Saturday, 12 October 2013

Mongolia: caravan of camels, hotel of horrors

A caravan of camels crossing the road outside Murun
The third and final stage of my Mongolia journey was perhaps the most challenging, with both highs (encountering a caravan of camels) and lows (staying in a horror movie hotel). We were planning to drive south from Tsagaan-Uur to Tarialan soum, but were warned that the ‘road’ had become impassable because of the rains. So we had to take a longer way round.

We passed some amazing sights along the way. We drove through woodland where the ground was sprinkled with brightly coloured spring flowers. When we came out into a meadow, it was so dense with flowers that the grass looked canary yellow instead of green. Later, we saw a large eagle that had just killed a rabbit. It moved along the track away from us, dragging its prey with one taloned foot. It spread its wing to fly but the rabbit was too heavy for it to take off. Given the choice, the bird stayed on the ground and slowly hopped out of view.

Even on the new route, the track was very muddy after the previous day’s rains, which slowed our progress. We had left early in the morning after our night out with the soum governor (see part two of this blog), and completely forgot to stock up on water. We had only a few small bottles which quickly ran out. By mid-morning, I was feeling extremely dehydrated.

In the wide open steppes of Mongolia, of course, you cannot rely on passing corner shops or petrol stations. We did ford a couple of streams, but neither looked clean enough to drink. Eventually, we came to a small settlement. There was a single general store, which was closed. Byamba asked at a nearby house and got directions to the owner’s home. Luckily, she agreed to open up for us. I had rarely taken so much pleasure in a bottle of water.

An eagle with his dinner - a freshly killed rabbit
Our hotel in Tarialan soum. It was even worse inside.
Eventually we arrived at Tarialan soum (village) around mid-afternoon. It was a larger settlement than the others we had visited, with paved roads in places – the first I had seen in days. This time we had no kindergarten or maternity cottage to stay in, so we checked into the soum hotel. You would never have guessed it was a hotel from the outside, it just looked like a large and decrepit house.

Inside, it was dark and dingy with crumbling masonry, peeling wallpaper and cracked windows. There was no water in the sink, which was thick with accumulated dust, no locks on the doors, and an outside toilet. An old man, as ancient and decrepit as the house itself, checked us in, seeming bemused by the whole process. It was without a doubt the worst hotel I had ever stayed in. “I guess it’s all part of the experience,” I said to Byamba.

But first, we had work to do. My objective for this soum was to write a story about the new water and sanitation facilities UNICEF was planning to build for the secondary school and dormitories. Across Mongolia, children from remote areas board at schools through the harsh winter, and the lack of facilities can be a major issue for them.

It was summer and the school was closed, so we had to go out and find some children. We met the soum governor, who took us to a nearby valley where there was a mobile kindergarten and some herder families. Along the way we passed a man fast asleep at the side of the track, next to his motorbike and wrapped in a coat. “This is a very common sight in the summer,” Byamba said. “When the snow melts, herders go out drinking in the soum centre. On the way back, they realise they cannot drive. He’ll sleep it off for a few hours, then go home.” When we passed the same way later, the man was indeed gone.

Khaliunaa and Bulganaa outside their summer home
At the mobile kindergarten, we asked if there were any families nearby with school-age children. We were taken to meet two girls, 13-year-old Khaliunaa and her 9-year-old sister Bulganaa, at their summer home – a small wooden cabin on the steppe.

The landscape around the girl’s home was perhaps the most impressive I had seen. There were dark grey storm clouds on the horizon, but the wide green and yellow valley was lit up by the evening sun. On one side, a forest crowded behind the hills and marched up to the summit to do battle with the prevailing winds. Tyre tracks made chalky scars down the middle of valley, where a lone herder rode out to his animals on a motorbike. At the far end of the valley, I glimpsed small blue mountains in the distance.

Khaliunaa and Bulganaa’s family live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They move several times a year in search of better pasture for their animals. Life can be hard, particularly during the harsh Mongolian winters. “We have 500 livestock, mainly sheep and goats plus a few horses and cows,” the girl’s father said. “This winter the snow was heavier than usual but we coped. We didn’t lose any animals.”

Because their parents live so far from the soum center, the girls spend the winter at the school dormitory. “I like learning new things at school,” Khaliunaa told me. “My favourite subject is traditional Mongolian script. I like the way it looks, it’s very beautiful.”

Khaliunaa had mixed feelings about life in the dormitory. “There are many other children there and we play games,” she said. “If the weather’s not too bad we can come home at weekends. But sometimes the other children behave badly. There is no running water so the boys have to fetch it. The toilets are outside and a long way from the dormitory.”

The biggest issue for both girls was using the outside toilet block at night. I assumed this was because of the cold, which can drop as low as -35 degrees, but I was wrong. “We don’t mind the cold, because we’re used to it,” Khaliunaa explained. “But it’s very dark and we get scared going outside.”

The girls were pleased to hear about the plans for new facilities at their dormitory. “I’m very happy there will be running water,” Khaliunaa told me. “It means that the boys won’t have to go out to fetch it. An indoor toilet would also be very nice for us. We won’t have to go outside at night and we won’t get scared.”

A herder with his animals on the vast Mongolian steppe
Teenagers hang out at a viewpoint above Tarialan soum
That evening, Byamba and I climbed a nearby mountain that overlooked the town. We started by climbing a smaller hill, where local teenagers drove their motorbikes up to a viewpoint. There was no path after this, so we chose our own route and scrambled up a steep, boulder-strewn slope to the summit. Here, an Oovo wreathed in blue flags commanded impressive views across the landscape. Towards Murun, I could see lines of dust rising from the plains as the last few vehicles approached the soum before nightfall.

Back in town, as the sky dimmed, our hotel took on the distinct air of a Hammer horror movie. Byamba and I barricaded the door to our room, while Agi decided to sleep in the car. I had a torch but was determined not to go to the outside toilet in the night. As any horror fan knows, you should never wander off on your own after dark. In the event, instead of a night of terrors and lurking shadows, I had a good night’s sleep and woke up feeling refreshed.

The next day we visited the school and dormitory where Khaliunaa and Bulganaa spend their winters. As it was summer, there were no children at the school, but it was still relatively busy. Staff were using the opportunity to prepare for the next school year. In the classrooms, teachers were busy painting floors, walls and window frames.

The dormitory block was a three story building, with pink paint that was starting to peel. Here too, staff were preparing for the winter. They had gathered rhubarb for making jam. It took them one week to gather, clean and start cooking the plants. In the kitchen, a cook stirred the jam in a large saucepan, collected the juice and decanted it into bottles for drinking.

Erdene-Chimeg in Khaliunaa and Bulganaa’s dormitory room
A man fetches water from the soum well
At the dormitory, we met Khaliunaa and Bulganaa’s teacher, Erdene-Chimeg. She pointed to an award for best dormitory room in the foyer, with a picture of the sisters and their roommate. “The girls have one of the cleanest rooms in the dormitory,” she told me. “Their parents bought lots of furniture and decorations. It’s like a home away from home.” When we got upstairs we found this was true. The room was not just cosy and well decorated; it even had two giant teddy bears sitting on the sofa, waiting patiently for the girls to arrive.

We went to the soum well to see how water was currently being collected. We tried but failed to find the man who delivers water during term time by horse and cart. However, when we got to the well another man was filling up a large tank on the back of a cart, and was happy to pose for a few photos.

After lunch we set out on the final leg of our journey – the drive back to Murun for our flight to Ulaanbaatar. We stopped by a river for a final bit of nature, and again climbed a hill for spectacular views across a flat flood plain where sand turned to grassland and scattered trees. The riverside was interspersed with dramatic cliffs and rocky outcrops. Beneath us, small birds swooped down from a rock shaped like a lion’s head to skim across the surface of the water far below.

There was one last surprise: a few kilometres out of Murun, we came across a train of camels crossing the road. I had no idea they lived this far north of the Gobi desert. They were scrawny, ugly animals with fur half shed for the summer, but I didn’t care and excitedly followed them down the track, snapping away with my camera. “Camels are one of the five traditional livestock animals in Mongolia,” Byamba said.

It was a final highlight on an unforgettable journey, probably my best UNICEF field trip to date. This was largely thanks to three things: the vast, open Mongolian landscape of steppe, lakes and forests; the hospitable herders with their engaging and energetic children; and my easy-going and knowledgeable travelling companions Byamba and Agi.

Byamba and Agi with the UNICEF van en-route to Tarialan soum
Our final recreational stop on the way to Murun

No comments:

Post a Comment