Mike MacEacheran | Genghis Khan you kick it? TNT magazine
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Genghis Khan you kick it? TNT magazine

Over the years, I’ve found myself in some strange situations. I’ve had my right hand inside the mouth of a wild leopard in the African bush; fallen off a moving train outside Mumbai; and been chased by corrupt police in Myanmar.

I’ve even lava-surfed down a live volcano in Nicaragua and been shot at by drug dealers in downtown Denver. But I didn’t think anything could have prepared me for the sheer terror that I faced when challenged to down a full glass of fermented sour camel-milk vodka by a wrinkly, octogenarian goat herder on the semi-arid wild steppes north of the Gobi Desert.

I had arrived in Mongolia, after a whirlwind trip from Moscow on the Trans-Mongolian Express train. Taking six days straight to cross the 7,621km from Russia to China, I had booked a second-class ticket (kupe) and found myself in a lower bunk sleeping couchette in a four-bed cabin. My fellow passengers were two Russian soldiers on leave, both of whom spoke little English, and a salesman from Novosibirsk. We began by communicating with hand signals, but within hours, they were sharing meat and potato pies and toasting to my good health with vodka, Russia’s ubiquitous national drink.

Drinking the crystal-clear alcohol may be synonymous with Russia, but the Russians have nothing on their southerly neighbours. The Mongols consume vast quantities of the alcohol and even the production of Mongolian vodka is a more elaborate affair. Commonly, their milky-white coloured drink is filtered through a cloth and decanted into a large open leather sack known as a khukhuur. Like its close cousin airag, made from sour mare’s milk, it is an ever-present national drink. Sharing a cracked teacup full of this potent drink is a quintessential Mongolian experience: it is hard to stomach but impossible to forget. It has a taste that can only be described as month old milk mixed with the vomit and stomach acid that has been squeezed out of a dead rat.

Pre-Mongolian hangover and still naïve to the evils of camel-milk, I started out from the capital’s Golden Gobi Hostel, run by affable family team Uugii, Soko, and Baysaa. Like many before me, I wanted to embark on a cross-country trip to discover why the country was known as “the land of the blue sky”. My plan was simple: drive in an anti-clockwise circuit for 14 days with four fellow travellers seeing the best the country had to offer. We had a van and a local guide (organised by the hostel with 48-hour notice for £200pp) and an entire country to traverse.

*NB The cost depended on length of trip, number of people etc. Plus they were open to haggling and seasonal discounts. Everyone in Ulan Bator goes through their local hostel and trips are arranged as and when each trip fills up.

What lay ahead was an epic journey. There were ice-canyons, Neolithic tombs and burial mounds, Alpine lakes surrounded by Siberian forests, fossil-filled deserts, and glaciers that were so large that they rolled beyond the western borders into Kazakhstan. We would hike, bike, fish, camp and camel trek, but top of our list was to visit Genghis Khan’s birthplace in Karakorum, sand-board in the Gobi Desert, and go horse riding across the famous Mongolian steppe.

Horse riding is one of the main reasons why so many backpackers come to Mongolia in the first place. It is an inspirational setting in which to learn and Mongolians take their favoured sport deadly serious. The night before leaving Ulan Bator, I met a French traveller who had bought a stallion for US$600. His plan was to learn to master it, and then travel solo, cross-country to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in the west. I asked him why. “Because in Mongolia I can,” was his simple reply. By all accounts, he succeeded.

That horse riding is a way of life in Mongolia should come as no surprise to those that know their history. Genghis Khan, or world conqueror, emperor of all men, and the scourge of God as he called himself, rode his horse from the central steppe to India and China, before overthrowing the Turks and every ruler in his path from Kiev to the Korean peninsula. Chinggis, as the Mongols call him, also killed his half-brother in cold blood for stealing one of his fish when he was only nine years old. Strangely, he was afraid of dogs.

Today, Genghis Khan’s legacy is celebrated in a million and one different ways. There is Genghis-branded pizza, cigarettes, bus companies, makes of toilet paper and even a posh carpet factory selling Genghis-approved linoleum and rugs. In Ulan Bator, it’s even possible to visit one of the smallest pubs in the world for a Chinggis beer, a bar that the Russians, the country’s former rulers, have still managed to balance a paper mache tank on the top of.

It was outside of the capital however, where things got slightly more unpredictable. Our first three days were spent criss-crossing between one-horse towns and nomadic camps. At our first stop, every villager came to greet us (population 26 people, 50 sheep, goats 250) and, during our second, a young child rode down the village’s only street bareback to welcome our van. A week later in Ölgii, the tiny capital of the mountainous western province, we visited a local market and watched in amazement as a butcher, rather than throw scraps of meat into a bin, threw the slabs of meat high into the air where they were caught by packs of swooping eagles. That same day, at a Mongolian disco, unlike at a club in London or Manchester where you can unsuspectingly get sold pills behind the DJ booth, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered a half-eaten yak sausage.

Yet this was civilisation compared to what awaited us in the south of the country. The Mongolians’ nomadic lifestyle means that they rely on their animals for survival and, as around half of the population roam the vast plains as farmers, encampments are minimal to help them move on throughout the year. So when staying the night with a family near the dusty, one-horse town of Dalanzadgad, we were expected to help round-up the goats at dusk in return for our bed for the night; when we arrived at breakfast near the isolated Hustai National Park, the families needed help milking their animals before boiling the milk and turning it into salty tea, known as suutei tsai.

During these unique family-hosted overnight stops, the food also took a lot of getting used to. There were lashings of mutton-fat flavoured noodle soup, steamed buuz dumplings with goat and camel meat porridge. We were also introduced to a local Kazakh speciality: boiled bones, fatty indiscernible organs and a skull, presented swimming in a plastic bucket. In certain situations, I draw the line.

As the days rolled past, we discovered that the land of blue sky was a massive understatement. As the country is one of the biggest in the world, with 80% of the land still untouched by human development, there was a mind-boggling amount of wide open space. When driving from Bayan-Ölgii in the far western provinces of the country to the Gobi Desert, I felt as though we may as well have been driving across the face of the moon: the sense of freedom was incomparable.

Few places on earth can rival the bleakness of the Gobi, and it was in the desert that we found the blue sky that we had been looking for. There were bone dry plains, salt lakes and sandy wastes, camels, cranes, hawks and gazelles, and a seemingly endless sky. Driving east, we reached Yolyn Am, a beautiful canyon that has a year round glacier snaking along the bottom of its ravine (perhaps one of the few places on Earth where you can have a snowball fight in a desert) and a 90-minute drive away was the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, which offered up the best sand-boarding opportunities this side of the Sahara.

If the trip couldn’t have become more surreal, our next stop took us to the Flaming Cliffs, characterised by a collection of scarlet red sandstone buttes and rock formations. Like Monument Valley in Arizona, it’s a popular place to go horse riding and act out childhood cowboy fantasies. In keeping with Mongolia’s ability to shock and surprise, more dinosaur bones and fossils have been found here than anywhere else in the world.

The following day we reached Karakorum, the original focal point of the Mongol empire and the country’s previous capital. At the behest of a local hotel owner we were invited to a throat singing concert. A traditional custom, throat singing sounds like a drunk doing a bad Leonard Cohen impression while chewing on a brick. Throat singing could also be described as the sound of two cats drunk on Aireg fighting before they vomit over each other.

On our final night out on the steppe, as we prepared to celebrate the near-completion of our odyssey we were once again confronted by Mongolia’s fermented camel milk vodka. This time, the sickly, stomach-churning liquid had been poured into an open-topped larch barrel that sat imposingly at the entrance to our host’s custom-built ger (a Mongol tent that looks like an IKEA lampshade). In the previous 3-months, or so we had been told, the concoction had been stirred on a daily basis with a buluur (a wooden masher), allowing the milk’s lactic acid bacteria and yeast to combine.

The science of this did nothing to make anyone feel any better. Sour camel’s milk was one thing, but what made it even worse was that the lonely farmer and his wife were never going to be happy with just the one bitter-sweet round; Mongols are far too crazy for that. What followed the second empty glass and the third, I can’t really recall – but it did involve several raucous renditions of the Mongolian national anthem and a very drunk Scotsman sitting atop a very unhappy horse.