Mongolia: Hugh Sundae
Day One - Ulan Baatar
Slight apprehension turned to excitement as my Mongolian Airlines (!) jet banked towards the airport and revealed the city and vast beautiful hills and mountains. Very similar to the South Island around the McKenzie area. My driver, Inca, gave me a "gidday mate" to rival any Kiwi's. I didn't think the city would be so sprawling. The city is very stylish. Russian influence makes for some grand sights. I felt immediately relaxed about the place. The two things I will try to push myself most with are food and language. I've been trying out the phrases with as many locals as possible. They appreciate the effort but I'm slightly embarrassed I can't do better. Better go over those notes. I'm a sissy with food normally. It doesn't sound like much - but I tried everything on my plate at lunch, including pate. My friends back home would have been surprised to hear this! Later on, another driver - Jarhah - takes me to his home ger where I meet his dad, sister and nephew. Slightly nervous about getting ger etiquette right - take tea with the right hand - and tell them I think their animals are fattening up nicely. Again I wish my Mongolian was better, but they are gracious hosts and seemed to love having their photo taken in front of the ger!
Day Two - Ulan Baatar
I visited a few temples - not the tourist type thing I'd expected, an actual temple, where it seems many Mongols go to pray everyday. Most spectacular was seeing a 25m tall Budda, re-made in 1990 after having been melted down for its gold by the Russians. Visited the Black market and experienced crime. Felt joyous after getting belt and styley hat for stuff all then shaken up when I realized I was being targeted by pick-pockets. It felt like there were about six people all having a go while I was semi-trapped in a crowded isle. I managed to scare them off then felt a bit guilty as I had more in my pockets than they would probably see in a year. Was also mugged in the street. A guy bumped into me in the street and had is hand under a jacket - he put his hand in my top pocket and I grabbed it and yelled at him and didn't let go until I'd checked him, and checked my pocket. Then visited an orphanage in the suburbs. Sang songs to the kids and they sang back. They are being looked after, dare I say, better than many youngsters in actual families & bloody sharp kids. I can't wait to get out in the desert. I bet that's where I'll get my epiphany.
Day Three - Byan Govi
I am excited to see the wild side of Mongolia but there's seven hours in the van. Thank god for the hours I spent making compilations before I came - looking at amazing landscape while listening to The Phoenix Foundation. Mongolia is huge! Traveled for hours and looked at a map and realized how small a distance I'd covered in relation to the whole county. When Genghis was about it was even huger! I am at a Ger Camp tonight. My ger is very cozy and beautiful. It's easier to imagine the plush regal homes the old emperors had after having seen this one. Tried to get fire going in evening but had little luck. Got there in the end, and ended the day drinking vodka. Good days!
Day Four - Byan Govi
Helped erect a ger - a good ice-breaker with the locals. One of the young kids took a shine to me, we had fun, but I couldn't talk back! More humorous food in the tourist ger restaurant. Enjoyed making some damper on the stove. Night is filled with drama as chimney has a fire in it and causes much commotion around the hosts, who come in several times in the night to try and sort it out. Have a nightmare that night. Bad omen?!
Day Five - Tutseleg
Today the large amount of driving is getting on my tits. The views are outstanding, but the constant bumping along, particularly when I'm trying to sleep, is so irritating. It's possibly inflamed a little by a touch of home sickness creeping in and the ever present mutton, which I have started to smell in my urine. Arrived at Tutseleg, supposedly a beautiful tourist town like Queenstown. Whoever said that must have been referring to the surrounding landscape - not the architecture. The town has an eerie feeling and I'm not really enjoying it. The hotel is hotel from hohell. I'm rather pissed off at the lady of the house - dodgy! Dinner is at a restaurant and night club. For a while it looks good, better food and I appear to be welcome. However, this changes when I return after popping home for a shower (another example of lady of the house screwing things up). The place is now full of drunken local men, who don't like tourists getting in on the act. I learn that many of the guys in town are military on leave, hence the drinking and belligerence. Not a town I want to return to.
Day Six - Tutseleg and Waterfall camp
A turn for the better! Good spirits today as I have a tasty western breakfast at a café created seven years ago by an English couple (missionary types). My old favorite - scrambled eggs with bacon and pancakes! It's amazing what a bit of western culture can do. The six hour drive was okay with a good lunch in a beautiful setting by a river. Have ended up in another tourist ger. Looking forward to another day in the land of no fences tomorrow!
Day Seven - Waterfall camp
Started the day with a shave and a wash in the most beautiful setting I have ever done so. Felt quite the natureous traveler as I sat perched on a rock at the edge of the river. Took the opportunity to wash a few smalls - thank god, I only had one more pair to see me through. After some food (guess what - I'm over mutton, the sight, the smell, the taste) I went for a horse ride. Humorously small horses, looking even funnier with huge westerner with puffer jacket and backpack piled on top. A little apprehensive at first. I had an awful feeling my horse would bolt. It has now been seven days in Mongolia, and I'm starting to get titchy every now and then. Tomorrow marks my longest trip away from home since 1986. I leave the camp for an actual family ger. The people I am staying with seem nice enough, but there are many hours to fill and not much to do - conversation is almost impossible and I have nervously exhausted my questions in the first 30 minutes! As much as I'm over mutton, it's the fear of awful yoghurts and cheeses that really worries me about the coming meal. Also, tonight I will sleep with nine others and I only see two beds. There is also the guilt of being an 'insensitive tourist' in their home. After dinner I ride yaks, laugh and share vodka over a Korean soap opera on the satellite TV with the ger family. As long as no creepy crawlies attack while I'm sleeping on the floor.
Day Eight - Khara Khorum
Last night was the worst sleep ever in my life. The ger was host to a new born goat plus dogs outside and more goats that wouldn't shut up. All night. My tooth started aching, probably from the lack of a proper pillow. I feel queasy, which is enough to get me out of having breakfast. I'm sure the family will joke at my expense once I've gone. I am now eating instant noodles - much tastier than Mongolian food and without the rancid preparation smell. I arrive at Khara Khorum. My accommodation is another guest ger - very pleasant, long drop toilets and I can make my own food (I've decided not to eat anymore traditional food, ever). After dinner I have a special moment, probably the most significant for me personally. In the setting of a small ger, I am treated to a private performance of Mongolian Musicians who can throat sing. I'd seen a tourist show earlier in the trip but this was far more intimate and made a big impact. Being a musician and all that, I had tremendous respect for what I was seeing. Throat singing is an INCREDIBLY difficult activity - ask anyone who as ever tried to sing just one noise from their throat.
Day Nine - Taki Horses
Mostly driving today but arrive at tourist ger heaven. A ger camp with power, coffee, western food, showers and alcohol. But first, the wild horses. I see the horses out in the wild but, not being much of a horse guy, I'm not too impressed. Looking forward to some food though.
Day Ten - Ulan Baatar
Fantastic sleep last night, although my tooth was aching SOOOO much - not even the Nurofen Plus helped. Rude awakening too - I think some sort of small critter (perhaps a mouse) was crawling about above my pillow. Then I heard fossicking in a plastic bag on the floor but it scuttled away once I got my torch out. Back to UB. This time around the city seems far more polluted, much bigger, and more fast paced. After the relative calm of the countryside the city is a lot more imposing and I find myself a little nervous about being here. Found the central post office and managed to get someone to help me with the international call - gave the number, told them how long I wanted, got sent to a booth in the corner of the room and a terrible line rang through. At least I got through though. That five minutes home cost me 5000 togrigs - worth it though.
Day Eleven and Twelve - Terilij
This is the most beautiful tourist ger camp yet. Wonderful set up in an amazing setting at the foot of these huge rounded rock hills, a visual side of Mongas not seen till now. Next day, I try and hunt the elusive Marmot. It is said they are paralyzed by fear when white cloths or dog's tails are waved at them, then they are shot by hunters. Spent a hilarious hour trying to stalk and paralyze the little rabbit-like critters . Got about four meters away so I guess there is something in it. I also got to ride a camel. Quite taken by the camel. He has made more impact on me than I would have thought. Huge and powerful animal. Two humps, nice one. Last couple of days have been marred by dodgy teeth. I'm slightly apprehensive - they may have to be removed when I get home.
Day Thirteen - Ulan Baatar
Best shower I've had in recent memory and then into town to witness some wrestling. Found the venue and was surprised to be able to walk straight in and sit down. No trouble and no money? I certainly stood out as the only white face there but the crowd were welcoming and seemed happy that foreigners were taking interest in their national sport. Much singing and speeches between rounds, I learnt later that the speeches are the history of each wrestler. The rounds seem to be elimination based, starts with about 20, then about 10, etc. The rituals of bird dancing and humiliating the loser are bloody funny.
Day Fourteen - Ulan Baatar
I stayed at a homestay, this time in an apartment - it's a way for locals to make a bit of extra cash. The bed was comfortable and I had the best pillow I'd had in the whole trip! Enjoyed my last night with a couple of beers in a club called "Let It Be" - a rock' n' roll themed bar. A few teenagers were there, obviously from well-off families, dancing and celebrating something or other. It was a great atmosphere, I felt welcome, and it was a lovely way to end the trip.