The excitement of asphalt didn’t last too long. Soon on a dry, smooth and, most importantly, quite pavement we discovered that our front suspension is making an awful amount of noise.
When you are offroading everything in the car is rattling, shifting and showing its general disapproval of the bumpy ride. Now add to that a fully loaded drawer system with spoons, forks, knives, bottles, cans and various spare parts. You would be lucky to hear your own voice inside your head.
Stopped by a mechanic to fill up our tires back up to 2.4 bar (35 psi) and asked the guy what the issue could be this time. He looks around and points to a control arm ball joint. Hm…isn’t that the same thing the guy was pointing at in the Ulaanbaatar? Okay, can we get to Russia with it and deal with it there? Maps out, trying to sign that our home is in Russia and can we make it there or will be die somewhere along the road?
I’m thinking to myself, shoot we are already on the infamously boring Southern route and will cruise to the border in a day or two. The guy swipes his throat with his thumb, saying that there is a slight chance we might not make it… and will basically be buried somewhere along the route…making it a bit more exciting for other travelers.
I also understand that he is happy to replace my teeth or change a working lightbulb as long as he has some work. Looking around at the geometry of the wheel its not too hard to figure out that if the joint pops out there is a chance of the wheel just kind of folding out of the car, like a twisted ankle.
We settled on the price and had it replaced. No…we are not replacing it on the rear wheel, for those of you who dont know there is no rear control arm ball joint on a Land Cruiser. This is the little kid, yup…there is a kid behind all these people, learning how to fill up our tires.
I thought i was annoying when i was a kid, always asking questions, trying to be in the center of all the action…curiosity, you know? Anyway, this little brat was beyond annoying, he touched EVERYTHING that could be touched…i’m sure if i wasn’t watching the dad would have let HIM replace the ball joint.
Still under the impression that we are done with the worst of the offroading, we thoroughly washed Hodori. Its like that amazing shower after a weekend of camping, you leave the smoke and fire behind and settle in your couch for a good movie on a Sunday night. The mechanic also doubled as a car wash.
I didn’t trust anyone else to walk on the hood of the car and there was no way anyone else would have reached the front of the tent. It hasn’t been washed since Uruguay and bugs have started to apply themselves in second and third layers.
At least tonight, i will be touching a clean tent when opening it. Sometimes you go through a very bad stretch of bug infested regions and you don’t look forward to touching your tent.
We thought of parking right next to the mechanic’s garage, but the kid was being a bit too annoying and we dreaded having our car open around him. Not because we thought he would steal something…i’m sure we would be finding his grabby little finger prints over everything for months after just one night. Instead we drove around, asked a police officer where we can sleep and were directed to a parking lot across from the city park. Clean ourselves and with a fixed and clean Hodori we relaxed and walked around the park for a bit… you know, show yourself and look at others kind of a walk.
You see those clouds in the photo above? They look a bit menacing, but in an hour they turn a darker shade of violent, the wind picked up and we realized that with our tent we would not be able to get a minute of sleep unless we find some wind cover.
Right next to the park we found a perfect place, behind a two story building between some trees. It looked like someone’s front yard so we drove around town looking for a better place, yet coming back to this one particular spot, hoping …for something.
And around 11:30 pm we drove by another time and saw someone getting out of the car right next to that house. We asked if we can park there and were told in English that, of course, and they will show the way to get in.
The husband and wife couple then asked us in for some tea and snacks… i just think they wanted to have a better look at two suspicious people circling their house. The wife, Ayuka, turned out to be a judge…like law and stuff and spoke really good English and the husband, Chaede, lived in Korea for 5 years and was fluent in Korean.
The TV was on and the president of Mongolia was officially opening the Mongolian Olympics – Naadam. Ayuka mentioned that she knows the president and produced a photo of them together.
I know you dont believe anything you read here, so here is some proof – during the week of July 11th the whole country stops to watch the traditional festival and competition. This is a purely Mongolian thing, no one really knows about it outside of the country, but here it is a big deal. Champions and contenders gather from all of Mongolia to participate in various purely Mongolian games like wrestling, horse-riding, archery, knocking over sheep bones (sort of like bowling but much smaller and instead of a ball they flick little bone pieces at standing “pins”).
We thanked Ayuka and Chaede for tea and went down to our car to sleep…we’ve had a long day. To you this is two different posts, but just this morning we were going through mud, conquering mountains and cheating death in various ways. Rest was quick…the night even quicker, a blink and a yawn feel longer than this night.
Oh, i forgot to mention…they invited us in the morning for breakfast and shower…the two things no overlander can refuse.
Meet, Ayurlte, the year and a half adorable son of Ayuka and Chaede. Even though he just woke up, he smiled and greeted us with a big wave.
While we chatted and posed over breakfast, because of the holidays the guys had some free time and were happy to hang out with us.
It was decided that we should go out to the country side, find some local and have a party!
Ayurlte happily agreed with this proposition. Actually, he agrees with any proposition. I have not seen him cry once…yes, of course, he can be displeased at something, but he doesn’t stop smiling about it. His favorite word is “bumbuga”, which means ball in Mongolia. Whenever you ask him where is “bumbuga”, he raises his hands in wonder and starts to frantically look for it.
While everyone is getting the TV is on, broadcasting the Naadam. Right now its the Mongolian horse race…its hard to tell from the screenshot, but the riders are little kids 7-11 years old.
Everyone ready, we packed into their car, a Lexus equivalent of our Land Cruiser, stopped by a grocery store to pick up some presents and drove about and hour out of town…into the steppe.
In a small valley, on a side of a swelling river we stopped by a ger and were invited in for some tea. After the introductions it became apparent that our Chaede and Ayuka did not know the owners of the ger and were seeing them for a first time themselves. I asked if its okay to barge in like this, in answer i was told that “we are all mongol, we are all welcome”.
We were instantly offered some milk tea, bread and butter. This time the milk tea actually tasted nice, it wasn’t too salty, the milk was pleasant and it was not scalding hot.
So this is not like a touristy ger where people are brought in to play a role of a local…we literally just crashed someone’s house and invited ourselves in. So everything you see is real, authentic Mongolian present-day way of life. At some points we used cellphone cameras because they were less intrusive and we didn’t dare to break the harmony by sticking our lens everywhere…so, sorry for the poor quality.
As a present we brought some fruits, baked snacks and a bottle of vodka. To show their welcome, the people gave us everything they had to try.
I’m holding a little bowl filled with milk tea and a big bowl of Airag – fermented horse milk. Airag has a specific taste, its not bad by any means, its like a kefir or lightly fermented yogurt. Its a bit acidic and has some alcohol in it, i would describe it as a drink with a bit of a bite to it. It goes down easy, i was mostly worried about how my stomach is going to react to it rather than my taste buds.
The family that was kind enough to host us has 2 gers for 5 adults. Mom, dad and their two sons. One of the sons is married and has a daughter of his own.
The inside of the ger is pretty spacious. The center spot is taken by the stove and all the furniture is put on the periphery, with a couple of beds, dressers and tv stand. The tables are not generally used for eating food, but rather food preparation. This is aarul, basically dried cow milk curds. According to our friends this is a significant source of protein and vitamin for the Mongols. The protein i believe, but the vitamins i wasn’t sure about. So i did some quick search and have not been able to find a complete break down of nutritional information…i also looked around the ger for a nutritional information sticker, but didn’t find one. Anyway, all the sources say its a good source of vitamins…but which ones, how much, where is the testing info?
I mean if we are just going off of what people told us, then i can say that aarul is also a really good insulator for radioactive cores. It absorbs the radiation and heat excellent, also if you have a leaky roof then you can plug the whole with it and when you run out of chalk, just write on the blackboard with a piece of aarul. And when it all comes crashing down, you can sit on the ruins and nibble some aarul…i heard it has vitamins.
Anyway, all the jokes aside. It has a cheesy taste, some salt and very sour, like your-face-is-going-to-involuntarily-spasm sour.
We sat around for an hour or so, waiting for the rain to die down a bit and chatted about the basic of a nomadic life. With Ayuka and Chaede’s help we could finally get all our questions answered.
All of a sudden the father and the older son disappeared and came back with this bucket of airag.
The poured it in a bag made from cow hide.
Put a beating stick in there and told us to go to town. The bag smelled strong…very sour and some alcohol, nothing rotting or moldy…just like an old yogurt.
I’m not sure of the exact recipe for airag, but we were told that this beating step in a bag…you have to hit it 500 times. I did it a couple of times, but the airag was splashing all over my face and jacket, so i told Hyein that she has to try it for herself, otherwise it would be offensive.
This is the centerpiece of every ger – a stove, and right behind it is the bucket of fuel. When we stayed in a ger camp for tourists, that bucket was full of dry wood. But here it is full of dried cow manure. Now you are thinking to yourself, how disgusting…that shit probably sticks up the whole ger. Au contraire mon aime…that shit didn’t smell bad at all. It was completely dried and smelled of the flowers blooming in the spring.
Mongolians are nomads, these guys move around with the seasons. Every 3 months they pack up their gers and move to their “winter” or “summer” location, we were lucky enough to visit them in their summer spot.
Oh btw, in this photo the father is sitting on the carpet with a bottle of vodka. He opened it, poured it in a cup, dipped the finger and flicked some vodka in a few directions…i assuming to bless the home or the planet for providing this to us. He had the first cup, poured another and gave it to me. Guys…i had to drink it, you know i had no choice…i resisted, i protested…but you know, not to offend the host, just a sip, you know?
Mongols are amazing people, probably the most eco-friendly people in the world. I’m talking about the true nomadic people, not the current city dwelling folks.
A family of five, they have about 1000 sheep and goats, 100 cows and 100 horses…roughly. The save everything they can from the animals when it is butchered and use everything the animals gives to them.
The rain let off for a bit and we went outside to get some fresh air, clear the head and ride some mongolian horses.
The older son showed us some of the things that you can do while riding a horse. For example, while riding they can pick up any object on the ground without dismounting. I remembered that my back is easily broken and my hips are not what they used to be 9 months ago…and skipped this part of riding.
Better yet, lets go back into the warm ger and have some lunch.
Aaah, sheep head, my favorite.
So, while we were hanging out in our of the gers, the mom went into the other ger and put a pot of heads on the stove. Once they were ready everyone gathered around, wielding knives.
The process is quite simple, take the head, start cutting bits off, putting them in your mouth and chewing.
Even the 8 month old little baby girl was sitting around, gnawing on a bone.
If you want to make this delicious treat at your own home, the recipe is quite simple, its the ingredient list that will give you a bit of a headache….hhahahahaha.
I kid around, but the head is very good and quite meaty. We also tried the sternum, very fatty, very niicce.
The mom and the our welcoming host/chef.
After lunch i asked i can ride again for a while, of course i can.
The horse is trained and responds to command, but more less enthusiastically than what i’m used to.
Once in a while it kind of just starts going by itself in a direction that IT wants to go. Then you have to pull it back, then you realize that nothing is happening and the fear is now setting in.
But like with a lot of animal handling, you can show fear. You have to remember that you are always in charge and in control.
Anyway, i rode around for 15 minutes. The saddle is for some reason made from wooden and definitely not comfy. The stirrups are too short for me and he didn’t want to adjust them. The horse, well its a good horse, just a bit feisty. Overall, i would much rather ride horse than camels in Mongolia.
In the morning Ayuka asked me what my favorite mongolian food is….i know two: huushuur and buuzi. They are quite similar both made from cut up lamb wrapped in dough but huushuur is fried in oil and buuzi is steamed like a dumpling. Of the two i liked huushur more and said so.
Little did we know but Ayuka’s sister got everything ready for us to make them for dinner.
So we stopped by her house, met the family and went back to Ayuka and Chaede’s apartment.
We sat around making huushuur and watching Naadam wrestling on tv.
It rained almost all day and looked like it will continue through the night, so we were invited to sleep inside the apartment and Hodori would be able to spend the night in safety of a garage.
1024 wrestlers start the competition and in the true process of elimination, wrestle until only one champion is left standing.
To us, the uneducated spectators, this was just watching a bunch of guys go at it. To the people in the know there was so much more at stake. They all know the names of the wrestlers and where they come from. The regional rivalries are planned out on a central stage, lets not forget that at stake are the bragging rights, some cash money and a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser.
In the semi-finals, late at night, even with video recording it was unclear who won one of the matches. In the end, they had a do-over and the guy from Chaede’s region won. The other semi-final was also won by the guy from the same region. This is proposed a very interesting final, student against the teacher, son against father. Chaede quickly proposed that one of the contestants is much older and has been in the final round 5 times before and always lost. His younger opponent will quickly lose.
And in a matter of minutes, the prophecy came true. I asked how he knew…”just a mongol thing” 🙂
In the morning Ayuka made some buuzi for the road and we packed up our car.
I also forgot to mention that the day before we stopped by Ayuka’s parents home and met her mom and dad. They are both medical professionals, father is an ultrasound operator and mom is pediatric neurologist.
Everyone got in their cars and drove us to the edge of town. Here we were told that the road to Altai, our next big town, is sort of bad for like 50% of the time. Shit…no asphalt? Haahahha, no 🙂
The guys found some local drivers heading in the same direction and told us to follow. We posed for a final photo together as our “guides” were driving off, that’s why Chaede’s face is more worried than happy. And Ayurlte is smiling as always 🙂
Lets to a little summary and shout out to our new friends:
Thank you for the amazing time we had in and around Bayankhongor, from just a name on a map it became a real memory for ages. Coudn’t have happened without you.
To everyone else, come to Mongolia!