Sunday 20 May 2018

Mongolia: A night with the nomads

Old ladies & ice cream - Ulaanbaatar
The Trans-Mongolian railway route follows the classic Trans-Siberian tracks from Moscow about halfway across the vast Siberian plains until reaching the Mongol-Buddhist enclave of Ulan-Ude, nestled beneath the lower shore of Lake Baikal. From here, the carriages sweep southward, abandoning the never-ending taiga landscapes of Siberia and transitioning to the green rolling hills of northern Mongolia.

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.
Turtle Rock

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
The Caretaker
Chicago 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.

It is quite funny...
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)
We were definitely off-the-beaten track by the time we reached the family’s dwelling – a trio of traditional Mongolian Gers (yurts) with a small stable attached and a low wooden fence running around the periphery of the property. There were no other signs of human life in all directions we looked, just striking tree-topped rocky hillsides sliding down to barren grasslands. Plenty of animals could be spotted though – the horses, cows, chickens and dog owned by the family and wandering herds of bleating sheep scattered across the hillsides. It was only when we climbed to the top of one of these hills that we could make out a couple of other small nomadic dwellings in the distance.

Spot our yurts (white spots on the right)
You could almost picture Genghis Khan uniting the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and launching his impressively successful campaign for world domination from these sturdy heartlands in the 13th Century. No doubt he was a brutal and genocidal conqueror, reducing the total world population by 11% as his armies wiped out up to 40 million people, but also a progressive ruler in many ways; practicing meritocracy and encouraging trade and religious tolerance in his empire. And quite an empire it was: Genghis conquered more than twice as much land as any other person previously or since, resulting in the largest contiguous empire in history. He is hugely revered by Mongolians up to this present day; they perceive him to be the founding father of their country.

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
Horses play a hugely important role in the lives of Mongolians, and have done for as long as the recorded history of the country. The equine population actually outnumbers that of the human. Like Wales and sheep. But way, way cooler. The national beverage is fermented mare’s milk and horses occasionally provide food too. Primarily, though, they are used for riding – sometimes in racing, but mostly as working animals for the nomads. Mongolian nomads are unquestionably among the best horsemen on the planet. Such skills played a vital part in the success of Genghis Khan and the international conquest of his ‘Mongol hordes’. The warrior archers were capable of incredible feats while riding; such as sliding down the side of their horse to shield themselves from enemy arrows, while simultaneously holding their bow under the horse's chin and returning fire, all at full gallop.

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)

Riding under giant skies
After 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.

A horse was finally snagged, then led outside the gate into the open plains and subdued by the men. They tied
Bracing against the stallion
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.

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
Amazed by what we’d seen, but still totally unprepared for what we’d see next. Geraint nudged me and said, ‘What’s that guy eating?’. Turning around, a double-take or three, one of the younger men was eating the horse testicle raw. Blood smeared his hands and face. He caught my eye and my first idiot-tourist instinct was to raise my camera. He smiled and happily posed for the picture.

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

Host family

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

Wild horses

Gee up!

Like real cowboys...

Like real cowboys...

Like real cowboys...


Driving through a duststorm

The natural surroundings of our nomad camp

Bringing one of the horses to ground...

Train trundling through the Gobi Desert

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