|Old ladies & ice cream - Ulaanbaatar
We decided to take this option for our trip as it offers a wider variety of countries, cultures and countryside. Crossing the vague Europe/Asia border along the Ural Mountains, traversing the mind-bending expanses of forest in Russia, trekking through the barren, arid Gobi Desert occupying vast swathes of land around the China/Mongolia border, and stopping at three vastly different capital cities; Moscow, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing.
Mongolia was the country in which we had the least time to explore – a grand total of three days. Keen to make the most of this time, and finding Ulaanbaatar a bit suffocating (it recently took the un-prestigious title of most-polluted capital from the grasps of Beijing and Delhi) we jumped at the chance to join young Dutchman Diederik on a two-day tour into nearby Terelj National Park, including an overnight stay with a traditional nomadic family.
Our journey to join the family was a leisurely one as our driver battled high-speed, dust-flinging winds to show us a few of the main places of interest in Terelj park. This included the appropriately named Turtle Rock – a hulking lump of granite that looms over the side of the road and whose shape is uncannily reminiscent of a turtle – and another eponymously titled formation called Old Man Reading a Book – you can guess what that one looks like.
We also had time to snoop around the Buddhist meditation centre of Aryapala. A picturesque retreat snugly located on a spectacular rocky hillside and open to the prying eyes of day-trippers and the open minds of long-term students (we were firmly in the former category). Steep steps up to the temple are accompanied by a multitude of wooden boards each displaying a different Buddhist proverb. These veered wildly from deeply profound to deeply depressing to deeply nonsensical. The essence of the majority seemed to be: None of this means anything, you fool, but still be nice to other people. Which I suppose is as fine a motto to live by as any other. The awkward sense of ennui from the bleakest of the aphorisms we’d read on the way up was soon shifted when we met the temple's elderly caretaker. Dressed in a wide variety of jackets, his head inexplicably festooned with a
Bulls baseball cap, he swiftly grabbed us by the elbow and enthusiastically
jabbed his finger at a particular scene that made up one of many decorative
paintings covering the building. We couldn’t quite see what he was pointing at
and were more distracted by the way he was smiling slightly manically, growling
like a dog and intermittently pointing at his genitals. As we swiftly
approached the conclusion it was time to make a rapid exit... finally; realisation as to what he was trying to show us. One of the temple’s wooden
roof planks was decorated with artistic depictions of hell and the fate that
would meet anyone who ended up there. Along with people being sawed in half and
skewered up the bum with hot pokers, was a small design that showed a pair of
dogs biting off men’s genitals. Relieved that we had finally realised what was
going on, we couldn’t help but laugh. As did the old man, before spanking us
all on the bum one by one. I liked him.
With twilight slowly drawing in, our driver dropped left us with some locals to pile into an insufficiently-sized and over-aged hatchback for the final journey to our nomadic hosts. The car was woefully unsuitable for the terrain – juddering across practically non-existent mud tracks, clattering through oversized streams, spluttering up steep mountains before hurtling down the other side. I’ve no idea how the vehicle survived the journey – the dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree with every warning light blinking frantically – but somehow it did and I’ve no doubt it has made the same journey again many times since.
Off-roading in a hatchback
|Nomadic Gers (yurts)
|Spot our yurts (white spots on the right)
Our host family comprised a friendly mother and father along with their impossibly cute one year old daughter. They spoke no English but welcomed us heartily with the standard Mongolian fare of warm sheep milk, hardened biscuits and mutton stew. The daughter provided the necessary human link between us all without the need for a common language – giggling, toddling around and most definitely playing up to the strange visitors. Heading to our Ger and turning in for the night, it had already been an incredible, eye-opening experience. Little did we know what the next day had in store….
|Statue of Mongol warriors
Considering this, we could hardly say no when our host dad offered us the chance to go riding in the morning. There was a little apprehension, as the tour agency had told us ‘don’t worry, the horses are quite small…. But also half-wild, so hold on tight’, which wasn’t exactly reassuring. These niggling concerns dissipated almost immediately once we set off into the wide open Mongolian plains. The landscapes took on a vast biblical scale. Everything seemed bigger than it should be. Bold, blue skies. Beaming sunshine. Bright green flat grasslands, strewn with intermittent pebbles, mobs of sheep, herds of wild horses. The world framed by rolling hillsides and clustered groves of pine trees. Perfection. Serene Nature. Horse pace increasing to a canter….. really sore balls.
(Remember that last point – we did feel a bit sorry for ourselves, but not for long)
nearly an hour, our guide halted the convoy at another small nomad dwelling.
Half a dozen stocky, weather-beaten Mongolian men were at work in the horse
paddock. At least 12 wild-looking stallions were in the pen with them; running around, bucking violently, as the locals attempted to lasso one. No one
spoke any English, so we weren’t quite sure what was going on, but assumed the
animals were being broken in for riding.
|Riding under giant skies
A horse was finally snagged, then led outside the gate into the open plains and subdued by the men. They tied
one of its forelegs to a backleg, causing the animal to fall over its
own hooves and onto the ground where it was promptly sat on and held down. This
was quite distressing to watch, but we trusted in the Mongolian’s knowledge and
world-renowned love for their animals to believe that this was all part of the
breaking-in process. The first indication that there might be something else
going on came when a long knife was produced, along with a bucket of boiling
water and a large silver plate. As one of the older men took the knife, cleaned
it in the water, and crouched down behind the hind quarters of the prone
animal, it finally dawned on us…. The stallion was about to be castrated.
|Bracing against the stallion
A successful lassoing
Half-repulsed, half-fascinated, we half-watched as the knife was used to slice open the outer sack and each testicle was popped out and cut off in turn. Obviously, no anaesthetic was used and the technique is the same as it has been for centuries – a sharp knife, a swift operation, and the wound rinsed with mare’s milk which is believed to encourage healing. It might sound barbaric to our unaccustomed ears, but having witnessed it first hand, it was remarkable how quickly the whole process was over and how little pain and distress the horse seemed to go through. The worst part being once the horse was allowed to get back up and began to rub its upper legs together, looking confused as it searched for something that used to be there – ‘This doesn’t seem quite right’. No longer a stallion, now a gelding, his mane also clipped short (adding insult to injury!). Quite a sad sight watching him trot awkwardly off to unenthusiastically nibble at a small patch of grass.
|Preparing to make the cut
By the time we’d seen three horses go through the castration process and six testicles quickly consumed by different members of the tribe, our initial knee-jerk misgivings had faded away remarkably rapidly and it was truly fascinating to witness and feel a part of this ritual. It turned out that one of the younger lads could actually speak a bit of English and he explained it was an ancient belief that whoever ate the testicles of the horse was meant to acquire the strength of that stallion. To be fair, I would not have fancied my chances in a wrestle with any of the blokes there.
Reading this blog, the whole procedure may come across as barbarous and disgusting, and I can understand that. However, it really didn’t seem that way watching first-hand (once the initial shock had passed anyway!). We felt incredibly lucky to have been present at such an event. This most definitely wasn’t something put on for the benefit of the tourists. This was real life. A rare, sacred, family-led custom. Horse gelding only occurs once a group of colts reaches 2 or 3 years old, and the date of the ceremony is so important it may even be decided by a lama to ensure good fortune. We were incredibly fortuitous to have gone out riding with our host on this particular day, and to have crossed this tiny nomad dwelling in the immense plains of the national park. We were truly blessed to see those balls get chopped off and we couldn’t be happier about it. Not something any of us will forget in a hurry.
(See the last few photos below if you would like to see the castration process and ritual testicle eating...)
|Old and new clashes in Ulaanbaatar
|Genghis statue in Ulaanbaatar
|Temple in Ulaanbaatar
|Monument in Ulaanbaatar thanking the Soviets for their protection in WWII
|GIANT Genghis Khan statue just outside Ulaanbaatar
|Aryapala Meditation Retreat
|Climbing to Aryapala
|Looking down from Aryapala Meditation Retreat
|Our nomadic home for the night
|G & Diederik in one of the Gers
|The main attraction! :)
|Kids start riding young in Mongolia!
|Looking out of the Ger
|Herds roaming the National Park
|Diederik introducing himself
|The view outside our bedroom
|Like real cowboys...
|Like real cowboys...
|Like real cowboys...
(WARNING: PHOTOS OF CASTRATION BELOW)
Driving through a duststorm
The natural surroundings of our nomad camp
Bringing one of the horses to ground...
Train trundling through the Gobi Desert