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Published: October 16th 2005
I am writing this from the Mongolian Stock Exchange. I never even considered there was one here. Benedict and I happened to walk into it by mistake. A security guard tried to stop us at the entrance, I gave him a big grin, said hello sweetheart and strolled straight past. What fun. I am now overlooking the actual exchange room: there are a grand total of 7 people working here, most playing cards or watching TV. I have the feeling the local stock exchange is not as busy as it could be, one nearly expects the brokers to have arrived to work by Yak or horse. I just noticed that the big board containing the times of the cities around the world informs me that it is 15:15 in Ulan Bataar on the 5th of May; either I have been drinking too much airag (don't ask ! I don't know what it is, but it does give you a splitting headache in the morning) or they trade a bit behind everyone else.
I had, this morning, the most wonderful breakfast at the Cafe de France, in front of the Mausoleum containing the tomb of some great Communist or the other.
Marc (the owner) had perfect coffee and the most delicious croissants in the world. What a pleasure after two days of mutton for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner ! Also a great change from the warm suutei tsai (which is salty tea with yak milk, cooked with mutton fat) which, although interesting at first, is not quite in harmony with my taste buds. I shall learn to appreciate it, as there is no running away from it: it is drunk with every meal, at every spare moment and I am heading to the Gobi for 4 days, where that is all I will get.
My father told me that, when he first came in Ulan Bataar, the town stunk of mutton. Well, it still does. I went this morning to the train station to pick up Benedict, who was arriving from Irkoutsk. At 0500, the train station is flooded from the arrival of the steppe: people who brought with them thousands of gallons of Kvar, some horrible white substance which, I think, is milk from mares or yaks, gone through some process I rather not know about. It has a glutinous sort of feel and lumps in it of
something or the other (probably mutton) but it has the benefit of being quite fresh and most certainly waking you up with a jolt. I would recommend it to anyone. It is said that one can recognize which region it came from by the taste, a bit like wine, or so explained Toureg, my friend, this morning at the station. As such, I did spend a good half hour trying out all the vendors, to see if I could spot a difference. Upon me declaring that each was as horrible as the next, he shrugged and told me it was an acquired taste. He also mentioned that it was good for me, as made from milk - a bit like wine is good for you because it is made with grapes.
Yesterday, I met up with two French guys in the hotel, one (Paul) has just bought a couple of horses and is going to spend a year in Mongolia, going around the place. He just got out of "prison" in the steppe and gave me some rather fun descriptions of his prison time: he was arrested by a military patrol for being in a restricted area (how he
was meant to work it out, no one knows, as there are no fences, no sign posts in the steppe), the military took away his horses and supplies and dressed camp around his tent. He had to remain inside the tent for three days, without food but only this horrible greasy milk tea, made with the fat leftovers of the mutton. After three days, he woke up in the morning to see that the camp was gone and so were his horses.
Another French man, David, has taken the Trans-Siberian from Moscow after mine and during his journey, a man entered their compartment at night, brandishing a pistol and shouting to everyone that they were criminals and aiming from one to the other, while screaming that he was going to kill them all because they were terrorists (in Russian of course). The controller lady arrived and took him away; later came to apologize, explaining that he was one of the on-board policemen protecting the passengers and that he had had a merry dinner. She reassured everyone by saying that, as of yet, he had not shot anyone. She then ran off as he just entered another compartment, claiming that
he was going to shoot the Chechens hiding on board.
David is another one of those people who have given up life behind a desk. He has left home for a couple of years and has a number of projects. He is on his way to Beijing, where he will buy a bike and cycle through China, Pakistan and India to New Delhi. Best of luck to you David!!
This morning, I met an Australian lady who had sold or given away everything she owned in Australia: house, car, furniture, husband, plants and clothes, to retain only what she could fit in a back pack. She is now following the wind and goes wherever fate takes her. She reckons she has enough money to last about 7 years, traveling the world. This is the extraordinary thing about Mongolia: you meet so many interesting people, who are doing extraordinary things, you just don't take the wife and kids and come here for a week holiday. Everyone here is on an adventure, and what adventures there are to be had !
I went yesterday with David and Paul to the Black Market, here. Huge market, half of the city
is there (there are less than a million inhabitants in Ulan-Bataar). One can buy absolutely anything, ranging from rifles to old Soviet motorbikes, going through ger's, livestock, food, textiles, luxury product, a lot of things who have fallen off trucks in Beijing or other places, contraband and all sorts of things. I got promptly taken down as I tried to take a picture of a stand full of assault rifles. It turns out that we looked different from the locals, got spotted fairly early on and had a whole bunch of "minders" checking that we did not take pictures or take notes.
I was meant to go to the circus yesterday. I didn't make it, as the frenchies and I had a mutton dinner (surprise), followed by a truly horrible airag (fermented mare's milk) and shimiin arkhi (whatever that was). At the first taste of it, I broke out in a sweat, chuckled, discovered to my horror that it conflicted with all my stomach's contents and provoked urges to rush to the nearest toilet (of course, I forgot my toilet paper. In Mongolia, never go out without toilet paper). All of this, to the greatest amusement of the locals.
Tomorrow morning, Benedict and I are heading out by jeep about 100 kms to the south of Ulan Bataar, where we are hopefully being met by a guide and his slave, with a couple of horses and yaks. He will take us south, hopefully to the Gobi desert, riding horse and yaks and staying with Mongolian families in the evening, in their gers (sort of large circular tents). Once there, we will take a jeep to return to Ulan Baatar, in the night of the 8th. Should we disappear on the way, the booking was made with Ulan Bataar Guest House: they will be responsible for our loss, most our kit is being left behind at the Nassan's Guesthouse on Baga Toiruu. I am saying this as they are tales of small groups heading out in the desert never to be seen again. On the 9th, I am taking the train to head further south, to Beijing. Until Irkoutsk, I was going straight across, since then I am heading South to go down until I reach Calcutta, where I will head across again to come home.
We will now go and find some mutton for lunch (shouldn't be
too hard) and then have a little siesta in a ger, with a warm cup of suutei tsai.
As I was preparing to send this Blog, the internet collapsed with little idea of the time it will take to come back on. Maybe a few minutes, maybe a few days - says she. In the meantime, the Mongolian stock market is collapsing, as they have also lost their connection. Another Black Monday in perspective ! The four remaining traders have taken a great attitude towards it and have returned to their card games and reading of the paper.
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