Posts Tagged ‘Bulgan Province’

Day 5-6 (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 28-29): Wandering and wondering

Last place. On our horse-ride from ger one to two, my horse turned out to be the stubborn one. I’m blaming it on the fact that the father (who was leading Romany’s horse next to his the whole way) and son both had leather whips and the Mongolian accent of how to say giddy-up (“Chshuuu”), whereas I had a rope and no practice time and no Mongolian accent. So anyways, I straggled in a minute after the rest of the company arrived at ger two, we tied the horses, and went inside to begin the process again.

Unfamiliar faces and familiar places. The ger was occupied by a really old grandma with a spine that ended up being higher than her head and a large protruding lower tooth, her son (the father) and his wife, their two daughters (about 3 and 16), their younger son (14), their older son (maybe a few years older than Romany and I) and his wife, and two guests. Plus us four, just arrived. Could have filmed the Mongolian version of the sitcom “Full Ger” on location.

After a quick, second round of get-to-know-you across languages with milk-tea and cookies, and just as we were starting to realize how much our bodies were enjoying the relaxation of being off the horses, we were summoned outside again. When Romany and I shot each other horrified glances when we realized we were getting back on the horses, they laughed. We did too, but really behind gritted teeth.

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If the physical difficulty of being bounced along like a rag doll on a wooden saddle wasn’t enough, then going back exactly where we came from definitely did the trick of wearing us out. But, as this was our holiday, we made the most of it, and got to see the land we had just crossed in a few different lights.

The path we had made from ger one to two consisted of us crossing to the other side of a long, narrow strip of sand dunes and continuing north along the eastern side of them to Swan Lake, surrounded by horses and then turning westward and crossing the length of a long and wide valley, with high and rocky mountains on the northern side, in which ger two was nestled at the valley’s eastern end, and with gradually rising hills and mountains to the south, to which we’d travel to ger three the next day.

Tracing our horseshoe-steps, father and son number one herded a herd of horses from the field adjoining ger two, while father two led Romany and I across some hills as a shortcut back to Swan Lake. Father and son one left the horses they’d just herded at the lake, we said our farewells, and then they rode off home. Father number two gathered another group of 25-30 horses, which we helped herd back in the direction of his ger (number two, that is, on the far eastern side of the valley).

About a third of the way there, though, he dropped us off at the gers of one of his other sons, where Romany and I had tea, talked (the wife knew some English and spent most of her time in Ulaan Baatar working), and bought two handmade, silk bags for about four dollars each. We would have got some more, but we hadn’t brought enough money with us.

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Final tour. The father returned, and the horses were gone, meaning we assumed he brought them back to his field himself, since he could do it easier without having to worry about his two tourist-guests. When we stepped back outside, the sun had seemingly fallen considerably lower in the sky, and the late afternoon light played beautifully on the mountains and dunes. Unfortunately, my battery on the one camera I had with me was running low.

Instead of going in the homeward direction, we went back to Swan Lake, where the father enthusiastically took our pictures with the dunes and the setting sun in the background.

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We finally began our journey back home, with only the moon in the still-light sky.

But, though we were full-on galloping, the half-darkness made it seem the ground went by slower beneath the horses’ hooves, since night was quickly falling. Nevertheless, we stopped at the monument to the wise Mongolian Queen Manduhai atop a hill/mountain, as promised.

The last hour of our total 6 hours of horseback riding on our first full day in the wilderness (wolves are not uncommon) was by far the hardest. Not only did every bone and muscle of my body already hurt from the first five hours, from fingers and toes to tailbone and back, but we were galloping for the whole last hour, and since Romany’s horse was still being led side-by-side, and I was on my own, that meant that I was stuck doing all the whipping, coaxing, and, obviously, riding myself. Which made it all the more authentic, I suppose. But I hurt.

Still, galloping across a valley with silhouetted mountains against the black-blue sky with the moon standing out against it, in Mongolia of all places, is categorically a great experience, and as much of a toll it took on my body, being alone out in the open, slightly behind the father and Romany up ahead, is probably as “alone,” population density wise, as I’ll ever be, which was a totally unique feeling.

Staying for a night, off in the morn’. In near darkness, we crawled back into the ger and plopped down on our little wooden stools. Somehow, we managed after another delicious meal of noodle-and-meat soup to keep up social interaction with the family and especially the kids, with whom we played the traditional ankle bone game (if rolled like a die, an ankle bone can land on one of four of its sides, which each represent a different animal–sheep, goat, camel, horse–and accordingly different moves across a board, also constructed of the ankle bones, for instance, in the shape of a horse race trail), thumb wrestled, and watched Mongolian TV. Our energy level was probably related to the two huge bowls of the best tasting (again, homemade) yogurt I’ve ever had, which we each had.

Soon, we piled our stuff in the family’s car and drove up the side of the mountain to the family’s second ger, where despite my physical exhaustion, I was never able to get much more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep. Part of the problem was the fact that adjusting positions on the bed out of discomfort was made much more difficult by my out-of-commission abs and legs.

Regardless, we got up to a bright, sunny morning considerably warmer than 24 hours earlier. The younger son had driven up the hill to get our bags, since we were taking the horses back down, much to our dismay. Since my butt bones hadn’t developed calluses yet, it was a rather unpleasant wake-up call, but the warm breakfast and yogurt from the mom somewhat made up for it back in the ger.

 

The family, seeing us in our obvious soreness, hobbling around and bent over ourselves almost as much as the grandma, bless their hearts (in all seriousness), offered us a ride in the car since they were bringing the kids to school. Romany and I looked at each other and agreed in a second.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the, well, “front yard” of the final ger of our adventure, still sore, but much less so, had we declined the carpool and gone with the horses.

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Day 4-5 (Tues.-Wed., Oct. 27-28): Out on the Mongolian steppe

Nomad hospitality. A mentally tumultuous hour after our arrival in Sansar, Bulgan Province, we were received into our first ger. Climbing out of the jeep with our stuff, the mother and daughter, having come out to greet us, helped us get our stuff inside the ger.

They showed us our seats and put out milk-tea (hot, water-diluted milk steeped in tea leaves with salt added) and the cookie bowl filled with little, thumb-sized fried bread biscuits; a milk product made by scraping the layer off the top of boiling milk and by letting it dry and cool into a white, crumbly, bendable sheet of almost creamy, almost tasteless, well, food; and a mass of a granola-like substance that was also a byproduct of boiled milk that was aged a different way (crunchy and mostly tasteless, if not sour).

We did the “well, here we are” sigh, awkwardly laughed with our hosts, and then remembered we had our phrase lists at hand, so we offered the greetings, “San ban uu” (“How are you?”) and the more traditional Mongolian “Ta saihan zusadzh ban uu?” (“Are you having a good winter?”). We did names, where we were from (Amerik), said we were students in Russia.

The mom went out, so we tried some more phrases on the daughter, probably about 12 years old. Figured out she went to school and liked her teachers. Also happened to have the vocabulary to say “I mom teacher,” which I’m fairly sure was understood. Next, the son came in. He showed us pictures of him at Mongolian-style wrestling matches and the medals he’d won. He also tried out some English on us, which was also neat.

But soon he left and we were left in the ger alone. Romany and I figured out that this family mostly matched the description of the family we should have stayed with the next day: the son “likes to wrestle;” the daughter studies, but in the wrong grade; and the mother, who we’d heard humming, “sings a song.”

Ger life. We exchanged our first excited impressions and identified different parts of the ger we had learned about in the seminar. Gers are built out of 4-12 hatched walls, six feet tall, which form a circle covered in layers of felt (1 or 2 depending on the season). The roof is made out of a shallow, cone-like structure with 86 wooden rods, all beautifully decorated in bright orange, blue, and green paints, coming out of a central wooden ring, which is probably 10-12 feet from the ground over the center of the ger. The top of the cone can be covered or uncovered with felt depending on the weather and how much smoke doesn’t make it through the chimney out of the oven, also located in the center of the ger and run on burning cow-dung. Interesting smell.

If the ger is a clock, the door is located at 6:00, which faces south. The right side (12:00 – 6:00) is the female-household-related side, containing cabinets with kitchen items, food, and linens, and the left side (6:00-12:00), the male-important-things side, where the family saddle, valued items, and guests are located. 12:00 is where the man of the house sits, his family on his left, the guests on his right, and the table between him and the central oven. As a man, I held higher status than Romany for our trip, meaning I had to go in the door first and sit closer to the 12:00 position than she, and I noted I was always served first, be it a meal, tea, or a horse. Beds (wooden benches about 3 feet by 6 feet with maybe a thin pad topped with an oriental rug) are lined up at 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00. At 1:00 is the sacred area, where a Buddha statue, prayer wheel, picture of the Dalai Lama, candles, and other religious items are housed in a glass case.

The gers are brightly colored: the walls are draped with oriental rugs, tapestries, silk, or other material; the wooden parts of the ger (structure, doors, cabinets) are carefully painted; even the linoleum patterns were usually more exciting than a fake tile or stained wood look.

Their functionality is efficient, which is appropriate, given the nature of life involving a transfer of location every 4-6 months: the beds are also sofas, kitchen surfaces, and dining furniture, during the day; the cabinets hold the covers for the night during the day, and alternately the kitchenware and food during the night; the fire, which is sacred, in the oven heats the house and is used for cooking; bowls are basically the only dishware, with the exception of the random silverware or coffee mugs that the host families have accrued for foreigner-use, which, actually, when offered, was a really nice gesture.

So after sitting for a while, taking in our first impressions of the new aspects of the daily life we’d be living on the trip, we didn’t know what to do. So we took a step outside to see where everyone had gone. We could hear the family in the ger a few yards away from the one we had been in, but decided not to intrude. After all, what could we say?

It was hot-ish back in the ger, so we stayed outside, enjoying the brisk wind and observed our surroundings in the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve Area, as our guidebook told us. Two gers. A droll-looking camel tied to a string draped between two stakes in the ground (the standard method of keeping horses/camels tied up) about 30 yards off. Low mountains on all sides, but really far away, excepting the hills situated behind the dunes to the east. Oh, and the jeep.

And then in between: steppe.

The friendly nomad reappears. Our driver appeared out of the second ger and invited us back in the first ger. We figured out he wanted the money to get our tickets for us, though handing over the combined equivalent of $60 or so for transportation home (to Ulaan Baatar, that is), we still didn’t know how we’d get the tickets, seeing as somehow the cap lady had been reduced to “No,” and we still didn’t know if it was understood that we were on the four-day “Quest for the Last Emperor” itinerary, and at a different ger than we thought we’d be, and what, if any, implications that had for our ticketing needs. Regardless, the $60 were now in the jeep driving away with our friendly nomad.

The tour begins. We were served a huge plate of puzi (Buryatian “buzi,” Russian “pozi,” but in the end, the same food–boiled noodle-like shells filled with meat about half the size of a palm, though the Mongolian version is slightly smaller than the Buryatian variation we’d already tried in September), and it was made clear that we were supposed to eat them all. Fortunately, we were hungry, and they were really good.

Soon, the father pulled up on his sputtering little red motorcycle. After quick introductions and milk-tea, round 2, in the ger, he motioned for us to dress warm, pointed to the phrase in the phrase book meaning “Today is a nice day,” and made a motorcycle gesture.

Conclusion: Today was a nice day, but we needed to dress warm because we were going for a ride on the motorcycle.

I was fine with said conclusion, except I had paid for travel by ox cart to see and/or participate in an ovoo (sacred pile of stones, bones, wood, and silk scarves on top of a mountain) worship ceremony. Though I’m still not sure whether or not I totally got my money’s worth, since motorcycles are common in the rest of the world, whereas Mongolian religious practices are not, instead, Romany and I got a ride on the back of his sputtering little red motorcycle to the top of a hill where a monument stood (we still don’t know what it was, apart from a structure present outside of most Buddhist temples we’d seen–it wasn’t listed in the itinerary).

On the way back, about 25 km round trip (I know, sorry Mom, no helmets, but it wasn’t very fast–Irkutsk traffic probably ends up being more dangerous), we drove past an ovoo. Instead of having a worship ceremony, Mr. Otgonbayar just honked at it. No conclusion.

Warm evening, cold night, colder morning. Romany and I, despite the wooden beds, immediately fell into a deep sleep after returning home and napped until dinner time, just after sunset. We had fresh, homemade noodles in broth with meat. (Most of the meat we had on the trip was beef, though there was another one we think might have been goat.)

We sat and observed the nighttime business of changing the house over, the kids doing some of their homework, and interacting with their parents. I wrote in my journal for part of that, and, I think, remember writing “tender family moments.” But tender family moments they were indeed. Sensing our level of tiredness from a day of generally not knowing what was happening, culture shock to the extreme, they cleared off the beds, added pillows (rather hard, probably full of camel-hair), and let us make our sleeping bags to go to bed.

It was a tough night of sleep since 1) the beds were very hard, 2) the lights stayed on for a while, 3) about an hour after we’d laid down, 5 people came over to talk and have tea, and 4) the fire went out about two-thirds of the way through the night, and there were no matches left. When we finally got out of our beds, frozen to the bone, the family included, I was wearing all the clothes I had brought (minus the extra t-shirt and pair of boxers) and still cold. Romany and I went outside to see if that would be warmer doing jumping jacks:

[Video coming soon.]

It was only partially helpful. Luckily, the daughter had run to the store for matches. Pause. Literally, ran. By foot. Like 2 km each way. Baller. Too bad all we could say was “Thanks” (“Bayarlaa” for those of you working on your Mongolian). So we were happily thawed in front of the oven, sipping milk-tea (suutei tsai) and having a breakfast of larger cookie-biscuits (boortsog) within the hour.

On the move. Sensing we were due for a move, like true nomads, we packed our bags, and were ready to go when they led us outside where four horses had appeared that morning. The father and the son took our large packs on their horses, and we mounted ours.

Now, at the orientation, the agency rep had told us that we needed to tell the family if we weren’t experienced on the horse, and that we needed to have a little practice time. So we used the phrases “I ride a horse bad” and “I have never ridden a horse,” and the gesture of “one,” to indicate that we had each only ridden once. They laughed. And gave the thumbs up. And we were off, trotting across the step.

Basically, I had somehow not arranged my jeans in the correct fashion when I was getting on, because for the next forty or fifty minutes, with every bounce of the horse, well, I’ll say, “I hurt.” There. I’m fairly sure that the entire half hour I was grimacing as you’d see in a cartoon, which I think the prepubescent son, laughing (to my general displeasure), took for my being afraid of being on the horse or for the general pain of the behind against the hard wooden saddle.

We stopped for a bathroom break, and I was able to readjust, but the bulk of the damage had already been done, and the lower half of my body’s bone, muscle, joints, and tissues painfully bumped along for the rest of the 2-3 hours, on our way to ger number two.

Day 4 (Tues., Oct. 27): But. . . there was no lady with a cap. . .

I consider myself someone who’s ok just “going with it,” “easygoing” as it were.

But, when in a country, of which you don’t speak the language, when you find yourself half-stranded at a bus stop in a town of population of 100 (?), and the person described to you as “lady wearing a cap” with a name of a long stream of unfamiliar phonemes isn’t there, things change.

To rewind seven hours or so: Romany and I got up at 6, had breakfast, double checked that we had everything, checked out of the hostel, and walked out the door at 7:00 a.m. to our taxi waiting for us while crossing our fingers we’d be back safe and sound four days later. Our hostel hosts at the Golden Gobi (the best in UB–no joke) let the taxi driver know where we were headed, and sent us off.

A quick note on the Ger-to-Ger program, to clarify: we’re basically on our own until we get to the first family, who takes care of us, takes us to the second, who likewise gets us to the third. Tourists on their programs are supposed to meet the Ger-to-Ger rep (lady in the cap) at the on-location bus station who helps arrange a jeep to the first ger from the bus station, a jeep back to the bus station at the end of the tour, and who gets money from tourists to buy their bus tickets back to Ulaan Baatar. So step one: get to the bus to the village.

We had a map of how to get to the bus stop, albeit made out of poorly-constructed boxes and lines in Microsoft Word, meaning not terribly useful. However, good enough, so that when our taxi driver was getting ready to turn off the main road, I had enough of an intuition to make some general I-don’t-know-Mongolian-but-I-need-to-say-something noises (more of these to come) in the back seat, and withdraw our guidebook with a picture/name of the bus station (“Dragon bus station”) included.

“Ohh,” murmured the taxi driver, maneuvering the car into the other lane. We got there a few minutes later, about 50 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave.

The bus station was a wide, dirt parking lot in front of a brick building with the label “Auto-Station” illuminated in red lights. It was still dark, but getting lighter. There were small stands of for-the-road goods and snacks. Families of urban-dressed folk were saying their happy goodbyes to those traditionally dressed, getting on the buses, and vise-versa. As with my general Mongolian/non-Russian Asian experience in general, the goodbyes involved more smiles than their Russian counterparts.

Needless to say, stepping out of the cab, Romany and I stood out with our tall, bright red and yellow backpacking packs and with our wide, half-eager, half-scared eyes, looking for the bus labeled Ovörkhangai-Arvaikheer. Irrelevant, but perhaps fun, fact: if we didn’t know Cyrillic, we might have thought we were looking for a bus that sounded like “Obepxahta-backwards-N-Apba-backwards-N-x33p.” We found the bus, handed over our tickets, and took our seats. Part one, done. Whew. Now for the watching for our stop. . . .

Now the lady at the travel agency told us that we should get off the bus at the first stop, at Sansar, which would be five hours after we left. So we stopped for gas, but that obviously wasn’t our stop.

Then we stopped so people could get off the bus and pee on the side of the road (80% of the bus participated), but that definitely wasn’t it.

After that, we stopped on the side of the road again, but it was only so that one guy with some lumber could get off, but since we figured it wasn’t a “‘stop’ stop,” and since even if it was, it looked far too uninhabited (i.e. the side of a country highway in Mongolia–mountains and wild animals the only objects in sight) for our taste, we didn’t want to get off anyways.

Finally we pulled into what looked like a little strip of 10 cafés and grocery shops in a “town.” Only problem: it had only been 4 hours. Since everyone else got off to use the real bathroom (meaning side of the road for men #1, or the outhouse a stone’s throw away for woman and other business), and since the bus driver said enthusiastic- and positive-sounding Mongolian things when we said “Sansar?” and pointed downwards, we figured, why not? Part two, bus ride, done. We think. Whew? Now to find the lady in the cap. . . .

As I’ve already ruined the surprise of that one, yes, no lady in the cap. Romany and I look at each other. Then turn our heads the other way. Assess surroundings. Small town. Then we look behind us. Road, two houses, Mongolian wilderness. Repeat the looking from side to side. Then we kind of take two and a half steps one direction, look the other way, make a quarter of a step to go that way, then kind of turn around to make sure the other one is still there. In the general sense, you can call this “not knowing what to do.”

I had to use the facilities, so I found a nice patch of side-of-the-road. Meanwhile, traditionally-dressed nomad approaches Romany back near the bus doing the “not knowing what to do” dance, albeit a slightly less concerned version of it than mine, and says to her “girtugir.” She figures it out: “Ger to Ger.” I return from the restroom. She updates me on the developments. Cool. But where’s the lady with the cap who we’re supposed to pay for our jeep and tickets back?

No big deal, we say to each other, not really believing it. The guy is showing us to his jeep, knew our agency’s name, but otherwise, really, has no other credentials. Speaking of the agency, my feelings about “Ger to Ger” at this point: LIARS!

So we’re driving down Mongolian highway x, the town gone by as quickly as it came up, thumbing through our 11 pages of Mongolian-English phrases (which, we would soon note, didn’t include rudimentary feelings of desperation like “Why?” “Who?” and “I don’t know”). Doing the “not knowing what to do” drill, sitting in our seats, Romany and I agree that I shall have the wherewithal to initiate communicative exchanges number one through three.

1. “You?” Point to the fuzzy picture. “Ee-cheen-hohr-lu?” (that was the name of cap lady). Friendly nomad replies with a mighty vicious shake of the head, as if “Oh no, no, definitely not.” Right. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who relates in an affirmably negative way to Ms. Ichinhorloo, Absent Cap Lady, with whom our rendez-vous was planned. Hm. (Incidentally, gestures may have international cognates, but I beg to differ with whomever it was, who said that they mean or connote the same things across languages.)

2. Point to Romany and myself. “Ger?” Point to fuzzy picture of host father number one. “B-yam-bah-tog-oh?” (host father number one’s name). Friendly nomad replies with another shake of the head, but added in the hand motion of “cut it out,” as if “Nahh, not goin’ there.” Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is in fact, not taking us to our first home stay. Panic level somehow still not activated.

2b. Friendly nomad points to picture of host father number two, Mr. Otgonbayar, and waves down the road. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is taking us to our second home stay. Slight relief. However the question arises: does he know that’s wrong/does that matter? Answer still unknown.

3. Look up word for “tickets.” Russian/French cognate, thank God. Look up word for “bus.” Again, score. “Bileti? Avtobus?” Point backwards. “Ulaan Baatar?” Friendly nomad replies with nod of the head, as if,”Oh yeah I gotcha,” then points to himself, and then does the “later, later,” wave of the hand. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who will take our money later and who knows that we want to buy tickets to Ulaan Baatar, although unfortunately with whom, due to the Great Wall of Language Barrier, it will be impossible to arrange a rendez-vous in order to get these tickets.

If two years of a Russian major and two months in Irkutsk weren’t enough of a practice in dealing with contradictions and irony, I suppose I’d been put in the right situation. Regardless, I’ll spare relating the ensuing stream of consciousness because I don’t remember (or frankly, want to remember) how I managed to convince myself that, well, probably, we’d be, to some degree, at some point in time, “okay.” We had paid a tour agency after all, right?

Insert cliffhanger here.

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