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14

Mongolia - Ulaanbaatar and the Steppes
30th Dec - 3rd Jan '05

Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
Miriam Beard

The Russian-Mongolian border was tipped to be the most difficult border to get through for the combination of the two bureaucracies could prove to be quite a challenging cocktail. I was used and happy to being in a cabin with non English speaking passengers, if I occasionally did see a European looking person hanging around the platform I made no attempt to connect with them. However, on this train I heard some English being spoken a couple of cabins down, it was 3 guys who each time I saw them had a beer in their hand so I was quite happy to keep my distance. That is until after several hours the Provodnitsa, knowing of their presence, grabbed me by the throat and dragged me down there. This was a mistake! Apart from when taking day trips to the Great Wall of China in Beijing and the Terra cotta Warriors in Xi'an, these were to be the only western people I would spend any time with during the 2 months to February. Dave who was English had been made redundant and had decided to invest his payout in something he had always wanted to do, which was to take some time out and learn a 2nd language. Having settled on Chinese, he was heading to Shanghai for a 6 month language course. Stanislav was a Russian going to Ulaanbaatar to see his family, and Ian who was German was doing some voluntary work in Irkutsk but as his Russian visa had expired, he was going to Mongolia to renew it. Unfortunately, due to the presence and insistence of Stanislav and of course my weak will, this led to another 'vody moment' and I am pleased to say, apart from New Years Eve, which despite my protests was not up for discussion, was my last. The guidebooks were warning of paying careful attention to the completion of the paperwork at all of the borders but in particular this border. It was usually a lengthy process and I certainly recall completing forms on the approach but the rest is a bit of a blur. In fact when I awoke in the morning amongst my documents there was one form that defiantly wasn't completed by myself. I assume the guys in my cabin helped me out, as one of them, a Mongolian student who spoke good English, was returning home for the Holidays so realising a form had not been completed must have filled it out on my behalf.

So now I was very much in the land of Genghis Khan and although he died over 700 years previous his name lives on in everything from beer to hotels, food brands and tyres. Just the mention of his name suggests quality, which the marketing people seem to make as much use of it as possible. He built his empire during his 25-year reign to span half the known world, from the Danube to the Pacific. His revolution of the skills of horse riding ensured that his armies were feared everywhere. One of his inventions was the spur so that his riders could stand whilst on route ensuring the horses could endure long journeys of up to a year and still be strong enough to go into battle when they arrived at their soon to be conquered destination. His spirit too survives, as even today a Mongolian male is measured by his ability to wrestle, his prowess with a bow and mastery of the horse.

There are about 2.5 Million people live in Mongolia and approx 900,000 of these live in the capital Ulaanbaatar. As you get further north the winters are much harsher usually reaching -50c with the Gobi dessert lying to the south. Against the will of the Chinese Government at the time, Mongolia received independence in 1924, they had been severely repressed and even their language and alphabet were banned. Only then, to be controlled by Russia until 1990 when they finally received total independence. By this stage Mongolia, the most economically ravaged of the ex-communist countries due to hundreds of years of exploitation by its previous masters, was penniless and technically bankrupt. Despite being rich in natural resources such as copper bauxite and precious metal ores. With many of its industries unable to survive and nearly all its factories closed down this led to in the region of 70% unemployment and forced many inhabitants to revert back to the 13th century lifestyle. Today there are still approximately 70% living in the Ger tents and 50% following the nomadic way of life. This is through necessity rather than choice.

My first stop was at the Elstei Ger Camp 1-2 hours North of Ulaanbaatar where I would spend the following three days in a Ger tent or Yurt, much against the better judgment of the agent in London.....'We wouldn't advise you do it. It will be freezing in Ulaanbaatar city, where it may be as low as -35c, but without any shelter when the winds blow across the steppes it gets really cold'. They offered as an alternative to organise a skiing trip or sleigh ride, which I accept the scenery would be quite something but I felt that I could Ski whenever I like. Plus, the draw of living in a Ger tent for a few days as the Nomads lived on the steppes of Mongolia was just too strong, irrespective of any climatic hardships. I think Jade at the agency was just being protective in an attempt to make me realise what I may lay store. But I have to say I am glad I went with my instinct. According to the staff at the camp the temperature on the first night had dropped as low as - 40c. However, being in the Ger with a solid stove for warmth I never felt cold, except on this the coldest morning, as unfortunately the fire gone out during the night. The 'Old Man' had arrived very early that morning to relight it, (which according to Boogie is how everybody refered to him) but it had gone out again, so I awoke to a extremely cold tent and to find my water bottle frozen solid. But when the fire was full ablaze it was so hot that periodically I would have to open the door to let some of the heat out.

On New Years eve I was due to go for a sedate horse ride in the afternoon, not wanting to waste the gorgeous clear sunny day on the steppes despite it being about -25c, I went for a 4 hour walk into the hills. Whilst on the tops I watched the Nomads on horseback herding their livestock in search of the days grazing before returning to their Ger by nightfall. They lived by the principle that the animals will take them to where food will be found; hence as the animals moved they would pack up their tents and follow their herds around the land all year. Whilst this was a novelty for me, a brief glimpse of an ancient culture still alive in the 21st century before moving onto warmer climes, this was still a way of life for them and the only option of survival they had. A culture and way of life that had remained almost unchanged since the days of Genghis Khan. This rendered their livelihood and survival at the mercy of the climate. Only 3 years earlier during a particularly hot and dry summer the land didn't provide enough food for all the livestock, many of the Nomads had all their flocks, and hence their only method of survival completely wiped out. It was a disaster. They constantly live in fear of a repeat.

Now came the second part of my day, Boogie, my guide whilst at the camp and Ulaanbaatar, had suggested going horse riding and I informed her that whilst I had ridden before I certainly couldn't be considered proficient but more accurately a beginner. They wrapped me up in traditional Nomadic attire to the point where I could barely bend in the middle; they assured me it was necessary due to the cold. Once ready, I Boogie and another guide saddled up and slowly wandered towards the bright blue horizon. Even though I had been enduring the most extreme temperatures I had ever experienced, when Boogie leaned across and coldly said in my ear "When we start to gallop just relax and go with the rhythm of the horse" she still managed to send an icicle down the back of my neck colder than anything I had felt since hitting Siberia. Soon after, without warning, they began slapping the ass of my horse until it reached what seemed to be maximum momentum. Whenever I thought I had peaked in the fear department, navigating hillside climbs with my gaze firmly fixed on the next group of boulders we would be weaving our way through, they would slap it some more. I am unsure how one gauges the level of fear in the horse riding world but whichever scale you choose I was definitely in red. My shrieks seemed to have no impact on the velocity what so ever. I am a firm believer in the philosophy of being thrown in the deep end, when one is ready and willing, and let the steepness of the curve bring on the development. With this in mind I stared at my nonnegotiable vertical learning curve, hoping that their presence and obvious experience meant that they were watching me closely and that if they felt it was too much for me it would all be taken away and sanity would resume. So I went with it to see what might happen. It wasn't long before I was feeling much more comfortable and soon began to enjoy our little jaunt. If you are going to learn to ride it may as well be with a couple of crazy Mongolians. No wonder half the known world was terrified of Genghis Khan. I later spoke to the two Japanese tourists whom were also staying at the camp; they had much more sedate experiences on their daily rides, so I am sure that if I really wasn't happy they would have knocked it down several gears.

After riding for an hour or more, we arrived at a Nomadic families Ger tent. The family consisted of Grandparents and their grand daughter living in the one tent, as it was New Years Eve their son was there visiting from a nearby village. Boogie had suggested I take a little gift; a packet of cigarettes fit the bill that I should present to the senior member, in this case the Grandfather. As with many cultures the males are thought of as superior and with age comes respect. The seating in the Ger was also very important; the door always pointing South; the females area and bed was to the East, separate from the males which was in the west, visitors where also placed in the west which is where I had been seated. They had a sacred area for photos or a shrine, which was opposite the door in the North. I avoided getting too close to or crossing it just in case this would cause offence, although I later found that it was ok as the Grandfather opened the doors of a small cupboard to reveal a little Buddhist alter.

Many of the customs I had read about during the train journey from Irkutsk, or heard of from Boogie, most seeming extraordinary in this day and age, I encountered in their natural environment in the tent that afternoon. The smallest things that might seem innocuous could easily cause offence. For instance, the males head and hat are considered sacred and neither must be touched by a female, so it would be unfitting to place your hat on a table but should rather have a place of status for instance on a stand with the most senior members hat being placed highest. Also one mustn't roll up ones sleeves in company as it is seen as an act of aggression; something I found myself unconsciously doing as I disrobed all my layers coming in from the freezing cold into a hot Ger, luckily I checked myself before it was noticed but it wouldn't have been a very good start! So to avoid any more major faux pa's I watched Boogie like a hawk and checked with her before I moved or did anything if I thought that there may be any possibility of it crossing cultural boundaries into sensitive territory. The grandfather was the authority figure, as he spoke Boogie provided the translation. He was in his late 60's and had a lined weathered face of leather which traced a life of hardship on the steppes yet was still capable of being transformed into a magnetic thing of beauty with an exploding smile and laugh that literally dominated the whole tent. As he laughed his way through the afternoon my gaze was fixed on his features rendering the rest of the Ger tent a mere blur, typical of the open friendly nature of the Mongolians in general. As we warmed to each other he began organising my life; inviting me stay and help them tend the herd; (That would be hard living) even attempting to marry me off to a Mongolian girl and reassuring me that he would chant and pray for me so that I would have many children. I thanked him graciously! He then offered me homemade vodka made from goats yogurt, which I was gently informed by boogie that as this was a sign of respect it wasn't optional. I accepted reluctantly - he then proceeded to fill a silver vessel the size of a small cup and passed it over in the traditional manner by offering it to me with his right hand whilst holding his right elbow with his left hand. I was to take the vessel from him in the same manner. Of course, it had to go down in one, but to my relief being homemade wasn't too strong. As it was New Year he informed me that it also required me to sing a National song, but being under pressure I completely dried up, failing even to think of Auld Lang Syne. Rather than offend him I simply cobbled something nonsensical together, which I think I got away with? My host then followed suite, but he sang an elaborate shanty of health and good fortune. We chatted a while longer before he reached for the bottle again, my protests where met by another gentle whisper from Boogie 'You have to do it 3 times' something she had neglected to point out earlier when she had cajoled me into accepting the first. I think this may be something to do with 3 being a sacred or lucky number but I am not sure. My only concern was navigating my horse during the long ride back to camp knowing my team mates weren't in the business of taking prisoners. Never the less I felt obliged to comply. Just before we left he insisted on a fourth, which as if this wasn't testing enough, my guides and newly ranked 'ex-friends' had told the Grandfather that I rode like the wind. So as I clumsily mounted my horse for the ride back to camp the Grandfather sprang onto the back of his stallion from its rear, more akin to a teenager than a Grandfather, a testament to a life in the saddle. With his beaming smile now completely blocking out the horizon he challenged me to a race!!! "No thank you I don't think I could drink enough of your vodka to make me fall for that one." I sensibly declined his final generous gesture and turned my horse around quickly and with a big smile and wave goodbye left before he had the chance to regroup. His smiling face and farewell laugh forcing back the lines of hardship will stay with me for a very long time to come.

During the ride back, it was beginning to get colder, I had to remove my glasses as they were steaming up. The wind, causing my eyes to water, left me desperately trying to see through frozen eyelashes that were being welded together with ice. But it was News Years Eve; I had spent a most wonderful afternoon within a warmth that was the hospitality of a family of Nomads whose hardships I could only begin to imagine; I had been well and truly watered on home made goats milk vodka; It may have been a first that day, but for the second time I found myself galloping on horseback across the snow covered steppes; returning to spend another night in my Ger tent accompanied by a pair of crazy Mongolians; the air was fresh and as the sun set the clear sky became a myriad of colour. A perfect way to say goodbye to 2004 whilst at the same moment welcoming in a new year, full of anticipation and excitement as to what may lay ahead in 2005. The grin that invaded my face kept me nice and warm for the remainder of the ride.

I was later told that my companions had reported to all the staff at the camp and the two Japanese tourists, but most significantly the Old Man, that I rode like the wind all the way there and all the way back. Whilst extremely flattering it was considered a huge compliment in Mongolia. Once I realised the implications of this I was quite happy for them to continue spreading the rumour for my remaining time there. It was a testament to my manhood and virility and shot me up the ranks as great marriage material. Rather like somebody in the UK saying that you can drink 20 pints of beer, eat 3 vindaloo curries and then take on a full rugby squad before going out for a proper drink. If I had realised it would have such an impact I would have started the rumour myself earlier.

We met around 7.30pm to dine in the eating hut, Boogie dined with me each evening and during our meal she would educate me on the history, customs and culture of Mongolia. We stayed up to see the New Year in and chatted and played Mongolian games, later being joined by the 2 Japanese tourists also staying at the camp. The games centred on the things of value to their lifestyle and culture, namely animals, so all the pieces and even the dice utilised the vertebrae of a sheep. All the bones being identical meant that depending on which side of the bone the dice landed, it would represent a specific animal, e.g. Goat, sheep, horse or camel, hence would correspond to a given number of moves. Just before Midnight, the rest of the staff joined us and some local Champaign was cracked. During the day, they had experienced a problem with the major source of their entertainment - the staff TV and video, a problem they had apparently given up on, so I offered to help to see if there was anything that I could do. After a while I managed to get them working much to the delight of all the staff. This and the stories of my ride that afternoon had won favour with the Old Man so he invited me back to the staff Ger, which they all shared, to join them to celebrate the New Year. He seated me on his right at the top of the table, which was a place of respect and seniority. A person was seated reflecting their status in the gathering, as was the order in which people were offered food or drink. He kept feeding me vodka followed by repeated pinches of snuff, another offer considered rude to refuse! He seemed to get a great deal of pleasure and delight out of watching me sneeze the New Year in.

Although there has not been a single place I have not embraced and indeed would gladly go back to, my stop in Mongolia and my stay at the Ger camp combined with the visit to the Nomadic family was to be my most vivid memory and undoubtedly the highlight of the Trans Siberian trip.

Some of my favourite photos of this leg were taken on this day, both with the Nomads and in the evening with the staff and the Old Man. Sadly, possibly due to the extreme cold temperatures causing a fault on my camera memory card, they are lost somewhere in the digital dustbin of disappointment.

My stay in Ulaanbaatar, being the capital, was planned to be a much more sedate occasion in contrast with the excitement of the previous few days.

I learnt much earlier in my journey that by giving unconditionally - without expectation, one receives so much. I have been consciously living my life this way for some years and it continues to gift a colour and richness that never ceases to astound.

"When you learn not to want things so badly, life comes to you."
Unknown

 

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