Tuesday, 24 July 2012

On the Mongolian Road

Four Mongolians, two Australians and an Englishman drive west across Mongolia in an old Russian van. This wasn't the start of a laboured joke, but a little adventure that would last 16 days and take me through all sorts of beautiful landscapes. I'm currently six days and 1000km into the trip, and the group I'm traveling with are running clinics and workshops to help families with disabled children in different regional centres across southern and western Mongolia. The expedition is funded by mining companies who wish to fund social projects in the areas they operate in, and I am tagging along to document their work, both in photographs and a short documentary film. I shall write about the work of the NGO in a future blog post once it is over, but for now I will just discuss the journey.

We left Ulaanbaatar at 6.30 in the morning when the roads were still relatively quiet. We had a 12 hour drive ahead of us so it was best to beat the rush hour and gridlock gripping the city, where all avenues are choked with honking cars. The van we were traveling in is an old Russian vehicle, a bit like a VW Camper crossed with a minibus, and the inside smelt like a Second World War museum; petrol, tin and perishing leather. Combined with the smell, the hum of the engine and the rattle of the axel, I thought it might be a little like flying in a C47 over occupied Europe, every pothole was another barrage of flak jolting my bones which were trying to sleep. The main difference being the fear of death was replaced with the excitement of travel and adventure. 

I spent the first part of the day dozing in the back of the van, I was tired and the bumpy unmaintained roads were uncomfortable, so reducing my levels of consciousness seemed to be a good way to decrease the discomfort of travel. We drove through an emerald wilderness of soft green velvet draped across gentle hills. Isolated gers were scattered like discarded buds of cotton wool in the distance, and countless herds of horses roamed freely like zebra on the Savannah. We stopped for lunch in a very small town; I was introduced to the cuisine, if you could call it such, and had mutton and noodles, which tasted dirty and sweaty, as everything I have eaten so far does.

Rural Mongolia - gers, horses and hills.
In the afternoon the landscape became more rocky, like if Mars had some grass, and we wound our way along bumpy unpaved tracks, meandering through the wild landscape. We passed a few settlements here and there, but only consisting of a few gers grouped together, and the odd herder on horseback. We crossed paths with the occasional 4x4 or lorry but otherwise we were on our own. Our destination for the day was a town called Bayankhongor, where we would spend two days working in a children's centre, and we arrived in the sleepy frontier town by sunset. We stayed in a hotel for the two days, the hard mattress was made of horse hair, and it seemed the pillow was stuffed with dried beans, but nevertheless I slept well after an arduous journey, which was like being shaken by a flight simulator for 12 hours.

A lonely tanker on the road to Bayankhongor
We only passed a handful of people all day.
On our final evening in Bayankhongor, we were invited to the staff from the children's centre summer party, a barbecue held down by the river just out of town. Earlier in the day they had boiled the organs from the sheep, all stuffed with blood and fat, and left them in a bowl on the table we were working from, apparently as a treat for us to eat. It smelt like death on a farm, I wasn't sure if it was dinner or the remnants of a foot and mouth outbreak. I opted not to eat any at this time, thinking I would be offered it at the party in the evening where I would have to try it out of politeness - so I wasn't going to put myself through this ordeal twice. Fortunately for me, the foul smelling guts never made a reappearance so I never had to eat it. I was told the meal we were having was pronounced 'whore-hog', which I thought was a fitting name for some of the roly-poly ten-pinters found in the nightclubs back home. The food itself this time was actually rather nice. They steam cooked an entire butchered sheep, in a kind of milk churn, sealed with water and packed with hot stones, heated over a fire of horse shit. The meat was pretty good, I think us being fussy foreigners were given the prime cuts, and I was force fed a few shots of vodka, although I was happy to be polite to my hosts. After the meal the Mongolians played a drinking game, and instead of beer drank airag, a fermented mares milk which contains about 3% alcohol. I was given a mug filled to the brim, I took a few sips but had to hand it back. It tasted like a sour and fizzy milk, everything I am educated to throw away. I enjoyed watching the drinking game, it was like an anthropology field trip, but all that I really learnt was how similar it all was to home.

Preparing the 'whore-hog'.
Mongolian drinking games - fermented horse milk.

A boy out herding his goats.
The next day's travel would take us across the Gobi desert, and our destination was a town of cracked concrete and peeling paint called Altai, though it's actually smarter than the previous town; it actually has traffic lights. We left Bayankhongor again early in the morning as it would be another long drive to Altai. The patchy grass soon gave way to desert, and horses turned into camels, and camels turned into corpses the deeper we drove. Not long into the journey I watched a pelvis of a long perished beast be crushed under the wheels of our unforgiving wagon, and long silent horses slept into pieces in the sand. We passed a few people who flagged us down, one had run out of fuel, another seemed to have just broken down. We gave some fuel to the former, the latter seemed to be fucked. The way was littered with bleached bones and blown out tyres: a warning for those trying to cross the Gobi, and we didn't pass any form of settlement or sign of habitation for hours. After a while the mirages gave way to dunes, and then the dunes bowed down to the distant Altai mountains. When we did occasionally reach a settlement, one was by a brown shallow river we had to cross, the other by a dirty and sorry looking lake, it felt like they were the outpost at the end of the earth, far removed from a life I am familiar with. I wondered how they stay sane. I start to lose it if my broadband keeps disconnecting. First world problems, hey.

I wanted to get some shots of the van driving through landscape for the film I am making, so set up my tripod in a shallow river to film the vehicle crossing. As I was wading out, my flip flops were sucked into the sediment, and as I pulled they both snapped, so I spent the rest of the day barefoot, much to the amusement of the few locals we met. I left my flip flops in the desert, to be discovered by irate environmentalists or delighted archaeologists. The clap-trap van rattled across the arid landscape; we were constantly tossed up in the air and clutched back by gravity as we hurtled towards the horizon. We stopped in the small settlement by the lake, which consisted of maybe 20 gers, a couple of brick buildings and a single petrol pump. The outskirts of the outpost were littered with rubbish, plastic, broken bottles and baked toilet paper. It was actually just like Tatooine from Star Wars, not that I've been there. We opted to have some lunch in the single cafe there, we had the mutton noodles again, which were dirtier than before, and they would come back to haunt me like a violent poltergeist in my stomach. Four hours later, and 15 minutes after we arrived in Altai, I was violently sick and this would continue all evening. I assume they mixed some of the dried shit they use for cooking in with my meal, I felt awful and could not keep anything inside me. The other end started later on, and I was spurting evil from both ends of my axis; and then my nose started bleeding. Leaking from three holes at once. At least I didn't piss myself.

A herd of camels were the last thing we passed before bones littered the way.
Giving fuel to some who had ran out.
Our driver and two of the girls on the trip in the cafe at the end of the world.
One of the few signs of life we passed.
The Gobi road.
Three unwashed children playing outside the offending restaurant.

1 comment:

  1. Ben: another outstanding post from my Mongolian blogster!! But really Ben, flip-flops in the Gobi? I thought I trained you better than that - what would Bear Grylles say?

    This looks very hard core to me sitting in my Premier Inn, digesting a nice steak and drinking my second Stella. Still jealous, but thoroughly enjoying your adventures, but do us all a favour and steer clear of the 3-hole trick if you can: you are full of fluids for a reason so try to hang on to them until they are properly rerady to leave!!