Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

15 Sep 2013

Mongolia: lunch menus, yurts and macho men

Posted by Will

I cycled out of Mongolia wondering if I had enjoyed my stay. I think the answer is probably no, although I’m not sure whether that’s my fault or Mongolia’s. I spent just over two weeks in a country big enough to justify a full year of exploration. Countless times I met other tourists raving about what a great time they’d had, their faces radiant as they reeled off areas I couldn’t afford to miss. Without exception, they praised the hospitality of the villagers and yurt-dwellers that make up the much of the population. I left the country with a mixed experience.


I spent a unique and stomach-churning morning in the village of Ayrag which no doubt holds top spot in my list of favourite Mongolian moments. Ayrag lies on the edge of the vast and unforgiving Gobi desert and it was for that reason I turned off the main road to refill my water bottles. Two men on motorbikes led the way to the village well but we were soon intercepted by an elder who beckoned me into his compound and offered up his own supplies. An awkward silence and three full water bottles later, an invitation for lunch. At the time I felt pretty low about my limited interaction with the locals so I propped the bike against his water drum and accepted using all the Mongolian I could muster.

Just in case I didn’t know what was on the menu, my host wheeled a goat out of a nearby shed and without a hint of hesitation cut its throat in front of me. He looked up proudly, from the blood-stained goat to me, and I tried hard not to look horrified. I’ve never seen such a large animal executed. In Georgia, someone decapitated a chicken with an axe and that was bad enough. A wobble in my legs and a shade paler than before, I removed my shoes and entered his humble yurt, regretting, mainly for the goat’s sake, that I had decided to say yes to lunch.

A yurt is a temporary, circular structure covered by a dazzling white canvas that marks it out for miles on the expansive Mongolian plains. I’d seen them before in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where many of the people are also nomadic. Inside is a single room where everyone sleeps and everyone eats. In the center stands the stove with a chimney flowing up through the roof, a hotch-potch of carpets and rugs cover the ground and on the sides various decorative pieces hide most of the structural framework. Rather incongruous is the TV that has swept into most family yurts, and even more out of place are the large solar panels found atop the trendiest yurts in town. Day-to-day life, however, takes place largely outside the yurt where the animals graze.


The yurt I stepped into matched most of the standard description save for an ultra-modern fridge-freezer on the opposite side of the room. I met my hostess, an exceptionally round old lady who took great pride in supplying me with bowl after bowl of hot milk tea while I tried in vain to remember the hard-to-pronounce phrase for thank you. More milk than tea, milk tea is a staple for the men, women and children of the yurts. Served piping hot, it’s the standard offering of hospitality across Mongolia, and is crucial to keeping warm in a land where temperatures can plummet to -30C and below in winter.

By now, the goat looked less like a living entity and more like what you might find in a supermarket and that made me feel at ease. As his wife started cooking, my host asked if I’d like a game of chess. I jumped at the opportunity and from a losing position came back to beat him with a vicious pincer attack coordinated by my queen. He then challenged me to draughts which was fine until I found out that you can take sideways in Mongolian rules. He thrashed me at that.

Being the honoured guest, the ordinary parts of a goat weren’t worthy of me: I was presented with a large bowl of intestines, liver and stomach lining. I had suspected something of the sort so had managed to get myself mentally prepared. I can tell you that a dish like this looks, and sounds, a lot worse than it actually tastes. The liver is delicious, there’s no question about that. The intestines and stomach lining are chewy and certainly benefit from a slice of raw onion in the same mouthful, but nothing in the bowl tastes bad. It’s the texture that may have you passing on second helpings. They offered me a grass chutney to go with my meal which was essentially just the grass from the desert soaked in oil. That tasted like grass. Another bowl of milk tea please, mmm…delicious…thank you. And with that, I thanked them again, and headed off into the Gobi desert.

The Gobi Desert is one of the driest places on earth and I found myself having to cycle a stretch about 500km long. The road I followed never felt like the middle of nowhere as the railway was always close although at times I didn’t see another road-user for several hours. I sped across the first half of the Gobi on a glorious grey ribbon of perfect asphalt with the wind at my back and the Chinese border in my sights. Then suddenly, in the middle of nowhere the road descended into a tyre-squelching mix of sand, gravel and rocks that slowed me to an agonizing 10km/hr (6mph). Aside from the frustration, going that slowly can become frightening in the desert when it’s impossible to know where the next water is going to appear. The solitary yurts standing hours apart were my only chance for water and to the credit of the Gobi-dwellers, like all other people I’ve met in deserts, they always shared their precious supplies.


Other Mongolians weren’t so hospitable though. In several villages in the north and around Ulaanbaatar men eyed me up like they were weighing my chances in a fight. In general, the men were too macho. They strut around towns, into supermarkets and banks with their shirts off, all with the air of daring someone to challenge them. Looking might trigger a provocative reaction, looking at their women almost certainly will. Within 5 minutes of entering Mongolia, I stopped at a bank to exchange Dollars to Tugrik, only to find that a man inside was threatening someone with the broken end of a glass bottle. On a train some men invited me to play cards and on failing to understand the rules at the first hand I was considered too feeble to play any further. On the same train, a man kept opening the window right next to where I slept (despite all other train windows being closed) and made a condescending expression when I tried to explain the air was too cold. To add insult to injury, my sunglasses were nicked on the train too although I’m sure that was an accident. Isolated events I know but rather too many in a short stay to come away with a glowing report.

And if you want a taste of slightly more familiar civilisation, the capital city Ulaanbaatar isn’t the place to find it. It’s a particularly ugly city, half under construction, a huge traffic problem and seemingly no drains so that when it rains the roads and pavements become impassible rivers. The main road is called Peace Avenue which is ironic since I can’t imagine anywhere less peaceful. The silver lining: the numerous shortcomings of the city provide an endless point of small-talk for travellers.


I suppose I had looked forward to resting in Ulaanbaatar after such a long slog across remote Kazakhstan and Siberia and when I realized it wasn’t a place to rest, my mind and body had to make the unpleasant transition back to cycle mode. The doubts that have tried to eat away at me over the past few months rose to the surface and I spent a rather lonely few days with my thoughts despite lots of other people to talk to. Having to navigate the bureaucracy of the Chinese visa application process didn’t help either. Only after I had supplied a letter of invitation, the 8 page application form, hotel bookings, round-trip flight tickets, bank statements, the visa fee and had stood in a Mongolian queue (a free-for-all) for several hours was I successfully granted a visa. But I was granted one and that’s a cause for celebration!

A few kilometres from the border I met five Chinese labourers working on a new Mongolian road. I asked them for water. Not only did they replenish my supplies with fine-tasting mineral water (as opposed to the salty Gobi equivalent) but they produced a 2L bottle of Coca Cola they had been hiding from the sun. They thrust it into my hands and refused to let me leave until I accepted. I have no doubt it was the treat they had saved themselves for the end of a hard day’s work. I uttered my first words of Chinese, ‘sher sher’ (thank you), and waved goodbye, all with a big smile on my face. And that day, after 100km of half cycling, half dragging my bike through sand in 35C heat there was nothing I felt like more than a cool Coca Cola. A good omen for the upcoming 2 months in China.


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4 Comments already on “Mongolia: lunch menus, yurts and macho men”
  1. Will

    5:13 ampermalink
    15 Sep 2013


    ps. I now have a haircut

  2. 2:34 pmpermalink
    15 Sep 2013


    Blooming amazing will, hope you have a cracking time in China!

  3. 7:53 ampermalink
    16 Sep 2013


    Mate. Your adventure gets better by the day. I’m amazed that you managed to navigate the minefield that is Chinese bureaucracy. Is entering via Mongolia the trick? I’ve heard of so many people stumbling at the boarder.

    For all of us, carry on cycling Will :)

  4. 9:44 ampermalink
    16 Sep 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Brilliant to hear all your news as always. Did giggle at the goat feast! XXXX