Mongolia: Hospitable desert

Driving through Mongolia you soon discover that the nomads - about 30 per cent of the population - have an open door policy.
We've hardly left Ulaan Bataar, the ramshackle capital, when we pass a ger, Mongolia's version of the teepee, and a family emerges and waves us down. They want us to come in and have snack.
And that's how it continues. Drop in, be fed and have some conversation (luckily we have a translator). All they like in return is a spot of vodka.

It's a fantastic concept, and it somehow feels like this is the way things were meant to be before we all security-coded our gates and locked ourselves in apartments.

The menu leaves a bit to be desired for the Western palate. It's a meaty stew, followed by some fermented mares' milk.

You learn pretty quickly in Mongolia that everything comes with meat and that dairy products are left to sit for a few days. I'm handed what I think is a delicious bit of shortbread - the perfect cure for the sour milk that's making my eyes water - but crunching in, I discover it's a tasty piece of curd.

Each day is spent the same way: four to six hours of driving, stopping along the way to eat food that would make a vegetarian... well, you simply couldn't be a vegetarian in Mongolia.
As we go south heading for the Gobi desert it gets dryer and hotter. When we blow our noses blood comes out. And as the greenery disappears, the generosity of the families we encounter simply increases.
One family kills a goat and we get first dibs on intestines, heart, liver and stomach.

There are several distractions going on in this particular ger while I tell my brain to swallow: a baby on the floor having a nap; next to the baby, a fresh carcass; above the baby, two young goats playing on the furniture. One of the kids decides to jump down in goatish delight, landing on the baby; there's crying, the goats are sent outside, and another batch of intestine is served up.

I'm actually in Mongolia to hunt and film a documentary about the Mongolian Death Worm, a 1.5m acid-spitting worm rumoured to live deep in the Gobi desert - but we won't mention that because it would undermine the documentary.

Our expedition starts in Ulaan Bataar which turns out to be in a state of disrepair. Everything is overgrown, cracked, or falling down. Feral dogs wander the streets. Three power stations are dotted round the city, their names boldly written on the side: "Power Plant 1", "Power Plant 2" and "Power Plant 3". Inspiring.

The highlight is the Mongolian Museum of Natural History. They have almost complete skeletons of two fighting velociraptors, and the giant arms of a dinosaur that's the biggest ever found. They're still looking for the body.
We climb up to the Zaizan Memorial, covered in bold paintings illustrating the Soviet role in World War II and their friendship with the Mongolian people. It's a weird thing, involving motifs ranging from Nazis to doves. Turn your head, and there's a perfect panoramic view of the city. The three coal-fuelled power stations belch out smoke. It's hazy. It's time to get out of here.

We fill up on vodka at the store and then hit the road. Giant potholes litter every square metre of the surface and soon there's no road at all so we make do with tracks that criss-cross the landscape. It's literally a case of choose your own route. And there aren't a lot of people along the way.

Which is probably why the few you do meet are so pleased to see visitors. Typically after dinner a bottle of vodka is opened (usually horrid Russian stuff, if you're lucky Mongolia's favourite, Chinggis) and a bowl filled up. It's passed in your direction, you have a gulp, pass it back and it's filled back up to the top. This continues around the ger until the bottle's finished.
It kills the bugs in your stomach, and sleeping becomes much less of a challenge. Sleeping juice, we called it.

As I sleep, I dream of the Gobi museum, a ramshackle place full of bad taxidermy and terrible murals. There's something charming about a badly stuffed snow cock next to a badly stuffed goat.
I wake up, and walk outside the ger to have a wee. By now I'm used to having no toilet - the idea is just to find somewhere where no-one else has gone - but when I turn on my torch 200 eyes stare back. The goats are home for the night.
The next night I dream about sand, sand as far as the eye can see, after we've spent the day driving over the Gurvan Sayhan Nuruu dunes.

We climb one of the biggest dunes, Duut Mankhan, which takes over an hour because with each step the sand under your feet slides downhill. Running back down, the whole dune shifts behind us, sliding, slipping. I hear a loud plane overhead but can't see it. We're close to China now so it doesn't seem implausible they'd be flying about. But it turns out the noise is the dunes, trillions of grains all rubbing and sliding and banging together. Some camels wander by. They don't seem to care.

We find ourselves at a small noyon festival. There's no archery on the programme, but there are Mongolian wrestlers: big, meaty and in underpants. Before each fight they bend over and slap their thighs. Whoever lands on the ground first is the loser. The winner dances like a bird to show that he is not just a fighter, but agile and majestic. Mostly, it just looked like men in undies pretending to be birds.

Waking up next morning I hear the noise of the baby tyrannosaurus rex from Jurassic Park 2. In the movie it's moaning in pain, wanting its mother. In this episode, however, it's young camels telling their parents they want food.

Sure enough, noise brings the adult camels wandering casually back. They always wander casually, camels: I have yet to see a panicked camel.

The herder and his family milk them. By now I've already milked a horse, so a camel doesn't seem particularly strange.

Helping with the animals is a regular thing. A few days ago I helped a retarded child herd up a pack of goats and tag them with blue paint. The kid only had one wheel on his BMX but it didn't seem to bother him. He still rode it about. Loved it.
I can't talk about the Noyon province - that's Death Worm country - suffice to say it's not pleasant and your mucous contains even more blood. It's deep in the south - all hard, rocky and brown - making the greenery of Northern Mongolia seems a world away.

Scorpions scuttle about and snake tracks are a common sight. The nomads we talk to say it's getting drier and drier; they're worried they're going to have to move again. Their families have spent decades in this area. Shifting is a real stress.

But it's time for us to shift: Driving home we stop at the Flaming Cliffs. Explorer Roy Chapman Andrews - the chap the Indiana Jones character is based on - found loads of dinosaur bones here. Some of his finds proved that dinosaurs laid eggs, a pretty big deal in the world of paleontology.

In any other country this piece of rugged magnificence would be fenced off. But this is Mongolia, and we wander, run and jump our way through.

That's the good thing about Mongolia and the Gobi: the freedom. The freedom and the friendliness of the people there, it's like nowhere else on earth.
Next time we return, it'll be to the North. There's no Mongolian Death Worm there, but they do have the Almas - a large yeti-like creature that comes down from Russia in the winter. Mongolia never ceases to surprise.
CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers a daily service from Auckland to Beijing via Hong Kong. From Beijing, Air China offers daily non-stop flights to Ulaanbaatar. Check cathaypacific.co.nz for more information.

Further information: If you want to get off the beaten track in Mongolia e-mongol.com is a good start point.

David Farrier's documentary on the Mongolian Death Worm is still in preparation and should be ready for screening about the middle of next year.

By David Farrier
Source:Herald on Sunday, New Zealand Newspaper


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