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Published: July 31st 2006
We're back from the countryside and can happily say the Mongolia we came to see is alive and well outside the city, with nomadic life carrying on much as it has for centuries. We spent a magical 10 days in the Arkhangai Aimag (a central province), participating in a nomad-centered project called Ger to Ger (www.gertoger.org), designed to create alternative income for herder families (affected by recent unusually harsh winters which reduced the national livestock population by a third). The project is supported by various aid organisations and most of the profit goes to the herders themselves and to fund environmental restoration and education projects. There are many foreign owned tour companies operating in Mongolia visiting some magnificent scenery, but this project offered the best opportunity for an authentic experience of nomadic life.
We had a sneak preview of hell itself on our bus ride from Ulaanbaatar to Tsetserleg (regional centre in Arkhangai). We rocked up early Friday morning at the Dragon Centre bus interchange to make sure we got a seat. And "a" seat we got between us, along with 35 others on a bus equipped to hold 20. "Surely they can't fit anyone else on"
was repeated on at least five occasions. Jerry cans, spare truck tyres, open metal pails filled with airag (fermented mare's milk), backpacks and suitcases were all used as seats in the aisle; adults nursed teenagers and we sat facing backwards with a young girl lying across our laps and battling with a fire extinguisher for footspace. Two young boys threw up on the trip, one managed to wait for the driver to stop, the other had to use a plastic bag, which was promptly thrown out the window... so we soon became engulfed in a fragrant cocktail of vomit, dust, sweat, airag, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. In hindsight it could have been worse (at least we got there) and it was certainly an experience travelling with the locals.
10 hours in the sardine tin and a million pot-holes later we gingerly stepped off the bus into the fresh air of Tsetserleg where our driver, the infamous Mr. Jambaa was waiting to take us to Ger 1. We were joined by four lovely travellers - Mohamed and Katia from France and Siem and Mellie from the Netherlands. After a brief dispute with Jambaa about cost to drive us (which
we believed had been prepaid, the first of many 'misunderstandings' (aka scams) along the way) we were off on our way to Ger 1. This was the first of 6 gers that we were to visit, staying with a different family each night and participating in activities designed to teach us about nomadic life and the 'three manly sports' of Naadam.
Over the next 10 days we were to meet some of the most genuine, open and hospitable people. We trekked, rode horses and watched our packs being hauled by ox-cart across stunning landscapes, featuring wide endless grassland filled with wildflowers, high granite outcrops, hot mineral springs, pine forests, fast flowing rivers (which you could drink from), hyperactive marmots, soaring eagles, herds of goats, yaks and horses and the occasional white felt tent also known as a ger. We found the landscapes so inspiring that we're now happy to report we're engaged, an obvious highlight of the trip!
Meeting the families was wonderful, especially the kids. Only two of the gers we stayed at had electricity (solar and wind powered), but none had telephones, making communicating with the outside world difficult and meaning they weren't expecting our arrival.
Ger 1 with dedicated distillery ger on the right
Each ger doubles as a distillery, producing vast quantities of airag
(from fermented mare or yak milk.) It's only 3% alcohol but often double distilled to be 12%) It tastes like goat fur and wreaks havoc on your guts.
So we would just turn up in the evening around 6-7pm; the welcoming committee of all the young children would rush out to meet us and the families would stand outside the ger to welcome us.
Travelling between 20-40kms per day by horse or foot made sure we were exhausted by the time we arrived. The usual ritual was to unload our packs from the ox cart, then then be ushered into the ger by the woman of the house for cups of tsai (salty milk 'tea') and rock hard cheese curds. We'd then set up our tent for the night, under the close supervision of the Quality Control Commission (see photos) and then again back into the ger for a dinner of handmade wheat noodles boiled with yak meat or mutton. In winter they would eat a lot more meat, the stuff we had had been dried during the winter and is just soaked prior to cooking. Breakfast was tsai with either steamed bread (very tasty) or pastries fried in yak butter oil, similar to doughnuts but not as sweet, both with rich yak butter. At the last ger they had a large drum filled with tarag, yak's
Inside a ger
At the front is the stove, where all cooking takes place. You enter in a clockwise direction, men sitting on the western side and women on the eat. The back is reserved for guests or people of high status. Removing your hat indicates you intend to sleep the night in the ger. It is rude to lean against any of the poles or to point you feet at the stove.
milk yoghurt, which was delicious. We cooked lunch ourselves during our halfway break on the trek between gers, usually with some dried ingredient from home. There were plenty of opportunities to drink airag.
We learnt how to milk a yak (much harder than it looks), herd yaks, make dried yak milk cheese, distil vodka from yaks milk, cook yak meat, avoid being trampled by yaks in our tent and even ride a yak. We also practiced archery and had one particularly painful 40km horse ride on mongolian wooden saddles... we still haven't properly recovered.
We missed out on visiting the second ger along the route as there had been an Anthrax outbreak and we had to be diverted straight to ger 3, with our friend Jambaa. We then spent an extra night at ger 5 with the family who lived near the hot mineral springs, which was wonderful.
We have noticed a concerning disconnect amongst the locals we met, between their love and reverence for nature (in the stories, shamanistic practices and songs) and their behaviours. The introduction of processed and packaged foods (mainly from visitors like ourselves) creates a difficult problem for nomad families who have
Drying cheese curds - Stage 1
The block of cheese, made from yak's milk, is first squished under the wheel to flatten it and squeeze out any excess moisture.
traditionally only used and produced biodegradable waste. Now each ger has its own rubbish pile, which usually ends up being burnt, and not a thought is given to the impact of throwing rubbish on the ground in the countryside, or using detergents at the hot springs etc. We read in the UB Post about the new mineral resources legislation which only requires mining companies to give 1 months' notice to residents that a mine is proposed for their area, during which time they can make a written submission to Ulaanbaatar. Given that none of the families we visited had no access to media or telecommunications and lived some distance from the nearest town, this is also a real concern.
While there are only 2.5 million people in this vast country, the pressure will build up soon, especially as the country opens up further to tourism and hopefully attitudes will shift. We met with the Mongolian Nature & Environment Consortium about working on a renewable energy and education project in 2007 and will continue negotiations later in the year. There's a lot to be done here but the very strong nationalistic pride would no doubt make it difficult for foreigners
Drying cheese curds - Stage 2
Next the blocks are cut and laid out in the sun to dry.
trying to 'educate' but we'll see how it goes.
We had organised for Jambaa to pick us up at the last ger and take us to Terkhiin Tsaagan Nuur (Great White Lake) and hopefully onto Khuvsgul Nuur in the north, near the Siberian border. Unfortunately the brakes on Jambaa's Russian Jeep had failed and he had rolled it sometime during the week! Luckily he was unharmed but we didn't know what had happened until the next day when he sent his friend to pick us up. His friend didn't want to drive us to White Lake or Khuvsgul as we'd hoped and so the negotiations began with another driver. Finally late in the afternoon the driver agreed to take us in the Scam Van. 3 of us on a bench seat and the rest on the floor in the back with the packs. To cut a long story short, they had no intention of taking us all the way and left us at White Lake, despite having been paid for the day already.
Later we met some guys who had seen photos from up at Lake Khuvsgul that week. There had been extensive flooding up there with roads
Drying cheese curds - Stage 3
Finally, the curds are strung up in the driest part of the ger. By this stage, if one of them were to fall on your head, it would likely kill you.
washed out and rescue/support vehicles being pulled out of the mud by horses. So the scammers were probably doing us a favour in the long run. We spent some time at lovely White Lake, which was a lot less commercialised than Khuvsgul anyway and then headed back to UB and onto Terelj National Park (photos in the previous blog).
Overall Mongolia was a fascinating place to visit. We could probably go on and on about it but this one's long enough already. If you're considering a visit - do it now, things seem to be changing rapidly - it's an amazing lifestyle and well worth the visit.
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