Outside my room, a bull returns my gaze.
Before I have time to gauge the threat posed by the large horned animal standing 10 feet away from me, two crazed dogs chase it off.
I’m in Mongolia, and I’m staying in a ger (hut) just outside Ulaan Bator.
We got into the Mongolian capital in the early hours of Monday morning, after our five-day train trip from Moscow, and soon arranged to get out into the countryside. We found a friendly sounding company called Happy Camel Expeditions, whose centre of operations is based in a café specializing in French pastries. After indulging in a couple of their specialties, an overly helpful member of staff sorted out an itinerary for an outdoor excursion.
Our enthusiastic helper drew us a detailed map of how to get to the post office (the one in our guidebook was apparently not sufficient) and even offered to walk us down there. On our way down, we noticed the first of many curiosities in Mongolia: human mobile phones.
These people sit on the side of the street holding old-school-looking phones (as in, normal house phones rather than the mobile variety), presumably as some kind of public telephone service. That's weird in itself, but it's made even more peculiar by the fact that they all wear big masks over their faces, giving them a sinister appearance like the bad guys from a martial arts film. Another streetside service of which I’m particular fond is the guy outside the post office who sits with a set of scales, awaiting potential health-conscious passersby to weigh themselves.
A taxi picks us up from the Happy Camel Café and ventures into the daunting road system of Ulan Bator. Or, at least, I imagine it would be daunting, but I decide that sleeping through it might save me the stress of trying to brake on behalf of our driver.
I wake up as our driver swiftly turns off the road and down a steep dirt track, where he pulls up next to a river, strips to his underwear, and goes for a dip! Thom and I satisfy ourselves with a paddle before we get back on the road.
We had hoped for a peaceful stay in the Mongolian outback, away from all the city and tourists, but were slightly suspect as to what to expect, given that our hosts were communicating with our tour company via SMS! I know this is the 21st century and all, but I wasn’t aware that Mongolian nomads had been subjected to mobile culture.
Our hopes were further dashed by our scenic tour of the park. Big signs proclaimed different pieces of land as belonging to various tour companies, and rows upon rows of gers were penned in by picket fences – not quite what we had in mind. Worse still were the scary-looking wooden houses in garish colours that lined the road. So when we pulled up to a collection of three small gers surrounded by little more than grass and cows, with no big signs or brightly coloured buildings in sight, we were pleasantly surprised.
We were introduced briefly to the family (spanning three generations), who were, at the time, banging nails into a wooden shed, and we were then shown to our ger. The grins we had been wearing since our arrival broadened as we ducked through the doorway. The place was perfect. We had our own little ger: a bed each, a table and stalls, a dresser, and even a sink, all hidden away inside the little felt hut with Tardis-like properties. It was just what we wanted and just what we needed.
Sleeping was in the forefront of both our minds, but we decided we should venture outside to gain some sense of achievement for the day. The park was a mix of rolling green hills and bold rock stacks that stretched up high above the cows, yaks, goats, and horses that populated the land below. We set our sights on a nearby rock mound and were granted a commanding view of the surrounding area. Having fulfilled our adventure quota for the day, we went back to camp and collapsed on our beds. I was completely zoned out when the mother of the family woke us up by coming through the front door with our dinner.
I think I was feeling a bit homesick because, despite our amazing location, I wasn’t in a happy state of mind. Having been awoken from my nap, I was struggling to get back to sleep again when the mum came back again, this time carrying only a flashlight (it was dark by this point). After having blinded me, she pointed at the blanket I had helped myself to and said something with a hint of shock. "Great," I thought, "I’m having a bad day, and now I’ve pissed off our host." Moments later, however, she returned with a big quilt for me. Evidently, she was just concerned that I was underprepared compared to Thom, who had thought to bring a sleeping bag.
I was woken up again later, only this time by Mother Nature–-a big storm had erupted. Excellent! I was tucked up under my new big quilt in a ger hut in Outer Mongolia, and now thunder and lightning had joined the party and were giving the place real atmosphere! Things were looking up.