It’s nearing the end of Day 3 of our Yurt adventure. I wasn’t expecting us to still be here, the arrangement having been that we’d be returning home either late last night or early this morning. Initially, upon discovering that we wouldn’t be heading back into town today I was a wee bit peeved as the decision had been made without any consultation. I had the (literal) recharging of multiple batteries planned, and the washing of socks. As it is now, I’ll only get into town a couple of hours before my next (30 hour) train ride begins. Still, I’ve come to accept this new reality now, and I am happy to remain at peace here in the countryside.
‘Countryside’ seems a somewhat inappropriate label for the grasslands of Mongolia. It suggests that somewhere there is a ‘town-side’ – yet Ulaanbaatar is (comparatively speaking) so miniscule that it doesn’t really deserve a ‘side’ to itself, and the countryside so large that, well, it IS the Country.
I can’t really come to terms with just how much space there is. I mean, it just goes on, and on. It belongs to no-one. This family of herdsman has been in this spot for three months – soon they will move on to fresh grazing land, as they do every few months. I asked the English-speaking daughter if they have always lived here, if they have always lived like this. No, when she was born they lived in the south, but yes, her family have always lived in yurts, moving from place to place with their livestock. She herself was now at university, and just came back to the family ‘home’ to help over the summer. Thus her ability to speak English, although somewhat mysteriously after that first night she has not said a word to me. The cynic in me says that after she’d managed to get me to hand over the money for my stay (I’d been told to give it to someone else and thus had not paid up) she no longer needed to be nice to me. However, the ego in me says that she was scolded by her husband for flirting with the Englishman. Whatever the reason, it initially threw me, but now I appreciate that it’s her issue, not mine.
This has of course meant that I have not been able to talk to anyone for three days now, aside from making Mongolian-sounding acknowledgements and so forth. For the first day I even had trouble using my phrasebook, as I was unsure what language the family was using. It shouldn’t have been Mongolian as they were allegedly Chinese, yet they spoke Mongolian with our guide and the herdsmen. It wasn’t any Chinese I’d heard before either… I was stumped, until finally I managed to establish the fact that coming from Inner Mongolia (which is now a part of China) they were speaking a mixture of the two languages, but that they were happier reading Chinese than the Cyrillic script.
My first full day got off to a mixed start. It wasn’t quite as unpleasant as the one in Beijing where the first thing I did was electrocute myself by unplugging my mac in a careless manner, but it came close. Initially it was OK, well, more than OK – a beautiful sunrise that enabled me to get some great shots of rucking goats. They were very funny, sounding like human’s impersonating goats with their calls to one another. There was one Billy in particular whose persistence I admired. He followed this female for ages, making sneezing sounds to seduce her, and then when she stopped walking, he’d raise his front right leg in a kind of begging action, and let out a gentle “Please?” type beeh. It was very sweet to watch, and I admired his gentlemanly approach.
Anyhow, it was what followed this that was unpleasant: the digging out of live maggots from sheep’s bums. At first, I didn’t realise that these huge great wounds (some big enough to get a small fist in) were the result of a maggot’s feast – but they were. The herdsmen /women would grab a hold of the affected sheep, sit on them and then start to dig the maggots out with any stick small enough to suffice. They then washed the wounds out, and filled them with some kind of powder. Astonishingly, once pinned down the sheep put up little resistance, although you could see just how happy they were when it was all over as leaving the holding pen they jumped for joy.
Following that, I went to watch the cows being milked, and then the horses. Yep, horses. They didn’t give much milk, and weren’t half as co-operative as the cows or goats, and always had to have their foals right next to them when being drained.
Breakfast, for a change, was milk, a mountain of dried curd, huge great slappings of butter and cream balanced on the end of little breadsticks, and more milk. By this time my stomach really was really complaining, and I had to go for a stroll to take my mind off the pain. Up the local hill I went, the vast grasslands stretching out before me in all directions. Down by the little zig-zag river in the shallow valley below the four yurts stood huddled together, smoke rising from the cow-pat fuelled stoves that sat in the centre of each one, boiling huge great bowls of milk for hours on end, resulting in a great thick pancakes of cream floating on the surface. Behind the yurts horses grazed, some tethered, some penned in, the remainder free to roam but reluctant to stray far from their friends. And beyond them, in the distance, a cloud of dust moved across the landscape – the goats were being herded to fresh pastures the other side of the valley.
I felt better after my little stroll, and decided to give horse-riding a go. I’ve only ever ridden a horse once before, and on that occasion it became tangled in barbed wire and (naturally) extremely agitated. Still, out here, apart from the pens used to hold the animals in prior to milking, there’s nothing in the way of fences. Just vast stretches of open land ready to be conquered by the pounding of hooves of a galloping horse.
Or, in my case, the incredibly slow clip-clop of the hooves of a horse that doesn’t speak English and thus doesn’t understand the words, “Go on horsey, good horsey, forward horsey”. “Horsey, can we go a bit faster? They’re all laughing at me”. The horse seemed in no mood for speed that day however, and so I just went round in circles for a while. It was fun though – watch out for me jockeying in next years’ derby.
Naturally, after all that excitement, and a heavy lunch consisting of copious amounts of dairy products and goat broth (I tried not to look too closely at the pieces of meat after an initial glance – I could make out little veins and other yukky things), I was absolutely shattered, and so settled down to sleep in the cool of the dark yurt. I’ve not felt that relaxed in a very long time; several hours passed, with me oblivious to the comings and goings of the herdsmen as they played around with various barrels of milk at different stages of transmogrification.
As the sun neared the Western horizon, so it was time for the evening milking. Once the goats had been rounded up, a particularly amiable character was chosen to be victim of my udder abuse, as I tried in vein to get a drop from the swollen animal. It seems I just didn’t have the knack. Thus, after five minutes the somewhat agitated animal was taken off me, and I was given the job of keeping the post-milked goats near the holding pen whilst the remainder were dealt with. Initially this was easy – 10 goats weren’t all that much of a handful and I was easily able to keep them exactly where I wanted them to be. However, one-by-one the number increased, until 30 minutes later I was struggling to keep the gaggly gang of 50 together. Some were determined to explore the long grass off to the east, whilst others were steadfast in their mission to explore a particularly green patch of land the west. The biggest problem though was Blacky and Whitey – a naughty mother and daughter pair who insisted on not sticking with the crowd and doing their own thing. I later learnt that these two were notorious trouble-makers, and were often tethered for the day so as not to gander off to Europe as seemed to be their plan.
By 8pm it was getting dark, and I was feeling sleepy. It seemed my body had well and truly surrendered to the rhythm of the outback, and after an evening meal of, er, milky stuff, I was only too happy to hit the carpet.