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Mongolia: Following the Milky Way

Why do you need to be passionate about milk when traveling in Mongolia?

May 17, 2003

Why do you need to be passionate about milk when traveling in Mongolia?

Together with a few million other would-be passengers — or so it seems — we plough our way into the station and board the train to Ulaanbaatar.

A broad-beamed Mongolian lady vacuums the corridor of our wagon and stokes a samovar with kindling.

We pull out of Beijing’s hot and humid dust, past the Great Wall, past hazy rice fields, occasional trees, nondescript brick buildings, a few dreary towns.

A cheerful chorus of Mongolian girls are singing in the adjoining compartment: “Goriashi uzom nancy, goriashi uzom nancy.” Over and over.

The train stops at Erlian. Mongolian passengers pile up cases of beer bought at the station's duty-free shop. Wagons are separated.

Much banging and honking, cranes overhead, dusty piles of railroad wheels, broken windows. The cars are hoisted and Russian-gauge undercarriages inserted.

Arrogant immigration officers open roof traps and stoop under wagons, waving torches. They bark, “You sit down,” at sleepy passengers. As the train finally pulls out, fast-paced military music oozes out of the deserted pitch-dark station.

Once again the train stops, in the middle of nowhere — the border, and everything begins all over again.

This time, it is Mongolian controllers who are opening traps and barking orders — including checking for people who might be hanging under the train. You can hear piped Russian dancing music of the 1960s. John le Carré would feel quite at home.

North of the Gobi desert, the weather becomes crisp and sunny.

The train threads its way up Altiplano-like pastures dotted with horses, sheep and the occasional dumpling-shaped yourte (ger in Mongolian).

A burly man — an “Honored Culture Worker," according to his calling card — and his daughter, Soggi, our interpreter, pick us up at the station in Ulaanbaatar.

The city shows traces of Imperial Russian charm. Ponies are ridden among battered red and white trolley buses.

Families are strolling with their kids to a rock concert in Dietsky Park. Stalin destroyed most monasteries, but some were restored.

The ugly coal-fueled power station and city heating plant next door are undoubtedly the most important buildings — winters here are fierce.

Mormon missionaries invaded Ulaanbaatar. Their hard-sell techniques include promises of tickets to the United States, every young Mongolian’s dream.

As we bounce around in a Nissan Patrol, a kind of motorized cinder block, Soggi clutches a bulky Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary. ölchir means: “not afraid of the cold”. Morirchoch? “To boast about one’s horsemanship”.

Once in a while Soggi asks questions about life in the United States: “Are you acquainted with some Hollywood celebrities?”

Disappointed by our answer, she follows with: “Do you have hydroelectric power stations in the United States?”

After a few hours’ drive through endless pastures, the jeep stops by a heap of stones adorned by blue silk banners. It is a rudimentary stupa — a small temple-like edifice representing Buddha's mind.

We walk around three times clockwise and think of wishes. We drive on, hitting the ceiling at every pothole, stopping dead for horses, sheep, goats, yaks and occasional camels. Fat hawks are sitting by the roadside.

Outside Ulaanbaatar, the diet consists of salted milk tea, rancid mare’s milk passed from hand to hand, oily rice pudding, cheeses ranging from bone-hard and pungent to soft and tasteless — and small lumps of mutton fat attached to thin eyebrows of meat. What looks like an omelet is finely carved yak butter.

We turn off the paved road and, after a few hours on a rutted track, this too ends. We navigate across pastures and we are lost.

Two sun-tanned Mongolians ride by on a motorcycle. Vastly amused, they point forward.

We drive on, are lost once more. Again the motorcycle pulls up. This time the riders try to conceal their merriment. The third time around we all laugh our heads off.

Eventually, the jeep gets stuck. A huge double rainbow is shining. More modern methods having failed, we are pulled out by a pair of yaks. Wishing us a safe journey, the herdsmen sprinkle milk on our tires.

Invited to enter a ger, we sit in our appointed places. The elder hands me a snuff bottle, while his wife churns milk in a large sheep-skin container. She goes out every couple of hours to milk mares.

As in most places, women work very hard. Color photographs of prize-winning horses line the mirror.

We drink rancid milk. Then, a tin pan is passed around for all to fish out pieces of half-boiled mutton offal with their fingers.

Eventually, we reach Mongolia’s former capital, Karakorum, in driving rain and high winds. At a monastery, monks read aloud, endlessly repeating the many names of God.

We move on to a dreary provincial town. I ask Soggi what young people do after work. “They drink milk.” I think she is pulling my leg.

The stadium fills up for the annual Naadam festival. Asian faces, Western, Russian faces. Men wearing jacket and tie, others silver-buttoned embroidered coats and colorful silk belts, some clutching cell phones.

A lady ladles out the ever-present rancid milk from a large china jar for all to share.

Five hundred children aged eight to fourteen are racing ponies. Honking jeeps and motorcycles herd them off 20 miles away from the stadium. A flag is raised and back they race to town.

Driving along, we root for number 486, a little girl in yellow. The ponies flow torrent-like, around a herd of yaks, who — thanks to their wool — look like “heavenly lampshades with tassels”.

Some of the young riders trickle into our traditional dwelling place, the ger, shy and curious. They stand or sit in descending sizes, some solemn, some giggling.

Each takes a candy out of a saucer, when a 2-year-old — wearing a bright yellow “Washington D.C.” T-shirt — appears at the door.

She grasps the situation in a flash, makes a beeline for the candy, and waddles out again, looking extremely satisfied.

We ride back to the capital, listening to Mongolian songs. The driver stops by a roadside ger, asks for milk and hands a lady a blue plastic container.

We hear squishing sounds as she milks her mares. A couple of foals are looking on attentively. Soggi explains: “The driver’s children are expecting milk.”