There's a bit more tourism in Mongolia than I expected.
Day 34. We got up nice and early so we could spend the entire day exploring the area. After breakfast we headed out again in the minivan which by this time I was starting to feel really sorry for. I can't imagine beating on a vehicle like our driver did to this one. The poor thing reeked of gasoline, had little or no suspension to speak of, was very reluctant to start as were most vehicles in this country (can you blame them?), and in short was simply not a happy minivan. It doesn't bother me nearly as much as seeing animals abused but I still feel empathy.
We headed down the same dirt road we traveled on yesterday to see the horses. Oddly enough, I didn't feel nearly the same amount of trepidation as the first time we made this trip. I suppose off-roading is something you can very quickly get used to. But I don't think I could ever reach the stage that the driver and guide were at, happily chatting away in the front seat, not wearing seatbelts, and driving like mad on steep dirt roads.
The plan was to head out to see some ancient monuments that dated back to the fifth century. It was about 30 kilometers from the camp. Along the way, we saw a surprising amount of wildlife wandering around. One animal in particular looked rather strange to me, like a giant rodent of some sort. I asked the guide what it was. She answered proudly, "That is a mammal." Sigh. It was a cool looking animal, trust me.
We reached the monuments which were basically a pile of sculptured stones inside a gate. Definitely not a well looked after historical site. And as we walked around marveling at the amount of time these things had been here, our driver decided that was the perfect time to crank up the car stereo and blast the entire area with a live rendition of "Hotel California" by the Eagles. Now this just wasn't fair. I'm in the middle of fucking Mongolia and yet I'm still subjected to this crap. And *that* was followed by the Bee Gees! What a world.
The guide and driver enlisted Hanneke's help moving a statue that had fallen. I wasn't so sure we should be messing around with things from the fifth century but apparently they had done this before and it wasn't a big deal. It would have been back home, that is, if we *had* anything from the fifth century. We continued on our way.
Our next goal was to visit a native family and see what a "real" ger was like. I'm not quite sure how this sort of thing works but it seemed as if we were simply stopping at various gers and asking if they would let a minivan full of foreigners traipse through their home for a little while. The first family we tried this with seemed to react with abject horror at the prospect. I liked them. We kept on driving. After another 20 minutes or so we encountered what looked like a hundred goats and sheep crossing the road in front of us. We all got out to witness the event up close. I have to tell you, that amount of goats and sheep really makes an unbelievable racket. I'm not entirely sure what all the fuss is about but these animals are constantly going on about something. It took a while but they all got across the road and we were able to move on.
We came to another couple of gers and the family belonging to them was a whole lot more hospitable. They invited us into their main ger which wound up easily holding the five of us plus the family of seven: the mother, father, grandmother, son, and three daughters. So this was a taste of real Mongolian living. And we quickly got a taste of real Mongolian food. Everything seems to be based on mare's milk. There were these really hard cracker-like things that you were supposed to dip into a cheesy substance. Then there was the fermented mare's milk that was passed around in a bowl. And finally there was some rather weak vodka. Of course we had to try everything and that in itself wasn't a problem. The difficulty came when the dishes and bowls kept coming back after being passed around. I'm sure all of this stuff is an acquired taste but the thing about acquired tastes is that it takes some time to acquire them and all of this was thrust upon us in the space of a few minutes. So it was a bit of a culture shock but one which we were able to withstand with a slight amount of difficulty.
We tried to communicate as best we could with the family, our guide acting as interpreter. They owned a bunch of horses plus all of the goats and sheep we had seen crossing the road. They moved their gers four times a year, but never more than a couple of kilometers away. The children went to school in a nearby village. The kids at least seemed pretty fascinated by us; the adults were unfazed. The youngest girl occasionally would whisper something to one of her sisters and laugh. She was alternately amused by my hair and the size of Sasja's camera. Both, in her words, were too big. Throughout all of this, the grandmother was quietly constructing a rope out of horse hair and doing a hell of a good job too. She smiled at us a lot and exuded a real sense of hospitality. I couldn't imagine actually living in such an environment but I could easily imagine being around people like this. It seemed very familiar.
We walked around a bit on their land and saw some of the horses they were raising. The eight year old son rode around on a horse like he was some kind of a cowboy, obviously showing off to us. We watched some mares being milked and wondered aloud why mare's milk isn't used in our respective countries. On the way out we made the mistake of walking over a lasso which is considered bad luck. So we had to go back and walk to the left of it. Close call.
We had a picnic lunch down by the water where some of the horses were standing. It was cool watching them interact with each other. Occasionally one horse would break away from one group and run down to a second group. I wondered at the social complexities that were at work here. Had the horse been insulted? Did he realize the second group was cooler? Or was it just some kind of involuntary reflex? Before I had a chance to really ponder this, a herd of about six horses came galloping down the hill to the water. Did one horse decide it was time and the rest just followed? It was all pretty fascinating.
We headed back to the camp where I made plans to actually *ride* a horse later that afternoon. I have mixed feelings about riding on another animal's back but if they really didn't mind it, I was okay with it. Originally all three of us were going to take part in this but Hanneke had second thoughts and Sasja wasn't feeling well so when the time came it was only me.
I thought it would be a nice simple process of getting on top of a horse and knowing exactly what to do. But no. First they had to *catch* the horse. Splendid. I was about to get on top of a horse that had just been captured after trying to get away. The perfect animal to take a nice leisurely ride on top of. And it didn't help matters any that nobody in charge seemed to speak any English at all so most of my questions were met with either a polite laugh or just the word "yes." I was wearing the iRiver and a clip-on microphone so at least part of this event could be captured for "Off The Wall." Or for evidence of my fate.
My horse was finally obtained and I was told to put my foot in the stirrup and climb on. I was still really uncertain and very nervous, having only done this once before a long time ago on a horse that had very little life in it. I kept looking for a safety belt. After getting used to being on top of this huge animal and getting a rudimentary sense of the basic horse commands, we started off. I guess my lack of experience was quite obvious as the guide kept his horse attached to mine at all times. This made me feel better but at the same time I sort of wished I could break out on my own. Just like with the off-roading, over time I got used to this feeling and became much less uncomfortable, even when we went up and down steep hills.
We rode around for an hour and then returned to the camp. It was time for dinner, after which I had to try and make the recording of the horse adventure short and interesting so that it could be inserted into the next show. After doing that, Hanneke, Sasja, and I recorded the main part of "Off The Wall" from inside our ger. Another day had come to an end.
Tomorrow we leave this place and head back to Ulaan Baatar for our last night in Mongolia. I've really seen only a little bit of this place. Next time I wouldn't mind checking out the Gobi Desert in the other part of the country. But for now, heading back to the city will feel like returning home.