by Aaron and Katy
Mongolia Travels: Milk Tea in Mongolia
Getting to and from UB was a simple decision for us. A quick 1 and 1/2 hour nonstop flight will zip you direct from Beijing to UB with all of the modern convenience associated.
But, who would choose this when the second option is a thirty-plus hour train journey, complete with a 4 hour border stop and train wheel change? If you have been following our journal so far then you can guess what option we went for.
Our train ride took us past the Great Wall, between the mountains of Northern China, and through the Gobi Desert of Mongolia where we saw herds of camels out our window. Thirty hours after heading out, we arrived at the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar, more than ready to move our legs and explore the city.
UB, the coldest capital city on earth, sits in a long valley that runs east to west. Even though business is growing and the city is expanding rapidly, the development is contained between the surrounding hills. The entire country has a population of roughly 2.6 million, however over half of the population resides in the capital.
Once outside the city limits the remaining population shares an area of roughly 604,103 sq. miles and the landscape looks the same as it has for hundreds of thousands of years - sparsely populated with isolated
Chinggis Khan, known in other parts of the world as Ghengis Khan, is attributed with being the first to unite all of Mongolia's nomadic tribes under one rule back in the 1100's. He is an almost mythical figure of pride and respect here evidenced by a massive new $7 million monument in Shukbaatar square, as well as his carved visage on a hillside overlooking the city. Of course, his name and likeness are also used in association with travel companies, vodka and beer, and anything else that can be thought of.
There have been some dramatic changes in the very recent history in Mongolia which account for the rapidly expanding capital city and influx from the countryside. Up until 1989, Mongolia was a communist country aligned with the Soviet Union. This socialist/communist rule had many positive advances for Mongolia, including nationwide literacy and mass standardization and production of goods such as milk. Unfortunately these changes were coupled with the misguided idea of quotas for farmers, and the destruction of monasteries during the cultural revolution, among other things.
By 1989, the public was demanding political movement, and Mongolia created a new constitution allowing for open democracy and change. The Russians living in Mongolia at that time were given an ultimatum: remain and be stateless, or return to Russia. The pullout of Russian population, money, and city planning knowledge, was abrupt and left Mongolians scrambling to pick up the pieces.
The result of those years can still be seen today; roads are paved to a point and then drop off to countryside, factories that were in full production remain empty and are in disrepair, and in the center of town a sports complex remains half built - the stadium lights intermixed with new buildings casting a shadow of the field that was never completed. The immediate aftermath of this was for the return to the countryside and the nomadic way of life of their roots.
Now, a few decades later, there is again a return to the city. This time, the infrastructure and knowledge has been built up through trial and error from within the country as they slowly rise to their feet. As with any country creating the rules as they go, there are stumbles and new laws generally go into place when they are needed. As the city rebuilds itself, the influx of people from the countryside has gained momentum and people are again leaving the nomadic way of life behind.
In the capital we had noticed that the vehicle of choice was the SUV. Although the same can said for many places in the US, out here they become a necessity very quickly. Paved roads lead to and from the airport, and to a few other destinations but by and large the way is unpaved and you must navigate deep tire ruts, stream beds, snow, and mud. The route to Mr. Gardiner's house in Gachuurt was paved for the most part, but gave way to uneven, dicey terrain upon entering the town. With Puge's local driving skills and SUV horsepower we tore around town arriving at the gates of our destination without incident.
After getting tour of what our friend Davaa called, "The largest house in Mongolia," we were treated to steaming hot cups of milk tea, and later some local buuz courtesy of Binderya, Zaiya and Grandmother's cooking. A traditional Mongolian drink, milk tea consists of milk, salt, and a scraping of tea. It tastes nothing like tea or milk, but is somewhere in between. Mongolia is an extremely dry country and out on the steppe there is often little or no water.
Most of the liquid they consume is milk, which is obtained by milking any animal in sight, from camels to horses. Their calcium rich diet is clearly evident by Mongolians bright white teeth! The buuz is a steamed dumpling filled with meat or vegetables and tastes sooo good.
Once warmed by the hot tea we set out to climb the mountain behind the house. If you are looking for a clearly marked trail here you would be disappointed. However, if you are prepared for a scramble on a roughly logical path you would be in luck! For the hill we chose, there was one trail that led to the top. Perhaps made by the animals that traverse the mountain daily, this particular trail went directly to the top in a straight vertical line. We made our way up the steep trail, struggling to catch our breath in the thin Mongolian air. The view from the top was crisp, clear, and we could see for miles and miles with little to no haze. The winter-brown mountains were arid and littered with loose jagged rocks and patches of ice. A cold wind ripped across the ridge so strong that it could support our bodies leaning heavily against it. What a drastic change from Thailand!
The following day, led by Davaa we headed out of UB again and off-roaded our way to Mr. Gardiner's farm. The landscape in front of us was unbroken aside from the tracks left by other SUV traversing the countryside. A fresh dusting of snow whipped across the frozen ground in front of us as we jostled along the barren roadway.
Arriving at the farm we were treated to more hot milk tea and a tour of the barn area. In the main barn there are milking stations and a pen for the calves. Just off of this area is a room where methane gas from the cows is converted to gas used for cooking! There is so much of it available that they are able to share it with their neighbors, go figure. After touring the farm we decided to hike up the nearby mountain. Davaa advised us that it was necessary to drink vodka beforehand to ensure that we stayed warm. Taking his advice we enjoyed some Mongolian vodka and set out to climb the mountain. The views from the top were fantastic, but the conditions cold and blustery and we soon found ourselves back at the farmhouse warming up to a bowl of milk soup. It's a lot like milk tea, but with hunks of meat, rice, and buuz in it. Mmmmm mmm good.
Our final day trip out of town was to the destroyed Manzhir monastery one and a half hours out of UB. Other than the occasional local relieving himself on the side of the road, we passed little more than a few ger camps and semi-wild horses along the way. The monastery ruins sit in the beautiful tree lined valley of Bogd Khan National Park surrounded on three sides by steep rocky mountains. Originally established in 1733 with 20 temples and 300 monks, it was actively in use with a population of thousands when it was destroyed in 1932. During that time period, organized groups in Mongolia such as this were seen as a threat to communism and were destroyed. The population of the area was given the option to join the ruling party or be sent to work camps or death. The empty hillside terraces sit as a memorial to those who were lost here.
Despite the attempts of the communist rule, 95% of the population today are practicing Tibetan Buddhist Lamists. The religion has many interesting traditions associated with it which we had never seen before. When traveling the countryside we frequently came across rock piles supporting a vertical stick which had blue cloths tied to the top. The tradition, upon reaching this Owoo is to hop off of your horse (or horse powered SUV) and walk around three times clockwise. Each time you circle, throw a stone onto the pile as an offering and make a prayer. The blue prayer scarves are representative of Tenger, or sky, and as long as the wind is blowing the scarves, the prayers are being sent. In fact, we saw these scarves tied to everything from trees to stop signs to bells at the Monasteries. Located at the monasteries themselves are prayer wheels which you turn while saying your prayer. Along the same lines as the blue scarves, the belief is that so long as the wheel is turning the prayer is being sent.
Mongolia continues to change as it moves further away from its socialist past. This was an interesting time for us to visit because of government changes over the past 20 years. We enjoyed our time in the rapidly developing city as well as getting a glimpse of traditional lifelstyles that still exist out in the steppe. Thanks to everyone for your hospitality during our visit. Onward to China!