October 9, 2012
To all who expressed sympathy or concern in response to last week’s post – thank you. Your messages of support have been immensely helpful, even when they come all the way from the other side of the world. The past week has been difficult, but I think this one will be better. I had an expensive but fun and productive weekend in Ulaanbaatar, which seems like a promising way to kick things off.
I arrived in UB by train around 8 am. The train station is about a 40-minute walk from the apartment where I was staying – if you know where you’re going, which at the time, I did not. But I met up with Alex and Matt eventually, as well as the French couch surfer who had stayed with them the night before. The four of us went out to breakfast before meeting the rest of the group for the drive out to Stepperiders.
The drive wasn’t as long as I had feared it might be, nor as nauseating. The setup, out in the hills south of UB, was quite simple: about five or six gers on concrete platforms, an outdoor eating area, a corral full of horses, a shed full of helmets, and an outhouse. (A really nice one – it even had toilet seats and toilet paper!) The place was clearly catered to tourists: the saddles were Russian (and therefore padded); the guides spoke reasonably good English; we were offered coffee with breakfast, as well as milk tea; they had Sriracha and Tabasco. I usually dislike such tourist-type operations, but in this case, I was glad of the pandering. Since my Mongolian is limited, and I dislike Mongolian-style saddles and milk tea, the tourist experience was both easier and more enjoyable.
They even let me ride bareback, though not without several assurances that yes, I was sure I didn’t want to use a saddle, and no, I didn’t mind that the horses were bony. In retrospect, I should have minded – though they put me on the fattest little pony they had, I could still feel his spine digging into me the entire time. I quickly decided that it was easier and more comfortable to walk downhill than to spend the whole time trying not to slide onto his withers. Luckily, my little pony was so short that I could hop onto him without difficulty, even when he was uphill of me. He was a grumpy thing too, keeping his ears perpetually at half-mast and trying to bite me when I asked him to go faster than he deemed reasonable, even though I smacked him around each time he did it. But he never tried to buck or kick. I liked him.
The ride was long and fun, and we got to do plenty of running. My pony and I had some disagreements about whether or not trotting was permissible, and these were primarily responsible for my ongoing soreness and my first-ever saddle sores – or more aptly in this case, should-have-used-a-saddle sores. Spines, tailbones, and bouncing are a painful combination.
We had tsuivan (stir-fry with noodles) for lunch and curry for dinner, both of which were excellent. I built a fire in Lisa and Chris’s ger, but only with Joe’s help: those stoves offer very little room to maneuver, and there isn’t much in the way of kindling to bridge the gap between paper and split logs. Mongolians usually solve this issue by lighting their fires with a blowtorch, but ours was nowhere to be found.
We also hung out with the other people at the camp. there were three other “tourists,” though the term doesn’t exactly fit, since they all lived and worked in UB. One was British, another Indian by birth, though he’d spent most of his life in Britain; the third was Mongolian but American-educated. We had a good time hanging out with all of them, and also with a member of the Stepperiders staff – a French college student who’d hired on for the summer to teach the rest of the staff English. I was glad of the chance to practice my French with the two native speakers, since I’ve let it go rusty recently.
We came back around 1 pm on Sunday, tired and hungry but happy. I spent the afternoon lazily: napping, getting food, and eventually wandering down to the train station to purchase my return ticket to Erdenet the next day. I made two more stops on my way home – one for food, and one because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to check out a place called the Edinburgh Scottish Pub. It was nice and had a reasonable selection of whiskey (by Mongolian standards, at least), though nothing else about the place was particularly Scottish. They did give me ice with my whiskey, though, which isn’t a very common occurrence here. And I had a nice conversation with the bartender, who had lived in Norway for two years and spoke very good English.
On Monday, I got in contact with an Australian expat who’s scheduled to leave in a couple of weeks and was looking to sell her coat. It was a little tight in the shoulders but otherwise seemed great, and I’d rather buy from an expat than Narantuul. More quality guarantee, for one thing, and a chance to keep goods recirculating. Why buy new coats when other people are looking to get rid of their still-good-but-no-longer-needed ones?
Catherine’s apartment turned out to be in the same block as Alex’s, so the whole process took very little time. I then set off on the familiar bus ride to Zaisan to visit Lisa and Chris for lunch. There are a lot more people in the area now that school has started, and the buses are much more crowded, but the area still feels like home. Even if the women at the reception desk didn’t want to let me into the dorm. And I enjoyed the chance to catch up with my hosts, of course.
Eventually, I headed back to the city to meet up with Lisa and Baagii so we could go to Narantuul together. I got a coffee at the Grand Khan Irish Pub while I waited for them and struck up a conversation with some oddly-accented English speakers. They turned out to be from South Africa; the Germanic-sounding language I’d been straining to catch was Afrikaans. They were very nice, and one of them insisted on giving me his email address. He runs a farm and a guesthouse along the coast, where he said I was welcome to stay “when I come to South Africa.” While that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I still took his name and email address. No sense in burning any bridges.
Finally Lisa and Baagii and I made our way to Narantuul to do some shopping. Since neither Lisa and I can manage more than a few mangled sentences in Mongolian, Baagii proved invaluable. It was he who negotiated things like trying on shoes and finding out which ones were available in larger sizes. Lisa and I each found a pear of lined felt boots (mine are embroidered reindeer and stars) and a pair or two of woolen socks (since you can never have too many. I now own two of camel wool and one of yak, as well as many of the standard US sheep). I also bought a dress, also made of wool, though I’m not sure which kind. Baagii swears it’s long enough for me to wear to work but also says I will probably attract a lot of attention in it. Exactly what I need with classes full of sixteen-year-old boys, right?
All of those purchases added up, of course, but I knew going into this weekend that it would be an expensive one. The coat and boots and socks, at least, were necessary, and preparing for winter ain’t cheap. But I got what I needed, and I had fun with old friends and made new ones along the way, so I would call the weekend a complete success.