It was as we were in the middle of our 30 hour train ride from Beijing to Ulaan Baator, that I started to get a feel for what we might be in for. We had reached the emptiness that starts not too far north of Beijing when the dust started pouring in through any and all opening in the carriage – fine, coating dust that got into everything and didn’t really leave us until we reached Irkutsk. Photographs cannot do justice to the scale of the place and the sheer impenetrable vastness of it. It makes Australia seem densely populated. We’ve only uploaded a few photos of our time in Mongolia, but we’ll be uploading more once we hit London. Please check back for them.
We arrived in UB, which is possibly one of the world’s ugliest capital cities, and dumped our bags at our hostel. The hostel was located in a soviet-style apartment block and was stiflingly hot (apparently all heaters in UB are turned off on a designated day in May, regardless of the temperatures). After dumping our bags, we spent the next hour trying to find an office about 200 metres from our hostel – the UB government has decided that numbers on buildings and houses pose too great a threat to nomadic sensibilities or national security, or something of the kind. Eventually, we made to the office for our one hour of orientation before spending the next week on our own with nomadic families. The rest of the day left us with enough time to drink too much at the KhanBrau Brauhaus with some people we’d met on the train.
That evening, they were running a ‘beer market’ where the price of various beers fluctuated on the basis of demand. The pilsner was obviously unpopular with the locals that night, as it was selling for about a dollar a pint. Needless to say, there was substantial foreign investment in the market that evening. The next morning, sporting mild hangovers, we boarded the local bus for a 300km ride into the heart of Mongolia. At times, the bus ride degenerated into an off-road adventure for the stretches where the only non-international paved road in the country disappeared, but we arrived safely in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (compared with UB) and then were taken even further into the middle of nowhere to meet our first family.
Having been left on our own with our hosts for the entire week, we communicated as best we could, which was not very well at all – we had a total of 10 minutes language training and a guidebook to help us. Still, we managed to communicate at a very basic level and avoid any major embarassment or offence (at least, I think we did).
Not long after arriving at the first ger, we were treated to our first taste of traditional Mongolian nomadic fare – which comprised dried mutton, carrot, potatoes, flour, salt and MSG. Having been warned about the dire nature of the local food I was expecting the worst, but actually found this to be relatively palatable. It was only after we were treated to this same combination for 7 straight meals that we realised why Mongolian food has such a reputation for monotony – and we still had eight of the same meals to go. By the fourth day, our favourite game was “What would you eat if you were at home right now?”. Oh, and did I mention that we went almost a whole week without alcohol? Be proud of us folks.
Another highlight of our time amongst the nomads was our mode of travel.
The first day we spent with our family, we were to travel to a local sacred site on their camels. These were the most recalcitrant, uncomfortable animals ever to be conceived of. We travelled about 40km in three days on these creatures and if i never have to travel by camel again, it will be too soon. Our arses have only just recovered from the insult.
Even our guide preferred to travel by foot most of the way. For the rest of the time with our nomadic hosts, we travelled by horse. It was during this time that I understood why Mongol horsemen have the reputation they do throughout Asia. These guys are born on horses and commune with their animals in a way that was completely foreign to us. After a couple of days of having our butts pounded by the iron rings set into the saddles, we were quite happy to walk the few kilometres each way to our final sight – a local buddhist monastery located in a nearby valley.
With all the bashing of our experience with these families, we actually do them a huge injustice. Amanda and I actually thoroughly enjoyed our week amongst the Bulgan nomads, and developed a deep respect for the way these people live and an appreciation for how easy we have it at home. These nomadic herders live an extremely difficult and austere existence (mobile phones and satellite TV notwithstanding) and it’s hard to imagine packing your whole live into a 5m wide felt tent, spending most of your day inside for 8 months of the year and praying that your flock survive the worst that the Mongolian climate can throw at them. However, these families have done it for generations with a smile and, from what we can gather, a great sense of pride in their traditions. It’s impossible to capture the inhospitable and vast landscape in which the nomads ply their trade, and I can only encourage you to get to Mongolia and see it for yourself while it still exists.