Its been a few blogless days. The reasons for this are twofold. First, we’ve spent most of it far out in the Mongolian outback. Quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and they don’t yet have WiFi there which has made updating my blog a challenge.
But more than anything, I’ve just been too bloody busy to stop and write. Its been a hectic Mongolian week. So, here is a very quick run down of what we’ve been up to.
We started in the capital city Ulaanbaatar. The guidebook said UB, to use its abbreviated title, isn’t an attractive place. It made it out to be some dusty post-industrial eyesore. Well, what can I say: I’ve never read such utter rubbish. My experience of UB was of a unique and eye opening capital city. It seems untouched by the commercialization that had blasted capital and second tier cities around the world. There was no McDonalds, no Starbucks. The main drag of the city was lined with small independent shops, good independent restaurants (not a YoSushi or a Nandos in sight) and cool little boutiques. It felt vibrant, it felt alive, and I absolutely loved it!
We spent our short time in UB wandering around the national museum, learning about Ghengis Khan and the Mongolian empire. Considering Ghengis – or Chinggis, as he’s known here (why do we call him Ghengis? That wasn’t his name) – was famed for conquering half the world in a desperately short space of time, for the brutality of his armies and his own proclivity for rape and pillaging (they reckon 1 in 200 people on the planet today are directly descended from Mr K, some 35million people), he is still something of a national hero. Statues of him can be found across UB, the grandest of which sits grumpily at the door of the national parliament. He’s on all the bank notes. Our hotel had corridors lined with paintings of his family. We watched traditional folk songs performed dedicated to his memory. Its nearly impossible to come to Mongolia and not encounter Ghengis somewhere or other.
After a day in UB, we took a bus ride out into the sticks, to a Ger camp. A Ger is one of the iconic circular Mongolian tents, typically lived in by herdsmen and their families, deep in the countryside. As we drove out through the vast and really quite beautiful wilderness, threading our way between pot holes and camels, the unbroken landscape was dotted with the occasional cluster of Gers.
Our Gers were part of a tourist Ger camp, and as such represented a slightly sanitized version of the reality. Our site had working showers, a canteen, toilets. A traditional Ger has none of these, although some do have tents which double as butcheries, where live stock is chopped up. We did go and visit a family of herdsmen living in actual bona fide Gers, who told us about their lives living there. The head of the family, a 60 year old bloke named Davod (or something to that effect) who you could accurately refer to as ‘robust’, was kind enough to offer us some local delicacies produced by his family from his herds of cattle, sheep, camels, horses and goats.
These included fermented mares milk. When I say ‘mares milk’, I mean horses milk. When I say ‘fermented’, I mean, they produce huge vats of the stuff, and then leave it out for days on end to ferment. We were presented with a cup to pass around. Between six of us I’m not sure we got through more than a quarter of it – it was vile, tasting something between badly gone off milk and the sort of stuff you might reproduce following a particularly vigorous night out. I’m unlikely to recommend it. But they seemed to quite like it. And that’s the important thing, right? (I’m sure, for example, he wouldn’t be too impressed at my specialty, SuperNoodle and cheese sandwiches).
The next day we went camel riding. That was fun. I’m not sure what else to say about it really? I mean, we got on the backs of some camels, and then they took us for a bit of a walk around. One thing I was surprised to find, having never seen a camel up close before, was how wobbly their humps are. I was expecting them to be harder. Like little mounds of matted hair or something. How wrong I was. Camels humps are actually quite wobbly. Who knew?
Our final day at the Ger camp was an altogether more sedentary experience than the first. We took the opportunity to have a gentle wander around a Buddhist monastery at Kharakoram, Ghengis Khan’s capital city. A perfectly happy experience, but alas, I am getting a bit worn of monasteries now. Don’t get me wrong, its all terribly interesting, all this stuff about the different Buddhas and what they represent and who they protect and so on. Its just, there’s a certain Buddha saturation point, I tend to find, and I think I passed it several weeks ago. It was still a lovely place, and we saw a few monks chanting away. I thought it was funny watching the younger monks – lads who can’t have been more than 12 – messing and joking around while they were meant to be praying. It added a bit of realism to the whole thing, that.
Before returning to our Ger camp, we made a quick visit to something called Penis Rock. Penis Rock is so called because it is shaped like a penis. Apparently the Buddhist monks put it there, if you believe what our bus driver was saying, because it was at the base of the gorge of two small hills known as ‘Vagina Mountain’, and indeed Penis Rock does appear to point directly at Vagina Mountain. Our driver didn’t speak a word of English, but managed to convey this somewhat complex story through a range of actions and mimes, the nature of which I’ll leave to your imagination. He thought it was brilliant.
Indeed, our driver came into his own later that evening. In fact he turned out to be a bit of a legend. After dinner he produced a bottle of vodka which he’d bought for us all, and filling eight sizeable shot glasses (and emptying the vodka), we stood and toasted his health and Mongolia’s future. We returned the favour shortly after, fetching our own vodka and toasting again. Then another tour group staying at the same camp joined in with their vodka. Then the Swiss girls in our group went and got theirs. The night turned into a bit of a mess from there. We’ve figured out that we polished off around three litres of vodka between eight of us. My memory of the whole thing is patchy at best, and non-existent at worst. We woke with debilitating hangovers and embarked on an eight hour drive back to UB. The driver seemed fresh as a daisy. What a lad! We bought one more bottle of vodka for him to say thanks for driving us around. I rather warmed to him.
Mongolia, though, is the most spectacular country. I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you fancy getting off the beaten track. The people here are first class. Forget frosty Russian hospitality, which wound me up to no end. Everyone we met in Mongolia was tremendously friendly. There is plenty to do, either in Ulaanbaatar, or further out in the sticks, on the Ger camps and in the hills. Don’t believe what the guide books say either – this is a city you’ll fall in love with!
So… That was our very busy week in Mongolia! We’re off to China now. As I sit and type this blog, sharing a cabin on a sleeper train with Dave from our tour group and a Swedish couple who haven’t stopped eating (be it crackers and cookies or one another’s faces), I look out of the train window and I see the vast, empty Gobi Desert. This is the final train of our Trans-Siberian adventure. Behind us lies St Petersburg, Moscow, Suzdal, Kazan, Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, Ulan Ude, Mongolia, and some 4,500 miles of train track.
Ahead lies Beijing, and China. I’ve still not figured out quite what I’m going to do in China. I have no plans, nothing booked beyond the first two nights, and only the roughest of ideas where I’m going to go and how I’m going to get there.
…That all sounds terribly exciting to me!