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Heatstroke in Mongolia

My Travel Writing Scholarship 2011 entry (My Big Adventure)

MONGOLIA | Saturday, 5 February 2011 | Views [1046] | Scholarship Entry


The roads in Ulan Bator were choked with traffic. The streets were flecked with women flogging boiled sweets. Children with smudged faces dodged legs and begged for cash. Power-cuts were frequent and unacknowledged. Men loitered in the darkness, burgling shoppers with their eyes. I had never been so cold. When the wind threw a soiled nappy at my face I decided to get out of there. 

Our van passed cows grazing on pylons and dogs eating trash. Then the waste relented and through stained windows Terelj national park arrived. The hills were magnificent, swirling, white, gers lurked in the ridges and scattered the plains like miniature circus tops.

The walls of my ger were plastered with carpet and the floor rug was a dead sheep. The crown of the stove-pipe is called a shangrak and a family's lineage can be measured by the smoke marks on the wood. This one was painted orange. I'm not sure if you can determine heritage by studying paint - nomads hunt, eat and move on - nomads don't ask other nomads if they used gloss or matt.

In the afternoon a woman brought sticky noodles smothered in ketchup. The steam climbed the walls and flirted with the light. Soon my face, lips and fingers were covered in grease. An ancient Mongol would have wiped it on the floor or on his clothes, but something stopped me from smearing it on the rug. Maybe it was respect for my hosts or maybe it was respect for the sheep. I couldn't wipe it on my shirt because I only had one set of clothes, so I found a handkerchief in my pack and convinced myself that given the chance Ghengis Khan would have used one too.

Our horses were already out of breath when they were paraded into camp. With the tourists saddled up they wheezed into line. The sun bowed low and offered up the isolation, the hills became shadows and the snow disappeared beneath my feet. My horse swayed but never stumbled, scoffing at inclines and trotting down slopes. It was the most beautiful hour of my life; guided by lantern light it felt like riding on the moon. 

That night the cows clomped to their pens, a child giggled at the snow, the birds seemed to float rather than fly. It should have been relaxing but I couldn't sleep. The stove-pipe was incandescent and my candle had melted in the heat. I grabbed the metal bedstead to cool my cooking body. The door opened and my skin relaxed with the breeze. A man threw some wood onto the fire and riled the embers. When he shut the door the heat thumped me. I trudged into the snow and dropped to my knees. I couldn't believe it. It was Mongolia, it was mid-winter, it was minus twenty degrees and it was too damn hot.

Tags: #2011writing, ger, horse riding, mongolia, nomads, terelj national park, travel writing scholarship 2011

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