Toury time. We fumbled and rumbled around our things, remembering things to forget and forgetting things to remember. Had a quick breakfast in the hostel: tea and bread and the like, we then asked the hostel to pick up our bus tickets to the Mongolia/Russia border, as we won’t get time.
“We will go to the bus station for you and get your tickets then bring them back. Though we will charge a fee because it’s far.”
“3000 tugrik (80 pence)”.
With that sorted we ventured to our van, met the driver and shortly later met our guide. Her name was Soko. She gave us details of the day ahead then we were off.
We started at Zaisan Memorial, a Russian/Mongolian monument nestle high on a hill. The momument commemorates the years of friendship and corporation between the two nations. Russia has had a very big part in Mongolian history and still continues to fund a large part of its economy. The monument wasn’t much to my taste but the real reason to go is to see the complete view of Ullaanbaatar to the north and the Bogd Khan Mountain Range to the south. It’s a good spot for a capital, and they should know. Apparently the capital has changed location no less than 29 times.
Just next to the monument is an ovoo, a typical Mongolian shrine. Though the majority of Mongolians are now typically Buddhist, it has a big history of shamanism which was prevalent for many generations, and as such, still carries a cultural importance to many. The ovoo is generally made up of stones places in a large pile and wood with blue cloth and other scattered around. It is very normal to see these at the top of a mountain and they serve as landmarks as well as spiritual objects. Soko told us the procedure:
“You have to walk around it clockwise 3 times, throw three stones onto the pile and wish for three things.”
Halfway into it she added:
“The first wish should be for good health.”
“Ah.” Said Youngja. “Can I start again?”
“You wished for money didn’t you?”
Back in the car, we headed out of Ulaanbaatar towards Gorkhi Terelj National Park. On the way, Youngja howled:
“What is that!”
What that was, were two vultures and an eagle. If you’ve never seen a vulture up close then a shock at the sight of it is probably quite commonplace. They’re massive. We were told that an average vulture’s wingspan is two metres. It eyed me up but I guess I was a little too alive for its tastes to it left me alone. Youngja was petrified. I got her just close enough to get her and the birds in the frame for a picture but no closer.
“You can hold it if you want.” Soko suggested to Youngja. I guess more as a joke than anything else.
There was also a camel sitting around, spitting. We got a picture, then headed to the park. Gorkhi Terelj is one of the most scenic parts of Mongolia, especially popular because of its proximity to the capital. The landscape is stunning and various. Vast, open fields, carpeted with wild flowers and edelweiss lend their way to rugged, eroded mountains surrounding all sides, then within a few short miles valleys open up and you find yourself in more of a wet land with streams snaking their way in and out of view. It’s an incredible place.
We stop at a cave and wander in. It was dark and slippery. Inside there was a Mongolian man speaking Korean. From there we visit a famous rock formation in the shape of a turtle. In an unforeseen turn of events, it is known as ‘Turtle Rock’. To be fair to the thing, unlike the constellations it really really looked like a turtle. Very close to the turtle we stopped off at the home of a Mongolian family for lunch. This was our first time in a real (or fake) Mongolian ger. We popped in, very much happy to be out of the cold and sat, a little nervous and more than a little uncomfortable and watched a normal family doing what normal families do in the middle of the day. The man of the house was out doing manly things so the wife, a shy, young thing was cooking and the grandmother, a frightening old thing was yelling at the grandkids. We were given tea and shortly got some lunch, a very un-traditional pasta. The Ger was snug and very warm and packed full of Korean gear. Korean washing machine, Korean rice cooker, Korean food and drink. I was half expecting Youngja’s sister to pop up from behind the sofa.
“Can you help the family?” Soko asked Youngja.
“Of course. But…what can I do?”
“The rice cooker is broken and they can’t fix it. It’s all in Korean.”
After saving the day with the rice cooker, we started to get a bit more comfortable.
With lunch mopped up, we were led up their plot of land, through the dog kennels and around the toilet up to the stable. It was time to ride horses. The man of the house, a small, jovial man whose name escapes me introduced us to our animals. YJ had a beautiful white horse with some difficult Mongolian name and mine was a nice, brown thing. A little scraggly but not yet fit for the glue factory.
A little information about my wife: she is not a best friend of the animal kingdom. Her first instinct when approaching an animal is to expect it to bite/kick/stamp/spit/punch or head butt her to the ground. After the preliminary meeting she is far more comfortable but we weren’t yet beyond that and she inspected her horse with a biggish amount of trepidation.
“He’s staring at me.”
“Well you are in his house.”
“Why is he staring at me?”
“Maybe he likes you.”
“He won’t stop staring at me.”
The battle of wits continued until the big man told her to jump up on the horse. Graceful it couldn’t be said to have been, but after a few false starts she was perched up high and ready for the off. As I was going to be leading my horse myself (Youngja’s was led by the big man) I received a few pointers.
“If the horse starts to run, don’t worry, just enjoy it.” Said Soko.
“This horse is a little….how do you say….temper-tantremental.”
“Try not to make him angry.”
As I pondered what more I could do to make a horse angry than waking him up, interrupting his breakfast, striding over him and demanding a brisk stroll through the valley I was told to plonk myself in the driver’s seat and we started.
At the end of it all, the horse, who I shall name Goosey, was perfectly fine. He didn’t seem to like the idea of adhering to my kicks to his ribcage but Goosey was peaceful enough. Before we started Soko told me how to get him going. I had to shout “choo!” and he would acquiesce. Well, I choo chooed like a speeding locomotive but Goosey was non-compliant. The owner found this highly amusing at first but I feel started to get a little agitated after having to wait for me every 20 metres. Finally he cantered down to me, uttered a quiet “choo” and Goosey shot off like a cannonball. I nearly fell of the back of thing but held on for dear life. Now this was more like it!
We couldn’t have had better scenery if we tried. We strolled through lush woodlands, onto vast expanses of green turfs and into valleys, with jagged granite rock surrounding us. The landscape seemed to change with every turn. There was still snow in some parts of the park and this leant a little variety to the terrain, though Goosey seemed a little nervous with the white stuff. I ‘chooed’ him on but gave up, defeated.
After every 5 minutes or so, the owner, thinking we might be bored, kept ‘chooing’ the horses on for a run. This was all good fun the first 10 times but after 2 hours my nethermost was on its knees. With each ‘choo’ I clenched and waited for it to be over. We finally got back to the stable. A fantastic time and something I’ll never forget, but thankfully all good things must end.
We had a little more tea, used the toilet which I’d rather not talk about and left. Our next stop was a temple nestled in the mountains. The Aryapala Temple is mainly used as a meditation centre but it was closed at that time but at the top was the most incredible view of the surrounding area. For miles there were beautiful green valleys running away into the distance, trifling streams which met and merged throughout creating a large web of rivers cutting up the land, and the mountains were stunning: snow peaked monsters surrounding the whole park like gatekeepers. What an extraordinary place.
It was now time to meet our surrogate family. As we arrived they were right in the middle of separating the sheep and I felt a little embarrassed. I mean, a couple of foreigners barge in on your family, expect food and a bed and all you want to do is get to work. I am very aware of the fact that we are very lucky to be able to do the things we do and never take it for granted, but I am also aware of the feeling of being ‘two city folks who want to see how the simple folk live’. My wife and I are in agreement on this and the last thing we wanted was to be treated differently.
The baby sheep had to be let out one by one so that each one would go to its own mother to feed. Feeding from other sheep is apparently bad for all kinds of reasons. The lambs had small symbols on their ears which matched their mothers’. A kind of farm identity card. Pepsi, Macdonalds, Mcrosoft, all the big companies were hanging off the ears. At one point, near the end, the sheep all scurried off and there was a lamb left alone without its mum. The man of the house chucked it to me and told me to go reunite it. Easier than it sounds. There were bloody hundreds of them scattered over an acre or so. But this was my chance. My chance to impress a real farmer bloke. I shot off with only one thing in mind; reunification!
“Let me take a picture!”
“Later! It needs reuniting.”
“No, now! Stop for a picture!”
I did as the wife ordered and now the sheep were now far and very wide. It took me ages to find its mum, and was it grateful? Not a jot!
We met the family, Janat, the father: small, strong with piercing blue eyes and charisma to spare. He spoke a little English and liked to joke around. We then met his wife, two sons and the new born daughter with whom YJ fell in love at first sight. She was a lovely little thing, all peaceful in her mother’s arms, sweetly sucking on a sheep’s tail.
“What is that!”
“That is very traditional. The baby sucks the raw tail, which has many nutrients.” Soko explained.
“Better than a piece of rubber, I guess.”
We were led into their ger, lovely a warm and welcoming. The traditional ger, or ‘yurt’ in Turkish, serves as a living room, kitchen, bedroom, dining room and even a clock, as the real nomads can easily tell you the time of day according to how the light enters through the roof. It can be put up and put down in less than an hour, it’s relatively lightweight and can stand the strongest winds and the coldest winters Mongolia can throw at it. It also serves as a compass as gers always face south, due to strong winds from the North.
I told Janat that whatever needed doing I was there to help anyway I could. His eyes seemed to light up, though it seemed more in humour than happiness. As soon as I had said it, he had me out in the farm, milking cows. I’m not a squeamish man and I’d like to think I gave it a good try. That was until he took over. The milk I was getting from those udders seemed very small in comparison. The stuff was shooting out of the cow as soon and he got his hands on it. He told me it was all to do with thumb strength, which must be true because after ten minutes my hands were cramped and very painful and he worked away for at least half an hour, slushing the milk into a bucket. Twice a day they do this. He must have thumbs of steel.
The family is ethnically Kazakh and so have slight different habit to Mongolian nomadic families. This family stayed on their farm for parts of the year but when the seasons change they follow the animals to the best grazing areas. The farm was a wonderful place. It reminded me if ‘Unforgiven’ or ‘The Searchers’. Desolate, stark and picturesque. There were animals everywhere: bison, cows, sheep, dogs. You couldn’t move for sheep poo.
The rest of the day passed wonderfully. The family were all incredibly friendly and treated us kindly but not so much like outsiders. We were free to look around the farm, see the animals or just relax in their ger. The youngest son got completely hooked on ‘Angry Birds’. There was copious amounts of tea drank and in the evening we all sat down to lamb and noodles. It was delicious. Even Youngja enjoyed it!
It was then time to crack over the beer and a boozy, enjoyable night was had. There were songs played on a traditional Kazakh instrument, essentially a two stringed mandolin. Youngja played a game with the youngest son which involved throwing animal knee bones like dice. Janat started dancing to Gangnam Style and Youngja joined in. It was a surreal experience and the best thing I’ve done so far.
Our bed was prepared in the ‘guest ger’, feet towards the door as we were told they must be. We felt a little bad that we were staying all along in one ger and everyone else had to stay together but we were informed that this was how the guests were treated. And besides, they all seemed like they were having lots of fun.
Just before bed we went outside to see the stars. It isn’t often that we get to see a blanket of stars across the sky. It was beautiful. We gazed up until our toes were numb, then found our sleeping bags and pushed off to sleep.