What would Yoda say?

Trip Start Jun 29, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Sunday, August 13, 2006

I have shamefully read over some of my blogs and am horrified by the amount of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors PLEASE IGNORE THEM! Also some of the photos are plain bodgy. Not saying that it's going to change cause I always write these in a hurry but please accept my ardent apology.

So, it turns out that I'm not on a 17 day jeep trip across Mongolia. It was a funny turn of events and I was rather hasty in agreeing to it without thinking about it properly. I've found I become very open to 'signs' when I travel and this one seemed too obvious. You see last Friday I was in the bank waiting to cash some travellers cheques. There was a traveller in front of me and I was listening to the way he was addressing the Mongolian cashier - generally just being difficult - inside my head I was going 'grrrrrrrrrrrrr hate travellers like that'. Unfortunately, when it came time to meet my new travel mates I was dumb struck to find that my 'grrr traveller' was one of the guys. I managed to spit out a few half-truths that I get really motion sick and didn't realise that they had planned to drive 5-8 hours a day and politely declined. Unfortunately it was after they had said 'excellent, we'd love you to travel with us!'.

So stranded in Ulan Bator again.

Fortunately, I met Leigh a Canadian guy who has been living in Korea for the last eight years and he gave me a brochure for this organisation called Ger to Ger. I hadn't looked at any brochures at all trying to avoid the more touristy areas but this was different. For starters, it was a non-profit organisation attempting to alleviate poverty from the areas that most people don't travel to. It wasn't a tour, you were pretty much on your own to follow a set route, travelling from Ger to Ger by a variety of means, while learning about the culture and way of life. Immediately I thought, Yes! this is what i want. Leigh and I booked ourselves in for Tuesday and were swiftly on our way.

It is so nice to get out of the city and suddenly those familiar images that created my first impression of Mongolian rolled into view. The bus swerved around the windy road until we jumped out at some little random outpost. There was a lady, whose only English was 'Ger to Ger!' so we assumed we should follow her. She gave us some horses to ride but we suddenly realised that there was no horse for our luggage so we had to ride them with our big packs (we were camping so they were pretty big).

At our first Ger we assisted the Mongolians gathering the grass they would need to store for winter (pretty much all of summer is spent preparing for winter). We asked one of the daughters (the only one who could speak english) how many cattle etc. they had and she told us some huge amount. We looked skeptically around the empty fields and asked where they were and she replied 'the animals come at 7pm'. We though this was hilarious but they did turn up at 7, right on time. After that we learnt how to milk yaks or cows. I couldn't milk my yak. You have to find these tiny little teets amongst all this fur and to make things worse I later discovered that a bee was stinging my yak and that was why it kept kicking me.

Unfortunately there were some serious domestic issues going on at this ger and most of the night we sat alone by our tents listening to yelling, screaming and hitting. It was really awful and I wondered what i had gotten myself into. That night the valley erupted in classic scenes of Mongolian life. All night long you could hear horses galloping, the sound of yaks chewing grass next to my tent and the dogs barking.

The next day we saddled up and set off on a long and painful ride to our second ger. We didn't quite have the traditional Mongolian saddles which are very small and made only of wood but ours weren't much softer. The ride was five hours non stop. I really liked my horse, it had a lot of personality and there were definitely some similarities between us. For starters, it was always eating, whether walking or running it was always chewing on a huge bunch of flowers. It also had a problem with flatulence, almost every second step was accompanied by a fart - probably a product of the flowers and it couldn't walk in a straight line to save its life.

We arrived out our second Ger where we were to stay for two nights. This family was so lovely and we soon found that this was a consistent feature of the Mongolian people. They are so welcoming, whenever they see you they welcome you into the ger and offer you treats. It is a beautiful lifestyle, they work to live and the kids and animals run freely around these endless plains playing with their 8 or 9 brothers and sisters and 30 cousins. We spent a free day climbing a mountain and visiting an Ovoo then lazed around the river in the afternoon swimming with the family. The night consisted of a few (well, one for me) shots of vodka and then a huge thunder and lightning storm. When offer vodka you should dip your right ring finger into the drink and flick a drop into the sky, the wind and the ground and then to your forehead.

After that we headed by ox cart to what was to be my last ger (shouldn't have been though). Unfortunately I got sick from something I ate or drank which was enviable at some point on my journey, I suppose. After throwing up five times and a case of the runny poos I cut my trip short by a day and made the slow trek back to the city (3 hours by ox cart/walking and 2.5 hours by bus). I'm not sure where I am going to next, firstly I'm just going to enjoy eating vegetables and chill out for a bit. Sorry, not really sure how I should write this, there is a lot of want to say and a lot I have seen so I will summarise below.

Mongolian breakfast: generally rice and yak/cow milk, occasionally this will also be served with animal fat - mmmmmm. Lunch: dried meat, potatoes and rice. Dinner: noodle, dried meat and potato soup. Milk is served with every meal and between meals. They put about a cup of salt in it and it is always served warm - so you can imagine how thirst quenching it is. If it isn't milk, it is salty tea. WHAT IS WITH THE SALT PEOPLE!!!!

Almost every time you are invited to a ger Mongolians will offer you some cheese. Sometimes you can see this cheese resting on the rooftop of the ger. It is hard as a brick and taste stronger than parmesan cheese. It is not uncommon to end up with a few chunks of this stuff in your pocket which you can quietly offer to the dogs when out of sight.

A lot of gers will have at least one dog. They are essentially trained as guard dogs and not treated as pets. When approaching a ger about three or four of them will charge at you barking so you have to shout "hold the dogs!" in Mongolian of course.

Mongolians have rows of meat drying from the roofs of their gers, which is served up in soups or stir fries. Apparently to kill an animal they make a whole in their chest and rip the heart out... I wonder if Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was big here?

There is a tradition in Asia to call it like you see it. It seems for people in asia to call someone fat is the same as to call them tall or say their hair is brown. One family we met actually had an overweight family member - a rarity. "He is family pig" they told us and him in fits of laughter! Unfortunately I wasn't to escape this, being called fat one. Going to seriously have to work on body image which is currently in crisis after Mongolian battering and will have to lose weight!

A lot of the Gers had these big posters of fruit, vegetables and juice. I think that would be too much of a tease for me. Generally speaking, although most nomads live in 'poverty' they have plenty to eat but malnutrition is a big problem ... it must be the scurvy.

The language is almost impossible but I had a major breakthrough on this trip. Firstly I constructed a sentence and a Mongolian actually understood me. But more exciting was that i was listening to a girl talking on her mobile phone and I actually understood every word. Granted the conversation consisted of "hello" ... "yes" ... "allright". The Mongolian "L" is my biggest hurdle but I think I have figured out how to do it. You actually need to remove your tongue. If you can imagine having no tongue and pronouncing "L" you will have it spot on.

Mongolians are master horse riders. It is not uncommon to see them galloping bareback. When they do gallop (and if they are in a saddle) they stand up straight. The horses are small and stocky and respond to the words 'choo'. Unfortunately, for how wise they are in dealing with animals they do not handle them gently at all. It is really painful to watch for my animal sensibilities.

The face of Mongolia is of the nomadic cowboy. They are so beautiful to look at with their cowboy hats, traditional Mongolian costume and riding boots. There was one on the bus back to town the other day, he was standing in between the 'city folk' with their mobile phones and cute handbags. He only had a crumpled up bill for his travel, a wooden saddle and stirrups wrapped up in a tatty cloth and tied together with a rope made of fur. I wonder if these people realise they are the culture of this country. A culture with the pressures of capitalism and increasing western influence is slowly disappearing. It is a slow process and for many years they will rule the outer regions but I wonder if it will be lost to history books. These people who ride horses at full speed at midnight under the full moon, endure the most bitter winters in their felt tents and wander the land always searching for a new home - they really are amazing.

Finally, what would Yoda say? Yoda has been my main guide for speaking Mongolian. Basically if I want to ask anything in Mongolian I think of what the little green jedi master would say and then I should be able to say it correctly. So in true Mongolian form...

go will I

write another day I will

miss you all i do

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