Sleeping in a nomads Ger at the Mongel Els sand dunes
13.07.2011 - 13.07.2011 23 °C
Mongel Els, Mongolia
Another early start was called for today as we attempt to obtain Chinese visas for our imminent departure to Beijing. After queuing some four hours, in the Philippines, to obtain Chinese visas earlier in the year we knew the importance of arriving at the embassy long before it opens. This was especially important as the embassy had been closed for five days and we were assured that Mongolians required a visa to visit China. This latter fact was not actually true and so we found ourselves at seven thirty in the morning, second in line at the embassy and ahead of only some 30 people when the consulate finally opened two hours later. However, our paperwork was processed in some 15 minutes, allowing us to head into the countryside and our Guesthouse to pick up the completed visas later in the day.
Employing a driver for the 4 days we would spend in the countryside, Hasha, would allow us to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Mongolian countryside without having to focus on the sporadically pot-holed, paved road we were travelling. Our guide Mongo would enable us to communicate with the Nomad’s that we hoped to meet and also provide some history on the places we visited. However, as it was her first time acting as a guide her knowledge was a little limited. For us this was a boon as we were not asked to follow a prescribed schedule, eat at pre-arranged restaurants and never vary off what was planned. We had decided the schedule and where we should visit so this relaxed situation was only to our benefit and liking.
After only a few hills we were soon out of the ugly, concrete sprawl of Ulaanbaatar and enjoying the rolling Steppes of the Mongolian landscape. Views that would soon become a little monotonous were for now, fresh and exciting. Nomadic Gers dotted the landscape with herds of goat, horse, cow, sheep or yak often close by, depending on the relative wealth of the nomad. Not allowed within the city limit nomads congregated on one hill, close to the city, selling sheep. A whole sheep cost $80 USD. This included slaughter but not the wool coat which was sold separately. Those who could afford this price would then take the fresh mutton (for lambs are never slaughtered in Mongolia – our guide could not understand why you would want to eat lamb) and butcher, store and cook, as required.
Stopping for a late lunch in Lun we enjoyed typical Mongolian food. My ondogeikuurga or beef with eggs and mantuu (a barely cooked dough ball) was very tasty and included the two key elements of Mongolian cooking meat and dairy products. Outside the pit toilet was not quite so inviting but at least by now we had grown accustomed to them.
Returning to our hybrid, 4WD Toyota minivan, that would prove itself to be more than capable of managing the rough terrain we would soon find ourselves upon, we noted it was right hand drive even though Mongolians drive on the right. This is something we had noticed in Siberia as well as Mongolia. As we had surmised it is purely due to cost. Secondhand cars, from Japan (where they drive on the left) are much cheaper than left hand drive cars and so it was for much of our four days on the road I found myself acting as co-pilot letting the driver know when the relatively light volume of traffic we came upon was safe to pass.
Some four hours after leaving Ulaanbaatar we had passed one town, innumerable Nomadic Ger camps and endless grassy plains. Outside of the few major conurbations that exist in Mongolia the Steppes offer free camping for all. This facilitates the Nomadic lifestyle with no fences or barriers to restrain animals or limit human exploration - Mongolia is essentially the largest campsite in the world. In search of better pasture the Nomad will typically move four times each year, often to the hills in winter and grassy plains in summer. Significantly older than the Himalayas the mountains of Mongolia, rounded and smoothed by millions of years of weather appear, essentially, as hills with few impenetrable to anyone on horseback.
Arriving at the mini-Gobi sand dunes of Mongel Els afforded us our first experience of real nomad’s Ger. Entering a strange odor emanated from the large cooking pot in the centre of the tent. Heated by a centrally located wood-fired stove it became evident that the not unpleasant odor was sheep entrails that were being boiled as a treat for later in the day. Stomach, intestine, liver and kidney were a few of the offal parts more readily identifiable. Seen as a positive omen if visitors arrive whilst these entrails are being cooked we were invited to partake of the small feast enjoyed by the head of the family. Still full from lunch we were forced to decline the offer (!!) but did partake of milk tea (boiling milk and green tea, with a little water) and some more dry curd. As on the Trans-Siberian Express we were fortunate to still have in our possession a few supplies of Betty's Ginger Shortbread and Walnut & Ginger cake. Whilst not Betty's Tea room the cake and milk tea worked surprisingly well. Both Mongolian Nomad and ourselves enjoyed this impromptu hybrid English Afternoon Tea. It will be a sad day when our stores of a 'little taste of home' run out.
With brightly colored carpets covering the felt walls, inside the Ger was extremely warm and homely. As is always the case the door of the Ger faced south, with a Buddhist altar located in the northeast corner, storage to the right of the door and a sink to the left. The remaining space was taken over by beds/couches and a central table. As the guest Ger was already taken for the night this was to be our overnight accommodation, the family apparently happy to sleep in a quickly erected tent.
Feeling slightly embarrassed at forcing the family from the Ger we retired to the nearby sand dunes. A mini-Gobi as the tourist touts like to bill it (although as we were later to see the Gobi has very few sand dunes!). Exploring this desert landscape reminded one of Lawrence of Arabia.
Later in the day Trey was to ride a camel through the dunes. However, in the early evening with a full moon high in the sky she failed to generate the same visual imagery as Omar Sheriff riding through the desert to greet Capt. Lawrence at the well.
As a nomadic camp there was no running water, no hot (or cold!) shower, no gas or electricity and no toilet (the vastness of the Steppes provide plenty of places to resolve that issue). At night a stillness fills the air broken only by the periodic sound of horse, goat or dog, that never strayed far from their masters Ger. We were not to know it but this Nomadic home was to be the most comfortable Ger that we stayed in. Certainly, at the time we felt it was the most atmospheric and genuine Mongolian experience that we could hope for. Sleep passed quickly and well. Tomorrow, we would continue to our explorations to the west.