Munching Marmot in Mongolia
As we arrived in UlaanBaatar in a freak blizzard, we were glad to have taken advantage of the hostels free pick up offer. We were greeted by a short and bubbly Mongolian lady called Bogi, and what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in Jolliness, making us feel instantly at ease in this strange new place.
After a precarious taxi journey through the snow we arrived at our hostel, the Golden Gobi. In terms of atmosphere, this was one of the best hostels we’ve stayed in. A family run affair with a large common room/kitchen which, during our time there, was often filled with (mostly) friendly and interesting travelers exchanging adventure tales.
After catching up on a few hours sleep, we went for a mooch about town. It’s hard to describe UlaanBataar, but I’ll have a bash – Ugly, crowded, noisy, bustling, and seemingly surrounded on all sided by snow capped mountains. Rampant consumerism has really taken hold here, with aesthetically inconsiderate advertising shouting at you from every direction, and scores of teenagers buzzing around in all the latest fashions – headphones blaring. These kids wouldn’t look out of place on the trendiest streets of Manchester or London. It’s a stark contrast from the simple nomadic and village life still practiced by so many on the steppes surrounding the city. One really bizarre sight, right on the red square, surrounded by mega flashy glass high rises, was an outdoor showroom – appearing to sell sheds and garages. On closer inspection, we realised what it was: An upgrade-your-outdated-Gerr(Yurt)-and-get-with-the-times showroom. Here, Mongolians were being encouraged to forget about their ancient traditional way of living, and plant some roots with a nice shiny fibre glass shed. (If you were the sentimental type, you could even get one in the shape of a Gerr… Thoroughly depressing, and after we spent the next few days experiencing life in Gerrs – it seemed even more so.
Despite all this, UlaanBaatar wasn’t an unpleasant place to be. It seemed to be thriving, with big groups of friends and families all around, smiling, laughing, and appearing extremely laid back – All of this was quite surprising after we were just getting used to the seriousness of Mother Russia. It is possible that the city does not always seem this welcoming, as we caught the tail end of a weekend long festival promoting healthy living, with streets closed to cars, bike rallies everywhere, and various stalls and attractions all around. (It turns out the idea of fruit and vegetables has only just reached Mongolia, a country with virtually no arable land, that has historically been built on the meaty carcasses of anything that moves). Anyhow, our later experience of the huge lawless roads in the city does leave us to suppose that everyone isn’t always in such a good mood as they were during our visit.
We only spent one full day and one evening in UlaanBaatar itself, so these are all first impressions really. It’s definitely an intriguing place that would well warrant a bit of time and exploration. As well as the imposing Sukhbaatar’s Square, and massive modern glass office blocks, there is also a huge Ancient Buddhist temple in the centre of town which we unfortunately didn’t get to see. By all accounts its pretty special though, as it’s huge, and is still a working temple where visitors are welcome to go and watch mourning/evening prayers.
Although we wanted to go and see some of Mongolia’s famous countryside, it depended on how expensive it was going to be. Luckily, the Golden Gobi offered good deals, and we were offered to join a Dutch couple on a trip they had booked which would lower the cost for us all. For £90 each, we got the chance to go out to the nearby Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and spend 3 full days and 2 nights in Gerrs with some genuine Mongolian (and Khazak Mongolian) families, eating, drinking tea, hiking, horse riding, and visiting a surreal Genghis Khan monument.
The morning after we arrived, we met with our driver Ishka, and our guide, who turned out to be Bogi, our jolly friend from the train station. We got on instantly with our Dutch travelling companions Maarten and Paulina, and having good friends to travel with made the experience all the more enjoyable. They had also come on the Trans-Siberian and their plan was now Mongolia, China, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, South East Asia (and possibly India I think). We hope to stay in touch and particularly look forward to hearing about Tibet, Nepal, and Burma, as these are place we would really like to go (maybe on the way back).
Anyway – off we went in our rickety but robust little Russian mini van, taking in the wild wide open vistas of the Mongolian steppes. I could write for pages about this trip and all the things we saw, but I haven’t got time, and nobody wants to read any more waffle than is absolutely necessary anyway, so I’ll try and be brief. As the van trundled along, we were a bit concerned about what the trip was going to be like – the whole notion of “authentic cultural tourism” is a bit strange as it is, and we kept passing things signed as Gerr Tourist Camps, which were little clusters of Gerrs fenced of with shops and western toilets and the like. Thankfully, we quickly went off the beaten track, and were swallowed by the vast Mongolian wilderness.
As far as we could make out, the families involved in this tourist scheme were genuine animal herding families, living semi nomadic lifestyles, who supplemented their income, by letting foreigners stay with them for a few days. There may well be arguments against it, but to us it seemed like a win-win situation for both parties. We get to see a totally different culture, and they make a few extra quid by just letting us stay there, feeding us, and getting on with life as usual. The families probably thought it was bizarre that people would pay to come and see the hum-drum of their day to day. We’ve been wondering how we can get people to come and pay to watch our daily grind when we get back.
The three days we experienced were basically a Mongolia taster session. The first family we visited actually had an electricity line to their Gerr, with a fridge and a television. They were still semi-nomadic, in that they moved locations every season, but they would rotate between the same 4 locations every year, and instead of loading up their homes onto horses and camels, they used 4x4s. The Kazakh family were much more remote, with no power line, but they had wind and solar generators, and on the steppes, wind and sun are in abundance. The Kazakhs rounded up their herds using motorbikes and dogs, and also had an ancient television, but they were so busy working this seemed to get little use. Around cities, this modern tinged, semi-nomadic life seems quite normal. It makes sense too, unless they were actively shunning modern technology like the Amish, there is no reason why they wouldn’t use cars, have generators and mobile phones etc. Apart from a few pieces of technology however, their ancient culture and way of life seems well preserved.
One of the main things we were all worried about was not adhering to the traditional customs. If you read the guide books, there are huge lists of things – like always accepting the snuff bottle with your left hand, not pointing your feet at the fire or the door, sitting in appropriate positions according to gender and seniority, not slapping people round the chops, etc… For us it was all worry for nothing, our hosts were very accommodating to tourists and didn’t mind our cultural faux pas, and I reckon much of the rules and regulations would only be observed and the extremely remote and rural nomadic families.
When we arrived at the first Gerr, our family weren’t home, so we stopped by a neighbours who promptly fed us and gave us our first taste of Mongolian tea: Milk from various animals (sometimes combined) and stewed with some particular grasses and sieved It’s kind of salty, milky and herby. I was dubious at first, but after about 3 cups I was hooked, and I still miss it now. We went for a trek to a local Buddhist temple, and then came back to meet the family we would stay with. They must get a fair few tourists, as they had a separate Gerr for us to sleep in, with actual beds in it (We thought we would be sleeping on the floor a is normal, and as we did at the next place). They stoked the fire so well before we went to bed, that Amy woke up in the middle of the night, practically on fire, and had to hurtle out into the snowy darkness, practically in the knack, to cool down.
Next day, after a stupendously surreal visit to a ridiculous Genghis Khan monument, we set off to the next family we would be staying with. They were Kazakh and apparently there are quite a few Kazakh nomad families in the area. Although they are nomadic and live in Gerrs in Mongolia, there were many differences in culture. For example they were Muslim whereas most Mongolian nomads follow Buddism or some form of shamanism. The journey over the steppes was amazing, and with no roads or apparent points of reference it was amazing Ishka knew where he was driving. When we arrived we were greeted by a traditional dressed old lady, who looked approximately 200 years old, with a dress soaked in blood, and a lamb under her arm. She waved at us and pootled off with said newborn, and we didn’t actually see her again for the rest of our stay. Due to the time of year, animals were popping sproggs out left right and centre, so our hosts were extremely busy. In the evening we were treated to a bit of music by the son of the elder, who had an amazing singing voice and can make a beautiful sound with the simple but haunting 2 stringed Dombra (a lute type thing). Playing music and having a sing song is also a big part of Mongolian tradition, and Ishka and Bogi joined in with the singing instinctively without any restraint or reserve. Annoyingly, every Mongolian seems to have a wonderful singing voice, and they then wanted us to let loose a little ditty for them, but we politley declined, due to having the combined vocal talent of a cat being throttled by a noisey goose.
Bogi and Ishka really made the trip for us, they were a great team, always laughing and joking with each other. Ishka couldn’t speak a word of English, but was such a laid back and friendly guy, always having a little nap anytime he could. It was a suprise to find he was once a high ranking officer in the Mongolian Soviet Army. Bogi worked as a tour guide around UlaanBaatar to pay for her brothers to study (they lived with her too). Her first love (as with many rural Mongolians) was horse riding, and in the high season she got to work as a horse trekking guide back home in the west near her nomadic family.
If you have the time, and the balls, you can attempt a really amazing way of travelling around Mongolia and the Ghobi desert – Gerr to Gerr. In the West and South, out in the desert, away from cities, genuine nomadic families still exist without any connection to the modern world – other than maybe a mobile phone. It is possible to travel around Mongolia, by car, motorbike, or horse and simply stop at every Gerr you find on the way. No matter what time of day or year, you will be welcomed in, and given food, water and shelter. This isn’t a myth either. This hospitality is deeply ingrained in rural Mongolian culture due to necessity. Before a train and rail network it would of been virtually impossible to travel the vast barren expanses without it. Apparently, its totally OK to arrive at a Gerr, and even if no one is home, enter it and treat it as your own home. It is said that the rural Mongolians don’t understand the concept of privacy, and if you were to pitch a tent near a Gerr, you could well expect them just to walk in without announcement to see what you were up to or offer you a brew. From our short experience of Gerr life, we can certainly believe it – there is no room for privacy with families living in such close quarters in big round tents.
The journey home was pretty mental, our driver Ishka nearly failed to stop at a toll booth, but didn’t, and was then extorted by the police, who threatened to make serious trouble for him if he didn’t hand over some cash. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself on a road (most of the time its just open plains and dirt tracks) its serious bum clenching time. As we arrived in the city at rush hour we saw many cars bumping into one another, until we then crashed into the back of someone. It was only minor, but this seemed like something to be expected daily on the roads here.
Other things about Mongolia:
The sky at night. Out on the steppes, the night sky is easily the most impressive we’ve ever seen. It feels like the whole universe and beyond is visible, and is really quite humbling,
My mate… Mar…mot... With the first family, we got to try the famous Mongolian hotpot, made by shoving hot coals in with the meat and potatoes and giving it a good shake. Like the barbecue in western cultures, this is a man’s domain, while all ther cooking and housework seemed to be primarily done by the Women. Hotpot this evening was made from a freshly caught Marmot. Through our guide, the man of the house explained how in the winter, the marmot is whipped out of its hibernaty-hole by hand, and still asleep, it is placed by the fire to warm up and get the blood flowing to its tasty little muscles. It then begins to stretch out and yawn like a little baby, and is promptly offed… Sad, but the little fella was undeniably delicious.
Mongolian whispers. The reason we got to try the hotpot was that the head of the Gerr also had a business partner from China staying with him, and he wanted to try the local specialty (Apparently they were in the paper trade together, but I’m not sure how that worked from a remote farm in the Mongolian wilderness). The Chinese guy spoke Chinese to his interpreter, who translated to Mongolian to Bogi, who translated to English for us, and then our Dutch friends also had an inner interpreter. It was an extremely strange experience, but Mr Chinese-paper-man was a lovely bloke, and had apparently never been with so many foreigners before and wanted a picture with us all. Madness.
Chinggis Khan to the Mongolians, or Ghenggis to you and me, is still a popular national figure. Recently, a company sinisterly calling themselves the Genco Tour Beurau have built an immense statue of him in the middle of the Steppes. Currently its just the giant statue, with a museum inside (and the worlds largest leather boot, as the concierge proudly explained), but the plans and model inside show that intends to become a vast complex, with gerr hotels and the like. There are to be 1000 warrior statues built outside, and it comes to light that Jackie Chan was a big investor in the project, and so one (or all, we’re not quite sure) of the statues are going to be built with Jackie Chan’s face. Yes that’s right, Jackie Chan. This seems like the crazy hair brained project of an eccentric billionaire, and it may well be. It looks like nothing else is being built around the statue, and the place itself, only built in 2008, is already in a state of disrepair, with flags stones cracked and crumbling steps. We were the only visitors when we were there. – The museum was interesting though (A private collection of Mongolian artifacts through the ages.
life and death on the steppes. After our horse ride, we got to have lunch in a local families Gerr. Inside on a tray was the full set of gizzerds from a sheep, which was being eagerly devoured by all present Mongolians. Next to this on a table was a large bowl of what we think may of been afterbirth. Behind the table were many new born baby goats and sheep – very cute. In the entrance was the head and spine of freshly slaughtered sheep. It was poking its tongue out at me so I flicked it. It was weird. Outside we saw some little goats popping out the back of some bigger goats. It was gory, but at least we finished on life instead of death. One goat decided to headbutt another in the side, which almost popped the kid straight out. I’m not sure that it was being intentionally helpful though, it looked pretty mean.
“How did they get up here?” Amy asked as we climbed up the slippery rock into the cave – The cave is known locally as the 100 Lamas cave, due to 100 Buddhist monks (lamas) hiding in it during the Soviet purges in the late 1930’s – “How did who get in?” asked Bogi, our guide.”The animals” Amy replied. “No animals” said Bogi, rather confused. “The Llamas” insisted Amy… I eventually understood where the confusion was, and we clarified that it would of indeed been very difficult for 100 of the small humpless camel type beasts to climb up and hide in the cave, but it was sitll impressive that 100 monks hid out there for so long. (Almost 3 years I think, but eventually they were found and many were killed by the Soviets)
UlaanBaatar and Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
31/03/2013 – 04/04/2013
PS – It’s been a while since our last post, and as is evident from the dates above, I’m a bit behind with posts. China was a bit hectic and I’m too pedantic when it comes to uploading stuff… I’m trying to train myself to be less so, and to be a more efficient blogger, but its a slow process. Hopefully I’ll do a few posts soon to get more up to date with where we actually are. We hope everyone back home is well – stay in touch.