We leave a sunny Ulaanbaatar on the night train to Erdenet, because we’re on our way to Khatgal to see the reindeer people and it seems like a good idea to break the journey up a little.
The train is charming.
Erdenet? Less so. There’s a chilly drizzle pelting down, and the temperature has dropped about 20 degrees since we left Ulaanbaatar in the evening.
My first introduction to a Mongolian provincial capital, Erdenet is, by most people’s standards, a small town. Perhaps 70,000 people occupy a mix of low-rise cabins and medium-rise Soviet-era apartment blocks, in the shadow of a gigantic open-cast copper mine.
The second we arrive I’m ready to leave. Well, at least once I’ve seen the copper mine which, our guidebook assures me, likes nothing better than wandering tourists having a poke around.
Our ride, however, isn’t. There’s one solitary old lady and a mountain of bags in the 13-seater minivan that is headed for Mörön.
Through a mixture of pidgin Mongolian and sign language, we establish that the driver will leave at 12. This seems, to put it mildly, optimistic, given these things don’t even think about departing until they’re full, but I give him my phone number and off we toddle.
We wander over to the copper mine, to learn that the writer hasn’t told the guards they’re supposed to let us in. By way of a consolation prize, one accompanies us to a remarkably rubbish stoupa on a very low hill.
I nod and smile enthusiastically, in the manner of someone who has in no way whatsoever ever seen a stoupa, and is therefore overwhelmed by the exotica of this.
“Look, Zac!” I say, pointing to the guard who’s accompanied us, and is standing by a gate leading to the mine. “I think he’s going to let us in.”
“No, Mum,” my son says. “He’s having a pee.”
And so he is! Our driver follows suit. My son, not to be left out, also unzips, and, as I stand on this particularly feeble hilltop in the drizzle, staring at a particularly feeble stoupa, surrounded by urinating men, I really, really hope we don’t have to stay the night here.
“Museum?” I ask helplessly in pidgin Russian. My feet are starting to freeze
The guard makes a crossed arms gesture. “Museum, no!” he says. Clearly he’s been to charm school with the smoking ladies.
As Zac and I progress through Erdenet in search of food, I make increasingly desperate notes of things that we could do later if we’re stuck here. After we’ve got the keys for the provincial museum, the one with the two-headed calf, that is, and the mining museum, if it still exists…
A theatre! Woot!
Oh, but they’re taking the chairs out. Why?
Ooh!… Oh, wait… The same circus we saw in UB?
Yes, that circus.
There are some fairground rides that don’t seem to be running. Several Korean restaurants, and some other Turkish restaurants. A camping shop. A “palace of culture”.
A pool hall! Yeah, we could totally have fun in a pool hall.
We track down the place with Western food that Zac has picked from the guidebook, which is hiding behind a remarkably swep’-up-looking nightclub, presumably catering to miners and ladies of the night.
“Coffee,” I say, in pidgin Mongolian. “Milk.”
“Coffee, no!” says the lady, for all the world as if I’d started smoking.
I delve into my bag, pull out my jar of instant and wave it triumphantly. For, after northern China, there is no way on earth I am going horseback trekking without coffee again. “Coffee!” I say, grinning like a maniac.
“Coffee, NO!” she says.
“Hot water?” I ask.
She brings me hot water and creamer, and I make my coffee. Zac’s tuna salad emerges, replete, disgustingly, with tinned pineapple.
I’m awaiting my “Western” dish as Zac scrapes the last scraps of tuna mayo off his pineapple when the man with the van rings. A flood of Mongolian. “Mörön?” I say.
“Mörön!” he says. I look up the word for “now” in my phrasebook. He does indeed want us to come now.
“We’re not going to leave for ages,” I say to Zac. “We need to have at LEAST thirteen people in this van, and so far there are six.”
Our driver demonstrates the Mongolian flair for visual-spatial reasoning by reassembling bags and boxes in a form of packing so artful it’s somewhere between origami and magic. Enormous bloody packing crates disappear under seats; mountains of bin bags compress between the rears of one row of seats and the driver’s seats; anything that people might want to access gravitates effortlessly to the top.
A family of six show up in a car, and pile into the van.
Ooh! Twelve! Only one more to go! I carefully colonise a space so that Zac and I can have a seat each.
But, wait! Our driver has a stack of cushions, which he inserts effortlessly into the gaps between the seats, transforming each “three-seater” row into, well, I’d say “four-seater”, but…
“God!” exclaims Zac. “That man’s as good at packing people as he is at packing bags.”
A young couple arrive with a baby, so young she’s not only swaddled but actually tied in her swaddling to a mattress. They get in too.
By the time we’re ready to set off, I count 24 people plus driver in the van. It is roughly as the engine starts that I realise I neglected to buy food. Bugger.
“Damn!” I say. “I forgot to buy food! And… there was a two-headed calf in the provincial museum. And we didn’t even SEE it…”
“A two-headed calf?” says my spawn. “For real?! That mine must be having a wonderful effect on the water.”
You would think that driving cross-country with 24 people plus a wagon-train’s worth of baggage in an elderly 13-seater minivan over landscape unsullied by roads would be, ya know, uncomfortable.
In this, you would, amazingly, be wrong.
For there’s nothing like Mongolian landscapes to take one’s mind off incipient DVT or distract one’s thoughts from uncharitable commentary on the size of one’s neighbour’s arse.
The ride is wonderful.
Huge skies, empty, desolate plains. Fat-tailed sheep, their enormous padded bum-tails bobbing beind them like little fluffy clouds, Mongolian cowboys on horseback in trilbies and dels… We race along river beds, over pontoon bridges, along plains studded with gers and traced with a filigree of car tracks, past microscopic villages, and up, up into the hills, through woodland alive with hot pink wildflowers.
We break for pee and fag breaks every couple of hours – women on one side, men on the other, though, due to the absence of cover, I’m very glad I’m wearing a sweater dress.
And then we stop for dinner. In a cluster of log cabins with no road, but a petrol station, a bunch of stores selling mainly Haribo and pasta, and one restaurant.
I can read Cyrillic, but that’s not actually much help when it comes to the Mongolian menu, pasted up on the wall of this little place.
Zac and I head into the kitchen, where we scout around for fancy stuff like, ya know, green vegetables or a meat that isn’t mutton, point optimistically at a potato dish and learn it’s finished.
Meanwhile, a thermos goes round. Our companions are drinking some weird pallid stuff out of bowls, which looks absolutely disgusting. And they’re ordering by, well, by number.
OK. I order. “Two.”
And we get two plates of noodles with mutton and slivers of potato and carrot. Given that I’ve understood that the kindest thing one can say about rural Mongolian food is “hearty” or, perhaps, “filling”, it’s surprisingly edible.
The pale stuff? We’ll learn that’s salt tea, and – unlike other regional variations, such as, say, yak butter tea – both thirst-quenching and very drinkable.
And we’re off again. Up a hill so steep that we all, bar the mother with the baby, have to get out and walk, and do a ceremonious thanksgiving lap around the cluster of sticks and prayer flags stuck in a cairn at the top – our driver is so elated he runs round it five times.
More stunning plains.
More empty landscapes.
Night falls. We’re into hour ten of our nine hour journey.
Zac sleeps. I sleep.
We jolt awake in what I assume must be Mörön. Friends and families collect our fellow travellers. There are neither taxis nor signage nor street lighting, and we’re not in the place the map in my guidebook thinks we should be in.
“Hotel?” I ask our driver, pleadingly.
I look helpless.
“Machine!” he says, bundling our bags back into his van. And, god bless his heart, he drives us round the corner to the 50° 100°, a surprisingly pleasant hotel, with not only wifi and hot showers but clocks on the wall showing Beijing and New York time.
OK, I think. Maybe Mörön isn’t going to be that bad after all…