In the morning, I was brought to the airport to start the next leg of the trip. As I was walking to my gate, I was thinking this would be a flight where I was the only foreigner. That’s how the non-white country to non-white country flights tend to be anyway. I was amazed to see foreigners comprising nearly the entire flight though. Flying in, I had one of my first ever glimpses of nothing. As the least dense couuntry on earth, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though. My first visuals showed the sands of the Gobi desert. It slowly became green, with a few dirt roads, and finally an urban city. I landed in Ulaanbaatar, taxied up to the only gate at the aging airport, exchanged money, and got out of there. I had to walk a dirt road to get to the nearest bus, which I then took into the city center. I had an idea where my hostel was, and after some walking aimlessly, I had it figured out.
Saying goodbye to my Beijing hosts, they were great.
I went to a place called Bolod’s Guesthouse, but he didn’t have any room for me. But he was able to help me arrange the tour to the nomads house that I would be taking the next day. Instead, I went up a floor and slept at another guest house. This place was nice and I was able to connect with a few French guys and Japanese guy as well. I walked over to the Gandantegchenlin Monestery, which is the largest in all of Mongolia. Immediately, it was clear that this was a very different type of Buddhism from I had come across thus far. Same as the Tibetans, there were prayer wheels and stupas galore. Inside, there was an enormous statue of which I was forbidden to take pictures, without paying a few dollars at least. It’s not my religion, so I didn’t mind.
I also worked my way over to the city center. As a formerly Communist state, naturally there was a public square, surrouded by the government building, mayor’s residence, and some monuments. Despite being the capital, this city was more like a run down crap hole. All the walking paths were in disrepair, everything looked quite old, manhole covers were frequently missing etc. But, it is home to half of Mongolia’s population and people are proud of the city. That first evening was just spent chatting with a local college guy outside our guesthouse. He had a lot of interesting things to say about how the youth of the coutry were actually involved in politics and would get together to voice concerns and pitch ideas. Not a bad idea, but rich old people are still the best for looking after the needs of a country, they’ll figure it out eventually. One other bit of insight he gave was that there was significant corruption in the government that was getting in the way of the best happening for the people. I thought this was interesting.
Town square. this picture is very kind to the city
The next morning I met Bolod in the morning to head out to my homestay with a nomadic family. Once outside of the city, most of the roads were unpaved, filled with potholes, and seemed to necessitate a 4×4 just for getting around. Even though it was 70 km away, it still took about 3 hours to get there. On the way though, we stopped at a few places. First was a small restaurant, where we had mutton and pasta. Then, it was at a giant statue of Ghengis Khan, something like 30 meters, I think. I opted to not go inside, as it was just a tourist trap, shamelessly built by a tourism company. Then, our third stop was the house of a nomadic herder. The family was all ethnic Kazakis. All abodes were the traditional Ger, which is just a giant felt tent. Despite the truly authentic nomadic lifestyle, they did have a solar powered TV and satellite dish. I guess that certain amenities permiate every lifestyle in today’s world. The guy’s son was a medal winning powerlifter at the Mongolia junior nationals, and he was proud to show off the medals. ”You can take a picture if you want…” We soon moved on to our final hosts who weren’t too much further along the aimless dirt road.
The emptiness of this world
Once there, we asked if we could stay and then just moved into their house. Hospitality has historically been considered an importaint trait amongst the people, so it seemed no bother to them to have a a few extra folks hanging around. At this, I entered the nomadic lifestyle, which turned out to be pretty cool. This particular family had two daughters, just a year or two younger than me, so that made the experience better. The language barrier was complete though. Both were students at university back in Ulaanbaatar and home for the summer holidays. Right away we were given some milk tea, cream and cheeses as well. As for food, they are completely self relient on their herds for food, which meant a lot of dairy and goat meat. After some snacking, we walked up one of the hills to pick wild strawberries. The hills, the wild berries, the living off the land, and the glorious contrast of endless blue skies and green steppe really had me in awe of where I was. The amount of nothing was amazing. After getting our fill, we went back to help corral the horses. This basically meant watch them drive horses around till they got tired, and then scare them into going in a smaller cage. Back inside for dinner, we had a goat stew in a milk broth, with handmade goat meat dumplings. Some of the heartiest food I’ve ever had, I was satisfied after just one bowl of it.
The beauty of mongolia
The evening was pretty tame, and sort of ended with the setting sun, there being no electricity and all. We spent some time just realaxing, and I would occasionally put my translator to work, so as to learn a bit about the lifestyle. We also exchanged names, but I failed at that. Tsetsegsaihan and Tsherenlkam are not easy as Justin to pronounce, nor do their English transliterations read phonetically at all. Regarding other aspects of life, it seemed that the main problem for herders are the wolves, which strike in the night and chip away at the flocks. Every hour the cows and horses were milked by the daughers as well, which was amusing to me. For some reason, despite being a few hours from any amount of development, they still wore nice clothes, high heels, and makeup while doing these chores. Things picked up though when by candlelight we played a game. We had to flick the anke bones of sheep and goats into others that matched in orientation and type. It was a game that manages to last a really long time, and provided little opportunity for me to take a dive and lose. I managed it eventually though. Lastly, before bed I went outside just to stare into the deepness of space – such an incredible number of stars could be seen in the clearest night sky imaginable. Sleep took place in one of the two beds, which was thrust upon me by the mother. I sure wasn’t going to argue with a decent night sleep, if that’s what she so badly wanted for me.
The inside of the house. Here, the eldest daughter is making dumplings. You can see where the food is cooked at the stove as well. The food was amazing, though I wouldn’t ask about sanitation.
The next morning came late for me, well after everyone else at least, and I was met with a Mongolian specialty, Airag. It is nothing other than fermented horse milk. That is, it was milked from the horse, then made to spoil and ferment. I drank this fully expecting it to wreck havok on the bowels, beyond what a purely dairy diet already was. It was really sour, and basically had the alcoholic potency of wine. After finishing my first saucer of it, it was filled twice more when I wasn’t really paying attention. I couldn’t say that I hated it, and it never envoked a gag reflex, but it was certainy the strangest thing to wake up to, and not something your average man could chug. The next task for the day was to ride some horses. They dug up a Mongolian riding suit for me, we saddled up, and went out. Knowing nothing about horses, I didn’t mind reducing my dreams of galloping across the steppe and pillaging the Chinese to just walking and figuring out the reins. I was taken out by the mother, Otgoo who spoke zero English. We spent the duration of the trip swapping vocab for the stuff around us. It was a nice trip, and certainly something high on my Mongolian bucket list. The scenery didn’t change much, but it was never unpleasant. When I got back, the neighbor from a few hundred meters away came over with her Justin Bieber CD. I absolutely died. Of all the places where the ‘likeness’ has been brought up, this had to be the most unexpected.
These horses were a little on the short side…
Shortly after our return, we made our way back to Ulaanbaatar and I slept the whole 3 hour trip. Back in the city, we went to a big market where I was able to buy a warmer shirt; somehow I hadn’t considered that it might be cold in the far north. I stayed again at the same guesthouse as before, and it was host to all the same characters as before. We ended up going out to dinner together to an Indian restaurant, since I was not in the mood for anything Mongolian. I can only handle so much of another culture’s food, before I am ready to check out and get something like McDonalds, steak, or curry. For lack of McDonalds and money, curry was the best option, and it was good. Also, on this walk, we stopped at a statue that had the fab four cast in bronze. For the rest of the night, we did more chatting at the guest house.
Here was the family I stayed with.
The next morning I slept in again, not really having much to accomplish for the rest of my time in Mongolia. I ended up going for a bit of a walk around the city, and also to a place called the Choyjn Lama Temple Museum, which housed a really ornate temple and lots of other valuable relics. Also, just at the time I was getting there, they had a performance displaying various aspects of Mongolian traditional culture. Folk dancing, throat singing, some nifty instruments, and contortion. After I had my look around, I just went back to the guesthouse to make with some Frenchmen and caught up with life on the internet. I should say, that I bought some stuff and let the French guys cook it, I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to food. This last wasn’t anything too special, but it was nice to take a day to take it easy, a vacation for my vacation. The next morning it was off to the airport and on to the next one.
Video of the Temple Museum performance.
And the contortion. What is this…? I don’t even…
Mongolia was generally a really cool place to visit, though when it was time to leave, I was ready. It would undoubtedly take weeks to really do Mongolia, but I was satisfied. I talked with some people who said they were just coming off of a month there, and I could only wonder what they were possibly doing that long. There were some more areas I wouldn’t have minded seeing if I had a few more days, but I can sleep at night having seen what I did, and riding horses. Culturally, I really enjoyed this county. The people were nice, and I had the chance to get the most authentic nomad expereince I could have hoped for. I was really able to see firsthand how the majority of Mongolians still live. It is an amazing country where one can marvel at the degree of nothing and just feel alone in the world. I could imagine a solo trek offering a very unique experience.
The Mongolian video compilation