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...