Into the Mongolian Countryside
Considering that 50% of the population of Mongolia still lead a nomadic life, I was really looking forward to my first venture in the country. 25% are truly nomadic, moving between pastures. The other 25% are semi nomadic, living on the steppes during the summer, and moving their gers (felt huts) to the local village for winter, softies in other words. Not able to survive -30 degC in a felt hut in the middle of a frozen field, what's the world coming to?
A public bus brought me from the current capital to the ancient capital of Ghengis Khan, Kharakhorum, along one of the few 'paved' roads in the country. It's a bit strange that for about a third of the journey, the driver of the little bus actually drove on a dirt track about 20m from the road. I could see the reason when we eventually got back on the road. Far off hills seem green, and the tarmac on this road was put there about 20 years ago and has endured every freezing winter since. The tarmac was in bits and it really was better on the track through the grass.
The main attraction in Kharakorum is the Erdine Zuu Monastery, part of the reason that the Orkhon valley surrounding Kharakhorum is one of Mongolia's two world heritage sites. Strangely, Mongolia is a Tibetan Buddhist country. From their invasions of Tibet, they brought back and embraced the religion. After traveling through Tibet itself, I had to come to Mongolia to see the first picture of the Dali Lhama on my travels. Also, similar to Tibet with destruction at the hands of the Chinese, the Russians were wrecking anything that might not add up to their communist ways around the same time. Of a whole complex that existed in Erdine Zuu, only four of the original buildings remain.
The Mongols have had a reputation through history as some of the fiercest fighters of all time. It's strange that all the monks in the monastery (the oldest about fourteen) seemed to be doing were beating one another up. Playful it was, but as they say, it's bred into them!
Off to the Waterfall
From Kharakorum, the intention was to take a bus towards the Orkhon waterfall, but when I enquired about the bus, there was none. Myself and a Swiss guy (Yannic) that I met on the way there weren't going to let this stand in our way though, and we set off hitching. In a country as rural and spontaneous as Mongolia, hitching is probably the most interesting way of getting around, that is if anything comes along the track (or road as they call it) that you're along.
We got to Khujirt, 50km towards the waterfall on the back of a pick-up truck with a band of local teenagers that were as wild as mountain goats. They didn't speak any English, but the theme was overed and overed: vodka + fighting is bad. With the way the mucked about, I don't think they'd let down the tribes warrior reputation if put up to it! It was interesting when we stopped along the road to visit a local ger. This was my first visit to a proper ger. As the filed inside, the gang of boys were like lambs they sat inside so quietly. They sat on a bed in two rows and there wasn't a word out of any of them. One of them was assigned the duty of distributing airag to the group. Airag is fermented mares milk. They ferment it in a wooden churn inside the door of the ger to give it a little kick. A bowl is offered to each person individually, and whatever amount is drank from it, this is then passed back to the person serving, before being topped up for the next person. Even if you don't want any, you just take it and wet your lips with it, and it's not just foreigners that do this. A bit of a strange taste, but it does grow on you! Back on the road, and the boys were back to normal!
In Khujirt, the next mission was to get to Bat Oltzii. The first problem though, just which of the tracks coming out of town was actually the right road. As it turned out, most of the westward tracks were going the right way, random tracks that people just make as they go. Not so much life on this road, a truck came along after about an hour. He picked us up and we set off. The truck was Russian and about forty years old (this might even flatter the truck). Starting the truck was done using a winder handle at the
front of the engine (see photo). The journey was great. The driver, Golmund was full of life. There were no shortage of breakdowns. One of them, he produced a bottle of vodka, and proceeded to down it. There's not much to crash into in Mongolia! He was drinking it out of the cut off top of a plastic water bottle (see photo). We stopped off into a ger with some of his friends. They produced a bottle of vodka. The bottle lasted about two minutes. Golmund went out of the truck and produced another bottle to replace the nomad's supply. One of the nomads was complaining that he had a dose of diarrhea, but it didn't stop him from downing about 200ml.
We went a little further, and lets say that I saw a sharp rock pointing out of the ground that I don't think Golmund did. As sick as the truck was, this was the death nail. We had to search along the road for a couple of bits of the engine that came off with the jolt! But the brutes that these guys are. We were having a little trouble getting the truck started. Golmund was to sit in the truck while I cranked the handle, and catch the revs on the accelerator as it started. I could barely move the handle, let alone turn it fast enough to make the engine turn over. He got out spun it with one arm. Put to shame!
The views all around were exactly what I had been looking forward to. I hadn't come to Mongolia to see temples or museums. I had come to see nomads and their way of life. Always somewhere in vision were a couple of white dots, nomads gers. Herds of horses, goats and yaks roaming the steppe. Nomadic herdsmen on horseback tending their animals.
Golmund brought us to Bat Oltzii. We arrived late and barged straight in on some of his friends. They say that in Mongolia, every ger serves as a hotel, a restaurant and a pub. Nomadic hospitality is a trait of their tradition. Traditionally, they don't expect money. Hospitality is just what they offer naturally. Unfortunately this can be taken advantage of. We slept in the ger and were off to try to get to the waterfall first thing the next morning.
My original plan was to try and find a nomad and hire him with a couple of horses to take me to the waterfall. After leaving our ger, myself and Yannic found a nice grassy spot to sit and eat some breakfast. No sooner had I taken the first bite out of my piece of bread, than a little girl appeared from behind a fence with her grandmother, holding a flask of tea in her hand. Into their ger we were brought, with the old lady showing us all the food that she had to cook for us. We couldn't put her to cooking for us at 10am in the morning.
In the local shop we inquired about hiring horses to take us to the waterfall. A strange request indeed. Strangers in town without their own horse? We were causing a bit of a stir and eventually one woman headed off to see if she could solve our problem. Why not go with 'machine' and hire a horse at the waterfall, we were asked? The deal was done, and the shopkeepers neighbors were hired to bring us. In the meantime, a nomad trotted down the street looking for these foreigners that were in town looking for a horse. He certainly wasn't upset when he heard of the change of plan, but still would have brought us if we wanted. By the time we got into the van that was to bring us to the waterfall, there were already four people in the back, armed with supplies for their 25km road trip.
After a quick stop at a random ger along the route for some refreshments, we made it to the beautiful Orkhon Waterfall. Formed by earthquake and volcanic activities thousands of years ago, the golden autumn colours really completed a beautiful setting. The crew from the van that brought us there were enjoying a picnic with the supplies that they had brought. Very restrained Mongolians, not a drop of vodka in sight. They finally dropped me to the ger where I could hire a couple of horses for a few days to take me into the Naimen Nuur Valley. Yannic was on his way, so from now on, it was just myself and my horse guide: Choka. We agreed a price and a route, I would take three days on a horse trek and then another day to go on to Bat Oltzii on horseback.