Part 3 of my Mongolian diary…
Notch has become my horse. Pujay, the camp herdsman (who looks about a hundred and eight but is apparently only forty), brings him over to me straight away now when I go to get a pony from the line. I called him Notch because of his ear. In Mongolia ear-snipping is a way of marking ownership, much like our branding, but the camp owner has bought so many horses from all over the place that there is no uniform mark; some have an ear snipped, some have both ears snipped, some have brands; it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Poor old Notch has three marks. I think as horses go, Notch looks like a rock star. He’s not the biggest horse at camp but he’s a beautiful fudge colour with a wicked two-tone mane. I wish my hair was that naturally funky.
Usually if I try to commune with the horses whilst they’re free-range, they just swish their tails and wander further away to graze; I don’t think they really understand the concept of being friends with people. The first few times I spotted Notch grazing up on the hillside and tried to go and say hi he did the same, but after a while I think he just got curious about this strange human who didn’t seem to be trying to catch him. We had the most magical afternoon on the hillside amongst the wild flowers which I will treasure forever. For once he didn’t wander off and instead he just stood looking at me intrigued and suffered me to take a few snaps. Eventually he let me get close enough to give him a good scratch behind the ear which must have broken the last of his defences as we spent the rest of the afternoon playing on the hillside.
He was so relaxed with me that he was quite happy to doze off standing next to me and in the end we both hit the ground and shared a nice nap in the flowers like a scene from a fairy-tale. Best nap ever.
To ride, Notch is kind of crazy. A more perfect pony you could not imagine at walk, trot and canter; ask him for more speed or less speed and he’ll immediately obey, it’s the gallop where he gets a bit bananas. He’s faster than I would have thought possible for a pony his size and his sturdy hooves hit the ground quicker than a drumroll when he’s galloping. He is not a pony that needs a lot of encouragement; one utter of the word ‘choo’, the Mongolian command for ‘go’, and he’s off. If Pujay sneaks up behind you and whistles through his teeth the way he does when he rounds them up in the morning then you’re on the horizon quicker than you can blink too. I am a total speed-freak and I love nothing more than the feeling of the wind rushing past my face so I love my speedy golden boy. That said though, I’m still a bit rusty and out of practise and I’m not completely at full-confidence again yet; I’m still holding onto the front of the saddle when we gallop. I’m not sure how anyone could let go on Notch; I can do it for short periods but he’s so excitable and such a sharp-turner when he’s going flat-out that he can fling you off at a split-second’s notice. Not intentionally of course but he just has his own way of turning. If the rest of the group is veering towards the right, he’ll continue dead straight until he decides to turn and then he’ll corner sharper than a cat to get himself back on the same trajectory as them. The skin on my fingers is ripped to pieces from trying to stay on during his high-speed surprise turns. He’d probably be the best gymkhana pony ever if someone brought him to Britain.
Still, I would far rather have my Notch with his speed, eagerness to please and shared siestas than a steady, slow horse that has to be asked thirty times to do something.
Here’s the second installation of my Mongolian Diary:
The life of a Mongolian horse is incomparably different to that of your average horse elsewhere. As much as possible they live completely un-tampered with lives out on the steppes in natural wild herds. Nomadic horse people follow these herds and live their lives in total symbiosis with them. To a Mongolian person a horse is so much more than just a companion or leisure animal; it is the only effective means of transport in much of the country, a currency in its own right, a means of income, and also a food source in hard times – mostly for dairy products made from mare’s milk but also the meat of the animals too. This is pretty unpalatable to many of us of course but Mongolia, whilst beautiful, is an exceptionally brutal land. The infrastructure does not allow for very much at all by way of imports – especially out in the further reaches of the country, and the rock solid earth which sees very little rainfall and spends a big chunk of the year at a bone-chilling -40C, is all but useless for crop cultivation. Herd animals are pretty much it for food. Mongolian horses aren’t named and aren’t pets – with the exception of the greatest race horses and winners. Do your family proud and you just might get a name and stay off the dinner table.
Horrible bit out of the way, being a Mongolian horse is pretty sweet up until that point. A foal is born free out there in the infinite grassland with no fields, roads or fences, and it will roam wild with its mother and its family until it is fully grown. If it’s female it will be left alone its entire life and will only have interaction with people if it needs medical attention and in the summer if she has a foal of her own she might be caught and milked before being released again.
For boys life is a bit more eventful; colts will be rounded up and (cover your eyes gents) castrated unless they show good potential as racers. This is to reduce fighting, make sure only the best males breed and make it easier to keep track of whose foals are whose. These geldings will then be trained for riding, their manes will be partially hogged (leaving their forelocks and roughly 10 inches at the base) and they will be re-released into the herd. The hogging makes them more easily identifiable so that when the horsemen round up the herd in the morning they can tell which ones are trained and pick them out, in the evening they’ll be untethered and left to gallop off and re-join their family. During the winter they might go as long as six to eight months without much human interaction at all but once trained they stay trained and they will still be rideable in Spring when they’re rounded up again for a new haircut.
On the other hand, if a colt is particularly speedy and handsome he could be paired with a young jockey (typically 8-11 years old) and together they will train for the Mongolian horse-races, in particular the Naadam festival which is like the Superbowl, world-cup and Christmas all wrapped up in one for Mongolian people. If he’s really lucky and he does well he might get a herd of his own one day, in which case he’ll get to be like Boss – our palomino herd stallion. Never caught or ridden anymore; Boss spends his days eating, sleeping, bossing other horses around and having his way with the enormous herd of ladies at his disposal. At the moment two of his sons are preparing for the races and if they’re lucky they might get to retire in the same style in a few years too.
Mongolian horses are beautiful and come in a spectacular variety of colours, including a lot of ones that are quite rare elsewhere; buckskins, grullos, creams, duns and roans for instance. They also commonly have distinctive two-tone manes, dorsal stripes and vivid zebra bars on their legs; clues to the primitive nature of the breed and how close they are to the Przewalski Wild Horse – the first true horse. Wild Przewalskis are found only in Mongolia and are to horses what wolves are to dogs, which lends quite a lot of credibility to the strongly held Mongolian belief that they were the first to domesticate and ride horses.
My time spent in Mongolia is up there with the most astonishing travel experiences (or just experiences) that I’ve ever had or am ever likely to have. I spent a month living in a ger (Mongolian round tent) with no hot water or electricity; when it gets dark you light a candle or go to bed. When you need to wash (which is all the time) water is pumped up from an underground well 65 metres below the surface. It’s so cold that pouring it over your head gives you instant brain freeze. I was working as a riding instructor, come proof-reader, come English teacher to the young family who owned the camp, the riding instructor part came when groups of tourists visited the camp for rides or treks. Of course blogging, or using a computer at all, was impossible (my netbook had a battery life of approximately 5 minutes) so I had to go old-school and write a diary. What a joy that in itself was! In the coming weeks I will share some entries with you to give you an idea of what nomadic life on the steppes is really like.
I’m itching to ride! All day from the moment I wake until after the sun has set I see people cantering past on their wonderful horses and I long to go and get one off the line where they are tethered and explore the beautiful surrounding hills. Time is whooshing past at an alarming rate; it’s so wonderful here that I haven’t once felt the urge to go in to town. I’d like to pick up some chap stick and spare camera batteries for when mine run out but I can’t bring myself to leave. It is at once a very lazy and a very active place; always there is something to do and even walking from the toilet shed (hole over a pit) to my ger is a feat involving trekking up a big hill. That said though, mostly I am just talking with new trekkers, writing, planning lessons and having impromptu English sessions with whoever feels inclined to have one.
I’ve only ridden twice since I got here; once on the first day when my ger-mate Uurnaa and I rode over to the neighbours’ for home-made yak butter (which by the way is gorgeous, sort of sweet and cheesy) and once the day before last. We trekked half way to the monastery with a group, a journey of 2 and a half hours, then galloped back in half an hour. I’d forgotten how fast a horse at full-speed is! When Uurnaa took off ahead of me I marvelled in amazement at the blur of legs and streaming tail and before I’d even blinked I found myself ten strides ahead of her. My control was very poor – I’m so out of practise that I found I couldn’t bring myself to let go of the saddle when moving at top speed. My goal before I leave is to get back to where I used to be and be able to gallop across the steppes without one hand white-knuckle gripping the pommel.
I fell off too, but that was before the galloping. Somewhat embarrassing! The whole way there we hadn’t seen any other people but of course it had to happen just as we passed several families of Mongolians milking mares to make airag (pronounced arak) – fermented mare’s milk (more on that at a later date). They had a pony tied to a post and as we strolled past all relaxed it apparently reared up, mine swung to the side and I was on the floor. I didn’t know that at the time; I was just enjoying the countryside and then suddenly my seat was whipped out to the side from under me. For a split second I thought I’d be able to cling on and then I landed on my back on the floor with a whump and an intense pain in my kidney. My horse Notch was staring at me indignantly and I realised (with my last bit of pride) that at least I’d managed to keep hold of the reins. The Mongolians thought it was hilarious, fortunately the worst damage was to my pride but damn did it hurt getting out of bed the next day. Mongolian horses live out wild on the steppes in natural herds and have very little human interaction for big chunks of the year; because of this they’re much feistier and much nimbler on their feet and they can turn as sharp and fast as a fish should they feel the need. I can definitely testify to this now! Because I’m nice like that I drew you a picture:
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky
Where to even begin writing this blog entry – how to possibly put a year of life in Thailand and 6 months of adventures on the Mongolian steppes and South East Asian Peninsula into words now that the time has come. How to summarise so many different experiences and emotions in a paltry 1000 words? How do you write about your feelings when you’re not even sure what they are? I suppose that’s why it’s taken me so long to get round to it; TV and cider and generally being lazy has seemed more alluring than confronting this post since I touched down on home soil. “Did you have a good time?” “Yeah it was amazing thanks.” Utterly insufficient.
The first dizzyingly disconcerting thing that struck me upon landing in Europe after 18 months in Asia, was that everyone here is a giant. For the first time in longer than I could remember, at 5 foot 6” I wasn’t amongst the tallest people in any given room. The second thing, on leaving Berlin Shonefeld airport jetlagged for a long weekend reunion with my brother, his girlfriend and my best friend, was the traffic; so eerily quiet and safe and orderly – science-fiction orderly. I stood at the side of the road by a zebra-crossing; backpack attached, trying to get my bearings and find a taxi. I’m used to leaving an airport to 50 men shouting “taxi!” in my face, who I would then normally skirt before heading out of the airport to hail one where it’s cheaper. Here there’s a system. The cars on the road in front of me had slowed and come to a stop and their drivers were looking at me in annoyance. I stared at them baffled for a minute before realising it must be because I was standing at a zebra-crossing; those are just meaningless face-paint for roads in Thailand. I crossed the road and the traffic started moving again; it’s like friggin’ Blade Runner. So it goes.
A friend of mine told me that ending a period of long-term travel is like breaking-off a long-term relationship; even when you know it’s for the best it hurts like crazy and it takes approximately the same amount of time to assess it and file it away in your brain box as you spent engaged in it. A year still to go then. One of the hardest parts has been deciding what to do now. The last 4-5 years have been utterly devoted to travel; planning it, saving for it, writing about it, doing it. What on earth happens next? Well more of it hopefully but how, where and when? For now I have returned to the City Council, something I was dreading but which has actually been great – I’m very lucky to have been able to walk back into a decent job and I’ve been overwhelmed by how positive people have been to see me again and how many people have been following my exploits; thank-you to you all.
2014 is the year though; new year, new start – no more moping and being indecisive (how many times have you heard that before?). This year is a bit different though; today is the very first day of my masters in Professional Writing, which will hopefully lead to me one day being able to work from my laptop not an office – leaving me free to globe-trot at will. The masters has forced me to go part-time from the day-job; which also means I’m now broke and will be forced to finally put my money where my mouth is and make some income with creativity. Expect in the next few weeks some shameless plugging of Blue Fairy Art (the namesake of this little blog – you can find it on facebook) and finally the publishing of my Mongolian diary. Happy travels bloggers.
And so it comes to pass that 437 days after I left the green green grass of home I find myself sitting in an Ulaanbaatar guesthouse in Mongolia contemplating my impending return and trying to figure out how on earth I feel about it. It changes fairly often; my conflicting thoughts seem to be caught in a ceaseless battle for supremacy, fantasies of propa’ British chips, a warm bath and a soft bed declaring war against agonising homesickness for Thailand and a wanderlust that doesn’t know where it wants to go but isn’t done yet. I’ve a zillion blogs to write once I have the time and internet connection to dedicate to them but for now the most pressing issue is that in 2 days time I will be out of Asia for the first time since I left and back on European soil (in Berlin for a reunion with my brother). One week from now I will be in England in the warm, safe and cosy embrace of my parents’ home. After that I’ll be back in the old pubs and the same office and soon it will all be just a selection of memories, souvenirs and photos. How strange it will be to be in a country where my face doesn’t immediately betray me as a foreigner, even stranger still to be in a country where everyone speaks my language and ordering food or jumping in a cab is no more complicated than a sneeze, albeit a lot more expensive. We drive on the left. Right? British pounds again, what do they look like? I can’t remember. I’ll be converting them to Thai baht same as I do with Mongolian Tugrik to work out how much things are. Will I slip straight back into straightening my hair and putting on make-up for nights out or will I remain the shabby, dishevelled thing I have become?
That’s a funny one; I seem to have completely changed appearance since I’ve been gone. Here’s me the weekend before I left; dark hair, fair skin – standard Celtic-blood girl.
Here’s me now – after a month in Mongolia with no mirror I did a double-take when I finally encountered one. Brown as a fresh-baked biscuit and barely space to put a pin between the freckles. Sun-bleached and chap-lipped.
Mongolia has been every kind of heaven but I shall save it for another day. One thing I will say is thank heaven for the Welsh. A very random statement I know but whenever I felt particularly conflicted about going home during my time here, Mongolia did a very good job of suddenly becoming exceptionally Welsh. Or rather my little network of valleys (a word invariably said in a Welsh accent) did. The Mongolian language sounds pretty similar – they have the same ‘ll’ sound, and the gently rolling hills and rugged meadows of the steppes could be straight out of R. S. Thomas (except for the yaks).
One day, shortly before I left, it happened to rain pretty hard whilst I was out visiting the neighbours with my ger-mates Uurnaa and another volunteer named Severigne. Thankfully it was only the second time it had done this but I was struck by the beauty of the valley’s thunderous grey skies, shimmering wet grass and pillows of fat cloud tumbling over the hills. “In some ways it’s even more beautiful when it rains,” I mused aloud to Sevi who gave a non-committal smile. “Maybe that’s just the Brit in me,” she laughed and agreed it must be. How much it looks like Wales in the rain though! And how that warms my heart and makes me dream of home. Tonight I share my dorm with 3 Welsh lads on an adventure – only the second Welsh accents I have heard since departing except from my visiting cousin. As soon as I heard them chatting an enormous grin spread from ear to ear, the Welsh accent just makes you feel better; it’s fab’lus. “D’you mind if I put this by there?” One asked, depositing his bag next to mine. “Tidy – cheers luv.” My heart grew three sizes. It’s almost as if they were sent to make me realise how much I love home. I’ve been singing Karl Jenkins’ Grey in my head ever since that day looking at the rainy hills; it sounds like home to me.
I think that all the lasting things are grey;
the clouds above the mountains when it’s late.
When all around you changes, these things stay.
The lichen where the quarry works decay,
the tides that fill the harbours in the strait.
I think that all the lasting things are grey.
The twilight in the coombe at close of day,
the ash the coal fire leaves within the grate.
When all around you changes, these things stay.
The mist that hides the slag-heaps’ scars away,
the winter rain that shines up on the slate.
I think that all the lasting things are grey.
The seagulls wheeling above Cardiff Bay,
the patient sea that bore a nation’s freight.
When all around you changes, these things stay.
The home we build the steel and stone today,
and blend our light and darkness to create.
I think that all the lasting things are grey.
When all around you changes, these things stay.
… from “Grey” by Karl Jenkins, words by Graham Davies
The time for applying for visas finally arrived for Adam and I’s epic trans-Mongolian train ride home from Thailand. I was initially a little concerned about the Russian visa since I’ve heard it’s notoriously complicated to get one but I’d done my research and was pretty sure we were good to start putting things in stone and making them official. In order to get a Russian visa you must effectively provide the embassy with your life story, a detailed itinerary including all your train tickets and hostel bookings, insurance print-outs, invitation letters from Russian consulates – all that jazz. You also need to apply from your home country; unless you’ve been in the country you’re applying from for longer than 6 months. No Problemo; been here 13.
So, the day arrives, I walk up to the counter with my lovingly compiled tree’s-worth of paperwork that I’ve spent an entire year organising and planning and pass it over the counter with my passport to a lady with a face like a pissed-off stork. Clenching my sweaty palms I try and stop the excited grin from spreading over my cheeks as she flicks sullen-faced through the pages of my passport before closing it, placing it back on my pile of paperwork and pushing it back towards me. “Can’t give you a visa” she says and starts filing her nails (she doesn’t actually start filing her nails but in my head she is actually now Ghost Busters’ Janine Melnitz but Russian and evil). The room seems to have gone very quiet and there’s a buzzing in my ears.
“Why?” I whimper nervously.
“You’re on a tourist visa.”
I grab at straws; “but look, you can see I’ve been here a year on work visas – I’m only on a tourist visa now because I’ve just left my job so that I can travel… to Russia!”
“We don’t issue visas to people on tourist visas.” Then as an afterthought she adds, “your country and Russia have a… difficult relationship.” Well shit now we do! Daydreams of Russian ballet, tzars, Siberian tundra, lakes, palaces and vodka bubbled up in my head and unceremoniously popped. I stood there dithering for ten minutes unable to accept that the dissertation’s worth of work I’d put into organising that trip could be invalidated that quickly and easily.
In the end Adam and I spent an afternoon crooning into beer bottles and trying to work out an alternate fun way home that doesn’t involve Russia. The two options were; all the Stans and the middle east (not wildly appealing at this particular moment in time) and going the old Raj route and taking a boat around India, Saudi Arabia and through the Suez canal before crossing Europe by train (wildly appealing but also wildly unaffordable). Game over.
One of the things I’d been most looking forwards to was horse-trekking in Mongolia and I started to plan going as far as there and then flying over Russia to Europe. However – magic happened; Captain Planet never closes a door without opening a window etcetera. Whilst researching places to go trekking I stumbled across a job vacancy in Mongolia that called for horse-riding experience and teaching English as a second language experience. My little ears pricked up. Tentatively of course, didn’t want to get burnt again. There was a Skype interview and flights to sort out and… shudder… visas. However (drumroll please), I am very pleased to finally announce officially that as of this week I have obtained all of these things and am moving to Mongolia for a month! Ta-da!
I will be living in a proper Mongolian ger (tent) right out on the steppes, riding horses all day as an instructor for trekkers, drinking round camp fires in the evening, fresh air, no internet, no mobile phone, no nada – just me, my trusty steed and nature. Can’t wait! Eira Morgan-Jones: winning at travelling right now.
For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years people across south east Asia have celebrated their new year at the peak of the hot season by gently washing the dust from effigies of the Buddha (and generally having a good spring clean) with scented flower water. As a mark of great respect they catch the water that falls from the statues and trickle it over the shoulders of elders, which also doubles as a pleasant release from the 45°C heat. Statues of the Buddha are carried on ornate floats through the towns and local people toss water onto them to symbolise the washing away of badness. Traditionally this is also a popular time to make New Year resolutions. Over time the celebration became more relaxed and the young took the opportunity to toss water at each other playfully as a means to cool off. Then someone invented the super-soaker. And the foam party. And the wet t-shirt competition…
Songkran now is one of the biggest street parties in the world, a nationwide three day water-fight where every toddler to granny is armed to the teeth with hose pipes, a startling medley of water guns and enormous drums of water filled with blocks of ice the size of car tyres. Chiang Mai city in the north has become the Mecca of Songkran madness and is the most popular spot amongst tourists to congregate and take part in the festivities. The centre of the city becomes a flooded Brighton Pride festival complete with lady-boys in gold lamé hot-pants waving hose pipes and promo girls in next to nothing tossing free drinks to the crowd and dancing on podiums in outfits that on any other day of the year would be smashing Thai ideals of modesty to the ground. By midday of the first day the streets are knee-deep and stages playing ear-splitting Korean and western dance music belch foam onto the saturated dancers. Thai people and visitors alike set up posts in front of bars and cafes, where re-fills are readily available, and take to defending their spot by drenching anyone and anything that passes, often engaging in sopping warfare with their neighbours. A particular favourite for the entire strip is to run into the road whenever a song taew bus passes and toss dozens of buckets in through the open back onto the defenceless passengers.
Some friends and I hired a tuk-tuk to drive us around for an hour figuring we could do some novelty water-pistol drive-by but the plan back-fired when we realised that the streets were so clogged that we’d actually just made ourselves a perfect slow-moving target. After an hour of having bucket after bucket of ice water dunked over our heads we set up camp outside a seedy bar and reaped vengeance by doing the same to every tuk-tuk that passed us instead.
The whole experience was enormously liberating and some of the best fun I’ve had in south east Asia. Normally whenever I leave the house I am complete with satchel containing camera, notepad, pens, phone, ipod, wallet and all the other detritus that accumulates in the bottom of travel bags. Not for Songkran though; bit of cash in pocket? Tick. Done. Sadly I couldn’t take my camera out into the torrent for obvious reasons so I have no photos and all the ones I’ve used here have been slyly half-inched. That was a liberation in itself though since I have developed a tendency out here to view all major events through a camera screen instead of really engaging. I did have a three-second panic attack every time we left a place and I couldn’t find it however.
Songkran has come under attack a little in recent years, in part from traditionalists affronted by the greater emphasis on hedonism than Buddhism and in part due to the enormous casualty lists that always follow. Throwing buckets of water at passing buses and pedestrians is one thing but throwing them in the faces of people on motorbikes and mopeds is bound to cause trouble but seems to happen constantly anyway. This year the Songkran death-toll was in excess of 300 people; the vast majority of which were traffic-related deaths. The casualty list undoubtedly runs into the thousands.
At the end of the festival this year the sky over Chiang Mai grew fat and gloomy and just before the sun set it split open and emptied itself onto the crowd below, as if just to prove that it wouldn’t be trumped. At the peak of the hot season this was undoubtedly an extremely fortuitous omen for the coming year (as long as you weren’t riding a bike).