Thursday, 13 October 2011

In the footsteps of Chinggis Khaan

Our train pulled into Ulaanbaatar just as dawn was breaking over the city. Expectations were low based on the various accounts we had heard about the place, and all we wanted to do was organise a tour as quickly as possible and get out to the infamous Mongolian Steppes. We were in luck. As we stepped off the train we were met by a rep from the hostel we had been planning to go to, as well as a Dutch couple also in search of companions with whom to adventure. The hostel organised tours and had one leaving the next day - perfect! What a welcome change to be greeted with a smile, some helpful good news and to hear some laughter after our stint with the grim faced Russians!

As Chris and I ran around the city seeking essentials for the trip (woolly hats mainly - you will have seen how cool we look in matching ones in the photos) we were struck by how much we liked Ulaanbaatar. Yes, it is polluted and smelly; yes, it is chaotic and crumbling; yes, there are pickpockets on every corner, but it is alive! The contrast to Russia is tangible; people smile, they laugh, they say hello to you and communicate with their eyes if they can't speak your language. The chaos of the city could well be unappealing to some, but for me, it simply spells out growth and opportunity. Everywhere you look something enterprising is happening and I honestly find it very exciting. Ulaanbaatar is also incredibly cosmopolitan; it has good restaurants, enticing cafes, glamorous department stores - it is a city on the up and the evidence is all around. We both had a good feeling about the place and were excited for the eight days ahead.

Russian jeeps are not aesthetically pleasing, nor do they instill confidence. They look like an old VW camper van that has been entirely stripped down to the basics and put through its paces. Gear changes make the most gut wrenching noises and your eyes water from the stench of gasoline coming from the thinly covered petrol tanks. This was our vehicle for the next eight days and what a great job it did in the hands of our splendid driver Marala, bumping over off road tracks, sliding through snow and sand, and practically sailing through deep rivers.

To attempt to describe what we saw and experienced in Mongolia; to attempt to transport you several thousand miles from your living room to such a place, is something of a challenge. We felt that even the professionals, with descriptions of daughters "gaily ladling" food and laughter like a "squirrel's chattering" were falling short. If you are familiar with the Scottish Highlands, the Cumbrian lakes, Alpine forests, or the Moroccan desert then the terrain will be recognisable but it's unlikely that you'd see all that in a single day elsewhere. On top of this, it is almost completely deserted, a million people in an area the size of Western Europe, and (so our lonely planet tells us) home to a horse population that outnumbers the humans thirteen to one. To look at a map you would think it was a densely populated place with roads leading every which way. This would be true of most countries whose remotest roads are not mapped because they are so insignificant. However, in Mongolia most of the time you feel they are stretching the definition a bit far.

The nomadic families, with whom we stayed for a week or so, are very hospitable if of questionable taste (fermented horse's milk wasn't really doing it for anyone in our group). Their lives are entirely self sufficient but relentless; they subsist on the food they can make from their herd and fuel their fires with yak dung. Normally the phrase stepping back in time is related to some crumbling relic that you hope was really in better condition in its time, but here you have families living lives that would not have been any different five hundred years ago. Except maybe for the satellite dish delivering dubbed versions of Sleepless in Seattle (no time to watch it though). To be invited to share in their world for our short trip was truly eyeopening and so utterly different from any other experiences I have had in Asia. We were not sold anything, nothing was expected of us except to share in their lives for a short while. We were even invited to help out with one family's chores for a morning although I think we were more of a hindrance than a help. 'Milking' the yaks saw pails of milk spilling all over the place and 'herding' them into a pen descended into riding them around the field.

Mongolia is quite simply one of the most stunning places I have ever been. People often describe places as breathtaking but I have rarely been anywhere that I feel fits this description; Mongolia is it. The scale of its beauty and its overwhelming variety is what sets it apart. That, and it's genuinely fantastic people whose hospitality knows no bounds. Chris and I cannot recommend a trip there highly enough if you are the sort of person who enjoys visiting somewhere that is truly untouched (and can deal with the lack of 5* treatment that goes with that). For the price of a burger at the Thomas Cubitt you can get ten days of this with your own driver, guide and three cooked meals a day. Ok so "no toilet, no shower, 24 hour", for 8 days or longer might not sound that enticing, but you'll never know joy like that of a well-sealed ger with a stove fueled by wood rather than yak dung otherwise.

PS Illustrative photos to come when the internet connection is better. In the mean time see here for a few Foto Friday pics of Mongolia.

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