Brr, Gir

Mongolia in May is desolate. When you're out in the countryside looking around, all you see are brown hills, a few tufts of grass and the odd cow or horse on the horizon. May is springtime, with promise of green in June, or so that's what everybody tells us. Nobody told us it would snow.

But first things first. I met Mama in Incheon airport as planned and we managed to get tickets for the same flight out. We landed in Ulan Batar more or less without incident. My secret fear that my bag would split en route and all my underwear would be strewn in the belly of a Mongolian Airline 737 was unfounded. Ulan Batar International airport ("the only airport in Mongolia") was adequate, if not exactly up to par with respect to quality and comfort in an international airport - think Subang Airport in the 70's, but smaller.

We were whisked around the sights in Ulan Batar and then we headed out into the countryside. I was a bit curious how we could see our sight way out here and then still make dinner at 7pm which our tour guide Crystal (or Boorbar, depending on how much you wanted to twist your tongue calling her) assured us that we were going to meet.

Well, what greet us out in the barren landscape were 20 girs. A gir is a traditional Mongolian tent. It's round, it's made mostly of felt, it has one door, a hole in the roof, and a stove, beds and cupboards inside. Ours had electricity, which kind of jars against the idea of 'traditional' but my mobile phone and palm pilot were happy about it.

Of course, you would have guessed by now that we weren't going to be staying in a hotel in UB, but waaaay out in the boondocks in a gir. It was all a bit of a mix-up, you see. The tour company does 2 night stays in UB, one night in a gir, the next in a hotel. We were only staying one night, so I assumed it was the second night in the hotel.

Well, wrong. We were going to have a traditional Mongolian night's stay whether we liked it or not.

Well, it was a tourist camp, so it had a nice warm restaurant in a building and modern bathrooms attached to it (albeit without reliable hot water). My thoughts immediately drifted as to how Mama would cope with these spartan facilities - one reason we opted for one night was because of the outdoor toilet - and thus began part one of Mama's adventures with outdoor loos.

In retrospect, it wasn't all that bad, because she didn't have to 'go' (you know what that means) in the night. We had our filling dinner of pickled coleslaw and mutton stew, unnpacked, and then spent the evening playing with sheep's knuckles. Mama joined in with gusto, was extremely competitive as usual and I was a little surprised that all the sheep's bones stayed on the table with the enthusiasm she was showing.

Since Sony Playstations are not yet de riguer in girs, they play with sheep's knuckles to pass away the time. Rather, I think the kids play with the knuckles more than adults, but it was good fun nonetheless. They have several games, but the one we spent the most time on involved trying to flick one knuckle against another that was oriented the same way. And mama was happily flicking away. I didn't do too well because of the Mongolian beer swilling around inside me that Ian, a fellow traveller, gave me.

It was gusty when made our way back to the gir, and three things happened between that night and the next morning that pointed to unusual weather: (1) The rain was pelting down hard on the gir, hard enough for it to sound solid (2) Crystal was kind enough to come into the gir two or three times that night to throw more wood onto the fire (I was thinking about doing it myself, but my toesies froze everytime they peeked out from under the blanket) (3) I was woken up the next morning by Mama screaming "wake up, wake up, it's snowing!".

And yes, it indeed was snowing, and by mid-morning the whole countryside was turning brownish-white. I was glad for the hot coffee and two eggs in my belly as we trudged across the whitening landscape to visit a nomadic tribe and to indulge in someone's god-forsaken idea that it would be a wonderful idea to gallop through a snowstorm on a horse. No, it was not mine.

The fog was such that we couldn't see the camp we were heading to when we set off. We got there shivering, but Mama was anxious to mount a Mongolian horse. I wasn't too keen on it, especially since my nose felt icy to the touch, but we gladly accepted the hospitality of a nomad and sat around the stove discussing the finer intricacies of Mongolian nomadic life ("Do they really move about?", "Where do they buy things from", "How do married couples cope living in the same gir?").

My mum immediately got on the horse the first chance we got. It was safe, I suppose, because somebody was leading it around by the reins, and it was more walking pace than a slow trot, but as far as I was concerned, staying outside in that kind of weather for just about any reason whatsoever was bordering on madness or obsessive behaviour.

The only thing that climate was good for was for throwing snowballs. I threw a grand total of five at Mama, three of which missed, and she didn't notice the other two that hit her. Such is life.

When it was my turn to trot in the tundra, I did try, but I left convinced that the next time I sat on a horse, it would be me deciding where we were going and not the darned animal. Mama did give me a good piece of advice: "lean back to make it slow down". Thus, I spent most of the time sitting back on the saddle. Poor horse - it was probably thinking "what kind of madman chooses to ride in a big circle in weather like this?".

The snow hadn't let up by the time we got back for lunch (beautiful meat dumplings with some rather strong Mongolian wine) and the van taking us back to UB struggled up the hill. I had visions of getting out and helping to push, but we finally made it out OK, and about a kilometer out of the camp, the snow lightened up and we were back to the brown hills of springtime Mongolia.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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