by Rhi and John
The difference between Russia and Mongolia was clear instantly - the people in Mongolia just don't stop smiling. They're lovely. Our guide was called Gerlee (or Jenny).
Jenny took us for a walk round Ulan Bator, which is a grubby concrete mess in the middle of the most spectacular mountain scenery. We were heading up towards the Gandantegchenlin Monastery, and asked what a totem pole was doing in the middle of a rubbish dump! Jenny explained it was a Shaman camp, and took us in to see the Shaman. (Sha-woman actually).
It was a bizarre experience. We went into her ger, which had apple offerings on some kind of alter, right next to high tec stereo and big screen TV.The assistants were in traditional dress, but the shaman was in western dress, sat at a desk with a lap top! What we didn't notice just as we walked in, but nearly made us jump out of our skin 5 minutes later was the HUUUUUGE live Golden Eagle sat on a perch near the doorway watching us!
We asked her questions about our health, whether we should watch for any dangers on our travels and things like that. She was uncannily accurate. She said I was always cold and that it is because I have thin blood (Something you probably say about most women in fairness) but then she said - and your kidneys don't work, but don't worry about it, they'll stay stable.
How bizarre that she knew that. She said John was very healthy apart from getting indigestion - which is also true. I've always thought these things are just from reading people well, but because of the language barrier, she would finish speaking, Jenny would translate and then we would ask our next question, so she couldn't have been reading our reaction as she was talking because we didn't know what she was saying. She also said we should have no worries on our travel because we had prepared well!
The monastery was lovely, we span some prayer wheels and saw a giant golden standing buddah and we met Jenny's grandparents too on the way there - they seemed lovely. In the afternoon we headed off to Elstei Ger Lodge, about an hour or so from Ulan Bator.
The gers are great round tents with very low doorways - I think we all ended up with several bumps on our heads walking into them - especially after a few beers!Inside they are very colourful and with a stove in the middle of each, they are really toasty, no matter how cold it got outside (-13c at some stages).
There were about 10 gers in the camp, including two that were a kitchen and dining room. No running water at all, long drop toilets again - but this time no velvet seat cover - in fact no seat to cover anyway! Everyone was a bit nervous of the long drop since it was a very long drop and the holes were actually big enough to fall down (note to self...not too many beers!). John, Mick, Lorna, Regina and I all treked up the nearest hill and got some great panoramic photos - beautiful clear blue sky. A gorgeous dinner, where we met some new friends Moo and Bink - Sisters from Australia and Singapore.
The next morning, we went on a 7k each way horse ride with the nomad horse herders to an aluminum statue of Chinggis Khaan, when I say massive, I mean I don't think I've seen anything on that scale in the west at all. The horses are smaller than we are used to, but very sturdy, and they are only semi-tamed. They understood one word "choo" which means faster, but no words for "slow down" or "stop you crazy creature I'm going to fall off." We started trying to race, but as we were shouting "choo choo" at our horses, they seemed to ignore us, and instead,
the horses with those new to riding, that didn't want to run, decided to start running instead.
The Mongolians use the torturous wooden saddles, but fortunately had nice soft ones for us feeble westerners!
That afternoon, we had a visit to a nomad family who showed us how to barter at marriage proposals, cooked doughnuts and talked about Nomad life, with Jenny translating. The father looked about 165, but was in fact 65 - to which John politely said "you look so good for your age" and the others tried not to choke on their doughnuts! You'll see from the picture, he makes lifelong Cornish fishermen look like an advert for Estee Lauder - but a really nice guy. He was well known for racing horses when he was younger and had any amount of awards.
Afterwards, back at our gers, we got our wish - it started to snow..and snow..and snow - all night, there was about a foot of it by morning. So that night after dinner, we and the guides played some bizarre games - one involving making "intimate sounds" from leters of the alphabet (I suspect the one male guide was going through a bit of a lean period on the dating scene as he was a bit obsessed with anything sex related), then a big snowball fight and when we had all frozen and managed to set our hats and gloves on fire while trying to dry them on the stove, one of the younger guides taught us a traditional game of Horse racing using sheep ankle bones.
Then back in Chris and Caseys ger, played a card game called spoons, all sang our national anthems and after much persuasion, and assurances that we would all take it seriously, Casey did the Hakka for us - outside in the snow in shorts! - It was fantastic, and I think the Mongolians were amazed to see a real Hakka performed. And yes we did all take it seriously.
It was so cold that night, that when we went to bed, loads of mice also came into the gers to get warm, which wasn't so good for Lorna (we shared a ger with Mick and Lorna) since she is terrified of mice. Poor Mick also suffered, as she slept in his bed, and every time she heard the slightest noise, she jumped so much he was getting kicked and elbowed every 10 minutes - I suspect he was black and blue in the morning!
In the morning, in spite of trying to negotiate some extra time in the ger, we had to leave. With 11 of us packed into a tiny minivan, no snow chains, and about 5k off road to do before we got back to the main road it was a life embracing experience! The van nearly tipped over, we slid around and backwards, down ditches.
The main road wasn't much better with lorries sliding backwards down hills towards us and a minivan that had gone into the ditch and literally split in half! Our driver told us that his van was a good strong one! Mongolian driving is crazy at the best of times, they make Russians look quite sedate So we were all very glad to get out back in Ulan Bator.
That night John and Regina, Moo Bink and I went to a Mongolian concert with dancing, singing, traditional instruments, contortionists and best of all Mongolian Throat singing. It sound incredible it is as if one person can whistle, and sing both low and high notes all at the same time. But really very beautiful.
So that was Mongolia - one thing we do know is it wasn't long enough and it's definitely on our list of places to return to and explore some more. I think it helped that Jenny was such as fantastic guide, so enthusiastic about Mongolia and so willing to share as much of it as she could with us. Thanks Jenny