No posts about South Africa this week as my laptop is still being serviced, so let’s jump back to Mongolia!
I’ve only written about the Russian bits of our Trans-Siberian (more accurately, Trans-Mongolian) trip so far, mainly because I am just the worst at documenting things on time. But you know what? New year, new rules.
So back to Mongolia. Of course this isn’t going to be useful to anybody looking for Trans-Siberian tips NOW because you will mostly be freezing your butt off in winter. Sorry.
Back in June, it was summer. Pretty blazing hot, especially coming in from chilly Lake Baikal. Weather changes aside, we also endured a nine-hour train change — a real test in patience. Russian and Mongolian officers came aboard our carriages a few times and asked for our passports on multiple occasions. Nobody told us anything — how long we’d be stopping at the stations for, or where we could get provisions — not that that really mattered since A & I spoke neither language.
We killed time with books and Instagramming the heck out of strangers’ lives with the last few bytes of my data plan. I can’t remember what book I was reading while I was still on the Russian side of the border — probably the third book of the Millennium series — but when I ventured out of the station, I realized our train was gone.
Train enthusiasts would have known that at this point, the carriages are taken in to have their wheels changed, because the Russians and Chinese use different sort of train tracks. The sheer amount of effort taken to lift up each carriage and replace each wheel partially accounts for the long “layover.”
Anyway, nine hours later, we were officially in Mongolia.
We were picked up by our guide, Keith, an American who runs Stone Horse Mongolia, and has now settled down in the country. I highly recommend the company — Keith and his local team are so professional and know the country very well.
I’ll blitz through some of the sights we saw in Ulaan-Bator, but honestly, I think most of the beauty lies in the greener part of the country.
Outside the city, we managed to squeeze a photo-op with a giant Gengkhis Khan statue. And a large bird.
Back to the heart of this post: the Mongolian countryside. The landscapes vary depending on which part of the country you go to. In our case, we ended up in Darkhid Valley, somewhere in the luscious forest of the Terejl National Park. It was a three-hour bumpy ride in the van but what greeted us was spectacular.
Here we were in the middle of nowhere. I appreciate the rare moments whenever we go off the grid, especially when I catch myself looking at my mobile phone instead of observing the people clustered around me in a crowded MRT.
We lived in a real Mongolian ger for three days. These things are palatial.
The ger belonged to Yadmaa and Davasuren, lovely farmers whose family has lived off the land for years. (That said, Keith told us that there are some land ownership issues that the Mongolian government is sorting out with local farmers in the area.)
Yadmaa and Davasuren fed us daily with homecooked food (mutton and porridge, mutton and noodles, mutton and fried rice) and airag, or boiled mare’s milk. I may have gotten a little sick of the gamey taste clinging to the roof of my mouth by the end of the stay, but their warmth (despite the language barrier) made every morsel palatable.
At night, the temperatures would drop far below what my body in the naturally-insulated ger could take. To help out on that front, Yadmaa would start a fire going for us every night. Half the fun in subsequent nights was taking turns with Alan to keep the fire going, the proximity to the “oven” providing much needed relief.
For three whole days, we were left to our own devices — almost literally. I was glued to my Kindle. Alan took walks around the grassy knolls. We also acquainted ourselves with the many animals on the farm.
Not all of these animals were alive.
Since we were in Mongolia, we thought it’d be good to partake in some traditional activities like archery, one of the three “games of men” featured in the annual Naadam festival. We borrowed Yadmaa’s bow and tried to Katniss Everdeen our way out of the Hunger Games.
Alan was much better than me at archery, though that’s not saying much seeing as my arrow never seemed to be more than 10 meters apart.
We also rode through the forest for a while with Yadmaa leading the way, on Mongolian horses — a short but stocky breed. They may not possess the sophisticated poise of other horses but they’re noble in their own way. (Regardless, all the nobility in the world will not stop flies from attacking you.)
We also attempted to pull our weight and tried to milk the cows. (I’m making us sound super helpful, but it was really an experience we wanted out of curiosity more than kindness. In fact, I think we only caused Davasuren more work but she was incredibly grandmotherly about it.)
I remember being a young child in a Brisbane barn-turned-educational-show or something and I was given the chance to milk a cow but I chickened out after touching its udder. Since then, there’s always been an underlying desire to accomplish what my five-year-old self could not. Some people dream of becoming president, others to save the world. I just wanted to milk a cow.
Which I did — though I am not sure if I caused the cow any pain what with the friction building up between my stubby fingers and her rubbery teats. For 15 minutes I tugged and pulled and her milk — thin and runny — squirted into a blue bucket I struggled to clamp between my knees. This I did methodically and I thought I did a decent job. Until Davasuren took over and I saw how much milk she could coax out of the cow in a short time.
One of the hardest things about the cow milking sessions (which could take Davasuren and her two able-bodied nephews two hours to finish) is keeping the pesky but adorable lambs away from the milk. They constantly tried to climb into finished buckets, much to the amusement of Davasuren who would soon cave in and pour them a pan of milk all to themselves.
But I think the most memorable part of our stay in the great outdoors was a long conversation we had with Keith in his cottage in the middle of the night. He told us about the difficulty of being a foreigner running a business in Mongolia with its employment quotas, of his time as a national parks guide in Idaho and then a manager for a wildlife reserve in the Middle East, about his love for deep country.
Keith is 60+ but he doesn’t look older than 40. When I told him my reservations about being as active as he is if I reach his age, he said, “Don’t put limits on yourself.”
He also dispensed two other important pieces of advice: visit a natural place every year, and to see the events of the world as an opportunity to change things for the better. You don’t meet many inspirational people in such close proximity, and I was grateful Alan and I could have tea with him and talk for almost two hours.
After we had our tea, we made our way back from his cottage to our ger in complete darkness. For a while I was worried that I’d be stepping on cowpats and horse poop but when we finally reached our giant tent and tried to trace our path back, all we could really see was a blanket of white stars overhead. And for that, a lifetime of poop-encrusted shoes would still have made that moment worth it.
Tears were welling up in my eyes when we had to leave. Our ger was far from a five-star luxurious experience (no showers! outdoor toilet with bottleneck flies all over!) but it felt authentic and peaceful. Couple that with Yadmaa, Davasuren, their family and Keith, and it was probably a retreat in the truest sense of the word.
And it was something to see our ger being dismantled after we “checked out”, ready to be built somewhere else in preparation for the then-upcoming summer months.
I think I’ll return someday.