Monday, 6 August 2012

Olgii: The end of the road

We were delayed leaving Khovd by the police arresting our driver and impounding his vehicle. We had hoped to be on the road for the final leg of our journey by 9am, but the events of the night before put a certain spanner in the works. Earlier that evening we sweated up the steps to the top of the big hill that overlooks the  town, and cracked open a beer at sunset. The mosquitos were killer so we didn't stay too long. My legs now have more bites than an ambitious American at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We were then taken to a bar that had a bit of a disco, playing a mixture of Western and Russian pop and dance. Our hosts whipped out the vodka as is customary and we did our best to impress them with our drinking. We danced to the badly DJ'd music, the DJ felt it necessary to practice his scratching, and he needed practice, as it was like a teenager with an attention disorder. I ended up being challenged to a dance off by a seemingly territorial Mongolian lad. Little did he know that I have never really lost a challenge such as this, and combined with my vodka confidence I did my best to rise to the occasion and put him in his place. There's two ways of winning a dance off. Either dance superiorly if you know you're a better dancer; or if you're in danger of being outshone, take the piss with your moves and entertain the crowd that way. It's fairly fail-safe. I'm arrogantly sure I won with the former. When we went to leave, our driver and van were nowhere to be found.
Mongolia's Most Wanted - Derek (Baterdene)
We somehow found out that he (Baterdene/Derek) had been arrested, though the details for me are a little hazy due to being a little drunk. I'm still not sure if Derek had been nicked for having drunk half a beer, as it's a zero tolerance policy, or the other story I was told was he reversed his vehicle without his lights on, so the cops took the opportunity to exercise some authority. I guess they don't have too much to do in a town like this. We ended up at the police station where our Mongolians started negotiating. I had to frustratingly stand back as I could be of no help, just a hindrance in this situation. I would've loved this situation back home and felt confident I would have helped resolve things; my six years as a press photographer and dealing with the police on an almost daily basis has taught me how to talk to them and usually get the outcome you want. I don't know how or why but we found ourselves in some random Mongolian apartment. They rustled up a 2am vegetable and mutton soup as there's a lack of kebab shops in Khovd, and I drank some milk tea with butter in it which surprisingly hit the spot, and then I passed out for an hour or two on the floor of their living room, dozing next to their perplexed daughter. When I woke up in a bit of a daze it seemed Derek had been freed, but we would have to wait until the morning for the vehicle, so we stumbled through the backstreets back to the children's centre where we were staying. The following morning Derek went to collect his vehicle, but he had a long wait as the officer responsible for that bit of paperwork didn't come on duty until the afternoon, and of course none of the other cops were apparently capable of signing the form, efficient as Mongolia is. We were on the road by 3pm with a good six hour drive ahead of us, so we would not be arriving in Olgii until sundown.

Group photo as we were leaving Khovd.
The sandy road out of Khovd and into the mountains.
The drive took us past mountains and through valleys, where we had to drive through a number of small rivers and streams that cut through the rocky road. We saw glaciers, and I'm not sure if I've ever seen one before, certainly not discernibly like they are in summer months, when the rest of the snow has melted. The mountains looked like a giant Christmas pudding and the glacier was cream running down it in white oozing fingers. Perhaps I was just starting to have food fantasies after living with a rural Mongolian menu for a fortnight. We beeped herds of camels out of our way, and passed a couple of vehicles taking part in the Mongol Rally, who left London a few weeks ago. It was mildly exciting to see a Fiat Punto with a UK registration plate bouncing it's way along the trail, kicking up a plume of dust like a comet.

The glacier which reminded me of a Christmas pudding.
Meandering through valleys.
Wrinkly hillsides.
We pulled up at dusk in Olgii, a town where the eagles shriek and circle overhead. We made our way to the children's centre where again we would be working and staying in, and it was the last building on the edge of town. The construction of it wasn't finished. It had no running water and the electricity was limited. The toilet was a long drop, you walked a precarious plank over an 8 foot pit of festering shit, and when you balanced to do your business, the mosquitos bit your arse. We went for dinner in a Turkish restaurant which I enjoyed immensely, they served chicken cooked on skewers over charcoal, which tasted delicious after all the previous offerings.

A ger out the back of the centre lit my moonlight.
A long exposure looking out of town - a car's headlights streak by.
The following evening I had been looking forward to returning to the Turkish place for more chicken, but instead we were invited to our hosts home for a feast. Our hosts were Mongolian Kazakhs, there are many different ethnic groups in Mongolia and the people in Olgii look a lot different to elsewhere I had been, the Kazakh genes were prominent here. One of the girls who came to the clinic had blonde-ish hair, and many people were fairer skinned with bright, piercing eyes. Our hosts laid on a huge and delicious spread. We were given a starter of salads, coleslaws, home made bread and fruits, along with curds which I am less keen on. The main course was a bowl of very tender and quite tasty mutton, accompanied by this doughy twist thing stuffed with onion which was really delicious, followed by a vegetable soup to finish. Finally they served up some airag, the fermented mares milk, and this one was the most rancid one I have tried. I had a few sips but I just couldn't stomach it. It's so fizzy and sour, it's a bit like mixing lemonade with a very strong, gone-off milk, the kind you find in the fridge when returning from a three week holiday. Or the kind you find if you're just a student. We watched a bit of the Olympics on their tv, one of the Mongolian hopefuls was taking part in the Judo, but sadly for my Mongolian friends he was defeated. The evening was really enjoyable and it was interesting to see their home which the dad built himself, and hear of some of the Kazakh customs and look through their family photo albums which were proudly brought out.

The man who kept the eagles, with his son.
The following evening we went again to a hill overlooking the town. This is a common theme here, I guess there's not that much to do and perhaps they like to look at their cities, they are a fairly new phenomenon in a traditionally nomadic society. We were then taken to a place with some Kazakh gers, which differ slightly to the Mongolian ones - they are slightly bigger and much more decorative inside. They had the skins of wolves and a snow leopard hanging from the walls, which were interesting yet sad to see, especially as the snow leopard is pretty endangered, but maybe these skins were generations old, I'm not to know. We met a man who we were told was the governor of the district, but he was wearing a tracksuit and had a bottle of vodka stuffed in his pocket - so maybe he was. He put on a traditional Kazakh costume and posed for photos, before scuttling off with his booze, apparently he was hosting a wedding at his house next door. We then went to a friend of our hosts who kept eagles, which I think he used for hunting, as is the tradition in this part of Mongolia. We each had a go with them on our arm, they were big birds with powerful looking legs and sat heavy on our outstretched limbs. The eagle I held had a few of it's talons missing, apparently from a fight with a fox. Due to it's lack of grip, and me dropping my arm to unbalance the bird to make it's wings outstretch for a better photo, it fell off into the dust twice but it didn't seem to get too pissed off. When you're done with an eagle, just chuck it on the ground, that's my motto. We finished the night with dinner in a Kazakh restaurant with a pleasant meal and watching some of the Olympics, again more judo. My head kept getting turned by a table of pretty young Kazakh women, who looked nothing like the women in Borat. Wah wah wee wah - it's a very nice!

Ogling Olgii.
Curious boys.
Derek, the Guv'nor and myself inside the Kazakh ger.
Olgii massiv. Note the wolfskin hanging up on the left, it's a fox on the right, and jokers in the middle.
Badma, our translator and really good company handles an eagle.
Me and my disabled bird.
The Saturday we packed up our things and went to the airport, we sat around and waited with in a busy waiting area, complete with 25 young Koreans who looked like they had been on a climbing expedition, and amusingly they were all in matching clothes with bright yellow jackets, and even all had the same boots on and bags with the logo Colon Sport, which is an entirely different type of rugged pursuit altogether. Eventually we were told our plane would not be coming today. Apparently the slight cloud constituted bad weather, just as infuriating as our 'leaves on the line' excuse, so we headed back to the centre before taking a final meal in the Turkish restaurant, so I could eat chicken and rinse the wifi. We spent an hour or two looking in Olgii's shops. A few clothes and shoe shops, which were more amusing than tempting me to buy anything. On the walk back to where we were staying I popped into a shop with Ben to buy a Sprite. The chap behind the counter gestured something to us, and we worked out he wanted to show us something out the back. If this happened back home you'd probably think they were insane and run a mile, but we followed him out through his back yard and to a shed, where he produced a small bird of prey that screamed like a teenage girl. He grinned from ear to ear as he showed us his bird, and gestured if we wanted to hold it. He only had a freezer glove for protection, so I declined the offer fearing for my delicate hands, preferring slightly sturdier protection between my soft skin and the talons of death. We said our goodbyes once it started to become weird, and I spent the evening watching episodes of the Sopranos on my laptop and we had dinner in a different Kazakh restaurant. The following day we went to the airport, and after waiting about four hours, the plane decided to show up, and we turbulently made our way back to Ulaanbaatar.

The chuffed shopkeeper with his bird of prey.
Lads on tour: Olgii 2012. Ben Gwilliam, Baterdene 'Derek' the driver, and some other guy.
 I never got lucky with the stars, the one clear night was a bright full moon and the mosquitos were a plague 
The team, minus Casey, who had to leave a day early to attend a wedding. 
Blue dawn, I got up early for a piss and this was the view.
Finally catching our flight.
One other thing. I'd started to become annoyed by white people whilst on this trip. At first when we passed them in rural locations I felt a mixture of curious excitement and annoyance. The former for the novelty of it and wondering who they were and where they were from and a strange desire to say hello, and annoyance for them somehow impinging on our adventure, shattering the illusion that we were somehow unique. However, passing them whilst traveling still held enough of a novel curiosity to not be an annoyance to me, but seeing others at the airport and in some restaurants did annoy me. They were mostly late middle aged couples, but generally ranged from 30s to early 60s, hardly any as young as ourselves. The thing that pissed me off was their clothes. I saw one couple wearing full traditional Mongolian clothes, they looked a hippy sort, and they looked fucking ridiculous, almost bordering on the offensive, like they were unintentionally taking the piss. The rest, annoyed me just as much. They were all wearing those trousers that zip off into shorts, safari shirts and jungle hats and had all the outdoor gear, yet seemed to spend their time in jeeps, walking on pavements and eating in restaurants. It seems to be a uniform of a certain type of traveler; those making a statement that they are traveling, and want to dress different to how they normally would so their experience feels more genuine. I don't get why they can't wear their normal high street clothes whilst doing the same activities they would be doing at home. I find you embarrassing. Please stop it. Rant over.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "...trousers that zip off into shorts, safari shirts and jungle hats and had all the outdoor gear, yet seemed to spend their time in jeeps, walking on pavements and eating in restaurants".

    I resemble that comment Ben!

  3. Well they probably think I look stupid in my skinny plum chinos, vest and hoody. But it's the same clobber I wear on the mean streets of Peterborough, because I'm just walking on the mean streets of Mongolia, not searching for lost Inca gold.

  4. ...just as well you're not searching for lost Inca gold - you're on the wrong continent! ;0)

    I have every confidence however, that once you've gone down some more, across a little and then up a bit, you'll find a great big pot of it in them there hills.

    But you never know, traveling to find it may actually be the 'gold' itself?

  5. That's a nice way of looking at things. And by the way, former Scout leaders are exempt from the final comments of this post. It's those who probably never wear these clothes at home, yet have bought a whole new wardrobe of 'adventure' clothes, to me they just look a bit silly.