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Published: August 6th 2007
I love the smell of mutton in the morning. The pungent odour of aged, boiling sheep rolls in through our open bedroom window as I roll out of bed and into the minibus for our 3 day trip into the wide-open spaces of Mongolia. Delighted to see that our travelling companions are the very lovely Daphne and Bernd from Holland who we met briefly yesterday running around like mad things on a frantic food hunt. They are in great form and the journey starts off well with plenty of laughs and mutton war stories.
After 30 or so minutes we find ourselves in a dream landscape of huge and bluest sky dappled with the most perfect littlest, fluffiest clouds stretching for a million miles. Around us are soft sandy hills and the sandy land from their base to the road is covered with such a light dusting of grass that you would think even a whisper would be enough to blow the whole lot of it away. Horses - brown, reddish, white, grey - graze or canter in scattered patchworks. The road rolls out in front as far as the eye can see and there's not another car on it,
nor one behind either. By turns I watch the eagle shadows chase alongside us and the blissful progress of the wispy clouds above us.
Suddenly we swerve off the patchily tarmacked road and onto a ridged and crater-punched dirt track. Things take a turn for the worse as my head thumps off the minibus roof and my stomach is jolted around my body in sickening wallops. Terrific! 2 nauseous hours later we pull up at a roadside eating establishment and the sweet smell of mutton greets us as we swing open the door. Thank God for vegetarianism I think as I tuck into my very pleasant fried rice and the others gamely chase fatty strings of malodourous sheep and other suspicious floating things around a greasy bowl of soup. Giving the tea a miss having already experienced the butter and salt-filled wonder that is Mongolia's gift to the hot beverage community I head to the loos, with our driver's shouts of 'dangerous! dangerous!' ringing in my ears. As I approach and enter the little wooden structure my progress is unhindered by any semblance of a door, thus giving a clear view of and for the toilet-going person to the
main road. Luckily Piccadilly Circus this ain't so one's modesty is fairly safe, however I curse the fact that I didn't pack that safety harness and climbing gear as I ponder the 10 metre drop between the two, foot-width sized planks on which I am precariously balanced. Still, at least it's clean and doesn't smell of mutton so it's all good.
Suitably refreshed we hit the road again and a few hours later we pull up in Kharkorin, the former capital of the Mongol Khans, and at one time the capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen. The city was lost with the passage of time, the remnants of its buildings used in the construction of nearby Erdene Zuu monastery. It wasn't until the 19th century that it was rediscovered and some excavation work carried out. Now a drowsy little town snoozes in its place, no sign of ancient glories, and this is where we spend our first night in a ger. The dream! The inside walls are hung with a sky blue satin cloth patterned with cheery red roses, the 4 beds which line the walls have saffron covers and in the centre there is
Daphne in our Ger
(yurt is the russian word for ger)
a wood stove with a pipe that pokes up and out of the ger roof. It's as snug and lovely as we could have hoped for and much excited jumping around ensues. Dinner is tasty noodles and veg (and mutton, always mutton) followed by a local musician called Bocsa , dressed in traditional spiked dome hat, entertaining us with the Mongolian harp, horse fiddle and throat-singing. He is brilliant and even sings my favourite 'Chinggis' song, which is now Daphne's favourite too. We drink some beers and back in the ger Bernd lights the wood stove. We drift off to sleep with the sweet smell of burning wood and a soft chorus of distant howling dogs.
Up and out for another blue sky day. First stop is Erdene Zuu Monastery - founded in 1586 by Abtai Sain Khan in 1586 following his conversion to Buddhism and instatement of that faith as the official state religion. The site is bordered by 108 white stupas which are joined together by a square stone wall. It makes for an impressive scene, with the million mile sweeping heavens above, hung with dotted ribbons of perfect tiny clouds and echoed by the sandy steppe
studded with white stupa wall. Inside the walls I try to imagine the 60 or so temples, the field of gers, the spinning prayer wheels and brightly coloured bunting that hung between them. To the right of the entrance what now remains is a field of dust and broken rock - testament to the monastery's fate during Stalinist purges. To the right there are several remaining buildings filled with buddhist statues and other religious effects. These are as bright and beautiful as the field outside is desolate and provide a fine taste of how things were before. At 9am a line of Mongolian traders arrive with large bags and bundles filled full of silver buddha statues, bells, copper teapots, and little wooden horses. I liberate a little buddha and Daphne a nice wood and glass box and we watch as several brightly dressed monks arrive on bicycles and head for one of the remaining temples. Hanging around to watch a ceremony proves fruitless so its back in the minibus for a visit to some kind of - ahem - fertility statue the likes of which the nuns would never have let us convent girls set our eyes on. We drive
on up the side of a mountain (road? what road?) to a wooden pole wrapped in buddhist blue scarves and under which a line of sun-bleached horse skulls stretches. We take in the fine view over Erdene Zuu and Kharakorin, and the nothingness around them, then move on.
Quick sand dune stop, truly awful lunch and a dusty, bumpy drive which sees Daphne rapidly learning Mongolian in an attempt to stop our driver running other traffic (not much admittedly) off the road lead us eventually to a ger in the middle of a vast expanse of sandy scrub, ringed on the horizons by low-lying hills and topped as ever by the highest, bluest sky. There is no one home so game of football ensues as we wait. Gradually my eyes become accustomed to the landscape and I realise that where initially I saw nothing there are in fact 3 other gers, scattered about 600 metres away from us in different directions. I also see the toilet, again with a fantastic view of all of Mongolia for the user but without the built-in vertigo this time, and totally clean. Hurray!
Daphne spots the horsemen galloping towards us first and
Bocsa playing horse fiddle
Traditional Mongolian instrument. Lots of songs about Genghis (Chingis) Khan)
soon there are 5 men around us, checking their horses, rolling cigarettes or slumped on a makeshift sofa while the 1 woman tidies up inside and listens patiently as Daphne and I stumble our way through a few Mongolian sentences. They are neither overly welcoming nor in any way unwelcoming. They acknowledge us civilly and go on about their usual business. A couple of the men head off to round up their herd of hundreds of goats, sheep and cows who come trotting, scampering, ambling towards us in a mishmash of colours, shapes and sizes. They make a surprising and pleasing din with their munchy grazing and show a remarkable talent for legging it when self-professed 'nature-man' Nico attempts to make contact. We are called into the ger for dinner (really tasty noodles and veg for me - don't make me talk about the mutton) then out of the ger for horse-riding and fishing. Neither Nico nor I have ever been on a horse before so we let Daphne and Bernd head off first to demonstrate then clamber on ourselves. The fear goes quickly once we're moving and I start to really enjoy it, although Nico is not so keen
Mongolia's first buddhist monastery - building started by descendant of our hero, G Khan
- especially when his horse nearly takes a tumble on some marsh ground near the river. Sacre bleu! Still, can't help but be bewitched by the pink-tinged sky and the winding strip of silver river where we dismount to fish. Give it a go but don't catch a thing, which is probably for the best as when Daphne asks me what I would do if I found myself with a wriggling fish on the end of the line I realise that my best guess is 'scream and run', never a good look.
We walk back to the ger under a darkening sky where each and every polished star is gearing up to produce a spectacular, glittering show. Inside the guys have fired up the solar powered tv - oh yes! - and we settle in for a bit of black and white Japanese sumo wrestling on the box. It's hugely popularly in Mongolia and apparently the current champion is a local. The stove is burning (dried cow pats this time) and we nestle into the snug ger with cups of tea (no salt! no butter!), perfectly content. My bed has a view straight out the centre opening in the
ger roof so my last waking view is the glorious, star-hung sky.
And in the morning the light of the blue sky wakes me and after a lazy couple of hours wandering around, kicking a football (and nearly taking the head off the poor dog - still feeling bad about that), oohing and awing over the softest little baby goat and taking a million photos we load ourselves back into the minibus. I try to love the minibus because it brings me to such fabulous places but if it could only do it without shaking the teeth out of my head my opinion of it would be a whole lot higher. Today we are going to visit Hustai national park, the home of the Takhi horse (otherwise known as Przewalski's wild horse ) which is a very close relative of the domestic horse, having a couple of extra chromosomes. It became extinct in the 1960's but has been successfully reintroduced from zoo specimens and there are currently over a thousand living back in the wild in Mongolia. We watch a video in the park info centre which makes a big fuss of the help provided to the park by
the Dutch government. Bernd and Daphne very proud and go one up in the great France/Holland debate. We escape from the minibus and go chasing after the massive marmots which scuttle into their holes as we approach. There are hundreds of them and so lovely I am dying to catch one and give it cuddle but the thought of the TB which they carry kind of holds me back. Some takhi horses soon appear not far from us - exciting moment. They are quite small and squat with short little legs. In fairness, a horse is a horse to me, but am glad they are back in the wild and it's good to see that this land has been designated national park so their immediate future is assured.
Last lunch in the middle of nowhere is fairly successful (in a mutton kind of way) and with full bellies we make the last bit of the journey back to Ulanbaatar.
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