Monday 31 October 2016

Mongolia - Autumn 2016

Salty tea with sheep fat
Monday, 3 October

I always thought that I would only see Mongolia at the tail end of a Mongol Rally or the Trans Siberian Express.  Instead it was because I typed "from beijing to anywhere" in to Skyscanner and it was the cheapest flight that came up.  When else would you go to Mongolia!?  With no itinrary or plan we landed in Ulaanbaatar at night and had a pick up arranged by UB Guesthouse.  I had contacted the owner, Bobby, beforehand and she said that she would plan our trip with us once we had arrived.  Low and behold the next morning we put together a real adventure taking us through the countryside of Mongolia staying in "Gers" with actual Mongolian families.  Me, my girlfriend, 3 Spaniards, an English speaking guide and a driver took to the roads the following morning giving us one full day to explore the capital city where half the population of Mongolia live.  
A crisp, cool morning welcomed us to the streets of Ulaanbaatar where we first headed to eat breakfast in a local cafe.  The National Dish of Mongolia is Buuz and was what everyone was eating in this cafe and so within 12 hours of being in the country I have managed to tick it off.  Steamed dumplings filled with juicy, fatty, mutton mince and onions had a strong smell of sheep and a taste that stuck with you for the morning like a bag of cheese and onion crisps.  The tea is pale with lots of milk, few tea leaves and salt (!?) and I copied fellow diners who were dunking their buuz in it.  I definitely didn't dislike it, it was just a little weird having savoury tea that tasted like lamb.  We did our own little walking tour visiting the Gandan Monestry, Chinggis Square and climbed up to Zaisan Memorial where you could see the entire city in one view.  An evening of traditional Mongolian performances at Tumen Ekh was very impressive with a throat singer making noises that I didn't even know the human body could make!  Followed by live music and a drink at the top of the Blue Sky Tower we felt like we had used our day well!

Yesterday we met with our travelling buddies and started our Mongolian adventure put together by the amazing Bobby at UB Guesthouse.  We stacked our bags in a battered but sturdy minibus and made our way into the wilderness where no buildings were to be seen and animals replaced cars.  By lunch time we arrived at a family Ger (a Mongolian yurt) that owned a number of horses for us to ride.  We spent a good hour riding little mongolian horses with the family before sitting in the ger eating homemade cheese and drinking airag.  The cheese was by far the sourest cheese I have eaten.  The airag was surprisingly tasty.  Surprisingly because airag is fermentend horse milk, a mildly alcoholic drink that tasted a bit like creamy apple cider.  Not like liquid blue cheese which I was expecting.

Bobby had contacts and suggestions for everything and also knew about my life ambition so added things into our trip accordingly.  She even organised with a family to prepare Khorhog for me - A dish usually made for celebrations where they cook a whole sheep with vegetables in a big metal barrel with hot stones.  We paid the family a little extra for it but it was completely worth it.  Not because it tasted great, you just get a lot of sheep for your buck!  Our guide told us that Mongolians would never waste a sheep by killing it when it is a lamb and so mutton was generally the meat of choice.  Mutton is tough, grisly and has a much more pungent smell.  A whole sheep cooked in its own juices for a long time just intensifies it all.  Furthermore, nothing stays hot for long in a Ger this time of year and before long it was all covered in a thick white paste of fat.  It was really tasty whilst it was hot but didn't take long to go from soft and succulent to cold and pasty.  How wonderful for this family to cook it for us though! 

We spent the night chatting with our guide and admiring the milkyway and stars in the absence of light pollution.  Our Ger was warmed by a wood stove which seconds as a cooker.  We went to sleep toasty but with nobody adding wood to the stove by 3am you could see your breath!  Luckily the family came in at about 7am and restarted the fire for us meaning getting out of our sleeping bag wasn't so dire.  We had breakfast in the family ger and were served salty tea with a bowl of left over mutton fat to stir in.  Mongolians love their tea and put a lot of time in its preperation but to me it tastes more like soup than tea and when I have the mind set that it is soup it is actually quite nice.   

Mongolian hospitality is world famous and rightly so.  As soon as you arrive into a new family ger tea is put on the fire and a bowl filled with a mish mash of rock hard cheeses, dried curds and fried dough is passed around.  Our guide told us that the number one rule is if it's offered you must accept, even if it is a tiny bit.  The dried cheese curds were a little strange with a kind of sweet and sour crumble; the hard cheese only became soft after about an hour of sucking and the dough balls were served with homemade thick creamy butter which was absolutely delicious! I had no problem with this rule of never saying no up until the bowls of pure vodka started to be passed around... I took a big sip and handed it back to a face that smiled at me in a "You haven't finished it" kind of way and waited until I had.  And then the bowl of airag came round and the smile forced me to down that too! 

Ger life
Friday, 7 October

Living in a ger isn't easy; I haven't showered for 6 days! The simplest tasks are made difficult when it is cold outside and there is no running water.  Taking a dump is the biggest chore and requires thighs of steel and a deep trust in the two planks of wood that hold you above the pit of utter misery.  The long drop makes a lot of sense here but man you need a strong stomach.  I have learnt that going first thing in the morning meant that though it was painfully cold the mountain of mouldy fecal matter was frozen and just about bearable to squat over.   

Hard times aside, this trip is probably the most engrossed into a culture I have ever been on a holiday; we are truly in the thick of mongolian culture.  Bobby managed to get us invited to a family ceremony to celebrate the first haircut of a young boy of 5 that symbolises them leaving babyhood and entering childhood.  The family invite all the friends and relatives from local ger communities for a feast and we were lucky enough to be included!  We spent the day travelling there and ate a lunch of horse meat Khuushuur by the lake on the way and visited a few families our driver seemed to know to drink tea and eat more rock cheese.  Khuushuur are fried dumplings usually with mutton but our guide picked these up locally and handed them to us with a jar of vegetable sauce.  Vegetable sauce is about the healthiest thing I have eaten here.  Pretty much every dinner has been meat and dairy with rice.  It's kind of useful concidering the long drops are such an unpleasant experience.  The longer I can go without using one the better! 

We arrived the evening before the event and got to witness all the preperations.  4 sheep and a goat were slaughtered for this ceremony and they prepared each one differently.  The goat was deboned and rolled up to make ham and the sheep were hung in barrels and steamed whole.  The family were clearly busy but they still managed to feed us and force us to drink more airag and vodka.  We also got to play with the rediculously cute children who blew raspberries at us and insisted we chased them. 
We woke up to snow with the little boy whos "party" it was smiling cheekily at us through the open door as if to say wake up and come chase me!  By 10am the party was in full swing with the family ger filled with friends from all over and the table piled high with food.  A strange combination of foods were being passed around from plates of sheep tripe egg mayonaise to plates of gummy worms.  The meats prepared the night before were served cold and pastey and the family guests lapped it up like it was the first time they had eaten mutton.  I have never eaten so much mutton in my life!  A big bowl filled to the brim with airag and another filled with Arkhi took centre stage.  Arkhi is a clear homemade vodka created from milk - not as strong as vodka but similar tasting.  Before long we were being handed small bowls of alcohol by the master of the family who insisted each man had to consume 3 bowls of Airag, 3 bowls of Arkhi and 3 shots of Vodka.  The young boy came round and tradition had it that every guest had to cut a section of hair, drink a sip of yaks milk, kiss him on the head and give a gift.  Every other bowl handed to me I had to finish so, much to everyones surprise, I downed the yaks milk in one and everyone giggled.  It felt very special to be part of this event and it was sad to leave early but by 11:30am the ger was spinning and we had a long journey ahead of us.
3 hours on bumpy roads in a stuffy mini bus is exactly what you need with 6 bowls of alcohol made from milk sloshing about with sheep fat and egg mayonaise inside you.  The views of endless snow were beautiful but it was difficult to truly appreciate them.  I slept most of the way and woke up to hike the volcano.  It's probably worth it when you are not on the hump between drunk and hung over.  It was an exhausting climb in the cold but a nice break from the roads before arriving at White Lake.  The silence of the Mongolian countryside is never more noticable than when you are walking along the White Lake.  Like walking around wearing earplugs even the horses seemed to gallop with fluffy slippers on.

Ger life has been an experience but by now we were starting to flag and seek some comfort.  There's only so many mornings that you can wake up shivering and days you can spend in 6 layers of clothing.  Luckily our next stop was at a natural hot springs with real life toilets and hot showers!  Man it felt good to sit in a hot a tub in the great snowy caped outdoors.  The restaurant on site was cosy and served up the most delicious mutton ribs.  Still as tough as cowboy boots but part of me has accepted that and really enjoyed them.  Just means you have to chew it for a little longer which is fine when it tastes good! 

The hot springs marked the end of our trip.  We journeyed back via Karakorum city, the old capital of the Mongol Empire.  A very historical site where we visted a few temples but we were more excited about the fact that our ger had wifi.  We spent the evening in silence staring at our phones and looking forward to normal life again.  Mongolia isn't a place you go for a relaxing holiday.  It's somewhere you go for a completely unique experience; be thoroughly engrossed in a different culture and realise a life that is not completely strangled by modern day society.  An experience that you only really need once...

Monday 1 August 2016

South Africa - Summer 2016

Zebra Kebabs
Wednesday, 27 July

After camping for as long as we have we totally deserve some R&R.  To that end we are staying in an amazing AirBnB in Camps Bay, Cape Town.  We're a few minutes drive from Table Mountain and again from the beach in the other direction.  Not that it is the time of year to be going to the beach; we have a lovely swimming pool but it is far to cold to use.  In fact, not just cold, full on wet and stormy.  The cable cars for table mountain are going through there once a year maintenance check for the one and only week that we are here.  We had a breazy beach side walk and ordered an indian takeaway whilst we waited out the storm. Fire blazing, t.v on, wine glasses full - the opposite end of the spectrum that camping sits on.

A bit of shopping and some normal day to day western life was on everyones to do list so we headed out to V&A Waterfront and had some well earned retail therapy.  Lunch at their food market gave a nice insight to locally produced products and I took the opportunity to sample some zebra, warthog, crocodile and ostrich meat skewers and some fried mopane worms.  Are these popular and regular eaten meats in South Africa?  I'm not sure, the mopane worms definitely are though!  Kind of crispy on the outside and pasty on the inside not a desirable texture or flavour for a western palette.  Warthog was incredibly tasty with a perfect amount of fat and more flavoursome but not to disimilar to pork.  We cooked like a big family in the evening and finished with a Woolworths Malva Pudding, propbably our most South African dish of the day.  Malva Pudding trumps all puddings.  This shop bought version was the definition of scrumptious.  A freshly baked Malva Pudding must be out of this world!

Today was the day I have been nervously looking forward to since we landed in Cape Town.  Today we got up close and personal with the Great White Shark in the freezing cold atlantic ocean.  We got up early, swallowed some sea sickness tablets, wrapped up warm and drove out to Simon's town for a real once in a lifetime experience.  We took a boat out to a small island densely populated with Seal and told to keep an eye on any seal stupid enough to try and swim through open water to the main island.  A few hours passed and nothing happened.  Then we dragged a fake seal from the back of our boat for an hour and still nothing; our luck was seemingly down.  Then we were instructed to change from our cosy, warm layers into cold, slightly damp wetsuits to get into the ice cold Atlantic ocean where there may or may not be any sharks.  I have to admit that it definitely crossed my mind whether I should bother or not.  I went first, with a lets get it over and done with kind of mind set, got into the cage and within 30 seconds had everybody on the boat screaming and the guides telling us to dive under.  My first ever sighting of a great white shark was with it being no more than 50cms away from my face!!  For the rest of the afternoon we had some awesome sightings from in the cage and on the boat.  We loved every second of it even with the biting cold.  Would do it all over again... and again and again.

How to wine and dine...and wine 
Saturday, 30 July

I have been to South Africa before and did not manage to get round to ticking off the National Dish of Bobotie.  Second time round I am leaving once again without having eaten it.  Not to worry, it's not like I missed out on other South African delights.  One local delicacy I 100% definitely did not miss was a beautiful glass of South African wine... or seven.  We drove to Stellenbosch and checked in to Albarosa Guesthouse for a few nights.  On our first day we hit 4 different wineries and tasted 22 different wines.  22!?  Most places were free especially if your bought a bottle.  A "taster" is no less than half a normal glass of wine so pretty much 11 glasses of wine.  I started the day turning my nose up at the people spitting their wine out in to the spittoon but by glass 17 I totally understood it.  5 glasses of South Africas version of Champagne, J.C.Le Roux, were paired nicely with 5 nougat and then lunch was a 4 season pizza paired with 4 more wines and then dinner was a Gemsbok steak with... a lemonade.  I couldn't bring myself to drink another wine let alone pay for one!

The wine regions are stunning and a million miles away from polluted Beijing.  We spent the following day visiting another 4 wineries and making full use of the Rand to Pound exchange rate.  We were washing down steaks, lobsters and oysters with posh plonk and paying with pocket change.  There's nothing like a good bottle of wine to ponder over how immense your last 5 weeks have been.  I have bought 4 bottles of wine to take home (with zero space in my rucksack...) and it will serve the same purpose in a few months time when I want to reminisce once more how frickin amazing this trip has been.  :o)

Monday 25 July 2016

Botswana - Summer 2016

Has anybody seen my Bush Baby?
Sunday, 24 July
The general air of Botswana is immensely different than Zimbabwe.  The boarder was truly pleasant with two larger than life bouncy ladies proudly dressed in their flag colours, making us smile all the way into Botswana.  Instantly you feel like you are in a country where the locals deeply love their identity as Botswana people.  What a difference 50 meters makes!  Before starting our drive to our first camp we did a small shop for essentials and this is where I managed to tick of the National Dish of Botswana: Seswaa.  It is a long cooked beef dish that is dry and has a consistency and taste of corned beef.  I like corned beef and so of the National Dishes of this trip so far this is an easy favourite.
We drove to Elephant Sands encouraged by a video that went viral of an elephant drinking out of the swimming pool whilst people were sat in it.  Clearly the video was old as now there was no way the elephant could get to the swimming pool.  Spiky rocks and knee high walls are all it takes to create a barrier between you and a herd of elephants!  It did mean that we could sit at the bar and play cards whilst elephants bathed in the water hole right next to us.  Had this been at the beginning of our trip we would have been blown away but the fact that we spent the previous night by the best waterhole ever in Zimbabwe with elephants, lions, hippos and crocodiles made Elephant Sands seem just mediocre.  Mediocre until we were settling down for the night and a Bush Baby came and sat with us!  A fearless bush baby that climbed into a small zip opening of one of our tents and tried to snuggle itself into Sophie's fleece whilst she screamed her head off.  It was massively entertaining and eventually I got the bush baby to sit on my shoulder and get it out of the tent.  It did attempt to crawl into my hoody but eventually jumped(they don't walk, they bounce like tigger!) around chasing moths on our cars for the rest of the night.  Bush babies are my new favourite animal.
We're at a point now where we have to start thinking about finishing up our left over food.  With no Safari drive we managed our first mini lie in followed by a proper breakfast of eggs and beans on toast.  We've seen no Rhino this entire trip due to the horrible poaching over the past years; all the parks that we have been to have said how they used to have plenty of Rhino but now they have zero.  We knew this would be the case and so had always planned our final safari to be at Khama Rhino Sanctuary.  On the way to Khama Rhino Sanctuary are the salt pans that gave us some incredible scenery and added two new species to our list!  We saw magnificent herds of Wildebeest and the odd few Ostrich.  We're just at the end of the wet season and so Pelican and Flamingo were bobbing around what was left of the lake.  The lake was so still it just looked like a mirror reflecting the blue sky where the horizon line between the two was blurred.
Our final meal was a giant vegetable curry in which all left over tins were thrown in.  We bought some gem squashes that roasted nicely directly in the coals as did some corn on the cob wrapped in foil.  It was sad to say goodbye to cooking on an open fire.  And then in the morning it was sad to say goodbye to safariing!  Our last drive this time looking for Rhino ended in disappointment.  Even at a Rhino sanctuary we saw no Rhino!  And so the time came to start our drive all the way to Johannesburg where the hardest of all goodbyes was waiting - our beautiful, hard working and never faltering jeeps.  Well, maybe once faltering... on our way to Johannesburg.  Smoke started coming out of our bonnet and it didn't take us too long to realise that we were missing a fan belt.  Luckily this was Botswana and every second person that drove by asked us if we needed help!  One of which phoned his mechanic friend who came and fixed it on the side of the road and refused to take any money.  I dread to think how different the story may have been if this happened in Zimbabwe!  2 days in Botswana clearly is not enough time and I will definitely find myself on these soils again soon; we didn't even touch Chobe National Park or the Okavango Delta!  For now upwards and onwards to our final leg of the trip - South Africa!

Saturday 23 July 2016

Zimbabwe - Summer 2016

That will be a fine of $20
Friday, 22 July

Between driving from our Hostel in Zambia and arriving at Hwange National Park we have been fined a ridiculous number of times.  Ok so the first fine for $900 was Bushlores fault for filling the papers in wrong but they footed that bill.  The boarder into Zimbabwe is just strange, unfriendly and i'm pretty sure a bit of a con.  We had to pay some random "agent fee" that was signed off by a guy on the street (literally a man on the side of the road that we dismissed and later recalled).  We had to pay the random man and the boarder control people and then saw them split some money around the back.  It's all a bit iffy.  

We knew this about Zimbabwe but didn't think it would be so smack-in-your-face obvious.  Finally into Zimbabwe we got stung so many times!  Our first fine was for entering a big car park through the entrance... Kind of our fault but surely not illegal?!  $20 per car within 20 minutes of arriving.  We were planning to sit and have a nice meal but after dealing with arsey Zimbabwe policemen we just wanted to get into the National Park.   I did manage to buy the National Dish of Sadza from the supermarket though so not all misery!  It looked disappointingly familiar - cornmeal made into a thick, stiff porridge this time served with stewed beef.

The national park was only a few hours away but in that time, between the two jeeps, we paid $20 at every police check on the way.  The light on our registration plate wasn't working; the pressure in our fire extinguisher was too low; the brake light has a crack in it.  The police knew and we knew that $20 was never worth arguing over and so we just paid it every time; the policeman here haven't been paid since January!  I just saw it as an expensive toll where the proceeds go to "charity".  Never have we been happier to enter a National Park!  

Hwange is known for having pumped waterholes all year round and so when dry season comes there is only one place you need to be to see everything!  I find it fascinating how you can use one animal's behavior to find others.  A nervous Puku usually means there is something around that might eat it; circling vultures in the sky can be seen for miles and means that there's a fresh kill below.  We used the spiralling tower of vultures to find our best kill siting of the trip.  A pride of around 7 lions, with cubs(!), eating a small elephant.  We sat there on our own watching a lion trying to gnaw the tip of the trunk off and chew it like a deflated rubber dingy whilst another fended off vultures.  This was truly a once in a life time experience.

How many legs?!
Just two minutes up from the lions was Masuma Dam campsite with a beautiful hideout overlooking a water hole crowded with playful elephants.  This campsite only allows one camp group at a time and James tried to book us in months ago to no avail.  We were allowed to hang out there though and so switched between the hideout and the elephant remains for a few hours before the campsite guard (our new best friend Edward!) told us that he didn't think the people who booked the site are coming.  We just had to wait until the National Park gates closed, radio the men at the gate to confirm that they never arrived to the park and the campsite was ours!  In the past few weeks we have stayed at some stunning locations but Masuma Dam was my all time favorite.  The Zimbabwe cops seemed a million miles away and Edward was so smiley and warm (with his AK47 in hand) Zimbabwe was well and truly back in my good books.  We watched entire herd of elephants come and go, our full bellied lions quench their meat sweats and every other animal we have seen throughout our trip pay a visit to our waterhole.  Whilst the lions were drinking the elephant carcus was drowning in a sea of vultures.  The night was filled with roars, snorts and trumpets (not just from my girlfriend sleeping next to me!) and we woke up early to sit in the hideout for a stunning sunrise.
We left Zimbabwe without leaving Hwange Park which suited us just fine.  We made sure to stop by our lion pride before leaving and found the bones picked clean and two determined lions still chewing on the hide.  Zimbabwe didn't disappoint - I expected beautiful scenery and got beautiful scenery, I expected to be bent over by police and certainly got that too.