Perils of Polly: Land of horses and Genghis Kahn

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Polly and her sister sit in front of the main ger of her hosts, along with their horseman, driver, and translator. The ger, a large, circular tent, includes a solar panel, wind generator and satellite dish.

Mongolia: Land of horses and Genghis Khan. Sandwiched between Russia and Asia, it was part of the Soviet bloc and retained a lot of that architecture, or lack of it, but definitely has an Asian flavor in the area of sanitation--or lack of it--and food. Yet it's known for one the mightiest conquerors in all of history.

Mongolia was my personal destination. After spending six hours in the train at the border with the restrooms locked, we chugged, relieved in more ways than one, into a strange land. All pieces of property in cities and villages had tall, solid fences around them. Once out of the villages, fences did not exist as it is the land of nomads.

We showered off the five days of train dirt in a hostel in Ulan Bator and reawakened both our leg muscles by walking everywhere and our survival instincts by dodging traffic at crosswalks. Welcome to Asia. Cars seemed oblivious to any kind of traffic signals, regarding them as suggestions rather than rules. It took a lot of personal aggression to cross a street, even at a crosswalk.

Then we began our journey. First we had to drive seven hours across the country, sometimes on pavement, sometimes on whatever dirt route across the steppe the driver wanted to take, to the old Chinggis Khaan capital of Karakorum. We were with Steppe Riders, and the owner's wife, Baynah, was driving. A fairly decent translator kept us halfway informed. He said we would camp for the night, and we pulled off the road near a river and set up our tent, visited only by a herd of sheep and goats, and a barking dog. Baynah took us to visit the neighboring ger--round tents nomads live in and move about seven times a year--and the owner gave us some mare's milk to drink. Kind of tart--didn't like it too much.

The dog was our alarm clock, faithfully keeping guard at about 20 feet, while barking--at us. After a visit to the old capital, we were handed off to the three young people who were to be in charge of us for the next five days--Khishigee, the horseman, Chuduruu, the driver of the "little yellow car," and Baigalmaa, our female translator who was very fun, but knew very little English. It also began five days of "going with the flow," as we never knew anything about what we were doing or where we were going.

After a couple of hours driving, we went to a house where we were motioned to enter and sit down. We think the house belonged to a relative of Khishigee. Anyway, he started hauling equipment out of the house, piling it next to the yellow Hyundi Accent: two tents, five sleeping bags, a propane tank, cookstove, 5-gallon water container, several bags of groceries, horse tack, a large number of water bottles, blankets, mattress pads (that didn't work), all added to our backpacks, and their three backpacks. The car looked full already, and I looked at Sue and at the rest of the gear sitting on the dirt. "No way," I said. "There's no way they can get all that, plus us, in that tiny car."

I was wrong. We three women were piled in the back seat on top of blankets and pads, and Khishigee sat in the front bucket seat with the cookstove, propane tank, and water container. I took the water container from him and put it on my own lap, which made him grateful. Two hours of crazy driving on dirt roads later, we pulled up to a ger, complete with satellite dish, wind generator, and solar panel surrounded by lots goats, sheep, yaks, and horses. This was truly the real thing. We were in authentic Mongolia.

The father and mother, with 11-year-old son, and 5-year-old and 15-year-old daughters, were awkwardly polite as we sat in the sweltering ger, sharing a drink of milk tea. Then our afternoon snack was yogurt, which they flavored with a spoonful of sugar. So far, so good. They handed 'round a giant bowl of what looked like granola. Of course they gave it to me first. No one offered to tell us what it was, so I grabbed a handful and threw it in my mouth. Sue threw some in her yogurt. That broke the ice. They began laughing hysterically. Finally Baigalmaa, also laughing, told us we should eat only one at a time. That became immediately painfully apparent as I discovered I had popped a handful of rocks in my mouth. Not really. They were yak curds with the consistency of rocks. It took about 10 minutes for them to dissolve in my mouth as I politely wallowed them around. I don't think Sue ever ate one.

Soon everyone seemed to be getting ready to go to the river--about a quarter mile away--so I put on my swimsuit and water shoes and joined them in a fun, refreshing, although rather brown river, which was the family's--and the many herds'--only water supply. It hit me that I had been drinking that water in the form of tea, although probably (hopefully) boiled. I was counting on my iron stomach.

After a dinner of mutton and vegetables, we joined the family in what seemed to be a yak cart parade. I watched, somewhat horrified, as the father put a choke hold on a yak, picked up a stick from the ground, and rammed it into the yak's nose. He threaded a rag through the nose to soak up the blood, hitched him to a cart, tied him between two other yaks, and voila! A trained yak. As the Mongolian dusk dissipated the heat of the day, we hopped on the carts and ambled down to the river where, in the dark, we dismantled a log corral, stacked up the logs on the carts, and hauled them back to the ger. Sue and I were thrilled. This really was authentic Mongolia.

Soon the family headed toward their tiny black and white TV to watch World Cup Soccer, the boys headed toward their tent, and Baigalmaa and my sister and I headed toward the kitchen ger, where the father had attached a light bulb to a battery. Finally the issue of where to relieve ourselves had to be answered. We tried to communicate that to our "interpreter." She shrugged and said, "You find secret place."

I looked around. The steppe was flat, bright with moon and starlight. I laughed in semi-disbelief. "There is no secret place!" She laughed and shrugged. I hid behind a couple of goats. Yes, this is authentic Mongolia. I settled happily onto my mattress of yak-wool blankets.

Watch the Clarion Recreation page for the next installment of Polly's adventure.

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