Infrastructurally Challenged: The Journey Is The Destination

Mongolia is an enormous nation of only 3 million people, almost half of whom live in Ulaan Baatar. There have been many warnings of pickpockets but we haven’t seen any. The taxi ride from the train station was pretty classic third world — a few guys meeting you at the bottom of the train car steps following you around asking you where you’re going and naming many different prices. We offered 10 yuan, the Beijing flagfall rate, because we weren’t going very far (this would get you 5 km in Beijing), and this price appeared to be accepted. So when they wanted about 10 times that, the amount shown on the meter, we just dropped the 10-yuan bill and left.

The Khongor Guest House and Tours is a popular spot — $14 per night, $2 additional for a load of laundry (spun dry only), free internet (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t) and basic breakfast. They have several tours, half day, three day, eight day, or longer. Our four-day/three-night tour seemed to be among the shortest of other travelers we talked to. We booked a trip to the Kharkhorin monastery, a waterfall, a night with a nomadic family, and a national park featuring wild horses.

After about the first hour of travel outside the city, the pavement ended. We pulled off alongside where the continuation of the road was being constructed, and entered miles of randomly created dirt paths. I have no idea how the driver knew which one to take — presumably they mostly went to the same place, except the ones which didn’t; the main difference was what shape they were in. And they were all in pretty bad shape, though not too bad. It was fairly slow going. After awhile, we stopped for lunch, and the road started right back up after that. But by the time we got to the monastery, it was almost closing time, so we looked at the phallic rock monument and the turtle rock monument, and went to our guest house, where we had our own ger, a Mongolian yurt. This one had electricity and showers, and we could recharge everything.

Breakfast was a little disappointing: lunchmeat sandwiches, and additional bread and jam. The sandwiches were served with individually wrapped slices of American cheese, which caused Ray to ask the tour guide/assistant/interpreter if it were possible to have real food. This being her first year in the job, she took his complaint a little too personally or something and when he went back to apologize she was crying. But every breakfast and dinner after that was delicious Mongolian food which she clearly spent quite awhile making herself. (Lunches were Mongolian food at road houses.) So we gave a good tip at the end. One doesn’t want to be an unmitigated awful tourist.

Mongolians apparently ate only sheep and dirt until nearby cultures performed interventions. As nomads, they did not do agriculture. They don’t even do chickens. The Chinese are credited with introducing wheat and noodles and later rice, and now sell them fruit and vegetables to some extent. The Americans, naturally, have offered up plastic wrapped cheese-like substances, and sugar.

Our Mongolian meals were therefore structured around these ingredients. There were big disks of flat bread wrapping ground lamb, somewhere between a piroshki and a paratha; there were soups with lamb and carrots and potatoes (the Mongolians indicate their respect for the occasion by adding fat); there were lamb wontons in soup; there is milk tea, which is not nearly as salty as the Tibetan variety; there are sheep wontons served in the milk tea as soup; or lamb in rice, or lamb wontons in rice; there is yak milk; there is wonderful yogurt and the milk of every animal at hand, there are pancakes served with a butter-like substance which floats to the top of wide pans of milk in every yurt over a slow fire or else just sitting there; there is airag, a fermented mare’s milk which is quite variable depending on the mare and the culture but always tangy and good. You can also run through the whole menu starting with dried and reconstituted sheep and sheep fat, or beef, or goat.

There is another American contribution called “Mongolian Barbecue” but we didn’t try that. The most recent meal before this writing was sold at a restaurant which might have had Mongolian Barbecue in its repertoire but what they served was sheep potatoes and carrots in a kind of soup, with a traditional rock (and you thought that stone soup was a joke), along with shaved carrots and cabbage salad which was cole slaw in concept and came from the Russians. The Russians have also contributed vodka but Mongolian drunks have a reputation and the situation is best avoided by staying in your yurt after dark.

In the morning, we toured the monastery. Shortly after arriving, we heard conch shells being blown, calling the monks to prayer. There were little seats along the walls for tourists to watch the monks chant, a chant which went continuously for about ninety minutes. Monks would come and go, but the chant went on, like the wedding band in Romania. The monk by the door was about 15 and looked at the legs of all the women tourists who weren’t dressed properly for a temple; but Mongolia’s Buddhist tradition was broken abruptly in 1937 when the Communists burned all but a couple of the temples and executed the top ranked 18,000 lamas. They are only just now getting back into the swing of religious practice.

(The Communists don’t seem to have made as much effort to uproot the shamanist traditions, maybe because the shamans didn’t own all the land like the lamas did. There are piles of rocks called Ovoos all over Mongolia, decorated with blue ribbons and random objects. Like Antonio Gil shrines but with Blue instead of Red. Anyway, there’s a little red. There’s whatever you want there to be, because if you are at an ovoo you walk around it three times clockwise and add something to the pile. This reminds me of geocaching, of which Skot Croshere once said. “It’s not littering if you post the results on” But it also is rather like what penguins do, contributing rocks to a nest as a means of courtship. There are so many creatures doing so many things on this planet that it’s hard to be unique even if you’re indigenous.)

There were several temple buildings with Buddha statues and drawings like we’d seen in Darjeeling and China and Japan, though it seemed to me like there was a much greater emphasis on drawings of the “not-gentle gods”, always the most interesting anyway. Many of the images were quilted fabric with exquisite detail.

The next leg was the trip to the waterfall, which though only 100 km away, was entirely unpaved, again on a network of unmarked dirt paths that amazed the passenger that the driver knew which one to take. The waterfall itself, once we got there, was not particularly dramatic or high or wide, but the scenery we drove through along the way was often stunning. It was a popular destination — there were probably a hundred or so gers in several guest-house groups in the waterfall area. An older Mongolian gentleman approached us and announced he’d be giving a concert of several Mongolian instruments, some singing and throat-singing, and a couple young contortionists. It was quite enjoyable (except an out-of-tune Santa Lucia) and we bought a CD from him. (But how would we know if the others were out of tune? Mongolian music does seem to be structured around a more accessible scale than Chinese music.)

The following day was a long drive: three hours back from the waterfall to Kharkorin, and then another three hours on the road to the nomadic family, the wife of which naturally was the cousin of the driver. She lived there with her brother, and her husband and two kids. Whenever tourists came by, they’d squeeze into one ger, the one with the solar-powered television which works until about 10 pm. The TV was bought for one sheep — they have a herd of about 500 sheep and goats. The next morning we watched them slaughter a goat, in a distinctly different way than Ray’s friend in Fort Collins (pistol to the brain) or the Touregs in Niger (slitting the throat). These guys slit the abdomen, and reached in and squeezed the heart until it stopped beating. Then they separated the skin, and only then started scooping stuff out. The entire process didn’t require hanging up the goat, and it used almost no water, but I’m sure Jews and Muslims and USDA would find things not to approve of.

The goat was split in a couple of parts and hung up inside the yurt to dry. We had miles to go, and so took off before noon to do a drive-by of the horse rescue project underway in Hustai National Park. Przewalski’s horse, or Takhi as it is called by people who can’t pronounce Polish names (the Mongolians have zero grounds to complain about strings of consonants in any language or sneeze) is an indigenous wild horse of the steppes which went extinct in the 1960’s except for a few thousand bred in zoos around the world. Shortly afterwards, a group in the Netherlands began efforts to reintroduce them, which came to fruition in the 1990’s and there are now 200 or more individuals living in Mongolia. They are distinct animal from domestic horses, having two extra chromosomes, in the Mongoloid fashion.

We returned to Ulaan Bataar, found that our onward train tickets had indeed been delivered, but found that the guest house where we’d reserved the final night was full due to delayed flights. It took awhile, owing to various translation difficulties, to figure out that they offered us a super-deluxe apartment nearby to stay in instead, and that’s where we are now, typing this for some time soon when we can connect to the Internet and let you all know what we’ve been up to.