About 5 hours since the train pulled in just a few metres down the track on the Mongolian side, we’re still going through immigration procedures. Our passports have been taken by the scary Russian officials. We’d better behave ourselves from here on or there’ll be trouble…
My final day in the Mongolian outback
Our final full day spent with the family of herdsmen was a relaxed affair. After a late breakfast (I don’t think I need to tell you what that consisted of) we piled into GI Jim’s Toyota and headed off across the grassland, not following any particular track. I had no idea where we were heading, but reaching the peak of the hill, I guessed it must be something to do with that unusual collection of buildings in the middle of the valley that had just revealed itself to us.
Sure enough, it was. The remains of an ancient (10th century?) Mongolian town that was of significant archaeological importance, as demonstrated by the plaques on the wall commemorating generous donations by some Japanese NGO that helped pay for the upkeep of the neighbouring museum that housed all sorts of ancient tools, pots and so forth.
After a brief stroll around the grounds, it was back in the car, and off in a different direction from that from which we had come. The daughter of the family started making swimming motions – I guessed we were off to some river to get washed up.
I was almost right. In fact it was a huge lake that seemed to be very popular with local herdsmen as a place to wash their cows, goats …and cars. The water was a filthy sheep-shit green, but this didn’t stop the entire family from washing their hair (with Pantene Pro-V) in it. Both father and GI Jim went for a swim, but having had my toes nipped more than once by these little prawn things, I decided not to go in beyond my knees, and contented myself with sitting on the shore watching the children chuck water at one another.
After a while, GI Jim decided to give the car a wash – the long journey along the dirt roads had not treated the paintwork kindly. To save him having to cart water to and from the lakeside, he did the sensible thing: reversed the car into the lake!
Back at the yurt, the family were preparing our final supper. It was to be a great feast, and there was immense excitement as the huge metal bowl containing the main course was set down before us.
I took one look, and felt sick. In front of me was what had to be the remains of the goat slaughtered the day before – the fresh head had been given to the dog to play with, whilst the skin lay stretched out on the roof to dry. A huge great bowl of bones to be knawed at …what should I do? Tell them that actually, I was vegetarian and whilst a bit of chicken was OK this kind of caveman thing was a bit beyond me? Ask the daughter if she had any Pringles left? Pretend I was really sick?
When the bottle of clearly very special black vodka was brought out of the back of the cupboard to accompany the meal, I realised that this was serious business, and I simply could not afford to risk offending them by not partaking in the meal. Thankfully, the lights were low, and so i couldn’t really see the bones in too much detail. I told myself that this was some vegan alternative, after all, these days you could get some astonishingly realistic soya-based fake meat dishes. I carefully selected a small specimen, and slowly began to gnaw. At this rate, I could make it last at least half an hour, and by that time the meal might be over.
Whilst the rest of the family dived in and created an impressively fleshless skeleton in the middle of the table, I hung back in the shadows, taking all the carrots and potatoes that I could find from amongst the mountain of gristle. Now and again I was offered another bone. I gestured that I still had some meat left on the one in my hand, and was left in peace.
In this way, I managed to get through the ordeal without too much of poor Billy passing my lips. By the end of the meal, the group’s attention was well and truly on the bottle of vodka, which had mysteriously become two bottles, both of which were rapidly being relieved of their contents. Despite my 6 shots in fairly rapid succession, I was happy to find that I didn’t really feel drunk. I was eating plenty of bread to try and soak up the alcohol – whether that had any real effect or not I don’t know, but the placebo effect alone was enough.
I then made the mistake of asking to take a group photo – well, that was it! They clearly weren’t used to having a camera to hand, thus the photo session went on and on – in fact it wasn’t finished until after every single possible combination of people had posed and been captured on memory stick.
Whilst the herdsman’s family had gradually been warming to me ever since we arrived, it was only really on that final evening that the conversation and laughter really flowed between us. The language barrier was finally overcome; there was much back-slapping and taking the piss out of one another. Finally, I was presented with gifts of a huge great bag of dried curd pieces (which sits untouched on the table next to me!) and some little wooden dolls, which I assume must be traditional Mongolian toys. In return, I gave them the only thing I had with me (apart from dirty clothes and a bag of electronics) – a pot noodle that I’d bought at a station in China! They seemed quite grateful, and no doubt will be filling it with hot milk some time in the near future.
And with that, my final day in the yurt came to an end. Aside from the incident with the sudden cessation of my constipation when stuck up a hill with no toilet paper, it had been a very relaxing day. I slept very well that night, thinking back on how lucky I was that everything had worked out as it had, with virtually no planning on my part. Yes, there had been times when I’d thought that I was going to be left in the middle of nowhere, my belongings stolen thanks to an incredibly well thought out plan which began with an old man falling off a platform on the sight of my penguin, but those times were very few and far between. Once again, I had been the recipient of incredible generosity: when was the last time you were invited to go on holiday with a family you happened to meet on a train the day before, none of whom spoke your language?
The kindness continued once we were back in Ulaanbaatar. Following a pretty horrendous 8-hour trip back along the dirt tracks (which saw me throw up the remains of the goat from the night before in addition to quite a lot of milk…), I was invited in to the family home. Within 30 seconds I had one laptop and two cameras plugged into the mains, and a few minutes later was in the shower, washing away the smell of cow shit. Using their dial-up connection I made a quick check of my emails, and posted the three blog entries that I’d prepared before my departure earlier thin the week. It all worked out wonderfully!
Three hours later, feeling thoroughly refreshed, I was given a lift to the station in their company car, and guided to the platform from which this train departed. What did I give in return for this hospitality? I provided the family with photographic memories, about 500 images (resized so as to prevent them selling them!) of their time in the outback. The mother had wanted her photo taken at almost every opportunity – a benefit of this was that she always wanted to take my photo in return, thus I now have quite a few pictures of me comparing my nose with those of Mongolian horses.
All in all, Mongolia was spectacular – I loved it. The image of those endless miles of grassland with nothing but the occasional yurt or the shadow of a herd of goats to interrupt the scene will be etched in my memory for good. I look forward to going back there with *Twinkle*. Think I’ll take a packet of Kellogg’s All Bran next time.
We are now being subjected to immigration procedures proper (after 5 hours sitting here, following 5 hours on the other side) – they’re not done yet. It reminds me of my brief stop at Moscow International Airport a few years back, there too were the huge blonde Russian women who took no crap and barked orders at us. Our passports were taken a couple of hours ago; we’re now waiting for customs to go through all our belongings whilst they’re processed. I can hear the woman working her way down the carriage, giving the neighbours shit, making the kiddies cry. It seems they’re pretty strict about the amount of luggage you have; this would explain why a couple of hours ago a Mongolian guy came to ask myself and Adrian if one of us would take a package across the border for him. We pointed out that doing so would be incredibly stupid, as we didn’t know what was in the box. “It’s just camel’s wool” he insisted. I could just imagine myself trying to explain to customs what I was doing with a box of camel’s wool, and why there was a package of washing-up powder in the bottom of the box… A similar thing had happened on the ferry (I may have already mentioned this); a Chinese girl asked if I’d take her laptop computer for her so she didn’t have to pay duty. I remember thinking that I’d need the computer to be taken apart so I could examine the innards before I agreed to help out.
Anyway, I’m gonna leave it here for now. The to-ing and fro-ing of this train as it goes up and down the border post tracks for no apparent reason is doing me nut in. I reckon the drivers are bored, just passing the time.
Da svidanya! (Goodbye!)
p.s. A few more photos from my time in the outback… Remember, lots more in my photo albums. Click on any image to be taken there.