Mongolian horses at the foothill of the taiga. (Fotos by Jemela Sanchez, Yvonne Redoble, Iris Sarmiento, Suga Dioko and Tuul)
“WE shall be waiting for your return for the rest of our lives!” said Tuul, our pretty Mongolian guide.
She translated our host Natsgaa‘s reply, when I said that someday, I would be coming back to visit them with my family.
Maybe I should not have talked too much, more so, have said that I would be back. It must have been the vodka. Who knows, in a year or two I may be back exploring the great plains and pine forests with my kids. And so it came to pass, that I downed my fourth shot of authentic Mongolian vodka in the company of real life nomads, inside a ger tent, in the middle of nowhere, in freezing minus 10 degrees.
Ulaanbaatar’s Russian charm
A couple of weeks earlier, I left the scorching heat of Cebu and joined my sister, together with four of her friends – pediatricians and oncologists. I turned 45 that week and my sister forgot my birthday. Or maybe she just feigned forgetfulness, because a couple of days later, she surprised me with an awesome gift – a round trip ticket to Mongolia.
We arrived in Chinggis Khaan Airport in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB) on a clear, sunny afternoon.
Human population is 3 million; livestock population 60 million. It was May, springtime, and the temperature was 6 degrees on the Celsius scale and dropping.
The city is situated on flat land so expansive that the whole island of Cebu could easily fit into it. The horizon was lined with snow capped mountains, while on one side, were smooth rolling hills covered with residential houses. All signs were written in Russian Cyrillic script. Buildings were of Russian architecture and most public infrastructure (bridges, coal-powered plants, roads, government offices) had a touch of Russia. The most frequently spoken languages were the Mongolian Khalkha dialect and Russian.
Something like a pipeline, as thick as a huge log, caught my attention. Resembling an elevated aqueduct, it ran aboveground across the city. I later learned that it was the city’s heating system. Temperatures could drop to 50 below zero degrees during winter, and the pipes supplied hot, steaming water to keep the houses, buildings and its inhabitants from freezing.
The striking Tuul River flowed across the city. This is where our guide got her name from. The river’s beauty and pristine banks lined with coniferous trees matched her pretty features and mystic Mongolian character.
It suddenly got late. We felt the cold. We needed appropriate clothing. As always, it was voted that shopping would be a priority before we checked-in to our hotel.
I was watching a pair of fair-sized raptors (Mongolian condors) circling above an open pasture, when we pulled into the parking lot. A huge sign on the façade of the building read: Mongolian Cashmere. As the lady doctors shopped, I noticed that the prices, in Tughrik, the local currency, were so high. Cashmere, made from the hair of goats that graze in the cold, distant pastures of Mongolia, is one of the most effective (and expensive) types of material to keep people (and goats) warm in freezing weather. It is highly prized and has become a thriving industry that has supported many nomads.
Great and ancient roads
Early the next day, we suited up and trooped out into the open. Our ride was a four-wheel-drive Japanese van driven by a smiling Mongolian gentleman. For a man in his senior years, he had the most perfect set of white teeth I had ever seen. His name was Muuch. The Russian Jeep that we initially arranged for would have given us a taste of Mongolia’s socialist past, but our guide explained that the van would give five ladies and a gentleman a softer ride. We rode deep into Central Mongolia, along a cleanly-paved road, passing endless, treeless plains dotted by occasional ger tents, lots of cattle, horses and herds of sheep and goat. The tour allowed visitors to experience life in the three varied ecosystems in the country: the steppe, vast treeless open grasslands; the taiga, or snow forests, where conifers and firs grow in abundance; and the Gobi Desert, with its sand dunes and unique ecology.
The road that we took was not at all the real idea of the “less beaten path.” Centuries ago, people traveled these roads, some on horseback en route to conquer other nations, while others rode camels to trade silk, tea, gold and silver. Traversing some parts of the Great Silk Road and the Ancient Tea Road is something that can’t be described. After six or seven hours on the road and “off-road,” we reached Rashaant, a district in the Bulgan Province, and made first contact with the nomads.
Claiming the ger
I don’t know how the ladies felt, but the situation we were in was indescribably amazing. It is not every day that one gets to shake hands with real nomads – living, breathing descendants of the mighty Kublai Khan.
When we arrived, we were treated to a drink of suteytsai (milk tea) – ladled from a metal cauldron, heated by hot embers of dried sheep dung. It was prepared to perfection with a generous dash of salt, from salt lakes farther west; and milk, fresh from the sheep wandering just outside the ger. The saltiness and the pungent aroma (anghit in Cebuano) of the sheep’s milk was overpowering. But the suteytsai was actually good. Good also in the sense that every ingredient represented the nomadic way of life: milk for generosity, salt for strength, tea leaves for hospitality. Interestingly, they had a “hospitality bowl” piled high with goodies – sugar cubes from Russia, cookies and bordzig (deep-fried wheat pastry).
Five standing structures made up the ger camp of four real-life nomads. There were three ger tents, a fenced pen where they herded the horses and a tiny outhouse.
A ger is a traditional Mongolian tent. Portable and round, it has a conical roof covered with skins and several layers of felt or wool. Our hosts Natsgaa and his wife Ganaa had two children, who were away in the city attending school. Staying with them were Natsgaa’s brother and his wife, Tulga and Tunga– a sweet young couple madly in love with each other. They were both dressed in simple Mongolian working clothes tailored in the traditional style.
We were billeted in the ger in the middle. We brought along our Philippine flag and hoisted it right above the door of our tent. There we were, a bunch of Filipino tourists, proudly claiming our own tiny, temporary spot, in the middle of what was once the greatest empire the world had ever known.
After a warm helping of noodle soup with mutton, we visited the horses and the camels. Horses are considered sacred. They are the symbols of national pride. Ghinggis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan went to war astride white horses.
Camels are a different story. Sitting on top of a living, breathing, snorting mound of flesh and bones is hard to forget. Holding on to a hairy hump of a mammal that can survive for weeks on end without water was cerebral. The lady doctors went there for “cultural immersion.” I signed up, as always, for “adventure therapy.”
Sunset came at around 9 p.m. As the temperature dropped to sub-zero degrees, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner of khorkhog, or mutton cooked in the traditional style. Since we were in Mongolia, I ate like a real Mongolian man. We don’t get a whole femoral bone laden with soft tendons and lovely chunks of mutton in Cebu. I had one of those on my plate sitting beside a couple of extra long ribs and tender loins. The doctors had huge chunks of meat attached to massive pieces of bones on their plates. We talked with oily lips about how good the food was as we ate. The best part was, when no one was watching I secretly licked off the greasy juices and the melted bone marrow from each of my ten fingers.
As the evening wore on, I could sense the nervous energy from the group. The silence and darkness that blanketed the great plains was constantly broken by the sporadic bleating of hundreds of sheep and goats curling on the grassy coldness outside our ger. We were then herded to our host’s ger for a traditional evening chat over some drinks – an essential element of nomad hospitality. Introductions were made and a bottle of Mongolian vodka was poured into small paper cups. Mongolians love their vodka. And they should, for when I took my first shot, I fell in love. The bibulous adventurer in me said that was crisp and easy on the throat.
The host assured us that we were the first Filipinos to ever wander their area. It return, we assured them that they were the first nomads that we had encountered. When Dr. Linda Mae Lipatan blew her cover and reported that in her past life, she was a Mongolian, pandemonium broke loose. Events became more intense when Ganaa, our hostess, unfolded before us a heap of deel, traditional robes and dresses. They handed out intricately-designed garments for each of the ladies, and a long, magnificent Mongolian robe for me. The “photo ops” that followed confirmed that Dr. Linda Mae was indeed of Mongolian origin in a previous lifetime, a wealthy sheep herding nomad. Clad in intricately designed deel in varied colors and trimmings the ladies were stunning. My sister, Dr. Jemela Anne Sanchez, could have easily passed for a Mongolian super model. Dr. Suga Dioko was the perfect image of a beaming Mongolian bride. Dr. Yvonne Redoble glamorously stood as the emperor’s queen. Dr. Iris Sarmiento could have been an intellectual adviser to the emperor.
At dawn, the goats and sheep were at their loudest. For us, it was a phenomenal contrast to the crowing of roosters in the tropics. Spring time in the steppe means hard work for the nomads. More animals are born and they have to make sure that the young ones are well-fed to ensure growth and survival for the next winter. My fellow travellers might not have realized it, but that morning, as we geared up for another day of adventure, we watched and saw an event that had been happening every day in Mongolia for thousands of years.
The temperature outside was below the charts, but it was heart warming to see tiny goats and sheep helping themselves to fresh milk from their mothers. Then, as if by cue, when the first rays of the sun hit the ground, the ruminants that were herded near our ger for the night, slowly thinned out and crept farther out to the endless flat land in search for greener Mongolian grass. We had been so used to seeing the ebb and flow of the tides on the islands where we lived. The nomads measure time and ensure their survival by the coming and going of the animals that they herd.
The valley of the Khans
The days that followed gave us the diversity of adventure that Mongolia had to offer.
Day one was spent on the steppe. Day two brought us to another nomad family in a ger camp situated in Bat-Ulzit soum in the Uvurkhangai Province. The site of the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape gave a frontal view of the taiga.
Millions of years ago the region was ground zero. A massive volcanic eruption spewed lava that came flowing down the valley, killing every living creature in its path. Today it is a Unesco World Heritage Centre and a Tourism Zone. History tells us that the province was one of the favored dwelling places of the mighty Chinggis Khaan and his army.
The valley floor was a total “top-gear” off-road destination. When hot melting lava comes in contact with water, air or snow, it sizzles and petrifies. Our path was riddled with razor-sharp volcanic rock, but we had entrusted our lives to Muuch, our driver-grandfather, since the start of the journey, so we sat back and enjoyed the scenery. We saw more horses, sheep, goats, and this time, yaks. It was in Orkhon Valley, once the abode of dinosaurs and fierce conquerors, that my sister and I had the rare chance of actually milking a mother yak.
And so our journey went on for a couple more days. We travelled hundreds of kilometers everyday, but the area that we covered was just a tiny piece of the massive, landlocked nation that was once a world superpower.
We had a taste of the desert sand under our feet in the mini Gobi desert. We felt winter in spring when rain came falling in the form of frozen ice crystals or snow. We spent a night in a tourist ger camp on the bank of the fabulous freshwater Ugii Lake in Uguumur, in the Arkhangai Province. We were treated to an enlightening tour of the great Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue in Tsonjin Boldog, 54 kilometers east of UB.
We had the chance to thank the great spirits and call upon the gods as we each made three wishes at the sacred worshipping sites called the Oovoo.
We were taught about the nation’s mighty past in the museums and temples in Kharakhorum- the historic capital of the massive Mongol Empire established by Chinggis Khaan in 1220. That was also when Dr. Yvonne Redoble was “smitten” by the visiting monk from Tibet. He was indeed “a good one” for documentary films, sitting on the altar, facing the congregation, with his young Hollywood star looks and charm.
Taking inspiration from the lakes, the streams, the steppes, the taiga– my brain worked faster than my nimble fingers could type. A more epic description is in the works in my personal journal. An in depth discussion about the history of the empire is better left to the Mongolian historians. I could go on and on and write a whole book, but I want my children to retrace the path that we had taken and create their own adventure. I have heard that they have reindeer herders, falcon hunters and sumo wrestling champions in Mongolia.
It has been more than two weeks since we left UB, but I’m still eating like a Mongolian. This afternoon, I went to the grocery store in a frantic search for huge chunks of meat attached to massive pieces of bone. I found nothing that screamed mutton! And as to the vodka, I rummaged the shelves and found nothing that screamed, Mongolian! Tata Osorio