Mongolia

Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
1
13
43
Trip End Ongoing


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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eyup! Just spent 3 weeks in Mongolia and rarely saw electricity never mind the Internet so this entry is a bit long! We spent 4 days horse riding in Central Mongolia, 4 in the capital Ulaanbaatar, and 11 on a 2000km journey around Western and Southern Mongolia in a jeep.

Before commencing our journey the hostel owner stressed the importance of forming a good team between us, our English companions Josh, and Sophie, our guide, Muktour, and our Vodka loving driver (nobody knew his name). 2 Hours into the journey I went for a piss on to what looked like a pile of rubble but was in fact a Buddhist prayer offering. Hardly a good start. Needing the toilet anywhere in Mongolia is fraught with difficulties. You either go for it in the open or trek to a disgustingly foul wooden shack with a hole between some wooden planks. I was pissing outside at dusk when a huge yak started taking an uncomfortable interest. I had been playing chicken with them all day and sensing my vulnerable position this hairy beast walked menacingly towards me. Trying to move position in a foot of snow with a yaks eyes fixated on your open fly isn't easy, particularly when this beast had a horn the size of my arm. I managed a few tentative steps when the yak stopped, bent down, and slurped up every drop of my steaming urine. The next morning a wild dog followed me into the woods and ate my shit, returning to the ger with his teeth stained brown. Kerry had just commented on how cute he was.

Throughout our trip it felt like we were on some kind of safari. In central and western Mongolia we drove through 1000km of what felt like the worlds largest farmyard. Wild horses, yak, cows, sheep and goats were everywhere in herds that often numbered over 100. The nomadic families we stayed with kept between 300-500 animals. In the Gobi desert of Southern Mongolia we drove amongst eagles, gazelle, fox, condor, and thousands of horses and 2 humped camels. Whilst animals were everywhere we would often drive for hours without seeing a single other vehicle and passing only a couple of solitary gurs. There was also no apparent form of road system. What appeared as a main road was actually an uneven collection of dirt and gravel and what appeared as a secondary road was in fact a collection of tire tracks. We never saw a road sign and our driver had directions for 400km drawn on a piece of scrap paper that resembled a 4 year olds drawing; it looked like go left of the big mountain, avoid the rock on the right and follow the forest through the valley.

On day 5 we drove for 2hours into a forest 2-3 foot deep in snow before having to turn round because the track was impassable. An overturned jeep had been an ominous warning. After 8 hours we had traveled a depressing 100km and were stuck in an isolated desert town our guide described as "a local town for local people." We stayed with the drivers friends who had never taken foreign guests and we felt a little apprehensive. Fortunately (or unfortunately the next morning) they produced 3 bottles of Chingis vodka which 10 of us drank before we all slept together in a ger smaller than your average living room. A ger is a circular felt and wool covered hut between 4 and 6 metres in diameter in which a whole family, often 3 generations, lives, sleeps and cooks.

The nomadic families were incredibly welcoming and kind but all shared an obsession with force feeding us traditional Mongolian dairy produce. At each gur we stopped for food or to sleep we were given; a bowl of fermented horses milk, the national drink which tastes like gone off cheap wine mixed with out of date full fat milk, Mongolian milk tea which would taste okay if they didn't add the salt content of the black sea to every bowl, and a plate of dried sheep's milk yogurt so hard i thought i cracked my tooth eating it. Never wanting to be rude, 1 of us, Josh or Sophie had to take 1 for the team by either: a) taking the lions share in one gut wrenching gulp or bite, b) inconspicuously hiding the yogurt on our pockets, c) pouring the liquid back into the pan while no one was looking. Mongolian food isn't much tastier unfortunately and every meal contained huge pieces of animal fat that could be mistaken for slices of potato. The one exception was horse meat which was delightfully tender. If anyone thinks eating horse is harsh, this is a country with 4 times more horses than people and it tastes a hell of a lot nicer than mutton.

Despite the lack of running water and electricity I began admiring how superior the nomadic lifestyle was to the Western world. The excesses and ills of materialism, greed and vanity hadn't touched this culture where everyone was happy with what they had rather than wanting something they didn't need. Everyone was voluntarily the same as the next person in a kind of ultimate socialism. They could pack their gur away and could move anywhere else within an hour because rent isn't paid in Mongolia. Animals were their commodities and rather than pamper domestic pets like we do, animals were used for transport, food, wool, fur. They even collected the animal shit to fuel the fires, "you need more poo?" became a classic Mongolian phrase.

While the countryside is vast, beautiful, open and clean, the capital UlaanBator is its antithesis. From 2 hours away you can see the cloud of smog that engulfs the city, hundreds of young children beg on the streets and the chaotic roads are a funeral waiting to happen. However, the small backpacker hangouts Chaz Bernards and Michelles French bakery, along with our hostel made our time here relaxed and enjoyable. We met the most random traveler by the name of Pete from East London. He wore a whole tweed suit with waist cost and jacket and tie because he liked to confuse the locals. We went for a curry where he ordered a plate of chopped cucumbers and tomato's with a popadom. Then the following night he ordered a plate of cheese at a Mexican for his main.

Its hard to pick out our favorite place as everywhere we went was equally as stunning. It looked particularly special on the 2 occasions it snowed; the whitened mountains and valleys of the west and camels standing 2 foot deep in snow in the Gobi are enduring images. Being in a place so open you can watch the sunset and sunrise, either side of admiring the milky way, from the same position was pretty special. Horse and camel riding was amazing as well, galloping and jumping ditches on the steppes, and plodding around the 300m sand dunes in the Gobi. Camels are arguably the smelliest animals in the world. While the walk they urinate all over their back legs before releasing a sloppy green shit which sticks to their moistened fur. They also have 2 stomachs and all food seems to be in a constant flux between the 2 via their mouths which are constantly chewing on regurgitated crap.

On our train to China the reality of how poor Mongolia is hit home. Half our carriage was people traveling the 24hours over the border in order to receive adequate medical treatment, including a 60 year old man on a stretcher. The country is sitting on huge copper, gold and coal reserves but Russian and American companies mine here and take 60% of the profits. Despite receiving more foreign aid from America than any other country the amount is dwarfed by the money being taken out. Oh, and Mongolia has a prime tactical position between China and Russia so if anything kicks off expect the country to be ruined.

Anyone still reading? Mongolia was absolutely amazing and by far the best experience we have had so far. We will be returning...
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