After some scheduling discussions, we arranged a 6-day trip with Ogie, the principal guide at the guesthouse. With hardly any roads, and virtually no public transportation, it is very difficult to go anywhere in Mongolia without a chartered 4x4 vehicle. Once packed, we piled into a Russian-made four-wheel-drive van. Nima, our driver, couldn't speak much English, but he made an instant impression with his smiling face and warm, laughing eyes. The main road out of town was paved, but full of potholes. We passed a road crew slowly working on repairs, but there was still an endless expanse of unfilled potholes stretching into the distance. The air was crisp and clean. Before us lay the green rolling hills and “big sky” of Mongolia. For breakfast, we pulled off the road, opened the back of the van and pulled out a small stove. Ogie was an expert at quickly improvising tasty meals. She had packed plenty of vegetables and pasta, “tourist food”, as well as a rack of mutton in a cardboard box for Nima and herself. While she prepared the food, we climbed one of the nearby hills. What, from a distance, appeared to be an unbroken green carpet of grass was in reality closely cropped plants and wildflowers growing in a sparse expanse of dirt and animal dropping. As we drove on, the landscape changed. Some areas were drier, with sand dunes and gravelly mountains. There were trees and marshy wetlands with cranes and herons. For lunch we stopped at a roadside restaurant. Inside it smelled strongly of mutton. There was either “buuz” (dumplings) or homemade “noodles”. The noodles, more like thick dumplings, were fried with a little shredded cabbage, the only available vegetable. Eric bit into a strong-smelling buuz and the grease gushed out on his chin. Back on the road, our bodies working hard to digest the heavy food, most of the passengers nodded off. When Anne noticed that Nima was having trouble keeping his eyes open, she offered to drive the van. Surprisingly, he accepted. It was easy to steer the van on the paved roads at low speed. At 60 km/hour, however, the van started to weave back and forth without constant correction of the loose steering. Nima pointed to a hill in the distance and directed Anne to leave the road, driving right over the grass and dirt. She took a few big bumps on the way, but everybody, including Nima, agreed that she was a good chauffeur.
Life is hard in Mongolia, and most people are poor, but there is still a rich culture and spirituality. Ogie answered all of our questions and taught us a few of the local traditions. When entering a yurt (correctly called a “ger”), the right foot should always be placed first inside the doorway. Inside, one should always move clockwise and never throw anything into the fire. Do not linger long at passes, and always place a small stone on the pile, called the Ovoo. Ogie knew all of the traditional greetings and social protocol required in the countryside. It is customary to ask your host how his herd is doing, and if the grazing this summer is good. Nima, for his part, taught us how to drink vodka. His favorite brand was “Chingis Khan” (of course) with floating flakes of real gold. A liter costs about $5. It was essentially cheap moonshine and tasted terrible.
Ogie was extremely extroverted and was very open about Mongolian culture. Tall and slender, with an oval face, she looked like a tough, horse-riding outlaw princess or meat-eating bone-crunching warrior daughter of Ghengis Khan. How do parents find intimacy in the ger when the entire family is around? The man sweeps his wife onto his horse and rides off to a distant hillside. Ogie could sing as well, especially traditional songs from the Gobi. She had one about a baby camel. After singing along with our favorite song on the cassette player in the van, she wrote down the lyrics. She tried to teach us some Mongolian as well. We learned, “how is your summer?” the appropriate greeting for country folk. It took plenty of practice to pronounce it right, as Mongolian is full of strange intonations, vowels and guttural sounds.
Nima stopped to asked directions at one remote camp with three ger and a few wooden stables, looking for a friend who might be nearby. Ogie asked if we could use their stove to cook lunch. She quickly had a wok full of vegetables, meat and pasta cooking over the fire. The whole family, from the kids to the grandparents, was seated on one side of the ger, watching us. The older man took out a vial of snuff and offered it to us, a traditional way of welcoming guests. They also offered us some dried curds. But why were they staring at us so intently? Ogie asked them in Mongolian, then told us that they had never seen foreigners before! She gave a cherry tomato to one of the girls, who put it in her mouth, made a face and spit it out. Most Mongolians don't eat vegetables, only meat, dairy, some barley and flour. Suddenly there was a commotion. It was already afternoon and they had forgotten to milk the sheep and goats! The cute little girl, with a round face, red cheeks and black braids, told us sassily that she was the only one allowed to milk her favorite goat, “reddy” (because its fur was reddish, Ogie explained). We watched outside as the bleating animals were herded together in a large pen. The mothers were kept separated from their young, so that they could be milked before feeding their offspring. Anne picked up a baby longhaired goat. Before leaving, Ogie gave the kids some sweets.