The next day, we had quite a long drive to a small town called Mandelgov, where we were to meet the English couple. On the way there we stopped for a spot of welding, as Baggi felt the van needed some TLC. This seemed like quite a normal occurrence. It’s great how these vans can just be fixed like that. Despite the welding stop, we arrived at Mandelgov quite early, so we all split up to do some separate exploring. I decided to visit the small museum. It took me a while to work out how to get in, and I spent a while skulking in the courtyard outside, before I eventually realised that I hadn’t pushed the door hard enough! I must have looked quite strange. I was the only visitor and was shown round by a lovely young man called Batkhuu, who spoke a small amount of English. The museum had a little of everything – some stone age spearheads, bronze age bits and pieces, a few dinosaur bones, meteorites, miniature replicas of present and past day gers, examples of bridlery for horses, camels, goats and sheep (and castration tools – that was an interesting mime!), cooking equipment, photos of past politicians, old army uniforms, traditional games and musical instruments, photos of revered Mongolian singers… it was brilliant. I love higgledy piggledy small town museums. There are a few games played with knuckle bones (usually from sheep). Batkhuu showed me a game where the bones are put on a stand a few feet away, you have a small wooden launch pad that looks a bit like a ruler with a raised edge on one side and a small wedge, and you have to flick the wedge off the wooden launch to try to hit the bones. I wasn’t very good at it!
We then reconvened at the van and met our new companions, Sally and Jeff, for lunch. Jeff’s name is actually Adam, but he lost his name in a bet when he was 14, and now most people know him as Jeff! They have been away from home for over 2 years and are a little younger than us. They spent a few months volunteering in Nepal and then travelled for while, before settling in South Korea for a year to teach English. Now they are wending their way back home to England. We had a lovely travelling group and all got on really well, which was fortunate as we spent a lot of time in each other’s company!
The scenery started to change as we got further into the Gobi. The land was arid and rocky, with little vegetation other than scrubby tufts of grass and no trees at all. As our van bumped its way along the dusty tracks, we were chased by cheerful little balls of scurrying tumbleweed. I have never seen tumbleweed before, it was really fun to watch and seemed very much like a herd of little animals with their own capricious personalities. We found ourselves imagining what it would be like to keep one as a pet.
That night we were to stay in the Tsagaan Suvraga region and before finding our ger, we visited the White Stupa. A sand storm kicked up on our way there and Baggi had to drive very slowly as the visibility was so poor. We arrived at a sandy cliff and looked out over the desert; we could see dunes in the distance. The wind was really strong and was whipping sand into our eyes, and we had to bend low to walk along the ridge. The views were pretty stunning, but difficult to enjoy fully in the weather! We climbed down into a small gully where it was more sheltered, and you could see tiny shells packed in layers amongst the sediment that made up the walls. This used to be a sea once, brimming with life, and now it is deserted (in both senses!). I never fail to be astounded by these examples of geology in action! It feels like such a privilege to be part of something so vast, something so ancient. It’s a bit like you stop feeling like an individual and start to feel like part of the earth.
We stayed that night with another family that kept camels. They were very friendly, and on our arrival we were invited in for warm camel milk tea and hard camel yoghurt biscuits. These are made by boiling yoghurt and then leaving it in the sun to dry out. The camel milk was lovely, and the biscuits were good too – they tasted a bit like feta – but they were so hard I thought I was going to break my teeth eating them! Tea in Mongolia is a bit of a different concept to tea in the UK. It mainly consists of milk – this could be camel, yak, goat or mare’s milk – diluted with a little water and boiled with herbs. It is sometimes heavily salted, sometimes not at all, so we found the flavour varied greatly. Some teas were lovely and comforting; some (usually the salty ones) were pretty foul.
We returned to visit the family for dinner and shared some vodka with them. They made some dumplings, which were a bit like what we had come to know in Russia as pelmeni. They sat on the floor and rolled out the pastry into small rounds before filling them with minced meat and pinching them into little parcels and boiling them. They were very tasty. The man was really funny and had a cheeky sort of personality and quite few teeth missing. I played a few tunes on my flute, including the Lancashire regimental march (as a Lanacashire lass should), and then passed it round and the man and his wife had a go. Baggi also gave it a try and managed to get a few notes. We also discovered Baggi has a lovely tenor voice, and he sang a few songs.
The stars in the desert at night are quite extraordinary. I have never seen so many stars; the milky way arcs across the sky in a truly milky fashion. When the surrounding land is so flat, the sky is like a big dome. Imagine standing underneath a giant colander – it is dark underneath, but on all sides little pricks of light are coming through! Perhaps there is a market for colanders with holes in that match the patterns of the constellations…