I decided to take it easy today in Ulan-Bator, after three fascinating but exhausting days. That’s what happens when you get adopted by a Mongolian family, as they are unequaled when it comes to hospitality and… resistance, which is not my case, at least for the latter. Hardly surprising that Genghis Khan could conquer a good part of Asia and Europe.
I have to get myself a book, a good one to make some sense of the last few days. Of course, I can’t read, say or understand a word and I’m not sure I get it all that well when something is explained to me. I have a lot of unanswered questions.
Most of the time, I have no idea where we are, where we are going or when we are going to get there, if ever.
I was extremely lucky to have my friend Claire put me in touch with Enksegset (Enkhy) and her family, who have been so extremely generous in helping me make some sense of this very exotic destination.
They have been taking care of me for the last three days as if I were a baby: are you hungry? Tired? Comfortable? Yes, yes, yes, I’m perfect!
The very best part of my stay in Mongolia is certainly due to those people who went way beyond the call of hospitality to make my few days here exciting.
I was going to book a private tour to Khustain Nuruu Park and stay overnight with horse raisers. I could tell that Enkhy didn’t feel right about that because when I told her of my plans, she got concerned about my being “comfortable”. She’d much rather I go with them to a relative some 340 km from Ulan Bator and stay in his yurt instead. That sounded interesting. So I cancelled everything and waited for Enkhy, her sister and sister’s grand-daughter to pick me up at my hotel.
By the way, I changed hotel. This chicken now has all the amenities to keep her happy.
We left Ulan-Bator around 4:30 pm, all I knew was that we were going east and that the relative we were to visit was a famous horse breeder. The suburbs of Ulan-Bator stretch out forever, following the chaotic pattern of the capital. Urban planning is not part of the equation and modern buildings with the strangest shapes (a Korean one mimics the sail of a boat, unless it’s an orange wedge. You could be in Dubai) grow side by side with old Soviet era blocks, super modern malls, modest cabins and the occasional yurt, all apparently thrown at random in the landscape.
It takes a while to reach the wilderness, which bothers Enkhy enormously: “There was a forest there and look what they’ve done. Cut all the trees, destroy the environment, mine here, mine there!” I can’t but agree with her.
But when we do reach the wilderness, well that’s it! There is nothing in the flattish landscape but rolling hills looking like great slumbering beasts, a few newer, sharper-edged mountains on the horizons, the delicious-smelling long grass of the endless steppe, a ruthless sun and no shade anywhere. As in any desert, you feel exposed.
Herds of cows, horses, sheep and goats are camping all over the road and scuttle away when a car approaches. Actually, the horses do not scuttle away; they take their own sweet time as if being the fastest gave them the right to walk at their own slowest pace whenever they feel like it. Except for a few scattered yurts and “ovoos” (ceremonial mounds of stones) it’s all emptiness. The “ovoos” are sites of pilgrimage, people pile up stones, attach blue scarves symbolizing the sky, go three times around clockwise and make a wish. It must work, there were several ex-votos of crutches, steering wheels, prayer wheels and banknotes. But nobody told me that I could make a wish, not that I’d known what to wish for.
The two-lane road is a toll road. It costs about $0.25 and, at that price, it’s not surprising that it’s more a collection of potholes than a road. Such potholes put Quebec potholes to shame: these are huge. Sometimes, the road is so broken up, that you have to drive on a track or just in the grass to avoid it. It was all great fun for the first three hours, then night fell, following a sunset of stark beauty, and the road was getting no better.
It wasn’t even paved anymore and we were taking what seemed to me random tracks into the big, black nowhere. A young man in a jeep stopped us twice. Where were we going? And why did he want to know? Ask as I may, I never got an answer. It crossed my mind that we might be lost and that nobody told me for fear of upsetting me. But everybody in the car looked calm enough, so I assumed that we might not, after all, have to pass the night in the car. But who knows? Mongolians are pretty unflappable people. I can’t say that I was nervous, but our driver was making strange slurpy, whistling sounds with his mouth as if he were sucking on a large popsicle and wanted to make sure not to let it drip.
Did that mean that HE was getting nervous? I was also beginning to feel bad that those good people that I didn’t know would invest so much time and energy in someone they may never see again.
We made it. We were at Enkhthor’s home in the village of Ulziit Sum, province of Khentii by 10.30 at night. “Weren’t you scared to get lost?” I asked. “No, of course not, all you have to do is follow the stars.” That being said as if it was the most natural thing in the world!!!
Enkhthor and his wife were expecting us, along with a helper busy in the kitchen. Out came home-made fritters, bread, fresh cheese, butter, the most amazing “blueberry”(?) jam and tea. The perfect little midnight snack for hungry travelers. I helped myself three times. But it was not over, mutton soup with dumplings was following, and then red wine from Australia offered to me in the cup of honor, a silver cup with a Chinese lion embossed on the bottom. I was strongly encouraged to drink the whole thing. I did.
All that, with plenty of talk addressed to me that poor Enkhy was doing her best to translate. Our host, Enkhthor was a former chief of police who had become, upon his retirement, one of the biggest cattle breeders in the region: 1000 horses, 5000 cows and I forget how many sheep and cashmere goats. You could tell he was a man of substance and penetrating intelligence. And I was very frustrated that our communication had to be so stilted. I liked him a lot and knew that we could have had fantastic conversations had me shared a common language..
We went to sleep in the yurt beside the house: very comfortable. Unless you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, which means that you have to find your way out and a spot in the prickly grass. You hear stirrings, then a dog barking fiercely. You hope he is chained. He was. Then Enkhy’s voice who also got up, asking if everything is all right.
In the morning, the air was crisp and sparkly like a very good champagne and we went for a walk in the neighboring “village”: the former seed plant, abandoned by the Russians, their barracks. “In 1991, all the Russian military left.” Apparently the Russian government gave them nothing, no pension, no relocation. Some are said to still be camping on the border. I don’t know if that’s true.
There are two trees in the village, they grow in front of a small general store. I absolutely had to stay a while under their shade and hug them for good measure.
As I was the “guest of honor”, oh my goodness! they’d killed a sheep for me and more kitchen helpers were busy at work, pounding dough, chopping vegetables. We had a lunch of Mongolian “pot-au-feu”: meat with broth, potatoes, rutabagas, Chinese cabbage, pickles and delicious steamed dumplings that were more like steamed bread. It somehow was very similar in concept to my mother’s pot-au-feu or “bouilli de légumes” and just as satisfyingly succulent. Except that, in this case, the meat had been cooked within the sheep’s stomach and its innards (blood pudding, liver, kidney, intestines) served first. When I walked in the room, everyone was massaging something black which, I was afraid, I might have to eat. But it so happens that these were rocks “cooked” in the pot with the meat to keep the temperature even. They had absorbed the meat juices and had turned black. Massaging them, still hot, was to have a beneficial effect upon digestion.
We took the road again around 1 pm. Now I knew that it took 6 hours to get back to UB, but it took more like 11 hours, as we stopped at several points along the road. Not far from there was held a most colorful skills competition with riders trying to catch a horse with a loop attached at the end of a long stick. They were not doing too well, but at each try the audience went wild.
At one point we crossed a river with the car – had the road washed away?- ” No, no, just a river!” Ok then, no problem. We drove to Lake Khuduu Arat whose waters are said to have medicinal properties: it actually felt very soft, almost oily. Highly therapeutic I’m told for various skin conditions. I washed my face, just in case it might have rejuvenating properties.
And from there to a mineral water source where you fill your bottle from a green plastic hose. Boy, will I be healthy with that double treatment!
On the way back, the most fascinating cloud formation evoked a man in a waistcoat bowing to an Indian ridden buffalo; a landing airplane and various fantastic insects.
Back in UB by midnight. I crashed and promised myself that tomorrow would be devoted to sweet nothing.