The One Where I Almost Get a Shower

I am more than a little discombobulated when a bunch of other tourists show up at the best ger ever, and make camp.

Despite the fact that our pup tent is barely ten metres from theirs, I feel an air of distance is required. After all, they are on their adventure, and we are on ours, and nary the twain shall meet.

Zac, however, who has learnt over three years of travel that the world is a friendly place — and is, further, absolutely gagging to speak English with someone who isn’t me — has no such inhibitions, and scampers to and fro between tents and ger with the air of someone who’s firmly at home in either spot.

Baatar, I suspect, is also looking forward to having people to speak Mongolian with, not to mention a group of horses large enough to prevent any further escape attempts on the part of Satan the packhorse.

We exchange pleasantries. I swap some garlic for some wild onions. Zac and I test our immune systems by marinading meat and cooking it on skewers in the fire.

It’s a fair old cavalcade that sets out towards the plains, pausing only to rescue our salt and pepper from the bush into which Baatar has disposed of our lovingly packaged recyclable waste.

Yet, as we break camp in the morning, it emerges that, like it or not, we are all riding together. It’s an unusual group.

Besides us, there’s a father and son, Bill, who’s about my father’s age, and Matt, who’s about my age, who are in Mongolia because… well, Bill’s just retired, Matt has some holiday in reserve, and why the hell not? The third member of the group is Aaron, an angelic-looking Belgian 20-something who works in hospitality the bulk of the year to fund travel in his time off.

What with two packhorses, one spare horse, Maahar, a champion wrestler in his 20s who’s their lead guide, and his younger brother, a silent 18-year-old who I will call Arthur, partly because I never established the English spelling of his name and partly because – well, he’s just an Arthur – it’s a fair old cavalcade that sets out towards the plains, pausing only to rescue our salt and pepper from the bush into which Baatar has disposed of our lovingly packaged recyclable waste.

“You’re dehydrated!” I say to Zac, accusingly. “SO ARE YOU!” he yells back. “You’re TOTALLY dehydrated! At least I’ve HAD some water! You’ve had NOTHING since we set out.”

The riding’s easy enough, although Shorty seems oddly frisky, perhaps disturbed by the new horses in the group – he’s only three, and, even by Mongolian standards, highly strung.

We walk the horses down one steep slope, more to protect their knees than anything else, and set out across the plains in temperatures that have suddenly soared to 30 or more, under a beating, scalding sun, a new set of mountains looming epic in the distance.

It is at this point that I realise that Baatar has thrown out our water.

Bill has a little, which he kindly donates to Zac, but as the clock ticks towards lunchtime, we are becoming progressively bad-tempered.

“You’re dehydrated!” I say to Zac, accusingly.

“SO ARE YOU!” he yells back. “You’re TOTALLY dehydrated! At least I’ve HAD some water! You’ve had NOTHING since we set out.”

It’s true. We’re both dehydrated, and, because Mongolian horsemen, like the Bedouin, can survive a long day with only a cup of tea or two at the beginning and end of it, there’s no water in reserve.

We hit a river, which is fast-flowing and looks clear. The horsemen fill up water bottles and hand them round. Oh god.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I think. I have a medikit full of antibiotics, and water-borne diseases are relatively rare in rural Mongolia.

The river water goes down an absolute treat and, if you don’t hold it up to the light, really doesn’t look too bad.

There’s an enormous building that must be at least three storeys high, and several others that boast a second floor. And…. SHOWERS. Dear god, showers!

Our next stop will be Renchilkhumbe where there are shops, and provisions. Further, according to my guidebook, there is a guesthouse with beds and – oh joy of joys! – hot showers and – be still my beating heart! – sitdown toilets.

After over a week on horseback, a hot shower is the stuff of fantasy. And a throne? Truly, my cup runneth over…

Rather as, while in the high Himalaya, Kathmandu transformed into Bangkok in my head, Renchilkhumbe, seen from a distance, transforms into something the size of –… well, not London, exactly, but certainly Cambridge, or possibly Bristol.

It’s totally WAY bigger than Mörön.

There’s a cluster of bright-roofed cabins. Clear evidence of shops. A petrol station! Tracks well-enough defined to look like dirt roads when seen from across the plains. An enormous building that must be at least three storeys high, and several others that boast a second floor.

And…. SHOWERS.

Dear god, showers!

We park up at a ger, chug river water from a bend where the flow seems fast and clear, and enjoy cup after cup of salt milk tea.

Both the type of traditional, old school rural bank that has nothing to do with computers, or fancy foreign cards, or foreign money, but exist to take and hand out Mongolian togrog only.

It is only when we get into town that, with the help of the phrasebook, I establish from Baatar firstly that the place with the showers has yet to open and secondly that that’s what he meant by saying “NO” repeatedly.

There is, however, a bath-house, a public set of showers accessible for a small fee, at the other end of town.

Zac rides back with Baatar, and instructions on how to assemble the potato salad we didn’t eat at lunch, and I head off on the trail of supplies and showers, towel and washbag neatly stashed.

In a phenomenon to be found all over the developing world, Renchilkhumbe supports a quite overwhelming number of shops, most of them with almost identical stock, as well as several restaurants and two pharmacies, neither of which have the antibiotics that Bill’s looking for for his sinuses.

I offer him some of mine.

Gosh, I think to myself. A metropolis like this might even have a bar!

It certainly has an important-looking government buildings. And two banks. Both the type of traditional, old school rural bank that has nothing to do with computers, or fancy foreign cards, or foreign money, but are absolutely perfect for someone looking to upgrade from storing their cash in a strongbox in the ger. Hell, there are even vegetables that aren’t potatoes or onions!

There IS a bar in town! It’s not open yet, but he can open it for us. And he thinks there might be someone in town who has an internet dongle, although he isn’t sure about that.

In the largest store in town, complete with a freezer containing – oh, joy of joys! – meat, which turns out sadly to be for the owner’s personal use (it’s dairy season in Mongolia), I bump into Matt and Aaron.

They, too, are intrigued by the notion of showers, and a bar, and, perhaps, internet.

Aaron stops by the banks. They don’t take foreign cards. Or foreign money. And, no, we can’t use their internet.

The bath house is less horrific than I’d expected. There are cleanish showers with rubber mats on the floor, although, due to a general absence of anyone who wants to wash, we’ll need to wait a couple of hours for the water to warm up.

Having fixated on hot showers for at least the last eight hours, I’m more than happy to do this.

And off we toddle, in search of a bar. Not because we think we’ll find one, but more for the sense of a mission.

At a building site, we find a man who speaks some English. There IS a bar in town! It’s not open yet, but he can open it for us. And he thinks there might be someone in town who has an internet dongle, although he isn’t sure about that.

I hope Matt has more sense of direction than I, since “across the plain, towards the mountains and near the river bend” doesn’t narrow things down as much in the dark as it does in the daylight.

By 6pm, we’re installed on surprisingly fancy-looking pleather chairs, the disco ball is going, Lady Gaga’s on play, and cold beers are well under way. The outhouse toilet is ye traditional long-drop between bare boards, but, in an indication of how VERY sophisticated this joint is, it boasts not only paper but a door, with a lock, and a roof.

By 7pm, Matt’s invested in a bottle of Chinggis vodka, and I realise that I really ought to shower now.

Shots go round. And then some more shots go round.

And then another beer, because, lord knows, when wellying one’s way through a bottle of Chinggis vodka on an empty stomach, more beer is always a good idea.

I adjust my position to indicate to our Mongolian friend that, despite appearances, I’m not currently available. (Matt, by strategic deployment of the magic word “We” has also indicated that he is not available, indicating that everyone at the table’s going to be out of luck tonight.)

By about 9.30pm, it’s all a complete blur and our Mongolian friend can’t find his car to drive us back to the ger, which is, it dimly dawns on me, nigh-on impossible to find in the dark.

I hope Matt has more sense of direction than I, since “across the plain, towards the mountains and near the river bend” doesn’t narrow things down as much in the dark as it does in daylight.

Morning dawns, bright and dry, and I emerge from the confusingly circular exit of our pup tent in search of water. I can smell myself.

Morning dawns, bright and dry, and I emerge from the confusingly circular exit of our pup tent in search of water. I can smell myself.

“Mama good?!” asks Baatar, giggling.

It appears that the vodka hasn’t left me in the running for mum of the year. I grab a big bottle of mineral water from our shopping and chug it back. It doesn’t bounce. Yay!

“You missed the shaman,” says Matt.

WHA’?!

“Yes, we had a shaman and he was singing shaman songs.”

Bugger! Of all the nights to find a bar, it has to be the night that the shaman shows up.

Oh god, I think. That poor little girl! She switched on the power for the showers, and then we disappeared…

The ger patriarch cracks my second can of beer. I shake my head again, and rapidly hide the gifting vodka we are bringing to the reindeer people, as well as my reserve cigarettes.

The ger patriarch, a charming and disreputable chap who looks in his late 70s to Western eyes, rifles through my shopping bags, emerges with my cans of beer and cracks open the first. It is 8.30am. He hands the can to Baatar, who takes a swig, then offers it to me.

I shake my head, very, very carefully. This is the worst hangover I’ve had since I tried to keep up with the SAS.

“The thing with the vodka,” Matt explains, helpfully, “Is that you don’t have to down each shot. You can just sip it. That’s actually what they do. They don’t necessarily finish the shots.”

Hot damn!

I don’t normally take painkillers for a hangover – I was raised Catholic, and prefer to take my punishment – but given I’m going to be on a horse for the big end of a day, I break my usual rule.

“You were REALLY drunk last night,” observes my spawn, accusingly.

“Did you find the potato salad?” I ask.

“No,” he says, with an air of quiet heroism. “Bill gave me some noodles. And then I had Haribo.”

Oh god. I’m really not winning mum of the year. Poor Bill.

The ger patriarch cracks my second can of beer. I shake my head again, and rapidly hide the gifting vodka we are bringing to the reindeer people, as well as my reserve cigarettes.

Baatar, the ger patriarch and one of the men from the ger are sipping vodka out of little cups with a conspiratorial air. Baatar mimes that a shot of vodka will be good for my head. I down it. It isn’t.

Maahar, it emerges, is not very well. He’s going to hang back in Renchilkhumbe to see a shaman, and, on the better safe than sorry principle, a doctor, then catch us up.

It’s 9.30am, and the women of the house have already moved the stove out into the open air and got to work on making bread.

Round the back of a small log cabin, Baatar, the ger patriarch and one of the men from the ger are sipping from small china cups with a conspiratorial air.

Baatar mimes that a shot of vodka will be good for my head.

I down it. It isn’t.

It begins to dawn on me that riding across country in temperatures of over 30 is about as bad a hangover cure as they come.

It’s round about noon when we set out for town, timing which appears to be dictated less by distance to our destination and more by the fact that the vodka has run out. We park up, dine on meat pancakes and Mongolian stew, Zac stocks up on raisins and chocolates, and I visit approximately ten stores until I find some lip balm.

In the far green, two enormous vulture-like creatures are feasting on dead livestock. Hoofbeats in the distance, and Maahar gallops into view. He still doesn’t look well at all.

It looks like we’re not going to be getting very far today, which, quite frankly, is fine by me.

It’s rather less fine by poor Bill, who has a plane to catch and, further, being a recently retired software engineer rather than some random loafer, is about as relaxed about Mongolian timekeeping as he is about being stranded with a child he’s only just met.

We meet two motorbikes and a jeep as we head across the plains. At each, we stop for Baatar to exchange news and views in quite inordinate depth.

In the far green, two enormous vulture-like creatures are feasting on dead livestock.

Hoofbeats in the distance, and Maahar gallops into view. He still doesn’t look well at all.

But apparently we haven’t got far to go!

There’s a ger located on a windswept mound in the plain, and as we tie up our horses I get the feeling that, like it or not, we’re here for the night.


In the way of the world, my camera memory card bit the dust at about this point. This photo is by Nurse Kate – many thanks!

2 Responses

  1. I very rarely compliment anyone else’s writing, let alone any travel blogger’s, but yours is so incredibly engaging and funny. I no longer have to travel to Mongolia – I’ve just been!

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