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Published: September 24th 2008
Sayn bayn oo!!
Due to the length of this blog entry we feel that we should issue a health warning as it may involve you sitting for a lengthy period; be sure to wiggle your toes at regular intervals to prevent long term health problems and prepare a pot of tea and a round or two of sandwiches for sustenance!
Where to start?.............................at the beginning!
We arrived at UlaanBaatar to be taken under the wing of a kindly Mongolian man with gold teeth who claimed to be a taxi driver! He took us to his car, as we suspected he was probably just a passer by; it had four wheels albeit one was square; it looked as though it had been around the block via the banger car track! We got seriously ripped off even though a bit of haggling was done prior to departure, hey ho he got us to our hotel in one piece. The cab driver was last seen on his way to Mexico.
UlaanBaatar is a fascinating city, we had heard some pretty negative feedback so were not sure what to expect. The first thing that we noticed was the size of the
city, it is made up of three huge power stations that dominate the outer skyline, it is very industrial on the outskirts; the hillsides on the fringes are covered in Gers where the Nomadic herders from the countryside have filled much of the city. The city is full of diversity, there is the older generation who are still wearing their traditional clothing and the younger generation who are very funky and all carry mobile phones; the atmosphere feels very relaxed and the young people seem to dominate which gives a buzzy feel. We seem to be a source of interest and people say hello to us as we walk down the street; we instantly loved the city and felt at home.
Over 1 million people live in UB (UlaanBaatar), the population of the country is around 3 million, the city continues to grow as more people leave the countryside to join the fast developing city, in the area surrounding the city the herders have flocks of sheep and cattle grazing alongside the traffic. Talking about traffic - the city is constantly full of traffic jams and there seems to be a penchant for horn blowing! As more people become
Filling the canister for cooking from the river
car owners it looks like the city could reach gridlock.
As much as we loved UB we were looking forward to exploring the countryside, we were due to set off on the 11th Sept but due to unforseen circumstances ie Kirstin spending the night with her head down the toilet following a night at the Khan Brau (German owned brewery) - great home brewed beer, shame about the reconstituted piece of meat that was consumed by Kirstin, in future stick to the local food!! We set off a day later feeling right as rain; we were picked up by our guide - Tsegei and our driver Tsogoo who provided our chariot for the next 11 days - an old Soviet jeep with fully padded interior this could only mean that without it a head injury was a given. We headed out of UB on a lovely smooth tarmac road which suddenly ran out at about 20 km's, it was then replaced by a dirt track which was when the need for the padding came into it's own, this was fully tested by Rob. The jeep was never happier than when it was on the "bumpy, bumpy" tracks.
roads were a combination of smooth sand (luxury), stony tracks (bumpy), rocky tracks (bumpy, bumpy) and the off road boulders (head banging); road signs do not exist and we were 100% reliant on our driver who picked the right track when several options were available to chose from; we think he was using the sun as a compass.
It is difficult to describe all the diversity of the landscapes we saw on our 1700km journey but we will give it a go! Huge open flat steppes, ranging from golden grassland to green lands that were made up of clumps of wild garlic, various herbs and heathers of reds, pinks, purples and yellow; one of the lasting smells we will remember is whenever we stopped for "lunchtime" the smell of wild herbs. There were dry desert lands, sand dunes in the Gobi which we climbed for sunset and sunrise, snow capped mountains, black volcanic mountains, red rocky canyons and vast open lands that made the sky appear huge. It is a harsh environment and water is scarce, deep wells dotted around the provinces provide the lifeline for people and animals.
The wildlife was ever changing as well as the
Ger in moonlight
Our home for 3 nights
scenery, we saw Yak's, horses, goats, sheep, camels (two humps), many species of birds of prey, frogs in sand dunes (not where you would normally expect to see them), desert rats, hamster type things, foxes, badger, a bouncy animal that looked like a raccoon but our most privileged find was the very shy Ibex that we spotted on a sunrise canyon walk; oh yes and not forgetting the Tyrannosaurus Rex.......... in the natural history museum.
Our accommodation during our trip was our trusty tent or a ger; the ger are the homes of the nomadic people, they live a lifestyle that has been practiced for centuries and continues although it feels like a privilege to see such a way of life as it is beginning to slowly disappear. The ger is a self supporting structure which is a clever design that does not require ropes to hold in place, the whole family share the space and the centre piece is the burner which serves as the stove and heating, some gers have solar panels used for lighting and satellite tv!
We were lucky to stay with a nomadic family in a ger, we were invited into Bagaa and
The moon lit our way, casting its shadow on the ground
Jayaa's home where the hospitality was as warm as the fire, our first evening involved sampling Yak's milk tea, followed by finishing a bottle of vodka that was drunk from the same bowl that was being passed around, so you had to knock it back in order to pass it on to the next person! Their property was lit by a single low light powered by solar energy and heated by the stove, it was difficult to see in the dim light but you could make out the huge vats of Yak's milk that were being made into various products that we got to sample including butter, yoghurt and a roux type substance that was mixed with sugar and flour; all were delicious. The hospitality extended to waking up on a frosty morning and Bagaa arriving in our ger and lighting the fire for us before heading off to milk the Yak's.
We set off with Jayaa for a days horse riding up into the mountains to a hot spring, the Mongolian horses were small but built for endurance, they trekked up steep mountains and rocky terrain for 6 hours, I think we were more exhausted than the horses!
Bagaa doing the daily milking of the Yak's
It was a great experience trotting and cantering, not bad for Rob, a first time rider. When we arrived back at the ger we sampled our perfect meal of mutton and home made noodle soup, it smelt and tasted delicious sitting by the fire in their log cabin. The Mongolian diet consists mainly of mutton and the lasting smell that will stay with us both forever is the smell of boiled mutton it gets in your hair and clothes.
The Mongolian horses were consistently seen throughout whatever territory we were in, the romantic image of Mongolian men riding their horses for sport soon disappeared when we went to one of the local markets and were buying it for our lunch, which incidentally tasted very nice a bit like beef.
Our No 1 driver seemed to know someone everywhere in Mongolia, vast as it is. We turned up at a ger one evening which we appeared to be breaking into, Rob and myself felt a little uncomfortable but Tsogoo reassured us by telling us the police would be arriving any minute! It turned out that this was perfectly normal behaviour and his friend arrived with a flask of goat's
Rob milking Yak
milk tea to confirm that we were in fact welcome.
Tsogoo surprised us with yet another visit to one of his friends ger's, this time we were relieved to find that the owner was in fact at home, however he was four sheets to the wind on vodka and barely able to stand up! I think even Tsogoo felt a little embarrassed; this led to one of the most surreal experiences we have had to date. The drunk owner and his son all gathered around the stove for a Mongolian conversation which Rob and I looked on as our guide refused to translate as she said she did not understand "drunk talk"! The son proceeded to cut up a sheep's leg that was sitting on the top shelf and boiled it on the stove; it was offered to us to eat by our driver but it appeared the owner was not allowed to have any so he had to sit there salivating instead. We had an evening of stout and vodka drinking which the owner of the ger seemed more than pleased about. When we eventually went to bed we were offered one of the three beds, our driver
and guide had the other two, the poor drunk owner and his son had to make do with the floor, the sheep dung continued to be thrown on the fire to keep us warm. You may think this was the end of the story but it actually got more surreal, Kirstin popped outside for a pee in the morning; we digress but the first thing you do when you arrive at your camp or ger is pick the best toilet spot; anyway Kirstin was having a pee when she noticed a sheep that was tied up looking ready for slaughter, just as we were about to start breakfast the sheep appeared in the ger freshly killed; it was then skinned gutted and butchered in front of us; we think the intestines were just being removed as we were offered our muesli. Surprisingly neither of us seem too bothered by the whole experience, the biggest stress was Rob finding sultanas in his muesli. The sheep then escorted us in the jeep for the journey back to UB.
We met the nicest people along the way; we had set up for lunch when an old guy on his motorbike pulled up
Bagaa doing the daily Yak milking
and joined us in return he passed around his snuff, minutes later his older sister (approx 70) got off the back of her sons motorbike and joined us for tea and cookies; these were the moments that felt so special during our time in the country.
Driving in a particularly barren desert area we suddenly spotted two guys running from nowhere swinging a coat in the air, we stopped to give them a lift to the nearest town 10km's away; it turned out that they had set off the night before had lost the road (dirt track) and then ran out of petrol, they were incredibly grateful as normally the tourist vehicles are not allowed to stop but we insisted.
Oh yes and of course Mongolia has Chinggis Khan!
We have had the most amazing time in Mongolia and will be sad to leave, the countryside has been breath taking and the people are friendly, humble and welcoming, it is a country where tradition remains largely unchanged. We would urge people to come here but it is only for the truly adventurous among you.
Next stop Beijing!
Disclaimer: our images and words do not do
Jayaa on his faithful friend
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