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…..

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

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to reading about Ulan Bator! Planning to go there next spring.