When I last wrote, we were just entering Mongolia where we would be staying for a short six days.
I had spent nearly a month in Mongolia on my last world tour four years ago, so I knew what the procedure was. The capital city Ulan Bataar is completely uninteresting, and the highlight for me was getting into the countryside and staying with the nomads. I had a good experience with a local travel coordinator named "Nassan", so we headed straight to her guesthouse. There weren't a lot of tourists in Mongolia in 1998, so at that time Nassan was the tour leader on her jeep tours and we had gone on a 10-day trip through the Gobi desert together. She recognized me instantly, and seemed very proud to have a return visitor (she made a point of telling all her other customers that this was my second visit and I returned to her guesthouse and not somewhere else).
We arranged a mini-tour of the Gobi desert for four days and three nights that would depart the next day, and immediately set out to prepare for the trip. First stop was the train station where we tried to procure tickets into China. Our first choice was the direct train to Beijing, followed by a direct train to the Chinese "Inner Mongolian" town of Hohot. As it was a weekend, the foreigner counter was closed, and the counter for locals was extremely confusing. A group of Isrealis were speaking to each other in English and seemed to know what they were doing, but when we approached them to ask for help they just switched their conversation to Hebrew and completely ignored us. Luckily, Nassan's brother walked in while we were there, and found out that Beijing and Hohot bound trains were sold out for weeks in advance. We would be stuck with taking a local train to the Chinese border where we could arrange further transport to get to Beijing. Even these tickets were not being sold today, but Nassan's brother was able to pick them up for us while we were on our jeep tour for a small fee.
The custom in Mongolia when you visit and stay with nomads is that you pay no money, but gifts are very much appreciated. We headed to the state department store to stock up on vodka and cigarettes for the men, rice, candles and flour for the family, and writing pads, pens, candies, and toys for the children. While we were walking around trying to figure out exactly what to buy, I felt a pain in my leg. It was near where Hitomi's hand was, so I initially assumed that she had a pen or something in her hand that had poked me. She looked confused when I asked her what she did, and I looked down at my pants to see that my pocket had been razor bladed open and there was blood running down my leg. There was nothing in my pocket so the thief didn't get anything, but I was shocked at how brave he was to slash my leg right in the middle of the department store. If it wasn't for Hitomi standing next to me, I probably would have realized what happened right away and would have had no trouble catching the thief. However, in the initial confusion the thief got away, and locals who saw it happened didn't admit to seeing anything. Later when I asked some foreigners who were living in Mongolia, we found out that this sort of crime was very common in the capital and surrounding areas right now, and many people had things stolen. This seems to be one of the bad impacts of tourism as I don't think it was such a problem when I visited four years ago.
The worst part was that my pants were special "quick-dry" and extra-long pants that I couldn't easily replace in Asia. I wanted to make sure they were repaired properly, so I asked Nassan to have them cleaned and mended which she said she would have done while we were on our trip.
Wanting to put that bad experience behind us, we woke up the next morning and got ready for our jeep trip. The first hour or so of travel was relatively comfortable, but once we got off the main roads the combination of the well travelled jeep and poor quality dirt roads made for a rough ride. It was hard to even concentrate on the scenery as you were too busy watching for the next pothole so that you could cushion yourself for the impact.
We drove until early evening when our driver pulled up to the ger tent where we would be spending our first night. A ger tent is a typical Mongolian nomad's home which given the environment is surprisingly comfortable. It consists of a wooden frame that is wrapped in a type of felt. The center of the tent has a wood stove with a pipe that vents the smoke through a hole in the ceiling. Around the edge of the tent are beds, cabinets, storage chests, and a small "altar" with Tibetan Buddhist icons and pictures of the family. The floor is covered with a sort of carpet.
Our host this night knew our driver well, and seemed very glad to be having guests. As soon as we sat down, we were passed refreshments which included a glass of fermented horse milk known locally as "airak". It was a bit of an acquired taste that I slowly got used on this trip (it was not airak season when I visited previously). The taste is something like a liquidy sour yoghurt with an alcohol content similar to that of beer and a taste similar to that of goat milk.
It wasn't yet dinner time, so we headed outside to watch the family take part in some chores. The sheep had already been milked, and it was now the horses turn which I had never seen before. After following the mother around from mare to mare for a few minutes, the young sons offered to take us on a short horse ride. It was Hitomi's first time on a horse, and we had fun trotting over to a local lake and doing our best to try and communicate with our very friendly and curious hosts. Back in the tent, we helped with the making of airak by stirring a huge vat of older airak mixed with fresh milk that needs to be stirred more than 500 times a day to help with fermentation.
Dinner that night consisted of tasty fried mutton dumplings for an appetizer followed by a rice and mutton stew for dinner. After dinner, we sat around and talked, and the conversation invariably turned to the vodka drinking and singing that I remembered well from my last trip. Our host had one of the beautiful silver drinking cups with intricate carvings and a base made from the root of a special tree. It was filled with a swallow of vodka, and after our host indulged, the cup was passed around from guest to guest for the rest of the evening. Our host sang a few traditional Mongolian folk songs for us, and asked us to return the favour with songs from our own country. Hitomi did a good job, although I was left scratching my head trying to come up with one of the few songs that I know all the words to.
After our gift bottle of vodka was finished and the bottle our driver brought along was also gone, we thought our drinking duties were over. However, our host also had a small stash of homemade vodka which consisted of distilled fermented goats milk. Its alcohol content was probably half of normal vodka, but it tasted just as feisty with a very strong goat milk flavour. When that finally ran out, it was time to head to bed. We went outside and washed ourselves under the crystal clear skies and stunning stars, then headed inside and curled up on the floor in the sleeping bags we had borrowed from Nassan.
The next morning, we all felt fine, but it was clear that our host doesn't drink too often. He was very hung over. However, this didn't seem to discourage him as he brought us over to the cooking tent next door to show how goat milk vodka is made as he was distilling a new batch. A huge vat of fermented goats milk is boiled, and on the top of the bubbling cauldron is placed a large metal bowl filled with cold water. The alcohol condenses on this large bowl, and then drips into a small pot that is suspended underneath the bowl (and above the bubbling goats milk).
Breakfast consisted of some Mongolian "clotted cream" (thick cream that had been baked and condensed) which was served on top of some locally made biscuits that had a mutton taste from the lard that was used in the baking. Our hungover host dressed us up in some nomad clothing before we said good-bye and started our next day's journey.
As we got deeper into the desert we started to enter camel territory, and we stopped at a large group of them to take some photos. The nomad owner noticed us, and came over and offered to give us a ride on one of his camels. We gratefully accepted, did a short tour of the area on a very tall and not too happy camel, then paid for the ride with a pack of cigarettes. Riding a camel is completely different from riding a horse, and the difference starts from how you mount the animal. You need to have the camel sit down so you can reach its back, then the camel gets up two legs at a time lurching you forward in the process. Once you are on the camel and manage to convince it to move, the camel's cadence is much different than a horse as you are rocked back in forth in a rhythm that is strange at first, but then very relaxing once you get used to it.
That night we arrived at our deepest point in the Gobi next to a ruined monastery. This was also where we noticed the impact that the increase in tourists was having in the Gobi. The Gobi is bigger than France, so in general I think that it will take a long time for it to get truly "spoiled". However, this particular location sees most tourists that pass by, and our hosts had given up their nomad lifestyle and most of their livestock, and instead made money by renting out a tourist tent to foreigners. This was slightly disappointing to us as our goal was not to see anything particular in the Gobi, but instead to get a glimpse into the life of a traditional nomad family.
The next day we asked our guide and driver to take us to a more traditional family, and our very friendly driver indicated that he had a family in mind. We drove all afternoon until we arrived at a set of pretty canyons to walk around, then continued on to the family that our driver knew. It was an interesting process narrowing in on the family as nomads don't exactly have a fixed address. Our host knew where they should be at this time of year, but because of a lack of rain in the Gobi this year, they were forced to move on to a different locale. It took about two hours of stopping by any tents that we could find and asking for directions to this particular family.
When we arrived, we found a small collection of tents with a family that included young children as well as elderly grandparents. They were extremely welcoming, and we were immediately served some milk tea and some sweet Mongolian layered pancakes that were very tasty. Our young hostess's sister spoke to us in halting English that she had managed to teach herself.
Soon after dinner, the men gathered around and the drinking began. Everyone was expected to participate, and after a few rounds of singing the entertainment switched to a local game. The game was kind of like paper, scissors, rock, except that a single finger was used. The thumb would beat the index finger, the index finger would beat the middle finger, etc., with the pinky completing the circle by being superior to the thumb. Our hosts (especially the grandfather) took the game extremely seriously. The tent was divided into two groups, and the losing team would be forced to chug an entire mug of airak. The grandfather was particularily amusing as he took the game extremely seriously. I was never able to figure out what the strategy was, but the grandfather would always sit and wait before any round to try and figure out what his strategy was. If he lost of if there was a draw, he would sigh in agony and look extremely disappointed in himself, taking several minutes to compose himself to get ready for the next round. Several times when I faced off against him, I noticed that he hesitated before showing his finger, and clearly switched at the last minute to beat me.
My side seemed to be on the losing end most of the night, so I consumed a large amount of airak. Luckily, this tent's airak didn't seem to have a lot of alcohol as I didn't feel drunk at all. Some of the other Mongolians seemed to be a little worse off, and the game ended late that night when one of the men was no longer able to stand.
The next morning, we were fed some tasty rice pudding with fresh cow's milk, and were soon on the way back to Ulan Bataar to finish our trip. We weren't really interested in hanging around Ulan Bataar, so we spent only a single evening before getting ready for the 12 hour overnight local train that would be taking us to the Chinese border. I asked Nassan for the pants I had left with her, and she looked confused and said she would get them for me later. That evening, she phoned and said that they had been lost and asked what she could do. I told her they were $60 pants, and she quickly offered $30 for them. As I had used them for more than 8 months of travelling, this was reasonable, although as I couldn't replace them, I would have much preferred the pants.
The Mongolian local train was similar to the Russian trains with four beds in a bunk, although in much poorer condition, and unlike the trains we were on in Siberia, this one was packed with foreigners. The trip was uneventful, and this time the border crossing was a "quick" six hours (three on each side).
On the Chinese side, we were left trying to figure out how to get the rest of the way to Beijing, but I will write about that in my next letter.
Ron & Hitomi
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