Shankh chantings and airag

Today I really get the feel for life in this unique country. Firstly, I continue the drive across empty grasslands using tarmac roads and then dirt tracks and then off roading completely. The speed is constant whichever surface we traveled over – an even 60mph, swirling and curling to avoid the potholes on each of them. We are heading for a small town called Arvaikheer.

The stop at Shankh Monastery is truly magnificent. It seems today is a particularly auspicious day and the monks have begun their two hours of chanting sacred prayers, joined by the local villagers. A large bowl of airag awaits visitors and monks alike. One of the locals encourages us to try it out to the great amusement of some of the ladies.This is fermented mares’ milk. It tastes of light, cheesey yogurt with a strong alcoholic kick. After 4 or 5, the harmonies sound great and the climaxes of clashing symbols, two tone horns and wailing clarinet thingies, mixed with some smoke and incense, sets a spiritual atmosphere.

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Outside the old men have had enough and are sitting around in the shade. The women are busy cooking little pasty things for the monks when they finish. At first, both groups are very shy. Eventually they relent.

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Further up the valley we literally drop in to visit a nomadic family completely unannounced. Their culture dictates that all visitors are made welcome. Dad has set up his gers here for the summer. He has cattle, horses and yaks.

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He lives in three gers with one of his daughters and her two daughters and one son. We are invited in and we sample her yak curd (tangy cheese) and butters and cheeses from the mares that she milks every two hours. A large, plastic tub of airag stands in the corner waiting to be agitated. In the winter, from September to May, when snow covers the ground, they will move, with the other families, to find somewhere more sheltered and bunker down for 9 months. A really tough life.

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