The Mongolian for Game


Hello again from Ulaan Baatar – summer is here, along with tweeting birds, pollen, and lots of sleep-depriving flies. This News entry has happened rather later than I originally intended it to - it has been more than two months since the last one – so I think is the longest single entry on the site yet. You are warned! Consider printing it off to read at leisure, section by section!

The Mongolian for Game

At 8.30 am last Thursday morning I was hurrying north through cool clear sunshine, over the large bridge that crosses the railway line and town stream, and is normally choking with fumes and traffic. But it was the first day of Naadam, which for most UB residents means a welcome opportunity to sleep in. Trotting towards me along the narrow pavement were the four largest and best-groomed yak bulls I have ever seen (not that I have seen that many yaks), with soft grey coats of thick wool and twisted pointed creamy horns as long as my arms. They were being led by thin men in smart crimson velvet outfits who collectively cannot have amounted in weight to half of one of their charges. The beasts seemed as startled by me as I was by them and with difficulty their guards pulled and tugged at them to make way for me, but after a few seconds even got them to stand to attention for my camera. At this I felt a wave of holiday euphoria, and speeded up to meet Nat (another AYA here in Ulaan Baatar) in Sukhbaatar Square, where the military brass was striking up, a column of horsemen entering.

They all stood to attention as the nee-nar of a cavalcade signalled the arrival of some top dog in a black Mercedes-Benz, who subsequently showed himself through the front of the parliament building at the head of the square. Who’s he? I asked a local. ‘I don’t know!’ was the answer – so maybe not such a top dog. To a hair-raising war tune in a minor key, military guards dismounted beautiful greys with tails almost to the ground, and were presented with traditional standards of similar such horsehair fringes from the parliament building. The procession of horses set off, once round the northern end of the parliament, then south to the stadium, which is close to my residential district.

A small crowd (mostly tourists) witnessed this first ceremony of Naadam, Mongolia’s three-day summer holiday to celebrate wrestling, archery and horse-racing competitions, the traditional three ‘men’s’ games (‘naadam’ means game). Except that from what I could tell later in the day, there were at least as many women in fine deels (Mongolian full-length side-fastened coats) shooting medieval bows and arrows at ground-level targets as there were men (though the men had better hats). The horse-races are renowned for being jockeyed by children (girls as well as boys), and everywhere you can read the legend that the wrestlers wear such silly skimpy bolero jackets so that their chests are revealed to the world (and pretty ugly chests most of them are too – not quite sumo-proportions but with clear tendencies towards the fat and drooping), to be certain that there are no women competing who might shame a Mongolian man should he be defeated.

With some of my fellow ‘Australian Youth Ambassadors’ we took cheap but perfectly adequate seats in the stadium shortly before the opening ceremony, and watched more processions and entertainment (of archers, police, parachutists, contortionists, and figures symbolising Mongolia’s nomadic lifestyle, including a huge ornate ger pulled on a large flat cart by six horses in parallel). The hundreds or perhaps thousands of child jockeys were nowhere to be seen (all out at Yarmag, where the races are held, presumably), but all this was followed by a presentation of the wrestlers. They quickly began to fight, each tussle commencing with a strange arm-flapping ritual preamble. We soon lost interest in these men, and went to the fun outside.

Naadam is the best context for the Central Asian diet. I had consumed a mouth-watering tender beef kebab with (Russian) cabbage salad and (Chinese) steamed bread (about US$0.90) on my way into the stadium. As I wandered among the throngs I embarked on two days of delicious meat and fat, and was joined on the first day by my normally vegetarian friend Louise. Even she relished the hurshuur (deep-fried hand-flattened meat patties), which were hot and full of flavour – but it was enough to eat one, or perhaps two at a time (US$0.08 each), rather than the typical Mongolian serving of six. As well as hurshuur and kebab (known in Mongolian as sharlig, a boiled-down pronunciation of shashlyk) from the great Mongolian repertoire, there was buuz (Mongolian dumplings), tsœvung (Mongolian attempt at chow mein), and travelling hor hog (see my Arhangai and Khuvsgul experiences, below); there were Turkish yiros, Afghan kebabs, and some enterprising Uzbeks had come to concoct huge cauldrons of plov. We were too full to eat the plov when I first spotted it (and the shy, obviously not Mongolian boys standing at the stall – they said they were Kyrgyz, from Osh!), and when we came back later it was all gone – so I had to make a special Friday lunchtime trip back to the fair to get some. The boys were gone – perhaps half the group had gone to Yarmag to capitalize on the second day’s racing – and the woman in charge (speaking Russian) said she had come from Tashkent to Mongolia by train, via Irkutsk.

We followed our meat and fat with cream and fat – delicious Russian ice-cream cones (US$0.12) – and having seen enough at the main venue scrambled aboard a bus to the races. The revelry was just as vigorous at Yarmag, but with much more space! Horses, gers and dust everywhere. One merry group singing and joking round a bottle of vodka let Louise have a little trot while I took photos to order for a couple of the women. We got to the race stand just in time (past a solid rank of about a hundred horses, mounted by their owners to have a good view of the finish) – the final race of the day was about to come in! We shoved our way up a level, standing behind some not-too-tall country people, and started to inhale dust as the children spurred their horses over the finish line. The man next to me was counting the beasts as they came in – but he stopped at around 35. There were hundreds! Unable to take the dust any longer, we sought more hurshuur, me punching a boy with his fingers down Louise’s pocket first, and then drinking in the scene and sounds of gallops, neighs, and dusty throngs.

Having finished consuming our meat/fat ration for the day, we strolled back to the roadside – along with thousands of others – to wait for a bus. As there was clearly no point trying to get on any of them for half an hour, we collapsed on the ground, and I used my bag for a pillow, enjoying the late afternoon sun, while Louise sat up to watch a fight that had broken out close by. Bus after bus came, spat out a small number of occupants and was charged by many more. Eventually the crowd began to thin, and as another full bus came, I sat up to have a look. The combatants dropped their grievances and legged it to the bus, but we decided to wait a little longer, then to give the next one a go – ‘quick, Helen!’ yelled Louise as she jumped up, grabbing her bag – I looked around – whoops – where’s my bag? Stolen five minutes earlier, unfortunately! We had been warned repeatedly about pickpockets, I must admit. Fool Helen!!!!!!!!!!!! There went not just a nice bag, camera and handheld computer (but hardly any money, surely to the thieves’ dismay), but more regretfully two full rolls of prints and about 10 minutes of sounds recorded during the day. The rest of the computer was backed up – more or less. I should get insurance coverage for the equipment, but I am kicking myself – someone must have grabbed it the moment I sat up, and got away immediately. And I deign to call myself a seasoned traveller……

Thus none of my great photos from that day are being loaded in this update (or ever will be, sniff) – though I hope to get copies of other people’s. Having secured the help of our ‘In Country Manager’ Urantsooj, I returned to the scene of the crime a couple of hours later and registered it with the police, in a tiny mobile home into which about 7 drunks/criminals had been slung behind bars, just behind the rickety wooden desk the officer sat at. Six or seven foreigners had done the same thing before me on the same day – one poor Japanese person having had $3000 stolen!!!! I then returned on Friday morning with Urantsooj and her husband and son, hoping to collect and complete the forms I need for my insurance claim. We didn’t achieve our aim (the officer we needed was busy among the crowds), but after more tender kebab we hung round in their 4WD to watch the end of the soyoolong race from afar. This is the race with the youngest jockeys of all (perhaps four years old), and Mongolians think that it is good luck to see (and even better touch) the winning jockey of that race. We glimpsed the horse, at least.



Countryside Business

The good thing about Naadam in Ulaan Baatar is that it brings the spirit of the Mongolian countryside to the city – the competing horses, jockeys, archers and wrestlers come from all over the country, as do the ‘support services’ of airag and food (while local competitions happen on a smaller scale elsewhere). But I have been privileged to get ample experience of life outside UB already, through the journeys that I have made for work.

When I last wrote a Journal update, I was drumming my fingers waiting for Zorigt to take me to Gobi-Altai, the first leg of a trip to learn about the branch office activities of the NGO I am working with. She eventually turned up at about 6 pm on Sunday evening, and we set off once some friend of hers had caught up with us at a petrol station and presented her with a litre of Martini. Strange. Zorigt cracked into it pretty much straight away. The 1000 km journey to her home town of Altai took an enervating 63 hours – yes, that is less than 16km/10 miles an hour, on average! I had not until then quite realised how loosely the term ‘road’ is applied in Mongolia. We did stop to sleep in hotels for short bursts during two of the three nights – but these stops were necessitated by the driving conditions.

On the first night, the jeep had already broken down (sustaining an injury to the front axle that dogged us the rest of the way), and on the second, it was the end of an exhausting day of blizzard conditions. At one point earlier, unable to distinguish road from ditch from sky in the white-out, Zorigt’s capable son Bat-Irdene drove us off the road. It took two hours in driving snow for our vehicle to get dragged back onto it. I saw more resourceful inner-tube repair techniques at close quarters, and thankfully spent several hours in warm roadside gers as these repairs took place. By evening the sky was beginning to clear – we were approaching Arvaikheer, normally an easy afternoon/evening trip from UB (as the road is sealed the whole way there: but we couldn’t tell, for the snow!) and Zorigt suddenly called to Bat-Irdene to stop – she had spotted another friend, going in the opposite direction! This friend was a wealthy mine owner, and he decided to call it a night with us in Arvaikheer. It was about 10 pm, and all I wanted to do was sleep, but I had to first swallow the dinner Mr Mine insisted on buying us all, and refuse his offers of more alcoholic entertainment.

We were supposedly getting back on the road early the following morning, so no time to visit the branch office there. But breakfast didn’t happen till 10 am, and Mr Mine accompanied it with a large bottle of Johnny Walker red label. Zorigt kept him company, but kept her legs. About 45 minutes later Mr Mine was dragged out, a drunk wreck, by Zorigt and by his son, ¾ of the whisky swallowed. Good thing his son was driving! Zorigt explained ‘he is an emotional man; he could not express himself, he was so happy to see us, so he had to drink.’ Interesting.

Luckily by this third day (Tuesday) the weather was clearing up, and we just had a few more burst tyres and the ongoing axle problems to contend with. By late-afternoon there was no more snow, and the Gobi scenery was fabulous, especially the birdlife. Cranes, herons, birds of prey, even ducks caught my eye! After a quick dinner at what would be the last clutter of restaurant gers for a long way, Bat Irdene drove all night, stopping for shuteye at about 7 am, until his mother got him going again after just half an hour – she had a business conference to get to in Altai! At about 10 am on Wednesday we finally limped into Altai covered in dirt, having had a complete physical work-out through the shudders and shakes and bangs of cross-country driving over the preceding three days.

Zorigt has boundless energy. In my wilted exhaustion I began loathing her. We do not share senses of humour, and I have endured the same joke about some French guy that we gave a lift to for a 15 km stretch as we set out for Zavkhan four days later ever since. But as I got to know her better I couldn’t help but admire her generosity, social conscience, and entrepreneurship. In the two-day provincial business conference she stood up and offered to provide new animals for ten families impoverished by the latest hard winter, setting an example for others to follow. We accompanied her with a couple of her friends as they distributed old clothes and a few necessities to two families living close to the town – all their animals had died in the previous few months, and they have no source of income left. The air was tinged with the stink of animal corpses, which lay rotting in a shallow pit a short distance from the gers. Zorigt may have kept me waiting for hours, but that was because she was busy at the conference (and I suppose hadn’t anticipated getting home two days late), and she was then prepared to sit up until midnight introducing me to all the work the NGO has done locally, under her leadership, and then to entertain us in her karaoke bar by candlelight (in Altai the electricity is usually cut by 11.30 pm). She arranged for her daughter Erdenetuya to show us the town while she was working, and on Friday she took us on an expedition south towards China (we can’t have been far from Turpan!) to Halioun soum (‘county’/’provincial district’).

On the three-hour journey to Halioun, we passed countless skeletons of livestock that had perished during the winter. Zorigt is re-investing in a defunct agricultural operation there, with the goals of providing jobs and enabling local production of flour. She was immensely proud of the small dam that will irrigate her land, and especially the swans that nest there. After we had visited these things, Zorigt got her brother and son and the men working for her to divert a stream towards her land, having first done the requisite Mongolian-Buddhist thrice round an ovoo (a pile of stones with a flag in the top, on a high point, considered holy/powerful) that supposedly guards the region, just as the sun went down at about 10.30 pm. We bumped back into Altai at about 3.30 am… and were up for work again (preceded by a much-needed shower: the first since leaving UB!) the next morning, Saturday.

We couldn’t leave Altai on Saturday – the superstition I had encountered the previous week reigned. But I didn’t mind, it gave us more opportunity to meet local business women. A longer evening was spent in the Karaoke bar, celebrating our visit, the women waltzing with each other or with the bar’s own private clown. We spent that night at Zorigt’s home, meeting her busy and quiet doctor husband. He seemed nice too. She and Erdenetuya showered me with gifts, including a lime-green deel-styled dress.

On Sunday we at last travelled to Uliastai, the capital of Zavkhan aimag, accompanied not just by Zorigt but her branch office assistant as well. A good chance for a jolly. The 150 km (6 hours including lunch break, no breakdowns) trip through the mountains was the most beautiful I have made in Mongolia. I saw nomads migrating, with all their belongings, including the collapsed ger, strapped tightly to five camels, and then another migrating family moving with yak-drawn carts was happy to stop and be photographed. A mile further on we came across a flock (this term doesn’t seem quite appropriate) of about five huge vultures, devouring a victim cow. They stood about four and a half feet tall! Our jeep-driver, Zorigt’s brother, didn’t seem to want to let me out to get a closer look – hence the blurry photographs. We lunched on a soup of home made noodles and dried sheep’s meat at the poor ger of Zorigt’s assistant’s sister in rich green pastureland above a river – the two women are leading hugely contrasting lives.

As we approached the top of the final summit before descending to Uliastai, we found a reception party waiting for us. About seven Zavkhan business women had come to greet us with gherkins, sweets, and the ever-requisite local vodka, so we picnicked in view of Mongolia’s highest and most revered mountain, Otgon Tenger. Well, the round-topped peak was obscured by cloud most of the time, but as soon as that moved, the women all got up and prostrated themselves to the mountain, murmuring their intentions as they did so.

Zavkhan and Gobi-Altai aimags appear to be in a ‘who’s the poorest’ competition. Uliastai is filled with tales of failed and hopeless industry. After two days in Uliastai meeting interesting, kind and determined women we were farewell-ed with another picnic, this time by the river to the north of the town, and were back on the road for another long journey – the 500 kilometres to Tsetserleg, capital of Arhangai aimag, took 22 hours. So it was a slightly higher rate of knots than the first journey, but there was plenty of opportunity to admire the scenery up close, in the form of several breakdowns, all the same. Seven of us were squeezed into a Russian Waz jeep – known locally as a ‘jarun yus’ (‘sixty-nine’) for the most common model. I have since discovered this is the normal load for Mongolian journeys, but my foiled attempts to sleep overnight left me in a less than perfect mood when we spluttered into Arhangai in the early afternoon the following day. However the Arhangai branch went to efforts to welcome us equalling those in Zavhan and Gobi-Altai, and Bolortuya and I were put up in a ger in a tourist camp just outside the town, beside a river.

As we returned from several punctual and well-organized meetings the following afternoon there was a sight sure to please sore eyes: the husband of Lhagvasuren, the Arhangai branch director, was slaving over the hot ‘stove’ with one of his friends, preparing the traditional Mongolian feast of ‘hor hog’. Large amounts of sheep are cooked under pressure, with large stones, herbs, a selection of vegetables, and some water, over a slow heat, for several hours. The result is delicious, starting with the ‘soup’ the beast has stewed in – provided you somehow avoid the inch (literally) of oil floating on the surface, that is! We enjoyed it with vodka and local aruul (dried milk product), which in Arhangai is often sweetened and almost crumbling, rather than the rock-hard and rancid imitation of parmesan cheese that it can be.



'Huvsgul Dalai'

Three weeks later I left Ulaan Baatar again, this time for the ‘annual’ meeting of branch directors, which we were holding on the serene shores of Lake Huvsgul – though out of respect, the Mongolians call it ‘Huvsgul Dalai’ – ‘Huvsgul Sea’. On a Tuesday morning five of us from the UB office took a car north to Darhan, Mongolia’s second city, which was an easy drive over well-sealed road. There we were to meet the NGO’s president, coming from her latest venture of re-invigorating a gold mine in the countryside about 14 hours drive east from Darhan. But she had been held up. We waited and wondered all afternoon and evening, then slept in the office of the Darhan branch director, using an unsold mattress from the woman’s furniture shop! At 6.30 the following morning we were about to return to UB in the hope of catching the plane to Murun, Huvsgul aimag’s provincial town, when our esteemed president swept in, having (been) driven all night. We persuaded the Darhan branch director to join us, and squeezed eight of us into a jarun yus.

The road to Murun from Darhan leads through Erdenet, which we reached at about 2pm. There we telephoned the Erdenet branch director, to find she was… still at home! Independent transport for members from that branch had appeared too expensive. After a break at her bar to eat egg and sausage (accompanied by tomatoes and cucumbers from her large greenhouse), we convinced her too to join our cosy party. For this to be possible though, the seating arrangement needed some thought – two of my colleagues found themselves nominated to sit on top of the luggage in the boot of the jeep! I am convinced they had more space than we did, but with pride and false propriety overriding considerations of comfort, the president refused to allow me to try it out even for a while.

The most notable thing about this journey, apart from the horrendous squash and its interminableness, was the twilight as we drove through rural northern Bulgan aimag. The sky was filled with pink and gold light that spilled out over meadows carpeted with yellow buttercups and other white, pink and blue flowers. The scene was framed by more spiky and rugged mountains than I have seen elsewhere in Mongolia – almost alpine in form. It was a quiet time in the jeep – somehow most of my companions were sleeping – so I didn’t ask to stop for a photograph. Perhaps that is why the image is so vivid in my memory.

We finally joined the rest of the meeting’s participants some time after 4pm on Thursday – the meeting was supposed to have opened the previous night! No matter, let’s just squeeze the agenda a little – and have the opening ceremony at 1 in the morning. This was after the group outing along the lake shore at dusk (c. 10 pm – 11.30 pm: there was still light in the sky at midnight!), to visit one of the thirty families in Mongolia that still herds reindeer. To see these gentle (and subdued) beasts was a unique experience – I had never known that reindeer antlers are soft and downy! But again, my exhaustion sapped my appreciative ability. This was especially so when 60 Mongolian business women stormed the tiny branches-and-skins hut of the family, desperate for photos and a chance to gobble their supply of milk products, and then started demanding that I photograph them atop a reindeer with my superior camera. It is surely tourism at its most primitive. But at least they could communicate with the mistress of the tent, who didn’t seem to mind too much – and I suppose most of their visitors are foreigners.

Despite the horde I was with, Lake Huvsgul’s quality of mesmerising peace and calm, especially in the evening and morning, was able to quell my surging desire to scream and shout in claustrophobic rage. I spent a few more hours on its shores over the following two days. After a reasonably successful meeting, given the time constraints, the majority of our group decamped to a much more picturesque ‘resort’ – a ger camp, where somehow thirty-four of us squeezed into 3 gers. It was only supposed to be an overnight stop, but after a cheerful breakfast of vodka and sweets from every branch, and the requisite speeches and sing-along, it was decided we should stay until Sunday. I wasn’t sorry – and made sure I got a big night’s sleep in the smallest quietest ger.

Our journey home to UB was less eventful, and much more spacious: this time we were in a Russian van, with a couple of women from Arvaiheer, south of UB. But first we all stopped in Khatgal, the southern tip of the lake, for the women (and the sundry men they had brought with them as drivers) to go on a boat. A rusting hulk is all that remains of Mongolia’s former water-bound trade with Russia, and the women rushed it to pose as figures from Titanic. A far cry from Sydney Harbour, shall we say, so I left them to it. The next stop was for fish to take home. One of the Huvsgul members bought me a huge one, freshly smoked and still warm. I decided to taste it straight away, and devoured the whole thing. She was honoured, and everyone else rather disbelieving, when I stressed that the fish was the most delicious thing I have eaten in Mongolia. ‘But it has no meat!’ I could see them all thinking.

Since we had no need to go to Erdenet or Darhan this time, we drove on a more southerly route through Bulgan’s lush rolling steppe, but did skirt the mountain pastures one more first – this time early on Monday morning. Somewhere thereabouts we stopped at a ger to buy kilos of fresh wafers of sheep’s milk aruul – which I would have to describe as more-ish and delicious! What still remains of my kilo a month later has hardened significantly, and lost much of its appeal – but it will still do well in a pasta sauce.



UB Life

You may observe a note of slight cynicism in this account – at least by my usual breathy standards. I suppose I have just had my bag stolen! A few times while being in this country I have felt exceedingly lonely, frustrated and perplexed. Certainly I’ve felt this more often than I ever did in China (where ‘expats’ often talk of ‘bad China days’) – but perhaps being a student in Beijing was an extremely cushioned existence. The best thing for me about Mongolia continues to be my landlady, Horolsuren. But by the time I returned from Huvsgul on June 17th, she had already departed with her husband and two grandsons for her house in nearby Erdene soum for the short Mongolian summer. I have seen her on a couple of occasions since – returning overnight only. The upside is that I have been able to eat a lot more vegetables, by cooking for myself. But I am not sure that quite compensates for the loss of her caring attention.

Before Horolsuren departed, though, we celebrated the fourth birthday of her grandson Aanda – we had buuz galore, just like on Gantolag’s birthday two months earlier! But Aanda was most interested in his cake. We also had a lovely day at the home of one of her composer friends nearby. And I’ve learnt that my next-door neighbour, another folk-singer, possesses the voice that is sampled on that famous song by Enigma. Before leaving, Horolsuren got her nieces Sisi and Bobo to freshly decorate one of the two large rooms in the flat – my ‘summer’ bedroom. I got home from work one day and found that Horolsuren and Lhagva had already struggled with most of my bedroom furniture. I now have lots of space to make a mess in.

When we returned to UB from Arhangai it was pouring with rain – and had been for most of the two weeks I had been away. Ulaan Baatar had gone from grey-brown to green in that time and has remained verdant ever since, though the dust is ever-eager to return despite frequent heavy showers. When the temperature inched towards a dry and lovely 35 degrees for a couple of days last week the Mongolians all started to puff – they hate it! But for me, it means it is just about warm enough to enjoy the delicious ice cream, available from sellers on every streetside.

A large part of my despondency has stemmed from issues at work, which I won’t bore you with here – my parents and sister Lucy have already heard quite enough of it. Comically (with hindsight), one low point was an attempt to conduct a strategy workshop in Chinese, as no English speakers were available. As you might imagine, the president didn’t ‘get it’. But I have continued to be sustained by e-mails from Ibrahim, by phone calls and emails from home and a few friends (congratulations to Kim on her recent engagement, and to Colleen and Peter on the birth of their daughter), and by the Catholic mission here in UB. We have been celebrating ten years in Mongolia over the last fortnight. Last Sunday two new priests (one African, one Vietnamese) were ordained – this was a special occasion, held in the Ulaan Baatar hotel.

I am looking forward to some visitors in my remaining two months or so – some to see me (Dad, Richard, and Asel in August, Anna Moore and perhaps Nika in September) as well as the country, and others that happen to be passing through. And before I can buy all the souvenirs I want to (bright orange ger furniture is high up on my list, though I have already made a few choice investments in cashmere!), I shall be in the UK and then, inshallah, in Kuwait. Meanwhile I still intend to shape my typescript up a little, and even to publish a small number of copies of what I have (unfinished) at Mongolian prices, to distribute to a lucky few of you – the ‘real’ publisher process with my book proposal is still moving, and I fully intend to seek an agent in October irrespective. But I am a realist…

I hope you are all having happy summers. And I hope you have time to enjoy browsing the many new photographs going up with this update – including some from well before I came to Mongolia, and two new ones of Ibrahim from my parents’ trip to Kuwait in May. Don’t forget to get in touch! E-mail as always is; while my postal address here is PO Box 91, Ulaan Baatar 24, Mongolia. I hope to update this once more before leaving Mongolia – and by then, we should at last have new-look ‘version 4.0’ of ready for you!

Much love



The tiles on this page come from the ceiling of one of the temples at the Amarbayasgalant Buddhist monastery, in Selenge, Mongolia |Click here to view the original photo|