Monday, July 20, 2009

Mongolian Ger

Outside it was minus 36 degrees Celsius and pitch black. Inside was blacker than pitch black and probably not much warmer. It was Boxing Day and I was miles from family and home. The door opened and a crouched figure with a small torch entered. I knew it was four o’clock as that was the pre-arranged time.

The main light was suddenly switched on and all was revealed. The figure was one of our Mongolian hosts, who was dressed in the traditional Mongolian outfit and whose job it was to rekindle the fire with coal so we would be warm when we awoke for breakfast. However, I was now awake with a combination of the unexpected bright light and a full bladder. My companions blissfully slept. I had been contemplating the dilemma of what to do for a few restless minutes and this seemed like a good opportunity. But should I take it? If only I had not drunk that last cup of tea and that can of beer!

It was bloody freezing outside and I knew what the cold could do to bare flesh! Maybe I could wait just a few more hours? But maybe I couldn’t? There is nothing more soul destroying in this world than a full bladder early in the morning when you are snug under your bedclothes knowing that outside it is well below freezing. It’s hard enough when it’s warm.

In the end the decision came quickly. I decided there was no point wasting time and energy putting on extra clothes so I slipped out from under the warm covers straight into my boots and made a dash to the door. I was out and finished in less time than it has taken you to read this paragraph.

We were staying in a Ger (pronounced gair), the traditional tent of the Mongolian nomads, about 80 kilometres from the capital of Ulaan Baatar. There were six tourists in all, two young Italian lads on their way back after a working holiday in Japan, two Australian girls who had been backpacking around China and were on their way to Europe and Lynne and myself who had decided to escape Christmas and all its hassles. It had taken almost four hours by bus to reach this camp but what an eventful trip it had turned out to be.

The first hint of trouble was the bus coming to an innocuous halt somewhere on a long hill only a few kilometres out of town. From my days driving expeditions across Asia I knew there was no roadside help to rely upon. No RACV out here - in fact I don’t really know who else was out there anyway. But it wasn’t our problem - we were the paying punters!

So what to do until the problem was fixed? There was no hint of any heating in the bus and our breathing had created a coating of ice on all the windows. Maybe it was warmer (or should I say less cold) outside that it was inside? So we went outside where there was no temperature change whatsoever but at least we could exercise to thaw out while our driver lifted up the engine cover.

The air filter was taken off and the carburettor was carefully disassembled with well practised hands. Within half an hour the frozen vapour causing the blockage had been cleared and we were on our way. However, half an hour later we came to another unforced halt and the same problem was diagnosed and solved.

We turned left off the main road and then took to the hills. There was only one other set of tyre marks in the fresh snow and it was these that we were following to our Ger. Our vehicle was a short wheelbase two-wheel drive bus and here we were in the middle of nowhere, driving through one foot deep powder snow albeit on a very ice hard foundation. Where are your skis when you need them? The question was passed around as to what we were doing on the snow covered Mongolian Steppes in the middle of winter. But we all knew the answer.

Snow-covered rolling hills stretched to the horizon on all sides. Deep blue sky came down to meet the snow and the sun was as high as it was going to get in these northern latitudes. It reflected off the snow and we started to get some heat into the bus and into our bodies. Then the bloody bus came to another unexpected halt and the driver started the laborious process of cleaning the carbie again.

In the very short time I had been on the bus I had come to respect the mechanical skills of our driver and I knew it would be fixed in no time at all. But what a location to break down! It was time to go for a walk. Just follow the twin tracks. The scenery was just stunning. I am a winter person and there is nothing more enjoyable and rewarding than walking through snow on a cloudless and windless day. The silence was deafening. The only sound was our boots gliding through the powder snow. It was just so peaceful and relaxing. It wasn’t long before the bus appeared above the horizon speeding toward us in front of a huge spray of powder snow.

The descent to the Ger Camp looked dangerous and very exciting but we had complete faith in our driver - he knew how to handle the bus and the conditions. He made quite an impression on me and even now I can’t stop talking about his all round driving skills. But what made my hair stand on end was the two wolf-like dogs which greeted us as we tried to step off the bus. The owner had to chain up the big male and introduce us slowly to the female. I was not convinced!

This was a tourist Ger camp with six Gers. A brick building housed the toilets and the dining room - but only in summer! The ‘winter’ toilets were down the icy slope behind the camp in a tiny wooden building with two doors - male and female and each carpeted with a long oh-so-narrow hole in the middle!

The two cooks prepared all our meals on the coal fired stove in the kitchen/dining Ger. All the Gers were well insulated and, along with the heat generated by the cooking, we were able to sit at the table in t-shirts. Meals were a mixture of traditional and western - all tasty and plenty of it.

Each Ger had four single beds, a washbasin, electric light, wardrobe with mirror and the ubiquitous coal fired stove in the middle. All Ger doors face south. The contrast between the warm inside and the intense cold outside could not have been greater. You could be in your t-shirt inside but outside your fingers would freeze immediately if taking your glove off for a photograph.

The highlight of the day, and indeed of my stay in Mongolia, was a visit to a working Ger after lunch. Of course we had to walk and we set off rather late in the day so our guide Zaya set a rather fast pace. I was in my element - out in the mountains, blue sky, snow all around, cold and no-one else in sight. Walking through powder snow so cold that it appears dry is pure ecstasy. Four kilometres and an hour later we were looking down upon a sight which could have been from a thousand years ago.

In a little secluded valley was the Ger, smoke coming out of its chimney, animals all around - and two of the most ferocious dogs I have ever seen racing up the slope to greet us! We bunched together for safety but Zaya spoke loudly and forcefully in Mongolian and their tails started to wag. They were still suspicious of our smell and funny language so we kept our distance and tried to ignore them.

The sun was beginning to descend as were the animals, horses, goats, sheep and cattle all coming in for the night. After Zaya explained who we were, the door was opened and we were invited in. It was like the Dr Who Tardis, from the outside it looked small but inside was quite spacious - large enough for the seven of us and the family of two parents, two young children and two grandparents to sit and drink tea.

Time was of an essence as the sun was setting fast as we set off back to out camp each at their own pace and each deep in their own thoughts. As the sun slipped behind the mountains two red flare-ups appeared equidistant and either side of where the sun was, like two sentinels guarding the night sky. Was this the famed Aurora Borealis I had read so much about? The camera came out and with frozen fingers I managed to set the aperture and speed and take a couple of frames before all was dark. Our Ger camp was found by looking for the only lights and knowing there were no obstacles in the way.

Dinner was well received and our appetites could not have been healthier. The after-dinner entertainment was playing cards and learning new games.

So after the fire was re-lit and I was safely back in bed it was a question of waiting for the nine o’clock breakfast call. I was up first as the alarm clock said 0845 but when I stepped outside I was surprised to see the sun just peeping above the horizon. Was my clock correct? I knew that the winter solstice had just passed and the days were at their shortest but I had forgotten just how short. However, seeing Zaya making his way to the breakfast Ger confirmed the time.

So why I am telling this story and why was I there in the middle of winter? Although the film Dr Zhivago was not filmed in Siberia it had stirred up my passion for doing the Trans Siberian Railway in winter. At the last minute I decided to fit in Mongolia as well and I just fell in love with the country and its people. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you how wonderful the place is as maybe you will all want to go. However if you can keep a secret, look at the box below and don’t tell anyone else!

Anyway after breakfast it was time to drive back to UB, as Ulaan Baatar is affectionately known. It was a very pleasing sight as we watched two Russian-built jeeps racing down to the camp rather than our endearing bus. These jeeps were built to withstand the rough terrain encountered by the Russian occupation forces in Afghanistan and were therefore ideal for Mongolia. Although the trip back was rather tame we had to endure an unplanned adrenalin rush as we raced to the jeeps with the unleased dogs looking for our throats!

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