We took a multi-day trip to the countryside with a tour group recommended by a woman we met who had traveled with them last autumn. We were so happy when Zaya, the tour group leader, met us at the train station with our name on a placard. Our friend had let Zaya know of our arrival. Every time we go to a new place, we see this happening, but the placard never is for us and in fact we almost never know where we are going! So this was a nice change. We went to Zaya’s cozy guesthouse in a nondescript cement apartment building and had a big breakfast and planned our trip. We left the next day.
Family gher where we stayed first night, rock pile shrine nearby
Being a small group ourselves, we were outfitted with a tank of a van, a driver and guide, and everything we would need to explore. It is hard to describe our surroundings without sounding as if we were in a fairy tale. It was wonderful to see this timeless place in the late spring as grass carpeted the land, blue skies and many-colored clouds filled the air above and young yaks and horses cavorted with their herds. There were sheep, goats, and cows too, all nursing their fuzzy young ones in ethereal light and brilliant colors of the Mongolian steppes. Mountains, some with traces of snow and others with pine forests, stretched out for miles and miles, into the vast distance where they became muted and soft. There were small piles of rocks with a center pole and fabric, these are holy places where people pray and make offerings. Circular white nomadic homes- I know them as yurts but here they are called ‘ghers’- appeared alone or in clusters on occasion. Men and women in silk and felt robes rode horses and sometimes, jarring me into the current century, motorcycles. Our guide, Boyna, and driver conversed in that gentle language we had heard on the train, each sentence seeming to murmur itself into whispers like a Tolkien elf language. We bumped around in the van (Russian made, Korean motor, Mongolian driver!) to the local sites such as a massive sand dune and a waterfall, we rode shaggy Bactrian camels and the feisty horses that are Mongolia’s pride.
Below: DH wrestled a local! It’s a popular pastime, and he did survive btw. Note yaks in the background!
We ate home-cooked food prepared by Boyna including hotpot- a meat stew cooked by hot stones. We stayed in ghers every night, with a fire going when it got cold. We went to a musical performance with Mongolian throat singing, which was eerie and astoundingly beautiful. It had the tune of a whistle and the drone of a didgeridoo and impossibly came from one person. Here’s a link for an example. We heard the haunting string instrument played like a cello and it brought the traditional lives of the Mongolian countryside to us in music- wind, rain, horses running. I felt again like I was bathing in beauty, drinking it with my eyes and ears as I tried to take in what I could of this lovely culture and landscape. When we walked in the fields, there were tiny flowers, surely thriving like the most ephemeral of artwork in their short life of warm-enough weather. There was an herb, too, that brought to mind sage with a fresh strong scent as we walked in the fields. There is even a magical element to the practical picture here: Mongolia gained independence from Russia about 90 years ago, became democratic about 20 years ago, and maintains a literacy rate of 98% among its 3 million inhabitants while simultaneously practicing the millennia-old nomadic pastoral (30 million livestock, BTW!) lifestyle. It gets along with massive neighbors Russia and China, and also with the US, which it calls its ‘third neighbor’. The population density may be the lowest in the world, with just two people per 14 sq km, compared to 67 people in that same measure in China! Below: riding horses, sand dunes, a small town where we had a picnic on a hillside, outside under the sky and inside the van, also the musicians we went to see- amazing singing and playing!
As for eating, Mongolia is to vegetarians what India is to meat-eaters. We knew that going in, and we tried to adjust. Personally, I am not burdened with moral absolutes when it comes to new experiences and I was interested in trying the local cuisine. The salty yak milk was pretty good. The kids were less flexible, but somewhat willing to eat some meat. No one starved. Boyna made us some vegetarian foods, but also more meat than we have eaten in our lives. We ate it, most of us, feeling a little strange but we did have the comfort in knowing the animals had free-range lives because we could witness it all around us. The sheep and goats were largely unattended by humans; they roamed without fences across the green fields, stopping traffic when they crossed the roads, cows and yaks too, and the majestic horses galloped across the land, manes and tails flowing like banners behind them. In fact, I read that the herds are half wild with little intervention by the herders. The traditional life here revolves around the animals and the diet is heavy with meat and, especially this time of year, milk and milk products.
Young man in family where we stayed herding goats, mama and baby yak, curious goats
Regarding the bathroom situation, we used a lot of outhouses. They generally had wooden floors, with one floorboard absent and a deep hole beneath. We had the unique experience of dropping and retrieving an electronic device in one of these excrement-filled pits. The locals, after politely expressing some concern, loved that one. Good times!
Above: Family gher center of ceiling with special blue silk, below:guest gher where we slept
The ghers have a consistent and ancient order inside. Each entrance faces south. As you enter, you see the back wall which is shrine-like with sacred objects such as small metal bowls, idols, special silk robes, photos of loved ones, and musical instruments. We were asked not to touch anything or even look behind silk fabric hanging in front of the area. To the right was a bed and closer to the door on the right we were told was the ‘women’s area’ and kitchen. To the left of the door was the ‘men’s area’. The center had a wood-burning stove and stovepipe exiting the center of the roof. Looking up, the center of the roof had a round wooden part like a spoked wheel. From that piece radiated long pieces of wood that upheld the roof and connected with an accordion-style wooden fence that defined the walls. The wooden parts were painted beautifully and covered in white fabric with a thick layer of felted wool. Outside, the fabric was belted to the structure with two strips of strong fabric woven of wool or animal hair.
There is more to write and I hope I can remember it all. For now, time and the trip move on and we are in Siberia at the moment! I’m trying to keep up as we move more quickly than we did earlier in the trip. I’m signing off for now, do svyidoniya!