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Hoover Al – Going Native Adventure Trip in Mongolia

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Adventure Trip Hoover Al – Because I had arrived in Mongolia at the start of the tourist season, the only people around were a group of 5 Japanese girls, so the camp was really quiet. I had a ger or yurt (Mongolian tent) all to myself! Fantastic!

I stepped through the little Hobbit style, painted door, into a cosy room furnished in the traditional style with painted wooden furniture. On either side of the yurt (can a round thing have sides?) were two box beds; at the back was a dressing table; to one side a small wardrobe, and in the centre next to a little table and stools, was the wood burner! This thrilled me no end as I LOVE playing with fires and I particularly love the cosiness of wood burners, although I did manage to set fire to my nice expensive, travel towel the following day which was very annoying. The fire was already roaring away merrily and of course, I couldn’t resist adding more wood to the inferno. After a refreshing shower and some food, I sat in the yurt, cocooned in the warmth and listened to the fire breathing and crackling, it was all very soothing. As I stepped out of the door to see the night sky, all was quiet; only a thin, silver crescent moon and one bright, shining star illuminated the sky. The night air was cool and crisp with the damp fragrance of grassland and mountains and I could see a little stream of woodsmoke puffing out of the chimney which poked out of the top of my yurt. There was not a sound anywhere. It was still. Peaceful. I ducked back into the yurt, switched off the light and got into bed and lay watching the flickering flames in the woodburner cast their shadows and dance on the walls. Looking up at the gap in the roof where the chimney disappeared, I could see the moon shining down on me and I felt incredibly fortunate and so very, very glad to be there.

The next morning was bright and clear with a fabulous blue sky and the plan was for myself and Zabloo to ride over with the herdsman to his family yurt where I would spend that night and the best part of the following day. We weren’t sure what time this would be as he had to catch our horses first, but at 10am there was a knock on the door and there he was, with a face the hue and texture of a polished conker, with a wild looking pony with any evil glint in its eye! Actually he was surprisingly obedient (the pony I mean) and we set off at a fast trot across the grass. The Mongolians seem incapable of walking their horses, it’s either a fast trot or a gallop (which they do standing up) and that’s it! I don’t mind the galloping, but the trot is done sitting down and I can tell you, it’s bloody uncomfortable without the sports bra and with a rucksack bouncing around on your back. We pushed the horses into a gallop and soon the yurt was in sight. In my mind I thought we probably looked like the ravaging hordes of Genghis Khan (or more correctly, Chinggis Kahn) charging across the fields, but in realities as there were only three of us, probably not, but it was exciting all the same.

We were met by a big, fat cheery woman called Tunga and shown to our yurt by the father who had followed us on the modern-day equivalent of the horse – a little motor scooter. There were four yurts in total – one for guests, one for the men, one for the women and one was the “next door neighbour.” The family I stayed with had something like 700 sheep and goats, 70 horses, 30 cows, 2 yaks, some dogs and a cat. Having dumped our bags in our yurt, we were invited for tea in the main yurt. Well, I have to say, in comparison to this, my yurt back at the camp was a palace! I wrote in my diary “It’ll be a miracle if I survive this without food poisoning!”. The floor of the yurt was just mud with some bits of old lino around the edge where the beds and cupboards were. The furnishings consisted of two metal beds on either side of the door with a filthy looking blanket on each of them and a small mountain of assorted old boots underneath; a “kitchen” with pots and pans, sacks of flour and plastic containers; an altar, various stools, a chair, plastic canisters, a goatskin hanging from the ceiling and large chunks of mutton hanging to dry from string stretched across the yurt; festooned on the walls were all sorts of paraphernalia – rope bridles, metal stirrups, blankets, carrier bags, pots, tin lids and photographs.

We sat down round the central wood burner and chatted, with Zabloo translating, while Tunga made tea. The Mongolians’ drink of choice is made of full cream milk (straight from the cow), green tea and salt, and they drink it by the gallon. Let me assure you, it was as foul and revolting as it sounds and as I don’t drink milk, it was even more-fouler and revolting for me. I had a couple of sips to be polite, tried not to gag and put the bowl back down. Next on offer were some sweet crunchy biscuits for dipping into the tea and then some bread which Tunga spread with a cottage cheesy type thing that also tasted very milky/creamy. She was absolutely stuffing her face with everything and noisily slurping away at the tea.

After those delights, it was time to feed the goats which were really very cute until I realised that most of them were deformed or diseased in some way which was why they needed feeding. Two had something wrong with their back hooves so only used three legs to get around whilst dragging the fourth, and the other little goat looked quite sickly and had green poo hanging out of its bum. Tunga seemed not to notice any of this as she busily filled up the bottles with milk, picked up the muddy, smelling goats and started to feed them. Her shirt became the respository for sprayed milk, poo, mud and goodness only knows what else. I fed a couple as they really were cute and I felt very sorry for them, but was careful not to touch them very much in case I got goat foot and mouth or something. Thank goodness I had remembered the antiseptic handwash! All I could think of when watching her was, I hope to god she washes her hands before preparing lunch. The sky had become a little overcast and it was quite windy and being a namby pamby Westerner I was getting a bit chilly, so they found a dell for me (the traditional overcoat) and sash to wear to keep out the cold. Time to prepare lunch!!

I’m not entirely sure she had washed her hands, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and we got cracking with preparing dumplings. Whilst Zabloo finely chopped a big slab of mutton on a not very clean chopping board, Tunga boiled up some water over the fire to wash the pans (hurrah!). I tell you, you never really appreciate having access to unlimited hot and cold water and electricity until you have to do without it. Life is hard without it! She made a dough with flour and water and then took the finely chopped mutton, added some spices from a packet and some chopped spring onions, mixed it all together, tasted the raw mixture, added some more herbs, tasted again and declared it ready. Zabloo and I then rolled out little circles of dough which we filled with meat and then made into mini Cornish pasties (or at least that’s what they looked like). It was great fun, but I’m sure if I had to do it every day, the novelty would soon wear off. Tunga then heated up some mutton fat and deep fried the dumplings and I have to say, they were absolutely delicious!

Another herder turned up whose face looked just like polished mahogany. He didn’t say very much, just drank his salty tea and had some dumplings and then disappeared out of the yurt. Two minutes later, I heard the sound of a motorbike trying to start, so Zabloo and I went out to see what was happening and she managed to talk him into letting me have a go! It was only a little 125cc and after you’ve ridden big bikes, trying to ride something as small as that is practically impossible. I wobbled off over the grass, trying to avoid the cow/goat/sheep/horse/dog poo and unsuccessfully attempting to get the damn thing out of first gear. I don’t think he was very impressed!

Tunga still seemed to be hungry as she’d found some old bones with mutton on them and had started hacking off bits of dried meat with a knife. She seemed a bit surprised that I wasn’t interested in trying some!

I had a little walk up the hill and back again and then some more herders turned up with a tiny baby goat which was tethered inside the yurt (it was so cute!) and so another batch of salty tea was brewed up which they all noisily slurped. Then it was time to make dinner, which took absolutely ages! We really do take our modern conveniences for granted. We actually made noodles! Back home, I would open the cupboard, take out a packet, put the contents in the pan, cook for 3 minutes and bingo, there would be cooked noodles. In Mongolia, you mix up the flour and water, make a dough, knead it, roll out many large circles of dough, partly cook them on a metal plate over the hot fire (so they look like pitta bread), spread them thinly with some oil, stack them together and then very, very, very, very finely chop them into long thin pieces. The whole process took over an hour! We then had to cook more mutton with some potatoes and a carrot and then add the noodles. It was pretty tasty, but talk about a starch and carbohydrate overload!

After dinner, I was supposed to help milk the cows which had been out on the steppes, but every night just wander-back by themselves to be milked. I’m afraid to say that I took one look at the process and was a complete wimp and backed out faster than you could say, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!”. And anyway, I didn’t want to risk catching cow foot and mouth in addition to the goat foot and mouth I’d probably caught that morning. I’ll have a go at most things, but sitting on a three legged stools, in a dung strewn field, pulling at a poo-encrusted cow’s udders, really wasn’t top on my list of ways to spend an evening! My street cred was sinking even lower in their eyes! As I was watching the cows wandering in, a magnificent sight happened – it was just like Western. By this time, the evening dusk was fast approaching and the moon was already out in the sky and as I looked to the brow of the hill, I suddenly saw a long, long line of dots on the horizon. As they approached, I realised that it was animals which were spread out in a line right across the whole ridge and silhoutted against the evening sky. A herd of wild horses was being driven by the herdsmen into the camp. They came galloping down the slope, mares neighing for foals, young stallions challenging each other, manes and tails streaming in the wind. It was a marvelous sight. I then realised that all the goats and sheep had appeared as if by magic (all 700 of them!) and we were surrounded by hundreds of animals, it was amazing! The herdsmen were separating horses out from the herd and it was fantastic to see their horseriding and see the real skill they have on horseback.

By now, it was about 9pm and just about still light and I made my way over to our yurt which was now completely surrounded by goats and sheep. Inside, Zabloo had lit the candles (no electric light here!) and the fire was roaring away (because I’d interfered and shoved loads of logs in it when she wasn’t looking) and it all looked very cosy indeed. We got ready for bed and I fell asleep to the sound of sheep bleating, baby goats crying like little children and – so it seemed to me – ALL the animals farting very regular intervals. I’d never realised just how flatulent a herd of animals was, it felt like every 5 seconds an impressive display of wind would break forth, I felt quite at home!