Best friends born in a tremendously privileged country spend a fortnight in faraway Mongolia.
Galloping across the Mongolian steppe with hair coming loose and smile holding on tight, graciously sipping on fermented dairy welcome drinks, hiking through a truly intrepid landscape, sleeping on yak hides by the fire and plunging naked into icy lakes and rivers.
We are on an organised ten day hiking and horse riding trip through the Eight Lakes district of central Mongolia with Golden Gobi. Our personal guide, Miggy, is just a few years older than me. We also have a driver and horsemen and numerous families to stay with along the way.
I’m laying on my simple bed in our yurt, resting a hand on a Tim Flannery book. Bec is on the floor planking next to the roaring fireplace stoked with yak dung. A bright green flowery material decorates the circular wall and decorated orange wooden stakes stabilise the roof of this traditional Mongolian dwelling space. Outside the patterned door, past the woolly yaks and equivalently furry guard dogs, I spy a very un-stereotypical Mongolia. Green grass with a layer of pristine blue lake topped with pine covered mountains. My belly is full of pizza that Miggy somehow whipped up in the hearth while we were climbing a bald mountain with eagles and wildflowers to an idyllic view of the Eight Lakes.
We flew into the capital Ulan Bator, home to over a third of Mongolia’s three million inhabitants. Our first impressions were Korean food, Korean tourists, karaoke, chandaliers, Chinggis (Ghengus) Khan, pretty western dresses, brightly topped houses, empty apartment buildings, white gers mixed with the city life, spread out icons, icecream and modern toilets. We hit the road on day two. I remember waking up from a nap in our first traditional ger to a little boy drinking from my water bottle, balancing on slats in basic outhouses, being welcomed into gers with a bowl of fermented mares milk, wild Przwelski horses in Hustai national park, lamb with every meal, lamb leg coming in the car with us on an uncovered plate, swaying on camels through a semi desert, green camel vomit, herding sheep with the locals, carcasses with heads still up, running down sand dunes, making dumplings with the women, wild children with sticks, milking the horses every two hours, beautiful felt gers with comfortable beds, packs of horses with a lion-maned stallion leading the way. Rocky mountains mixed with green steppe, nowhere to hide to go to the toilet, people squatting and dotting the landscape, 4WDing whenever you’re not on the main highway, Ultzi our driver constantly singing and dancing and communicating through a universal understanding of optimism.
Tightly bound white yurts across the countryside with a flock of sheep never straying too far, a satellite dish out the front and teenage sons herding with a stick in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, kites and eagles ruffling patterned feathers resting on poles, no fences for animals, mixed villages of rainbow houses and traditional gers, knee high scrub and spiny grass, fuschia and yellow wild flowers, shadows of clouds giving another dimesion to the land, rapidly changing sky, road rules as nonexistent as smooth bitumen, kites soaring amongst clouds combed into wispy tendrils.
I remember smells of spring onions and horse poo, wild lavender, fermented and rancid dairy products, rich and leathery wet horse hair and smoke. The cycle of summer chores, traditional Mongolian robes being pulled out of boxes in preparation for the winter, vodka distilled from horse yoghurt, singing around the camp fire with local friends, traditional songs and poems about family and nomadic life, starry nights, blue skies and white sleet, fierce winds and dead stillness. Watching the Rio olympics from the inside of a countryside ger while sipping on salty milk tea, windswept cheeks, gifts of lollies creating laughter between barriers, pride, playing games, pure innocence and joy on children’s faces, late night sun and camping by lakes scooped out of volcanic rock.
What makes our stomachs swirl; Becky’s reaction to the fizzy and sour fermented horse milk, my face when I tried the hard curd snack, lamb dumplings in milky rice pudding, yak butter and sugar on hunks of bread, grey noodle soup, lamb cooked over hot stones, gifted with a bowl of sweet flowery butter in bed, tangy goats yoghurt with butter and sugar, yak butter by the spoonful and lamb fat by the forkful. Riding through the mud on a motorbike, dropping the entire roll of precious toilet paper through the slats, pouring beer on the fire thinking it would help.
Trekking through glittering valleys on our horses dubbed Molly and Murphy, appreciating their short equine stature when navigating over sharp rocky ranges, observing sneaky vultures scheming over a fresh sheep carcass, breathing crisp air through chapped lips and envisioning the historical Khans riding across the plains to expand their powerful empire. I have shivers in my chest because I’m not sure if there will be any more travel experiences as raw as the time spent in the Mongolian countryside. With radical gratitude, I resonate with Gregory Smith when he said;
‘If experience is wealth, then I am a very wealthy person’.
Our horseman always led the way. He is twenty three years of age but his swollen knuckles, gnarled fingernails, worn boots, eternally sunburnt cheeks and old eyes tell a story of harsh winters and a hardened existence as he whistles majestically through the countryside. I cannot imagine how differently our almost identical number of years on earth have been experienced.
From what I have seen, Mongolia is a country of traditional people who are exposed to the western concept of development yet choose to continue to live in their own (finely-tuned, sustainable) way. Modernity is only evident in mobiles and a few televisions, the handful of English speakers, bowls of lollies on the counter with the Buddhist statues and old cars parked contrastingly next to gers. Apart from that, simplicity abounds in the countryside. Unmatched hospitality is key to survival across the vast and sparsely populated steppe.Wealth is determined by the ownership of the fifty five million head of livestock across the plains. Those sheep, goats, horses, dogs and camels provide sustenance, transport and companionship. Gers are moved to greener grass several times in the summer. The sun determines when you sleep. The snow determines when you relax. Pine nuts are picked in summer, tourism comes in dribs and drabs, children give a helping hand, tea is on tap and the cycle goes on through the seasons. Perhaps this timeless nation have a secret or two to share about sustainability and escaping McDonaldisation.