Mongolia. A land of mystery, ferocity and intrigue. A land where the people maintain a strength as large as their legendary leader Genghis Khan. A land of horses, camels and eagles. A land where the traveller can barely scratch the surface of the culture without becoming fascinated; such was our fate.
Shamanic traditions now collide with modern fancy and no where demonstrates this better than the capital city, Ulanbataar. As the train slowly rolled along through the suburbs, consisting mostly of yurts and wooden buildings, we were faced with a stark contrast immediately in the form of a pisted ski slope that really stood out against the rest of the dry, brown landscape. Closer to the city centre, the buildings changed into concrete high-rise buildings, much like other cities in Asia.
Our trip to Mongolia was quite an unexpected decision, so I was quite unsure about what to expect from it but super intrigued to know more. Just prior to arriving in the country, I had found a social enterprise online, called Ger-to-Ger. The idea behind their service is to allow visitors to experience ‘real’ Mongolian life without leaving detrimental footprints on the lives of the people with whom they stay. I was very happy to be part of something like this, having now seen many countries lose elements of their traditional heritage in an effort to pander to tourists.
Once safely in Ulaanbaatar, we dropped off our bags and went on the hunt for the Ger-to-Ger office. We spent a while deciding upon the type of experience we wanted and decided upon a four day stay with three different families in the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. The enterprise was extremely helpful, even enforcing a two-hour lesson on Mongolian etiquette before departure. I was really happy about this and lapped it up, Dan however, had the opposite response and was mildly overwhelmed with all the information! He started to think he couldn’t possibly remember it all, which heightened his anxiety of offending one of our families.
We had another day in the capital city before heading out to the National Park, so we visited the National History Museum. Of course, Genghis Khan featured heavily in Mongolian history, but the most interesting part of the museum was meeting three delightful women, all of whom were fluent in English. Young, bright and full of vitality and ambition, they were fascinating to talk to. All three were from different areas of the country; Buriad, Ulgii and Kazakh. They had recently graduated and were looking to experience life abroad as a way of expanding their horizons. All of them had been traditionally brought up with grandparents and some parents living nomadic lifestyles in gers across Mongolia. They explained some of the traditional clothing to us and the etiquette; some of which is still very present and other parts of which have been left in the past.
On The Road To Nowhere
After this uplifting experience, we prepared for our own toe-dip into nomadic life, setting off the next morning. The bus took us to literally the middle of no where in the mountainous national park. We alighted in a place where no one else did…. mildly worried that no one would meet us there and we would be stuck at -10C with no shelter. We stood, we waited, after 20 minutes an Ox-cart rocked up. The driver nodded to us, so we realised this was our ride. He took the opportunity of going into the ‘shop’ next to the bus stop, where he bought cigarettes and rice. We hopped on the back of the cart and the Ox immediately collapsed down a hill. Ahh! The driver wasn’t worried though. He seemed to imply that the Ox just needed to adjust to the extra weight. The trip to his home took two hours and it was baltically cold. We were frozen, despite wearing wool and down. Several river crossings took place on the cart across half-frozen water, interesting beginnings!
Upon arrival at our host’s home, his nephew came out to silence the dogs. All nomadic families have working dogs to protect the livestock from wolves at night. We had been advised not to touch or pet them, because they are exhausted during the day and can bite back if disturbed. It is also rude to pet someone else’s dog. When approaching a yurt set-up, it is best to wait until the owner comes out of their ger and tells the dogs there is no threat. This is a sign that the owner is welcoming you to his home.
Mongolians have an awesome practice of allowing travellers time to ‘come to’. It is brilliant, you are ushered into a yurt of your own, given a drink and snack and then left alone for 30-45 minutes. Literally to revive. Most travel is conducted by horse riding across long distances and it is recognised that travellers must take respite or risk falling ill.
After this, we were introduced to the members of the family and the animals; horses, goats, cattle and babies of each variety. We had dinner separately in our yurt by which time it was very late and time for bed. As night crept in so did the freezing air. The yurts are brilliantly designed to keep warm however, it was our first time in one and we didn’t fully understand their workings. The top of the yurt was left open, assumedly for ventilation, but this meant that as soon as the fire went out the yurt temperature fell dramatically. We had hired Alaskan-level sleeping bags but it wasn’t enough and we didn’t have the inclination to try and light the fire without matches. It was a chilly night. But our host came in at 5am and lit a roaring fire for us, soon we were sweltering.
All night our guardian dog barked away protecting us from the various nighttime monsters. She was wonderful and I felt very secure all night. We were a bit nervous about popping the the loo during the night, she ran right at us, but after a quick sniff she decided we were fine and carried on in the other direction. In the morning, as I left the yurt, she came over and despite being told to be wary of the dogs she definitely wanted affection in payment of her hard work all night; it was a special moment.
After a shady night I went to the loo and was immediately called over to the animals. I saw a new chap with a knife and a young bull tied up and on the ground. Oh, I thought, they are going to kill him. Surprisingly I wasn’t overly worried about it, although I was still bleary eyed. Dan was also called over, and in fact what actually occurred left us feeling much worse! A small metal jug was pouring with smoke and put by the face of the animal. I have no idea what was in that, some sort of sedative, but it certainly affected me; I felt dreadful. Next up, a scalpel. It was in fact castration day. Lucky, lucky us. I feel this was a worse experience to behold for Dan! It was done with such efficiency, that before we knew it six bulls had been ‘done’. A bowl full of water caught my eye and I noticed the wife placing the detritus in the bowl….. 😳
A fully-grown stallion was next on the list, and despite feeling distressed for the animal I was also in awe of their horsemanship. They knew every move of the stallion, making light of a seemingly dangerous undertaking. They had to take the stallion to ground, and boy did he rebel. Quickly the men managed to ground him and did the deed before he really knew it. These balls also entered the magic bowl. I had watched Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman a few years ago and the image of their time in Mongolia had never left me; we were going to have to eat them for breakfast. I said this to Dan as we all walked back to our host’s yurt, but he brushed it off as an absurdity. “That doesn’t really happen!” he laughed. How wrong he was. How very, very wrong. In Mongolia it is ruder than rude to refuse something which is offered, we had been strongly advised of this during our etiquette lesson. And so, I was presented with what can only be described as a ‘flash-boiled bull’s ball’, with a side of rice. All eyes were on me. As I lifted it I thought, is this really happening, I mean really, or am I still dreaming, or has that crazy smoke made me hallucinate. But no, alas the moment arrived and the ball was eaten. ‘Good!’ said our host. Dan pronounced that he’s never been prouder of his wife. And then sadly, the realisation dawned on him that he was in for a worser fate. The two men who had relieved the stallion of his wotsits we eagerly munching on them, raw. This was consequently passed along to Dan with the promise of increased virility should he take a bite. At the time nothing could have been further from his mind, but as the good, never-wanting-to-displease British guy, he ate it. As I’m sure you’re very aware and have great sympathy with, we are now vegetarians.
This Is The Way The Gentleman Rides…
I’m certain it was quite unrelated, but Dan had woken that morning with a raging fever of 104. So the morning hadn’t begun in the way either of us would have liked but I was really excited about the next part, Dan not so much. It was horse ride on a Mongolian saddle (mostly wood), to our next host. Dan has never ridden before and this made the three hour journey somewhat uncomfortable. Each time the host tried to get him to trot the bang, bang, bang on the saddle quickly forced him to slow back to a walk. Poor Dan; a fever, a stomach full of testicles and a three hour ride on a wooden saddle, should we have gone to Thailand dear? Apparently it was too early for jokes like that. Luckily the next host was awesome and gave us plenty of time to ‘come to’. We were made to feel much better by feeding the lambs and kids at the next host, where the head of the family was a distinguished wrestler and had ranked highly at the national Naadam Games.
‘The three manly sports’ involved at the Naadam Games are archery, wrestling and horse riding. Although women can take part in some of the sports at the games; jockeying and archery. My favourite story about these annual games is related to the outfit the men must wear in order to compete. Legend has it that centuries ago a women disguised herself as a man and went on to win the wrestling competition. Since then, the competitors must take part in open-chested garb.
Our second hosts we delightful. A big family of all generations. It was very lively there, with young children aged four and up, right through to grandad. With this family, the importance of the animals in Mongolian culture became very clear. Everything eaten was from the animals. It is exceedingly dry in Mongolia and as a result difficult to grow things, couple this with the nomadic lifestyle and it is doubly hard. Each meal consisted of meat or dairy in all its forms; mare’s milk in milk tea, fermented mare’s milk for alcohol. Sacks of rice were in each family’s yurt and a great supplement to an otherwise animal-product heavy diet. This diet produced sturdy people, with an innate strength that despite begin generally shorter in height made for stocky and muscular bodies. They took one look at us (especially Dan!) and their expression conveyed ‘you would not survive here’. Even the four year old was solid. So it was a real pleasure to help the hosts with feeding the baby animals, something we really delighted in. The animals are not only their livelihood but their entire survival.
Our second family also taught us some archery skills and asked us to wear traditional Mongolian outfits, which were beautifully embroidered. Sadly, we were well and truly beaten by the children at these games. Turns out I’m not as cool as Ygritte.
The following day we were transported, along with the entire family this time, by Ox cart to our final host. What was so interesting was that these families live a few kilometres apart, but do not know each other at all. The entire social structure is within each family, and we felt it such a privilege to have been able to experience the family unit in very close proximity.
The third host was a young couple. Living a traditional life, but glamourously. This host had all the mod cons thanks to the recent addition of solar energy. I found it most strange to be in a yurt in the middle of the Mongolian desert watching K-Drama on TV. Something which I thought I had left behind a few months prior in South Korea. Their yurts were luxuriously decorated with soft carpets and modern furniture. Toiletting was interesting here, I asked our host where I should go and he gave a general wave of his hand across the landscape. Righto.
Our female host taught us some traditional embroidery, and creatively mixed this with the modern juxtaposition of creating a mobile phone case. It was awesome, she had a classic treadle Singer, her great-grand mother’s machine. Similarly we were housed in her grandmother’s yurt which was well over 100 years old. I found it fascinating to think how much life must have taken place in that yurt. During the winter the temperature is regularly -40C and conversely up to plus 40 in the summer. Not an easy climate by any stretch and probably goes some way to explaining the hardiness of the Mongolians.
The fact that the yurts last as long as they do is largely down to three things; build quality, lack of moisture and the yurt etiquette. I have mentioned the manners require upon approaching the gers, but that is nothing in comparison to actually being in the yurt. Firstly, do not bang your head on the tiny door on the way in – endless bad luck akin to breaking a mirror. But also, this would weaken the door frame if everyone continually did this, better to make it bad luck for guaranteed avoidance. Next, do not step directly on the threshold, but instead lead with your right foot over the wooden entrance. After, move clockwise, preventing any banging into one another or potentially the walls, rendering the structure unstable. Under all circumstances, do not move in between the ‘mother’ and ‘father’, which are the central struts holding up the ger. Not only rude, because the fire is normally in-between it an the fire is sacred, it is also the main structure holding up the entire yurt; not cool to have those being bashed into on a regular basis. The guests are generally invited to sit down between 9 – 11 o’clock as you look at the ger floor. The head of the household sits at 12, and finally, try not to turn your back on your hosts or the alter. This is just for starters, I could go on. I don’t know how the Brits get a reputation for etiquette.
Our third family asked us about our previous two and we told them about the whole ball eating debacle. They cackled away, and said “we don’t do that”. Were we the foreign entertainment with or first hosts?!
High Heels On Two Wheels
The transport this family used to get us back to the bus stop was fantastic and totally in keeping with their more glamorous mode de vie…motorbikes. The couple couldn’t fit all four of us on one bike, so they asked their nephew to take us two on the back with him. This was fine although he looked a bit nervous. After a couple of minutes I realised why; we had to cross a frozen river under which we could hear the water gushing. Our host and his immaculately turned out wife went first and they fell right through. Somehow he managed to get them out with the power of the bike and on to the other side. Well, our chappy was less than convinced and just shook his head at his uncle. So, back across he came and took Dan. Once again, they fell through, this time deeper, but again, the Mongolian man mountain forced the bike up onto the ice again and to the other shore. I was left with the nephew, who turned and looked at me, I nodded, gripped him so tightly and just waited. We went down to the river with momentum, I felt the back wheel splashing, heard cracking, but before it knew it we were on the other side. Phew. High fives all round. Dan jumped back on with me and the nephew, but the weight of us really slowed us down, right down to the correct speed for a pack of dogs to chase us and bite at our heels for several minutes. It was quite the ride at 7am!
Although only a short time, we felt like we had really immersed ourselves in the nomadic culture that was, for us, the definition of life in Mongolia. What we learnt was that in fact, this country is changing, fast. The traditions are still present, but the rate of development is rapid. Leapfrogging technology and going straight to solar energy is opening up possibilities for the nomads, allowing technologies to enter which make their lives easier and the traditional way of life in our modern world actually more viable. We took so much away from this experience; ideas about living only with what we need, practical ideas about living with the land and the Mongolian perspective of stoicism and hospitality.