A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Mongolian Cuisine

A journey to the best (and worst) of the Mongolian kitchen. Including a video of me eating a sheep's eye...

sunny -5 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Food. It’s the easiest way for a traveller to get close to another culture. National dishes, eating habits and specific ingredients do not only reveal local customs and traditions – it often opens up a countries history to an otherwise ignorant traveller.
Take Mongolia as an example. This is a country of herders and nomads living of rough steppes, which really can’t be used for farming. Summer cuisines includes a lot of dairy products because that’s when the animals produces a lot of milk, winter – when the old and weak animals die – is meat season.
So I, together with and Australian named Simon and an American named Lia, hired a translator for a day and went to the marked to pick up the best (and worst) from the Mongolian kitchen.
We went for the very traditional dish called makh, which basically translates to “meat”. And nomads don’t waste or throw away anything, which means that anything is eatable – the pictures and video below gives a little peak into an adventures afternoon:
Getting ingredients at the meat marked

Getting ingredients at the meat marked

Horse stomach, filled with intestines

Horse stomach, filled with intestines


Sheep's head are an important part of Makh

Sheep's head are an important part of Makh


Love!

Love!


Just let it boil for two hours

Just let it boil for two hours


Heart, intestines and stomach

Heart, intestines and stomach


Cooked and ready to be eaten

Cooked and ready to be eaten


We named it Shaun the Sheep

We named it Shaun the Sheep


After dinner shot - still plenty of food left

After dinner shot - still plenty of food left

And here for the nasty bite:

Most of the stuff (especially the sheep's heart) was actually quite tasty! Horse stomach, the eye and the sheep head's skin wasn't... In general everything was just very chewy...

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:03 Archived in Mongolia Tagged food sheep makh sheep_eye Comments (2)

Birthplace of Genghis Khan

Where horse-rides; hospitality; vodka; and bus break-downs are found in abundance.

sunny 5 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

I’ve never been on a horse before. Actually, that’s not true, but I don’t really count the pony rides on Danish funfairs fifteen years ago as horse riding. The fact that a Dutch guy I arrived in Ulaanbaatar with had spent a week in hospital after falling from a horse should be warning enough. But neither sound reason nor functional brain activity has prevented me from insane ventures on my past travels, so why should it now? After all, I am in Mongolia, the land of great horse-riding empires such as the Huns and Genghis Khan’s Mongols.
So I teamed up with a former Australian journalist, Simon (24), and a Swiss herder, Joe (21), and headed for Dadal, the legendary birth place if Genghis himself.

Russian minibus

Russian minibus

First phase of stepping in the footsteps of the Great Khan was to actually get to Dadal 525 km northeast of UB. It’s nothing more than a village, so no regular buses drives there, instead we had to go to UB’s main market from were a private jeep or minibus would leave whenever the driver thinks he has enough passengers or goods. It’s a rather simple waiting game, and there’s no way to speed it up, but surprisingly did we leave an hour passed noon, after only a few hours of waiting.

Simon and me in the bus

Simon and me in the bus

The drive justifies the proverb “It’s not about the destination, it is about the journey” to its fullest. First of all we are driving in an old Soviet minibus, like none you’ve ever seen. It normally seats six passengers in two rows of three facing each other. Given that this would be way too comfy and give the diver a lower income we were seated five on each row. Second, as soon as we’re out of the market’s parking lot does one of the local blokes – a long haired, fifty year old ex-hippy pass beer around to everybody in the bus. Promising start!
Soon after is the first of an uncountable number of pit stops, in where we stash up on beers for the ride. Simon gets a bottle of vodka as well, Joe gets two. Maniacs. Back on the bus, both are beaten in the honourable sport of ‘getting most drunk on the bus, shortest after we’d begun driving’ by the ex-hippy named Gantumur. Magically from his inner pocket appears a bottle of Genghis vodka. A cup is crafted from the bottom of a plastic bottle and the vodka is gone in no less than six – I repeat SIX (!!!) – shots. Big cups make for big shots and all the six of us participating just manage to get one before the bottle was all but empty.

Dadal's main street

Dadal's main street

The drinking continues, but with me – as the only one realising that we’d arrive in a village in the middle of the night without a place to sleep – secretly taking a voluntary sober-ish duty for the rest of the night. That said driving though the endless steppes of Mongolia in an old Soviet piece of scrap minibus turned into a party-bus was no short of legendary.
We just manage to get there all of us – Simon being so drunk and annoying that treats to leave him in the middle of nowhere was made in all seriousness – 3.30 in the morning. Luckily we got dropped in front of a guesthouse and I manage to make sure the prize is fair before we crash into our beds, some more literally than others.

Birthplace of Genghis

Birthplace of Genghis

Next day is spent by enjoying the village’s country side, and we don’t really do much. With the exception of visiting a Genghis Khan monument marking his birth place and changing lodgings to a home stay with a retired math teacher I was tipped about. It is basically a bed and breakfast, but through in tea, conversations, a local source of knowledge and dinner – all for 8 dollars. It was tricky to find, if it hadn’t been for the handful of locals who basically followed us to the door and kept ringing up the owner when we arrived because he wasn’t there.
Oh, and Simon spent a considerable amount of time feeling bad about his behaviour on the bus, which the entire village knew about long before he got out of bed that morning.

I'm on a horse!

I'm on a horse!

Second day was spent playing pool against a couple of locals, who soon arranged some horse-riding for us. Amazingly I manage to stay on the horse, which are half-wild here in Mongolia, even though I only had a couple of minutes training.

Joe not enjoyng Nermel

Joe not enjoyng Nermel

Afterwards we were treated to both vodka and a homebrew called Nermel, the latter taste of watered down petrol, but the locals love it, so we pretty much had to endure it. Calling it a night pretty early to go back to our homestay to nap it, we headed back to the pub around 8 pm. Only to find it closed, with the local police telling us to go back, if we didn’t wanted to get beaten up by drunk locals – it has apparently happened before. The village had no street light whatsoever and I’d doubt drunken locals would be able to find us. Personally I was a lot more nervous about gangs of wild dogs on the loose barking and snaring loudly at us from the dark just a few meters away.

Drinking pit stop

Drinking pit stop

The 21-hour bus drive was almost more epic that the first. Twice are the bus stopped because locals spotted foreigners on the bus (that would be Joe, Simon and me), and wanted to share Nermel and beer with us. One of the guys even started pissing off the bus driver because he wouldn’t leave the bus. We got bogged once, had trouble crossing a frozen river and got lost in the dark at least twice. All before we arrive to the traffic chaos of UB’s rush hour.

Bus break-down

Bus break-down

But no rest for the wicked, I’m off again, heading for Khovd in the west. A 48-hour bus-drive away… What are you doing for the next two days?

Posted by askgudmundsen 22:40 Archived in Mongolia Tagged bus vodka genghis horse_riding break_down nermel dadal Comments (0)

24 Hours as a Kazakh Eagle Hunter

The blog is back after a week travelling outside the reach of internet

sunny 14 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

What do you do once you’ve reached the most western province of Mongolia? I’ve known the answer to that question since I first stepped on Mongolian soil: You track down an eagle hunter, stay with him and his family for as long as possible and go hunting.

Eagle

Eagle

Eagle hunting is a primarily Kazakh tradition. Interestingly are there by now more hunters among the Kazakh minority in Western Mongolia than in Kazakhstan itself. The hunters to not hunt eagles, they hunt with eagles – which makes them indescribable cool. Riding around on a semi-wild horse with a trained eagle on your arm looking for pray is about as badass a job you can get.

Riding to the hunters

Riding to the hunters

The tradition dates back centuries. Even Marco Polo mentions the hunters in his Travel’s, and he passed by around 750 years ago.
Unfortunately for me, as long as possible was confined to a mere 24 hours as the bus between Mongolia and Kazakhstan only leaves every 10th day and I’d overstay my visa if I waited for the next. My short stay and the fact that most snow had melted (hunters usually only hunt in winters as the snow makes it possible to track pray), meant that I couldn’t actually go on a real hunt. Not that I’d let that put me off!
British Sofia (whom I’ve met on the bus ride from UB) and I made an early start of the day. As early as you can in Mongolia, that is, where transportation tend to leave in the afternoon. Instead of waiting we hopped on two motorbike taxies and headed out of the regional capital Ölgii towards the village of Sagsai 30 km to the east.

Kazakh tea table

Kazakh tea table

Sagsai consists of about a hundred mud brick houses and we knew there would be a former eagle champion (there’s plenty of eagle hunting tournaments in Mongolia) somewhere in the neighbourhood. Amazingly we’d only been in town for a couple of minutes before an old man greets us with a happy and loud “HALLO!” from the back of his son’s motorbike. He’s the hunter we’re looking for and we quickly get arranged a home stay and some cool eagle stuff with him.
For better or worse he lives 10 km further out from the village. While we wait – a wait taking most of the day – for his sons to pick us up are we places at one of his daughters, where we are treated with plenty of tea, the family photo-album and a meal before we have some time to take a walk around town. Payment would be insulting; instead we bring them plenty of biscuits. Guest usually brings something to snack in Mongolian and Kazakh tradition.

The Champions

The Champions

Late afternoon are we picked up, and we get to meet the three eagles. They all had badass names – obviously – by the only name that stuck were that of Mana – our 63 year old host. And what a host he is!

Riding

Riding

Whenever we talked about eagles and that kinda came up a few times, would he point to himself, laugh and almost yell “Champion!” He did the same thing when we looked impressed about the fact that he had nine kids. “Eagles. Champion! Children. Champion!”
Whether we went through his impressive photo collection, he played the dombra, sang or swopped hats he’d always make sure we had fun and felt welcome.

Eagle hunting

Eagle hunting

Next morning started with plenty of tea before Sofia and I hid the saddles. These horses however weren’t the semi-wild types I’d been on in Dadal. They seemed use to strangers and were difficult – to say the least – to move faster than a crawling baby. No matter – the hunter’s house is set in a valley full of herder’s animals, surrounded by mountains and with a river running through it. So there was plenty to admire!
It was fun, even though we weren’t allowed to take the eagles with us. The riding around with them had to wait till we got back to the house, where the pros could supervise us properly.

Playing with the kids

Playing with the kids

All in all a great Mongolian/Kazakh experience, that only became greater by the fact that we spend the last bit of the day, before jumping back on the motorbikes heading for civilization, playing volleyball, jumping skip rope and playing with some of all the kids that somehow was handing around out in the middle of nowhere…

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:50 Archived in Mongolia Tagged eagles eagle_hunter ölgii sagsai kazakh Comments (0)

Always choose local transport!

The pros of travelling with slow, uncomfortable and local transportation


View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

”Assalamu alaykum” the Kazakh jeep driver who is taking me and a jeep full of people from Khovd to Ölgii in Western Mongolia is teaching me and a British girl some basic Kazakh phrases. Something that will come in handy once I get to Kazakhstan. Some of it resembles Arabic that I know, because of the light Islamic influences Kazakhs are under. And the respectful greeting peace be upon you is the same from Casablanca to Kazakhstan.

Our Kazakh driver

Our Kazakh driver

The languish-sessions are something I’m usually able to benefit from driving around on local transportation. On this particular trip we even got a load of traditional Kazakh music in exchange for some of our new-ish English.
And the benefits are almost endless – did I mention it’s cheaper? But before we get to them, let’s look at why people don’t want to spend hours (or days) on a bus going through a desert on a dirt track or likewise slow local transportation. The usual complaint is that it’s uncomfortable.

Breakdowns = experiences

Breakdowns = experiences

Comfort is a big thing. We’ve been spoon-fed the importance of comfort from back home in the “civilised” West. Back there everything is about comfort, whether it’s our new couch, the way to sit on the office’s chair or the brightness of the reading light above our beds. Comfort has gone beyond luxury and is just expected as a natural part of living as most commodities are focused on at least a certain level of comfort. I mean, even handles on gardening tools are specially designs to give a nicer grip.

Most of this is an illusion when we talk about developing countries – especially when we are talking about transportation. Transportation needs to be cheap and get the biggest amounts of people from A to B (when transport options are limited no one wants to leave someone behind or be left behind themselves, so everything gets absolutely packed. And that’s basically it.

Nap-time

Nap-time

On the Russian train I was treated to food, vodka, tales of Russia, stories from Soviet times, random facts and got an excellent view of how Russian lives and interact up close – an impossibility if I’d just flown across the country.
The reason is simple. Confined to a small space with any amount of people for more than a few hours, you simply have to recognize them and interact with them. Add to that the fact that you, as a foreigner, make the most interesting person in the room for most locals on what for them isn’t a great journey, but just an often boring moving from A to B.

Trans-Sib 3rd Class

Trans-Sib 3rd Class

The Trans-Siberian is pretty good on comfort even on third class, so some might even stick that out. Moving on to Mongolia, all that disappears like candy in a kindergarten. Roads are nothing, but bumpy dirt tracks and the means of transportation are overcrowded jeeps, overcrowded microbuses or old hard-seat buses, which are… overcrowded. Transportation time in Mongolia is at about 4 hours for a 100 km and the regional capitals (and transfer hubs) are at least 200 km apart and often much, much more.

In addition to the languish lessons and a chance to experience local population and customs up close most developing countries have a majority of people with a hospitality level unknown to the Western world.
You are almost sure to be treated to local favourites, whether that is Chinese sniffing tobacco, weird card games, community singing, the local fruits, nuts or other delicacies, moonshine or something else. And pushing the bus out of the sand it's stuck in, together with everybody else, is a bonding experience!

Breakdowns = experiences

Breakdowns = experiences

Arriving in the dead of night (something very likely in Mongolia) you rarely have to ask, before you will be helped to a hotel of your choosing. That is if someone hasn’t already invited you to spend the night at their home.
Offers of meal are common if you make a little effort to make friends during the trip and I’ve even experienced that taxis have abducted me to their homes for tea on the way to my destination (there’s no invitation, they will simply take a detour, without consulting you in the slightest, nor are there any extra costs).

Get out there!

Get out there!

So do yourself a favour and forget about comfort and time. Don't book those domestic flight tickets, get your guide on location instead of buying a tour and forget about banding together with other travellers to share a taxi! You’re travelling at the World’s edge as soon as you leave the Western Hemisphere – even if you’re not in Mongolia. Act like it, stop complaining and just roll with the bumps as the bus hits them – you never know which amazing treats you’ll receive once you’re passed the next hilltop.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:47 Archived in Mongolia Tagged local bus train transport mongolia jeep Comments (0)

Travelling from Mongolia to Kazakhstan overland

Lonely Planet and other guides are virtually empty on information on this. The combined info between LP’s Mongolia and Central Asia guides is that ‘a long distance bus leaves Ölgii for Kazakhstan.’

sunny 10 °C
View Asia Less Travelled on askgudmundsen's travel map.

This entry can therefore be considered a help to anyone considering travelling overland between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It seems necessary because information is non-existing on the ground, if you’re not already in Ölgii. I had to inform the tourist information office in Ulaanbaatar (UB) about the possibility for overland travel to Kazakhstan. Noahakinci have been so kind as to post an update from September 2015 in the comments!
So here goes:

First of all do anyone making the trip need a valid Russian visa as the bus passes through Russia’s Altai region. You hence need to start planning already in UB (it’s easier to do in Astana for the reverse trip).
Getting a Russian transit visa can be a bit of a hassle, especially if you’re British or American. Check with the consulate about the cost and processing time for your nationality. The Russian embassy is located on Peace Ave. just southwest for Sükhbaatar Square. It’s open between 14.00 and 15.00 Mon.-Fri. Just enter the gate (it’s unlocked) next to the information board.

Russian/Mongolian border

Russian/Mongolian border

Typically you need a passport sized photo the visa application, your Kazakh visa and at least a copy of your bus ticket. To get a real bus ticket contact one of the tours operators in Ölgii (I used Kazakh Tour (KT), www.kazakhtour.com). The ticket prize as of April 2013 was 130.000 Tögrög, plus a T20.000 commission for KT. You will have to visit a bank in UB to make the bank transfer to KT, and then they will go get your ticket, scan it and mail it to you. I kept phone contact and received the e-mail less than an hour after transferring the money.
Alternatively some guesthouses in UB can make fake tickets. This is an option is you don’t wanna get the ticket before arriving in Ölgii. Note that these tickets often are more expensive than the tour companies’ commission.
IMPORTANT! There is only one bus every 10th day. The tour companies can give you the dates. My bus was scheduled on the 12th. Whether it is literally every 10th day or just the 2nd, 12th and 22nd every month I do not know.
After securing your Russian visa (mine was 35$ for a 7 working days process/92$ for 3 days), you’re ready to head out west. Don’t miss out on the awesome eagle hunters in Sagsai close to Ölgii on your way!

The trip itself is actually consisting of two busses. From Ölgii Russian style minibuses will take you to the border town of Tsagaannuur. These leave in the morning. Your ticket will say 09.00, and this is the time you should be at the minibuses at. They leave from the north-eastern corner of Ölgii. Walk north from the light where the motorbike taxis hang out, cross the bridge and turn left. Continue out of this road till the edge of town, where you’ll see a walled complex with a lot of jeeps and minibuses a little back from the road on your right side. As a pointer you’ll pass Dombra Supermarket (Домбра супермаркет) about half way between the bridge and the buses. It is about an hour’s walk from the city center – or a 1500T taxi-ride.

A REAL bus

A REAL bus

The small caravan of minibuses will to a two to three hour hike across the mountains to the Mongolian border post. You be here around lunch time and you bus-driver’s home usually doubles as a hostel/restaurant. It’s a kind of home stay were you get to peek inside the home of the locals. Know that you will spend the night. The actual bus will arrive from Russia during the afternoon, but won’t leave until the next morning.
So chill out and relax. The village is about 60 houses in a valley, so there isn’t much to do. Hike the nearest hilltop, play basketball with the children and practice some Kazakh phrases. Your host will provide you with lunch, dinner and plenty of tea. All that will set you back a little less than 10.000T.

Beautiful breakdown spot

Beautiful breakdown spot

There are also a few small eateries in the village and even a bank, though it’s mostly closed. Exchange all the Tögrög you don’t need into Kazakh Tenge before leaving Ölgii. You won’t be able to do this anywhere else! You can even pay you host in Tenge, though the exchange rate will be terrible.
The reason for the bus’ pit stop is that a morning departure is timed with the opening hours of the border posts. So if we backtrack to the Russian embassy for a moment you don’t need to arrange the transit visa for the departure day, but for the day after. This will give you a nice buffer in case of unexpected delays (I was delayed five hours and still exited Russia at noon on my visa’s last day).
The real bus, an old German tourist bus, will leave the next morning at 09:00. The drivers might try to charge you 20$ for putting you bag in the luggage rooms. Stand your ground and don’t pay – it’s a scam! Otherwise take your bag with you onto the bus and store it under your sets. The driver tried to tell me this was illegal, but everybody else had luggage there and nobody else was paying for storage – so neither did I.
You will also get a second ticket for the bus driver. Make sure the destination is the same on both your tickets. Mine wasn’t and five hours outside Astana the drivers had to call the company because their papers said I had to get off. In the end I made it all the way.
Getting through the Mongolian customs takes a few hours (most of it waiting time), the same on the Russian side. Hereafter are you spending the rest of the day driving through the beautiful Altai Mountains.

The Altai

The Altai

The scenery consists of green mountain valleys. The north facing slopes will be filled with pine trees while a river often runs in the lowest part of the valley cutting it in half. The south facing slopes consists of grasslands where semi-wild horses graze with eagles looking for pray above. These slopes gradually get steeper till they’re proper 90 degree rocky mountains. It is absolutely beautiful!
You’ll drive through the night and thereafter the second day’s landscape turns into worn down Russian villages and fields. After crossing into Kazakhstan the outside of your window will be endless and impressive, but dull Kazakh steppe. Save your Ipod batteries and good reads for this bit of the trip!

Endless Kazakh steppe

Endless Kazakh steppe

And stuck up on food and drinks in Ölgii. There are no real shops in Tsagaannuur and you need Rubles to buy anything anywhere in Russia. Even at the shop just across the border from Mongolia. If you don’t, you’ll have to live the first 24 hours on the fellow passenger’s generosity like I did. Alternatively you might be able to exchange some Kazakh Tenge for Rubles with them.
You’ll arrive at the border posts between Russia and Kazakhstan in the morning hours. Getting all the way to Astana from the border will take around 12 hours. The entire bus drive is (from the Mongolian border post, not Ölgii) 36-ish hours – without breakdowns that is.

All in all, however, it was a fairly straight forward trip given that I knew nothing about it. Feel free to contact me if you planning to do the same thing.

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:29 Archived in Mongolia Tagged bus overland from mongolia kazakhstan Comments (8)

(Entries 16 - 20 of 50) « Page 1 2 3 [4] 5 6 7 8 9 10 »