Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Little Yurt, Big City

Actually, around here in Mongolia, they're called "gers." While we're at it, they also call the guy on all their money, storefronts, and liquor bottles Chinggis Kahn, not Genghis. The standard food is mutton, potatoes, milk, and maybe some rice and shredded carrots or pickles if you're feeling exotic. According to a couple guidebooks, vegetables are considered either "too Chinese" or "just not healthy." The local firewater, aside from beer and vodka, is airag, fermented mare's milk.  One traveler I met claims everything, even the people, smell of the grass, horses, and the beautiful rolling hills of the countryside. Another says everything and everybody smells like "overcooked mutton." I don't have much of a sense of smell, so I can't comment on that one.

All it took was the train ride to the border, and a glimpse of a Mongolian horse running wild over the grasslands, to make me decide that if I spent all my time in Mongolia is the city of Ulaan Baatar, the capital, I'd have seriously messed up. But I hadn't reckoned on my host in town.

We were friends in high school. While I was down low, boxing people out as a forward for the basketball team, he was up top, as a guard and our ace three-point shooter. Half our basketball team was exchange students from Asia. He was the only Mongolian. He also went to college with me in Chicago, though we didn't see each other much. I looked him up again when I decided on going to Mongolia.

When he called and said he was "sending a car," I was impressed. But just in case he hadn't impressed me enough the personal driver rolling up in a BMW, he also got to show off his two-story penthouse apartment (his, he emphasized, not his parents'), his two Lexuses (Lexi?), and some of the expensive toys he asked his personal bodyguard to move from one to the other so he could show me around town before dropping me off at his dad's hotel. Not the one his dad is staying at, the one his dad owns. We stopped by his dad's department store and cashmere outlet on the way, passing one of the offices he now held after going into politics a couple years ago.

I couldn't help but smile though, as when were in his apartment with the best view in the city to the left of the biggest flat screen TV I'd ever seen, his cook served us lunch: chopped mutton and rice. Just like everybody else.

My time in UB was spent bouncing back and forth between the upper crust of Mongolian society, and then wandering into a ger (the one in the picture, above) and having a couple old guys teach me the proper way to rip mutton meat off a bone with my teeth. I was given a bowl of airag (once again, fermented horse milk), and watched an old man in a cowboy hat dip his ring finger in, and flick it in each of the four directions as a blessing before drinking. Very cool. I wasn't too keen on drinking the stuff though. Not drinking would have offended them, but drinking would have offended my digestive system. My digestive system eventually forgave me, but not until a couple hours later.

I did make it out to the countryside eventually, hopping a bus to Terelj alongside a Colombian-American lawyer-turned-CEO who liked to spend her time between a top law firm in NYC, Stanford business school, and work in Silicon Valley doing things like climbing mountains in Nepal. That was a learning experience. That and a pair of Welsh brothers I hung out with a few times who, among other things, when biking from UB to Terelj, managed to get caught up in a shaman ceremony in which they were "flogged with sticks" and had to give away the only thing they were carrying, a snickers bar, as a "sacrifice".

We stayed in gers in the valley, and spent the days hiking, relaxing, and riding horses. Horseback riding in Mongolia is like walking anywhere else. Kids start learning how around age three. The top jockeys in the national race each year are teenagers. So having a tiny little Russian saddle (the normal Mongolian ones are wooden) and stirrups that were way too short shouldn't have surprised me. But not figuring out how to make the animal go faster was a little frustrating. He wasn't used to my Western saddle commands, nor my friend's English saddle style. There was a funny "tchuo" noise that our guide made that seemed to work, but we couldn't replicate it at all. So it was a nice, slow walk on horseback over the hills of Mongolia for us.

And that was a little of Mongolia for me. It's a largely untouched country, much less tourism than just about anywhere I've been. There's a lot of pristine wilderness out there to be found in a huge expanse of land that houses only 2.5 million or so (more than 1 million of them in the capital city). Many of them are still nomads, still very hospitable, and still live their old way of life, not because they know people want to see that, or because they feel it needs to be preserved, but just because that's how their life works. That's become more and more rare in the world.

I've moved on again. I'm writing this from a Russian train that just finished passing the deepest lake in the world, and this is the first leg of my biggest railway journey. This is the longest railway in existence. This is the Trans-Siberian.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. You are alive! Hurrah! I look forward to hearing about the TSR since I've been fascinated by it for years.

    By the by, I am now at your alma mater. Literally. I think I'm in the Romance Languages building right now.

  2. Your Mongolian adventures sound amazing--I wish I could see the pictures though...haven't yet found a proxy that'll work with Picasa. Can't wait to hear what Russia's like! esp after all the work you put into getting that visa =)

  3. You-Tube has been a big ancillary aid in "seeing" territory you are going through in addition to your photos on the blog. You-Tube videos of TSR are varying quality, but collectively interesting.Couldn't help but think of train trip from Chicago to Seattle....doubled in length of course. One gets a sense of vastness via train that one misses when driving....because of paying attention to the driving. Or when flying because it is all too far below. Enjoy the train. Looking forward to blog and pics. Lv, Anonymom.