Merry X'mas From Mongolia (Land of Yummy Mutton Butter Tea)

MERRY X'MAS from Mongolia, the land of salty mutton butter tea, the two Frog Rocks, extremely cold days and nights, and so much more.

We're having a great time here in Ulaan Baatar. It may be the biggest city and the capital of Mongolia, but it feels like a small town - we can walk just about anywhere in town here in 15 to 20 minutes. We're staying in a really nice little guest house with a very friendly family. And for the past 10 days or so we've been hanging out with our new friend, Nabe, a really great guy from Osaka.

Last night I had one of the best X'mas Eves of my life. Tsetseg, the woman who runs the guesthouse, made us a big Mongolian feast, which was sooooo delicious (as was the huge traditional meal she made for Son's birthday back on Dec. 7th). We helped her prepare dinner and everyone bought and brought something as well. So, we ended up with all sorts of desserts and lots of drinks. I was the only native English speaker out of the 10 of us: There were 5 Mongolians, 2 Japanese (Son and Nabe), 1 German, 1 Swiss German and 1 Canadian (me). We stayed up until about 2:30 talking and drinking and had a great night. And, with snow falling outside, which rarely happens here since it's usually too bloody cold, we even had a White X'mas.

Today's just been a nice relaxing X'mas Day at the guesthouse. Tonight, however, we're all planning to go out together to a Mexican restaurant for another X'mas dinner. Yes, that's right, a Mexican X'mas dinner in Mongolia... and the chef's from India. We went there once before, a couple of weeks back, and it was quite good. They already had the whole place done up for X'mas back then. It should be fun.

We've been here in Mongolia for 3 weeks now and we've really been having a great time. A large part of that, obviously, is due to our guesthouse and the warm friendly family who run it; however, we've also had many interesting, special and fun experiences that have made our time here quite wonderful.

Son's birthday party was really nice (she even received some incredible handmade gifts), as was the following night when we went for dinner at the home of a man we met on the train coming here from Beijing. Both nights we were treated to wonderful traditional Mongolian meals.

Another interesting experience was visiting the nations largest Buddhist monastery here in Ulaan Baatar and watching the monks chant mantras. Now that was quite something. They practice Tibetan Buddhism here, which is very different from the Buddhism practiced in Japan and other countries I've been to. We also visited the ruins in the mountains of what used to be the country's largest monastery (50 buildings) before Stalin had it destroyed, along with all but 3 of the country's monasteries and temples, back in 1937. Oh, the good ol' days of Stalinism! And the glorious days of being a Russian satellite state. Seven glorious decades, to be precise.

Last week we visited the mountains again, this time on a day-trip to a national park about 80 km north of here. And, man, was the scenery ever spectacular up there! We did a bit of climbing - through the snow - and then we went on an 8 km hike as well. A great day, except for the fact that when we got back to the car we could barely feel our hands, feet or faces.

Back here in Ulaan Baatar we've walked all over town, been to the Museum of Natural History, with all of its huge dinosaur fossils from the Gobi Desert... and, of course, spent each and every day trying to survive the cold.

We already thought it was extremely cold here when we first arrived, but back then it was "only" between -15 and -25 degrees Celsius!! Though it warmed up enough to snow yesterday, this past week has usually been between -23 and -38C!!! And we're not talking about a wind chill factor here. Who knows what that would be... and I don't think I really want to know.

Although it's always nice and cozy in the guesthouse - I'm usually just in shorts and a t-shirt - we normally spend 3 to 4 hours walking around town each day, so we end up getting pretty damn cold out there. And even though we've got warm clothes, scarves and gloves, in the end our faces always freeze. One funny thing I observed: Inside the buses the windows are covered in ice so thick you can't see out!!

Ulaan Baatar's not the most beautiful city, that's for sure, but right now the central square is full of huge ice sculptures, which are simply spectacular. Walking around the square has been one of the highlights of our time here.

Another highlight occurred this past week when we played basketball a couple of times with a group of local people, for 2 to 3 hours each time. They were all really good and we had some fun games. The first time we played, on Friday night, we ended up going out for a few drinks and dancing afterwards. But before we went out, while still in the gym, they pulled up some benches, pulled out some vodka and all 10 of the Mongolians started to sing together in unison. Now that was beautiful! We then went out to a bar and danced to some Russian disco music, which was definitely not quite as beautiful!

That's all been fun, but, without a doubt, our greatest experience here in Mongolia was our trip out into the countryside, where we stayed in a "ger", a traditional Mongolian home (sometimes called a "yurt", which is a Russian word, not Mongolian). This ger, one of 3 situated in the middle of nowhere about 5 kms by jeep from the nearest road, had no electricity or plumbing. And no outhouse either. The "toilet" was just a hole in the ground. Forget about shyness or modesty, the challenge here was doing what you had to do with your pants pulled down to your ankles without freezing any vital parts of your anatomy.

So they may not have had any modern amenities, but they sure had a lot of mutton. Let me tell you, we REALLY ate a lot of mutton out there. It was even in our tea, in the form of mutton butter. Extremely salty and not exactly delicious, it's certainly not what most people outside of Mongolia would request in their tea.

No one, including our driver, could speak a word of English, which made for an interesting situation. But we tried to communicate using our phrase book. And we did pretty well too. But, I lied, one person could speak one word of English and that was the father. At night we all played cards and chess and one time he and I ended up playing 3 straight hours of chess together, with one shared word between us: "check". Oh, and "checkmate".

On our second day there we went on a 2-hour horseback ride to the top of a small mountain, with an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys, on horses that were definitely not all that enthusiastic about carrying us through the snow in the middle of winter. Of course when we returned from that magnificent ride our feet and hands were completely numb from the cold, so we were fed lots more mutton.

Staying out there in that ger was one of the best experiences of my life. Perhaps a bit too much mutton for my taste, especially the salty mutton butter in my tea - I could have most certainly done without that - but, still, what an unbelievable and unforgettable experience.

Later on, I should mention, we found out that our driver had taken us hundreds of kilometers away from where we were supposed to have gone... to his own family's ger. They didn't have any phone's out there of course and they, we realized later, had no idea we were coming, which explained why everyone looked so confused when we drove up. Not the reaction you'd expect from a family that was supposedly used to having foreign guests on a regular basis. Obviously he just wanted to earn his family some extra money and, as a result, we ended up having a much more authentic experience. As we eventually found out, and initially suspected, his parents had never met any backpackers before.

How did we figure this out for sure, the fact that we had never reached our intended destination? Well, you see, there was this famous rock called Frog Rock that we were supposed to visit as part of our tour into the countryside. And we thought we HAD seen it... until we saw a photo of it back at the guesthouse in Ulaan Baatar and realized that the "Frog Rock" he had led us up a hill and through the snow and the bush to see was about one tenth - no, make that one twentieth - the size of the real thing. Back at the guesthouse in Ulaan Baatar, once confronted with this evidence, he admitted the whole thing. But it ended up being much better for us. Plus we got to see two Frog Rocks, whereas most people only ever see one. We eventually saw the real one on that trip to that national park last week, which I mentioned earlier.

By the way, in case you haven't figured it out yet, don't even think of coming to Mongolia unless you want to eat mutton. Everything has mutton in it. Even the desserts are fried in mutton lard! Vegans beware, remain where you are, Mongolia is definitely not for you.

Anyhow, we're having a great X'mas and a fantastic time here in Mongolia. The only thing I miss is my South Park X'mas album, "Mr. Hankey's X'mas Classics". Besides that, everything's perfect!

In a couple of days we plan to return to Beijing where we'll see our 3 Chinese friends who we met before coming here. We went out for Peking Duck with them as well as to a beautiful place called the Summer Palace in Beijing. I'm looking forward to seeing them again.

Take care everyone and, once again, have a salty-mutton-butter-tea-free VERY MERRY X'MAS!!!

Oredakedo (Mike Cowie)
December 25th, 2001