Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mongolian countryside

Written in a yurt in the mountains near Tosontsengel

I decided not to call this post "the middle of nowhere" although it crossed my mind for a number of reasons. The most obvious of those would be that I already have a post with that title.
It is also not entirely true that there is nothing there. If I open my map, 3.5 kilometers east there is the main road. Unfortunately my map is incorrect, the main road is somewhere, where the main road is indicated there is just a patch of snow like any other patch of snow.
I can't blame my map that much because I have seen the main road on my way here. It doesn't look very different from plain nothingness, there are just a bit more marked tire tracks if I was to give the road some credit.
About ten kilometers westfrom here is a village called Tsagaanchuluut. There are about 1000 people living there or so Tumur says but it looks smaller than the village where my parents spend their Christmas with a numbered populaion of 300.
Let's rewind to how I ended up here.

I meet Tumur near Urgoo Cinema in Ulaanbataar, he wants to show me around a bit. He lives with his wife and son. It is his last two days working for a german company and he invites me to his offiece. I can use the internet at will. The next day, we go to the east of Ulaanbataar to some touristic village which is now empty.
Almost empty, to be exact, his german boss lives there, he is the boss of the mongolian branch of GIZ corporation or something like that. He is a joyful guy and only foreigner besides myself whom I meet in mongolia in winter.
We pick the german boss in a nice tourist camp near Ulaanbataar

Luxurious tourist Yurt

We go back to the capital, he lives in a giant appartment because the owners are somewhere else and we have a german lunch with sausages.
"They import all these products from germany." He has a bunch of german sausages, jam and whatever, I am so near to home again.
In the afternoon, we go to the office again, it is Tumur's last day at work, he has to pack his stuff after two years of good and loyal services as a driver and assistant.
Turns out that the car we are driving, the big shiny land cruiser isn't Tumurs but for some reason belogs to the minister of economy and development of mongolia so we have to give the car back to the minister.
After we've done that, I leave for Gebz' yurt where I pack my things and spend the night.
I have to meet Tumur at 12 at his house the next day. Before that, I try to gather the rest of my things at the first family that I hithhiked with. They have my scarf and small jacket. It's going to take every warm thing I have there in the west, it will be very cold. Unfortunately I don't find their house, I almost freeze before that so I get into the first open door that looks warm. It is a hair salon where a bunch of girls pretty as a picture are preparing for new year. They invite me to their home nearby where we have tea, speak englsh and german and then I learn that they are thirteen to fifteen years old, damn makeup, I couldn't tell.
I get to Tumur's place and he already has prepared a bunch of things for me. I can't go like thins, I need more warm things. I get real polar gear this time with a good hat and a winter police uniform. Tumur's wife just takes out the "mongolia police" sticker froom the shhouler of the jacket.
So we are packed and ready, we say goodbye to the internet and pretty much all civilisation we can think of and we take a taxi to the west, where a small blue car is waiting to take us to the countryside.
Before we eave to the countryside.

We are going 100 kilometers west, where the roads stop, where the traffic is sparse and from where it will be difficult to come back. I am starting to wonder wheather or not I am doing something stupid. I might be missing a long awaited and organised reunion with my girlfriend just beccause I want to see the desert stars and sleep in a yurt.
"There should be cars goingto Ulaanbataar," says Tumur, "but for free, I don't know. Why do you insist on not paying anyway?"
I explain to him that it is a principle, the challenge. As a former alcoholic he understands since it is as easy to pay for a ride as it is easy to drink a glass of vodka. First you start paying for rides, it gets confortable and a bus is never to far, tthen you continue on to trains ans planes and before you know it you find yourself in a hotel and you are a traveller no more, you are a tourist.

Tumur says since half of the population is living in Ulaanbataar, pretty much everyone has something to do there so there are cars going to the capital from pretty much everywhere in the country. That contradicts hitchwiki's information that it is extremly hard to hitch in the far west: 2 weeks to get tto Ulaanbataar according to that source, I hope I'll get more lucky. Actually, I really need to get more lucky, I can't miss Janela, that would be too stupid. Atually, there is almost no doubt, this is stupid. What if she isn't late, what if she arrives to mongolia alone with no contacts, what will she do?
I am stupid, so stupid, I don't think ahead, why don't I think ahead? But it is too late to come back on my decision.

We are riding the small blue car, there is not much space in it, barely enough to hold four people and I am sitting in the middle of the back seat. It is not much better than a french twingo and we are going to ride cross-desert with it. The road from Ulaanbataar is really good for one, two, three hunderd kilometers at least. I am starting to think it will be paved all the way. But about halfway to Gobi-Altai starts a dirt road. Nothng to worry about, the dirt road is still good, very good compared to roads in Kazakhstan. Our driver is very slow, he is driving 60 km/h when the other cars go up to 80.

It takes forever driving to that desert and the roads gets slowly worse and worse. However, Kazakhstan still holds the record of worst roads ever. We drive through the night. I am compressed between the passengers, it's really unconfortable but hey, I am going for free, tourists usually pay for that sort of thing.

The next day, in the morning, we get a flat tire.  We change it, the mongols are used to that sort of thing and the road continues. We drive, we drive, it never ends. The next day ends and we still have not reached our destination. We have barely passsed Gobi-Altai. The road is paved again and then it gets worse and then it becomes just a snowy mess which makes our tires spin without any effect.
The next day, we get a flat tire

Our average speed now is 25 km/h so it takes 4 hours from Gobi-Altai to reach Tsagaanchuluut. But we arrive. We arrive at a really big mongolian yurt surrounded by a fence. Inside that fence there is another yurt, a small house and some wooden constructions. The small house is Tumur's cousin atelier, she makes shoes, appearently damn good ones. Turns out Tumur's uncle wasn't really an uncle, his uncle is dead but we came to see his cousin who can't be an uncle of anybody because she is a girl. Everybody welcomes us with a big bowl of horsemeat. I am way beyond being shocked by horse meat or the quantity of fat the whole think contains.
"I thought you europeans didn't like to eat fat," Tumur is surprised.
At that point, I am more mongolian than european, I decided that I like to eat fat. The yurt is spascious it has three beds, a table, a big oven and a lot of furniture along the sides. It also has, as each mongolian yurt, a praying space which is basically a piece of furniture with pictures of the departed, some tibetan scripts and little statues. Everything is miniature in a yurt, even the monastary.
The inside of a Yurt, Tumur's cousin  and her husband in the center

There also is a large flat screen TV and a lot of electric plugs which are friendly to my now very bad tablet charger.
The stars are bright tonight. They are brighter here than in most places I've seen. Maybe not as bright as in the desert that we came trough but still very beautiful.

The next day I go walking with Tumur. He is here to clear his head, away from the worries of the city. And there are only a few better places in the world for that. The city is surrounded by mountain tops; it is small so we easily have a clear view of it and it looks beautiful from afar.
Tumur is almost as amazed as I am, he hasn't been here for twenty years.
walking around the village
Afterwards, Tumur goes to help his cousin make shoes and I go to see a tournament of mongolian wrestling. The principle of that is two people hold themselves by hands, belt or ass and try to throw each other off-balance.
Mongolian wrestling
For some reason, after each match, the two opponents feel the need to slap each other's asses and dance like idiots all over the place. But besides that, it is interesting to watch.
Day after day, I go around the village. The views are beautiful. Everything would be perfect if only I knew how to get back. I see some cars departing somewhere but each goes to a different direction. That's when I realize that in Mongolia, there is no defined road. The road indicated on my map as the main road is merely the suggested way and cars are free to take any other path. And they do. Therefore there is no place to stand to hitchhike the huge flow of cars.
This is how the village takes water

Besides these worries I meet the villagers. In this forgotten place there are some tourists from time to time in the summer. But in winter, there is no one. So everybody stares at me as I have landed on the moon. And actually I do feel as far away.

Tumur's cousin is a renowned shoe sewer. She has a huge and deep scar accross her face. A long time ago, she has been attacked by a wolf. He jumped at her throat but she managed to protect her artery by putting her arms around her neck. The wolf then bit her face leaving this deep mark.
"Wolves are very strong and smart," says Tumur, "do not think you could fight off a wolf."

Tsagaanchuluut at night

 New year is approaching and there is a celebration in the city center. The stars are bright as everynight and the lights are playing through the dark space as it were a giant plaground.

City center, inside is the new year spectacle
The new year speactacle is a mix of music and dance. Looks like every mongol in ten is to some extend a talented artist. I should make something clear to avoid confusion: Mongols celebrate new year whenever they want. Some do it on December 31st, some do it on december 30th, some on 21st, whenever they have time. This village is celebrating on December 30th.

My friend tumur in traditional clothing, only outfit that truly allows to fight the cold
We go back to the yurt, under the stars.
"Tomorrow we go see our uncle, he kind of lives in the middle of nowhere," says Tumur.
"I thought this was the middle of nowhere"
I guess there always is a bigger void.