Mongolian Diary – Part 1
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: