There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Ulan Bator (or Ulaanbaatar): Part 11 of The Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 10

Arriving in Ulanbaatar

Our first impressions were right, Ulan Bator is an ugly, unplanned sprawl of a city; indeed I cannot think of an uglier capital city. It is not particularly run down or dirty, though it is no shining city on or off a hill, but there is little that aspires to be more than ‘functional’ and disparate buildings – and tents - are plonked down without regard for their surroundings.

‘Ulan Bator’ is now often written ‘Ulaanbaatar’, which is an accurate transliteration of the Mongolian Cyrillic but looks odd in English, so I have stuck with the old-fashioned name. The city claims to have been founded in 1639 as a Buddhist monastic centre, but as that centre was originally nomadic it did not really come into being until it settled on its present site in 1778. Originally called Khuree, the city was renamed Ulan Bator (literally: Red Hero) when it became the capital of the People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1924. 1.2 million people live there - roughly half all Mongolians - and it is the only city of any size in the whole of the sparsely populated country.

Sukhbaatar Square Ulanbaatar

Between our arrival from Naushki and departure in the direction of Buurd Sum we had time for a quick look round. Ulan Batar’s central Sukhbaatar (Axe Hero) Square is impressive and the only part of the city that looks as if it was ever planned.

In the centre is an equestrian statue of Sukhbaatar himself. After the First World War, the Chinese attempted to regain control over Outer Mongolia (the present Republic of Mongolia)  and in 1919 ‘persuaded’ the country's ruler, the Bogd Khan, to sign an edict incorporating Outer Mongolia into China (Inner Mongolia had long been – and remains - a Chinese Province). Damdin Sukhbaatar, a founder of the Mongolian People’s Party, led the resistance which re-established independence in 1921. He died in 1923, officially of stress and overwork. As he was aged 30 and in otherwise good health it is generally believed that he was murdered by the Russians. Normally I distrust conspiracy theories, but this one has much to recommend it. Sukhbaatar may have been a communist, but he was too powerful for the Soviet regime to control and they wanted a more malleable leader.

Sukhbaatar in his square
Ulan Bator
Dying young and at the peak of his popularity, he naturally became a national hero. With a north-western town, a south-eastern province and a district of the capital named after him as well as his own square, he is Mongolia’s second greatest hero. The greatest sits outside the parliament building which occupies one side of the square. Mongolia today is a parliamentary democracy; I am not sure that Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan as the locals would say) would have had much time for democracy, but there he sits, several times larger than life, guarding the entrance to parliament.

The biggest local hero - in every sense
Chinggis Khaan outside the parliament building, Ulan Bator
We visited a money changer to turn some US dollars into togrogs. It was largely a waste of time as only once were we quoted a price in Togrogs. Generally we were asked for dollars and suggesting we might pay in togrogs produced a sigh and a calculator. This was not just because we were foreigners, I saw locals paying taxi drivers with dollar bills as well. Chinggis is, of course, on all the large notes, Sukhbaatar is on notes from 5 to 100 togrogs. As there are some 2000 to the pound, 10 togrogs are quite difficult to spend.

Sukhbaatar on the 10 togrog note
Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar

Gandan Monastery was built in 1809 and is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. It was closed by the government in 1938 but later Stalin – who pulled the strings – decided to look more kindly on religion* and it was reopened in 1949 as a token gesture to the country’s traditional culture and religion. It was extensively refurbished is 1990 and is now home to some 150 monks.

Entrance, Gandan Monastery, Ulan Bator
We wandered round Gandan marvelling at its many pigeons, at the monks’ exotic hats and at the way it looked so Tibetan despite Tibet being 2000km away. Then we set off south to stay with the nomads (a highlight of the whole journey), before passing back through Ulaanbaatar on our way to the Elstei Ger camp (a Mongolian dude ranch and a cold and damp anti-climax after the real thing).  See Part 9: Across the Mongolian Steppe from Ulan Bator to Burd Sum and Part 10: With the Mongolian Nomads.

Gandan Monastery, Ulan Bator

Return from Elstei

From Elstei we returned to Ulan Bator and checked into the Bayangol Hotel, a genuine four star international class hotel with soft beds and a shower which pumped out an unlimited supply of hot water.

Cleaner than we had been for some time we set out in search of lunch. Walking north towards the city centre we soon encountered The Brauhaus. Why two Germans chose to travel to Mongolia and set up a brewery in 1996 is a mystery, but I am glad they did. Khan Brau is a well-made pilsner style beer and the Brauhaus restaurant menu includes chicken. I was surprised how important this was, but after a week of eating mutton twice a day every day, chicken seemed exotic and luxurious.

The Bogd Khan's Palace, Ulaanbaator

Well fed, we walked south past our hotel and into the hinterland of the ugly city towards a huge portrait of Chinggis Khan on the hill opposite. We were in search of the Bogd Khan’s palace.

Chinggis on the opposite hillside, Ulan Bator
The Jebtsundamba (Holy Venerable Lord) is Mongolia’s spiritual leader and is the third most important Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. In 1911 Mongolia declared independence from China and the 8th Jebtsundamba became Mongolia’s theocratic ruler, the Bogd Khan. He remained the titular head of state after the 1921 revolution, but died in 1924. The 9th Jebtsundamba was born in 1932 and despite spending most of his life in exile in India, he was enthroned at the Gandan monastery in 1999. [update: he became a Mongolian citizen in 2010 and died in Ulan Bator in 2012. The search is now on for the 10th incarnation]

There was a major refurbishment going on at the palace. Parts of it still looked rather sad…..

Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
 …. but other parts had been newly restored,….

Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
….the paintings on the lintels had been touched up….

Lintel, Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
….as had the decorations on the gables. These - there are always an even number of ornaments - look Ming in style though the palace was built during the later Qing dynasty in China.

gable ornaments, Bogd Khan Palace, Ulan Bator
 But the Bogd Khan, like all Mongolians, was a nomad at heart and when he went travelling he used a ger made from the skins of 150 snow leopards, which maybe accounts for why there as so few left. The ger is now in the palace museum.

Ger made of snow leopard skins, Bogd Khan Palace Museum
Ulan Bator
Back at the hotel we wrote an email home. The ‘business centre’ was part of reception and the dial-up connection was slow and unreliable.  I tutted – nothing more – when I lost the connection in the middle of an email. An American serviceman – one of several we had seen around the hotel - using the other computer said, ‘Don’t complain, you’re in Mongolia and you’re on the internet.’ It was said loudly, within hearing of the the receptionists who spoke good English, and it sounded very patronising. ‘Hearts and minds,’ I thought, but I just smiled and grunted.

Cultural Show, Ulaanbaatar

That evening we walked into the centre to see a show that had been recommended to us by James and Naomi whom we had met in Listvyanka.
The auditorium, in Ulan Bator’s only shopping mall, was far from packed and we found ourselves sitting next to the W’s whom we had first met at the nomad encampment. They were there with their guide who expressed surprise, indeed amazement, that we had found our way there unaided. We had spoken to her before, and she was good at her job, but had suddenly become confused by the distinction between ‘foreign’, which we were, and ‘stupid’ which were (and are) not. This confusion often affects professional guides – and not just guides.

The band was good, the man with the one string fiddle really could make it sound like a herd of galloping horses, and Mongolian throat singing should be heard by everybody - once.

There is nothing like a bit of Mongolian throat singing
Nomin auditorium, Ulan Bator
Three skinny girls were impressive contortionists, but I would rather they had kept their act to themselves. The human body is not supposed to bend like that and watching it made me feel queasy. Several dances were supposed to portray the country’s shamanist tradition, but they seemed a bit twee – not that I have ever understood dance.

Shamanic spirits, I think
Nomin auditorium, Ulan Bator
We walked back to our hotel as darkness fell. I would not have liked to be out much later, with unreliable lighting and some unsavoury people abroad. We were only accosted by one drunk who was easily dealt with, but it can be a problem. Beer is being promoted to wean drinkers off harder liquor, but success has been partial – and are lager louts preferable to vodka vandals, anyway?

Breakfast Excitement and Departure from Ulaanbaatar

At breakfast we discovered just how many of our fellow guests were American military advisers. Lynne had gone to do some packing and I was finishing my breakfast alone when there was a noisy explosion. Shaven heads jerked upwards from their toast and gimlet eyes darted round the room seeking out the terrorists. It was actually just a gas bottle loudly but harmlessly announcing that it was empty. Under the circumstances I was surprised and relieved that the omelette chef was not shredded by a hail of bullets.

Without further excitement we set off for the station and the last stage of our journey from Moscow to Beijing.

*Ivolginsk Datsun outside Ulan Ude opened two years earlier
Back to Part 10
On to Part 11
Ulan Bator to Beijing
(coming one day, when I have the time)

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

With the Mongolian Nomads: Part 10 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 9
Across the Mongolian Steppe to Buurd Sum
On to Part 11

Our morning started with a quick wash, which was the only sort of wash available. We had brought drinking water from Ulan Bator but otherwise relied on our hosts’ supply. As this was dragged laboriously from the stream in large, blue plastic butts we were reluctant to create work by using too much.

Morning in Buurd Sum
Lynne outside the ger

Bayara had brought eggs from Ulan Bator for breakfast. Although our hosts kept horses, cattle, sheep and goats they, perhaps surprisingly, had no chickens.

Cleaned and fed, though with stomachs still not entirely settled, we set out to visit Erdene Zuu monastery.

Oggy drove us out of the valley and then further south to a tarmac road where we paused by a Buddhist shrine.  It was nothing more than a pile of stones with a tangle of flags, but every passer-by either stopped or hooted their horn. We walked round it three times in a clockwise direction, which is the appropriate thing to do, and placed another stone on the top. Mongolian Buddhism is of the same Yelugpa sect as Tibetan Buddhism and they recognise the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, but Mongolia also has a long tradition of Shamanism, and sometimes Buddhism and Shamanism become intertwined.

A pile of stones with a tangle of flags
Buddhist (or perhaps Shaman) shrine, Mongolia

Twenty or thirty miles take no time on a proper road, particularly when there is very little traffic.

We stopped on a low rise overlooking Erdene Zuu. Beyond the monastery, the small town of Kharkhorin was marked by an ugly smudge of smoke from a rare example of Mongolian industry.

Erdene Zuu with Kharkhorin in the background

We had halted by an interesting stone which had been arranged so that it pointed into a folded cleft in the hills.  I have been unable to find out when this little monument was erected, but, in theory, it channels away the monk’s sexual energy, allowing them to live pure and blameless lives. That sounds to me like a post hoc justification for the chief lamas’ childish glee at having found a stone shaped just like a willy. It also provided an opportunity for a few locals to set up trestle tables and sell trinkets to passing willy watchers.

Phallic stone, Kharkhorin

Ghengis Khan built his capital of Karakorum here around 1220. Not being a settling down sort of guy, Ghengis soon moved on, though the city thrived for a while before being destroyed by a Ming army in 1388. Erdene Zuu was built in 1585, using such remnants of Karakorum as were available. The site is surrounded by a wall containing 100 stupas. 108 is a mystical number in Buddhism, so perhaps some builder miscounted and nobody noticed until it was too late.

Erdene Zuu

By the end of the 19th century there were over 60 temples here, but in 1939 the communists destroyed many of them. What remained became a museum until 1990 when the site was handed back to the lamas and again became an active monastery.

Erdene Zuu

The ‘thinning’ of the buildings in 1939 had the unintended consequence of providing a pleasant and uncluttered site to walk around. The temple buildings are similar in style and architecture to those of Tibet, and the interiors are richly coloured.  Unlike Ivolginsk, there were plenty of visitors, though I think we were the only westerners there at the time. The site was also equipped with clean, modern flush toilets, and as the airacke had not yet fully passed through our systems we were duly grateful.

Temple interior, Erdene Zuu

The exit was through the gift shop – the Mongolians seem to be adapting to capitalism more naturally than the Russians. We had bought some Tögrögs before leaving Ulan Bator, but discovered the gifts were all priced in US dollars. Suggesting we might pay in Tögrögs produced a sigh and a pocket calculator. ‘This must be for the foreign tourists’ we thought, but there were none except us.

Monk with a prayer wheel, Erdene Zuu

We returned to our ger in time for our midday mutton. After eating, we were informed that Shitter’s father-in-law had acquired a couple of camels - I have no idea where from - and thought we might like a ride. Payment was again requested in US dollars.

My previous experience had only been with Arabian camels which are smelly, bad-tempered, supercilious and uncomfortable, so I approached this new opportunity warily. The two humped Bactrian camels, I soon discovered, are docile and sweet-natured, and also have an obvious place to sit. I know there are people in the Middle East who love their one-humped camels the way cowboys loved their horses, but I will take the two-humper any day of the week.

A lesson in camel management
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Shitter’s second son and a friend were in charge of the beasts and showed us how to control them, though they had little faith in our abilities and walked with us all the way. Four year old Ugana ‘assisted', showing no fear of the large beasts, walking right underneath a camel at one point.
Ugana helps
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Once mounted, we set off on a longer version of our walk of the day before, first visiting the desert and then circling through the whole of the encampment. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though I had no idea how much my knees would ache when I dismounted and straightened them up.

Totally confident and in control
Buurd sum, Mongolia

Later, as we were chewing our evening mutton we heard voices outside. They were speaking English, and speaking it with the familiar lilt of the south Wales valleys. The W family, father G, mother D and daughter K had arrived to stay with Shitter’s in-laws. They had already had their first brush with airacke and were in urgent need of the noisome hole in the ground.

Camel's eye view of the desert
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We let them sort out their problem before introducing ourselves, swapping some stories and then letting them sort out their problem again.

That night was peaceful – for us - interrupted only by the occasional howling of the dogs.

Dawn brought another beautiful morning, with nothing to do except spend a day in camp with our hosts. We watched what they did, helped where we could, which was very little, and tried not to get in the way.

One job that was carried out morning and evening was the working of what would become leather. Shitter and his father-in-law hung a hide cut into twisted strips on a wooden gallows and attached a weight. Then, with considerable effort, they ran a pole up and down through the twists, twirling the weight and stretching and strengthening the leather.

Shitter and his father-in-law work the leather
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

After this it was time to milk the horses. The foals were tethered to a line set in the grass. Shitter brought up the mares one by one, allowed the foals to drink their fill, before pushing them away so that Oyedoo could collect the excess. Finally the milk was poured into a butt half buried in the ground where it could be stirred and fermented.

Oyedoo waits for the foal to finish
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We did little for the rest of the morning but it was interesting to watch the life of the encampment go on around us. Shitter’s solar panel powering a single light bulb, but we had heard of gers with much larger panels, satellite dishes and bored teenagers inside watching MTV. Nothing like that happened where we were. The two older boys spent all day with their father, helping out in all he did. Each had his own horse and they looked completely at home in the saddle as they galloped across the valley, standing in the stirrups holding their lassos like lances. Their younger sister spent the day helping their mother.

Number 1 son with his lasso
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We may no longer like the idea of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ but survival in the camp depends on everybody knowing their job and getting on with it, and if their traditional way of life is to continue this is the way it must be. The older children also spend a large part of the year away at school so they are properly equipped should they choose to follow another path.

Little Ugana was, undoubtedly the star of the show. He spent much of his day ‘galloping’ astride a stick to which a white ribbon had been attached for a mane. At other times he could be found walking around the camp with a stool over his head. This was clearly an important job, but only a four-year-old’s logic could explain why.
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Goat milking was an afternoon job. On horseback Shitter and his sons gathered the herd and drove them to the appropriate area. Shitter picked out the family goats – identified by their blue painted horns – and tethered them in two rows facing each other. His mother-in-law started milking one side, his sister-in-law the other.

Ugana among the goats
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Ugana galloped over and muscled his way in among the goats, standing shoulder to shoulder with them. He clambered onto the back of one, grabbed its horns, and started making motorbike noises, twisting his hand round the horn like his uncle opening the throttle on his bike. The goats seemed to accept this as normal behaviour.

Ugana rides his goaterbike....
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

A lot of work was involved and the quantity of milk produced was not great, but the cheese produced is an important part of their diet. The traditional Mongolian diet consists largely of dairy products, with added mutton. The concept of ‘five a day’ was alien to them, indeed the Mongolians do not traditionally grow vegetables, considering it an insult to the earth to go digging in it.  Today almost half of Mongolia’s 2.75 million people live in Ulan Bator and few of them could be considered to live a ‘traditional way of life’.

...while Granny does the milking
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

Later, Oyedoo asked about our lives and we showed her a picture of our house. She stared at it for a while with a furrowed brow. ‘How many rooms?’ she asked at last. ‘Seven’ we told her. ‘How many people live there?’ ‘Just us two.’ She thought about that, decided it made no sense and returned our photograph with a shake of her head and a smile that said that we could hardly have been stranger had we come from Mars. She could not imagine our lives any more than we would have been able to imagine hers just a few days earlier.

We felt privileged to have spent a few days with Shitter and Oyedoo. Their culture is still strong, but it is a hard life, and much harder in the extremely cold winters. They are sophisticated people and not unaware of the outside world. Given the opportunities and alternatives their children have I wonder how many more generations will chose to live like this. They are also a friendly and welcoming people. It may be hypocritical, but I hope tourism of the sort we indulged in does not end up damaging their culture.
Mongolian herdsmen learn to ride young
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

After our evening mutton we were joined by the W’s, their guide, driver, Bayara, Oggy and Shitter. Oggy produced a bottle of vodka and Shitter found a glass. We drank in a circle, as is common where glasses are rare. The host pours for the person on his left who downs the vodka and refills the glass for the person on their left and so on. With so many people the bottle did not last long, even though Shitter seemed happy to stick to his airacke. When it was gone I rummaged round in our luggage and miraculously came up with another one.

The Mongolians started the singing, Oggy and Shitter giving us some folk songs and proving they had very good voices. Lynne replied with a lullaby in Welsh and so the evening progressed. By the time the second bottle was empty everybody had contributed to the singing except GW and me. I am uncomfortable in such situations; I cannot sing, I do not know what to do to make a tune. Embarrassing as it was, I really had no choice but to opt out; GW was different. He had enjoyed an interesting and varied career but he had spent recent years singing with the Welsh National Opera. He had been waiting patiently all evening and this was his opportunity. I had never before sat right next to a fully trained operatic tenor when he opens up his lungs. It was unbelievably loud and, to me at least, incomprehensibly musical. GW sang Verdi, the Mongolians stared open mouthed and I felt the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Sitting in a tent in the middle of the steppe listening to a Welshman singing in Italian to a bunch of Mongolians is one of those events destined to be remembered.
Oggy and Shitter drink airacke
Buurd Sum, Mongolia

We slept well that night, even sleeping through the wolf attack which lead to the death of a sheep.

In the morning we made the long journey back to Ulan Bator, arriving in the middle of a power cut. On the odd occasions when traffic lights have been out at home, I have found that people slow down, negotiate their way through junctions, and often do so quicker than when the lights are working. Not so in Ulan Bator. Every driver pushed his way forward into any space available while simultaneously leaning on his horn. The result was a cacophonous gridlock.

We eventually made it to the offices of the travel company where we walked up five flights of stairs in the dark to use their toilet.

After a short break Oggy drove us north for a couple of hours, largely on proper roads, to a ‘the Elstei Tourist Ger Camp’ a sort of Mongolian ‘dude ranch.’ Straight after the real thing – probably the highlight of the whole trip – this was a serious anti-climax.

On a desolate grassy plateau were two dozen gers, pitched much closer together than on any real encampment. Their occupants were us, the W family, several other Europeans (mainly British) and a Japanese tour party. There was a toilet block with hot showers, which were welcome, and a brick built clubhouse where we gathered to eat our mutton. There was also a full bar (priced in US dollars) so the evenings were quite convivial.

The W family play the bones game  at the Elstei Ger Camp

I spent the late afternoon attempting to photograph hamsters. Their burrows surrounded the clubhouse and they kept on popping out having a potter around and then retreating. Whichever burrow I stationed myself beside, a hamster would appear elsewhere, wait as I gently repositioned myself and then, as soon as I raised my camera, disappear. My failure was total.

Later some of the waiters gave an exhibition of Mongolian wrestling. Wrestling is very popular and is considered the most important of the Three Manly Skills - horsemanship and archery being the others. There are no weight divisions or any limit to the ‘ring’. After saluting the crowd and their opponent the wrestlers grapple and the bout ends when any part of one the combatants, other than his foot, touches the ground. Though somewhat lightweight the waiters put on a good performance and there was clearly some rivalry between them.
Mongolian wrestling

The next day dawned cool and overcast. The main attraction was horse-riding, but as I am allergic to horses (and cats and dogs but not camels) I was not keen. Eventually I decided to have a go and dosed myself up with anti-histamine. Unfortunately I had spent too long dithering and the Japanese group had bagged all the horses. ‘Never mind,’ I said, ‘we’ll go this afternoon.’ At that point it started raining and continued solidly for the rest of the day and all night.

Elstei in the rain, the horses huddled in the middle distance
We never did go horse-riding, but I used the opportunity to finish Crime and Punishment which I had been struggling with all the way across Russia. I am not sure I enjoyed it, but I was glad I had managed to finish it. I have not felt the need to read any more Dostoyevsky.
Reading Dostoyevsky as the rain batters down
Elstei ger Camp, Mongolia

Next morning we returned to Ulan Bator, checked into an international class hotel and had most of the day to look at the city.

Back to Part 9
Across the Mongolian Steppe to Buurd Sum
On to Part 11

Friday, 27 July 2007

Across the Mongolian Steppe from Ulan Bator to Bürd Sum: Part 9 of the Tran-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 8 :
On to part 10;
We rolled into Ulan Bator in the early morning. The outskirts seemed more a ger encampment than a city and even in industrial areas tents sprouted on any available patch of ground, whether on the marginal land outside a factory or inside the fence of an electricity sub-station.

The outskirts of Ulan Bator

At the station we were greeted by a girl who introduced herself as Bayara and her driver as Oggy. This seemed to amuse Oggy immoderately. ‘It’s not his real name,’ she added, ‘but you wouldn’t be able to pronounce that.’ ‘Hello, Oggy,' we said and shook hands. This produced more laughter; I wondered what ‘Oggy’ might mean in Mongolian.

We visited a hotel for a shower and breakfast. The waitresses smiled, seemed pleased to see us and keen to help; we were clearly no longer in Russia.

After a brief tour of Ulan Bator (see Part 11) Oggy drove us south towards Ovorkhangai Aimag. Mongolia is divided into 21 aimags, or provinces, and Ovorkhangai is right in the middle of the country. It is three times the size of Wales but the population would fit in the Millennium Stadium - with only a little overspill. At 1.6 people per square km (c.f. Wales 140, Staffordshire 395 and Hong Kong 16,500) Ovorkhangai is more than averagely crowded by Mongolian standards. Our destination was Bürd Sum, one of the 19 sums into which Ovorkhangai is divided.

Although Bürd Sum is some 250 km from Ulan Bator, the dual carriageway ended before we had travelled fifty. From here on there was no road, but the route over the grassland is well used, the ruts covering an area up to 100 m wide. We could see a few other vehicles, recognising them by their clouds of dust. We travelled on in our own dust cloud following Oggy’s selected rut. Progress was slow as often smaller, more natural ruts crossed the path at right angles; some were quite deep and care was necessary to avoid damaging our minibus.

Across the steppe after the road ended

After a while we stopped for lunch by a Buddhist shrine on a small knoll. Our minibus, which had been clean when we left Ulan Bator, had largely disappeared below a layer of dust. From our elevated position we surveyed the featureless steppes sweeping off to the horizon in all directions. We could see one or two gers in the distance, several moving dust clouds swirling around other travellers and as great an expanse of emptiness as I have ever seen.

The minibus had been clean when we left Ulan Bator

Bayara provided us with cold buuz - mutton dumplings - which were not very appetizing, and a chocolate wafer. We could also have had a cup of tea, had she not left her thermos on its side allowing the contents to leak all over our luggage.

Lynne & Bayara take lunch by a Buddhist shrine on a small knoll

We continued jolting through the ruts, passing several gers, a few broken down wooden huts that might have been a village and several families of what I now believe to be demoiselle cranes strutting purposefully across the grass.

A Family of Demoiselle Cranes

At some point which only Oggy could recognise we swung left from the well-travelled route and made our way across virgin steppe. The grass looked as smooth as a golf course fairway, but the jolting of the minibus told us otherwise.

An hour later Oggy stopped in a shallow valley between two low green hills, got out and motioned us to do the same. We stood still and listened. For the first time in my life I found myself listening to complete silence. There was no traffic noise, no sound or sight of human activity, no wind, no birdsong, no buzzing insects, just absolute silence.

We continued down the valley and round the end of the hill into a small plain between a low mountain and an area of desert. A stream wound through the plain and there were a dozen or more gers dotted about, sometimes on their own sometimes in twos or even threes. Herds of sheep and goats grazed among the tents while cattle stood ruminatively in the stream. The Mongolians are often referred to as ‘nomads’, but more precisely they are transhumant, meaning they move with their herds every season. We were looking at a summer encampment, and there was no detail of the scene that would have been different had we arrived two hundred years ago. (On second thoughts, there is a blue plastic bucket standing outside the ger on the right!)

A small plain between a low mountain and an area of desert

Our vehicle seemed a noisy intrusion as we bumped across to the nearest ger and announced our presence. Traditionally Mongolians show hospitality to all travellers, all you have to do is ask. We had brought presents - soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other necessities available only in towns – but as Bayara, Oggy and the van had been supplied by a local travel company who make a business out of this, I presume some payment was involved. We were politely refused at the first ger - the woman’s husband was away and she was on her own – but she suggested we approached a ger some 200 metres away.

When I have spoken about this experience to school groups I have altered the name of our host. He was actually called Shitter, I made Bayara say it twice to be certain. We did not laugh.

Our Hosts, Shitter and Oyedoo with Oyedoo's mother
and four-year-old Ugana

Shitter and his wife Oyedoo invited us in. Lynne and Bayara joined Oyedoo on the right, while Oggy and I sat on the men’s side. The central portion between the upright supports - containing the stove and a large pile of dried dung to fuel it – was reserved for the Buddha.  Along both sides were colourful wall hangings and a bed doubling as a sofa. At the end a wooden chest of drawers stood next to a couple of cabinets, their glass top filled with knick-knacks and family photographs, mainly of Shitter in his army days. The supports held up a wooden ring about a metre in diameter through which passed the stove pipe and all the fresh air anyone could ever want. Hanging incongruously from the ring was a wooden cuckoo clock bearing the words ‘fairy castle’.

The women's side of the ger

Our hosts provided cheese and airacke, the traditional welcome to travellers. Airacke is mare’s milk which has been vigorously stirred and then allowed to ferment. It was brought in a bucket and served in soup bowls. It tasted like a mildly alcoholic milk shake. Etiquette demanded we take at least a mouthful, but we both found we rather liked it and finished our bowls. This turned out to be a mistake. The cheese was made from goats’ milk. The curd is cut into thin strips then placed on a metal tray and set out to dry on the sloping roof of the ger. It hardens and blackens so you are offered a bowl of what looks and feels like a pile of pot sherds. You pick one that is not too big and pop it in your mouth. For a while it seems that you are indeed sucking a piece of pottery, but in time it softens and gives up its flavour – a little like Parmesan, but much, much stronger.

The Buddha's space

We were invited to stay and duly handed over our gifts. The ger became ours for the next three nights. Oggy and Bayara took up residence in the small, plainer adjacent ger which was usually a storeroom and kitchen, and Shitter and Oyedoo moved in with Oyedoo’s parents, whose ger was some fifty metres away. Where their four children slept we have no idea, but they seemed happy enough.

An incongruous cuckoo clock

Introductions over and settling in completed we had time for a stroll before dinner. We made our way past the toilet – a hole in the ground partially surrounded by a metre high wind break – and on towards the desert.  Sand and scrub extended in waves as far as we could see. We did not venture far – getting lost in the desert would make us look stupid – but anyway the firm sand held our footprints and retracing our steps was easy. We almost trod on a small lizard, so beautifully camouflaged we only saw him when he moved.  A huge cricket with wings like a moth made off with a strange whirring sound.

A well camouflaged lizard

Back on the grassland there were many humps and burrows, the homes of hamsters, mice and marmosets. They are all cute, furry and much the same size, seven or eight centimetres long, but can be distinguished by their tails; marmosets are fluffy, mouse tails are ratty while hamster tails are absent.

We were hoping to eat with our hosts, but soon discovered that Bayara had brought all our food from Ulan Bator and was doing our cooking separately. We were disappointed, but understood that we would otherwise place a strain on our hosts’ meagre resources. We dined alone on a small table in ‘our’ ger. We ate mutton - a statement you can make twice a day, every day in Mongolia without fear of contradiction..

As we finished, we heard a motor vehicle disturbing the peace of our valley. Shitter wanted to send some sheep to market and a small pick-up had arrived to take them.

We played our parts as assistant shepherds, helping to keep the flock in a small area as Shitter dashed into the melee armed with his Mongolian lasso, a loop of rope on the end of a long stick. He wrestled his chosen animal over to the pick-up truck while we kept the rest together, then he dived in for his next victim.

When all was finished the flock carried on grazing as though nothing had happened. Sitting outside the ger beside them we became very aware of two particular sounds: the sound of sheepy teeth tugging at the short grass, and the sound of sheepy backsides venting excess gasses. All we could hear was chomp, chomp, trump, trump, chomp, trump, chomp, trump, chomp.

All we could hear was chomp, chomp, trump, trump....

Another vehicle arrived. Oyedoo’s brother, who lived with his wife in a ger some 200 hundred metres away, was returning home on his motorcycle, an ancient soviet built machine. He was, we learned, blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other as the result of a ‘drinking accident’ before he was married. Although generally a genial character we tried to avoid him when he was riding his motorbike – after all he had no way of avoiding us.

We paid a visit and were treated to tea and more cheese. Mongolian tea, which is also served in a soup plate, is very long on milk and very short on tea, but otherwise not unpleasant. In the gathering gloom it was easy to take a small piece of cheese and ‘lose’ it without causing offence. 

Oyedoo’s brother and his wife had been married for seven years and Lynne wondered how they met as the only gers within walking distance seemed to belong to the extended family. The year, we learned, is punctuated by festivals when Mongolians get together to indulge their passions for archery, wrestling and horse racing. Such gatherings also provide a good opportunity for young Mongolians to meet members of the opposite sex - or to indulge in heavy drinking and lose the sight in one eye.

We took the short walk home in darkness. Shitter owned a solar panel which was slung on top of the ger and operated a low energy bulb dangling beside the cuckoo clock. We had thus become the custodians of the only artificial light within a day’s walk. It had been a bright, sunny day and in the complete absence of light pollution we were looking forward to a spectacular display of stars. Unfortunately, as dusk fell the clouds had rolled in. We did not see a single star that night, or any other night we were in Mongolia.

The night was quiet, though not as silent as our earlier stop. I do not know how long I had been asleep when I was woken by a plaintive voice from the far side of the tent. The European digestive system, we were discovering, is unaccustomed to fermented mares’ milk.

Finding the toilet in the darkness might provide a challenge and Lynne did not want to go alone. We stepped out into the blackness. There was no moon and no stars, the only light in the valley came from our cheap torch. We walked off in what we thought was the right direction, sweeping the beam over the grass as we went. Navigation turned out to be no great problem and after an unpleasant but necessary interval we retraced our steps. About half way back my system decided it had tolerated the airacke long enough and we had to turn round and return to the hole in the ground.

Oyedoo's sister-in-law stirs next week's Airacke

I was just drifting off to sleep when the dogs started. Beginning with a single howl at the far end of the valley, the sound grew louder and louder and moved closer and closer as the canine choir took up the tune with a will. Every ger has a dog, whose main function is to guard the sheep. Wolves, Shitter had informed us, had recently been something of a nuisance.

Eventually an uneasy peace returned, at which point Lynne declared the necessity of returning to the toilet. Again we set out across the sward, this time followed by a small posse of growling dogs. Packs of dogs make me uneasy at the best of times, but the thought that we might also confront a prowling wolf was distinctly discouraging - still, needs must.

We made our way there and back unmolested and the rest of the night was passed in peaceful slumber. In the morning we opened the door and looked out on blue sky, green grass and peacefully grazing animals; a timeless scene of pastoral serenity that would lift the heart of even the most dedicated townie.

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