26 year old Canadian, Dutch resident travelling to every country in the world (111 so far) to become the first Canadian female to visit them all. Bestselling travel AUTHOR and founder of popular #TRLT Twitter chat.
While we played cards in the evenings, Bree would often take herself off to a corner and pluck her eyebrows, despite the dim lighting. I wonder why? I’d think sarcastically.
As our vehicles chased each other up and over the hillsides in a kind of dance, I did feel a bit like I was in an adventure film.
The jeep, camouflaged and worn, raced alongside us in the meadows, stirring up dust in a long trailing parachute.
This land was truly a horse’s paradise.
Mother Nature created a cloud masterpiece in the sky, the biggest easel known to man.
“Holy COW! I can’t believe how many there are.” Bree shouted. “This isn’t cow. That is horse,” Baagii corrected her exclamation.
Horses are the pride of Mongolia, and apparently there are a hundred different ways to say horse in Mongolian.
Hundreds of sheep and goats were crowded around this trough before the water was even poured, the goats ramming each other with their horns as they fought for position.
Baagii then told us a long-held Mongolian saying: “The more livestock, the better your lifestyle will be.”
Little ones selling fermented mare’s milk. “Do you want to try our local drink, airag?” holding out a plastic bottle full of white liquid. “It’s mare’s milk.”
If only these friendly folk knew that when I spent a night in their home, it was literally my home too.
The colts played carelessly but always stayed close to their mothers for protection.
Our very first ovoo was a rock cairn with threads of silky blue scarves tethered to a stick protruding upwards from the centre.
“You must always go around clockwise three times,” Baagii explained as he jumped out, shaking his wet hands to dry them. “For a safe journey. It’s like a shrine and it is symbolic of the open sky and Tengger, the sky spirit Genghis Khan prayed to before he came to power. Also makes good reference point,” he added, admitting that he knew this ovoo.
Chapter #32 “From Sheep To Mutton”
“Bree. Bree! I have to pee.” “Well, go then! What are you waiting for?” “Eerrgg,” I growled, stomping my foot. Searching my brain for a good excuse, I finally remembered the one that should do the trick. “Don’t forget Travel Rule #3!” and then whisper/shouted, “Buddy System!”
During our daily drives, the toilet issue proved to be even more of a challenge. We would make special stops in an occasional “town” and find a single gas station where there’d be a three-sided outhouse.
Just a few wood planks hammered together over a shallow pit.
Another day, we’d bought smoked fish from a “side of the road” vendor at a nearby lake, and I went from being a fish-hater to a fish-lover the moment I tasted it. That gopher and fish were some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, I thought, practically salivating as I recalled those meals.
Tonight our accommodation was not a ger but a wooden shelter with a couple of rooms. Our family shared a room with four metal-framed beds, the ceilings so low that Ammon was forced to lower his head in order to stand.
While we waited for our dinner to be caught, we entertained ourselves with the rest of the local family’s livestock. Baagii was happy to join us on our “day-at-the-farm” adventures.
“Time for milk,” Baagii said to lighten the mood. He smiled broadly and handed Ammon an old, beat-up pail
I clutched the warm, firm teats in my fists and thought, ‘ oh my gosh, is this awkward or what? I’m touching nipples!
A limp, trussed-up sheep hung from the back of his motorbike. The sheep’s pinkish grey tongue dangled from its mouth. I could see that it was already scared half to death, and my heart contracted again.
Baagii explained the procedure as the man went about his chore, completely unfazed by our presence. He pressed a small, sharp knife into the skin just below the sternum and sliced it downwards. Reaching in halfway to his elbow, he ‘unplugged’ the heart artery so the sheep would slowly bled to death.
Skinning was done much like you would peel a banana.
The youngest girl, who was about six years old and too young for other chores, took an interest in the gutting. She squatted next to her father, her head nearly inside the hollow belly of the sheep which was now split open from neck to groin.
Bree was already sitting on the ground with her back against the tire of the truck. Her head hung nauseously between her legs. She groaned more than the sheep ever had.
She was hunched over and ever so silent, fully attentive to the process as he dissected all the organs and intestines into three different buckets. The man carefully removed the gallbladder, ensuring that he kept it fully intact so as not to damage the rest of the organs.
The slaughtered corpse hanging nearby did nothing for my appetite, but I was too hungry to skip dinner.
An older daughter in the Mongol family, probably around thirteen or so, was preparing noodles for dinner in the squishy kitchen. She kneaded the pale dough and then sliced and rolled it into very lumpy, uneven strips. It was not about presentation as much as it was about just getting it shaped into pieces that could be thrown into the soup.
Chapter #33 “Mongol Ferrari “
“A Mongol without a horse is like a bird without the wings,” Baagii said softly and directly into the ears of the black stallion. “A traditional saying,” he explained as he stroked the horse’s nose before leisurely climbing on.
We’d woken to see horses outside our ger munching away on the short, tough grass. Their hides twitched and their tails flicked the few flies away.
I’d be worried, too, with all these six year olds riding around like pros. Mongolians must learn to ride before they can walk, and it’s obvious that they really love their horses,I thought, thinking back on twenty-odd mounted kids between the ages of six and ten we’d seen practising for the Nadaam Festival.
We’d found ourselves driving in the midst of them as they raced across a vast plain like warriors off to battle decorated with multicoloured ribbons braided into their hair.
“They’d woven their tiny hands into their horse’s manes as they rode bareback, fitting snugly into the base of their mount’s moist necks.”
A few days later, we were situated by a different beautiful lake and we’d just returned from another six hours of hard riding. – White Lake
Bree shouted happily and laughed as we both broke from a walk into a canter and rode side by side. I couldn’t believe these creatures’ speed and strength!
Once again, history was coming to life, this time with the wind gripping my hair. Suddenly I felt like I could’ve been part of Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Horde, shaking the earth as it stampeded across Asia on horseback in the thirteenth century. It didn’t surprise me that the Mongols ventured so far west if their horses were anything like these.
“Wow! This is gorgeous,” I heard Mom gasp as she looked out over Lake Khovsgol.
Ignoring our squabbling, Baagii told us more about the beautiful lake. “This lake holds seventy percent of Mongolia’s fresh water.
The lake was stunningly clear, so clear that the shape and colour of every individual pebble was visible. It invited us for a much needed dip, though I felt guilty about dirtying such pure, clean water.
Mongolian horses are very small and stocky, but I quickly learned not to judge a book by its cover.
We skipped from rock to jagged rock along the rim, scratching our legs as we went, until we reached a point that had a hundred and eighty degree view of the distant mountains that enclosed the crystal waters.
“‘I still can’t believe we jumped off the roof into the pool.'” – Vancouver, Canada home
We fell into silence as the sun set before us. I had watched it sink and disappear countless times. I often felt it was the only thing connecting me to the other side of the world.
The inside of our ger.
Chapter #34 ” “Recharge”
The next morning, Baagii joined us as we headed out to watch the Naadam Festival’s opening ceremonies that included horses, ballroom dancing, and rap music.
Sukhbaatar Square was full of onlookers as nine men, dressed in dazzling red and blue, super-hero-looking outfits and holding sacred horse tails, assembled in front of their horses and then mounted to parade around the city.
From the bleachers, we watched archery, wrestling, and horse-racing competitions.
It was hot when we arrived at the National Sports Stadium where the rest of the three-day festival was held.
The wrestlers wore Speedo-like blue “underwear” and tiny red jackets, which essentially were just sleeves that left their chests fully exposed.
That evening, a man with a big friendly smile stumbled out of a little silver minivan, and Baagii introduced Future, saying, “This is my good friend and your new driver! He is going with you to the Gobi Desert!”
Chapter #35 “Sand Traps and Good Samaritans”
I gazed out the window at the vastness of the land, my attention diverted by my fears about having no GPS or experienced guide.
This was just one of the troubling details we’d learned after our departure. By the time we’d stopped for the tenth set of instructions on our first day out, I knew that Baagii had undoubtedly advised our apprentice guide to stop at every possible opportunity to ask for directions.
“He says it over that way, but it is getting late, and we should coming to his place and leaving in the morning.” We followed the horseman and arrived fifteen minutes later at his few gers sitting beneath the wide-open, pastel sky.
Ducking to avoid the drying meat strung up from the poles supporting the wood ceiling had become so routine that I barely even flinched at the sight, but the odour always got to me. Each day, I disliked it more and more. “Sheep” was present in clothing, shelter, and food, overwhelming the rest of my senses.
They had the typical painted, wooden beds lined up against the walls…
…with a simple fire stove in the centre, a tiny sink, a table surrounded by four small stools, and a small shrine for worship on one of two dressers. I consciously remembered to honour their custom of not turning my back to the sacred shrine except when exiting the ger. Despite the fact that we had essentially taken over their home for the night and were both unexpected and unannounced, we couldn’t have been more warmly welcomed.
One by one they were led from the pen and whacked over the head with a hammer. The job took two men, one to hold the goat between his legs and keep it steady while the other delivered a clean hit between the horns to crush the skull and knock it out.
“No, no, Future. You know what? I think we’re good. We can live without seeing the canyon,” Ammon had finally said to prevent Future from venturing further and further off course and wasting more fuel hunting for it. Even when we were finally heading in a direction that was more likely to lead to a town, my heart fluttered with the same rhythm as the blinking, red fuel light.
At last, a small clump of “civilization” rose up out of the dust, and we spotted a lone gas station with two pumps.
We had only a brief stretch left to go, but our relief was short-lived.