Monday, 16 September 2013

Mongolia: frozen lakes and stone cooked lamb

Snowcapped mountains emerge from the mist at Khuvsgul Lake
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Look at a map of Khuvsgul and one feature will jump out at you – Khuvsgul Nuur, or lake. This is a massive 2,760 square kilometre body of water that stretches almost to the border with Siberia. It is the second largest in Asia and one of the oldest lakes in the world, being among just 17 that formed over two million years ago. Mongolians call it ‘ocean mother’ and revere it as the country’s main source of fresh water. It is famous for its clear, drinkable water and blue/green colour.

The lake is also a major tourist attraction and, unusually, there was a tarmacked road all the way from the provincial capital Murun. We stopped mid-morning at the southern tip of the lake. Our driver Agi knew the chef at a tourist 'ger' (tent) camp, and he served us tea and snacks. Afterwards, we walked down to the lake. The shore was stony and the water was crystal clear. On reaching the water, the Mongolian tradition is to take a little water in your hand and splash it on your forehead. “This is to give thanks for the water and show respect to nature,” Byamba said, demonstrating.

The water was freezing cold and my fingers went numb as I copied the ritual. Byamba was made of sterner stuff than me and waded into the water up to his knees. We soon realized why the water was so cold – further north the lake was still frozen over. As the mist cleared, we could see its dull white surface beneath snow-capped mountains. “In winter, the ice is so thick you can drive a car over it,” Byama said. “You need to know the route though. Every year someone dies from driving on thin ice.”

Byamba takes the freezing waters of Khuvsgul Lake
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
I was on the second leg of my journey through Khuvsgul province. After visiting Arbulag soum (see part one of this blog), we drove to Tsagaan-Uur soum (village) via Khuvsgul lake. This stage of the journey was, if anything, even more spectacular than the first. After leaving the lakeside, we drove past forests of pine trees standing above an unexpectedly orange forest floor. The ground was carpeted with pine needles that had fallen the previous autumn and been buried beneath the snow. They were only now re-emerging.

After following the lake north for a while, we left the lakeside and turned east. There had been more rain on this side of the mountains, and the landscape became progressively greener. We stopped for lunch at the intersection of three broad valleys and climbed up a small hill in the middle for a panoramic view. Looking further east the mountain sides were still brown but the valley floor was green, with a river winding through the flat plain, forming a series of almost perfect circles as it looped back on itself.

On top of the hill, a cairn had been made with a pile of stones and branches, on which blue flags were tied. I had noticed these on several prominent viewpoints and asked Byamba about them. “They are Shaman shrines called Oovo,” he replied. “The blue flags symbolise the sky. People in other provinces have converted to Buddhism, but in the north Shamanism remains strong.”

The view from the top of the Oovo, or Shaman shrine.
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
As at Arbulag soum, there were varying levels of modernity. On the way, we passed a man on a motorbike with a large satellite dish lashed to the back. He was followed by another man pulling a wooden plough behind an ox. And although there were no roads and little electricity, Byamba showed me where the ground had been dug up to lay fibre-optic cables to provide broadband Internet to soum centres.

By the time we arrived at Tsagaan-Uur soum, the landscape was completely green. There was no hotel in town so we ended up camping on the floor of the main kindergarten. There was a kitchen for cooking meals for the kids, and the staff made us a series of delicious meals, including steaks from a huge river fish and freshly baked bread with cottage cheese.

In the evening we met the soum governor, B Erdenebat. He was young for a governor, recently elected as an independent candidate. Khuvsgul region had just suffered a particularly severe winter known as a ‘dzud’, with temperatures plunging to minus 35 degrees. “There was half a metre of snow on the ground and water froze in the pipes,” Erdenebat said. He explained how herders prepared for the winter by building a warm shelter for the animals and storing fodder for them. “Over 1,300 animals died during the dzud but it could have been worse. No people died.”

Rolling stone

Children arrive at the kindergarten by tractor
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
The next day, we got up early and went to visit a mobile kindergarten, provided to the soum by UNICEF. We drove out across the plain, fording a river along the way. The wheels of our SUV crunched on the pebbly riverbed and sent sheets of water into the air. Further downstream, I saw slender white birds swoop low over the river and pluck small fish out of the water.

The kindergarten was in a traditional Mongolian ger tent pitched in the middle of a wide, flat valley. The tent had a thick quilted lining and a carpet on the floor. Children’s pictures were pinned to the wooden frame. It was run by Dolzodmaa, a teacher from the main kindergarten in the soum centre, who was spending the summer taking the ger around the ‘baghs’, or remote districts.

Outside, it was raining for the first time since I arrived in Mongolia, with a British-style drizzle that lasted all day. Heavy clouds blanketed the hills. We watched young children arrive on foot, with older siblings carrying them across the river. Others arrived with their parents on horseback, motorbike or even by tractor.

One of the last children to arrive was Erka, a six-year-old adopted girl with disabilities. She contracted polio at just four months old and was left with a damaged right arm and leg and difficulties communicating. Since then, she had had an operation on her leg and could now walk and run normally. She was a happy and outgoing child, and I quickly decided to make her the focus of my story.

Erka shows me her raindrop painting in the kindergarten
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Erka showed me a picture she had drawn of raindrops. “I like coming to the kindergarten,” she told me. “I enjoy singing, playing puzzle games and reading poems. My favourite poem is about a baby chicken and my favourite song is about getting an excellent mark at kindergarten. Yesterday I got an excellent mark for drawing.”

I took lots of photos of Erka and her best friend Namuun. The girls were inseparable. Namuun was even cuter than Erka and found everything I did hilarious. She would scrunch her face up with an evil laugh that reminded me of Muttley, a character from the cartoon 'Wacky Races'. The girls made me take pictures of themselves with coloured wooden shapes over their eyes and then collapsed into hysterics when I showed them the result.

My plan was to observe Erka at the kindergarten in the morning, and then go to visit her family in the afternoon. In the event, Erka suggested this herself. “My mum has been cleaning the house,” she said. “Would you like to come and visit? Namuun can come too.”

I was happy to let Erka think this was all her idea, and agreed. We drove the two girls to Erka’s house, a small log cabin further down the valley. This was their summer home, close to the pasture where their livestock were grazing. Although small, the house was clean, well-furnished and comfortable. Erka’s mother Oguuntsetseg was in the kitchen and her father Ulziiochir came in from working outside.

Erka and Namuun, outside Erka's family home
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
In common with other nomadic societies, Mongolia has a culture of hospitality. We arrived unannounced but Erka’s parents welcomed us to their home with genuine warmth. We had barely sat down before her mother was serving us noodles with dumplings and traditional Mongolian milk tea. Erka made a cake for me out of Lego and I blew out an imaginary candle on top.

Oguuntsetseg and Ulziiochir were clearly loving parents and very affectionate with Erka. I asked her father why they had decided to adopt her. “We had four boys of our own,” he replied. “The first two passed away but the third and fourth survived and are now grown up. We wanted a girl and decided to adopt Erka. It happened that she had disabilities.”

Ulziiochir sold some of the family’s animals to pay for Erka’s operation. “At first it was very difficult,” he recalled. “When she came home she hurt all the time and we had to comfort her during the night. But after a week or so she started to get better. Now she can walk and run normally, and you can hardly tell her apart from other children.”

Despite the family’s difficulties, this was undoubtedly a good news story. Since coming to the kindergarten for the first time a few months ago, Erka had learned to speak. Before, she could understand her parents, but her own speech was slurred and unclear. Now, thanks to interacting with the other children, she could speak clearly and easily.

I had a great time with Erka and her family. I was touched by their hospitality towards us and their determination to give their adopted daughter the best start in life. It was great to see the clear impact that UNICEF had made on their lives, and to feel part of that. The best testimonial came from Erka herself. “When Erka comes home she says to me: ‘Daddy please take me to kindergarten in the morning, but don’t forget to pick me up in the afternoon’,” Ulziiochir said, smiling broadly.
Me with Erka, her parents, and best friend Namuun
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Feast with friends

It had been an enjoyable day but there was more fun to come. Byamba was keen for me to experience a traditional Mongolian feast, so the night before he had asked Governor Erdenebat if he could find a family who would sell us a sheep.

After we had finished at the kindergarten, we went to pick up our dinner. The family lived in a wooden log cabin similar to Erka's. When we arrived, the mother was using a telescope to check on their herd, which was on the other side of the valley. Satisfied that the animals were all together and in the right place, she invited us into their home.

Inside, her husband was busy cutting up the insides of our sheep. He took the liver and some strips of fat over to a square metal stove in the centre of the room. He cut a slice of the liver, wrapped it in fat, and placed it directly on the burning charcoal in the stove. After a few minutes he took it out and gave me to eat. It was perfectly cooked – crispy on the outside, but still pink in the middle – and delicious. “You can never have an experience like this as a tourist,” Byamba observed.

Cooking the organs of our sheep in a charcoal fire
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Later in the evening, we met up with the governor, kindergarten director and other officials. We piled into two jeeps and headed out to our picnic spot where we planned to cook the lamb. It was around an hour’s drive through a stunning landscape of rivers, forests and valleys. Eventually we came through a light woodland to stop at the top of a steep ridge overlooking a valley with a wide meandering river, beyond which a dense forest climbed the opposite hills and marched on to the horizon.

Our first task was to collect stones to cook the lamb. Byamba, Erdenebat and I climbed down the cliff and made our way upstream to a shallow riverbed. "You need to look for black stones like these," the governor said, fishing a few out of the river. We sifted through the stones until we had filled a cardboard box with the jet black ones. We carried them back to the hillside, where the others had collected wood and got a fire going.

Erdenebat placed the black stones in the fire. We had borrowed a large pressure cooker and, once the stones were hot, they went in it along with the lamb, some potatoes and river water. The top was screwed on tight and we we settled down with a beer to wait. On the ridge behind us, silver birch trees glowed in the warm light of the sun, now hanging low above the hills opposite and casting long shadows like fingers across the floor of the valley.

Governor Erdenebat places black stones in the fire
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
While we waited for dinner, Erdenebat told us stories from his youth hunting in the forests with his father. "These forests stretch for 250 km, all the way to the Russian border. You can't get deep in the forest by car so you have to go on foot. We would camp overnight and climb up to the plateau over there at 4 am," he said, pointing towards a distant ridge. "At that time in the morning there are many animals about. We would hunt gazelle with a telescopic rifle."

One time they came face-to-face with a bear. "When you see a bear in the wild, it is very scary. All the hair stands up on your neck," Erdenebat continued. "Sometimes it is fatal for the hunter, other times for the bear.
On this occassion, my father shot the bear. I would not dare to try - if you miss, the bear will kill you. Afterwards, it took us all day to skin the bear and chop the meat."

Eventually, our dinner was ready. Agi helped open the cooker, and everyone else stood back at a safe distance as high-pressured steam hissed out angrily from beneath the lid. Inside, the lamb was perfectly cooked. We ate it with potatoes and wild onions picked nearby. It was simple, but absolutely delicious. Afterwards, we took part in another Mongolian tradition. We had brought with us a bottle of 'Chinggis' vodka (these days, everything is named after the former world conqueror) and a small silver bowl. We sat in a circle and passed the bowl around, with everyone drinking a mouthful of neat vodka in turn. When our bottle was finished, our hosts brought out another.

The vodka was not as strong as the type you buy in UK supermarkets, but nonetheless I was feeling a warm glow inside by the time we packed up. We drove back to the soum in the pitch black, with our car headlights the only illumination for miles around. Before we parted, Erdenebat thanked me for our visit to the soum. "This is the best visit we have ever had from UNICEF," he said, grasping my hand with a firm grip. "And not just because of the drinking - it's because of the relationships we have formed."

The view across the valley as the sun set behind the hills
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Read part three of this blog »

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