Mongolian Mumbles 2
For our field trip into the country-side for a week we left UB with our driver Baatar, late 20’s, single, at the wheel of a 4x4 and with me happily ensconced in the front seat, so I would take photos. In the back seat were Uuriintuya Dulamjav called Uuri, Nigel’s interpreter, who is 37, married with two children, and Enkhtur Byakharjav, sometimes called Tuuru, the Mongolian vet on the project, 45, married with three children, and, of course, Nigel.
Baatar speaks very little English but Enkhtur can speak a reasonable amount; Uri also speaks Russian & has lived in the UK. I shall tell you now - getting my mouth around some of these Mongolian names is taking some doing!!
Traffic getting out of UB was horrendous with massive traffic jams from the centre of town to the outskirts of the city because we were leaving lunch-time. We only managed to get relatively free of traffic after nearly one & a half hours travelling, whereas this would only take 30 minutes at tother times.
Heading over the hills to the north of UB the scenery was one vast, undulating, verdant green plain, fenceless and treeless, rising to hills and mountains in every direction. Vast numbers of horses, sheep, goats and cattle graze among sparsely dotted mushroom-domed gers, many with foals tied to long lines patiently waiting for their mothers to be milked every hour and a half or so. Hills and valleys dotted like Dalmatian dogs with sheep & goats guarded by young children on school holidays and cows being driven to better pastures were a constant thread in the scenery we drove through.
After hand-milking the mares into a bucket (with the foal standing at her head to make her let-down the milk), their milk is allowed to ferment. This turns it into a drink called ‘airag’ which is very popular in Mongolia and is ready to drink about 8 hours after being turned into tall vessels like milk churns and aerated with a big paddle for hours. It is the drink customarily offered to visitors whenever you visit a ger and we seemed to drink copious amounts in the coming days. They do warn you in the Lonely Planet guide ‘to go easy on it as it will pay havoc with your innards’ but we escaped any serious problems - except alcoholic poisoning from Vodka…… but more about that later.
We drove among mile after mile of herders doing what herders have done in Mongolia for hundreds of years and you feel little has changed except we now saw some solar panels, satellite dishes and vehicles beside some of the gers.
The main purpose of this trip was for Nigel and Enkhtur to give educational seminars to vets in two Provinces – called Aimags (Orkhon & Bulgan) of which there are 22 in Mongolia including UB. We were also going to visit a few different districts – called Soums (339 in Mongolia) and parishes – called Baghs (1,542 in the whole country). In UB, each suburb is called a Khoroo and there are 121 of these.
The first stop after 400klms on paved roads was a town called Darkhan, in Dharkhan Aimag and only about 70kms south of the Russian border. There was one short meeting here at which Enkhtur spoke about some of the equipment being provided by the EU and distributed into various Baghs in the project area in Central Mongolia.
We managed to have lunch at about 3.30 pm and, for the first and last time on this trip, Nigel & I were persuaded to have chicken. They seemed to think we couldn’t cope with the Mongolian diet which is essentially meat, dairy products and flour but it didn’t take us too long to convince them we were very happy with whatever they were going to eat, especially as the chicken meal was $4 each & their meals which looked much nicer than ours, were about $1.20!!
On the outskirts of Darkhan we visited a huge Budda statue (Thai-style which is the slim Budda) that has become a shrine where Mongolians generally leave an offering which, more often that not, is some blue cloth. Buddhism was very popular here until the 1930’s when Russian thugs killed thousands upon thousands of monks and destroyed hundreds of beautiful monasteries with only a few escaping complete annihilation. Buddhism has resurged since the fall of communism in 1990 and now some monasteries have been restored. Monks are back practising but nowhere near like the numbers that used to be here - one monastery used to house 1,000 monks but now there are only 30.
On the opposite hill to the Budda was another wonderful statue of a Mongolian riding his horse at full gallop playing the Morin Khurr – horse-headed fiddle. The Morin Khurr has a trapezium sound-box and is covered by goat or camel skin. Its bow and two strings are made with hair from horses’ tails. Most Mongolian traditional performance art is accompanied by Morin Khurr music.
We now headed south west for approx 170 kilometres to the second largest city in Mongolia - Erdenet.
For the first time, we passed huge tracks of land under cultivation, mainly wheat & barley although we did see some potatoes, as well. Believe it or not, they say that nearly 90% of Mongolia can be used for agricultural purposes but sudden frosts (even in summer in some parts) make this difficult to implement. The crops were sown in wide strips with rested land in between which will be sown the following year and this gives a wonderful striped effect, I was going to say a bit like a zebra…. but only a zebra crossing.
We had one ‘ger stop’ on the way for Nigel and Enkhtur to talk with a herder to get some idea of what the main issues are for these people and the stock they look after. One of the biggest problems they have in this area are the number of herders coming in from the west with their stock. They are facing a drought out there and so they left (as nomads are wont to do) but now the area where they have come to is in serious danger of becoming completely over stocked. There are very few avenues for selling any of their surplus stock which compounds the problem.
Pretty well all the herders are nomads so they move their stock each season following the grass, everyone has a legitimate right to be there or anywhere else they choose to be, just so long as they register with the bagh Governor. During the communist time all the stock were owned by the government, obviously, and treatment etc was paid for centrally. Herders just looked after the animals and this is still somewhat of the mentality when it comes to the health of the animals. Herders still feel the government should pay for vaccinations and treatment but, of course, when they sell they keep all the profit – as befits the new free economy!!
Unfortunately this mean’s nobody pays the vets who are now private companies and not state employees. Even the government only pays the vets twice a year for the Ministry work they do (which is still the bulk of their work)
One of the big obstacles in Nigel’s job will be trying to change attitudes so that the herders start taking some responsibility for their own stock.
Arriving on the outskirts of Erdenet it was obvious to see what the main industry is here. Huge open cut mines take-out 25 million tons of copper and molybdenum ore each year. Apparently this mine earns 40% of the GDP for Mongolia. It was set up by the Russians in 1974 but was marked incorrectly on maps as the USSR wanted to keep it a secret. The town is very much Russian-orientated with Russian block buildings everywhere although there are now a few modern buildings creeping in.
We stayed in a hotel overnight, a very palatial room by Mongolian standards with two bathrooms (but still no hot water), a separate lounge & a king size bed - although I’m sure the pillowcases were filled with rocks!!
On to Bulgan the next morning which is a much smaller, backwater of a town. Here we saw many horses being ridden in the streets and horses pulling carts, much more like the towns we visited in Mongolia in 1996.
Nigel & Enkhtur started their presentations at 10 o’clock to about 25 vets and I sat in for Nigel’s as it was interpreted into Mongolian. However, I gave up for Enkhtur’s as he was obviously speaking in Mongolian. Because Nigel had already heard the talks he was giving Uuri didn’t interpret for him so there wasn’t much point in me sitting there.
I wandered around a lovely park and took a few photos but then decided to sit in the car and read my book & snooze… What a delightful afternoon I had!
That evening at about 6.30pm when they had finished the seminar we were taken with about 6 vets out to a holiday ger camp 10 kilometres out of town where we were going to spend the night. We were shown to our ger which was set up with two single beds on either side of the door & then at the back were two huge arm chairs with a coffee table in front. In the centre was a metal ger stove which was lit for us straight away as it was becoming quite cool and it was incredible how quickly it heated the ger.
We were then invited over to the ger where the others were staying and asked to partake in a little airag & vodka. There is a strict ritual for drinking airag and vodka and this means that the host passes the guest of honour a bowl with the airag or vodka in it and usually the guest has to drain the bowl or glass. It is then passed back to the host & they refill it. It is then passed to the next in seniority and it continues like this down the line until everyone has partaken and then it is back to the guest of honour for round two. With the second round it is generally accepted that you don’t have to drain the bowl, especially if it is the airag, but with the vodka the senior guests are expected to drain each offering!! The size of the drinking bowl is therefore directly related to the size of the headache next morning.
We did take a break from drinking to walk over to the restaurant to enjoy some mutton soup & bread in mid-evening (it’s getting dark about 8.30 at this time of the year) but it wasn’t long before we were back in the ger and another bottle of vodka was opened. I was sensible at this stage & headed to bed, still knowing I would probably have a headache in the morning. For poor Nigel it is not quite so easy to get away and it was sometime before I heard the door of our ger open!
I witnessed a beautiful sunrise the following morning (with that headache) but was lucky enough to be able to go back to sleep for another hour before we had to present ourselves for breakfast! This ger camp offered hot showers and flush loos which, technically, they did have…. but that is only if they have water - which they didn’t.
Another day at the office for Nigel and I had one of the laziest days I have had for many, many years. I sat in the front seat of the 4x4 and slept & read all day except for a half hour break for lunch and then it was back to my ‘day-bed’. I just loved it and obviously needed the rest. That night we were in bed by 9pm at another hotel in Bulgan and this time the advertised hot water materialised and I slept all night!!
Heaven on earth exists in Mongolia.
Departing the following morning for a little Bagh further west of Bulgan where we were to meet the governor and the local vet who had been at the seminar the previous day, we hit the dirt track just outside Bulgan. For the next two days we then bounced and jolted on tracks that were barely visible or developed into so many tracks that you really didn’t know which one to take.
The gorgeous scenery continued with rolling hills of green pasture, not a fence in sight and many, many grazing animals, until we reached the river. A beautiful gorge with a winding river and hundreds of raptors gathering to feed-up before they head to Africa for the winter was the first real change in scenery. You could tell this was an area that was very cold during winter and already everyone was stocking up on wood to keep the fires burning during the long winter months. We came across a young couple walking across the steppe with two bullocks, each hitched to a dray loaded with logs they were taking back to their winter camp. The have five bullocks trained to pull these carts which was really interesting as we hadn’t seen any bullocks used before. We also saw one poor, lonely, young camel and figured there must be more around but we didn’t see them.
Arriving in a very small town called Bayan Agt at about 3 in the afternoon after 5 hours travelling 165 kilometres, we went to meet the Governor and the two vets in the Municipality office, leaving two and a half hours later after some very interesting discussions. We then went back to the senior vet’s home, meeting his wife (a doctor who specialised in Gynaecology at her four year University time here in Mongolia) and also met his five delightful daughters. Finally at 6pm we had lunch accompanied by the ubiquitous airag and vodka once again.
Just after we finished ‘lunch’ where the governor had also joined us, we were asked if we wanted to see a marmot that had been shot by a hunter. At this point it all took on a hush- hush sort of atmosphere. Apparently it is now illegal to shoot marmot as they have been heavily shot out for their skins by the Russians (they can pass marmot fur off as either otter or mink when it has been dyed and get a very good price). Marmots are ground squirrels or groundhogs in the USA and are part of the rodent family.
Over the next few hours we were to be treated to the ancient ritual of preparing marmot for eating…..
They first remove the head and then extract innards and skeleton, down to the wrists and ankles, through the neck while keeping the skin intact. This leaves a fury bag with four feet and then they stuff the meat & bones back inside with hot rocks, potatoes and onion. They then blow-torched all the fur off and left if for about an hour before boiling it for ten minutes just to finish off the procedure. After cutting it open midline, the marmot hunter who was in charge of the whole operation, handed us each a hot rock to hold as the marmot fat on the hot rocks is very good for your health. (‘hold’ is perhaps not the right word since it is so hot you have to toss it from one hand to the other to avoid first degree burns!!)
We then had to eat some, of course, and after looking at the inch thick fat layer I wasn’t terribly keen. Remembering all that had been said about eating the marmot that may be carrying the plague, I was reassured that Nigel had checked it out fairly thoroughly, but I was still a little reluctant. Nigel, knowing my aversion to fat, managed to cut off a smallish hunk of meat and I had my first taste of marmot.
Now I understand why the Mongolians love it. It tasted very much the same as wild duck I had eaten as a child but fattier and a little gamier - very nice for all that but that one piece was enough for me.
After everyone had eaten their full - with most of the Mongolians eating the fat in preference to the meat - it was all packed in a plastic bag & given to us as a gift!! Yikes, I wasn’t going to be too keen on eating it cold the following day looking at all that fat. As it turned out we didn’t have it the following day - it was the day after that we were offered it again after it had been bouncing around in the back of the car for 36 hours… I politely declined but Nigel was brave & had a small piece saying it tasted very nice!!
After more food, airag & vodka we all pile back into the car and headed back the way we had come accompanied by the vet, his wife and the hunter. We arrived at the holiday camp on the edge of the gorge where we had seen the raptors and were shown to our hut - by this time it was close to 11pm. We had been told on the half-hour drive that it would be polite of us to offer some vodka to our hosts and fortunately we had nearly a full bottle that we were able to offer them. I stayed for one drink & once again snuck off to bed leaving Nigel to cope with our own and another bottle of vodka somebody had found for numerous toasts to anybody the Mongolians could think of to toast.
Before breakfast the next morning we all walked down to the river which has springs right along the bank of the river for nearly a kilometre and each spring is attributed with medicinal properties like blood pressure, eyes, heart, stomach, kidneys, skin etc. We were told not to drink too much of any one as we would end up with tummy upset due to the high mineral content so we had a few sips of each one but we both took a small bottle full of pertinent ones – me for my skin and Nigel for his blood pressure - and have been having a few sips each day, so it will be interesting to see if there is any improvement.
The raptors we had seen the previous day were everywhere and it was an amazing sight to see so many gathered in one place - juveniles and their tatty feathers as they moult, plus well-groomed adults.
We wandered along the river bank for nearly an hour tasting the different spring waters and enjoying the wildlife, besides the Steppe eagles and black kites. There were ground squirrels giving their chattering warnings to others (they are like marmots but have a longer bushier tail and don’t grow nearly as big as a marmot), frogs (but I think they was toads because none turned into princes), a small green snake which was very quick to get out of our way (thank God), dragonflies, a flight of cormorants, seagulls (yes, right in inland Mongolia), a pair of white whooper swans and many other birds plus many Mongolians enjoying the medicinal waters.
After breakfast of mutton & wheat noodle soup we were on our way again, not the way we had come but another route as we had to meet another Governor & vet in different area. Our driver was told to follow the electrical poles but I think he considered this to be a little too simple, so was forever heading off at different angles then stopping at gers to ask directions and then heading back to the electrical poles!! He must have asked at five different gers for directions and always got the same answer so this trip took us just a little longer than it should have done.
The poles are a real work of art, here, of course. Some are timber clamped onto the top of concrete bases, but others are straight forward tree trunks. There are often 3 arms in a triangular fashion so you can envisage the angles you see on long lines of these things stretching as far as the eye can see. We pondered the reason that the roads aren’t beside the poles and decided the steppes carried too lethal a combination – Mongols, cars, posts and vodka.
Finally made it to another very small town called Saikhan only to find the vet out on calls but we were able to see the Governor who was a very nice, helpful man and we chatted to him for nearly two hours. We had hoped to get some lunch in this town but the only restaurant was closed (Sunday) - understandable as I’m sure they didn’t get a lot of passing trade.
Heading off again in another direction and once again we were soon ger-hopping for directions. The very first ger we visited was actually home to a man we had asked for directions to the vet’s in the town - and we had now arrived at his ger for directions to Bulgan.
We were immediately offered some ‘airag’ and also dried curds with fresh cream! Cornish cream eat your heart out as this has to be some of the most delicious cream I have ever tasted. It was something I remember from our previous trip - although more often than not then, we ate it with dried cheese! In Hovsgol in’96, we used to have a little contest going as to who could keep the cheese in their mouth for the longest – I think 7 hours was the record!! That was seriously dried cheese and was just like hard timber with a bit of a milk flavour but with that fresh cream it didn’t matter as it was just simply gorgeous.
Seeing as we had missed lunch, our Mongolian travelling friends decided this was a good place to stop for some soup. We are not sure whether we were invited or invited ourselves, suffice to say we were staying for soup – mutton & wheat noodles!
They had somewhere in the vicinity of three hundred horse here and were milking close to 40 to make the airag. They milk the mares every one and a half to two hours during the day and the foals are left with their mothers at night. Each mare gives about 100 to 200 mls each milking. The foals are taken alongside their mothers and given a quick suck so that the mare lets the milk down and then the ‘milker’ moves in for a few minutes while somebody else holds the foal & then the foal is given another quick suck when the ‘milker’ is finished.
They didn’t take long to get all the milking done & then it was back to the gers to start making the next batch of airag. We noticed some mares with foals not being milked and were told these mares were too strong so they obviously didn’t care for being milked.
On our way again after our very nice soup we were heading to Bulgan to pick up some boxes from the veterinary office we had left there the day before; Nigel and Enkhtur needed them for the following day for the seminar they were giving in Erdenet. We then had dinner in Bulgan before driving on to Erdenet (on paved roads, thank heavens) arriving close to 11pm.
Wonders of wonders - we were staying at a hotel with hot water and after the last two days on dirt tracks we needed that shower.
Another day of seminars for Nigel & Enkhtur and after hearing Nigel’s again I decided to walk around the town for a bit. Hadn’t gone more than 100 metres when I looked up so see an internet sign. Next thing I am ‘A over T’ flat out on the pavement after tripping over a raised pavement tile!! The only thing that was of a concern to me, of course, was my camera. I wasn’t worried about all the skin off one hand or both knees, it was the camera. It looks as though I have got a crack in the reflector lens so I didn’t manage to save it completely, I was very upset!!! A very nice gentleman stopped to help & I am sure others would have as well but this silly foreign woman was only interested in her camera and I am sure they thought she was a bit demented.
So, instead of continuing my walk, I headed back to the vet office and some sympathy from Nigel which I duly got and also the homoeopathic Arnica to help me recover from a stupid fall. This little episode decided me that somebody was telling me not to go for a walk so instead I was taken shopping with Uuri to look at some carpets!! Sadly they were all machine-made as there is a big factory in Erdenet where they sell them to Russia and China.
They finished the seminar at about 6.30pm and we headed out of Erdenet on our 6-hour drive back to UB - only to stop on the outskirts of the city to have a celebratory drink with 10 or so of the vets who had been on the course. Out come bread, salamis, cheese and the vodka!! Once again, toasts to all and sundry & the first cup of vodka I was given was nearly half-full and they were all determined I should drink to the bottom…. I managed to do it the first time but was going to be in serious trouble if they gave me another one with as much vodka in it. Fortunately the vet who was pouring the vodka took pity on me and the next one was only a puddle in the bottom which I made a great show of drinking & drinking before I turned the paper cup upside down. Nigel wasn’t so lucky and had about three large glasses he had to drink.
We thought we were off home now but, no, we had to deliver one of the vets home - where we were treated to dinner and more vodka, airag & even beer as well this time! The vet had been at University with our Mr Enkhtur and his wife is the Governor of the area and it was the first time she had entertained a western woman at home. Later on we found out she was terrified as she wasn’t sure we would eat the food she had prepared. Of course, we thoroughly enjoyed it - any food is wonderful when you’re having to drink like this, although it was very tasty as well.
The main food of the evening was steamed, meat-filled dumpling-type things, very nice and easy to eat. Biscuits, apples and sweets were served as well. The Governor got so carried away with having us as guests that she presented me with a gift of a lovely white teddy bear sitting on an empty blueberry pie box in a clear plastic bag tied up with ribbon. Written across a bib on his front was written ‘China Refuels’. It was so sweet and obviously they can’t read English, we just roared with laughter privately afterwards but really did appreciate the lovely gesture.
Finally we set off and still had a five-hour drive to get back to UB - fortunately all on tarmac roads and our driver hadn’t had a drink all evening. I think it was about 10.30pm when we left. Nigel and Enkhtur were both feeling a little worse for wear (in fact, both were fairly drunk) and I had to sit between them both so it wasn’t long before I had one snoring on each shoulder. I didn’t sleep all the way back finally arriving home at 3.30am.
The traffic was unbelievable all the way back and we averaged a truck or car passing us every minute. It is the main road to Russia but when we had travelled up it during the day, the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad.
Finally back in our lovely flat….. and still no hot water.
We couldn’t believe it and it has only come back on today 1st September after going off on the 14th August!! Apparently the hot water all comes from a central boiler and during the summer they turn off districts so maintenance can be done so there are no problems during the winter. I felt it was all directed at us but did feel better when I spoke to others in the area who had no hot water either.
Our flat is great, although sparsely furnished at the moment, so it won’t be once all our belongings arrive from Bahrain. Heavens knows how long that will take but they are now apparently in China!! Time will tell.
I have waffled on forever so will wait for the next MM to give further details of our flat etc. Suffice to say, it is large enough for visitors with a lovely spare room & bathroom.
Take care and I look forward to hearing from you.
Love to all
Robyn & Nigel
PS I have put many photos on the internet on facebook if you have an account with them.