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Red Ink Run: land of the lumpy green sheet

First get a bed sheet; green if you have it but don’t worry if you don’t. Now get ten to twelve shoes of various sizes and arrange them randomly on the floor. Shake out the bed sheet and let it fall, resting over the shoes. Kneel down and lower your head as close to the floor as possible, looking out over the lumpy bedsheet. See that? Welcome to Mongolia.

Marty and I had booked a one night tour of Gorkhi-Terelj national park the day before, then promptly went out that night. Something about having finally shaken off the grim reserve of China made restraint next to impossible. So, it was through the filter of squinting eyes and a hangover that I watched two Germans with bulging backpacks descend the stairs, load them into the boot nearly filling it up. “Shotgun!” one of them said.

Ulaanbaatar is the smallest capital of any country I’ve ever visited. Standing in the busiest street of the CBD you can see the naked hillsides nearby through gaps between the low-rises.

The centre is laidback and cosmopolitan but here, bouncing through its outskirts, stuffed in the car with Marty’s elbow displacing my liver, the dwellings began to look impermanent.  The further out we travelled the more frequently gers appeared. A ger for those who don’t know is like a yurt — think the big top, only with a wooden frame, scaled down to house a single family and you’ll be close.

Ulaanbaatar was founded as a mobile Buddhist monastery in 1639 before its location became fixed over a hundred years later in 1778. It’s no wonder then that most of the city looks like it can literally head for the hills at a moment’s notice.

Sebastian and Helge, or “The Germans” turned out to be great fun, though they didn’t make things easy for themselves. They had arrived that morning on the train from Irkutsk and had told us they travelled from Moscow to Irkutsk (a journey of some four days) with only a bowl of noodles and a loaf of bread. “It was a like a prison” said the toothy Sebastian as part of an extended commentary about their travels so far. “All we had was the boiling water from the samovar for 4 days. I’m so dehydrated man.” I could hear the sticky smacking of his mouth as he spoke. He was a scout leader but prepared he was not.

Eventually civilization relented and another hour later we came to a stop at the crest of a hill. Getting out and looking around invoked a feeling of tremendous expanse, like when you see a night sky full of stars. It was one of those moments where, just for a fraction of a second, your identity retreats and it’s impossible to differentiate between yourself and everything else. For that moment you are, by definition, universal.

Speaking to Gaats, Marty’s Mongolian mate, the night before, we’d been told about the proper etiquette with which to conduct ourselves when interacting with the family who we were to be staying with. “There is the head of the family. You give him a cigarette like this,” he flipped open the lid and drew out a single cigarette.

“The wife might like some chocolates, the children too, and the husband would like a horse or a wrestling magazine.”

“A horse magazine?”

“Yes, a horse magazine.”

Further to this Sebastian had told us it was bad luck to touch the door frame and bad manners to walk inside with your shoes on. Combined, these two last things made getting inside this ger a hopping affair. Inside was cosy, the wooden frame vividly decorated with intricate geometric patterns. Beds were arranged along the walls and in the centre sat an iron stove, its pipe extending up through a small hole in the roof. Throughout the night, inside was very warm even without the stove on. A ger has since featured in this author’s retirement plan, perhaps up a tree and near the beach somewhere on the south-east coast of Australia.

“Lunch at 2. Horseriding at 5″ we had been told by someone in our host family before we had been left alone. It was 12. Clearly they prescribed to the non-intrusionist method of hosting. There was a steep hill just behind our dwelling and it had to be climbed. We schlepped up it through the ash grey skeleton of pines. The air was sweet and clean, and I occasionally got whiffs of spearmint and pine. Once at the top, looking back down the incline I saw the terrain of the lumpy green sheet. Concavities on the hillsides were textured by leafless trees. It was rugged, beautiful and seemed infinite.

Back at the bottom a child came and gave us all a plate of rice, pickled carrots and meat. We ate it and it was good. Almost immediately after everyone finished we all fell asleep. When we awoke it was time to go horseriding. Sebastian had said he was afraid of going horse riding. His sister’s friend had been thrown off a horse and broken her shoulder. I didn’t understand how trauma could be felt from an incident so far removed. We made our way down the hill, to the base of a valley where there was a corral where four almost comically diminutive horses were tethered, being saddled by a Mongolian boy from our host family.

He gestured for me to get on and I did. So did the Germans. When Marty got on I half expected to hear a crack followed by desperate whinny as something broke. Marty swivelled around to look at me then suddenly, his horse began bucking. Marty fell off its back but was still clinging to its flank. The three other horses pricked up their ears and their eyes flashed wild looks. Marty’s horse began to spin, throwing him to the ground and galloping off away from the corral.

“No bag, no bag,” the boy yelled

Perhaps a loose strap from the backpack had struck the horse’s rump like a whip. Sebastian had a bag on too which he tried to take off but then his horse bolted. Another boy, about five years-old, had managed to get Marty’s horse and calm all of ours. Not a good start.

It’s generally known that the Mongolians have a pretty good reputation regarding horsemanship. It is said that the archers in Ghengis Khan’s army would be able to synchronize when they fired their arrows to the instant when all four hoofs of the horse were in the air. Our Mongolian tour guide who was just behind would occasionally gallop off past us to one of his friends sitting or playing in the distance out the front of their ger, the horse kicking up a cloud of dust through which we would slowly plod a few moments later.

When he turned his horse around it would be as on a pinhead always in total control. For us four it felt more like a ride on rails — despite pulling the reigns either this way or that, the horses unwaveringly maintained their course. But it was the scenery that made up for that. The embrace of the valley was littered with shrubs, bleached cattle bones and rocks from which shadows began to lengthen in the setting sun. A dog that looked more like a wolf had decided to accompany us, trotting along in front, he would now and then break off from the group to shadow a marmot, catching one once and shaking it wildly. That made it feel more legitimate. But best of all were when the horses decided to line up; we were, for that moment, less City Slickers and more like the Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Australian/German guy (roles were not specifically assigned).

Gaats had told us that there would most likely be a vodka ceremony and that this ceremony would involve putting a few drops in a glass then throwing it over your shoulder as an offering. Then a glass should be offered to the host, then his wife then us. Back at the ger, we had tried this but the host had said “Only for big families” then left. The vodka ceremony ended up with just us four, sitting on a log outside drinking Chinngas Gold vodka with Minute Maid orange juice, watching the waking stars form a hemisphere overhead, and listening, through the gathering murk, to the gallop of wild horses as they worked the lumpy green sheet.

K Johnson will be blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run. Photographs by Marty Cullity, minus the first one.

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