Who would have ever guessed this would be so much fun? It was great being in Mongolia this week, although I must admit, it was cold! There were several times that I pulled up the weather app on my phone and confused my real weather with my virtual weather.
And now, I’m excited to present you with week two of Noveltea’s series, Around the World in Fifty-Two Weeks:
Around the World in 52 Weeks
Week Two: Mongolia
I laughed as I awkwardly struggled into two extra layers of clothing in the Ulaanbaatar airports public restroom. Studying my mound of clothes in front of the mirror I shook my head, “What in the world have you gotten yourself into this time, Annie?”
Exiting the restroom I joined up with Sarnai, the smiling and red-cheeked Mongolian lady who would be hosting me during my stay in Mongolia. She reminded me of my mother and I was happy I had a chance to get to know her better.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Come then, my husband has your luggage loaded into the van.” Sarnai led me outside and the cold air and pollution filled my senses in a swirling, car-sick sort of way.
“The air here is bad,” Sarnai shook her head, “At our ger the world is fresh.”
I climbed into the van and promptly fell asleep. The last twenty-five hours had been spent flying from Lisbon to Budapest, from Budapest to Moscow, and finally from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar.
The only thing I knew about Mongolia when my finger landed on the country sandwiched between Russia and China was that it was the homeland of Genghis Khan, a warrior I had been amazed by in sixth grade. The first thing I had done was to look up the weather. I’d gasped in dismay when I saw that most days fell into the range of -20 to -40; yikes.
Sophie had worked pretty much non-stop back in the states getting everything set up for me and when I arrived in Mongolia I not only had a family to stay with, but transportation to get there, and the right kind of clothes to wear.
“We have arrived.” Sarnai’s words awoke me.
Embarrassed, I apologized for falling asleep, but Sarnai and her husband, Batbayar, grinned and waved my words away.
“It is a long trip. Of course you were tired.” Batbayar frowned at me when I reached back to gather up my lugguage. “I’ll get that. Now go into our ger and we can have breakfast.”
I climbed out of the van and then stopped. “Woah.” Turning in a full circle I felt a smile transforming my sleepy and almost frozen face. “This is gorgeous.” The hills were golden and reminded me of sand dunes as they rose and fell in smooth ripples. There was a light dusting of snow that reminded me of powdered sugar on a donut and the cattle wandering about had thick, furry, reddish hair and looked like they should be cuddled in a big hug.
“We don’t have close neighbors as you can see.” Sarnai led me to their ger. “Mongolia is the most sparsely populated nation in the world.” Her words were spoken with pride. “We have much beautiful wilderness.”
“I’m amazed.” I shook my head. “Do you know how many people there are per square mile?”
Sarnai’s face twisted in confusion, “I’m not sure what that means. We will have to ask my husband.” She opened the brightly colored door to their ger and allowed me to enter first.
“Thank you.” I stepped inside and looked around. A ger is a round, moveable house that is kinda like a sturdy tent. It only takes about an hour to set up and is very useful to the Mongolian’s – many of whom are nomadic.
Sarnai’s ger was cozy inside with thick rugs on the floor, a wood burning stove in the middle, beds at one side and across from that, table and chairs. “Your home is lovely.” The furnishings were brightly colored and had so many painted and carved designs I wanted to go around and examine each piece.
Batbayar came in just then, bringing my luggage and a woossh of cold air with him. Sarnai talked to him rapidly for a moment in Mongolian and then I heard the words square mile.
“Ah, you tourist always ask the same questions.” Batbayar’s eyes twinkled as he took off his big, warm-looking hat and then stoked the fire. “There are only 4.3 people per square mile. Perhaps you’ll like it here enough that you’ll stay?” His smile told me he was teasing, “Then we’d have to raise our average.”
Sarnai began working on cutting up some sort of meat. I offered to help her, but she shook her head, “No, no, no. You watch this time and learn.”
“Now animals?” Batbayar rubbed his hands together over the stove. “There are many of those. Here in our country we have thirteen times more horses and thirty-five times more sheep than humans.”
“So many?” I shook my head. I could easily imagine what they did with the sheep, but… “What do you do with all of the horses?”
“Many people use them for transportation. We also eat them and drink their milk.”
I looked at the food his wife was prepping and willed myself not to get sick to my stomach. When in Rome do as the Romans do…
“Horses are very useful. See, our land is so vast that the Netherlands could fit inside it thirty-seven times.” Batbayar spoke with enthusiasm, as if he often shared this information with guests and never grew tired of talking about his beloved country.
“That is impressive.” I wasn’t quite sure what that had to do with horses being important, though.
“Ah yes, but what is really impressive is that the Mongolian roads could fit into the Dutch road system sixty-seven times.”
It took a moment for his words to sink in, “So, that’s why horses are so useful?”
“Right, right. Also our camels. We use them for transportation too.”
“Camels? Wow.” I rubbed my forehead. I obviously knew basically nothing about other cultures and countries. “I thought camels only lived in hot areas.”
“No, no, that’s a common mistake people make. Our camels can live in very cold weather. They have long hair and keep warm.”
“Breakfast is ready,” Sarnai informed us, waving us over to the table.
The next four days were more cozy than I could have ever imagined. Batbayar and Sarnai were the perfect hosts and I felt like we became good friends. I learned how to help take care of their sheep, goats, yaks, horses, and camels. I gathered firewood, cooked with Sarnai, watched Batbayar repair his tools, getting them ready for spring planting, and even tried my hand at sewing for Sarnai (that didn’t work out too well, though).
In the evenings we would sit around the wood stove sipping burning hot milk tea and talking. I asked hundreds of questions about their land and culture and they answered with such enthusiasm that at times I forgot to take notes because it was so intriguing.
I was especially interested to learn that some of the people kept eagles as pets, and some even went hunting with them. Growing up I had read a handful of medieval books where the nobility went hunting with birds of prey, but I hadn’t realized people still did that nowadays.
“Yes, there is even a festival that is called the Golden Eagle festival.” Sarnai stood up to refill my mug of milk tea. “You should come back and visit again for the festival, no?”
“Thank you for the tea.” I blew on the steam that floated into the air, “And that sounds like fun. What do they do at the festival?”
“It begins with a colorful parade of all the eagle hunters riding through on horseback. They have very special hunting costumes and it is beautiful to look at.” Sarnai sighed in delight, “No Mongolian child has truly lived until they have seen the sight for themselves. My papa used to tell me about it when I was just a wee girl.”
“The do competitions and the eagles are judged on how fast they are. The men also take part in traditional games and show off their horsemanship skills,” Batbayar added, “It is grand.”
Batbayar was also eager to inform me that Mongolia had a Pony Express style postal service long before the USA ever thought of it.
“Kublai Khan established our mail service about a thousand years ago and they could be carried hundreds of miles a day on nonstop horseback,” his words were spoken with pride. “See, you Americans learned from us, no?”
“Indeed.” I laughed. “I’m sure we could learn from you in many more ways, as well.”
“Such as in eating horse meat?”
I cringed slightly, “Well… I’m not sure how well that would go over with my friends.”
Batbayar’s deep chuckle made me smile, “But you tried it, you make a good Mongolian.”
I beamed at the praise, “Thank you, Batbayar.”
All too soon it was Saturday and time for me to head back to Ulaanbaatar so I could get caught up on my blogging and upload my vlogs, talk to my family, and fly out to my next destination on Monday. I was sad to leave.
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Extra: watch this two minute video of a ger being assembled.
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Extra: watch this two minute video of a ger being assembled.