Category Archives: Mongolia

Clueless in Mongolia

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.

The sail of a boat or an orange wedge?

The sail of a boat or an orange wedge?

Driving out of Ulan-Bator

                                                  Driving out of Ulan-Bator

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.

Landscapes-Mongol4
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.

Ovoo

                                                                Ovoo

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.

Sunset

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.

With Enhhtor, and my new Mongolian family

                              With Enkhtor, and my new Mongolian family

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 yurt or

                                                     In the yurt or “gehr’

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.

Khorkhog, stones and all...

                                          Khorkhog, stones and all…

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.

2014-07-28 15.14.10
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.

Can't find the man in the waistcoat. or the buffalo, or...

                          Can’t find the man in the waistcoat. or the buffalo, or…

Back in UB by midnight. I crashed and promised myself that tomorrow would be devoted to sweet nothing.

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An Ugly American Chicken!l

That’s me!  What?  No air-conditioning?  What about a fan then?  No fan uh!  But it’s 37 degrees outside… and my room is in the sun.  And does anybody speak English here?  I always wondered about travelers complaining about places where nobody spoke English. Bad travelers!  Now I know what they mean.  In comparison to my Mongolian, my Russian is practically fluent.  I can say two words in Mongolian: Thank you!  and Fine!  And I’m not even sure anybody understands me.

That’s for the ugly American!

The chicken, on the other hand, said no to the opportunity of following NGO workers who offered her to go along with them and weigh and measure children in a few villages for symptoms of malnutrition.  I was very tempted.  Chance, an American from California works in Hong Kong and volunteers as an NGO worker. He, his wife and their two young children had just come back from the Philippines (children malnutrition is apparently pretty dismal over there).  They were expecting Mongolian children to be in better shape.  They’d be leaving early in the morning.  How early?  We’ll meet at the Genghis Khan Hotel around 9.

Nine!  I’ve been up and around since 4 this morning and, by now, have the feeling of having lived three days in one.  I couldn’t face the prospect of having to get up and get going again.  Thank you so much but I think I’ll pass.

Now, if I was hoping for a good night sleep, I was deluding myself.  Not much improvement on that chapter.  The paranoïa is much better, but the insomnia and hypochondria are still going strong with a fierce attack of the latter last night.  Were those wild strawberries, that my new Mongolian friends had bought on the side of the road yesterday, clean?  Had they been washed?  And, if so, with what kind of water?  And the hands that handled them, where had they been?  I didn’t have the presence of mind to pretend that strawberries had me break out in hives, and I ate a few.  They were a bit on the soft side but delicious.  I figured that if they were eating them, they should be safe. And what about the mutton soup eaten in the sweltering heat of a yurt, what kind of a blend would that make with dubious wild strawberries?

And plenty of them too...

And plenty of them too…

And there was the butter!  A ceremonial dab of yak butter that you scoop with a wooden spoon, take between your fingers and swallow whole.  The taste stays with you for a while… as it is kept inside a sheep stomach to preserve it. That’s right!

Yak butter...yuk!

Yak butter…yuk!

I could really feel a gurgle or two and clearly visualize armies of parasites happily colonizing my gut.  Miraculously so, I was fine this morning.

I got to Ulan Bator sometime before six yesterday morning.  Misha, the manager of the hotel had come to pick me up at the station.  Very nice.  He had fled Ukraine in 2005 with his family and relocated in Mongolia.  They were Russian speaking and he had the coloring of a Russian but somewhat mongoloid features.  He explained that we’d be coming in the hotel through the garage because, at this hour, the front door was locked.  No problem.  My room was the perfect place to crash: still cool at this hour, impeccably clean and bright, everything to make a cup of tea, free Sim card and Internet, free laundry and Misha’s insistence that I call him anytime I need something.  How about another face?  I looked at myself in the mirror and almost shrieked and ran away:  who’s that person?  Those twelve hours on the train have taken a heavy toll.  I looked like a street person.  A shower and a bit of make up somewhat helped. I went down after a couple of hours to have breakfast.  Finding the cafe was a bit of a challenge,but going through the kitchen got me there.

When I came back to my room, I noticed that it was getting pretty hot.  Where’s the AC now?  Can’t find it.  I found the floor manager to ask about the AC and give her some laundry.  She spoke only Russian and Mongolian.  Russian will do.  No AC.  Misha came back to give me my SIM card and confirmed that there was however ventilation: open the window wide.  Yes, but the sun?  Would you have a room on the other side?  All booked right now.  I was not planning to pass that much time in the room, but still…

I guess there isn’t much need for air conditioning, since Ulan-Bator is supposed to be the coldest capital in the world.  Hard to believe right now.

I had to go out but now it’s the front door or lobby I couldn’t find, so I went through the garage again.  On my way back, I came in through the lobby, took the elevator but it was the wrong elevator.  I figured I’d go back through the kitchen again but a guard-dog of a cook indicated me that passage was verboten.  I asked the front desk receptionist the way to get back to the hotel floor.  She took me back to the cafe.  No, no!  Room!  She offered me a seat on the terrace.  No, no,no!  I thought she had finally understood, because she took me to another restaurant upstairs.  As I was getting desperate, a young waiter who spoke perfect English solved my problem and showed me the way. I finally discovered that the hotel had a different lobby on the side.  When I came back that night, the door was locked.  I went back to see Toushin, my savior, who told me that after nine, it was through the garage again.  Okaaay.  At this point, do I need mention that this hotel occupies only one floor of an office building and is built like a maze? I’m beginning to find my way around but I’ll move anyway.

At two, Enkhtsetseg and her brother Enkhbayar came to meet me.  I was put in contact with those two adorable people through a dear friend in Antigua.

Enkhsetseg and Enkhbayar

Enkhsetseg and Enkhbayar

I thought we’d have a coffee together and that would be it.  But they had a whole program planned that took us to the giant stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan, the national hero, some 80 km out of Ulan-Bator, to a national park where 13th century Mongolian life had been recreated, and to dinner.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan

Under the thumb of Genghis Khan

Under the thumb of Genghis Khan

Enkhbayar is a pilot with Mongolian Airlines and drove his Lexus 4×4 like a jet plane, with calm authority, which you certainly need in Ulan Bator and on those dirt tracks criss-crossing each other through the countryside. Practically no tourists anywhere, except perhaps at the Genghis Khan memorial.

The scenery is overwhelming in its emptiness: rolling, grassy hills, a few of them faraway on the horizon covered in evergreens.  No shade anywhere, except perhaps under the white spots of the many yurts scattered all over the landscape and surrounded with cattle: sheep, goats, cows and pretty horses.

Mongolia Grassland

Mongolia Grassland

Enkhbayar put on some traditional Mongolian music and as we were driving alone under that huge sky that curved above us like the inside of a giant glass globe, I thought that no tour I could have taken through the Mongolian countryside could possibly beat that.

When I finally came back to my room, it was somewhat cooler and I opened the window wide, to let some fresh air in.  That was an invitation to hundreds of gnats attracted by the light.  They were all over the place: in the sheets, in my hair, all over my computer screen and on and around the lamp.  Turn off the light.  Shut the window.  That’s when the mutton soup with wild strawberries and yak butter came to haunt me.

In the morning, I had to pick up the many corpses.

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