Mongolia’s Day of National Costumes

Now it’s back to UB for the Naadam festival (see how I use the local vernacular for Ulaanbaatar). The only problem is that having survived 40+° heat and 7 days on the Cheesegrater the weather forecast is for rain. The Mongolian forecast is as reliable as the BBCs.

The whole thing kicks off with Mongolia’s Day of National Costumes when everyone, young and old, gets togged up in traditional dress for the day. This culminates in a cultural show on a large stage in the main square. 50 or so acts,aged from 8 to 80 go up and perform, dressed in some wonderful and amazingly colourful gear. They strut, sing, dance, parade, throat sing, and do things that Mongolian have been doing for 100s of years. These guys set up the largest land empire in history and they are so proud of their traditions and customs. Enjoy the audience and the performers.wp-1468300079296.jpg

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24 hours with a nomadic herder

Just outside our stopover is the summer location of a small herder’s ger surrounded by the typical tall, wooden fence. The stove pipe protrudes over the top. On one side is his old, Russian built van. On the other are two standing motorbikes and a small, family saloon. A suitable distance from the stockade is his private Big Drop toilet, grandly painted a sunrise yellow. On the other is a wellhouse, a large concrete cube with a rusty metal door on one side and a pipe sticking out from the bottom leading into a long open trough.

I thought it might interest you to record the activity around this ger at different times of day.

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Dawn is around 6. A herd of cattle are chewing the cud in the fresh, morning sun. A bit further away a large group of camels are penned into a small circle.

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 The metal door on the left opens. Dad comes out, lifts the bonnet of the saloon, inspects the inside, closes the hood and goes back inside. A little lad in a red T shirt comes out, doesn’t make it to the Big Drop and piddles by the motorbikes.

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A bit later two female figures, gran, daughter or wife, walk over to the cows and disturb their slumber as they reluctantly get to their feet. They milk them and return to the ger with a silver pale in each hand.

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Around 9am, dad appears, gets on one of the motorbikes and drives off. In 30 minutes he returns. Gone to check on one of his herds maybe. He wanders over to the standing cattle and moves them away into the desert leaving a small group of calves on their own. These wander off on their own eventually. Sometime or other the camels have been released from their pen and wandered off.

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All goes quiet. Around lunchtime, a large herd of goats wander in from a different direction and hang around the wellhouse in a long line. The ger door opens and dad goes over. He claps them away from the rusty door and raises some water into the gulley. By throwing stones and shouting, he manoeuvres them to the water in groups and then dismisses the whole lot back the way they came, before going indoors.

 

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Then the camels plod in from the west. They stand guard over the wellhouse and the gulley. Indignantly they spy the calves who are trying to sneak in to grab some refreshment. A couple of camel outsiders see them off and then the whole herd of snoitytoity bullies move off to the east having occupied the wellhead for a couple of hours.

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At tea time the herd of cattle reappears, herded by dad on his motorbike. Having spent a bit of time drinking at the gulley they settle down for the night in their allocated spot.

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As dusk falls, the camels appear, herded by a figure I have not seen before, riding a horse. They are corralled over by the yellow toilet. By dawn they will be gone on their travels. I don’t know where the goats spend the night.

 

Ger Camp Mix and Match

Here is a little activity for you. As you know I have been hammered around this harsh, open landscape for several days now. After hours on the Cheese Grater it its with huge relief that we come to that night’s ger camp. Your task is to match descriptions of each ger camp to the image. They each have three things in common: they consist of a number of white circular gers, a bit like oil storage tanks, they are located somewhere on this vast, flat plain, they each have a separate dining ger or block. Correct answers to follow. Award yourself some yak’s curd as a prize just for taking part. I am sure Waitrose will stock it.

Ger camp 1

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Ger camp 2

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Ger camp 3

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Ger camp 4

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Ger camp 5

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Camp A

This is an eco camp with a Big Drop (exactly what it says on the can and common throughout Mongolia) sawdust toilet. Rather than flush with water one dumps and then dumps again with, yes, sawdust.

Camp B

The premiere camp in the whole of Mongolia with green satin walls, ensuite shower and toilet, and a cinema ger, with a group of sculptured yaks standing guard outside. This camp has 24 hour power although no water in the early hours of the morning.

Camp C

Stalag GerCamp surrounded by a chain link fence with a  wooden, guarded entrance where Brits, Germans, Italians, Chinese scrummage and jumblesale it over available food at meal times and power is only provided between 8 & 11pm.

Camp D

This camp is at the entrance to a nature reserve where flies gang up on any tourist trying to absorb the ambiance. Long trousers, long sleeves, hoods and covered faces are the order of the day but it has water and power ask day and night.

Camp E

Really in the middle of nowhere and a few km out of Nowhere, the only energy provided for a couple of hours at night in the eating ger. A single candle provides light in each sleeping ger with no matches, so once you blow it out, that’s it until daylight.

The Gobi Cheesegrater

So this is the Gobi. No romantic crescents of towering arcs of soft sand in oranges and reds with a robed tribesmen, piercing blue eyes pinning your heart to his from behind his headscarf, navigating his noble camel down to your caravan. Sorry, no. The Gobi is hard, uncompromising, hot, dusty, grey and empty with camels that grunt and complain and groan and spit and smell and slobber.

Today we expect to drive 300 km to the overnight stop. On the way we are seeking some caves where some Stone Age Men and their families lived many years ago.

The fist part its easy enough. We start off in good spirits refreshed in Nowhere. The route is flat with only the occasional gulley when the driver has to brake sharply and ease the vehicle down one side and up the other. Easy. The sun is not yet fully up. Music is placing – a random selection of Mongolian throat singing, light Mongolian opera, some cowboy clip-cloppy stuff, Mongolian hip hop, some very inappropriate US rap and some Kylie.

It is unclear where this cave is, so our magnificent team of drivers stop at a group of gers and ask a herdsman, who is watering his goats from a well.

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A lot of gesturing and pointing takes place and that’s where it all starts to go wrong. Our convoy becomes divided. Two vehicles, including mine, head off to the left following a set of energy wires towards the mountains in the distance.

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I call this part of the journey the Rally Cross Fun Fair. We are going across the landscape and crossing all the dry streams and water courses that would be torrents when the shows melt in the hills. So, every few meters there is a steep gulley, river bed, rut, dip, mound, wadi which has to be traversed with a similar technique – brake at top, descend sharply, hit bottom with a shake, rattle, roll, fling up to roof, grind up the other side with a churning of tyres, hit the top and dump over ready for the next one. It is just like a fun fair. I’ve named some of the rides – The Rough Track Helter Skelter, The Brocking 4×4 Bronco, The Gravel Slide Waltser, The Rally Cross Spider, The Dried Watercourse Roller Coaster. At one point vehicle number 2 gets pinned in the bottom of a gully with its back wheels clean off the ground.

We reach the mountains, which up close resemble even more the teeth in a crocodile’s jaw. We drive along the face for 30 minutes, rollercoasting the scree fans, eventually giving up this line of approach by descending a 75° slope, spotting a lad on a motorbike.

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When asked, he points. Oh no, not the dreaded pointing arm.

 

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The two vehicles, feeling cocky, chase off into the crocs teeth, following a dried river course up into the hills taking the wrong choise at any diversion of a line of wheel tracks in the gravel.

We find ourselves up in some high grasslands but, judging by the more frequent stops and the more frantic conversations between our drivers, utterly lost. It is beautiful though. Not helpful.

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There follows half an hour of animated chat and lots of pointing. ‘Call the other vans on mobile’…….’no reception’. ‘Use your satellite phone’……’only got one so they can’t receive the call’. ‘Sat Nav’ is very similar in Mongolian.

There follows 15 minutes of searching through bags for the day nav and leads. Our drivers then pile into one van and screw up their faces as they study the screen. At this point the passengers were outside keeping themselves amused. We play I Spy (that did not take long), I went to a Mongolian Market. We made up jokes – There were 4 Brits, 2 Irish & 3 Mongolians lost in the desert….. Imagine our surprise when their vehicle moved around in 90° sectors obviously trying to find their position. Hmmmmm. I suspect the screen showed no roads or building and was just……..green.

Ok. Some thinking required. Let’s go back and find someone to ask the way!!!!!!! This sounds a good idea. Except, this is the middle of the Gobi. There is no sign of a dwelling, a vehicle, a person. Look, a herd of goats in the distance. Up and over hillsides, scatter the herd, no herdsman. There he is, over on that hillside. Up and over hillsides. Yayyyy. ‘Cave?’. More pointing. Oh no.

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But, despite misgivings, after another 40 minutes of up and over hillsides, there in the distance, tiny, are two parked vehicles alongside a tiny orange roofed shelter. That is what we’ve been looking for two hours.

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Lost and found in the Gobi. How many people on this planet can claim bragging rights to that? Quite a few, it seems. It happened on four more occasions. ‘Good game. Play it at home’.

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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Out into the Mongolian steppes

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Now this is delicious.. This is what I thought Mongolia might be like – miles around miles and miles of open grassland and rolling hills disturbed by absolutely nothing. Not a tree in sight, not a fence, not a wall, not a building nor a barn. Only the shadows of passing clouds corrupts the greenness but only by placing irregular patterns of darker shades on the troughs and folds and dips and rises of this expanding landscape.

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Largish, grazing herds of sheep or goats or cattle wander contentedly yet arbitrarily,  mostly unaccompanied, although occasionally pushed along by a single herdsman on horseback or even a motorbike. I saw a pair with the woman on the back shaking a rattle made out of a large beer bottle with some stones inside. These herds criss-cross the steppes like moves on a chess board, the purpose of their journey only clear in their own minds.

Rogue groups of more lively horses and ponies canter about showing off to anyone watching until the midday sun quietens them down and they settle into groups, nestling close together to provide shade for each other. The odd ccollection of yaks or camels look imperious on the side of the road, waiting to be loaded up with goods or tourists to earn their men a keep. They frown or groan or chomp or even spit if their slumber is disturbed in any way.

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Karokorum was the 13th century capital of the Mongol Empire. Built up with palaces and temples by Ogedei, the third son of Genghis Khan, it remained the centre until Khublai Khan established Bejing as a new centre of the Yung dynasty. Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) Monastery was the largest in Mongolia and built in 1586 on the ruins of the ancient capital.

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And the usual tat alley.

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First night in a ger camp

I am now, sitting outside my beautifully constructed ger. It is like a little felt house for three equal sized bears. Its lattice walls and painted timber rafters can be put up in a few hours. It has four little painted beds, a low table painted preamble with swirls & curls, with 4 little painted stools  around it. It just needs Goldie Locks to make the party complete.

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These Mongols must have been small. I have already scraped or banged the top of my head on numerous occasions. The best was when I was putting on my Tshirt as I was leaving the ger. I hit the flat of my forehead on the top of the frame with such force that I dislodged two of the rafters which clattered to the ground past my shoulders. Didn’t hurt at all. Sounded good though.

Earlier we had followed the main road out of Ulaanbaatar. On the way we dropped in to Gandan monastery, the largest functioning lamasery in Mongolia and the seat of Buddhist studies. 70% Mongols are Buddhist.

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Gradually the commercial and industrial areas peter out and the grasslands begin to show. The emptiness starts to stretch away from us on all sides. The road rulers straight ahead to the horizon on the gently undulating folds of a puckered up table cloth. Every few miles, off on one side or the other, a collection of low, squat circles or peaked painted rooves indicates a settlement of some kind, usually with horses stirring up the dust.

Then we turn off onto a gravel track and head inland to the ger camp and away from the road and humanity. The drivers take no hostages. Foot down, they charge through the scenery until we stop at the top of a small range of hills. Wowsa. Look at this. Just empty.

The afternoon is spent searching for the Przewalski wild horses. I am sure that you all know that this is an unique species of horse that nearly became extinct but now over 300 survive on the Mongolian steppes. It is a bit like whale watching in the Indian Ocean. Instead of boats chugging about to get the first sighting, 4x4s charge along the dirt tracks, stopping, offloading their passengers, pointing at rocks that may or may not move. They are eventually seen cantering down to the grass by a small stream, where they stop and pose for photos from an appreciative audience. That’s them, the famous horses in the far group. 

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