We weren’t all that sure what to expect. Jeff just told us some transport would arrive for us around 11.00 and we would be away for around half a day, involving some horse riding, a traditional Mongolian meal and a visit to an eagle-hunter (that’s someone who hunts with eagles, not a hunter of eagles – subtle distinction there).
Luckily I had been awake and up and about quite early. They had told us the night before that breakfast would be available from 08.00. What they hadn’t said was that breakfast was a fried egg and that all the plates with the eggs on were put out at 08.00 – so for those that arrived any later than 08.05, the eggs were cold and rubbery; which is OK if you’re Chinese – (Think about it….how does a chinaman pronounce ‘lovely’………..I’ll get my coat.)
Jeff and Niall disappeared off in a car to see how Tony and Mike the Medic were getting on. They had made it through the Russian border OK with the truck, but hadn’t made it through the Mongolian customs before they shut up for the night and had been forced to rough it at the border in the van, which must have been bloody cold. Luckily they had been stuck with the Irish guys we had met at the border and as we all know, the Irish are always well prepared with suitable libations to ease the passage of long, cold nights.
At around 11.30 our transport finally turned up: a couple of four wheel drive Russian mini-buses. A quick stop in town to allow people to change money and buy a few supplies, and we were off. We climbed steadily up the dirt road on the opposite side of the river to the campsite. We began a steep steady incline and it soon became apparent that the second bus was no longer behind us. We stopped and waited. After about 15 minutes it slowly chugged around the corner and stopped. Shall we say that the weight distribution between the two buses, in terms of the relative size of the passengers, had not really been thought through, and the bus had not proved up to the job and had overheated half way up the hill! After a short cooling off period and a re-distribution of weight, the second bus was cranked into life (yes, they used a crank handle to start it – no starter motor).
We climbed higher and higher in the dramatic scenery and finally summited and began our descent into the next valley. We could see a small village on the valley floor and assumed we were heading for it, but no we carried on through out onto the barren valley floor, heading towards the distant mountains. The skies were getting ever darker, but the play of light and dark on the multi-coloured hills and mountains was incredible. The ‘road’ we were following was little more than a couple of tyre tracks in the gravel. Soon we turned off even this and headed off-road, straight towards the impending thunderstorm.
By now we had been going for almost two hours and we were beginning to wonder where the hell we were headed. Just as the storm struck, we stopped. The rain lashed the windows and the bus rocked in the ferocious gusts. Why had we stopped? Don’t say the other bus had broken down again.
No-one dared venture out into the storm. A couple of people raced out of the other van and took a picture of a lump of rock we had stopped next to. It turned out that the ‘lump of rock’ was an ancient burial stone of a Mongolian warrior. At the time we were slightly underwhelmed.
After this brief stop we set off again cross-country and eventually reached a small group of buildings/gers*, with the usual assorted collection of dogs and children that always seem to greet your arrival.
*I must admit that I was somewhat confused as to the distinction between a ‘yurt’ and a ‘ger’. Just to clear up any misunderstanding, here is the definition according to the oracle: Wikipedia – A yurt is a portable, bent wood-framed dwelling structure traditionally used by Turkic nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. The similar Mongolic nomadic structure the ger is often wrongly referred to by westerners as a yurt but differs in that the heavier roof wheel (toono) is supported on posts and the roof ribs are straight rather than bending down at the wall junction. The wall lattice of a ger is constructed of straight pieces as opposed to the the yurt’s curved lattice . – So now we are all clear, I shall continue.
We were led into the ger and it appeared as though we had just interrupted the family eating, there were bowls of what looked like half eaten noodles on the floor and a spread of bread and sweets and cheese on the floor. We were ushered in and invited to sit on the floor and the family indicated for us to help ourselves.
There was some unleavened, deep-fried bread, hard goats cheese in various forms and bowls of various sweets, all washed down with sweet milky tea. It tasted as though the milk was off, but that was probably the mare’s milk. We weren’t too sure what was supposed to be happening as our guide didn’t really give us much information, but then the family started bringing out coats and hats and stuff. We weren’t really sure if this was just a display of their handicrafts or some kind of hard sell. Nobody was particularly tempted to buy.
We then wandered outside for horse riding. (We also noticed that all the family were in the brick built building complete with stove, kitchen and TV – the ger is just for tourists). Now I’ve never been too keen on horses – they seem like un-predictable beasts to me, with sharp bits on the end of their legs, big teeth and they are much bigger and stronger than me. Mongolian horses are only small (so are they strictly ‘ponies’, or is that a purely western concept?) but have a reputation for being particularly strong and hardy – they would need to be, if they were going to be asked to give a ride to some of us lardy westerners.
Back in the van again and onwards to the next destination in our whirlwind, magical, mystery tour. Next stop was eagles.
Back into the vans and we’re off again. Our guide tells us we are now headed for our traditional Mongolian lunch. Lunch! It was now 16.00 and we had already stuffed our faces on sweets, cheese and bread….twice!
Now, when we had pulled into Olgiy this morning, before embarking on our epic journey, most of us had bought stuff like water and a bit of dried fruit, nuts and stuff to sustain us and hydrate us on our journey. Others amongst us – mainly in bus number 2 it has to be said – had stocked up on Chinggis’s finest, i.e. vodka (everything in Mongolia is named after Chinggis Khan). Obviously they had just had a wee ‘nip’ as a pre-luncheon aperitif; but pre-lunch drinks had now extended to late afternoon. They were quite ‘relaxed’ even before we got to the horse riding – some more ‘relaxed’ than others.
Anyway, we pulled up at a small group of buildings and were ushered in to another ger in the rear courtyard. Another spread awaited us, very similar to the ones we had already had. We didn’t want to offend anyone so we sat down and nibbled at more deep fried bread, goats cheese, sweets and biscuits. After about 20 minutes or so some of us began to wander out for visits to the toilet and to stretch our legs. To be honest, we were all now about ready to head back to camp. From the courtyard, you could see some activity in the kitchen – it looked like a scene from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, blood everywhere and a woman sitting on the floor hacking at bits of flesh. The head man appeared and ushered us all to a tap so that we could wash our hands, but then guided us back into the ger and gestured for us to sit down. His two sons then appeared with two large trays. At first it looked as though it was lamb and some white offal, like tripe or intestines, but as it turned out, it was actually large sheets of pasta.
By now we had all pretty much had our fill of cakes and bread and cheese but we manfully forced down a few bits of the lamb. The two sons hacked the lamb off the bone for us and served it on a ‘one for you, one for me’ basis – they obviously enjoyed a bus-load of tourists stopping with them because they got a chance for a good feed. The quality of the lamb (or more likely mutton) varied quite considerably, from tender and juicy to downright inedible. As a group we didn’t really make much of an impression on the piles of meat and we were slightly embarassed as we all began to make excuses for not eating anymore. Our hosts were slightly shocked and told us that they had had a Kazakh coach party in last week who hadn’t left a single scrap of food. We rolled our eyes and rubbed our bellies and shook our heads. Then came the ‘soup’. This was basically the liquid that the lamb had been boiled in – and was actually quite palatable, although quite fatty and greasy.
So, a traditional Mongolian meal is eaten in reverse to a western meal. We had the sweets first, followed by the main course and then the soup.
Finally we were allowed to leave – only to find our drivers working on the van and trying to get it going. Eventually it fired up and we began the long trek back home over the hill, rocked gently to sleep (more like quite violently actually) by the pitching of the van, our bellies full and senses numbed by intake of vodka.
As we started dropping down into the valley, the heavens opened and judging by the state of the puddles and the river as we descended towards our ger camp it had been raining very heavily on this side of the hill all day. My thoughts turned to tomorrow, which would be our first true off-road day and our first river crossing – could be interesting if the rain kept up like this all night.