One Night with 200 Flies and a Mongolian Family
17.08.2007 - 18.08.2007 15 °C
On Friday, we headed out to Terejl National Park (about 70 kms out of UB) to overnight in a family ger. We had arranged the two day trip at the Tourist Information Office (TIO), paying $150 for transportation, food and accommodation. Funnily enough, the TIO asked for $30 in advance, and told us to pay our guides (one English-speaking guide, one driver) the remaining $120. Actually, we knew that the going rate for this excursion was $120, so were fully aware that the TIO agent was simply taking her cut. No problem. What we weren’t expecting was that the two guides would turn out not to be from a local tour company, but two of our TIO agents friends looking to make a little extra cash. Which would have been fine if they had known the way to the park, or at the very least had brought a map with them. Ug.
The ‘english-speaking’ guide also remained elusive, which was a little frustrating as we had so many questions regarding the nomadic lifestyle. Instead, our “guide” was restricted to pointing at the few objects that she had learned the English words for: “old bus”, “hospital”, “bad road”. It tested my patience, to be sure, but Lloyd did a great job of communicating as best he could, working through synonyms until he found the one that could be understood.
After much effort from Lloyd (and the realization that Mongolians do not know how to read maps), we found a terrific German pastry and bread shop (Café Sacher) which we raided for apple strudel and other pastries for brekkie. If you are visiting UB, this place is an absolute must! Then we headed out of town for the relatively short drive to the National Park, with our guide announcing one or two word nouns that needed no announcement all the way.
Even lacking understanding of Mongolian, it quickly became clear that our 20-year old guides had no idea how to get to the Park, and they stopped to ask directions which finally delivered us to the right place. And while this National Park was – indeed – perfectly scenic, with craggy hills and rolling pastures (and actually very similar to Yosemite in many respects), this wasn’t a National Park in the European or American sense. We were struck by how developed the Park was, with tourist ger camps almost everywhere you looked, and garbage (from previous gers or campers) absolutely all over the place.
Our inexperienced tour-guides also revealed themselves as inexperienced drivers which added to our $120 horror, flying over speed bumps and then giggling nervously like the young school-girls they were. Perhaps inevitably, we managed to incur the flattest tire I’ve ever seen. Not that the rhythmic thudding alerted our guides to this fact. Nor did the fact that the car was heavily tilting over the back left indicated to them that anything was wrong. So, it fell to Lloyd and I to demand that the car be stopped so we could take a look at the damage.
We were actually surprised to find that there was any kind of spare in the car, so Lloyd got to work changing the tire. For entertainment purposes, we should have left it to the two girls, but that would have been unusually cruel. In the event, the jack proved to be broken and failed to lift the car high enough to change the tire. But a helpful Mongolian family – and I mean all of them – happened to be passing, and offered a functional jack and two additional pairs of hands more than willing to demonstrate their manhood by swiftly changing the tire. We were back on our way in a jiffy,driving nervously on the spare tire designed for little more than a slow and short drive to a garage.
Happily, we arrived at our ger site for the night where we met Purederj and Enkhlyya, our elderly Mongolian hosts. We were based at the foot of a set of granite rocks that towered 100 metres above the four gers that comprised the family’s camp. We were shown our ger for the night, which housed the traditional, colorful furniture and about 200 flies. Of course the decor is spectacular, but in terms of cleanliness and the volume of flies, even Gana’s Guest House had nothing on this place! We immediately wished we’d brought our mosquito net, but the beds felt comfortable enough.
Next, we were taken into Purederj and Enkhlyya’s ger, which housed the traditional Buddhist alter directly opposite the door. On the right hand side of the ger was Purederj (the man’s) bed, and his wife’s was on the opposite side. Just offset from the middle of the ger (with the support columns) and close to the door was the furnace, which exhausted through the ger’s roof. On the other side of the columns, close to the Buddhist alter, was a table, with four very short, colorful stools where we were seated. Enkhlyya poured generous (FAR too generous!!!) bowls of airag – fermented mare’s milk. I managed one sip of what tasted like off-milk, my entire mouth exploding in protest. Lloyd managed only a little more. Not something that western tummies are ready for! We were also offered little curd-like patties, shaped by hand from some milk product (could be cow, camel, goat or horse!) that was sun-dried on the roof of the ger. I wasn’t brave enough to try it.
After lunch, we headed out on horses for a four hour trek to Turtle Rock and to a local monastery. Of course, our Mongolian hosts are expert horsemen (funnily enough we didn’t see any local women on horseback), and they our clumsiness (or indeed, my complete lack of experience on the back of a horse!) was a visible source of amusement. Lloyd was put on a fifteen year old (with no name) that made his dissatisfaction quite clear. Happily, given my lack of experience, they put me on the most tame plod-a-long horse they had.
We enjoyed both Turtle Rock and the monastery which you can see in the pictures. Unfortunately, the constant uneven motion of the horses meant that we weren’t able to catch a good photo of the dozen or so eagles that were flying low above our heads throughout our ride, which were an added bonus from what was already the clear highlight of our visit to the National Park.
We returned to camp after six o’clock and our two guides proceeded to prepare our dinner for the evening. We were to enjoy “sheep meat” and onion deep fried in pastry shells, which looked a lot like Cornish Pasty. Lloyd and I were optimistic and relieved. Deep fried food looked like the best option by far given the far-from-sanitary cooking conditions and the fact that the “sheep meat” had been stinking the car out all the way from UB. Of course, the 200 flies from our ger temporarily moved to the outside ‘kitchen’ preparation area to add their own special flavoring to our dinner.
Which didn’t turn out too bad. It was edible at least, if a little less like a Cornish Pasty than I was hoping. The sheep meat turned out to have a very gamey flavor, which dominated the onion and carrot. Happily, my last emergency sachet of HP sauce (donated by my Mum at Stansted airport!) saved the day, and made dinner considerably more appealing for both Lloyd and I. We gobbled up four or five pasties hungrily, and then headed to our ger to try and get comfortable for the night.
No luck there! We lay in the fairly comfortable if small bed, with flickering candlelight unhelpfully illuminating literally hundreds of flies and other insects crawling all over the ceiling. We tried to allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the candlelight but were unable to resist keeping an eye on the moving canopy above our heads. I blew the candle out and tried to escape my insect-infested reality.
Sleep was once again elusive. In the morning, we covered our heads with our silk liners and tried to ignore squadrons of flies who dive-bombed us from the wooden rafters. We must have looked quite strange – two bodies wrapped entirely in blue silk lying completely still for a few seconds at a time, in between hand movements to shoo away landed flies. Meanwhile, cows chomped around the edge of ger (which is merely a shell of wooden frame and felt, although surprisingly warm), and were so loud that I had to look several times to make sure the cows weren’t, in fact, INSIDE the ger. Not that that would have been bad. I’d happily have shared the ger with cows rather than flies.
Apparently to compound our misery, it rained in the early hours. Both achy from our four hour horse rides, we decided that we wouldn’t gain much by walking through a number of garbage-intensive, tourist gers (which was the slated activity for the morning). I rather fancied a drive to some of the more remote areas of the park where we might squeeze in a short hike, but we were genuinely concerned about the tire’s ability to support the drive. So instead, we decided to call it a day and head back to UB. Once again, we felt absolutely filthy and in desperate need of a shower and to wash every item of clothing we had taken with us.
Of course, while the flies and insanitary (at least by our standards) were hard for us to take, we wouldn’t really have changed the experience for anything. We were privileged to see a working ger in action, and incredibly impressed by just how hard working these nomadic Mongolians are. From six am to after dark, the family was milking cows, herding horses and cows, taking out tourists on horses, or cooking. Even for the youngest members of the family, it seemed like every daylight hour was filled with work. Only after we went to bed did we hear the generator being pumped up, and the television being switched on – a much needed escape from the hard grind of nomadic life. One night was plenty for the two of us, but we have nothing but respect for the lives being led by Mongolian nomads who apparently comprise something less than 40% of the Mongolian population.