We’ve just returned from 6 days in Terelj National Park on a trip with Ger to Ger, a non-profit that lets people like us live with nomadic herders for a few days. The trip we picked was called “Nomadic Challenges,” which presented some of Mongolians’ daily chores and activities as great feats that must be mastered. Despite loosing our digital camera on the bus ride out to the park and tearing a large gash in the fly of our tent on the first night, we felt ready to take on what Mongolia had to throw at us.
Challenge One: Dung Collecting. No, I’m not kidding. Goaded on b 11 year old Ichimbai, the youngest son of our first hosts, we shoveled cow crap off off an acre-sized plot. About three and a half minutes into it, I felt like I was a little kid again, somehow hoodwinked into doing my older sister’s chores. It was dawning on me that as a vegetarian who’s severly allergic to horses, this might not be an ideal setting for me. The scent of dung only reinforced that doubt. But Mark shoveled heartily and Ichimbai was very amusing, being sure to show off for me at any opportunity. Four hours and six ox-carts later, we broke for a very late lunch. The menu was one of three meals we had last week: noodles with goat meat and lots of fat. Yum-O. That afternoon, we retreated to our tent and read books before dinner, which was meal variety #2: goat meat soup with rice. For those of you wondering if I was sneaking behind the livestock to munch on contraband vegetables, I made a deal with Mark that for each day I ate meat in Mongolia (ie whatever we were served) he’d be a vegetarian for a week when we get back to the States.
Challenge Two: Water Challenge. We were joined after our first full day by Nathalie and Remy, a fantastic Parisian couple who would accompany us for the rest of the journey. Early the next morning, we had the standard breakfast: milk tea (milk, boiling water, tea and salt. yes, salt) and biscuits. With the biscuits came urum, which is made by boiling fresh milk and letting it sit for a day to cool. The top layer of cream, which has condensed in the boiling is then skimmed off and used as a butter-like spread. We were warned by the folks back at the Ger to Ger office not to eat too much of this creamy treat. After watching it slowly congeal the previous day, I was happy to hede that warning. We then piled on an ox cart for a long 24 km journey to the next family, Bodie and Amarjagal, who just had a baby boy 10 days before. The driver was Ichimbai’s uncle (we think), who beat the ox the entire way. It was very difficult to watch, and we chose to walk most of the 24 km. He still beat, whipped and kicked the poor animal, but at least the creature was carrying a lighter load. We were thrilled to leave him and enjoy the happy home of the new parents and their extended family. With a 10 day old, they had their hands full, so the water challenge didn’t happen. But we were happy to play with older siblings and cousins, chasing them around the steppes and wearing them out before bedtime.
Challege Three: Archery Challenge. After more milk tea and biscuits, we were back on the ox-cart to Mr. Bold and Mrs. Titsgheh’s yurt where we were to learn some of the great sports of Mongolia. Mr. Bold is a Mongolian wrestling champion turned horse trainer. He’s just a wee bit smaller than Andre the Giant and the bowl he eats from is the size of a small mixing bowl. And he goes back for seconds. We had a blast with him. After fishing a few flies out of our milk tea, Mr. Bold gave us a bow and rubber-tipped arrows to practice archery. He also arm wrestled us, beating each of us handily, even letting us use two hands. It sort of felt like pushing against a brick wall. His wife, Titsgheh let us milk cows and even showed us how to make Mongolian buttons, which are very similar to the sailor’s knot called a monkey’s fist. Her sewing machine was a beautiful old hand cranked Singer and we used it out in the sunshine that afternoon. They also milked the horses, using the milk to make airag, a fermented beverage that Mark described as tasting like a combination of milk, alcoholic cider and vomit. Mr. Bold drinks it by the mixing-bowl. Lunch was noodles with goat meat, and dinner was goat meat soup with rice, all washed down with lots of milk tea. We got to sleep in their guest yurt, finally allowing us to sleep through the night, not having to toss and turn in order to stay warm in the sub-freezing temperatures.
Challenge Four: Trekking Challenge. After we spent a good part of the day enjoying Mr. Bold and Titsgheh’s company, we loaded onto their ox-cart to head to the last yurt. Mr. Bold, was a gentle giant with his ox, giving it a gentle prodding every once in a while, but never beating it. That was a relief. He also nodded off from time to time, which the ox took advantage of, coming to a complete stop at one point. That evening, we arrived at the home of Mrs. Urancehmig, a shamanist seamstress with a passion for martial art films. She’s a big fan of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. We had a fantastic dinner – no goat! – which was steamed beef dumplings. And milk tea, of course.
Challenge Five: Ox Cart Challenge. We were up early for milk tea and urum and a quick ox cart journey into the village for the bus back to Ulan Baatar. We’ve had about 24 hours to shower, wash clothes and eat vegetables before heading back out into the wilds of Mongolia today. We’ll be gone for about 7 days, visiting the White Lake area, in the central/western part of the country. We’ve loved Mongolia so far and armed with our new skills, are thrilled about the upcoming adventure.