Saturday, September 6, 2014

Finding our inner mongol

Sunday 17–Wednesday 20 August 2014

Unless you’re especially geo-politically informed or have a particular interest of some kind, chances are your knowledge of Mongolia is pretty menial. I’ll confess that the majority of what I knew about the country before I actually visited it came from playing the informative (if dubiously voiced) Genghis Khan campaign on Age of Empires II: Age of Kings* as a pre-teen, and therefore I'm about eight hundred years behind … 

Although, judging from Genghis (or 'Chinghis') Khan's apparent continuing status as the dominant national icon, not too much has been going on since those days.

*Age of Empires, I will say, is a form of historical education that should not be disparaged. That game can probably take most of the credit for my impressive performance in Year Eight History.

But apart from videogame-derived historical knowledge, my main impression of contemporary Mongolia could probably have been summed up by a few synonymous adjectives, such as 'barren' or 'desolate'.  I really didn't expect much and, once again, as with Beijing, negligible expectations only made us all the more impressed with what we found. Having finished the trans-Siberian, I can now say with certainty that Mongolia was the highlight of the trip. To my short list of epithets for the nation I would now be compelled to add 'beautiful'. Contrary to my bleak expectations, the country is astoundingly picturesque:

Every time the train would make a lefthand turn we'd all scramble to stick our phones and cameras out the window and get a shot of it passing through the countryside.

(Can you tell I'm a big fan of the artful sunburst in the corners of my photos?) In some cases, the country was barren, but not in an unsightly way:

The other word I'd have to add to my list would be something like 'fascinating'. As soon as I was confronted by the reality of Mongolia I found it, as a nation, compelling. Landlocked, a solitary nugget gouged out of the two behemoths of China and Russia, how could it even be a country? What was its demography, its internal politics, its government and people's position on world affairs? So intriguing! 

Thankfully I was able to learn the answers to all of my questions during our stay. Mongolia has the biggest population of nomadic peoples of any country in the world, a lifestyle the government actively promotes and subsidises.* It only went democratic from communist in the early '90s. Half of its three million people live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, a city built for a population in the hundreds of thousands and therefore plagued by severe traffic congestion and occasional blackouts (one of which we suffered through in a supermarket, painfully waiting for the cashiers to manually record and calculate the prices of our purchases). That population has also exploded only in recent years, since communism put a stop to high rates of ascetic celibacy amongst Buddhist monks. One of its former presidents, Nyamdorj Enkhbayar, is now in jail for corruption. The list goes on!

*A fact I actually think is so great. If people have been living in a certain way for thousands of years, why should they have to stop just because they don't subscribe to the now dominant discourse of land ownership? I think other (European) governments could learn from Mongolia in relation to problems around, for example, the travelling people.

The source of most of this information was our incredibly knowledgeable, insightful, educated, approachable, and fun 'honcho' for Mongolia, Tim, who pretty much fulfilled all our epistemological cravings. We met him on the platform in Ulaanbaatar and, with our train delayed by two hours, he still made an admirable effort to show us the sights around town before we had to leave the city the next morning.

Train accoutrements.

Pulling in to Ulaanbaatar. On the outskirts it was just houses in a field, which looked pretty weird.

George celebrating our arrival by doing the Champagne shake and spray with a bottle of Coke.

Counterfeit bus seats.

Our itinerary after checking in to our hotel and changing some money to the Mongolian tugrik included a visit to Gandan Tegchenling Buddhist Monastery, Sükhbaatar Square, dinner at the plainly named 'Mongolian's Restaurant and Pub' and a walk up to the World War II memorial on Zaisan Hill.

Inside is an impressive, gigantic, 26-metre tall copper Buddha statue in gold-leaf (I didn't pay the extra ₮700 to take photos inside; in retrospect, I should've just coughed up the additional forty cents AUD).

Hard to convey photographically the number of pigeons flocking outside the temple, but just believe me that it was a lot. Apparently it's seen as a sign of holiness.

Sükhbaatar Square in the centre of Ulaanbaatar.

Me with the Genghis statue that presides over the square.

Til desecrating the memory of the Square's namesake, Damdin Sükhbaatar: everyman, founder of the Mongolian People's Party, and leader in Mongolia's revolution in 1921.

At Mongolian's we feasted on enormous portions of hearty, surprisingly delicious traditional Mongolian fare. While the others ate bits of lambs and horses and the like, Til and I went of course for the veggie option, featuring noodles and tasty chunks of tofu marinated in what tasted like the same Mongolian black bean sauce featured in a lot of lamb recipes back home.

The view over Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Hill.

Part of the WWII memorial atop the hill, which includes a lot of Soviet propaganda showing Aryan Russians working hand-in-hand with locals to crush the Nazis.

The next morning after brekkie at the hotel and supply shopping at the supermarket we headed to the ger camp in the national park ('ger' is the Mongolian word for 'yurt', a kind of traditional round tent used by nomads that we would be staying in for a few nights).

Arrival selfie with the gers.

 The camp was set in such a stunning location. I couldn't get over how much I loved the area's rock outcrops and mountains.

 Inside the ger.

'Family photo' with our 'germates', Chris and Isabell.

 Afternoon snacks on the steps of our ger.

Within about twenty minutes of our arrival, some of the boys set out to climb the closest massive cliff right behind the camp. Only one of them made it to the top; the others either got stuck or had to turn back when a cranky Tim ordered them down after being told off by the people who ran the camp, who apparently had CCTV cameras all over the place.

Not long after that Tim took us out to climb nearby 'Turtle Rock' and visit Arryabal Meditation Temple, both offering amazing views over the surrounding area.

Inside the rock.

Offerings left in the rock.

Some of the group squeezed through a tiny hole in the little cave and out onto a ledge that looked out over the park. 

Ajay on his perch. 

Chris striking a pose.

Tim and George.

The path to the meditation temple.

Alongside the path was a series of signs featuring Buddhist aphorisms in English and Mongolian, some abstract and nonsensical, others pretty insightful. I liked this one in particular.

 Ajay, Matt, George, Max and Tim.

Long way to the top.

After we got back from the temple the group decided to go horseriding, but having been unimpressed with the treatment of the horses I'd seen so far (and suspecting the usual abuses that occur whenever animals are exploited for human interests instead of their own), I decided to abstain. Mongolian horses are also pretty small compared with Western breeds and, while I'm sure they could've handled it, I did have concerns about how well one could carry me! I did, however, take a bunch of shots of the other guys mounting up:

The beginners.

Emma, George, Til and Matt.

Our fearless leader.

Isabell, Zac and Daniel.

Riding into the sunset.


Luckily (for me and the horses, not her), Heli is allergic to the animals, so she also steered clear. We decided to go hiking up a nearby mountain instead, and it was well worth it for the view of the sunset awaiting us up there.

Heli keeping her distance from the herd.

Climbing the mountain.

Reached the summit!

We all reunited for dinner and swapped stories about the worst jobs and injuries we'd ever had before heading out to a pavilion for a massive night on Mongolian vodka. The crowning achievement of the night was a game of 21 in which we managed to assign a rule to every number up to twenty-one, something the game's initiator Ajay assured us he'd never done. I hadn't played it before, but the object is to go around the circle, each saying a number until you get to twenty-one, when you introduce a new rule like 'swap seven and fourteen' or 'stand up when you say 'twelve''. If you forget a rule you have to drink and the whole group starts back at one. This was the complete list (language warning):

1 – Replace with 'Odeen' (Russian word for 'one')
2 – Replace with a drink
3 – Replace with 'F*!k'
4 – Replace with 'Me'
5 – Replace with 'Hard'
6 – Replace with a dolphin's cry
7 – Replace with 'Fourteen'
8 – Reverse direction
9 – Replace with 'Nineteen'
10 – Replace with 'Sharon!'
11 – Replace with 'Thirteen'
12 – Say like a trumpeting elephant (with trunk gesture)
13 – Replace with 'Eleven'
14 – Replace with 'Seven'
15 – Stand up
16 – Replace with banging both fists on the table
17 – Replace with banging your forehead on the table
18 – Skip
19 – Replace with slapping both hands on the table and then clapping
20 – Replace with a clap
21 – Make a new rule.

Every time someone stuffed it up all of us would go crazy, and every time we made it to twenty-one we went even crazier. Zac and I were both pretty hopeless at different points (perhaps we were the most drunk?), and at one stage instead of saying 'seven' I just kind of made a bunch of noises that sounded more like 'ShaRON', which became its own rule and a catchcry for the rest of the trip. 

Apparently we caused a bit of a stir throughout the camp, earning the ire of quite a few parties. One Japanese group who'd come for a relaxing stay in the Mongolian countryside (probably to briefly escape their hideous lives as Tokyo drudges) couldn't sleep and got a free night from the resort, which I'm sure made the owners hate us even more than they already did (mostly for bringing our own lunch instead of paying to eat theirs). Chris went back to the ger at some point at the extreme opposite point of the camp and reported back that, even at that distance, we sounded like a footy crowd. The next morning Tim told us we were 'famous' around the camp, and we got a lot of accompanying looks from other tables at breakfast, except for the older Aussies on the sundowners tour who said we weren't loud enough.

Isabell, Chris, Emma and Anika. 

Isabell, Chris, Emma, Anika and Heli

When we finally reached the last twenty-one, everyone went nuts, Ajay knocked all the drinks off the table, George dived onto some of the others and, somehow, in all of the chaos, a chair was broken. Here's George holding the leg aloft.

Daniel and Zac disposing of the evidence. They chucked it against a rock in what seemed like the distance, but in the morning you could see it from the restaurant. Tim got a call a few days later asking if it was us, which was strenuously denied.

Back to drinking.

Heli and Matt with our visitor from Warilla.

Nathan, Chris, Anika, Daniel and Zac.

Matt, Emma, George and Ajay.

Another Sundowners guide, Dave (who we dubbed 'Davo') joined us, constantly intoning his catchphrase, 'Let's get f*!ked up!'

Every time she drinks.

Shuffling pro Ajay.

This is Anika's photo. I stole it because I didn't have any of Til and I. My face is obscured by a cup but it's better than nothing.

Zac about to demonstrate the reverse situp.

Around 2am we became conscious of how loud we were and began compulsively shushing one another, which probably wasn't much better than before. But we went back to one of the gers after that, and then retired.

The next day most of the guys went on a four-hour hike to climb a distant mountain, while the girls went for a ladies' hike. Meanwhile, I spent like two hours in the shower because my washing situation was getting desperate and they wouldn't let us use the laundry. So that was fun.

A majestic spot to hang your undies. I felt like I was making some kind of odd attempt to mark my territory.

I was glad I stayed behind, though, 'cause there was a pretty awesome traditional Mongolian show on later in the day showcasing throat singing, wrestling, horseracing, archery, dancing and contortionism.

This girl did a cool little dance with the cutest smile on her face the whole time.

Probably the best shot I got of the wrestling. This looks a bit put on, but it all seemed pretty real to me. One guy even dislocated his arm.

This woman was ridiculous. Not long after this part she added a special extension to that apparatus she's on with a mouthpiece and held her whole body up in that position using only her mouth.

That afternoon we were scheduled to meet a nomadic family who live in the park. It was a cool experience, but pretty weird and awkward. We talked to a grandmother through Tim and asked her grandchildren some questions too. They all wanted to be doctors and lawyers and CEOs, and they each recited a song or poem for us. I felt pretty uncomfortable about it all, but at least it was a way for the woman to make some money since her husband died in a fire. She passed around some fermented horsemilk and cheese and other snacks, which I passed on, but I did try some of their homemade vodka, which was actually really good. We gave thousand tugrik notes to the grandmother and various chocolates to the kids and left.

So awkward (Isabell's photo).

Tim told us that nomads don't refer to killing their animals, but 'releasing' them, which I found interesting. Obviously it's a nicer way of putting it, but it doesn't make much difference to the animal ...

That night we all went for one last beer in the restaurant and Til and I got talking to the two guys from the other Vodkatrain group, Nathaniel and Antony. After the previous night we were all pretty keen for an early one, so we turned in before long.

The next day wasn't too interesting. We stopped off at a stream on the way back into town, which was pretty (but very polluted), then we went for lunch in Ulaanbaatar at 'the last honest pizza place' (whatever that means) and sponged up their wifi, before going grocery and souvenir shopping and heading to the train station. We bought a lot of fruit and veggies because our bodies were pretty nutrient-starved by this point, but then we saw something online that said you couldn't bring fruits or veggies into Russia, so we panic-ate them all (even though it turned out to be fine).

Finally, an HONEST pizza place.

Goodbye from Ulaanbaatar Train Station.

Anika had a connection with this little one.

Setting off.

The girls with more than they can carry.

On the train we met our new cabinmates, a Mongolian lady named Cecik (sp?) and a Chinese guy named Gonzallo, who we got on with really well, apart from a misunderstanding where one of Gonzallo's friends thought she heard Anika say something really racist, which was a bit awkward.

Til and Cecik.

But like I said, Mongolia in general and the ger camp in particular were real highlights of the trans-Siberian, and Til and I both hope we'll get back there one day. Finally, here's another video made out of random Mongolian scraps of footage I shot. It's pretty bad because I didn't have enough to fill out a whole song ... haha:

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