Sunday, 17 December 2006
Genghis Khan, Horse Belly, Old MacDonald Had a Ger
Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th December
Thursday and Friday I suffered with a very heavy cold, still making it to school and heroically managing my enormous workload of classes. Happily, I managed to recover most of my strength by the weekend. The Mongolian family I know had invited me to join them on a visit to their relatives in Baganuur, a town some 75 miles from Ulaanbaatar - which meant that I would make my first journey through the Mongolian countryside. The family - husband and wife Tso and Shinee and their daughter Misheel - arrived to pick me up around 8am on Saturday morning: we were leaving early to catch the sunrise. The outskirts of Ulaanbaatar as we headed East took us through crowded Ger districts, where the smoke was thickly rising from chimneys: picturesque, but also a considerable contribution to UB’s air pollution problem. The road itself was cracked and broken, filled with craterous pot holes. The scenery, however is quite spectacular - the mountains surrounding UB are part of one of the country’s longest-established national parks - and before too long the charming grime of the capital was left behind, and we were passing herds of sheep, goats and horses, where the ger now belonged to livestock herders. Everything was dusted with snow, though happily for the grazing animals the tops of the grass still shows brownly through. Sunrise was quick and dazzling, and brought with it the unearthly blue skies that had greeted me to Mongolia two weeks ago, and the memory of which had been a little lost in Ulaanbaatar’s grimy haze. Happily for the top of my skull and any eventual long-term effect on the roof of the car, the road surface improved too. Considering that this was the only road East out of UB (as far as I can gather) we met precious little traffic coming in to the home of half the nation’s population; such traffic as was largely consisted of big green trucks overloaded with furs and hides.
Our first stop was to see a forty foot tall shining steel representation of old Genghis himself, sat astride a Horse and glowering out over distant mountains and grasslands. This statue, The Chinggis Khaan Monument, is quite an awe-inspiring sight: it’s also somewhat surreal in its present state as the statue has been built, but not the base - so it is currently supported about 15 feet above the ground on iron girders, and a giant crane stands beside the fierce father (both figuratively and, statistically speaking, literally) of the nation.
Shortly afterwards we stopped for breakfast: tea, ham and gherkins. My companions introduced me to another Mongolian culinary delight - they dropped slices of ham into their tea (which was English Breakfast tea, for your information). I decided not to join them in this.
Shinee’s younger brother lives in the residential district of Baganuur. The town entirely consists of the familiar concrete soviet architecture: the lack of the bumper to bumper (and too often closer) traffic of UB made a welcome change. As in the capital though, the streets were full of people wrapped up well but otherwise ignoring the chill and passing the time of day in a very cheery manner. Our host’s apartment was in a building even closer to disintegration than mine; the apartment itself, of course, was very comfortable, modern and clean - in complete contrast to my own.
We were treated to our second breakfast of the day: tea, sweet pastries, some chopped ham and gherkins and an enormous bowl of cold horse meat. Tso very enthusiastically tucked into the horse meat, and carved me off a big piece. Of course it tasted very good. I asked what the large and less than appetising thing was in the middle of the bowl and was not surprised to learn that it was the stomach. Tso sliced off a piece that I was surprised to see him manage to fit in his mouth and laughed as he insisted that I try some. The verdict? Well, certainly chewy, with an interesting texture. I am sure that it has many beneficial properties.
Eating was not entirely the business of the day, but the rest served only as interludes. We paid a brief visit to the town square, where there is a monument to the town’s favourite son: a greatly admired early 20th century poet and writer and general champion of the Mongolian language.
For the afternoon, now accompanied by two of Shinee’s brothers and their wives, we drove out into the countryside along a frozen mud track for several miles, to a Ger camp: one of the many tourist camps in the country, which do not only serve as an attraction for foreign visitors, but which are a convenient way for town and city dwelling Mongolians to stay in touch with their nomadic roots. I don’t know the figures, but I imagine that the majority of Mongolians are now apartment dwellers - nonetheless, only going back as far as their grandparents’ lives must probably take the overwhelming majority of Mongolians back to the Ger.
We had to wait about half an hour in a small restaurant building whilst the stove was lit in our ger. Once it was ready the party tramped over to it through the crisp snow. First, however, I paid a visit to the ger where our evening meal was being prepared by two cooks. As soon as I stepped inside the heat enveloped me. The stove in this ger had been burning for hours and the entire place was as warm as you could possibly want it. My attention was occupied by the stove, in which the fire was burning fiercely. A round lid had been removed from the top and in it a large pressure-cooking pan was placed. There was an inch or two of fiercely boiling water in the bottom of the pan. One of the cooks used tongs to remove red-hot stones from within the stove; these were then dropped hissing into the pan. Next, a layer of meat - large chunks of red beef on the bone - were pressed down onto the stones. This was followed by another layer of stones and another of beef, until the pan was almost filled. Finally, a packet of chopped herbs was sprinkled liberally in and what little space remained at the top of the pan was filled with peeled potatoes, carrots and swedes. The steam and odours arising from the pan were already pretty enticing. The lid was fitted and the pan left on the heat of the stove (although with the hole in the stove top re-covered too): I was told that it would be left to cook for half an hour.
Our own ger was not as hot as the kitchen ger, but was certainly warm enough. The atmosphere was very convivial; the ger was prettily decorated by the hand painted wooden furniture - chests doubling as beds around the side of the ger and a a big table doubling as a chest in the middle. I warmed myself by the stove until Shinee told me that the men’s side of the ger was across the table on the far side from the stove, to which I reluctantly but manfully retired. Touching the woollen sides of the ger I was surprised that I felt no chill at all. The camp is by a frozen river and it must easily have been past -20c outside.
Whilst we waited for our food there was a round of shots of Chinggis Vodka accompanied by toasts of very high-minded sentiment. There were a good few of these. Finally, the pressure cooker was brought in and the lid removed, issuing gouts of rich-smelling steam . I was served with a sizeable piece of backbone, and we all ate heartily with our hands, exactly as I had previously only seen in cartoons and Robin Hood movies. The result was extremely good - the meat wonderfully well cooked and seared by the hot stones. I ate the marrow or whatever the buttery stuff is in the middle of the vertebrae - very tasty. After eating, we took up the hot stones and juggled them from hand to hand - this being good for the circulation, apparently. Then more Vodka.
I went out into the starry night to slide around on the frozen river for ten minutes or so with the kids. Damn cold outside but a very suitable after dinner pastime. Back in the ger my banjo had been got out for me and left to warm up on a bed at the back. I very happily repaid the hospitality of my hosts by playing through a good number of tunes and singing as well as the vodka had left me able. 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' is definitely going down well here. Apparently the song is known to Mongolian kids with lyrics in their own language. They only get animal noises at the end of verses rather than throughout, however. Tso and the kids had earlier taught me a melody to a very popular Mongolian nursery rhyme, which I fully intend to keep playing.
Either the stove was burning low or my enthusiasm for the banjo was not shared as much as the vodka gave me to imagine: at any road, it was soon enough time to clear out and head home. The ger had got somewhat colder once we’d stopped feeding the fire: I was left to imagine how cold it would get overnight as we travelled back to the fully central-heated apartment in town. The road presented no problems in spite of the ice: there was no other traffic and I am thinking that the breathalyser is yet to be introduced to rural Mongolia. Once home, there was time for my kind hosts to prepare one last meat-focused meal (beef dumplings), to be washed down with beer and then bed.
The sky was overcast once more as we drove back to Ulaanbaatar this afternoon. Approaching the Genghis statue we stopped as a horseman herded his shaggy-coated, short, stocky horses across the road. The rider, thickly wrapped up against the cold, was the first horseman I had seen in Mongolia. He seemed to look at me with equal curiosity as we passed.