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Mongolia

MONGOLIA | Saturday, 8 August 2009 | Views [1051]

Nomad Bur and our guide Pasca

Nomad Bur and our guide Pasca

Within half an hour of leaving Erlian the Mongolian authorities infested our train to start really thorough border/customs check. Our passports are taken away for stamping and we are not allowed to leave train for almost three hours. All doors and windows are locked, guards on the platform look very mean and we sweat at boiling 36C inside, and the restrooms are opened only when train is moving ... not happy! Around 8pm a sharp looking female officer returns with passports and we can finally walk out of our temporary prison. Train heading for Ulaanbaatar is going to leave in a few hours so we visit nearby restaurant testing our first Mongolian dish and local beer in company of Chinese girl journalist JD. Besides Cantonese she speaks Mongolian and English and that is very handy. We share 4-berth coupe with two Mongolian sisters returning home from study in Beijing and after good sleep and breaky they both get interested in our favored card game "Joker" which we often play to kill some time. Other Mongolian passengers get soon involved as well and by mid morning our coupe is full of Joker enthusiasts. We have a lot of fun and it is almost sad to see Ulaanbaatar station so soon saying good bye to everyone. Very friendly staff from Golden Gobi hostel is awaiting us at the station as promised, and soon after we check in a clean and spacious double room. This hostel is somewhat unusual in a way of its position and style – local Mongolian family transformed a couple of flats in a typical two storey block of units into one space with nice and cozy feeling. Later afternoon we are invited to join a 6-day 4-WD trip through central Mongolia. That sounds exciting, we are going to meet many nomad families and learn about their traditions and culture. We are in! Our group of six backpackers, driver and tour guide Pasca (she will cook as well) will leave tomorrow morning in a Russian jeep. Wow! Can not wait till morning, despite warnings of “no shower”, no toilets and lots of bumpy ride. We leave just after breakfast – Pasca needs to stock up cooking supplies while we take the opportunity to buy more vodka and munchies. First 100km in spacious jeep with hard Russian suspension is surprisingly not so bad but everyone welcomes first stop at Hustai National Park resort where we hear first time about almost extinct Przewalski horse. Soon we are on the road again. Suddenly someone spots a herd of horses coming towards us from a distance. Driver stops, we get out very slowly and in amazement we watch about a dozen of wild Przewalski horses galloping across the road some 20 meters in front of us. “Guys, you are extremely lucky!” Pasca smiles and we feel privileged to be here. It looks like horses decided to perform for us the best of their skills, we take many pictures while they play and drink from nearby creek. Back to jeep, lunch on the way and off we go – we still have 200km more to the first overnight stay with nomad “Bur” family. Rolling hills and valleys are occasionally spotted with groups of 2 or 3 round tents – gers, but mostly the land is bare and unpopulated. There are no sealed or sign posted roads here, our driver is skilled negotiating sometimes steep river crossings, all that without GPS or maps – he just knows which way to go. I am thinking myself “How would I survive here if I ever get lost? Hmm, that would be unpleasant”. We arrive to Bur’s family just before sunset; the weather has deteriorated with strong cold westerly winds picking up. While Pasca prepares our dinner, we all settle in one “guest ger”. There are six single beds inside lined up alongside the round wall and a smaller stove in the middle. Bur’s wife started fire and in minutes we feel warm again – this is a good time to unpack and get beds ready for night before dinner is ready. We’ll all eat, play and sleep in this unusual type of accommodation for next few days. After delicious dinner Pasca goes on explaining local customs; for example we need to follow clockwise direction when visiting family’s ger, she talks about harmony which exists between nomads, their livestock and the nature. We learn how families pack up their gers and move from place to place up to four times a year to follow seasonal changes of pastures. When I ask 79 year old Bur what makes him the happiest, he thinks for a while and then replies “When my animals are healthy” - Pasca translates with a light smile and adds this family owns over 1000 sheep and angora goats. He pulls out a small container from inside his heavy thick coat and offers sniffing tobacco as a gesture of friendship to all of us. Remarkable evening, perhaps few minds tonight will be thinking about values and priorities in life before falling asleep. Morning is freezing, literary. An overnight blizzard has covered this vast land with thin layer of powdery snow and temperatures dropped below zero. Brr… we supposed to ride camels today and it is still snowing by 9am! Hmm, but how often can we ride a camel in Mongolian outback? This is the only chance, so put on those heavy long sleeved coats and hop on! Bur prepares three camels (yes, we'll ride on seats) so split in two groups of three riders, each group having about half an hour of camel fun. Clouds have receded a little and wind dropped off slightly which makes the ride more enjoyable. Earlier this year Bur's female camel had her first baby and now three months old youngster does everything what small kids do - it madly jumps around but never too fat from her mum. On the way we encounter a group of mischievous billy goats who decided to explore the world outside their home boundaries, Bur knows how to handle such situation. The presence of livestock is overwhelming. With smile we watch hundreds of somewhat clumsy baby sheep and goats jumping on steep rocks never really loosing their balance. Few even come for a cuddle, perhaps we start to smell like their mothers. Lunch at noon and we need to move on soon, at 2pm we wave to Bur’s family from windows of our jeep heading further 200km west. Snow sprinkled landscape becomes more dramatic with steeper valleys and rockier hills. We also see first yaks, from now on we’ll see them everywhere and often they are domesticated as an alternative to here-non-existent common cow. A quick stop-over at Semi-Gobi desert gives us some impression of what Gobi might look like and by 7:30pm we arrive to a young nomad family of five – Mocho (husband), Turne (wife) and three daughters 2, 7 and 10. We’ll stay with this family for two nights and as before a single visitor’s ger is ready for us. We are invited to the family ger and our taste buds are put to the test when offered Mongolian tea. What is Mongolian tea? A green tea with salt and fresh creamy yak’s milk – close your eyes, imagine a soup and you have no problem. Imagine a tea and no one can drink it! An interesting play of mind. I passed the test on the first attempt; Iva needs one more day to convince herself. Few vodka shots after dinner will help good night sleep. It has been snowing all night and brief toilet visits to mother nature pose few challenges. Saturday morning is still very cold, skies are covered with thick grey cloud, wind sprinkles snow everywhere and horse riding looks even more uncertain. All of us seem to be sucked into this amazingly peaceful lifestyle and we take every opportunity to be part of it – we watch Turne milking yaks, we carry baby goats and sheep to an overnight shelter or we walk livestock to/from pastures. The weather little improves by late morning giving green light to horse riding. Mocho and his friend saddle eight horses and we are on the way to waterfalls. Well, maybe in wet season but now completely dry. Never mind, the sensation of horse riding with nomads in snow covered Mongolian outback is priceless. Back for lunch just in time, we are all very hungry – metabolic combustion is quite rapid at low temperatures. Pasca has proven herself as an excellent cook and also today we do not expect any less. She has not disappointed us and her Mongolian based meals taste great. Afternoon is filled with few activities – we three boys opt for another horse ride, Iva relaxed with a cup of coffee catching up with her notes and later this afternoon we all engage in game of badminton under blue sunny sky. Sunday starts with home made yak’s yogurt on pancakes, then Turne comes forward to our request to see angora goat shearing to produce Kashmir wool. Finally we sadly say good bye to this lovely family and move on to acomplish busy day ahead, including visit to a monastery hidden deep in forest hills. After four hours driving the Russian jeep struggles to finish last few kilometers on steep and muddy road, in one place it even slides sideways dangerously close to a cliff. We jump out of the car refusing to get back in again. “Not until you get off that edge” we insist on driver. He did and we continue up hill for few more kilometers however conditions get worse quickly as snow cover increases with higher altitude. Jeep dances on snow and mud like a yo-yo; too many times I hit the roof with my head. Finally the car comes to a stop – too much snow and mud for these tires, we need to walk from here. Pasca reckons we have 6km each way and it is 3pm already. My sneakers are completely soaked wet, snow gets deeper in shady forest and our enthusiasm runs thinner by every minute. Last drop and we call it off – me, Iva and Femke decide to bail out and we leave the group about the half way up to monastery returning to the jeep. Hopefully we’ll find the way through the forest.... All went ok; we found the car and quickly made a fire to dry our footwear. The rest of the group returned at 6:30pm, now we need to move really fast to reach our next overnight stay at hot springs, still at leats 100km away. It does not look good – did we say no sealed roads or sign posts here? The sun moves closer to horizon and something looks sus – our driver asks locals for direction and we seem to be going in circles around very large swampy flat lands. Suddenly we see where we do not want to be … jeep gets bogged in deep mud in middle of swampy terrain. It is now completely dark, no flashlights or shovels are at hand and no one can help but us. I am little angry with the driver because this could have been prevented if he did not drive like a fool. With the help of few members of our group the car is pushed out of the mud and we move again. Not for long though. A couple of hundred meters later he gets bogged again, this time the car sits on its belly and there is no way to get it on wheels again. “How could he not see the water in front of the car?” I ask myself when I saw reflection of headlights on paddles ahead of us just before it happened. Truly foolish, indeed. Furthermore, neither driver nor Pasca are really sure where exactly we are. It is 11pm, very cold and with moon shining over dead-quiet land we start to walk with our backpacks in hope to find some place to stay overnight. Pssshh! Someone can hear dogs barking in distance. The sound becomes more intense so we must be getting closer. Where dogs are, there are people. Or, are they? We do not know for sure, none of us is familiar with Mongolian outback at night. Keep walking, and then we see a silhouette of ger in about 200m distance. Pack of loudly barking dogs is maybe  within 20-30 meters and we can see them, very nerving situation. David remembers how he was once chased by a pack of wild dogs. Whole group tucks down to prevent further dog’s aggravation. While we are quietly waiting for next action, our driver somehow passed guard dogs and knocked on ger’s door, asking family for a help. Few minutes later dogs go quiet and we are all invited inside; to our amazement this very young family with small baby offers us their ger as a shelter for tonight. We could not believe this - Wife made up fire in already cold stove, cooked Mongolian tea, rolled noodles from the scratch and cooked them with lamb meat while her small baby was happily sleeping in her bed. By 1am they dragged in few spare mattresses with blankets and tired all we fall asleep on the floor very quickly. Morning is fresh but at least it is sunny. At 6am wife milks yaks, we assist grandma to remove baby goats from their mums to a shelter while grownups go to pastures. In meantime our driver organized some local guy with a tractor to pull his jeep out of mud plains. Two hours later the rescued jeep arrives to load our backpacks and we are on the move to hot springs where we supposed to be yesterday. This is our first shower in five days and we all are looking forward hot water bath in a swimming pool fed with natural thermal spring. While Pasca is working hard on our breaky we indulge in hot swimming pool, wondering how we feel when we get called for the breakfast – air sits at chili 10C. Quick nap, then lunch and we are in jeep once more for the last destination of this trip - ancient capitol Kharkhorin. Soon after we leave hot springs we stop once more at our rescuer’s ger for fresh yak’s yogurt produced within few hours of milking. Five hours later we arrive to a touristy ger camp in town of Kharkhorin. Tonight a local musician will perform traditional music in our ger and few other tourists are welcome to join us. Last sleep in ger means the trip is almost over – not quite yet, we are going to see local monastery, then many, many hours on a mix of dirt and sealed roads to Ulaanbaatar, in total 360km. Apart from seeing herd of over thousand horses galloping by, the ride is tiring. Everyone just looks through windows and I know what is going through minds here in jeep - We all are sad that this wonderful encounter with nomads and their livestock has come to the end. Driving through streets of Ulaanbaatar makes us to think about real values of modern city life.

Tonight we all go out for last dinner and tomorrow I and Iva are going to board train for Russia. Our last day in Mongolia starts with a visit to local markets and the rest of afternoon we just cruise around town centre. With help from hostel staff we catch a taxi for train station but to our horror at half way Iva noticed she left her handbag at the hostel. Unfortunately taxi driver did not understand a word in English so when we say “Golden Gobi hostel” he takes us to wrong “Gobi Hotel” which happens to be located in a completely different part of Ulaanbaatar. Sweating and frustrated we stop another taxi - luckily this driver could understand few words so soon we squeeze through busy evening traffic heading back to Golden Gobi hostel (Murphy’s Law works here – Madona has a concert here tonight so traffic is unusually dense). Iva flies for her bag and shortly we are racing to train station again - some 40 minutes later. Well, we just made it in time and train starts to move while we organize our pack in the coupe. Hush! What a relief. We deserve a drink. Or two….

Mongolia is beautiful example of how people, livestock and nature can co-exist together in balanced harmony. This trip exceeded all our expectations. If there is such a thing as return to the nature then Mongolia is the place.

 

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