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Sameness

Day 2: Ulaan Baatar to Binder

The tediousness began and shows no sign of ending. The day started off fine enough, en route to our first stop on the way to Genghis’s birthplace. We pack our stuff into a Soviet troop carrier (i.e. van) unchanged since the 1960s. Our guide, Chinzo, let us know that if we needed to use the toilet we could use long drops, or worst case behind a mound, ravine, or bush. Unfortunately there were no mounds, ravines or bushes, and I guess everyone’s definition of worst case is debatable. Although I would have liked to go seven days without needing to relive myself it probably wouldn’t be good for my health. This left the long drop, a fate worse than death. The ones here that I have seen involve squatting over two rickety boards six feet above a pit of, well, you know what. In addition to worrying about whether the boards will break under my weight, one is also holding ones nose, making balancing precarious.

A few words on Chinzo, our guide. He speaks near perfect English, although his accent is quite thick, and has a penchant for rolling his t-shirt up to his armpits exposing his balloon-like belly. We have seen the men do this quite frequently, although only the ones with balloon-like bellies. Chinzo talks a lot, knows everything, and enjoys doing his ablutions (of the squatting variety) three times a day a few meters from the van. We also have a driver whose name we can’t catch but who is always smiling, and a cook (for camping) called Twopsha, who is as sweet as pie. Perhaps this sounds like the lap of luxury. It is not.

After driving ourselves on so many of our adventures, sitting in the back of a van having someone else doing the driving is frustratingly boring. This isn’t helped by the fact that the landscape on our drive did not change for nine hours. At one point, several hours in, I observed the grass had gotten longer. I got excited about squashing a mosquito and seeing a pile of hay. I began to think about the different ways I could kill myself, deciding on hanging, for today at least. We stopped to see a giant statue of Ghengis Khan, 40 meters high. It was awarded the Guinness book of records honor of being the highest statue of a horseman in the world. I figure this is because no one else cares enough to build a giant horseman.

It’s all about Ghengis here. People have asked us ‘why are you here?’ (We get that a lot on our travels) so we just say we want to see Ghengis’s birthplace. The version Mongolians have of Ghengis’s rule is quite different from some of the interpretations we have read. Mongolians are very nationalistic and proud of their heritage, more so than anywhere else we’ve been. It’s an interesting culture. 45% of the population is nomadic, moving from one location to another four times a year. 1.5 million people live in UB, and the next biggest city is 150k, and then one more at around 130k. It wasn’t until 1996 that the concept of personal landownership became official, and even now most families just put up an elaborate tent (ger) wherever they feel. To apply for landownership people stake their claim by burying tires halfway into the dirt and wait for approval. It seems a bit unnecessary because there is plenty of land to go around. There are 3 million people in Mongolia and 73 million domesticated animals, most of which are sheep (almost exactly like New Zealand!), followed by cows, goats, horses and camels. There are also yaks, but these fall into the cow family.

Back to our road trip. There are no fences, no trees, no flowers. Just a bunch of sheep, cows and horses and gers scattered everywhere. Besides solar panels and satellite dishes (not on the one we stayed in of course) the ger hasn’t changed much since the beginning of time and was first constructed 2500-3500 years ago. Two posts in the middle holding everything up, a wooden lattice for the base, covered by linen on the inside and animal felts on the outside. There’s also a wood stove inside, which is great, because by 2am the inside temperature is close to zero. Unfortunately by 2am the furnace has well and truly burnt out.

We definitely feel like spectators rather than participants. As a tourist you’re never truely participating, but historically, by driving, at least we had control over our own destiny. Here we are restricted to our itinerary and the guidance of our guide. Our guide is very good. We don’t get lost or stuck, we’ve never been in fear of dying, being robbed, or being kidnapped, and no one has tried to rip us off. Said differently, like the Laotian dictators, it is stultifyingly dull. I’ve been hoping for a minor car accident just to break the monotony. Perhaps a broken arm or two (not mine). The closest I’ve come to fear is dying of starvation.

Occasionally we passed some cairns, which are tall stone structures covered with blue and white scarves, and in peace time, topped with white horse hair. These give honor to the local spirits. I reckon the local spirits might also like a spa resort or two, or at least internet access. Speaking of, no internet access for eight days – that is even scarier than kidnapping…although not quite a terrifying as the thought of being mind-numbingly bored for seven more days.

We were given the option of taking a detour to see the estimated place where Ghengis Khan died, but as this would have added two hours to our ten point five hour drive today we opted out. There’s nothing to see there, but legend tells it that 2,000 workers built a massive hole to bury the great khan because he didn’t want anyone knowing that he had died, and after they were done all 2 000 workers were killed.

We stopped for lunch and on the menu was ‘soup and dumplings’ and ‘soup and mutton’. I thought I would be clever and avoid the mutton by ordering the soup and dumplings. Unfortunately my cleverness was na├»ve, the dumplings were filled with … mutton. I added to my starch overload by eating the dumpling skin but not the mutton.

We also stopped by a stream for a cup of coffee and some apple juice. This would have been picturesque except for the algae on the stream and the fact that besides the stream the landscape still hadn’t. Hanged. Oops. Apple auto-correct, but I’ll leave it because it emphasizes my feelings exactly. I did learn that the sheep are sheared by hand with scissors and that the herdsmen (nomads) don’t really do anything for fun because they are working so hard. If I had to shear 100 sheep by hand I’d not have much time for fun either. Cows of course, are milked by hand, but so are the goats and sheep. We’re told this is very difficult because they have such small nipples. I can imagine.

On the plus side, apparently there is a lot of contention about where Ghengis was born, so we were shown the runner-up birthplace today. Another pile of rocks but kind of like finding a bonus dictator!

Finally we reach our destination, Binder. The time it took to get there was added to because a river had flooded our path and we had to go around, which took hours. Cold shower and delicious dinner. Oh, did I say delicious. I meant more mutton dumplings. I took a half hearted peek at one of the dumpling skins and gave up. I’ve been overdosing on fruit flavored vitamins because it’s the only thing I have that is edible.

Photos below taken every hour.

Dying a slow death here.

Justine Cutler's photo.
Justine Cutler's photo.
Justine Cutler's photo.
Justine Cutler's photo.

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