02Sep2013

On Khovsgol Nuur

Khovsgol Nuur - beach and stump and reflecting waters.

There’s a pleasant rhythm to a long journey, and within an hour or so we’re in it: spotting the different types of wildflowers, keeping an eye on a dog that has decided to follow us from Khatgal, and, most often, walking sedately through the larches, their piney leaves bright with scarlet cones.

Zac trots from time to time, bouncing up and down in his saddle like a Thelwell character, while Baatar yells approvingly: “Temujin!”

Temujin was the birth name of Chinggis Khan, the Mongolian national hero, and Time magazine’s man of the millennium, who rose from tribal outcast to emperor of the largest contiguous empire in history.

AKA, in Baatar-speak, the kid done good. For a foreigner. Baatar’s five sons, of course, have been riding since they were many years younger than Zac.

That said, it’s still a relief when, after three hours in the saddle, we turn off the trail towards a flock of goats nestled in woodland, and a ger, with a pup tent placed beside it.

In we go, ducking under the lintel and taking care not to knock the threshold (bad luck). I pull my line of Mongolian out of the guidebook: “Are your livestock fattening well?”

“They’re fattening! They’re fattening,” replies Bue, the lady of the house, approvingly and, bang on cue, a goat that’s either obese or heavily pregnant bursts through the door and helps itself to biscuits from the plastic tray.

Bue dredges out a phrase book from a box of treasured possessions. Baatar hands it to me. “Now Baatar can talk to you and you can talk to Baatar,” he says.

Bue’s ger is a homely place. There’s a telly and a radio, powered by a jerry-rigged car battery, bright hangings on the wall, a colourful shelf and table in the kitchen, and a stack of family photos in the altar zone, plus three beds which double as sofas and spots for naps and a central stove, currently in use for salt tea.

Plus, of course, a quite bewildering array of family members, extended family members, and folk who are just passing through and have stopped by for a cup of tea and a snack.

We eat biscuits, drink milky salt tea, and enjoy fresh bread with clotted yak cream. It is surprisingly delicious.

Bue dredges out a phrase book from a box of treasured possessions. Baatar hands it to me. “Now Baatar can talk to you and you can talk to Baatar,” he says.

Travel anywhere is infinitely richer if you can manage a bit of the language, and as most rural Mongolians speak no English at all, that’s especially true in rural Mongolia.

After Chinese, most languages come to seem blessedly simple. Zac and I met an academic linguist at the Mongolian Embassy in Hohhot, so we know that Mongolian has eight cases, that verbs change for aspect (like in Turkish — you’ll use one form of the verb for something you’ve heard about and one for something you’ve seen with your own eyes) and tense but not for person, that the adjective comes before the noun and that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. Mercifully, adjectives don’t have to agree.

There are a few weird sounds in the language, but nothing that strains the face muscles in the way that Chinese tones and sibilants do. And, because it’s written in Cyrillic, we’ve been picking up words from signs along the way (easy enough to do in a substantially phonetic language with 30-odd lower case letters and 30-odd upper case letters, as opposed to a language with thousands upon thousands of barely-phonetic-at-all characters).

All of which is to say that pidgin Mongolian is relatively doable. (Fluent Mongolian, of course, would be rather difficult, what with the eight cases and all.)

Which doesn’t stop me being very sad for not having learned at least a little of the language. Travel anywhere is infinitely richer if you can manage a bit of the language — even the most token vocabulary helps — and as most rural Mongolians speak no English at all, that’s especially true in rural Mongolia.

Bue thanks me. And, through the phrasebook, she tells me that she will use the notebook. Because she’s a poet, and now she can write down her poems. Wow.

Bue teaches Zac the words for kid, goat, sheep and lamb. Her teen sons demonstrate wrestling and take the horses for a spin – the pup tent besides the ger, as far as I can tell, functions as their man cave.

The phrasebook helps, but I still can’t begin to navigate the family complexity.

Bue is related, somehow, to Baatar. Her five children – aged 15 to 23 – all live with her. There’s a man who looks in his 70s to Western eyes but could be decades on either side of that, but he’s not the patriarch.

And then… It’s time to go. It’s heading into late afternoon and we haven’t even seen the lake yet.

I thank Bue for the loan of the phrasebook. Then I hand out our rather pitiful token gifts – a bag of sweets, a pen and a notebook – gifting them with both hands, as is the etiquette.

Bue thanks me. And, through the phrasebook, she tells me that she will use the notebook. Because she’s a poet, and now she can write down her poems. Wow.

Baatar begins to teach us Mongolian. Which is to say, he talks to us loudly, slowly and clearly in Mongolian, on the basis that we’ll pick it up. I’m down with that. And, after Chinese school, Mongolian holds no fears for Zac either.

Baatar looks on water with suspicion – like the Bedouin of Egypt, rural Mongolians seem to manage perfectly well on the odd cup of tea plus vodka as and when available.

Our first sight of Khovsgol Nuur, the lake we’ll walk besides for the next five days, is dramatic – a vast sheen of white stretching out to golden beaches and dark forest, a lake whose colours change with the sky, the ice of the long winter and cold spring still visible in the centre.

Three more hours riding, and we’re making camp. Baatar whips a fire out of nowhere with the effortless ease of long practice – from kindling to a blaze even I can tend in under 40 seconds. Zac fetches water for cooking and, in my capacity as expedition chef, I produce yak stew.

I’m quite piteously pleased when, despite its untoward vegetable content, Baatar pronounces it good.

In theory, of course, Baatar looks after his food and we look after ours. In practice, supplies are pooled: Baatar will make the fire, load and unload the packhorse, with a bit of “here, love, hold this!” assistance from me, and tend the horses.

I’ll cook and boil water, a substance which Baatar looks on with suspicion – like the Bedouin of Egypt, rural Mongolians seem to manage perfectly well on the odd cup of tea plus vodka as and when available (and, yes, more Bedouin than you’d think drink alcohol). Zac is sous-chef and water-carrier.

It starts to rain. We retreat into Baatar’s tent, where he opens his emergency bottle of vodka. It was his birthday yesterday. He is 49, which is to say just ten years older than me.

Zac, meanwhile, scales a larch, slides down it, slices his hand open and sticks his head into the tent to request iodine and plasters.

“First injury of the trip!” I say. “Well done, son!”

Our fresh meat begins to smell. Baatar treats it, Mongolian style, by cutting it open and hanging it from the roof poles of the ger, and leaving it in the open air whenever we stop, draped over a tree branch to protect it from the dog.

Days pass in a pleasant blur of lake – the colours of Khovsgol Nuur change almost hourly, as clouds chase across the reflective water, the sunsets are prettier by the day – and wildflowers.

We pass a shaman’s house. He’s out.

The dog continues to follow us, trotting sometimes ahead of us, sometimes behind. It is, apparently, under the impression that we’ll feed it.

We meet the odd jeep and motorcycle on their way along the road – we’re still not in the wilderness yet.

We spend the night in a family’s spare ger, cook pasta and sausage for them, and I use my emergency bottle of vodka to thank our host for his hospitality: not least because we’ve inadvertently evicted his son and baby grand-daughter from their ger.

Our fresh meat begins to smell. Baatar treats it, Mongolian style, by cutting it open and hanging it from the roof poles of the ger, and leaving it in the open air whenever we stop, draped over a tree branch to protect it from the dog.

Insanely, this works. It doesn’t even seem to attract flies.

Go figure.

For much of the day, folk just lounge around and chat. Play cards, perhaps. Nap. Wait for the next visitor to swing by. It strikes me as a lifestyle that’s refreshingly free of striving.

We stop at another ger for delicious salt fish – caught from the lake during the fishing season – and fried pancakes, a play with the baby, and a look at the seven-year-old’s schoolbooks, of which he is extremely proud.

Yet again, I can’t navigate the family inter-relationships – who’s family, who lives here, who’s just passing through. But I’m awestruck by the happiness, the hospitality, the sense of community.

I don’t romanticise simple lifestyles (one thing I thought we learnt on our trip to meet hunter-gatherers in Halmahera, Indonesia, is that contentment is not the same as happiness, and primitive life can be Hobbesian in the extreme).

But it strikes me that many rural Mongolians live extremely happily. Wealth is counted, here, in flocks – though many a ger will have a vehicle or several, in various states of disrepair, most adults have a mobile phone, and most also seem to have at least one smart outfit for special occasions.

Women’s lives seem less hard than in many less-developed cultures. Cooking happens as and when; naps happen at will throughout the day; laundry is done weekly; during dairy season, there is milking to be done, and yoghurt, clotted cream, possibly even cheese to be made; the herds need to be corralled at night, which is typically a job for children. Men, typically, look after wood, water, building and digging the outhouses, although they too do their fair share of childcare.

Once children are old enough to be trusted to safely circumnavigate the lethally hot stove at the centre of the ger – beginning toddlers are tethered until they’re stable and understand the danger – they wander largely at will.

And, because the family structure is non-nuclear, there are typically multiple adults to share the various tasks.

But, for much of the day, folk just lounge around and chat. Play cards, perhaps. Nap. Wait for the next visitor to swing by. It strikes me as a lifestyle that’s refreshingly free of striving and – yes – close to nature, too.

And, of course, by our very presence here we’re likely contributing to changing it.

I dig out the soap and shampoo, and wade into the bracing water. I am up to my knees and about to lather up when, bang on cue, Baatar rides into view, trailing a bleeding Shorty.

One vexing question for me, though, is when, how and if rural Mongolians wash. One of Zac’s conditions for embarking on this trip was that he didn’t have to wash for the duration, but I’m beginning to smell myself, and I don’t like it.

We are eating Russian salad by the lake when the dog panics the horses. Zac’s steed, Shorty, gets tangled in his stirrups, and gallops off into the distance. Baatar rides after him at speed, and disappears into the blue.

Zac and I sit on the log for a while, and then decide that Baatar, in the vein of Captain Oates, may be some time.

Blissfully, it’s warm enough to contemplate going into the lake – the water isn’t far above freezing, even now, in June.

I shed all my underlayers, strip down to the sleeveless dress I’ve been wearing over and under my various layers (it’s a most excellent shield for al fresco micturation), dig out the soap and shampoo, and wade into the bracing waters of Khovsgol Nuur.

I am up to my knees and about to lather up when, bang on cue, Baatar rides into view, trailing a bleeding Shorty. I put my clothes back on. Bugger.

As they head off through the trees, they flip the bike, and roll, helmetless, laughing, through the woodland. Oh god, I think. The invulnerability of youth.

Tonight will be our last night on Khovsgol Nuur. Tomorrow, we head over the pass.

We turn down the chance to stay in a ger that an enterprising family have set up for tourists with prices to match, partly because it’s a beautiful day, and partly because — while I’m in favour of contributing some cash as well as gifts to people who host us — if we’re going to stay in tourist accommodation we would like it to have running water and, ya know, perhaps even a toilet that isn’t a pit.

And so we camp for the last time by the lake.

A couple of teens roar through the woods on a dirtbike, from the settlement behind the hill. In true Mongolian style, we share our dinner with them.

As they head off through the trees, they flip the bike, and roll, helmetless, laughing, through the woodland. Oh god, I think. The invulnerability of youth.


You can read the first post in this series on horseback riding in Mongolia here, and the next one here.

One Trackback

  1. By #NGTRadar: Travel Lately – Intelligent Travel on September 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    [...] want to see “a vast sheen of white stretching out to golden beaches and dark forest”? Check out this stunning narrative about spending time on Lake Khövsgö, Mongolia’s largest fresh water lake (by [...]

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