before the remote dirt tracks we travelled on are tarmacked. Closer to the capital they already seem to be getting over them quickly, and we saw that the fords can be hazardous for the trucks the nomads now use to move in winter.
The only real disappointment would be not having got to do more riding. We only got two days, and after that I was glad to stop. I had a new found understanding of why cowboys in old westerns have that distinctive gait. But some more time on horseback near the end, once I’d healed a little, would have been fun. In fact, I didn’t even make it to the end of the second day—our guide saw how much pain I was in and flagged down a passing ox-cart to take me the rest of the way. I was taken on by two men who looked for all the world like Americans, one a highly convincing cowboy, but after only a short distance we stopped at a seemingly random ger, dismounted and were invited in. Watching everyone else disappear over the hill on horseback, along with my phone, wallet and passport, and with no language or clue what was going on, I was rather scared. Sat round a table in cigarette smoke-filled ger, our host produced tankards full of white liquid from an oil-drum sized vat. It seems “horse milk” was the only phrase of English he knew. I had no idea mares’ milk even could be fermented. As you would expect, it basically tastes of gone off milk. Once we’d all four had a glass of the airag, a bottle of vodka was opened. Apparently there’s a rule that once a bottle of vodka is opened it must be finished. Then there was a two litre coke bottle again filled from the vat for the road. I did eventually arrive safely at the next ger with the others, but feeling slightly ill.
Ulan-Bator itself is not an especially beautiful city. Before we left for the countryside I had no great love for it. It does have an impressive market of enormous scale where you can buy just about anything. But, unlike that in Riga, the food section was disappointingly small and, for a country who’s primary diet is dairy based, Mongolia seems to have a distinct shortage of decent cheese. Instead, the so called “Black Market” seems to be the perfect place to buy cheep imported clothes. We’ve visited several Buddhist temples, mostly now museums after the Soviet purges, but they’ve taught me little about Buddhism beyond demonstrating that almost every image I had of the faith was wrong. There were a lot more gory paintings and wrathful gods than I expected. We did meet an American Buddhist who lives in Kathmandu, so we may yet learn more from him once we get there. The State Department Store is, like every such place, full of many kinds of overpriced goods, but is still obviously the product of a nation who’s market economy is relativity young. Next to GUM, it barely seems worth mentioning. One attraction that does deserve a mention is the International Intellectual Museum. Dedicated to the 50 years of work of eccentric Mongolian wooden puzzle creator Zandraa Tumen-Ulzii, this is something truly unique. It contains everything from ornate jewel encrusted wooden puzzle chess sets to the most ridiculous plastic tat. Our guide, who clearly loved her job, would tell us with glee how even the display cabinets in the museum were “made of puzzle”, before Mr. Zandraa himself came out to perform child’s magic tricks in the middle of the tour.
I won’t end by talking about pain au chocolat, as I’m sure the others will cover those at length. Instead, I’d like to make a quick plug for the activities of my friend Ben, who’s camping in parliament square this week in protest against the grotesque treatment of asylum seekers by the British government. Check out their blog.