It’s extraordinary what a powerful influence one’s surroundings have upon one’s rhythm. It’s only been 36 hours since we arrived at the collection of 4 yurts that is home to this family of herdsmen, but already my body feels it is only right that I rise with the sun, retire at about 8pm soon after the sun sets. I recall trying to get into this rhythm in Tokyo, but my body was vocal in its complaints from the start. Even after a week of forced early mornings I was no closer to waking up of my own accord before 9am, yet here, my eyes opened just before the sunrise, and I was wide awake within seconds.
Rucking goats at sunrise
If anyone had told me the story of how I’d end up here, I’m not sure I’d have believed them. On the Trans-Mongolian train I’d have a brief conversation with a Japanese-speaking Mongolian of Chinese origin; she would invite me to join her family when they went to stay 300km west of Ulaanbaatar in the Mongolian outback. I already knew her parents, as her father had fallen off the station platform when trying to stroke my pet penguin. She would tell me to meet her the following morning at the gates of Mongolia’s most important monastery. I would turn up at the appointed time, where I would wait for almost an hour, engaged in conversation with a peak-capped Mongolian chap in his 70s, who, with the aid of my Phrasebook tells me time and time again that he is the highest lord in the entire land.
The monastery located in central Ulaanbaatar
Eventually, my new friend – who’s name is so long I can’t even remember – arrives at the gate. I am expecting a 4×4 or a high-wheel base van, the kind of which are seen outside all Mongolian tour company offices, but no, behind her is a Toyota XEV Vintage – a low-slung four door family saloon. Assuming that our route will not be along the kind of dirt tracks I saw from the train, I think no more of it and get in the passenger seat, next to the well-built chap dressed in camouflage gear and sporting a pair of wrap-around shades, just as he had been yesterday when he met the family at the station. In the back, her mother, father, younger sister and a little dog are sitting. I was just about to ask where her younger brother (age 10?) was going to sit, when he climbed on my lap. I shouldn’t be too surprised, you rarely see a car that isn’t full to bursting. But what about her, my friend?
The driver, GI Jim
“Oh, I can’t come, I have to work” she tells me. Er, right. So that leaves me with your family and this army guy, none of whom I know anything about, and none of whom speak English (or Japanese). I try not to feel put out by this, maybe it was some kind of oversight on her part, you know, not to tell me. Everything will be OK, I tell myself, looking forward to a couple of days of relative silence on my part. I guess it will kind of suit the environment.
Miki the dog
The seven of us set off. After 200 metres or so we stop outside a fruit and veg market. Men carrying impossibly tall stacks of boxes – fruit from China – on their backs pour our of the front door, dodge traffic on the four-land highway out front and plonk them down on the opposite kerb next to waiting taxis. There are so many vehicles loading and unloading fruit that one gets the impression that the entire Mongolian economy is centred around fruit distribution. Out of the corner of my eye I see a vehicle that makes me look twice – a genuine Japanese “Kuro Neko” van, belonging to Japan’s most widely used courier company. It’s paintwork has been left exactly as when it was when it retired from service, but there’s no smartly-dressed baseball capped driver running down the road with a parcel of fresh fish; instead there’s a group of scruffy old men, sitting in the back surrounded by boxes of peaches and bananas.
Our already fully-loaded car is packed further with a great sack of cabbagaes, a box of plums and 12 litres of water; bursting at the seams we drive a bit further out of town, fill up with gas and oil, stop at a little roadside shrine to offer vodka to the Gods in order that we may be looked after during our epic trip West, and then hit the highway.
I’m glad to see the back of Ulaanbaatar. Just as the guide book said, it’s a filthy city. It sits in a shallow valley surrounded on all sides by mini-mountains that serve to retain the blanket of pollution that rises from the factories to the south-west of the centre. It’s another of those places, like the places in China I visited, where one doesn’t really want to breath. I think back to the Mongolia I saw from the train, and can scarcely believe it’s the same country. From the train, that looked so big, so empty, so clean.
However, it seems that with so much apparent space (I think the country has a population of only 2 million, half of whom live in the capital) there is little concern for the environment – if there’s so much of it, why bother protect it? The effect of this attitude is pollution both in the city, and the few tows that exist elsewhere. The Ulaanbaatar yurt hostel that I stayed in on my first night in Mongolia was situated in the heart of what I would describe as a ‘yurt slum’. Filthy streets, a river that was more rubbish than water, and the stench of general crap. Thankfully, the yurt hostel had been built on top of a hill, and the yurts were pitched on the roof of the main building, lifting them above the stink below.
The Yurt Slum
Perhaps my concern for the environment clouds my judgement when it comes to summing up a city. I can’t really get beyond the pollution to appreciate any other aspect.
So yes, you can imagine how glad I was when we reached the end of the city. I wasn’t entirely sure where we were going – all my Japanese-speaking friend had said was that it was 300km to the west. And it is, but the journey that followed made it feel like it was a lot further. The thing was, the road was still under construction. It had been completed for the most part – a long straight bed of gravel that cut through the grassland like a knife, but every 500 metres or so there was a gap where a bridge across a little stream was to go, thus making the entire road useless. Instead, what we had to deal with was 300km of off-roading, in that family saloon. Initially I guessed that this was just a temporary thing, that we’d soon reach the end of the roadworks – but no. It went on, and on, and on. For 300km. We were driving for 9 hours in the end. Occasionally we’d spot a stretch of the highway that was without gaps all the way to the horizon – it looked beautiful. However, being under construction there was no entry ramp, so we’d climb the embankment, scraping the underside of the car on the gravel as we went over the top. Then GI Jim would floor it, and we’d bomb down the road, 90, 100, 110kmph, loving this opportunity to go faster than a drunken snail. In less than a minute we’d reach that horizon, and seconds later, without fail, we’d find ourselves facing a break in the road: time to return to one of the many dirt tracks that zig-zagged a course parallel to the road-to-be. Sometimes we were lucky and found a fairly shallow embankment to exit down, but more than once we ended up having to turn around and retrace our steps looking for some section where the road elevation wasn’t all that great. Then there was that time when we got well and truly stuck whilst trying to negotiate a particularly risky way off. First, the sound of stone on metal, then the tyres spinning. We get out, and push GI Jim over the rocks and out of the mud. Behind us, a brand new Land Rover waits for us to clear the way, and then effortlessly continues on its journey, the embankment being nothing more than a minor blip in the road surface to its great big tyres and superb suspension. I try to tell myself it’s more fun doing it the hard way.
A section of the dirt road
A section of the road we wished we could drive on
300km of off-roading near their end
The landscape was similar to that that I’d seen from the train – endless grassland, without division of any kind. Only this time it wasn’t so flat. There were frequent gentle hills (covered in pot-holes where dirt roads traversed over them I hasten to add), and in the distance mini-mountains. We often passed herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and usually not far beyond them a little collection of yurts. Other than these (and the road on which we were driving), signs of human life were seldom indeed – in 300km we only passed two small towns.
A herd of goats cross the plain
There were a few other vehicles that caught my eye. One was a Citroen 2CV – I really thought that the mirage ahead was getting creative when I saw this, but no, it was a real French 2CV, and according to the sticker on the side, had been taking part in the Trans-Mongolian rally. Knowing how hard it was to not shoot the suspension to bits in a fairly modern Toyota, I marvelled that that little Dolly was still in one piece!
Another that struck me was a motorbike, Well, it wasn’t the motorbike itself – that was like any other you’d see on any Western road – it was the passengers. Two farmers …and a goat! Absolute classic. Heaven knows how they managed to stay on on those roads.
The final vehicle to make one question the sanity of the driver was the lorry with a car balanced precariously in top of its second trailer. It was tied on with bailer-twine wrapped around the back wheels…!
How to get a low-wheel-base car across Mongolia – give it a lift!
I don’t know why, but it didn’t seem like it took most of the day to get here. Time wasn’t really a factor, it just took as long as it took. As I mentioned before, the only times that mean anything cannot be described by fixed numbers; they change every day with the rising and setting of the sun.
We were met by the herdsman and his family, who turned out to be related to GI Jim. A meal was set out before us: dried curd pieces, miniature sticks of bread, a huge dish of butter and cream, a bowl of partially fermented sour milk, all washed down with (you guessed it), milk.
Food that was going to be making an appearance at every mealtime for the next three days…
The dairy theme has continued ever since, and is the only cause of discomfort for me. I’m not a great fan of dairy produce, and when in Tokyo hardly consumed any save for a bit of milk in my irregular mugs of coffee. My stomach is not all that happy with this 3-meals-a-day dairy overdose, and I’ve become pretty constipated. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, and is infinitely preferable to diarrhoea. Why? The toilet is that patch of ground just over there, behind that bank of tall grasses.
Our Yurt – in situ
I long to drink some water, but there’s little of it around. I’m not too keen on drinking the dirty river water, as drunk by the herdsman’s family. Their immune systems may be able to deal with it, but I’m not sure mine would. I’ll stick with the constipation thanks.
We were all in bed pretty early that first night, and I, following an hour or so of Kafka on the Shore, slept very soundly on my own mattress-shaped carpet.
It was a good first day, great to be out in the vast, tranquil countryside. Free of the noise, stress and dirt of the city. I reckon all Japanese people should be sent here for a 3 week holiday every year to help them remember that life is more than just jobs and shopping.
Down by the riverside
Yurt and horses at sunset