So I was dropped off the train at Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, feeling well pretty much like one would naturally feel to be dropped of in the middle of Mongolia! I.e. somewhat disorientated and deserted...unlike everybody else it seems, I didn't have somebody waiting at the station to whisk me off to some tour or hostel or something like that. I did know the hostel i'd booked myself was 'to the south-east of the station', so I started a 2km walk in that direction, making good use of my trusty compass to find my way.
I ended up at the Golden Gobi hostel. Basically a crowded meeting place of a hostel. I'd arrived early, and was kind of shoe-horned into this group of people I didn't know, sitting round a table discussing various tour options. I was open minded enough about this, and willing to hear about what they were doing and what was on offer...to be honest though, I didnt get a good nights last sleep on the train, due to drinking etc. and would rather have just been given my room key so I could go to bed...but whatever...
I soon find out the prices of the trips, on average around $50-60 per day...okay well not cheap, but not extortionate either. Either way, I don't think there was ever any chance I'd actually be convinced to go on one of these particular trips simply because of the forceful way the hostel itself was clearly trying to drive me towards buying their tour. I was convinced I could find a better deal given some time to explore by myself.
I made my excuses and made my way away from them and demanded my room key..."I HAVE WORK TO DO!" Goddamn You! That approach worked and I finally had an oversize refuge by myself where I could run my base of operations for how the hell to approach this mammoth of a country.
I'll mention that this particular evening, I had a seriously depressing time sat by myself, totally train-lagged and unable to sleep. I'd purposely got a room by myself in order to give me some breathing space by myself after various forms of communal living for as long as I could remember...
I knew my friends back home in Bristol were properly raving it up and getting on it AT THAT VERY MOMENT. And I'd just left a train carriage full of cool, interesting people, rather than the douchey gap-year student types I'd struggled to have conversations with in the hostel I was currently staying at. For me, pretty much the only significant downside is missing freinds, family and the party lifestyle I'd left back home. This was one time it was definately hitting hard.
The next morning, I was absolutely determined that this day, I was going to figure out how I can properly experience Mongolia, leave all this sh*t behind and not be ripped off on an expensive group tour with a load of 'douchebags.' I think this determination collided with fate, in a way that led to an opportunity more amazing than I could have imagined.
I went shopping in a nearby supermarket to pick up some beers. I was generally pleased by how foreign and mongolian everything around me in the shop was. And then I spotted this white adventurous looking guy with a hat and big mostauche. I don't know if you've seen the film Jumanji, but it has this guy in it that hunts people. He's trying to hunt Robbie Williams. Anyway, this guy was the younger version of this guy. He looked interesting that I felt compelled to talk to him, my opening comment being "You don't look mongolian, where are you from?"
He told me about how he was going on a road trip, had hired out a van with a crew of people and were just gonna go explore the countryside. Sounds great! At least that's what I thought, but he said there was no space left in their van. However, he did mention an opportunity he'd just turned down for one person to go and help dismantle and move some GER's* around the countryside, take photo's etc..
*Mongolians are traditonally a nomadic people that live in these circular yurt tent things called Gers.
From that point, I was on my way. He gave me a contact name and I made a few phone calls. I was a bit apprehensive when told by the guy actually in charge of this that nobody would speak any english, and that I would stay with real mongolian families the whole time...but it just sounded like way too much of a unique opportunity to turn down.
What i didn't realise at the time was that I was just about to be taken on a 5 days all expenses paid tour of the Mongolian countryside, albeit with some manual labour involved with taking down the Gers...but overall a stonkingly great experience for a 'tourist'.
And so the next morning, 9am, I was off on a 10 hour journey in an old-skool Russian van vehicle. My driver did speak very small amounts of english. As it turns out, just enough for us to be able to talk about a wide range of topics, provided I spoke slowly and framed things clearly.
We drove all day through the countryside. At one point we stopped for lunch (mutton and noodles, with milk tea). I was to become very used to this particular food over the next couple of days! My driver, Nyama, met with is freind on a motorbike to exchange these yellow barrels of horse milk. I was yet to discover what the hell that actually was :)
The mongolian countryside is stunning. The hours just rinsed by probably the quickest I've ever felt hours rinse by. When you get properly out into the countryside, there is absolutely nothing but countryside. No concrete roads, no people, no houses, just an incredible amount of horses, sheeps, mongdogs, birds of prey, the odd ger tent from time to time...
This is basically an outdoorsman's dream, if you get properly into the country you can very easily find yourself completely by yourself with probably the most epic mountain landscapes i've ever come across.
Evening started to dawn. We spent a few hours driving randomly between various country settlements with my driver getting out and talking to people, apparantly it was 'my boss'! and 'work I need to do!'. I wasn't bothered, go ahead and do what you need to do, I'm having a whale of a time here whatever the hell happens!
By this point it was really getting dark, and we were really driving out into the middle of absolutely f*kin nowhere. We'd come way off even what could be considered to be a dirt track, driving through hilly forests, fields, rivers... to this small congregation of ger tents that were at least 10km from the next closest GER...let alone having anything to do with a settlement, town or anything else that one could consider civilisation! :)
So now we were propelry "out in the sticks" as they say, and I went to spend my first night with my driver and a real Mongolian family. Note that I decided against taking direct photographs of these people living in their homes.
This was out of sensitivity of the fact that these people don't commonly have non-mongolians coming to stay in their houses. I was actually pretty keen on trying (as much as humanely possible) to genuinely integrate with these people. I didn't want to appear to be just a douchebag tourist flashing my camera around at every f*king opportunity... so any photos I did take were on the sly, or with specific permission from my driver beforehand.
The first night, I stayed in the Ger you see pictured to your right. I'd been attempting to read my hitchhikers guide to the galaxy (one of the best books ever - luckily my first time reading)...you can see it pictured on the small table there. Also notice the furnace in the center of all ger tents. This is used to cook but can also keep the place really damn warm , as a ger is a nicely insulated and enclosed area. It was way too hot for me in the gers at points, that's how well they work. I did love helping to get the fire started in the centre, you need kindling, good wood, encouragement, etc. etc. I love that.
Lets just say, I didn't get that much reading done! To start with, I tried a range of mongolian specialities, including yak cream, yak hard rock stuff, yak vodka (??!!) and my favourite, fermented (alcholic) horse milk. I tried the horse milk and was convinced it was the most disgusting thing i'd ever tasted in my life.
My driver then asked me "would you like some vodka?!" Hell yeah, I thought, that will help wash down that horse milk stuff!
He proceeded to pull out (some reasonably 'normal' mongolian vodka, and we rinsed through the bottle between three of us within about 20 minutes...plus a load of beers and more "yak vodka" (to this day, i've no idea what the hell that stuff is).
If you go to meet real mongolian people, be prepared for the fact that they LOVE their drink. I'd been told "they will drink you under the table". This is most likely true. Although I have such a savage tolerance to alcohol built up over the years, that that they didn't manage to drink me under the table... only just though! but lets just say that we were all thoroughly jolly and actually able to communicate extremely well in that awesome drunken way you can communicate with anyone with a bit of booze added to the mix to smooth the wheels of social communication a little bit :)
The next morning, we were up early and bang on hard work dismantling three of these gers. It wasn't just the structures themselves, we had to empty out the entire contents, furniture, beds etc. so there was a lot to be done.
After several hours, my driver insisted that I take a break and go for a walk around the place..."ride horse", "swim in river"..."do what you like, you on holiday!".
I indicated I was willing to stay... but basically if a mongolian person offers you something, I've learned that the easiest thing for everybody involved is just to accept the offer and this will keep things smooth for everybody involved :) So this gave me an great reason to go wandering off into the countryside, with a few beers in stock and tunes loaded up in my mp3 player.
It really was a great experience to go wandering around the cows, horses, sheep and yaks. I also went climbing up this mini-mountain to get a good view of the valley we were in and the surrounding area, shown in the picture to your right. It was awesome to be in such an untouched, natural, epic area which the pictures don't really do justice.
It was also a great opportunity for reflection. With my tunes on, being out here basically completely by myself. My only contact with the real world was an alcholic mongolian. But he was such an incredibly great guy that it led me to conclude he must be one of the best people i've ever met in my live. As we travelled round the country, in his cheerful manner he would greet almost everyone we came across (so this guy was freinds was everyone)
But not only that...as I was sitting there driving around the place with him, he would passionately point out each huge flock of sheep, each heard of horses that obstructed the road ahead, each buzzard flying overheard, each incredible mountain landscape...to him, the countryside is beautiful and the city (ulaanbataar) is terrible. He's been a countryside driver for 10 years but these great little countryside features still haven't worn off on this guy (pictured in the rainbow pic to the right and down a bit).
It was pretty hard work emptying the dismantled ger's into the container storage area. Each tent has several large wooden foundation pieces, including a wooden floor that need multiple people to move anywhere. Not only that, but as it had rained heavily as we took them down, we had to dry out the large sheets of canvas material that were still soaked from the taking down process.
However, it was getting late, and almost unbelievably, I was put up in a relatively posh hotel for these parts, with hot shower, double bed to myself, wifi, paid breakfast etc. My driver definately did have the opportunity to stay in this hotel if he wanted to...but he opted to sleep in the back of his van!
We went for an awesome mean in a nearby restaurant (again, all expenses paid), and afterwards Nyama asked if I wanted to have a few beers with him...of course!!! We sat in almost total darkness in the back of his Russian truck, drinking through a 3litre bottle of beer and generally having an awesome time.
So the next morning, Nyama told me to go explore the town we happened to be in, after spending an hour or so unloading the rest of the Gers into a storage container that they will be kept in until next spring. This was pretty hard work, there was a hell of a lot of stuff to move, but despite his age, Nyama (50+!) is as strong as an ox and between us two, we got everything neatly piled into the container where they will stay till next year.
Nyama's boss came along at some point to check that all was going smoothly, and suprisingly to me, she spoke perfect english. "Oh, how kind of you!" was her response upon hearing what the hell I was doing out here!
No thanks required my freind! This is a completely awesome experience, that many people would pay through their nose to experience, and it still not be as an authentic immersion immersion in mongoilian culture as this is! I think I was extremely lucky to end up on this trip.
By this point I had already fulfilled all the tasks that I'd been sent there to do! But I still had several more days travelling round the country with Nyama for no apparant reasons, other than to provide him with company I guess, as he went about some of his own business, including picking up a load of wood to take back to UB where its more expensive than out in the country
That evening, I was taken to stay in what is technically a "tourist ger" (certainly a mongolian tourist camp however!). And we drank and ate mongolian food and drink. At this point I started to properly appreciate this stuff,
The mongolian food we had involved being given an onion soup, a huge leg of lamb and a pen-knife. Just cut off the leg what you wish to eat! Incidentally, the mongolians consider the fat THE BEST BIT! and will enthusiastically offer you the fatty bits of the meat. In mongolian culuture, before winter is the time to 'fatten up' which makes perfect sense basically. There is no turning down of their humungous volumes of food, or their fatty bits, unless you want to make an asshole of yourself. Oh, and a bit of sheep bone works perfectly well as a fork.
So we moved on...to the alcohol! Again, we rinsed through another bottle of vodka in under 20 minutes...and then it was time to move onto the horse milk. And by this time, I realised that I'd grown to like the taste of something that previously was the most disgusting alcholic drink known to man.
Now, I would happily drink this stuff as easily I'd drink beer. Its actually a great drink, the mongolian "white beer", basically just alcholic sour milk. We ended up rinsing through it by the container load. Be warned, it will make your clothes smell of horse milk long after the date of consumption!
This is all seriously annoying to attempt to write up, because such a huge amount happened in a short space of time! I've had a dozen beers today trying to write all this stuff up today!
The Ger I stayed in first night, ended up dismantling... plus our russian mule truck.
The Mongolians absolutely love Karoke, so much so they have a facility for this in their train station. Singing to music is an integral part of Mongolian culture and they love to do this at all opportunities. Did I mention that Mongolians love Karaoke?
Ulaanbaatar train station
Hummers in UB. Loads of them around. This group was dancing and singing.
Mongolian dog. (mongdog). Notice the tail that curves upwards. You will encounter packs of mongdog wherever humans and other animals graze.
Inside a real family ger - not a tourist ger - notice my hitch-hikers guide.
Mongolian yak cream (very yummy) and bitter yogurt tasting yak rock stuff (!!?)
De--constructing the Gers - not easy - particularly when it started raining!
The view of the valley where my Gers were located.
The truck that helped transport the Gers. We had to tow each other out of mud at one point
Awesome rainbow with Nyama, also loving it.
Mongolian buddhist temple. The inscription above the door reads "DIVINE ENLIGHTENMENT ACHIEVEMENT LANE"
Fuck living life in the fast lane. I want to live life firmly in the "DIVINE ENLIGHTENMENT ACHIEVEMENT LANE"
My driver, Nyama with his Russian truck. One of the best people i've ever met!
An exchange of horse bodily fluids
Horse milk, vodka, beer and lamb with the mongolians
A mongolian eagle. This is a heavy bird and you won't be able to shake him off your wrist no matter how hard you try, he has excellent balance.
The final family I stayed with was also wayyy out in the middle of nowhere.
On the back of Nyama's freinds motorbike, used for herding horses
Nyama chases horses off into the sunset
Nearly there now though! So on the last night I stayed with a family of Nyama's freind, the guy we'd previously made the horse milk exchange with. This was a really freindly hospitable family and we had good food and a cool drinking session with about 8 of us sat around on the floor in one of the gers. He gave me some of his snuff to try, I really liked it! Again, the whole thing was a very authentic experience, Nyama told me that tourists have never come to stay with them before.
I'll also add that I frequently whipped out my mp3 and little speaker to show the Mongolians some of the music I liked. What seemed to go down particularly well was Bonobo, SBTRKT and Barrington Levy! :)
I'm going to wrap this up now because I'm sure you've had enough of me banging on about it now. This final family I stayed with, much to my bewilderment, presented me with this framed prize ornament of some description, you can see it as the last picture on the right hand side. It was quite large and ornate, with pieces of gold plated sheeps ankle bone. I don't really know what this was supposed to signify, and couldn't quite believe they'd given me something that looked obviously like it was of some special significance.
I really appreciated it though, what a great souvenir! It was large that I posted it back to the UK instead of carrying it around, and luckily it was safely received, only took about a week to arrive aswell.
After I got back from 5 days out in the country with Nyama, I took some days just to chill out, reflect on wtf had just happened and figure out what to do next.
I ended up going up north to a place called MORON. I went up their to visit a guy from the US I met in a hostel. He'd been living and working up there for over a year, teaching english, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to see what life is like for a westerner living in the country.
It was an 18 hour bus journey each way...after about 100km, I saw that we came off the road and drove into a field. I thought, ah, must be a break or something...oh no...of course it isn't! And so the rest of the journey was an extremely bumpy ride through the countryside, all night long! It was tricky to sleep, but a good experience, and I met a cool German guy on the bus. I ended up going horseriding with him around mongolia's biggest lake. Of course, the mongolian horseride trip wasn't complete without a break where we got through yet another bottle of vodka. Anyway, the bus journey flew by eventually with my tunes and GTA on the Nintendo DS keeping me entertained.
I had a great time in Moron. David, my US freind lives in the most western Ger i'd seen, complete with apple mac, speakers, fridge, slow cooker, leather sofa etc. Also, what was totally awesome was that he had this huge pile of weed that we could just smoke up. The weed just grows freely in this part of the country, the locals don't actually know what it is! How cool is that!
On my final night in the country, another surreal experience was watching the final episode of Breaking Bad, while smoking up, chilling in a Ger of all places. This seemed like an appropriate and unexpectedly great ending to what has to be one of the best and most surprising experiences of my life!
In conclusion, if you like surprises, the outdoors, trying new things, alcohol, and adventures...then Mongolia is definately the place for you! :)
Sheep bone mongolian prize thing. Thank you Mongolians!
On the vodka with the mongolians....mid horse-ride
Mongolian buzzard will destroy you if you keep looking at him like that