Standing on a hilltop in the middle of rural Mongolia, which is basically everywhere outside of Ulaan Baatar, I was looking at a big sign with the text 'Tsagaan Nuur' in individual letters spelled out on top of the monument, in Cyrillic of course. To the right, Bakir, our driver, was calling one of his girlfriends, Hulan was in the car just receiving a call and the geeks were strolling close to the car, taking in the magnificent view and enjoying the hot sun and the blue sky from horizon to horizon. For miles around, the only sign of life were the miles long electricity cables running off to Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake) in the distance.
After our trip to Tsagaan Nuur had been postponed from our first weekend to the second, it almost was canceled again, after Hulan wasn't able to get in touch with Bakir. However, Thursday evening, Hulan gave us a call that in fact we were still going, but a day later as planned.
Tsagaan Nuur, a small village some 25km from the Russian border mostly inhabited by Kazakhs, is typical for many of the larger(!) settlements in Mongolia. Most households send out their children early in the morning to collect water from the well in the middle of the town, but we stayed at one of the richer families, meaning that although we had a water pipe coming in, there still was no shower and the toilet was a shack in the garden over a big hole that, in the spring's sun, was already starting to reek unpleasantly. Bakir's parents own a very large, at least to European standards, plot of land where several herders farm their animals and they themselves grow wheat. Additionally, the own a farm and are planning on making cheese in the near future.
I asked Bakir, Muslim, how he could pay his respects at an ovoo (a shamanistic offering location) like regular Mongolians. His reply was a nice variation of 'When in Rome…': 'I drank the country's water, I should follow it's customs'.
On the second day of our visit, after starting the day by emptying two bottles of arkhi (vodka), we visited some herders, rode a horse, had lunch prepared on the banks of the Selenge river and tried our hands at shooting empty bottles of vodka.
The visit to one of the richer herding families in the area was very interesting. Rich, here, is related to the number of animals a family owns. We were welcomed into a small ger where the men had to sit on the right and the women on the left, the entrance of the ger facing south. After the host offered us his snuffbox for some tobacco, we were giving milky tea made from blocks of ice, heating in the ger's central stove, together with small hardened blocks of curd. The couple's most important possessions were located on a small alter, in the back of the ger: two frames with pictures, an old Russian radio, the snuffbox and some small paraphernalia. The old man, after lighting a cigarette, told about his livestock, his pasture grounds and his family, flicking the ashes from his cigarette with his fingers. The biggest, and only, sign of any modern advantages being used by the couple, were the solar panels delivering electricity for the radio and the one light bulb, allowing for more productive and longer days.
In the evening, the 'boys' (that is, the geeks) went together with the 'men' (three locals, including Bakir) to hunt for deer. All in the comfort of a car, using a flashlight and shooting from one of the windows. The -20C outside temperature still required four layers, gloves and a good hat to brave the cold. The women were not allowed to join and Claudia, together with Hulan and Bakir's mum went crazy at home, downing several bottles of arkhi, smoking heavily and teaching each other Dutch, Kazakh and Mongolian songs.
We were successful in shooting deer. A fairly young and pregnant deer was first crippled and fatally wounded on a second shot. Custom demanded that we had to drink the deer's blood, mixed with Arkhi and even Ryan, a vegetarian, joined in the feast. Not that it was a very welcoming drink; the thick chunks of blood, mixed with the 40% alcohol made for a, well, interesting combination.
The nights were spent on the floor in communal bedrooms. One for the women, one for the men. I had the honor of using what seemed to be the only bed in the house but happily traded a spot on the floor with Henry for our second night. Not that it was all that bad since the continuous refilling of our shot glasses made us sleep as fast as possible, only being awakened by Bakir's mum singing in the morning.