The vodka of yaks

One night while horseriding through the Khangai Nuruu National Park we camped near a ger with a family of willowly women, who invited us in and fed us boiled goat bones and a stew made of congealed fat.

Our hosts for the evening

After dinner they offered us homemade vodka distilled from the milk of their yak. It came served in a jam jar (way before hipsters got hold of the idea). This super potent homebrew was an even more acquired taste than airag, with the pungent aroma of warm sick … but by the gods it got you pissed! Four jars of the stuff were consumed during the course of the evening, greatly assisting all of us in singing songs from our respective countries. We listened to cassettes of Mongolian pop music, sang along out of tune, took photos and swapped snuff bottles.

2. 100_2764
The youngest member of the family sizing us up

2. giant kell - jen
Not long before the singing began  [Image: Jennie S]
Camping next to their ger was peaceful and rich with the sounds of grunting yaks and farting goats, serenading us off to sleep and filling our dreams. Plus, the vodka helped.

2. 100_2747 - pic
A peaceful spot on the steppe, with goats and yaks

Horseriding from Tsetserleg

After a couple of days looking over horses and negotiating a price, we hired four horses and engaged Dureen’s relative Shijray as our guide. He had helped Dom and I choose horses the previous year and we already had a certain level of understanding and trust.

1. 100_2759 - pic
The horses grazing during a rest stop

Jennie and I rode with Shijray for a week from Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) to Bayankhongor (Ваянхонгор) via the Khangai Nuruu National Park. We rode a horse each plus a packhorse between the three of us. It was the season of airag (fermented mare’s milk) and many stops were made along the way at neighbouring gers to sample the local brew. Airag is an acquired taste with a slightly tangy off-milk flavour and is mildy alcoholic at about 3 – 4%.

1. 100_2755
Those tiny white specs at the base of the mountain are a cluster of gers

Horseriding and alcohol are not always the best combination and I remember sliding forward over my saddle at one point going downhill when my horse suddenly stopped to avoid a marmot hole… Luckily it was a soft landing.

1. 100_2704

A big day of riding was about seven hours in the saddle. At night we collected firewood from nearby hills and cooked a dinner of pasta and tuna which visiting guests from nearby gers weren’t too keen to try.

1. shijray - jen
Shijray at the cooking fire  [Image: Jennie S]

Getting to Tsetserleg

The minivan from Ulaanbaatar (Улаанбаатар) to Tsetserleg (Цэцэрлэг) took 10.5 hours to cover 460km, nearly four hours faster than the previous year thanks to improved roads.

buyara & dureen
Dureen with her husband Bayara

We stayed with Dureen’s family a few kilometres out of Tsetserleg where Dom and I had bought our horses the summer before. The kids remembered me and still laughed at my hat with the hole cut in it for my ponytail. All the local dogs made friends with me too, including Bankhar and Pannak.

2. 100_2690
Making friends  [Image: Jennie S]
Tsetserleg is the capital of Arkhangai aimag in central Mongolia and is a beautifully lush area with plenty of grass and wildflowers and abundant herds. The nearby Khangai mountains ensured ample rainfall during the warmer months which arrived as thunderous afternoon storms and solid downpours.

pic. 100_2695
Sunlight and shadows move across the ger floor

That night we shared a meal of innards stew as honoured guests followed by vodka nightcaps with Dureen’s dad before we slept in our tent outside. Being summer it was light until late and the kids were still playing soccer outside at midnight when dark had fallen, only to get up again at 6am to start their chores.

1. 100_2687
Dureen’s family and their summer camp

One morning I was taking care of my morning ablutions at the edge of the nearby woods, minding my own business, when a herd of cows passed me heading out of the forest and back to camp to be milked. The head cow was encouraging the stragglers to hurry along, when it stopped next to me squatting behind a tree. I could feel its breath as it glared at me. It thought I was part of the herd and should hurry up and get a wriggle on too!

4. landscape - jen
The yaks were less bossy than the cows  [Image: Jennie S]

walking in the ger suburbs

Tiger the rescued street dog and I spent a lot of time walking in the ger suburbs behind my apartment in the Micro district near the Mongolian TV station.

quiet morn street

In many places the roads were carved out between the fences like dry river beds, a good four feet below the the fences. They were dusty with ash, dumped from ger stoves, to make the snow easier to walk on in winter. But as the snow evaporated and the spring winds started up, blinding eddies of dust and ash whirled around the streets.

As we walked along, local dogs barked at us from their yards in warning and welcome, some lunging out at us before they were jerked back by the end of their chains.

The fences and gates fascinated me. Many were painted sky blue and decorated with eightfold knot designs known as the Mongolian ‘ulzii’, symbolising infinite love and the interdependence of all things and one of the eight auspicious symbols from Tibetan Buddhism. These and other geometric patterns were found adorning everything from apartment buildings and fences, to buildings and cars and ger interiors, in bright blues, reds and greens with yellow and white highlights.

gate 17
Blue gates with ‘ulzii’ symbol

Many fences were made from reclaimed metals – the roofs of old train carriages, bonnets from cars or trucks, wrought iron bedheads, inner springs from mattresses. And old gas cylinders were stuck in the ground as bollards, looking like bombs that had landed but never exploded. And the trusty old water heaters from apartments, that look like expired truck radiators? They were used as very effective door mats for scrapping snow off your boots.

In Mongolia not much is wasted.

old gas cylinders
Gas bottles to help on slippery sections

airing Kazakh wall hangings

Bayan Olgii is a breathtaking region in Mongolia’s north western corner with glacier-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes, rushing rivers, eagle hunters and an eternally blue sky. It is also home to Mongolia’s 100,000 Kazakh people.

The finely embroidered wall hangings of the Kazakh people who live there express the rich traditions still preserved in the remote, windswept region. The hangings are full with the imagery of nature and the elements which herders experience day in and day out. Amongst the round rosettes, geometrical figures and zigzags are found multitudes of flowers, plants, ringlets, runners, stylised horns and animal motifs carefully rendered in wool or silk threads on dark backgrounds of velvet, silk, wool, cloth, felt and sometimes leather.

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 4.48.27 pm

[CLICK the image above to see the clip]

Known as ‘tush kiyiz’ in Kazakh, and ‘arabch’ in Mongolian, they are given as marriage gifts and are hung on the inside wall of the yurt behind the marriage bed. On some it is even possible to find the maker’s name and the year of completion – occasionally you will find more than one name as sisters, mothers or grandmothers also contributed to the needlework.

Most of mine were made in the 70s and 80s. They always cheer me up and transport me back to the land of the big blue sky!

the wide open road beckons…

The first part of our hitch hiking journey was from Ulaanbaatar to Tstetserleg.

For 10 hours we bounced along bumpy roads that wound across the landscape, harbouring potholes the size of chairs and tables which tried to snatch and swallow our tyres.

We passed ovoos piled stone on stone at the top of passes and squatted by the side of the road for toilet breaks, the wind whistling in our hair and blowing dust up our skirts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The green landscape rolled out before us like a green velvet carpet reaching to the edge of the sky, dotted with white gers clumped together like mushrooms.

We were joined by a couple from Europe who were setting off to Arkhangai for a horse riding journey of their own. It was the beginning of summer and the time for adventure!

[Minibus & guanz photo credits – Jennie S]

apartment dogs

Old ladies & dog
The lady and her dog in warmer months

One lady in my apartment building had a scruffy black dog. Whenever we saw each other we’d say hello and wave. The lady’s legs were not so good and at times the pain got too bad and she couldn’t take her pooch outside for walks.

To cope she’d developed a system that everyone in the apartment building knew, from the guard ladies who lived under the stairs, to business men and small children, and even young teenagers.

Hungaray, Julie Dog & friends
The bench at the front door was a very social spot for apartment dwellers and dog owners alike

She’d let her dog out of the apartment to make his own way downstairs, where he’d wait at the external door until someone let him out. He then went about his business, roaming the nearby ger neighbourhood at will.

When he was finally too cold and tired, and ready to go to sleep, he would front up at the external door again, waiting until someone walking past let him in. Then he’d trot back up the stairs to his owner and a warm nap. Everyone was happy!

Enjoying a run in the snow


washing day

I lived on the right hand side of the ger in Yarmag where the women traditionally live. Its where the kitchen area is, just behind me in the bright orange cupboard. That’s where we stored our food and cups and bowls and utenstils. To the right, the big blue container houses our water that we collected from the local well. To the left of the water is a squat round basin that we washed our dishes in, and occasionally our clothes and bodies.

Most of the time we took our washing downtown to a guesthouse where we also luxuriated in a hot shower, never quite able to scrub the black coal dust from our hands or neckline. The door of the ger stove opened to the right side of the ger so the women could stoke it and cook on it… and get up at 3 in the morning when the fire had gone out and it was -40C outside. My fellow ger dwelling pal Jennie also did her share of fire stoking, she just had further to shuffle from her side of the ger on cold crisp mornings.

So, this is a picture of washing day which you can see hanging from the ceiling rafters on the left above my couch-bed. And here I am, freshly scrubbed from my monthly shower, hands covered in coal dust again, as I feed the little black nuggets of warmth into our stove. Ah, bliss!

kell at fire


my bed

Over a long Mongolian winter my couch/bed and I became the very best of friends, snuggling into each other as the winds howled outside and the dogs hid from drifts of snow.

So here’s a sneaky peak into my winter bed setup in the Yarmag ger. There were many layers to keeping warm including a wonderful black satin, fur-lined del. It was all rolled up in the morning and stashed away so the bed became a comfy couch again.

kell's bed

So clever and versatile, the very best in ‘tiny house’ living!

my bed