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…..

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.

Back to Part 8 :
On to part 10:

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