Archive for July, 2009

The Road to Renchinlhumbe

Renchinlhlumbe mountains

Renchinlhlumbe mountains

Last week I went to Renchinlhumbe. It took us 15 hours in a small Russian jeep with 9 people over the worst roads you can imagine—make that 10 times the worst roads you can imagine. Along the way we changed 2 flat tires, solved the problems of the innards of a wheel which had to be taken apart and repaired, pulled a car out of a river in the middle of the night, dropped off several people along the way in different directions, and stopped for a bite to eat at what I’d call a roadhouse that came straight out of the middle ages in atmosphere.

It all began when one of my English students from a class I taught last fall invited me to come visit his family this summer. (I called him Bill because I couldn’t remember the Mongolian names at that time—his name is Batbayor.) I said “Oh, sure” thinking it was just a nice gesture. However, he repeated the invitation at a second class he attended in the spring and the whole class said I should go. He said he would pick me up on July 3rd. Meanwhile I checked with friends who explained that Renchinlhumbe is a soum (town) in Khuvsgol Aimag north-northwest of here about 270 kilometers (167 miles–that may be as the crow flies) near the Russian border. It’s known as the Switzerland of Mongolia because of its mountains and has a reputation for being the coldest place in Mongolia. Friends said to be sure to take warm clothes (weather was fine) and be prepared for very bad roads. 

Roads? That’s pure flattery. Maybe you could call them tracks, though even that is an overstatement. I have the greatest admiration for those who drive those tracks. The driver constantly must weave back and forth trying to choose the best track from multiple choices since when the ruts get deep on one track, the vehicles simply make a new track over the steppes. Sometimes it is sandy, sometimes muddy, always rocky, constantly undulating as if you were driving over ocean waves that were solid, sometimes meandering through mountain passes where I spotted a long stream of snow and ice spilling down a creek bed. Never ever a dull moment that eventually you get numb. At least the driver is kept awake because of the constant decisions he must make about how to maneuver over this landscape. And then there are the streams and rivers to cross, mostly by fording them at what you hope are shallow places.

Countryside Naadam

Countryside Naadam

As I said, I expected to leave Friday morning, July 3. But it was 5 o’clock Saturday afternoon when we finally left (time is flexible in Mongolia). We arrived around 8 Sunday morning at Bill’s home. Bill is a school director, married, with 3 children: 10, 17, and 25. They live in a 3-room house and in the summer mostly in one room that serves as kitchen, living and dining room, and bedroom. The setting is spectacular. Renchinlhumbe is situated on a broad steppe with mountains in every direction, some of them snow capped.  The family took good care of me: the son and wife

Batbayor's family

Batbayor's family

work for the soum (town) government and the daughter cares for the house.  At 17, she can capably run a household in every aspect: cooking, cleaning, baking, washing clothes, you name it.  How many 17-year-old girls do you know who can do that?  There’s only a small amount of intermittent electricity–I saw new poles being installed on the drive up so I expect more reliable electricity is coming.  You just get used to doing things in the dark.  They do use generators sometimes–mostly to recharge their cell phones!

There is so much I could tell about this experience but will stick to the highlights for now. We went to two Naadams. Naadam is a July Mongolian

Wrestlers

Wrestlers

holiday celebrating the three manly sports of horse racing, Mongolian style wrestling and archery. The first was a one day Naadam out in the countryside and the second was celebrated in Renchinlhumbe for two days—a little bigger and more people. The horse races cover long distances and the horses are ridden by small children, from what I can tell

Naadam horse race

Naadam horse race

as young as eight years old. Groups of them ride out a long ways from the finish line and then race back at a gallop—generally bareback. I think there is a stick-to-the-horse’s-back gene in Mongolians although at the finish line a few horses show up riderless. A jeep follows the race and picks up those who fall who seemed none the worse for wear. Everyone gathers to watch a finish of a number of races that take place throughout the day—many of the onlookers on horses themselves. Then everyone troops back to where the wrestling takes place and watches the next round of wrestling.

Wrestlers follow a strict ritual that is hard to describe but is interesting to

Wrestlers. ritual:Eagle Dance

Wrestlers. ritual:Eagle Dance

watch. Their movements before and after the actual match are based on the eagle flying–though it looks a little like some sort of macho ballet. I have become quite addicted and if they ever allow women to wrestle (there’s a story about that issue), I know just how to win! The archery seems to run a poor third to the other two activities but a friend of mine says its popularity is on the upswing.  I could tell it wasn’t too competitive because they let me compete in the Renchinlhumbe Naadam.  I didn’t do too badly!  Sorry, no pictures though.

In addition to being entertained, I earned my keep by milking a hainag (half yak/half cow) for 2 of the days I was there. It looked more yak than

Judy and Hainag

Judy and Hainag

cow to me and with those long horns and massive size was pretty impressive. Another week or so and I could have gotten pretty good. The wife milks 5 of them every morning and evening and so I drank plenty of

Hainag

Hainag

milk and ate yogurt and spread orum (a kind of firm cream) on my bread every day. Ate mostly what is called “white food” while I was there, milk products from animals plus some meat and a few potatoes.  Not many vegetables or fruits available.

One day we went out into the countryside and came back with a goat that

Goat for Dinner

Goat for Dinner

we slaughtered. That evening they cooked the innards and I ate a big bowl of you-name-it for dinner. I’ve gotten pretty used to innards by now though they’re not at the top of my list of favorite foods. Out in the countryside we stopped to watch some mares being milked. A lot more tricky than milking cows—and not much milk produced. Mongolians use it to make airag—fermented mare’s milk. I drank it for the first time and it actually has a fairly mild taste—maybe gets stronger later in the season. When I left, I wasn’t sure when or how I was coming home but wanted to be back for Muron’s own Naadam on Friday and Saturday. Bill was going to bring me back but it turned out he had a little too much strong drink and needed to rest. I ended up going with a family in a nice sturdy dependable SUV, Korean, I think. And it only took 9 hours! So we got home before dark. Wow. The only adventure along the way was stopping out in the hoodo at his friend’s ger and rounding up a sheep to bring back. They tied the legs and put the sheep in a kind of bag with its head sticking out. And they also put my sleeping bag and my travel bag on top the SUV. The sheep complained all the rest of the way back (right behind me) and sounded like a person groaning. If the sheep only knew what was really ahead, he would have made an even bigger fuss. Then, to top it off, it began to rain—really hard and I wondered how soaked my bags would be when I got home. But fortunately, when we arrived in Muron, things were wet but not damaged and I simply spread them out to dry. Also, fortunately my camera and other essentials were in my purse. I was able to attend the last day of Muron’s 2-day Naadam on Saturday–much bigger but I think I like the littler ones best.  Well, that’s enough for now—but it’s only half the story!

Chinggis's standard called Nine White Flags

Chinggis's standard called Nine White Flags

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