Mongolian metal, dinosaur omelet, sand whirlwinds

Trip Start Jun 17, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

It's been a while since I updated this travelogue last.. What happened? Where have I been the last couple of weeks? What have I seen and done?

..I was in a country without fences, five times the size of France, but hardly any paved roads, where the country smells of lavender and thyme..
..I spend days on end in a drifting 4 wheel drive van on bumpy dirt tracks, watching the sand whirlwinds and the endless landscape..
..I slept in different gers, where the crickets landed on the burning stove that kept us warm in the evenings, listening to the whinnying horses outside..
..I sat 40 kilometres on a horse to fulfil Erik's challenge, which resulted in me discovering muscles that I did not know I have..
..BI visited a Nomadic family which never invited tourists into their ger before, where wide eyes stared at each other with big curiosity. I ate yak yoghurt, drank yak milk vodka, tried hard curd and fermented mare's milk..
..I petted a baby antelope..
..I helped building a ger, even though I only inserted some ten poles in the roof..
..and I say petrified dinosaur eggs, which would have made a nice omelet..

..In short, I have fallen in love, I'm head over feet, and I'd like to shout it out at the top of my voice!

The long story..

After three days of resting in Irkutsk we got on the train to Mongolia. When I woke up the scenery had changed dramatically to a wide landscape with hills and grass, sober and solemn, the most sober landscape I have ever seen in my life. Contrary to my expectations I was deeply impressed.

The capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, is everything a Western person could wish for. Don't imagine fancy sky-scrapers, but the city caters to people from all over the world. Everything is available, and the citizens are friendly and willing to help.

We arrived the weekend before Naadam Festival, which is the largest festival in Mongolia. There are 3 important sports, wrestling, archery and of course horseback racing. The festival revolves around these three sports, all the stores are closed and everybody joins into the festivities. It was quite an experience to see a country celebrate their biggest festival, people dressing up to watch fatty guys wrestle, and judges not being scared of the arrows landing thirty centimeters from their feet.

In the train we had met Zakia, a Parisian who had similar plans as we did. Together we organized a ten day tour into Mongolia, to see more of the landscape, Mongolia's people and to visit some of the beautiful sights. David, a Belgian guy, joined the three of us. We hired a translator and a driver, who both turned out to be of enormous value. Our translator, Saka, was more than a translator; he turned out to be an excellent guide as well, knowledgeable on his country and Buddhism, but also helpful in arranging things. Our driver was terrific at driving the dirt tracks of Inner Mongolia, even when the roads were wet and slippery. He always managed to get us safe to our next destination.

Ten days of traveling, in total only 2200 kilometers, still we spent on average 8 hours per day in the van, since most of the roads of Mongolia are not paved. No, the roads are merely dirt tracks, created by vans following each other?fs trails. 300 kilometers takes 8 hours on good days, 10 on bad days. Yet, every hour in that van was enchanting. The landscape is so pure, so solemn, so sober, it is impossible not to be impressed by every single squared meter of Mongolia. Image hills covered with only grass in every direction, as far as the eye can see, hardly any sign of technology, giant herds of cattle grazing freely, without being kept in a territory, and an occasional ger here and there. We visited different sites in Mongolia, including two beautiful Buddhist monasteries as well as two wide lakes, but the most interesting part for me was the landscape and the people of Mongolia.

One of my friends asked whether the Mongolians are rich or poor. I have given this quite some thought, it is not an easy question to answer. From a Western and materialistic perspective I would have to say the average Mongolian is not wealthy. In Ulaan Baatar many people are rich, but there is also quite some poverty, especially among children who are abandoned by their parents. In the country most people will not have the money to spend that we are used to, yet I don't feel these people are poor. The thing that I was incredibly impressed by is that even though Mongolia is not wealthy from our Western perspective, it seems to me the Mongolians don't want to change to a capitalist structure. The average Nomadic family has two gers and a herd of cattle. They produce different products from their cattle, such as milk products and meats, which they prefer to exchange for other goods above selling it for money. Though some families have a 4 wheel drive or a motor bike, I feel people prefer to ride a horse. Paved roads would improve the infrastructure, yet I think people prefer to keep the country as it is. Our translator, a 20-year old student, explained the effect that money has on people. Imagine a 20-year old who lives in the capital of his country understanding such things.
One other aspect of the Mongolian people that I feel I should mention is their hospitality. Mongolians will always invite strangers in and share their food. Mongolians will stop when a car is on the middle of a dirt track to help repairing it. Mongolians help each other; it is the only acceptable way of living for them. This might be a result of the harsh landscape. Getting lost in Mongolia without the help of strangers implies certain death, distances are long and one cannot live from what the nature offers in Mongolia, since it does not offer anything. Be it a result of the landscape or not, the hospitality is deeply embedded in the culture, and the West should be envious of such wealth.
Thus, in short, I refuse to believe the Mongolians are poor, even though in monetary terms they might lag behind the West.
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