Outer Space, I mean Mongolia
Another one of the great entries for ‘Best Written Piece’ in our Vodkatrain Traveller Awards. This account of The Cossack is written by Ellen Beardsworth and you can read more about her Cossack journey on Ellen’s blog Day Walking The Globe.
Outer Space, I mean Mongolia by Ellen Beardsworth
I’ve been putting off writing about Mongolia. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I just didn’t know where to start. I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia, but wasn’t sure what to expect. Mongolia just sounds a really abstract place that is a long way away. I think it’s because Outer Mongolia sounds like Outer Space. Or maybe because they all still live in teepee-esque tents called Gers (or Yurts if you’re Russian or my dad). Either way I was excited to go (and to leave Russia) and open to anything it could offer.
So Mongolia. Mongolia sits between Russia and China. It is quite sizeable, though not compared to its neighbours. There is Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. It has a desert, the Gobi Desert. It was communist until 1989. Ulaanbaatar is the capital. Most people don’t realise that once upon a time (under Ghengis Khan in the fourteenth century) the Mongolian empire stretched from Korea in the east to Turkey in the west. The biggest empire of all time, if you don’t include Star Wars. Most importantly for my purposes, the Transmongolian route goes through it.
As I said, the majority of Mongolians still live as nomads, in circular structures called Gers. These are high class tents which they can move around the country according to the seasons. Other than in the city, Mongolia doesn’t have private land. There is only state land which people are free to roam. That being said, families will have set winter and summer sites where they take their Gers and animals too. Most nomads own sheep, camels, goats and horses. These four have even made it to a game played with sheep ankle bones. Ask Liam about it some time, he was a pro.
Tourists to Mongolian invariably visit a ger camp in order to experience the lifestyle. Obviously it won’t be 100% authentic but the further afield you travel the less touristy it gets. As it was out of season we were the only tourists at both of the camps we stayed at. On Sunday morning we drove, with Agie (our Mongolian honcho), to Khoyor Zagal ger camp, where we would stay for one night. (Our driver reminded me, strangely, of an Asian Morgan Freeman, and we all know that MF is a dude.)
As I have said gers are circular, they are made from wood, and resemble a teepee. It’s what I imagine C.S.Lewis based the nomad in the Silver Chair upon. The inside of our ger was lovely with built in wooden furniture. In the middle was a stove which is kept going throughout the night in order to heat the ger. We visited the lady who maintained the ger camp in winter and she explained more about her family’s way of life. We discovered that there is a male and female side to the home, and naturally we had got it wrong.
That afternoon we rode camels to a sand dune to watch the sunset. Liam and I have been counting transport, camel is at number 10. I have plenty of camel photos, our guide who I named Rafiki in honour of his wooden stick, was verysnap happy. Surprisdingly camels aren’t as uncomfortable as I had anticipated, it was actually quite snug between the two humps. Yes, Alice the camel has two humps in Mongolia. I was only disappointed it wasn’t Hump Day as well.
The next day we departed to a smaller ger camp at Kharkhorin where we would spend two nights. It was next to a monastery called Erdrnr Zuu which stands on the site of the former capital. Agie was fairly quiet all day. The night before had involved a lot of drinking by everyone except me and Liam. We had deliberately brought no supplies as a ten month holiday is understandably dangerous for your organs. From the noise outside our ger after everyone had left us it was safe to say she was feeling rather delicate.
Our Cossack was counted as a summer departure, so it came with added extras. One was to help build a ger. As none of the boys were interested Amy, Ai Li, Ilona and I rose to the challenge. Whilst we didn’t build it from scratch we did build the roof, add a base layer, followed by felt layers (numerous for winter), a plastic layer, and dirt to seal the bottom. It was tiring, but fascinating to see how they are put together. I even spent a while on the roof helping ensure it was secure!
One thing I has expected from Mongolia was horse trekking, and thankfully nearly everyone was game. We were all allocated horses and I was pleased to have drawn a white horse who I christened Bluey II after the first horse I ever rode. We all named our horses, there was Cue Tip and Sebastian, Milk Chocolate, Shorty and Harry, Gandalf and Shadowfox, and whatever-the-Mongolian-word-for-horse-is.
Almost immediately my horse was tethered to one of the guides, whether he was a misbehaver or I didn’t look confident, I’m not sure. I do know I was very disappointed, I’m not a pro, but I did learnt to ride as a child. I was just rusty having not ridden since 2009 on a cattle ranch in Queensland. After half an hour of this I spoke to Agie and was free!
The horse ride passed fairly uneventfully until we turned to come back. One of the guides altered Agie’s saddle and when she re-mounted her horse it bolted, throwing her face first to the ground. He then proceeded to race round everyone else’s horses whilst we tried to dismount as quickly, and safely, as possible. It took a while for all the animals to be caught and calmed down enough to allow us to carry on our journey back! Luckily Agie was pretty much ok, except for a few bumps and being shaken up.
Our final morning in the ger we awoke to find snow everywhere and a blizzard carrying on. Liam and I were sharing with Ilona and she was more than a little bit excited, being an Aussie and all. Liam isn’t a winter baby so he was just pleased we’d be on a bus to UB not outside in the snow! Even he conceded it looked pretty magical though.
I, on the other hand, took the opportunity to slip on melted show in the food ger and completely deck it. The noise I made on impact, the intensity, size and number of the bruises I suffered, all just go to show (as if there was any doubt) that I am vertically challenged. Something to remember Mongolia by.