Archive for July, 2009

UmpaLumpasSunday, 21st June

Got up early and decided to walk up the hill behind the monastery. Sat by an oovi (sacred mound of rocks) and felt sad about having to be heading back.

Got back to the ger, rushed my breakfast and we set off back towards the capital.

On the way I got talking to Marike about her time in Africa. She told me about the demand for the bones of albinos and the slaughter it leads to, the children that are abandoned by their families for being “cursed”, and the story of an African workmate of hers that was denied asylum in Belgium after a five year wait.

Ukhta & MendeWe arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the afternoon.

Mende was at the hostal.

He waited ten minutes…before saying “let’s wrestle!”


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CowsFriday, 19th June.

300km then we camped.

I asked Khuu what Mongolians do (and used to do) with their dead, as I’d realised I hadn’t seen a single cemetery. She pointed a few out to me as we drove. At a distance they just look like one of the many rocky outcrops.

Mongolians normally bury their dead, marking the grave with a gravestone. The site is usually just out of town, on the west facing side of a hill or mountain (facing the sunset). They also sometimes leave the body on a mountain side, to be eaten by wild animals. The faster they are eaten, the faster they are re-born.

Khuu knew of a boy (a friend of a classmate), who hung himself and as a result was refused a burial plot. Eventually his body was left on a mountainside. Nothing touched him and he remained intact (and thus not re-born) for quite some time until a monk finally buried him. I asked about cremation, but she said it wasn’t very common, although one place in Ulaanbaatar recently started doing it.

The night before a Mongolian funeral (which usually take place very early in the morning), the family’s ger is emptied and body is kept there, guarded by two family members. At he funeral, there is usually one specially chosen person incharge. They are selected based on the year when they were born, which must have a four (or multiple of four) year difference from that of the deceased, (e.g. Khuu was born in the year of the dog, so her funeral “boss” has to have been born in the year of the snake or…the horse, I think)

Ukhta should be a getaway driver. We were beinig waved down by the first policeman I’d seen since leavin Ulaanbaatar, whilst leaving a sleepy town. He just drove on by, speeding (without a seedometer) over 300km of holes, bumps, gravel, curves. I’ve learnt not to look at what’s coming, to just look at the view and pretend we’re not close to death. Ukhta has the same idea. He’s usually sending text messages, changing the cassette, messing with god knows what under the steering wheel or just looking at what the shitty back wheel is doing with is head stretched out of the window…

Mongolian triffidSaturday, 20th June.

Listened to the Mongolian music on my ipod with Ukhta by the fire last night.

There’s a track that start’s with a young boy whispering “Shar budaa, shar budaa”. I asked Khuu what it meant, expecting some ancient greeting or religious chant. It means “millet”.

We  got to Amarbayasgalant monastery at 6pm and were shown round by one of the monks, a fourteen year old boy who was followed around by the key keeper, a nine year old boy. They told us a few things about the monastery, but wasn’t overly enthusiastic. He was impatient to get back to the football match he’d started out front. I’ll come back early tomorrow before we set off back to Ulaanbaatar.

The eldest monk here is twenty three, the youngest is six.

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fishingWednesday, 17th June.

Woke up cold and with the sound of rain on the tent.

Had milk tea with the family in their wooden ger and I saw my first blonde Mongolian baby. She was in the arms of her barefoot father.

The father had the face of a drunk. The same squashed up face that seems to have come from too much smiling, the permanent fake smile and dead thousand mile stare.

We got to our camp site, a clearing in the forest by the lakeside, as storm couds starting to come in over the lake from the west.  Bagi and Ankhar stood in the freezing cold water struggling with a fish which they brought onto the water’s edge after twenty minutes. It tasted gorgeous. After eating and drying ourselves by the fire, we walked out onto the islet in the middle of the lake (which I later discovered has a tide).

As always I wandered off on my own and stayed there for a long time. I’ll probably remember that place for as long as I live. I perched on a partly submerged tree trunk which gave the sensation of being suspended in mid air above the surface of the water I the middle of the massive lake with a steaming pine forest behind me.

In all these amazing places, the same thought always occurs to me. This could be fifty, ten thousand, a million years ago. It would still be exactly the same. Even though I didn’t know it existed, this place is the reason why I came.

Went to bed with hot stones from the bonfire wrapped up in socks stuffed into my sleeping bag. Lightning strikes lit up the inside of the tent like a sun bed and thunder kept me from sleeping. But my feet were warm for once.

gorgeousThursday, 18th June.

Rain, fire, rain, breakfast under a tree. Then my last day on a Mongolian horse.

40km up and down, through the thick pine forest that surrounds the lake. Spent most of the day thinking about yesterday.

On the ride back to meet Ukhta, I talked to Khuu about Buddhists and Shamans. She’s not a big believer in Shamanism. She’s from the Gobi (southern Mongolia) and most of the Shamanism still practised in Mongolia is done in the far north on the border with Siberia. She said some of them still travel the country, fortune telling, etc., but only for money, she says.

Khuu was at a ceremony where a woman constantly drank vodka, maintaining herself remarkably well and with the help of a drum went into a trance, speaking in a strange language whilst her father translated. Then a second man did the same, this time speaking in Buryat.

I asked her how serious people are about Buddhism. She said a lot of people (like her father) seem to go through the motions and traditions but are “real” Buddhists. She says they practise it so as not to lose it, rather than living it as a philosophy. Her father taught her and her siblings mantras for different things (illnesses, etc,.), and was quite adamant about them, but he’s not a strict Buddhist at all.

I also asked Khuu if people practised both religions or mixed them. She remembered a friend of her great grandfather (a Buddhist monk), a female monk who took on the restoration of a soviet-destroyed monastery after the revolution, who would talk about some great monk she’d met one week and the next week be talking about some amazing shaman…

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Ghost townMonday, 15th June

Almost came off the road again today. Ukhta got carried away.

I’m in Xatgal, on the edge of Lake Khugsvul (Mongolia’s largest fresh water lake). Xatgal was an important place of passage during the soviet era given its proximity to the Russian border. The place began to grow and buildings were began, then democracy kicked in and everything stopped. Recently the tourist trade turned up and everything started again, although fortunately it’s still not in full swing yet.

It’s a ghost town of derelict hotels, newly built but empty wooden houses, silent fenced streets of small houses (taking the place of gers) and a new Internet cafe run by a nice girl who hangs on the front porch, making it look like the place doubles as a brothel.

Tomorrow we get our horses for the next three days.

Lake KhugsvulTuesday, 16th June.

The son of the family whose land I’m camping on is hiding around the back of one of their wooden gers. He’s got his dad’s full vodka bottle behind his back. I can here angry mumbling coming from inside.

I’m sitting a few metres from Lake Khugsvul. The clearest and bluest lake I’ve ever seen. It’s bordered by pine forest on every side.

We got here on horseback, led by our guides Bagi and Ankhar. We picked up Ankhar from his ger, a couple of kilometre outside Xatgal. While he got ready, I watched his wife (or sister) preparinig aarul (a rock hard, acidic, yogurty cheese), draining it in a sack to be then dried on the roof of the ger.

I worked out what was bothering me yesterday. It’s the endless stares. It’s awkward being a novelty (or even an annoyance) in a strange country…then it’s funny…then it’s interesting…then it starts to tire . It’s a feeling of being constantly veunerable and having no place to hide or blend in for a while.

I’m going to miss the skies in Mongolia. It was the one image I had in my mind every time I thought about coming. They’re even bigger than they were in my imagination. These heavyweight clouds could beat the shit out of the weakling clouds I’ve seen anywhere else.

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VolcanoSaturday, 13th June.

I hate f@#%ing mosquitos.

Just got back from the volcanic crater.

I went up the hill a while ago to get a good view of the White Lake, our home for the night, and to get away from the mosquitos. I later went down for a swim. The second I set foot in the water the sun went in. I stood there shivering for half an hour, waiting for it to re-appear. It didn’t.

I later joined my Belgian companions and Khuu and we all ran towards Tine’s camera with knickers on our heads.

Sunday, 14th June.

Today was just a long drive. We’re heading towards Khugsvul Lake, but it’s still a long way off.

I’m getting used to Ukhta’s mannerisms and gestures. I can now distinguish which barmy swerves and sudden/severe uses of the brakes are planned and which are surprises even to him. So I now know, more or less, when to relax and look out of the window and when to sh*t myself. I’m surprised at how fast I’ve become accustomed to riding the tragically bad Mongolian “roads”. We’ve even began to nod off as the minivan jolts us around like rags dolls and our heads crash into the ceiling.

Tonight I slept on a mattress five foot long and the width of my shoulders. I was opposite Ukhta who snored as though he’d been possessed by something vile. I woke up at 4am convinced I’d been possessed and moved my sleeping bag onto the floor and away from Ukhta.

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Karaoke barThursday, 11th June.

I’m clean for the first time in days.

I’m sat in a hot spring in the middle of nowhere. It was a pretty lazy day. We set off slowly, saw a waterfall then arrived early at the spring. I saw a couple of crows fight off an eagle in mid-air as I entered the ger.

We sat in the spring. Marike told about the saunas in Belgium. She left me there and I got out a long time after. We had a drink and learned some Russian card games from Khuu.

Friday, 12th June.

We left the hot spring and came to Tseserleg at midday. I don’t know why but I like it. It’s a medium-sized town in central Mongolia. I wandered around the market (streets made from large, open-fronted cargo containers), kept going until I got to a hill covered in houses of every colour, next to scub land that had been taken over by horses and yaks.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside place just out of town. On the door was a man with a wolf cub. It was for sale, $150.

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Tuesday, 9th June.

Got up, took pictures of the lake, trekked through another very wide valley. Very alpine. It could have been Austria, if it weren’t for all the volcanic rock lying around everywhere.

We ended up by a smaller lake surrounded by yaks. We finished off the vodka by the fire. I waited until everyone went to bed and watched the moon rise then went to the tent and froze for a few hours until morning.

Mongolia 3 - EnglandBelgium 0Wednesday, 10th June.

We walked a few kilometres and met up with Ukhta our driver. He was leaning on his minivan in the sun next to him was another driver sitting in the shade of his big army truck. We talked with the other driver for a while about his holiday in Scotland. I asked him if he liked Scottish women and he said they weren’t that pretty and nothing compared to Russian girls, whom he prefers.

As the sun went down and my river-washed underwear hung drying on the side of the ger, we played football with eight kids. The same ones from three days ago plus some neighbours.

The middle one of the three boys, a five-year-old with a blue baseball cap, liked my throwing him up in the air, flipping him, spinning him round, so much that he followed me wherever I went and copied my every move. There was the friendly, eldest girl, (the tough older sister) the one with the boxer’s nose, the hard-worker of the family.

The next was her sister, more or less the same, only more girly. The macho, good-looking boy in full football kit which looked brand new (well, not covered in sheep shit anyway). Two new girls, both about eight. One looked like a gypsy princess or a young Bollywood star in her long red skirt…face and hands covered in snot and muck. She continously inflated a snotty bubble everytime she came over and asked to see the inside of my lip piercing. The other looked more of a city girl in comparison. With whiter clothes and a bit dippy.

Then came the little ones. First a chubby little boy of about two in a grey tracksuit and spaced out teeth who was half scared, half giddy. Then my loyal follower with the blue baseball cap. And finally the licking girl. She walked around for hours, as if in another dimension. Every now and again saying “No, no!” to me with the voice of an angry mother. Tonight she was accompanied by a strange ring of metal that might once have been a bicycle wheel and a small football leaking its sponge stuffing. Two of the smallest girls sat in the mouth of their goal holding onto the toddlers, guarenteeing that we wouldn’t dare take any shots.

Towards the end of the match the licking girl came up to me, gave one look at my piercing and with an expression that suggested approvement and a voice of age-old wisdom said “yes”.

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