“All I need for happiness is a wide open space and some warm weather.” – Sara on arrival at our first tourist camp at Amarbayasgalant Monastery, northern Mongolia.*
It was the first day of tour for StofnSara, the two Mays (Jenna and Laura) and Bradawl. The Mongolian weather for late May was warm and comforting. Our camp for the night consisted of about 12 gers (yurts), a central dining ger and an ablution block.** On the five hour trip from Ulaanbaatar (UB) we had filled our grey Russian 4×4 bus with chatter to make up for a year and a half of absence and had barely noticed how huge the expanse around us was until we piled out of the vehicle. Aaah. I already knew that Mongolia was going to be my kinda country.
The other thing we got a great feeling about early on was the Mongol people in general and our guide and driver in particular. Tseren (driver) pressed Jack (guide) to relate a story about another of the drivers who work for Mongolian Expeditions: Mongolian roads are less than smooth. [In fact one of our greatest pleasures of the trip has been marvelling at how skilfully Tseren negotiated the challenging terrain.] On one trip, the non-English speaking driver quietly asked his guide how he could apologise to the foreign guests for throwing them around with all the bumps. Quick as a flash, the guide replied “You say ‘I am hungry.’ ” Thus, instead of telling the gringos how sorry he was with each jolt, he shouted out “I AM HUNGRY!” Eventually, someone offered him something to munch. Tseren, was offered many snacks.
We shared the ger camp that first night with a large group of Germans. There wasn’t much interaction – we still had too many stories to share – but we spied each other out at dinner and at breakfast before we went to marvel at the monastery. Later, Jack paused in his guiding to inform us that he didn’t know much of the German language. Initially we were a bit confused, then we spotted a glint in his eye. He continued to tell us that what German he did know had been gleaned from a certain Russian TV programme that had been broadcast during his youth (when Mongolia was still under Soviet control). The programme was set during WW2 and this he had learnt to say “Heil Hitler”, “guten morgen” and “hande hoch”. With a rather wicked gleam he told us that he had been tempted to try out his German over the breakfast table. While the guests probably would have appreciated being wished a good morning, we all agreed that there might have been some alarm at being told to raise their hands high while they sipped their coffee.*** We loved him entirely from that moment on.
Our experience with Mongols on the whole has been tricky to reconcile with the legends of the Mongol hordes who, under Chinggis (as he is properly called) Khan and his prodigy, ruled over practically the whole of Asia and a good chunk of Asia – the largest empire in history.**** Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Just under half live in UB and most of the rest live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Their homes are circular round tents (gers), which are extremely robust, but can be taken down and erected in less than an hour. We were ceaselessly amazed to pop over a hill or round a corner on some deserted part of the countryside to find a ger homestead – complete with nonplussed Mongols, various livestock and a solar panel with satellite dish. The nomads, on the other hand, reacted with little more than a welcoming smile and (on request) directions. If we hadn’t spent last year amongst the Pacific Islanders, we might have bestowed the title of World’s Most Chilled People on the Mongols.
Besides an interlude of being bloodthirsty conquerors for a couple of hundreds of years, one can see why the Mongols are so peaceable: We spent five days riding the countryside on horseback and saw only ONE fence! There is a limitless sense of roaming, coupled with some seriously unpredictable weather.
Batbayar, of Mongolian Expeditions (who organised our tour), explained the Mongolian weather as follows: “Sometimes it’s hot; sometimes it’s cold. It can be rainy or sunny or windy or snowy. Pack cream to prevent sunburn and thermals to avoid freezing.” We concur.
The day after I sighed at the wonder of wide spaces and warm weather, the weather swung. By the next afternoon, when we hiked up an extinct volcano,***** we were walking in a snow shower. Atop the volcano we were greeted by a winter wonderland forest nestled in the crater and blanketed in white.
The weather on the horses continued in an erratic fashion. Day 1 of riding saw us bundled up against rain and snow. That night, Laura May swore then temperature plunged to “minus forty”. But by the end of the day we were out in our T-shirts playing beach bat with our Mongol hosts. (Now including two horsemen, a cook and driver for the “kitchen car”.) Although it didin’t snow again, the weather continued to yo-yo, making it nigh impossible to dress for a day on horseback.
Enough of the weather! More of the horses? What a splendid way to traipse though the countryside. Even though each night found us rubbing arnica and other remedies on aching buttocks, legs and knees, we loved those little Mongolian ponies. Bar Jenna May, none of us are horse-people, so the riding could have been over-whelming. Each horse had it’s quirks that we constantly battled to master (not all successfully). The characteristics are reflected in the names we gave them. I rode “Cowboy” (yup – cow markings!!!). Stof was on “Fat Brown Spot”; Bradawl matched his horse’s “Grey Beard” most fetchingly; and Laura May gave up on trying to get “Tilly Trotsky” to do anything other than trot. Jenna May’s original horse, Flash Harry, scared one too many times, so she was transferred to “Dee Dee” – the docile donkey who suddenly found it’s personality on the last day of riding.
If I have waxed lyrical before about “slow” transport, horseback allows one to take in even more. There is a curiously hypnotic rhythm to being on a horse. “Dreamy, dreamy, dozy doze… Aah! Look at hour’s old foal taking its first steps! [or] Look at that flash of wolf’s tail through the forest! [or just] Wow! Look at that view! Dreamy, dreamy dozy doze…”
Even just arriving at camp each night had an element of the pioneer to it. Granted the two vehicles had gone up ahead and selected some pretty scenic campsites so that on our arrival the kitchen tent was pitched and a camping table laid out with refreshments after a long day of sitting on our horses and contemplating… well, not very much! Two nights we camped by streams and two nights up on high hillsides (one above a hot spring, one below a most spectacular Buddhist monastery). On the fifth night there was a tense moment when we didn’t quite love the power lines next to the river under which the kitchen tent had been erected. But then we took our little yellow tents down the river, round the bend to a more idyllic spot. There we all stripped down (finally the weather didn’t require a constant layer of thermals) and got clean for the first time in days. There was much celebrating!
On our last day of riding we rode past a spectacular waterfall on the way to our horseman’s****** homestead. It was the first time we had actually entered a ger not set up entirely for the pleasure of passing tourists. We were welcomed in by the mum: as with many cultures, it is the matriarch who tends to the homestead, makes the food and traditional drink (in Mongol’s case, it’s airag, a fermented mare’s milk concoction!), sees to the birthing and inoculation of livestock, cares for the children, fetches the water, chooses the location of the seasonal camps (they move up to four times a year) and still looks fabulous. Our horseman’s father had taken some horses off to meet another group of tourists, so we were unable to ascertain what exactly he was responsible for… Nevertheless, his wife looked after us marvelously. She fed us a lot of yak dairy by-products: salted milky tea; yogurt; buttery custard stuff; and some hot spread comprised of (as far as we could tell) yak butter, sugar and cornflour. We ate it all, but did not return for seconds. Much to our hosts embarrassment, but our considerable relief, the horses were not yet ready for milking, so we could not sample the airag.
At last, we had our first “rest day”. Things we did: read; eat; snooze; wash clothes in river; caught up on writing; chatted; and lounged around. Things we did not do: ride horses; anything strenuous. By the end of the day, we enjoyed a feast of barbequed mutton (Mongolian style – boiled in the stomach over hot coals). We were clean, rested and feeling strong’nready to head south to the Gobi. And that adventure, I shall leave for another post.
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* Mongolia, the country, is the Mongolia people refer to when they speak of Outer Mongolia. The bit of Mongolia incorporated within China’s borders is Inner Mongolia. We were in Outer Monglia. Ok.
** Which ablution block, at this stage, we did not fully appreciate prior to 12 days of ‘free’ camping.
*** Jack thought it wise – even in his imagination – to leave Adolf out of it.
**** As a COMPLETE aside (but still a good story) we bumped into one of (apparently) two black South Africans in Mongolia on the street of UB on the night before we left for the trip. Complete with “seeeriiiiious”es, “eishhh”es and raucous laughter, Stoffel and I nearly wept from homesickness. Mauzer’s wife (who was at home) works for the mines and has been posted to Mongolia. Mauzer, previously a teacher in Richards Bay, has become a kept man. He had us in stitches explaining just how cold the world’s coldest capital city was in January and February for a country boy from the Natal north coast! One of the highlights was when he pointed out that Shaka Zulu and Chinggis Khan had similar ideas of world domination. Had taken Africa, and had Shaka continued north, there might have been a very interesting clash of cultures.
*****For Bella and Stirling, who think it’s a hoot that their uncle is allergic to volcanoes: this one no longer produces any sulphur, so Stof was safe!
******Those horsemen had utterly unpronounceable, and thus entirely forgettable names.