Mongolia, home of the great Genghis Khan, where every restaurant, shop and beer is named after him. Our adventure would take us to from Ulaanabatar to the legendary Darkhid Valley, said to be Gengi’s boyhood stomping ground. Nestled in the heart of the valley, cloaked in forests and sprinkled with goats, cows and steppe horses is Yaadama and Davasuren’s homestead, the place we were to call home for our short stay in Mongolia.
The drive from Ulaanbaatar to Darkhid was a miracle. How we not only survived, but also didn’t maim anyone else is simply amazing. Just when we thought we’d escaped the senseless drivers in China, Mongolia takes it to a whole new level in an “all-terrain bumper-car smashup meets suicidal peds extravaganza”. There are no road rules (likely case is that there are, but are just ignored) and it’s common practice for drivers to speed up at crossing pedestrians as ‘friendly encouragement’ to move along quickly and get the f*** out of the way.
We were thankful to be locked inside the steel belly of a solid little Soviet mini-van, built specifically for war-time conditions like Mongolian traffic. We wondered why the roof and walls of the mini-van were so heavily padded, but it all made sense as soon as we were on the country roads, being flung about like a ADD kids in a bouncy castle. Our bumpy voyage was shared with a fellow Aussie couple (Justin and Alex) who where venturing around the world and were staying at the homestead as well. We all reassured ourselves with nervous laughter that this must all be normal and that there’s a strong possibility that we’ll all make it out alive…
As soon as we arrived at Yaadama and Davasuren’s, we took in a deep breath of that cool, fresh Mongolian air, which melted away layers of oily, smog built up in our lungs over the last 6 weeks in China. After a short walk around the hillsides, playing with dead animal remains and some evening milking with Davasuren, a strong northerly Siberian wind started surging down the valley, so we quickly took sanctuary in our toasty, wood-stove heated gers and called it a night.
The ger itself was a surprisingly warm and beautifully decorated, with all the furniture and wooden tent structure painted intricately by hand. Yaadama and Davasuren couldn’t speak a word of English but that didn’t seem to matter at all, they made us feel very much at home with warm smiles, nods and Davasuren’s deliciously hearty food.
Late that night, while the wind was still thrashing at the walls of our ger, we heard the dogs barking furiously outside followed by a loud dull crack… We drifted back to sleep – curious… but too sleepy and cold to care…
The next morning Be flung open the door as if it was Christmas day hoping to see fields of snow. Alas, there was none. Instead we were greeted with a bright shining day, rolling pastures and picturesque Mongolian meadows with wild horses frolicking in the sunlight. With a heavy sigh, Be sucked it up and I said to her that this would just have to do.
We joined our hosts for breakfast in the house but were greeted by a small gathering of neighbours who had wandered over for breakfast as well. There was lots of excited murmuring at the table but our Mongolian wasn’t quite up to speed yet so we sat and smiled politely, gulping down delicious rice porridge, biscuits and of course butter tea.
After breakfast, we borrowed Yaadama’s competition bow & arrow and took it out for a spin. The animals around us, smelling our noobness, remained unphased at our embarrassing attempts to fire an arrow. When we did actually succeed in sending a few rubber-tipped-projectiles soaring through the air, there was much rejoicing and beating of chests. Satisfied with our manly efforts and mentally ticking “Archery in Mongolia” off the bucket list, we wandered over to where Yaadama was saddling up some horses for our next challenge.
It had been a long time since either of us had ridden a horse, but we felt confident we could handle this for two reasons:
1) Yaadama is an expert and had carefully picked horses whose personalities would match the rider’s size and ability.
2) The horses were sooo much smaller than the ones we remembered (being Mongolian Steppe horses) so I reckon if it came to a fight to determine who’s boss, I had slightly better odds now (strangely tho, this doesn’t work with Be).
We casually trotted from the homestead to the neighbour’s house, trying to look ‘cowboy cool’ on our new steeds with an attitude of “yeah sure… we ride horses ALL the time in New Zealand”. We were ambushed by a horde of super excited Mongol kids who cautiously inspected us (especially Be’s braces) before taking us around a corner to where the locals had gathered to watch a wolf being skinned by one of the herders!
Turns out, in the dead of the night, the wolf had been prowling around the farm and had gotten too close, sending the dogs into a barking frenzy. Since Yaadama had several young animals (newly born calves and goat kids), he couldn’t risk a large wolf getting too brave and dragging one off one of the little ones, so he shot it. Be asked him if he used a bow & arrow to shoot the wolf and he just looked at her for a moment, then laughed.
Our Mongolian language skills ranged from terrible to atrocious, so the whole story was relaid to us in a sort of tribal-campfire-story method, with hand gestures, fingers for pointy teeth & ears and ‘pew pew’ sound effects for gunfire – all in super-hi-definition 3D, no glasses needed! [Star Wars nerd reference: it reminded me of the scene where C3PO was telling a story to the ewoks in The Return of the Jedi]
The Scooby Doo mystery of the “Strange Noises in the Night” had been solved by us meddling kids. We watched as the wolf had it’s pelt skilfully and surgically peeled off. Almost every part of the wolf would be used for either clothing or medicine or making cool hats. We saddled up again and carried on our journey through the valley, wishing we had planned for a longer stay…
We had pretty low expectations of Mongolia before arriving, not having heard too much about it and most of what we did started with how bad the hotels were in Ulaanbatar. In our research we came across several ‘tourist ger camps’ which looked more like an insipid depressing theme park than anything else.
We have to give a big thanks to Keith (and Oggie) from Stone Horse Travel Expeditions who took care of us during our whole stay. We wanted a genuine Mongolian experience (it couldn’t possibly be more real than living with a herder family) and that’s exactly what we got – we’re already making plans to return for a Gobi horse trek…