Elstei Ger Camp, 23rd-25th July 2007

Ulaanbaatar Travel Blog

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The Elstei camp

The Elstei camp was in the middle of nowhere but had been set up specifically for tourists, so again not quite the full traditional experience we expected.  There was running hot water, flushing toilets and a small restaurant/bar.  Definitely not something worth complaining about because this actually made the trip more of a holiday than an endurance challenge.

The landscape was breathtaking.  The camp backdrop was something I couldn’t have imagined... mountains set against a clear blue sky and miles and miles of empty plain land, with the odd herd of cattle, sheep and horses, and not forgetting the occasional ger.  It was so peaceful and made the torture of the train ride from Irkutsk seem a very distant memory.

After settling in to our basic but extremely comfortable ger tent, we spent the afternoon enjoying the sunshine and attempting a bit of archery! Needless to say, I was pretty rubbish.

Our ger

Late afternoon Zobloo took us on a walk to a local ger village.  The plains were covered in literally hundreds of thousands of crickets, so much of the walk was spent with me dodging them in true girlie style as they jumped around in their feeble attempt to clear a path. It was definitely one way to overcome a bug phobia!

Once we got to the village, which was a collection of 4 gers and a pile of manure for fuel, we were invited into one to get a taste of real ger life and sample some local eats.  The most surprising aspect was that despite being so basic - i.e. it’s a tent, with no running water, no kitchen or bathroom - there was a flat screen TV in one corner with the satellite dish sitting on a cart outside the tent! Certainly not what I was expecting but clearly gers have moved into the 21st century like the rest of us, in their own way of course!

Zobloo and our host then gave us some tea made from green tea leaves, with milk and salt.

Walking to the village
..not the best cuppa I’ve tasted but not completely disgusting either.  Actually I was pleasantly surprised because we’d been told that the tea was also usually served with a dollop of butter - I was grateful of its absence.  We were then given some yoghurt made from the family’s cow’s milk and dried curd with butter.  The yoghurt was pretty good.  A little fizzy but it tasted just like the natural yoghurt we're used to.  The curd, on the other hand, tasted like a really bad, old feta cheese.  It was extremely dry which meant it took ages to swallow giving more time for the taste to linger!  I was actually a little gutted I’d finished my tea at this point in the proceedings.

Apparently nomadic Mongols tend to live on a diet of tea, yoghurt and curd throughout the summer months.

Me enjoying the yoghurt
  Despite having vast livestock, animals are only slaughtered once a year, in November, and the meat is dried and kept in storage for consumption mainly during the winter months. There didn’t seem to be any mention of vegetables, but I did read somewhere that they have some belief about not eating things grown in the ground.

Anyway, with this new found knowledge and now feeling reasonably guilty for having eaten most of our host’s weekly rations, we made our way back to camp.  The crickets were less active on the walk home, so fewer squeals from me making for a more comfortable stroll for everyone else.  We got back to the camp just before 7pm just in time for dinner...

We had a great meal in the camp restaurant and then the group headed outside to watch or participate in, depending on level of bravery, a wrestling tournament of the Westies vs.

Walking the plains
the Mongols.  It made for highly amusing viewing - particularly the traditional Mongolian wrestling outfits.  The Westie boys weren’t brave enough to don the outfits in their intended style, but did at least bare a bit of chest hair!  After a few tussles, as predicted, the Mongols managed to whip the Westie arses both literally and figuratively.....In victory it’s ‘apparently’ customary to reap glory by giving him a quick smack on the bum.

After the fun and games had ended and the bare chests were once again covered, we all sat in the outdoor pavilion and enjoyed a few beverages or several G&T’s in my case.

Before bed, we took a quick stroll with Verity and Anthony to look at the stars and check out the constellations.  I don’t think I’ve ever been able to spot a constellation, and this night was no exception despite Smurf’s best efforts to point a few out.

The Westies getting ready to face their opponents

The next day I woke after a fantastic night’s sleep - wooden beds really are comfortable!  Who’d have thought?!!  The morning was pretty lazy, spent taking in the view, reading and writing my journal.... I had my first G&T at 11.30am!  Yes, before lunch I know!!!!  I am on holiday though so I figured it was ‘allowed’.

After a lovely lunch, we got kitted out with hats and chaps to go horse riding...

This is THE ultimate Mongolian experience!! You can’t come to Mongolia without getting on a horse...

We headed north of the camp across the plains, just going at a gentle pace to soak up the scenery.

The Mongols looking very confident
  It was so much fun despite the horses not being taken faster than a trot.  I have to admit to having some romantic vision of me (the pro rider than I am) galloping across the empty plains leaving a trail of dust behind me... but no, just a simply bum-pounding trot for this novice group.... I also had a horse that clearly didn’t want to play.  He just refused to pay any attention to my instructions because he seemingly had more affection for the rear ends of his pals.  So, I spent most of the trip trying to get away from the backside of another horse and all the delights that tends to bring!!

Anyhow, after a very short hour we made our way back to the stables (well, a horse pen to be exact), when to our delight, the instructor offered to take us out for another hour.  So, off we went in the opposite direction.

The group out on the plains
...

We came across a rather large unidentifiable black animal grazing the plain... A few ‘what the hell it that’s’ prompted Zobloo to explain that it was half yak, half cow!  Then before we knew it, our instructor was off his horse and mounting this poor creature, as he obviously thought it would be fun to have a quick ride!!  Luckily for him, and us, the animal was pretty docile so just let him get on with the side show.  Actually, it was pretty funny, but rather him than me.

The hack continued...My horse now seemed to have taken issue with the flies so kept stopping to have a good old scratch, which he did with real vigour each time, prompting me to grip the reins a bit tighter!  And then suddenly, my dream became a reality.

The start of the fantasy gallop
......our instructor led the way into a gallop across the plain!  There I was, with the wind in my hair (or rather the fetching wet towel I was wearing for sun protection), experiencing my romantic vision.  In my ecstatic state, I couldn't stop grinning - my mighty mouth was stretched from ear to ear .....

After a TRULY amazing experience, our group made its way back to camp on cloud 9..........

A Mongolian BBQ was on the menu for dinner, which was followed by a traditional musical performance by a group from Ulaanbaatar.  They set up a stage on a hill behind the camp, with the breathtaking backdrop of the mountains.  We fetched our stalls from our gers, and settled down with a bottle of fabulous red wine Smurf had lugged from London, to watch one of the most inspiring performances I’ve ever experienced as the sun set over the mountains.

Horse family

There were 6 musicians each playing an instrument and singing in traditional Mongolian style.  They performed collectively and individually, and I spent most of the performance with tears streaming down my face.  Words can not describe how I felt - it was simply the most beautiful show I’ve ever experienced.  After a light-hearted interlude from a contortionist, the grand finale consisted of two singers appearing on horseback to perform an operatic love song.  They were set in silhouette against a brilliant red sky, which was a vision no camera could do justice.

After drying my eyes, we spent the rest of the evening chatting and drinking with our new friends, Anthony, Verity, Ray and Shelly, having bonded over a love for G&Ts.

Mongol nomadic life
  In fact, I believe we managed to drink the bar dry of gin....

This was undoubtedly the best day and night of the trip so far...

The next day we sadly had to leave the camp to head back to Ulaanbaatar, so we said our goodbyes and made the 1.5 hour transfer to the Hotel Bayanol, which was a 5 minute walk from the main square.

We grabbed some lunch at a restaurant nearby and had a massive meal which cost just £6 for the two of us - pretty impressive for a touristy area of a capital city!  We then headed to the natural history museum, which, being the museum lover that I am (not), I surprisingly found pretty interesting.  The exhibit mainly consisted of dinosaur bones, which had been discovered in the Gobi desert, along with a rather large collection of stuffed animals.

The serene narrator

Having got the only intellectual fix I needed that day, we decided to go for a wander to buy souvenirs...a stop at the post office for cards and stamps preceded a trip to the State Department Store.  It was really hot by this stage so walking around was getting unpleasant so we decided to make our way back to the hotel.  On the way back we stopped off in a modern art gallery which had a few interesting pieces, and then a calligraphy exhibition a few doors down.  A gallery attendant came over and started explaining the meaning of the piece we were looking.  Before we knew it she was talking us through every piece in the exhibition.  It was interesting stuff and the calligraphy was really beautiful, but Smurf and I were on the verge of passing out due to the extreme heat and lack of air con, so were pretty relieved once we were ‘released’ and able to get back to the hotel.

We had another early start to look forward to so decided to stay at the hotel for dinner and ended up at their Indian restaurant - the Taj Mahel.  Not really where one should eat when in Mongolia but my Tikka Masala was the best I’ve ever had, so a good move on our part.

Headed to bed early, but strangely didn’t get such a good night’s sleep having discovered a pile of mouse droppings behind the bedside cabinet!  I’m just grateful Smurf stumbled across the cockroaches in the bathroom before I had the chance too!!!!!

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The Elstei camp
The Elstei camp
Our ger
Our ger
Walking to the village
Walking to the village
Me enjoying the yoghurt
Me enjoying the yoghurt
Walking the plains
Walking the plains
The Westies getting ready to face …
The Westies getting ready to face…
The Mongols looking very confident
The Mongols looking very confident
The group out on the plains
The group out on the plains
The start of the fantasy gallop
The start of the fantasy gallop
Horse family
Horse family
Mongol nomadic life
Mongol nomadic life
The serene narrator
The serene narrator
In a traditional ger
In a traditional ger
Zobloo serving up the yoghurt
Zobloo serving up the yoghurt
Tasting the curd and butter
Tasting the curd and butter
The boys looking happy
The boys looking happy
The cute village dog
The cute village dog
A ger hamster
A ger hamster
The group enjoying dinner
The group enjoying dinner
Ray and Shelly clearly amused
Ray and Shelly clearly amused
The boys playing a game of bones
The boys playing a game of bones
Simon flexing his muscle
Simon flexing his muscle
Anthony struggles to get into his …
Anthony struggles to get into his…
Geerrrrrrrrrrrr
Geerrrrrrrrrrrr
Simon gets stuck in...
Simon gets stuck in...
Is that a gay podium dancer or a M…
Is that a gay podium dancer or a …
ooh ooh steady does it
ooh ooh steady does it
Inside my ger
Inside my ger
Mongolian plain
Mongolian plain
Rooming livestock
Rooming livestock
Mooooooo
Mooooooo
A nomadic horseman
A nomadic horseman
Mongolian landscape
Mongolian landscape
A row of gers at sunset
A row of gers at sunset
The sun setting above a ger
The sun setting above a ger
Zobloo on her horse
Zobloo on her horse
The glamourous (?) one on her smil…
The glamourous (?) one on her smi…
Post ride
Post ride
My horse having a good sniff
My horse having a good sniff
Sheikh Pat
Sheikh Pat
Sheikh Pat leads the way
Sheikh Pat leads the way
Up Veritys backside
Up Verity's backside
Up Anthonys backside
Up Anthony's backside
Riding the half yak half cow
Riding the half yak half cow
The yakcow
The yakcow
The yakcow
The yakcow
Sunset over Elstei
Sunset over Elstei
The awesome show
The awesome show
A phenomenal facial expression
A phenomenal facial expression
The contortionist
The contortionist
The grand finale
The grand finale
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photo by: Biedjee