Wednesday 7 May 2014


Day 37 - on a train at the Mongolian/Russian border - 10,840km traveled

The narrow bunks in our shared 4-berth train compartment feel like luxury after our week in Mongolia—cold nights sleeping on floors, rough roads, days in a saddle—but it's been a great week.

It started off with a surprise as our train from Beijing descended from the Gobi steppes through falling snow and into Ulan Bator: we were expecting normal seasonal temperatures closer to 15 or 20 degrees! As the sprawling shanty towns of the suburbs wound by, with their densely packed gers and endless brightly-coloured roofs in red, green, orange, and blue tin, we wished we hadn't so ruthlessly discarded our thermal underwear while packing.

We only budgeted about a week in Mongolia and wanted to do a five-day trip to the countryside, ideally riding horses and staying in a different spot each night. Arranging this proved harder than expected, though, because businesses in Ulan Bator often don't have signs, the buildings aren't always numbered, and about half the listings in our 2011 guidebook seemed to have closed down. I think we actually dodged a bullet because we were close to booking a trip with a company called Ger to Ger, whose goal of supporting local nomadic families through authentic home stays sounded perfect, when I decided to check first for reviews of their tours. I actually encourage you to click through and read some of the replies at the bottom of that page because they're truly impressive, but some of the highlights are the woman who said "it got to the point where I'd wake-up and lie in bed dreading the day" and the couple who, after doing their orientation session, walked away from a $750 deposit rather than complete the trip. Seriously, go read some; I'll still be here when you get back.

As we were starting to despair, we found this glowing review of a riding trip to Eight Lakes with Sunpath Mongolia. After circling the block for half an hour the next morning, we managed to find the place and Doljmaa, the hostel owner, worked with us to create an itinerary that was exactly what we wanted and fit our tight schedule. She also arranged our onward train tickets at no charge, offered us breakfast when we arrived in the morning to start our trip, and on our return anticipated every favour we were about to ask by lending us towels for much-needed showers, letting us use the hostel kitchen, and giving us a lift to the train station.

We set out early in our van, the soviet-era military's take on a 4-wheel-drive Volkswagen bus, with the goal of covering the 500km west to Orkhon park, home to volcanically formed valleys and the Eight Lakes, connected in a chain through underground channels. We were told a story of 7 oxen who drowned in the third lake one year and were found the next day in the second. The van's suspension was clearly designed more for maximum clearance than for comfort and the highways in Mongolia are so full of potholes that, in places, vehicles opt to leave the road entirely and drive instead along parallel dirt tracks. We averaged about 50km/h, bouncing our way across vast, beautiful landscapes with endless small peaks, expansive plains, and not a fence in sight.

We spent three days on horseback: about 5 hours each on the first two days to reach the lakes and 8 or so on the third day, some of it at a trot, to retrace our steps back. Afraid of the wind and cold, we borrowed some traditional Mongolian long winter coats, so really looked the part! Miraculously, though, the weather cleared up just as we arrived and we had warm lovely sunshine—though freezing cold nights—all three days until about three hours after we got back when the wind started howling again.

The horses in Mongolia are quite small and are semi-wild, trained to be ridden but kept in herds that are left free to roam and graze. Mine was a three-times racing champion and clearly knew more about riding than my limited experience had taught me, but three days gave me lots of time to experiment and refine my technique. By the end of our trip, my horse and I had settled on a sort of power sharing agreement we could both live with and we finished off the trip in style with a decent stretch at a gallop: such a thrilling experience!

Throughout our trip we stayed every night in traditional Mongolian gers, circular tents about 6m across with a central fire and insulated walls and ceilings. They can be dismantled and moved, though nomadic families do so only a few times a year, sometimes moving only a few kilometres between summer and winter sites. In a couple of cases we stayed by ourselves in extra gers set up for tourism, but while riding we simply knocked on the door of a convenient home and were invited in for dinner and to stay the night. And for tea. Lots and lots of tea.

Mongolian tea is basically hot yak's milk, which is intensely creamy, diluted with water and seasoned with salt and a small amount green tea. It's served piping hot in bowls and drunk in large quantities at every meal and any time a visitor stops by. I'm pretty sure there's no other week in my life when I've consumed as much milk, which makes a big change from the near total dearth of dairy in our diets over the past month.

Mongolians, particularly nomadic families outside the city, are very welcoming and generous. They share everything they have and total strangers are treated as honoured guests, served first and seemingly given larger portions. Sometimes families shared beds so we could have one; other times they were already sharing so we slept on the floor. But we were always made welcome and sent on our way with a hot lunch and all with nothing expected in return. With our western cultural upbringing we kind of felt guilty, but were constantly reassured by or guide that they love having visitors—presumably a rarish occurrence when you live so far from your neighbours—and when we set aside our apprehensions it really is a wonderful experience.

As we seem to have developed a food theme to this blog, it seems the Mongolian cuisine deserves a mention. We'd heard horror stories of being served nothing but grizzly pieces of greasy mutton, but our experience was much better. There isn't an awful lot of variety, with most meals consisting of noodles or soup with various subsets of beef or mutton, onion, potato, and turnip. They use a lot of dairy products, making ghee, butter, cheese, yoghurt, strong cheese-flavoured hard sweets (the one thing I couldn't stand), a sort of cream cheese, and so on as a way of using and preserving all the yak's milk without refrigeration. Unless an animal has been recently killed, the meat is mostly dried and rehydrated when cooked; it was a bit fatty at times but mostly alright. Overall, I wouldn't rank Mongolian food as a particular highlight of the trip, especially given its repetitive nature, but there were some notable exceptions, including fresh creamy yak's yoghurt mixed with sugar, tasty slightly sweet biscuits, and some simple and very morish hand-cut noodles that reminded me of German sp├Ątsle. The other impressive thing was watching the women—it's always women as gender roles still seem very defined here—doing everything over a single fire. The top lifts off leaving a circular hole that can hold a large wok or bowl and there's a constant process of pouring, rotating, cleaning, wiping, and stoking to fry, boil, wash dishes, keep the tea flask topped up, process dairy products, and so on. It was a bit mesmerizing, like watching a dealer or croupier at a casino.

We've now been stopped on one side of the border or the other for about 7 hours, a process made much less bearable by the toilets on the train being locked when we're not moving. We don't have a clear schedule but suspect it might be another 3 or 4 hours before we get rolling again. Still, both sides have checked our passports and the snow's falling again so I think we're officially in Russia!

1 comment:

Pete said...

Photo of the mongolian clobber please