Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Wide Open Country

Mongolia is a widescreen country. Some claim it is the highest country by average elevation in the world, but since there is no comparative list on Wikipedia I cannot say for certain. Nevertheless most of the country is at 1000m or more and formed of extremely wide valleys separated by seemingly low mountains, though the heights are deceptive due to the distances. You can easily see for 30km or more. The high visibility combined with the altitude means that you are not only closer to the clouds, but you can also see them coming half a day or more in advance, inching towards you like continental plates, and with the same inexorability. All of this adds up to a landscape that is widescreen in the extreme: the vistas are squeezed by the valleys below and clouds above and only allowed to expand sideways. This leads to problems for the amateur photographer who is unable to capture the details, which are inevitably far away, without losing the grandeur of the expanse, and vice versa. My camera's 4:3 aspect ratio fails miserably to capture the awe that I am seeing so I am resorting ever more often to taking sweeping panorama shots to try and get a small idea of the sheer immensity. It'll have to do, but nothing beats seeing it in the flesh.

Cloudscape in northern Mongolia (close to what are, allegedly, the northernmost sand dunes in the world).

The distances and aforementioned lack of decent roads make getting around, especially for the single, independent traveller, time-consuming to say the least. Mongolians are a lovely people but have a frustratingly languid and fatalistic approach to time. First of all nothing leaves before noon. You might arrive at a transport lot (usually a dusty patch of ground by the market) at 9am and there may be some vehicles already there with their destinations displayed prominently in their windscreens, but ask as you might the earliest stated departure time will be noon. So you leave your bag, go off for a wander, see the sights, do some shopping, have an early lunch and come back with 10mins to spare before the car leaves, congratulating yourself on your timing. Then you end up sitting in the car whilst the driver waits for more passengers. A recent 2pm departure from Khovd to Ulaangom was delayed to 3pm, then 4pm and finally ended up leaving at 6:30pm, which meant that I arrived at 1am and had to find myself a spot to pitch my tent - when I woke up in the morning I found out that I had camped next to the airport! Nevertheless locals don't seem fazed by this in the least and maintain a Zen-like calm throughout. And this was for a ride between the two major towns in neighbouring aimags. For destinations even slightly off the beaten track you can end up spending several days waiting for enough people to warrant the departure of a van (as I was penning the draft of this post I was in my 14th hour of waiting for a ride).

I hate waiting around waiting on the whims of others and have taken matters into my own hands by trying to mainly hitchhike. Mongolians are friendly and helpful people and I've had little trouble getting rides ... when cars have been going my way. And therein lies the problem. You can wait a hell of a long time before a car comes by going even remotely in your direction. A couple of days ago I waited for 7 hours at an important intersection of two major roads (at least that's what it was marked as on the map) before a car went along my chosen branch. But at least it picked me up.

Mongolian nomad on his modern-day steed, decked out in a blue, traditional deel with matching baseball cap. Friendly guy gave me a ride for a few km.

A couple of days before that I was sitting at another intersection. I had been perched on my rucksack for a few fruitless hours already when the dozen children from the nearby gers collected up enough courage to come and investigate me more closely. I offered them some aaruul from a big bag that I had been given earlier that day as I was leaving the village and they decided that I wasn't dangerous. They motioned me over to their ger where I met the parents and their extensive cast of domestic animals. There were cows, goats and sheep as well as a supporting crew of several horses. Summer, for Mongolian herders is a time of plenty, but also a busy time of year. Enough food has to be gathered and stored up to last through the hard winter. For the most part this is milk and anything that can be made from it, and Mongolians have become pretty inventive with their dairy produce. Of course there is the milk itself, which is used straight away to produce the ubiquitous Mongolian milky tea, though rather than having it sweet locals prefer it laced with salt.  Then there is butter, sour cream, yoghurt and other dairy comestibles that I don't even know how to start describing. Most of it, however, gets turned into aaruul, a form of tangy, hardened curd that seems to keep forever. Garlands of it were hanging throughout the inside of the ger whilst still more was being dried outside Aaruul also comes in a rarer, sweet variety, which seems to be mainly fed to younger children. Then for the older members of the family there is airag, a lightly alcoholic milk tipple similar to Kyrgyz kymyz, and shimin arikh the distilled version of the former (think vodka with a slightly lactic aftertaste).

Aaruul hanging out to dry inside a ger.

I ended up spending the entire day with the family (whose names I could never quite get) playing games and taking pictures of the kids and observing the milking, herding, food preparation and rain drill before an approaching rain cloud. I also pitched in a little, helping to herd the sheep and goats and rounding up the calves during milking (the calves are allowed to suckle for a while so that they can feed but also to stimulate lactation), although I doubt I was much real help as it probably required more effort to explain to me with gestures and gesticulations what was required of me than for them to do it themselves - the father could only muster up a thumbs up and saino (good) although the girls and mother were able to get a few more ideas across. Nevertheless I was calmly accepted into the family's life with little fuss, and it was an invaluable experience for me to see how a simple Mongolian family lives. When animals weren't being tended to this often involved either popping over to the next group of gers along, where the father's brother's family lived along with the clan matriarch, and having milk tea and buurtzug (fried sticks of dough) and sweets, or having the aforementioned relatives around for tea instead. Those gers also contained a little platoon of children which mingled with "my" family's kids, so that in fact I wasn't completely sure as to how many children they actually had. They all seemed to be shared amongst the gers and did whatever tasks needed to be done. Mongolian gers/houses are open to all throughout the day and friends and relatives pop by unannounced at any time and tea is central to all of these visits. It will immediately be poured (there is always some on standby in a thermos) into a small drinking bowl before the important business of having a chat can begin in earnest, and be topped up regularly throughout. A lot of tea gets drunk in Mongolia and, along with vodka, it is the social lubricant of choice.

Kids milking the goats early in the morning. Goats are notoriously uncooperative creatures and so need to be tied together like a big, braying garland.

When dusk came with still no sign of anything resembling traffic, I was given my own patch of floor in their ger. By 9pm everyone was asleep. The days are long and the scant electricity means that when the sun goes down so do the people. But when it rises so do they, and when I awoke at 4am the next morning the mother had already got the fire going and the kids were out herding the animals to be milked. I also got to witness the production of the family's shimin arikh using their home still. By 9am nothing had passed and I was getting impatient and decided to walk the 50km to the next town, where there would hopefully be better transport connections (i.e. there might actually be some). I said goodbye to my adopted family, shouldered my pack and set off. I was in luck as I managed to grab a ride on the back of a bike for a major chunk of the distance; until a river which had to be forded got in the way. Finally I got to the fantastically-named town of Baruuntuurun and was able to carry on with more conventional transport. And although waiting a day to hitch a ride and then finally giving up would normally be considered a failure and a wasted day, it perhaps allowed me to have one of my most authentic and rewarding experiences on my trip so far.

Shimin arikh still. It may look very DIY and slightly dangerous, but you can't argue against dairy vodka.

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