Sain Bain uu from Mongolia!

Wednesday, September 1, 2004
I should have sent this email about a week ago, but I had no access to the internet....

After a seven day Mongolian tour in a Russian jeep, we are pooped! Outside the city limits and surrounding area there are no paved roads, only dirt tracks. You quickly learn that there are good dirt tracks and bad dirt tracks. Often times your head just bumps the top of the jeep and mostly the journey is more tiring than the actual arrival and activities! Anyway, it was well worth the trip. The Mongolian countryside and its people are extremely welcoming. But before I continue let me define a few Mongolian vocabulary words that will be pertinent to what happened on the trip:

GER: A large, round, white, felt tent used by the nomadic people of Mongolia. There is a hearth or a fire in the center of the tent with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. The hole is covered by animal skin when the fire is not burning and the sun is not shining. Most of the time there is no electricity but occasionally they have a satellite dish! A photo of a ger is attached.

AIRAG: Fermented mare’s milk. A fizzy, sour, mildly alcoholic beverage brewed by herdsmen. It is consumed in mass quantities and can be bought by the roadside anywhere in Mongolia, especially when a ger is in sight. I compare the taste to yoghurt past its due date, although others love it!

OVOO: A pyramid shaped collection of stones. Mongolians rarely drive past one without making offerings of vodka bottles, blue silk or small denominations of togrog (the local currency). Sometimes there’s an animal skull on the top of the pyramid or occasionally a pair of crutches. You always walk clockwise around these sacred sites. A photo of an ovoo is attached.

DISTILLED WATER: At first glance we thought the bottle was filled with boiled clean water. We thought they were being kind so we wouldn’t get sick from the regular tap water. In fact, they were being kind… they brought us Mongolian vodka! It’s made from the condensation created by boiling yak’s milk. Comparable to grain alcohol it is almost 100% pure alcohol.

BOODOG: The resulting meal when you roast an entire goat from the inside out by placing hot rocks inside the sealed, skinned carcass of the animal. From the outside you use a blowtorch to scorch off the hair and other stuff. It takes all day to cook and all night to eat! It is considered good luck to play “hot potato” with the hot rocks when they remove these greasy items from the goat’s innards when the cooking is complete. A photo of a boodog is attached.

Everything about our trip was fabulous. We recruited a Korean guy named Jae to join us in the jeep and he was just as fun as our driver. The driver didn’t speak any English, but he was extremely good at communicating with signals and facial expressions. By the end of the week we were having complete conversations in two different languages with very few misunderstandings!

We went to see the few sights that Mongolia has to offer – mainly the oldest monastery in the country as well as the nearby protecting penis. Yes, that’s right. Apparently, the locals believe that the local hillside is shaped like a vagina… so the penis protects the monks from temptation. I am just repeating what I heard!

The highlights of the adventure really were meeting all the local people who welcome you like a long, lost relative and seeing the countryside. And, just while driving you stumble across amazing things… the roadside ovoos and gers, and the marmots that dot the terrain and scurry away when you drive within earshot. We stopped to peer into their burrowed holes, but they refuse to come out ever again once they know you’re nearby. It’s also not unusual to see the occasional camel and despite the fact that our driver lives in the city, he knew how to bring the camel to its knees so we could hop on for a photo opportunity!

Roadside is also how the boodog began. Our driver stopped as we neared our destination for the day and we picked up a goat to roast. When we met the circus on the train they told us that we could not leave Mongolia without having this traditional barbeque, and so we did! If Mongolians had a Thanksgiving, this would be it. It took all day to prepare – from taking the hammer to the goat’s head to the slicing of the stomach when the meat was fully cooked, to the five liters of distilled water they served it with. I’m sorry to say that there were vegetarians staying in the next ger over from ours and they hardly ventured outside that day.

One day we saw a full double rainbow and on another there was a hailstorm! Whatever the weather, you always get to see the beautiful blue sky at some point during the day, and if you are lucky it will be during the sunset.

We arrived back to Ulaan Bataar last night expecting to spend a day or two in the nearby national park and book our train tickets to Russia… but the train was sold out for days and days! We have so much extra time here that we booked another jeep tour around the Gobi Desert. It really wasn’t in the plans, but the only other option is to sit around in the capital where there really is not much to do. So, we leave in the morning. Hopefully it will be just as fun as the first one! Supposedly the desert has much unchartered territory and archeologists are still finding new species of dinosaurs. I’ll be happy to just climb to the top of the sand dunes!

Love, Alison


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