Mongolian Mumbles 5
The best thing about heading out into the wide open spaces of the country-side is leaving the heavy winter pollution behind.
I think I may have mentioned this before about the people living in Ger camps on the fringes of the city who burn tyres & plastic sent in from ‘first world’ countries to keep themselves warm. These tyres, as you can imagine, throw out a lot of heat but also a huge a amount of smoke and with trees and other flammables in short supply, tyres are a cheap fuel. You can just imagine the pollution it creates plus, of course, the coal-burning central hot-water buildings also billowing lovely little gritty bits for you to breathe. You can smell it all on the air with every breath and your mouth tastes like a coal-miner’s arm-pit in the morning when you wake up. Someone here told us that Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted cities on earth – update on that after a quick cross-check with Mr Google, it doesn’t even rate in the top 20 most polluted cities – Russia, China and India feature pretty heavily in that list plus a few surprising others such as Peru & Zambia.
We were a smaller team this time as we didn’t have an interpreter for Nigel as his veterinary Mongolian counterpart, Enkhtur has done so well with his English since the last trip that we now really don’t need a specialist interpreter. I wish that it was me that had advanced to such a level with my Mongolian that we didn’t need one, but sadly that is not the case. I am having lessons every week and seem to get worse at it, although I am now able to order 5 beers!! Can’t order 3 as I always forget that number in Mongolian!! No hope for me I am afraid.
The country was lovely & green when we went in August but now it was very brown and bare. There looked to be very little fodder to sustain any livestock for the next week, let-a-lone a long, hard cold winter where the temperatures will drop to below -40C.
We were heading towards the Russian border towns as a considerable amount of live & dead meat goes across the border. The Russians turn the Mongolian meat into cans for their soldiers and it matters little how tough it is….. bit like boot-leather really.
There was a frosting of snow but nowhere near the amount that I thought there would be this close to Russia and the weather was amazingly warm and many days I didn’t wear a coat although it started to get a little bleak the last few days.
We stayed three nights in a town called Sukhbaatar, named for the military leader Sukhbaatar Damdin who is remembered as a hero in Mongolia for defeating both the Chinese and von Sternberg and thus re-establishing Mongolia's independence between 1918 & 1923. The square in UB is also named after him and there are huge statues of him on his horse in the town and the UB square. There are no doubt many other statues of him around the country plus plaques on walls saying he slept here, and so forth he’s that sort of character.
We paid visits to two abattoirs, one being ‘state of the art’ and wouldn’t have been out of place in Australia and the second one not too bad either. The second one was actually loading 20 tons of quarters of meat to be sent to Russia and they still had 33,000 tons frozen ready to go. The ‘state of the art’ one was about 60 kilometres out of Sukhbaatar and when we arrived at the gates they wouldn’t allow us in until we had some sort of approval. Nigel decided on a little exercise and set out across the Steppe for a good lengthy walk knowing that we wouldn’t get permission quickly and I have a photo of him as a tiny little speck in the distance with the backdrop of the mountains behind him.
The following day we went to the border crossing between Russian and Mongolia as Nigel was interested to see just what the setup was with stock coming to and going from Mongolia and the expertise of the veterinarians who ‘man’ this border crossing…. the head vet was a woman and a very bright and a delightful person and couldn’t have been more helpful for us to see all we wanted to see at the border and more.
Pulling in behind a long line of cars, I thought we would be there forever but no we had the right contact with us and within minutes we were through two gates and into the Mongolian side of the immigration building. Had a good look around & then headed towards the Russian side and was amazed when told they were happy for me to take photos, which I did – including the ones of the group with the Russian checkpoint in the back ground. We were in no-man’s-land between the borders and checked out the raked dirt which we assume may have been mined or some such but we thought better than testing it out….. didn’t even throw a stick. (just shows what a life-time of cold-war propaganda and a healthy diet of Bond movies does for you!!)
Back to the Mongolian side of things and everyone back in the bus – a solid Russian built mini-bus - and I thought we were heading out and away to the next meeting, but no….. out comes the box of vodka with smoked fish and bread and we had a little snack and drink sitting in the back of the old Russian van toasting friends, family, Mongolia, Australia, England, cooperation and who knows what else!! Amazing.
Heading across the steppe, the weather started to close in with heavy foreboding clouds seemingly promising some snow in the not too distant future. We were to meet up with a gentleman who has 400 sheep waiting in quarantine to go to Russia but the Russian side of the deal hasn’t coughed up the money so the sheep were going nowhere and he was having to feed them and look after them which was starting to cost considerable money as there seemed very little natural grasses left and in another few weeks there would be none, I would imagine. The sheep were all in good condition but they wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Talking to these very tough Mongolian herders on an exposed hillside with a lazy, bitter wind whistling through you and (too lazy to go round), you realise just how they were able to conquer so many parts of the world. The weather really closed in and it wasn’t long before we were standing on a cold, snowy and windswept steppe without a very warm coat & these herders live like this year in year out…. let alone their horses, sheep, cattle, goats & yaks.
That evening we were introduced to a Shaman called Oyuntul who had come to speak to Nigel & I and tell us what it meant to her to be a Shaman. She was a young woman, married with three children and had got the call about 4 years ago and is now very busy helping people with her ability to heal and communicate with spirits. She was bright, bubbly and very happy to answer our many questions. She had also bought along her drum, capes, masks, beads (very like the Arabic prayer beads) and other paraphernalia that she uses. It was fascinating for us both and we were delighted when we spent another hour enjoying a meal with her and all the other veterinary laboratory staff who we had been spending some time with in the past few days.
The following morning we met up with Oyuntul again as a group of us headed for a high mountain overlooking the Orhon river. The mountain is spiritually significant to Shamans and Buddhists alike as the sky is so much closer to you on the top of this mountain. It is near the last border post where the Trans-Siberian railway goes through before Russia.
We could see why it had such a spiritual significance with stunning 180 degree views overlooking a meandering river that was starting to freeze over and the railway line following along the river with mountains & forest going far into the distance. Really beautiful and we look forward to coming back in the summer when it will have a different feel again.
Out came the left-over meat & cold vegetables from the night before with chocolate biscuits, chocolate and, of course, the good old vodka!! I think about nine of us, with very little help from me fortunately, polished off in less than an hour….. two and a half bottles of vodka – all before midday. Nigel then really got the party going by bringing out his harmonica/mouth organ and playing some lively tunes to the delight of the Mongolians.
As we said goodbye to Oyuntul, we gave her a hug and thanked her for sharing so much with us and with that she danced a little ‘jig’ saying that we both had wonderful energy, which was lovely to hear. Hopefully we will be able to meet up with her again sometime soon.
That evening we were back in Darhkan to meet up with a ‘three man’ EU delegation from Beijing and some more of the project staff that Nigel works with, bringing the group up to about 20, as there was a ceremony the following morning to hand over to the Mongols equipment supplied by the EU including laboratory equipment and computers, printers and scanners.
After the vodka earlier in the day, there was another round of toasts that evening… all toasted in vodka. By now I was becoming adept at avoiding drinking more than a mouthful but Nigel isn’t quite so lucky as he has to show he has been drinking it. The vodka drinking continued after dinner in our room when we got back to the hotel for a short while but fortunately the Mongols moved on to another room after consuming the bottle we had. Not sure how many bottles of vodka were consumed that night but I know there were plenty of debilitated people next morning.
We had a bit of a scare at about 11pm when the sister of our interpreter came to the hotel looking for her. The driver had dropped the girl off at the front of the apartments where her sister lives which was only just behind the hotel but she hadn’t arrived in her flat and was nowhere to be found. About 6 of us started searching and with the outside temperature down to about -12°C we were beginning to get a little concerned. She was still breastfeeding her 12-month old baby so it wasn’t as if she was going to be going off drinking copious amounts of alcohol and she also wasn’t answering her mobile phone. After about 30 minutes of looking for her in the parks close by and the restaurants and bars we phoned the police, who I have to say, couldn’t have given a toss. Not sure if this sort of thing happens very often but Nigel & I were certainly worried and her sister & mother were both crying and very worried. Not sure who found her but after about an hour she turned up, thank heavens, and I don’t think she will be doing a disappearing act again in a hurry. She had apparently met a friend and had gone to their place to chat. We definitely needed another vodka after that little upset!!
The following morning after the formal handing over of equipment, more vodka was consumed and this time even some champagne came out. On to lunch and more vodka with about seven ‘toasts’ being made where we all had to say ‘tochtoy’ – cheers in Mongolian!! The ‘three-man EU delegation’ opted out of the luncheon after the first toast leaving our group to consume even more vodka. I really don’t know how a Mongol’s liver survives!!
I am getting smarter with this vodka sipping though and unless there is only a small group I am able to tip most of my vodka into a water or juice bottle or keep my glass almost full to the top with water, doesn’t work all the time but enough times so that I am not totally destroying my liver. I have impressed a few Mongols though with my ability to ‘bottoms up’ my glass and give the appropriate grimaces with just my water!! (Wasn’t it a good thing I took up the acting in Bombala!!)
Fortunately our driver doesn’t drink if we are travelling which we are all very grateful for, so that evening we were safely back in our apartment in UB after another fascinating field trip.
If you’re interested in having a look, I’ve put photos of this trip on Facebook & Picasso plus many others.
Take care and look after yourselves & remember we love hearing from you and your news as well.