When I got off the train in UB, I hitched a ride into town with the Golden Gobi hostel pickup because a guy in my train car was staying there and they insisted I come sit around while I waited for a reasonable hour to head to my Couchsurfing hosts’ house. This was lucky and incredibly nice of them, because as I discovered, there were no cafes open at that hour on a Sunday morning and it was dark and cold.
The hostel fed me breakfast and let me sit and use the WiFi for 2 hours and would not let me pay. I know they wanted me to book a tour with them, but I told them my host was sorting that out so I just taught the girl who worked there to fold 3D paper stars as it seemed like the least I could do, and she was interested in how I was doing it.
I walked across town avoiding wipeouts on the ice and certain death by crazy UB drivers (although I didn’t see any of the legendary open manholes everyone warned me about) to meet my fantastic host Tungaa, her grandma, and her adorable baby. She had made breakfast (YAY MORE BREAKFAST!) and we had a lovely chat before I went out to do a bit of exploring. Her husband Naraa was returning from ice fishing that night and she promised to teach me how to make his favourite dish since we’re both into cooking and promised to swap some recipes.
Since it was Sunday, not a whole lot was open, so I wandered around poking in some shops and things until I found that the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs WAS open. So clearly I went. At the moment it’s in a building they’re renovating, so it’s only one room with a few displays. I don’t know how long it will take for them to sort out the whole museum, and the one room they have IS quite small, but the quality of the displays (in Mongolian and English, huzzah!) is really good, and if they carry that through to a whole museum it will be a really cool place to visit. I was happy for the moment to learn about Tarbosaurus Bataar, because any relative of T Rex is a friend of mine.
I then went and found some Mongolian meat pies for lunch in a local restaurant and checked out the State Department Store before a cold walk back to Tungaa and Naraa’s to learn to make Mongolian beef noodles. I’m really excited to make them at home because they’re so easy, although the meat probably won’t be quite the same. Tungaa was telling me how good all the meat in Mongolia is because there’s absolutely no need for any kind of factory farming or anything. It’s all free range and amazing. Because of all that spaaaaaaace.
So many people had told me the food in Mongolia was so bad, but I found the exact opposite. Everything I ate in there was absolutely amazing. I think the thing is that it’s pretty much all meat and fat and full-on dairy. Westerners aren’t really used to that level of fatty meat in their diet without any vegetables to break it up, and even I got full pretty fast on the stuff I was eating. But it was all so tasty. Nothing processed, nothing nasty. If you really love food, you should love eating in Mongolia.
Anyway, Naraa got home and we discussed what I should do with my remaining 3 days in the country. He’s trying to start a guiding business so I hired him to take me out of the city and show me the best bits of the country he could in the short time I had. He probably got super bored of only having one person to drive around for three days, but he was awesome and I think I saw a lot more and had a much better trip than I would have had I just gone with a package from a hostel. So, score one there.
The first day he drove me out to Terelj National Park where I held a massive eagle (touristy, but irresistible), walked up a hill to a Buddhist meditation centre, drove through miles and miles of gorgeous, snowy mountains, and went to visit Chinggis Khan’s massive statue, which involves the opportunity to emerge from his crotch in order to get to the viewing point at the top of his horse’s head. Class. (And I suppose it makes sense based on this somewhat amusing research.)
That night I taught Tungaa to make beef stew with a shortcrust pastry top because she wanted to learn to make a British style meat pie. Before we got back from our drive, she had started the stew based on the recipe I’d left with her (JAMIE OLIVER NEVER FAILS ME) and when I walked in the apartment and smelled it, I knew it was spot on. It’s so weird to smell something so familiar when you’re somewhere so far from home.
The next morning, Naraa drove us 4 hours to see some sand dunes amidst more incredible landscapes. On the way we talked about politics and how Mongolians see the rest of the world, music, movies, and anything else we could think of before I ran out of things to say and instead just let my jaw remain on the floor while looking at what we were driving through. At our roadside lunch stop I tried dumplings and milk tea. Milk tea is kind of like buttery, salty, warm milk – a different sort of taste from anything else I’ve ever tried, but very nice when it’s cold out.
Then we went to stay with a nomadic family for the night, which I was really looking forward to, but was an all at once lovely and difficult experience.
First of all, they moved out of their Ger for the night so that Naraa and I could stay there while they stayed in the house they’d built for winter. According to Naraa, they usually sleep in the Ger anyway (and I can see why, it’s super cosy and lovely). To have vacated it just for us shows incredible hospitality.
They then fed me so well. While they cooked dumplings with horse meat, they had a bunch of cold bits and pieces of leftover meat in a bowl with a massive knife sitting on the table with potatoes and bread. I tried some horse intestine, which was SO tasty. It was like the nicest pork fat you’ve ever had, except a slightly different flavour. I was passed a communal cup of vodka multiple times, and I was even given some kind of Mongolian traditional snuff.
We didn’t talk much, and I only really communicated anything more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ through Naraa, but it was very nice. Later on, I played cards with the men in the Ger before we went to sleep. And I guess this is where I can start to explain the difficulty of this for me.
It’s impossible as someone traveling through countries you don’t know the language in to get a full picture of what people think of things, and I think I got a more authentic experience by having Naraa as my guide, but I’m still just a tourist in the end. I’d love to know what these people thought about life and the world and this random white girl staying in their house eating their delicious food and being slightly awkward, but I’ll never really know. We brought them gifts and things of course, but they were still so nice to show me such hospitality, to vacate their home for the night so I could sleep in it, to cook so much amazing food, to lead me around on a horse in the freezing cold. I really loved it, but I also felt kind of weird about all of it. It’s so interesting to see how other people live their lives, but it feels a little too much like I’m treating them like a museum display when I can’t actually have a two-way conversation about it.
In any case, I probably worry a bit too much about these things. If it were flipped and someone was brought to my house, I think I’d show them the equivalent level of hospitality out of a wish that they feel as much at home as possible in such a different place. So I should probably just trust that that is what’s happening here instead of over-analysing things. People are just nice. The world is a good place. Shut up, brain.
After a very hot night in the Ger (they kept the fire WAY high for us. At a certain point I went OUTSIDE into the -20C or so cold to get some relief from the sauna), being led around on a horse in the morning, and driving around to try to spot deer and wild horses and yaks, we headed back to the madness of UB, which I found to be probably the most stressful city I’ve been in so far. (Even counting China!) The traffic is just unreal and the smog is horrendous. It’s really too bad to have that in an otherwise gorgeous country. But I did have a good chat with Naraa about how the use of English on signs and in shops is annoyingly taking over Mongolian print because the perception that it’s fashionable.
I managed to get all my shopping done – gifts as well as food and drink for the NEW YEAR TRAIN – and went to bed without sleeping much because I never sleep when I have to worry about getting up super early to catch a train.
Naraa was nice enough to get up and call me a taxi to the station, and Tungaa’s grandma very sweetly saw me out the door at 6.30am. They were really such a lovely family to stay with and I hope I get to go back to Mongolia in the summer with a big ol’ group of people and get Naraa to take us into the Mongolian wilderness for a few weeks. It’s still the one place on this trip I definitely want to go back to.