“Accept whatever she gives you,” our guide murmured as the host brought over three mugs.
The woman to my right panicked, “But I don’t drink t…”
“Just fake it!”
We didn’t need to worry. It was milk tea, a traditional Mongolian drink of warm milk with a drop of tea – about how my mother used to make it for me when I was a kid. Then came plate after plate of Mongolian snacks: dried yogurt, both hard (tastes like tangy chalk) and soft (like crumbly, tart cheese); sweet, melted-Dali-shaped breadsticks; caramels and tootsie-roll-style chocolates; and some granola thing I never figured out.
We’d finished lunch a few minutes before arriving but dutifully ate a bit of everything, smiling and bowing slightly in that awkward Western tourist way, at the 73-yr-old nomadic woman sitting across from us. Encouraged, she got up and brought one more mug for us to pass around: fermented mare’s milk.
Picture milk mixed with vinegar and some Worcestershire and you are nowhere near close to the taste. I didn’t mind it, perhaps because I’d been expecting something more startling after my fellow tourist, who sipped it first, lost control of his poker face. His wife helpfully pointed out afterwards that our mini guidebook recommended tourists not drink it as, made by hanging milk in a cow’s stomach outside the yurt for days and stirring until fermented, it can have a similar effect as Mexican water on tourist-soft stomachs. The mini guidebook obviously thought we were sissies. We were not.
We were, in fact, sleeping in a Mongolian ger (rhymes with lair) that night, or at least the tourist version. This nomadic lady, Namjilma, was to show us how it was really done.
Nam’s ger (yurt) looked similar to ours. Or as similar as a lived-in studio apartment to a sterile hotel room. Gers follow the same rough layout: a round room, about 20′ in diameter with the walls rising from 5′ at the edges to an 8′ high cone in the centre. Her floors were covered in carpets; ours were laminate wood, warped into waves by the intense heat from the central wood-burning oven. The oven’s chimney disappeared through the roof where the decorated, wooden roof slats stopped short to make a hole.
The walls aren’t actually circular, but paneled: eight in her case. They are insulated with three layers of sheep’s-wool felt in the winter and one in the summer. All that is wrapped in an ashy-white tarp and cinched with horsehair bands until it looks like a squat Michelin Man.
Speaking of squats, that was the toilet of choice in our ger camp (and presumably Nam’s home). I say choice, but only because the lovely Western facilities, in a pristine building right beside the outhouse squat toilets, was tauntingly locked tight. I hinted to our young, diminutive, sweetheart of a guide that I was squat-challenged, hoping she’d convince the camp to open them up, but she heartlessly said, “Well, you can hold it till tomorrow when we get to the hotel.” Maybe the guidebook was right, sissy-wise. I got over it.
We perched against the wall on Nam’s guest bed like three alert squirrels. As with all gers, the woman’s bed is on the right as you enter (east), the man’s on the left (west) and the guest’s in the middle against a back wall. Privacy isn’t paramount. Nam owned intricately painted cabinet-like furniture; we had simple, wooden twinsize beds like the childhood one my mother just gave away, complete with its psychedelic Mary sticker still prominently stuck to the headboard.
The rest of the ger was taken up with a small sink and standalone water tank, a table, a shrine to Buddha, a power pole with outlets and overhead light, a fridge and tv showing alarming Russian soap operas, a 4′ high wooden door, and a long rope hanging down from the ceiling. The rope is meant to anchor the ger to a weight in the event of a windstorm tumbling your home like a YouTube bouncy castle escaping a child’s birthday party. Not a reassuring thought that night going to sleep as the wind did its best to strip us of our Michelin Man outer layer.
Sleeping was easy after all. The crackling wood fire beat out the sound of the wind and glowed red through the edges of the cast iron oven’s small door. The narrow bed was feather-soft compared to the granite bunk and pillow from the previous two nights on the train. The oven ate up wood with a voracious appetite so the staff brought a space heater around 10pm and returned at midnight and 6am to dump in full bags of coal (the real stuff: as shiny and hard and black as obsidian) to ensure we were toasty. Co-ed quarters or not, I was sweating and slept on top of the covers in a thin t-shirt and rolled-up shorts. It was even money on whether the Australians would wake the next morning to find me naked and roasted crispy on my bed with an apple in my mouth.
The 15-ger camp was perpetually quiet except for the footsteps tramping between the outhouse and the dining ger – and the gloating shouts when I hit the target with my bow and arrow before my male roomie did. The landscape was rich browns: close-cut dried grass ringed by rocky outcrops and piecey, pointy mountains. The camp’s greeting book had entry after entry describing the experience as calm and peaceful.
These tourist ger camps are used by Mongolians in the winter and tourists in the spring and summer, generally not mixing the two, as our guide said the Mongolians “like to party” and will stay up all night in boisterous fun that usually “results in broken furniture” and a ger “full of empty bottles.”
The gers and everything in them are designed to be taken apart and packed so that the nomads can move between their summer and winter places every six months. That’s what Nam still does, tucking her two gers and scant possessions into her truck with the help of her 16 grandkids, and moving a few kilometres away to where the grass hasn’t yet been razed by her cows, goats, sheep and yaks.
The more we chatted with Nam through our guide, the more we were ashamed of our assumptions. While the lifestyle seemed poor and somewhat primitive, Nam was a retired high school teacher of Mongolian language and literature. Widowed a few years ago, she and her husband had put all eight kids through university where they’d become doctors, lawyers and engineers. It turns out they could pay for a year of university by slaughtering a cow ($700-1,000).
That one day in the camp, visiting Nam and grilling our guide Annie, prepared me well for the final two-day train leg from Ulaan Baator into Beijing. I was sharing with a Mongolian couple just a few years older than me. Once the ice was broken, our cabin became the party room for the boss and his wife (my couple) and three workmates in the next cabin, going to a festival in China for the weekend. I had the engineers, accountant and electrician of some company as company, none of whom spoke English. Despite my fears of “broken furniture” and “empty bottles” the room was more of a social club where we gathered and gestured and laughed, sitting up on bunks and miming info about life in each other’s country.
I was urged to accept more food, this time in the recognizable form of Choco-Pies, what we call Wagon Wheels in North America or a Joe Louis in Canada (two round palm-sized chocolate cakes joined by marshmallow or icing and covered in chocolate.) As the other members of the team warmed to me, I was tested; one guy brought in a thermos daring me to drink it. It was thankfully milk tea, not fermented mare’s milk, so I was a hit when I downed it and smacked my lips. They laughed when my own poker face slipped as the wife, Baikal (like the lake), poured her tea over what looked to be large chunks of pickled fish and drank it out of a mason jar. The accountant came in periodically, cleared his throat and announced something like, “I will be your guide” or “I am moving to Vancouver” in English, sending him and the rest of the group into knee-slapping laughter. Baikal would stand up, lower her voice and imitate him, teasing him for spending hours next door practicing the English phrase before getting the nerve to try it on me.
As an old train hand, I’d learned that they lock the washroom from 30min before to 30min after a major station stop as the toilet flushes onto the tracks. I set my alarm for 45min before the Mongolian-Chinese border as not only would it take hours for each side (two different stops) to scan our passports and rifle through our cabins but also to change the train wheels to the smaller Chinese gauge. The countries don’t want to make it too easy for train loads of their neighbours to roll in whenever they want in wartime.
Baikal and Och-tung (I avoided saying his name because my closest guess sounded like I was swearing in German) called me into the corridor to watch the train split onto four parallel tracks and then decouple each car. Giant orange jacks, two at the head and two at the tail of each car, levered it up so that the new wheels, looking like small gunless tanks, could roll underneath, whacking the old wheels out of the way like curling stones. Then the car was lowered down and a tiny Chinese woman would crawl underneath and screw something in.
One passenger who hadn’t anticipated the pee moratorium was suffering. Her husband asked the attendant if his wife could use the washroom, not understanding that she would in effect be peeing on the Chinese wheel quality control inspector’s head. The whole process between border paperwork, inspections and wheel changes takes five hours so around midnight, when the passenger couldn’t stand it anymore, she sent her husband back out again. And then you do what you gotta do – in this case, pee Niagaratically into a metal bucket, while the rest of the carriage ignores the echoing sound and avoids each others eyes. Poor woman. I bet next time she’ll set her alarm like I did.
During the wheel-change process most of us had drifted back to our bunks and were reading or sleeping when the train was put back together. The recoupling was violent enough that my iPad flew out of my hand, cover flying one way, iPad the other but both thankfully dropping to the carpet instead of braining Baikal as she tried to sleep in the bunk next to mine.
The entire Mongolian experience was a delight. It would be even more beautiful in the summer when the ground turns into tall grass and fields of flowers. But that didn’t matter to us as, despite visiting temples and museums and memorials in the countryside and Ulaan Baator, the most memorable part was connecting with the people: Nam, our nomadic host; or Moog, the English-practicing accountant; or Annie, our charming and surprisingly firm guide. But especially Baikal and Och-tung who taught me that the box of Choco-Pies I gave Nam at the end of the nomad family visit was a surprisingly appropriate gift. And as proud as I was of my newly acquired squatting technique, I was prouder still that I knew when to hold it so as not to have to pee in a metal bucket.