Togrogging in Mongolia
With a small bakery worth of bread, some Trans-Mongolian train cuisine – yes, that diet of salami, cucumber, peppers, cheese and packets of soup and noodles – plus crates of water, 2 drivers and bags of apples and mandarins to take the edge off off our favourite Mongolian vodka, we were all set for our seven day trip to track down some nomads in Central Mongolia. We here being Nate, a Phili boy lost outside the walls of the great US of A; Tine, a budding hippy lawyer and her travelling sax musician friend Marianne; and 2 young Danish girls on route to India setting strange challenges for each other along the way.
Ama and his younger brother Enney, originally hired as drivers, but later given the title mechanics, got our Russian built off-road machine up and running and off we chugged out of Ulaan Bataar with the 2 great Danes in heater class and the 2 boys in the farther back seats, enjoying the delights of sub-zero class with taped together draughty windows. On the outskirts of UB we pulled over for a rare non-jeep related problem and following a request from our 2 pilots for ‘one person’ to come with them, Marianna was led off for 30 minutes to sample the bureaucracy of Outer Mongolio and hand over some Togrog, for what we don’t know, but can only presume was a toll for the dirt track that meanders around the countryside.
We were heading for the former capital Kharkorin, 370 km south west of UB, taking in the sight of a sand dune along the way. Following Ama’s inspection of the underside of the jeep and ours of the small sand dune and a quick spot of sunbathing in sub-zero temperatures we headed off for our first night in Gerdom. It would be night three before we would reach some authentic nomads with the stench of old sheep, goats and an assortment of other mutton delicacies and the sight of red faced little snotty nosed kids, but this was a way of easing our way into the sleeping arrangements, of finding places to dispose of uneaten grizzle and train Nate into the art of keeping a fire going for as long as possible into the Mongolian night. That evening we were treated to a concert in our honour by a hobby musicanist and full time air traffic controller for a small fee. As the throat singing recital drew to a close a box of cds appeared from under his Mongolian garb but we managed to politely decline.
Next morning we checked out the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia while our 2 friends put the jeep, which was in Lego pieces when we rose from our frozen slumber, back together. It had been a cold night but nothing near what was to come deep in nomad territory. We set off for the town Tsetserleg in search of a ger camp, armed with the clue that there was a transportable basketball court out the front. Yes we were still in tourist territory. On one of those rare occasions when a jeep breakdown clashed with our stomachs grumbling, we prepared luncheon, served on a reclined chair from heater class. Salami, peppers, cucumber and cheese washed down with oil and diesel fumes as the boys patched up the engine situated between driver and passenger seat. It wasn’t long before we were playing tourists versus Mongolians in a game of basketball cross pollinated with Mongolian wrestling.
Without any musicians we had to come up with our own evening entertainment. We decided not to ration the vodka any longer and downed the lot during a question and answer ‘get to know each other’ session. It didn’t take long for it to creep up behind me however as it ‘shot me down’ during a toilet break and I went ‘bang bang’ face first onto the rock hard ground outside. As vodka demons took over, a little disco swung into action and ending up as late night pole dancing ger-side.
Off we went with sore heads and face scratches to hunt down nomad Nachma with the clue today being that he had a preference for large amounts of vodka and liked pitching his ger on the shores of the White Lake. Our acclimatization phase was now well and truly over, and we rocked up to a little cafe along the way for the Mongolian national dish of greasy noodles with slivers of mutton and potato scrapings thrown in and some more salty milky tea. We were dining in style all lined up facing the same direction on the family bed with table and bare assed kids in front of us. Oozing confidence from our first 2 days we all bullishly requested to make it large with the 2 girls sheepishly putting in a request to make theirs vegetarian, which in Mongolia naturally enough means boiling it all in the same pot and half-heartedly scraping the pieces of old mutton off the noodles at the end of cooking. The girls made a valiant effort to move it from plate to stomach while we gobbled it down without thinking too much. Having taken turns at enjoying the magnificent view while squatting in the public toilets we headed off, taking a minor detour to visit the Chulcut Canyon, site of a dormant volcano. On reaching the top, Nate threw rocks and said ‘awesome’ as they bounced and broke and tumbled into the big hole below. We had all made the ascent with queasy stomachs and so on the way back down we stopped off for a spot of waltzing on an iced over crater as a distraction before our final descent to tell our mechanics ‘very good’.
We tracked down our Nomad Nechma and were ushered in for some more salty milky tea. It wasn’t really beginning to taste a little better, due in large part to this families fondness for large amounts of salt. Dinner was prepared on the stove, which started off with rice bubbling in the pot, but we all knew it wasn’t going to turn out that good. The inevitable addition of old goat or sheep bits and pieces wasn’t long away and was met with a sigh and look of anguish on Tine’s face. We retired to our ger, organizing sleeping arrangements and stoking up a fire while waiting on dinner to arrive. The days of acclimatization clearly hadn’t worked. While Nate and I mixed in some mushroom soup to kill the vile taste of old goat the girls plotted ways of disposing of our evening meal. They decided on burning it but the timing was awful as Mrs. Nomad arrived in to liven up our fire and watch her precious goat disintegrate in front of her.
We spent the next couple of days on horseback trekking around the lake and up and down the mountains on our little Mongolian horses. We arrived the first evening to a large and extended nomad family, where the men lazed about, occasionally jumping on a horse with their shotguns before usually returning hours later empty handed, while the ladies milked the yaks and pottered around doing their daily chores and the kids milked the batteries in our digital cameras. There was a huge welcome for us at this joint – out came the traditional milky tea and a bowl with a variety of hard dried milk curds. Nate and I ordered the yak and horsemeat dumplings with lumps of fat while the Danes requested hot mutton scented water for their packet noodles.
This turned out to be the most fun evening in gerland. Men pilled in from everywhere when the waft of vodka turned next door outside our gher. I tried a little spot of irish dancing before we got a few Mongolian songs from the boys while the Danes pulled off some sort of European belly dancing before Nate led the way with the Chicken Song. The place quickly filled to the brim when news filtered through to the surrounding gers that there was an iPod in the house. The click wheel motion to turn up the volume fascinated them and kept many a nomad happy for hours on end as they listened to some Trish traditional music. An attempt was made to copy the music onto tape by putting the earphones up to the mic on their ghettoblaster. It failed miserably however. Late night we were treated to some variation on ‘airag’, fermented mares milk usually around 10%, though there are regional variations we are told. Lacking mares in this camp they improvised and turned Yak milk into alcohol apparently by heating up the yoghurt and distilling it. It smelt rancid but armed with the vodka cushion in our bellies at this stage we dipped our fingers in and flicked some drops to the sky, to the wind and to the ground before toasting with ‘tuc-toy’ . After this I could eat and drink anything put in front of me and even voluntarily ordered the greasy mutton pancakes and salty tea drink.
Next day we set off back to Nechma’s gaffe for lunch where word had filtered through about iPods, dancing and digital cameras. As the others headed off for more afternoon horse riding, I retired to clean up the ger, myself and to do my nails. That evening Nechma arrived in for his customary after dinner vodka and requested in no uncertain terms that he wanted another show tonight. His wife and daughter were given front row seats as he fell around the place having spent the sun-setting hours downing the ‘airag’. His wife was none too happy with his performance and could be occasionally overheard shouting what sounded like ‘you always make a disgrace of yourself in front of the guests’. We tried to muster some energy to pull out a couple of songs and dances for them, but it proving difficult with stiff joints and torn buttock skin from our exertions on the horses.
Having not wanted to waste the little wood they had, we let the fire out and had to wait for Nechma to turn up next morning to light a fire before we dared venture out of bed. Having de-iced ourselves we were headed in the direction of Lake Ogiy where today’s clue was that ‘the lady of the ger is a savage and likes sweet things’. This was a long long day full of jeep breakdowns, the last one coming 5 kilometers from our destination. We sat in the back swigging vodka to keep our spirits up and playing games to distract ourselves from the chill while the two boys dismantled the engine and put it back together in torch light.
We found our nomads camped out overlooking a lake surrounded by the sounds of cracking ice and howling dogs. The man of the ger seemed to have a thing for older ladies and his lady for our chocolate. She spent the whole evening and next morning shamelessly eating everything we had, the Russian equivalent of Nutella proving to be her particular favourite. Glad to escape with the clothes on our back we headed back on a long dirt track, having successfully navigated a frozen river. On this day our jeep was constantly packed as we picked up and dropped of all sorts of Mongolian nomadic hitch hikers on the way to their local markets to sell their yak milk.
Having dropped Marianne and Tine off 100 kilometers from home on their solo search for some more nomads to put their heads down (hope it all worked out girls), we were now closing in on UB looking forward to a roasting hot shower, our first wash in seven days to try and get the yak splash and smell of Mongolia countryside off our bodies. The hot water wasn’t working. I scrubbed in vain with soap and freezing water and washed all my mutton infused clothes. That waft takes days to disappear and followed my trail over the Mongolian border into Erlean, China. The waft still reappears every now and again thanks to the left over togrog in my wallet (yes it permeates everything) but reminds me of happy times hanging with the nomads in Mongolia.