Source: Eric Hill www.gowitheric.com
Originally, my youngest brother Brett was supposed to come with me as well. But due to the mixed up schedule and lost bags on the Trans Siberian Railroad, we got delayed enough that I had to fly him home directly from Russia and travel to Mongolia alone. He was my cameraman, as well as my friend, so I to find replacements for both once I got into the country. Also, it had been several days since we heard from our original contact, a Mongolian friend my brother knew that was introducing us to a semi-nomadic yak-herding family. So I had to find a local contact in Mongolia as well. I was basically starting from scratch, but was determined to get things lined up anyway.
After sleeping at the Beijing airport in China, I made my early morning connection to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I took a taxi down the “main road” that connected the airport to “downtown”. It wasn’t even a paved road! In the city center, I asked around until I got a good tip where to find a translator and guide to take me to the more remote parts of the country. I found a sharp little kid named Oka that could translate for me and who knew some families far away from the city. One lived in the boundaries of Terelj National Park, and the other lived in a remote region as semi-nomadic cow herders. Things were looking up.
For transportation I lined up a sweet Soviet era military van, built like a tank, and a driver that knew his way around the vast sparsely populated countryside. I figured it would be easy to get some fellow travellers to want to join, split the cost and possibly become impromptu cameramen on an awesome four-day adventure. I found a couple new friends; one from Israel and the other from Australia. They, the driver, Oka and I headed out.
The first family lived inside Terelj National Park. Since they lived in a place that drew many tourists, they were pretty used to guests. In fact, the money we gave them for the stay was less of a gift and more a set price. In a way it was easier, even though slightly less authentic. They even had a separate ger (the word used to describe the traditional round house) for visitors to sleep. It was kind of like a unique little hotel. The little boy and I became friends as we chopped wood for dinner and played swords with sticks, but he decided to stay back when I went to hike the giant mountain that surrounded their property. My Aussie friend tried to come along barefooted but only made it about thirty minutes before it got too unbearable for his feet.
So I was alone again in Mongolia… This time summiting a mountain in my Dare Denim jeans with enough stretch and strength for the job. From the top I could see for miles over the rocky forested landscape and beyond to the grassy Mongolian Steppe where I would be heading in the morning. It was so nice at the top there, I traversed the peak about a mile before heading back down to the valley. I stayed at the top until sunset so I had to run down the mountain and the mile or so across the valley to make it back to the family’s place before dark.
The next morning we headed out pretty early after breakfast. After a brief stop at a massive Genghis Kahn statue in the middle of nowhere, we headed off to a remote region of the Mongolian Steppe to meet up with a family that Oka knew well. I think we ended up there because Oka had a crush on the teenage girl there.
The drive out there was different than I would have guessed. We hardly used a road at all! The landscape completely changed from the rocky national park we came from. Here there were virtually no rocks or drop-offs of any kind. We literally drove in a straight line most of the way over the grassy rolling hills into the steppe for hours in the tough military van. Up and down over the smooth ground off towards the horizon. After a few hours, two larger hills came into view. “The family is there,” Oka told us.
The family we met was a semi nomadic cow herding family. There was the mom, dad, five kids and some of the kids’ friends that seemed to be staying long-term. We got there just in time for the evening chores. It was here that I felt like my real taste of Mongolia began.
The dad was just coming back with their herd of cows and I got to help get them in the pen and milk them. Oka went and flirted with the teenage girl, and without my translator, it was up to hand signals and following his lead to be able to get the chores done right. I’d like to think I was still a help, even though I needed a little guidance. I don’t think I’d milked a cow since I was about six years old, but I managed to get a bucket full by the time the mom and dad had two each. Not too bad, right?
At night, it was time to churn the milk for an hour into a soft butter that we would use to spread on some hard breads we ate for breakfast in the mornings. The little barn with the churn smelled like old milk and goats, and the containers of milk would never pass US health code, but the family was healthy and said they rarely got sick. I seem to become more and more comfortable away from a sterile lifestyle the more I travel.
I fell in love with the kids there. We played almost non-stop until that night at dinner. We all slept in the same ger at night with a little fire going in the iron stove to keep the place warm. For some bedtime music, the dad played a 2-stringed guitar-type instrument (that I still haven’t been able to figure out the name of) and sang traditional Mongolian songs. The kids quickly fell asleep, but I couldn’t get enough of the vast sky outside. So I spent a couple hours just enjoying the silence of the Mongolian plains interrupted only occasionally by the breeze through the grass or the stirring of the cows. I would have loved to just sleep outside under the sky full of stars if I had a warm enough sleeping bag. I had no complaints about sleeping inside the little round hut the family called their home in the middle of Mongolia, though. Once again, I found a place I didn’t want to leave.
Source: Eric Hill www.gowitheric.com