Saturday, 3 May 2008

Wild Horses

Welcome to Mongolia - not a brief introduction by any means. The border crossing on the Russian side takes 5 hours, during the last 3 hours of which, nobody is allowed to use the toilet on board the train, or leave the train to use the platform facilities either. Eventually, after extensive pleading from us and our berth-mates, two charming Swedish girls called My and Alex, the toilet is reopened for 10 minutes as the train covers the 5 kilometres between the Russian customs procedure and the Mongolian one. 5km down the road we repeat the entire process, including the no-peeing-during-customs-inspection rule. Bladders are severely tested. Nobody is selling any chocolate either.

When we wake up in Ulan Bator, the first thought is "what will we have to eat now?" Well, "salad" no longer comes with a life-threatening quantity of mayonnaise, which is something to be thankful for. And the ice-cream is just as cheap, and of a slightly better quality. There are good bakeries, excellent dumplings, wonderful soups and stews, totally crazy barbecues and everything costs buttons. All in all a definite improvement on expensive Russian stodge.

At the train station we are met by our guide, Toson Huu, who turns out to have a very good sense of humour: "Mongolians have a great sense of direction, we call it GPS: Ger Positioning System - when you get lost, you go to the nearest ger and ask the way!" He promptly chucks us and our bags into a Russian 4-wheel drive and we hit the road for Hustai National Park. When I say road, what I really mean is that our driver continues on the potholed concrete for about 20 minutes (really puts those slightly rough patches of Great Western Road into perspective) and then, seemingly at random and with no marking, sign or other directions, starts to drive across the open country. The ground is rough and dusty, and our route includes many ravines, ditches, steep climbs and the odd mountain. Sitting upright is difficult.

3 hours later, we arrive in Hustai, home to the world's only truly wild horses, and our camp for the next few nights. It's spectacular scenery - we are ringed with jagged peaks and dusty steppe stretches far into the distance. It feels like we have travelled to the edge of the world.(Though on the map we see later in the Natural History museum, it turns out we are just a couple of centimetres from Ulan Bator).

We are the first and only tourists of the season for the first night or two, and as a result, our Mongolian hosts have generously given us their only deluxe ger tent (originally constructed for a visit from the Prince and Princess of Holland) at no extra cost. We, of course, are massively disappointed, as what we really wanted was to sleep in an ordinary ger, preferably with a few horses, some camels and maybe a yak thrown in for good measure. But we realise it would be rude to decline, so we submit to the double bed and luxury fittings with good grace.

We spend three days hiking and watching the amazing wildlife - apart from the wild horses, which we see up close, there are red deer, buzzards, marmots, ground squirrels and vultures - absolutely HUGE and very black. The takhi, or Prezwalski wild horses are the central attraction though: originally extinct in the 1960s, horses bred in zoos in Russia and Europe were reintroduced to the park in the 1990s. The reintroduction was a success (the DVD showing them bolting out of the horse boxes into the wild is convincingly spectacular) and now they roam the park in herds - either small batchelor groups or stallions with a harem of mares. We saw several of both groups, though they're not particularly keen on getting close to humans, so we had to trek up a pretty big hill to get to them.

On our way back to the city we take a detour and visit the standing stones that mark burial grounds for ancient nobles. It's hard to describe just how open and wild the country is, dotted with gers and only interrupted every few miles by massive herds of horses, cattle, sheep and goats searching for water and grass. Nomads appear on the horizon, on horseback, or just as often on noisy Russian motorbikes, usually dressed in fantastically brightly coloured outfits with spectacular boots.

Returning to Ulan Bator, it is immediately obvious that we are 10 years too old for our pre-booked hostel. Whingeing teenagers slumped in front of English-language TV programmes abound and we are instantly accosted by an overly-casual American boy who demands to know whether we are going on a tour or to the train station. Just as we're really starting to panic (how will we survive this hell?) the owner of the hostel explains that, as we have already been on a tour, she has arranged for us to stay with a friend of hers instead. "Like a homestay?" Our faces light up instantly.

Our homestay turns out to be a guy called Ganba, who is massively cheerful and begins to crack jokes as soon as we are in the taxi. His home life is something of a mystery to us - we are staying in his 2-room flat, where there is much evidence of a wife and children, but they are nowhere to be seen. Ganba himself sleeps on the living room floor (we have the bedroom and only bed) and there is a constant and distinct aroma of booze in his general direction. It's not entirely clear what his job is.

We don't see much of him for the next 2 days, which are spent at various tourist attractions - temples, museums, karaoke bars - but catch up with him on our final night, when we have a 7am start for the train next morning. However, Ganba inists that we all go to a bar, with the Kiwi who is also staying in the flat that night - on the living room floor. Said Kiwi is also in his 30s (there's a pattern here) and a photographer, so it makes for a good night out. On the way home Ganba buys more beer (he's well on his way by this point) and a bottle of Chinggis Khan vodka, which he then presents to his new Scottish friends as a gift. Back at the flat there are many declarations of multi-national friendship before we all bed down for the night, Ganba on the miniscule kitchen floor this time.

6 days in Mongolia was not enough. The Golden Gobi beer was just too good, and too cheap, not to repeat the experience. Moreover, there is an awful lot still to see. Hearing other people talk about the longer, more adventurous tours they were going on, including the likes of camel and horse riding, desert-exploring, mountain-trekking, nomadic living, iceberg sailing (ok I made that one up), all sounded totally amazing and exhilarating. Toson's company even offers a 23-day motorcycling tour of the Gobi and other areas. We had only had a taste of it all and deperately wanted more.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Mr M you are really lucky one of my favourite animals are horses! Come back soon,
Rebecca xxx