|The Buddhist monument in Altai at dusk.|
We left the desert town of Altai, with it’s brown dusty roads and crooked fenced ger neighbourhoods at around 8am. I hadn’t particularly been looking forward to the drive as I knew the roads would be bumpy and I hadn’t fully managed to shake the sick feeling still gripping my stomach after my meal from the cafe at the end of the world. The sandy roads were slightly smoother than the boulderous ones we had been on previously, and the open window fed cold air into my lungs, suppressing any feelings of nausea. The landscape looked like it was right out of an old Western film, but instead of cattle rustlers we only passed goat herders. Perhaps they were in fact goat rustlers. Goatboys would surely never work as a genre of gunslinging film.
About an hour into the drive the front tyre I was sitting above gave out an almighty hiss and our driver hit the brakes. A sharp stone had torn a deep gash into the well worn rubber and we were delayed for 10 minutes whilst the van was jacked up and the wheel swapped with the spare. We were soon on our way again and hoped to stop by a naadam happening in one of the small towns not too far out of our way. We stopped to ask a passing motorcyclist, who informed us that it wasn’t on, and was just another case of Mongolian misinformation.
|The road out of Altai|
|Looks like the Old Wild West.|
The wild west landscape became greener and valleys rose up out of the rocky plains. The road weaved along the valley floors, like a compacted river of dust and rock, following the path of least resistance. The environment seemed to change slightly with every interlocking spur we rounded; soon trees warmly appeared, the vegetation became more diverse, though still limited, and the geological formations were bordering on the pornographic.
Around 11.30 we stopped at a ger and popped in to have a cuppa with a family. I hadn’t been inside a household ger until now and it was something I had been looking forward to. The layout was pretty much identical to the Iron Age roundhouses at Flag Fen, a central hearth (stove in this case) and beds surrounding on each wall. This was very brightly decorated inside, with nice soft carpets on the floor and felt fairly clean. There were children’s toys scattered by one of the beds, a small television set on one side, and a small larder near the door screened by net curtains. The family offered us milk tea from their goats which was warm, salty and welcomed, along with bread and some thick cream from their livestock to spread on it. They asked if we wanted to ride their horse, and I hadn’t ridden yet in Mongolia and so grabbed the opportunity, and the horse, by the reins. I couldn’t remember the last time I had ridden a horse, but I knew the basic principles of control and direction and was happy to give it a go unaided. At first I just sat atop the horse as I walked it up and down and it felt too tame like I was riding a donkey at Blackpool. I spotted a herd of goats slightly further down in the valley floor, so set myself the challenge of herding them up to the ger. I brought the horse up to a quick trot as I descended the valley side, and the wooden saddle dug sharply into my delicate thighs as I bounced up and down on the back of the beast. It was a bit too painful and perilously close to my important bits for this soft cowboy to bare, and fortunately I’d reached the herd I’d been heading for by the time I met my pain threshold. I tugged on the reins and maneuvered my animal around, to march the scraggy little goats up the hill and back to the ger. I only had about 15 of them in my breakaway flock, but it was enough to start with. I ushered them in the direction I wanted, and they obediently trotted in front of my horse. I heard laughter as my herd and I approached the household, and I think the family enjoyed my attempt at being a herder, or goatboy, as I will insist on being called. I asked if I had got the job, but I didn’t understand their replies. I guess it’s a case of they’ll call me.
|A boy playing outside his ger.|
|Herding the goats.|
They had a few children who were really fun but tiring to play with. I threw myself around, spasming in the dirt as the boy’s imaginary bullets ripped through my torso and playfully pinned my twitching corpse to the valley side with mental machine gun fire. I shot him back though. I blew his fucking brains out. I’ve played enough boy soldiers to beat a six year old. I got to kick a football around a little bit which was great and I’d missed it after a month. My touch was slightly rusty and my lungs were slightly dusty after five weeks of smoking and no exercise. We went back into the ger to sit with the adults and drink some more tea. A toddler being cradled by his father was given a 4 inch long lump of fat to suck on instead of a dummy. I nearly gagged. Apparently it’s the fat and gristle from a sheep’s tail. We gave them a bag of toffees and they gave us a bag of dried curds, and I took a family portrait of them before we said goodbye and continued on our way.
|Dishing out the goat milk tea.|
|Suck on that, Johnny Boy - fat from a sheep tail|
The valleys became higher and it all felt more mountainous. They almost felt like huge stadiums, the valley sides were ginormous stands, the flat valley floor a giant arena. A few pine trees began to appear on the slopes, but only much higher up and nestled in the shady crevices of the hillsides, like a green and prickly pubic hair. We then climbed highly before perching on top of one of the peaks, where below in front of us we could see our destination of Uliastai.
|Ever changing landscapes.|
This had been the shortest and most pleasant journey so far. The visit to the ger had been really enjoyable and the landscape more diverse, or at least more stereotypically Mongolian (to my mind) than previous drives. Entering into Uliastai it felt really different to the towns we had already visited. Perhaps it’s the fact that many of the streets are tree lined, or that the attractive mountains close in on the town making it feel fairly cozy and protected. For some reason it reminds me of a small town in northern India, though I’ve got a fairly limited frame of reference, but I have seen cows and pigs wandering the street here. There just seems to be slightly more detail in the culture here, as if the Soviet influence struggled to make it over the mountains the way it perhaps so easily rolled over the desert and steppe.
This is our driver’s home town, and the evening after the first day’s clinic he drove us up to a view point where you could see one of the higher peaks in Mongolia that has snow on it’s top all year round. We scrambled up some of the rocky tops and enjoyed the views and tossed a rock onto the shamanistic ovoo. We also visited a Buddhist monument on the edge of town which was interesting to look around and again gave good views over the town. We’re hoping to take some food down to the river this evening, and I’ll take my shorts so hopefully I can have a swim.
|Nice views over rocky peaks|
|Team West - the group I am travelling with.|
|Ovoo - many of these shamanistic monuments are all over the countryside.|
|Looking out from the Buddhist monument.|
|Sky God is angry with you, Uliastai!|
|Uliastai from the Buddhist monument.|
|The Buddhist Stupas.|
|Looking down on the town.|
|I heard the views were great from down there. I thought I saw a bus load of German tourists.|