Apologies for the delay in service, but we have found it easier to remove the speck from the eye of the camel through the eye of a needle than it is to find the last straw that broke that same camel’s back in a haystack. You know how it is.
Our story today takes us to Uvs aimag (aimags being the largest administrative division in Mongolia, equivalent to states or provinces), all the way west and up a bit. It is 1300 kms away, takes two and a half hours to fly there, and is one hour behind Ulaanbaatar. Most of the time, this time difference is the most exciting thing about Ulaangom, the aimag capital.
In order to stay current at the regional level and to avoid confusion at the national level, people keep their timepieces on both times, such that a wall clock will show Ulaanbaatar time, a watch Ulaangom time, and car clock Ulaanbaatar time, a mobile Ulaaangom time, and people talk about this all the time. If you schedule a phone call with the capital, you can expect a lot of toing and froing over what time you should expect the call, what time UB thinks it should make the call, what time you should be ready to receive the call in case they get it wrong, but above all be on standby at least an hour each way just in case.
All of which frenzy results in such a high level of excitement that when one actually really needs to know the time of something, like what time the plane takes off, no one is quite sure- not even the pilot. Consequently, you either find yourself with hours to spare, or getting to the airport after the gate has closed. Apparently, when Daylight Savings time springs forward or falls back, half the town goes into immediate hibernation, and the other half’s brains go into immediate meltdown, while figures clothed as the Twelve Hours of Daylight dance in the streets to the music of Morris Day and the Time.
Most of the time, that is. But not the weekend we were there, when things were considerably more thrilling, as it was the 80th anniversary of the aimag’s existence. Due to redistricting, fighting, administrative restructuring, conquest, and Soviet ideas about efficiency, some aimags are more aimag than others. Uvs (pronounced uvs, viewers) is an oldie, and consequently all the aimag governors from the other 18 all showed up to hail this achievement, as did the Speaker of Parliament and a host of other bigwigs. In honour of this occasion and in deference to the needs of said biggywigs, the Uvs’ hosts hospitably laid on electricity and water for the whole holiday period. This is quite a feat, as Uvs hypothetically gets all of its power from Russia. However, being an older aimag, its memory isn’t what it used to be, and it has completely misplaced its change purse and it now owes Russia half a million American dollars for electricity. In order to jog Uvs’ memory, Russia has turned off all supplies of juice until it remembers where it hid its last pension check. Uvs is still scratching its head. In fairness, Uvs is not the only western aimag in this predicament. Either way, the dazzling glare of two phase electric current and 4WD horseless carriages in the high street all contributed to a splendid festive atmosphere.
The celebrations centred, as they always do, on the three manly sports- wrestling, archery and horse racing. In fact, Mongolians are so keen on naadam celebrations that the government is trying to limit celebrations to one per aimag per year. Otherwise, it seems, every time someone passes an exam or spots a new moon, whole provinces bunk off minding the sheep and starts wrestling in the dust and shooting arrows about the place. Either way, manly as these sports may be, spectator friendly they are not.
Wrestling. Men in tight blues, red chestless singlets (to show they are not women) and pointy hats grabbing hold of each other’s shoulders, throwing 90 degree shapes, and walking slowly in a circle. This is not to say any one of them could not thump you in both UB time and Ulaangom time and once more for Greenwich Mean Time, it’s just that they don’t get any cool moves. The coolest thing about the wrestlers is the rankings, which include State Titans, Lions, Garudas (?), Elephants, Hawks and Falcons. We saw a State Elephant while we were in Ulaangom. Besides his mountainous size, we could tell he was an elephant because he had nine blind men poking at him and saying things like “but no, it’s a wastepaper basket!” and suchlike.
Archery. Men with steely gazes fix on a point in the middle distance, pull on string, arrow makes a zoomy noise and is gone. Admittedly this looks cool, but it’s impossible to tell who’s winning, how scoring works, or even what they are aiming at. It’s like tennis with only serves. Actually, no, tennis is still more boring.
Horse racing. While everyone agrees the other manly sports are okay, the whole country of Mongolia is stone crazy about horse racing. Every Naadam, racing venues are set up 35 kms from town centres, and then the whole town decamps to said venue to watch the horses as they come in, often fording rivers and scaling sheer cliffs to get there. We went along with everybody else to watch these races, and found ourselves in a ger city of thousands of people who’d come to watch these races. The starting point was a good distance off, and the horses come in in a dusty hurricane across the steppe, looking for all the world like those hordes one‘s heard about. Thing is, there are thousands of people, dozens of horses, a vast great steppe, and everything happens in lightning speed. As the horses come in with their kid jockeys aloft, everyone bolts down to the finish line to try to touch the sweat of the winning horse, which gives you good luck. After this is done, everyone ambles back to the gers to eat some more meat and talk about horses. This is repeated for six races or two days, whichever comes first. Again, not without its charm, but not exactly a thrill a minute.
Exhausted by all these sporting thrills, it was time to leave the hustle and bustle of the big city and head out to the solitude and beauty of Ureg Nuur (which seems to mean Responsibility Lake, viewers- I’m baffled), three hours west of Ulaangom. We had planned to camp by the lake, and had made arrangements with our travel agent pals to be met by a driver equipped with tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, and all necessary whatnot. The driver Ulaanbayar showed up, but showed a distinct lack in the tackle department. A quick liaise with our pals in the capital later, it transpired that the gear we were to have used was irrevocably lost/damaged/broken/eaten/something/anyway there isn’t any, and instead what would happen was that new gear would be loaded on the plane that morning in Ulaanbaatar, and transported up to us at the lakeside by a second car which would meet us there three hours later. It helps to have in idea of just how remote these places as you consider the viability of this plan, not to mention the possible hiccups that uptight people might spot a mile off. Not us though. Oh no.
Undeterred, we departed, and arrived at the banks of the lake more or less on schedule, with no tent to sit in, or kettle to put on to boil. So we did as is done in these parts. You stride over to the closest ger, remember your etiquette (don’t step on the threshold, don’t lean on the supports, don’t move any hats, don’t point your feet at the shrine, move clockwise, etc), take a seat and wait for the hospitality to flow. In the first instance, this included milky tea with salt which is pretty much standard, and an assortment of hard cheese and pastry items of varying palatabilty. All this was fine for the grownups, but what of little ones? What could they have? What indeed. As it happened the particular ger we stopped at had two little girls of about four and two living there, at least one of which was still breast feeding, as is Natty. And so our hostess duly obliged the visiting lad by proffering him a hit of the homegrown good stuff. Young Armstrong took a long hard look at things as they stood, had a think about it, but decided to stick with his own stash. There was, it must be said a quiet sigh of relief heard from certain quarters.
By and by, the sound of a motor was heard, and our chase car appeared. The plan had worked. Not only had the plan worked, but the runner with the camping gear was so thrilled with her errand that she brought her whole family along to share the excitement. In addition to the tents and sleeping bags, she had brought along her mother and father, her sister and her boyfriend, their younger brother and herself. They spilled out of the Russian jeep as we stood slack jawed and wondered if they were staying for the weekend, while mentally counting the teabags. But no, they were just along for the drive. Once satisfied that the tension in the guylines was acceptable, they piled back in the car and drove the three hours back, without so much as a refreshing beverage.
And then there were three and a little boy. Ulaanbayar called me over and said he wanted to show me something. He opened his mouth wide and pointed to a molar on his right side. Looking at it, it was split laterally into two pieces, from front to back. Using a combination of Mongolian, Russian and gesture, he made it clear that he needed that tooth out now. His plan was to break open a disposable razor, use the blade to cut open his gum, and then use the pliers on my Swiss Army knife to yank out the painful half of tooth. I told him that there was no way I was going to cut him with the razor, so he suggested that he make the cut but that I would have to pull the tooth out, because he wouldn’t be able to do it himself. So that is what we agreed, and that is what we did.
As night fell, and the codeine kicked in, I found a purple hat with an orange band on the beach, in perfectly serviceable condition, and the following exchange occurred in Mongolian: (all translations probably scarily accurate)
Jannie: Look. Is Hat Is.
Ulaanbayar: Yes. Blah blah blah Matches blah blah blah.
Jannie (thrilled he’s heard a word he understands.): Yes Oh Yes. Matches, yes. Matches good.
Ulaanbayar: Yes. Matches. Give me, I need.
Jannie: Yes yes yes here. (gives matches).
Ulaanbayar: Ah, thank you.
And with that, Ulaanbayar took the hat off a respectable distance, piled some grass up in it, and set it on fire. After a quiet moment and a resolution to give him any other bits of clothing just yet, we filed that one away to find out about later. It transpires that Mongolians don’t take kindly to others messing with their hats, as this is a particularly personal bit of property. This explains why along the roadside one can often see a wide variety of quite serviceable headgear, lying around unclaimed. A hat only ever has one owner, it appears. Finding a hat without one, the humane thing to do is dispose of it. Law of the steppe.
And so with the lessons of these four parables still clear in our ears and fresh on our heads, let us bring this dispatch to a close. We hope you’ll remember to keep one clock on Ulaanbaatar time at all times, keep your hat pulled firmly down around your ears, and get those teeth checked before you need my services.
Bi tantai tanilsandaa bayartah bain (nice to have met you, viewers),