Never have i seen so many stars

This is the 1st of 2 blog entries about 2 separate trips to the countryside, one was work, one was play, both blew me away.

After 6 months of working on my project it was finally decided that we should go and pay a visit to the herders, the ones we are supposedly working with and helping to secure their livelihoods. I had so far seen the whole process of cashmere/yak/camel hair production, but i had yet to see the herders who supply the hair. It was quite an eye opening experience, especially as it was my 1st real trip to the countryside and leaving the built up developed UB with its tarmaced roads and sit down toilets.

The adventure began on the 21st February at 8am, well about 8.45, 2 VSO staff and 2 volunteers boarded the VSO 4×4 and headed out of the city onto the direct road to Arvaheer, a 2 way road and what was the only road we would be using for the whole week.

VSO team

Of course before we leave the city we pick up someone else the VSO intern and we waved goodbye to the big smog. After a few hours in the comfy 4×4 we stopped at a cafe along the road to have the 1st of many tsuivans or flour noodles with mutton, and to use the facilities (a squat toilet in a wooden hut in a field of -20 degrees). As many of you who know me and may be reading this blog know i am not too fussy about home comforts and especially toilet talk but what i saw will forever be engraved in my memory as the biggest pile of poop i will ever see, hopefully!! Thankfully it was the worst we saw and thanks to the cold weather the smell goes un-noticed. Well sorry about that but it is a big part of going to the countryside and during the 2nd week i have to say i quite enjoyed the beautiful views that squatting outside brings with it.

Roas side cafe

It took a good 7 hours to get to Arvahher the Soum centre for Overkhangahi, quite good considering, at times the snow drifts along the side of the road became the road but we made it in good time. We did not stay long there, we just picked up the technician from the grading laboratory and began out trip to Sant a neighbouring Soum (village) to meet with the 1st of 4 groups of Herders. As you may have noticed i said trip to Sant not road to Sant as there wasnt one, it was a dirt track over bumpy terrain for 3 hours with 4 people in the back seat and room for only 3. But the more uncomfortable the journey the more of the adventure.          A few oddities we saw along the track included a sack of hooves, followed by a sack of boots and sadly a dead baby camel, im not sure if the 2 sacks had anything to do with each other! There were a few risky moments too while charging up a dusty hill only to find that on the other side was a steep drop and then over another hill was a herd of horses stampeding towards us only 1o metres in front, i swallowed my heart and although it was a beautiful, magnificient sight it was terrifying to see them heading towards us with dust flying everywhere, obviously they parted and ran either side of us or else i would not be sitting here writing this blog!!!!

In Sant, exhausted after a long day we met our 1st group of herders for a focus group discussion. It went well, its frustrating not being able to join in as you dont really understand whats going on but you can feel the atmosphere and it felt ok. On a personal level it was great to see everbody in Deels and not regular clothes and i was surprised to see that most of the herders were women. After the meeting we had dinner Tsuivan #2!!

Sant Herders

Sant Herders association

We then drove back to Arvaheer where our hotel with toilet and running water was awaiting us, it was a meer 3 hours and not as much fun in the dark but with the dark comes the stars, so many frigging stars it takes your breath away. There are not many things i dont try and take photographs of for memory sake but this is one of those things that not only is it impossible to capture but also i will never forget the Mongolian nights sky.

Day2, again a long day we drove to Nariinteel 4 hours away, again without a road but the land around us was outstanding, just space and snow, mountain and the odd goat/sheep herd to clear off the track.

en route to Narinteel

We also saw a venue as they are called of vultures waiting on the side of the road for a car to break down and the inhabitants to die waiting for someone else to drive past and save them. We arrived in time for lunch Tsuivan #3 and then we proceeded to our discussion. It was a large group and was attended by the Governor, again it was great to see a female Governor. This time the discussion was not so peaceful, there was a lot of worry over pricing of raw fibre and although the herders wanted to support the National industry by selling direct to the factories they couldn’t guarantee it as the Chinese offer a higher price each year. However it was great to see them stand up for themselves and to know exactly what they want instead of letting the factories dictate to them.

Narinteel Herder women

Narinteel herders association

As usual i was fascinated by the deels and especially combined with fur covered Russian motorbikes (the modern day replacement for the horse), however as we found out they were just as interested in us and regularly took photos of us too, at the end of the discussion a group of teenage girls found us and insisted we help them with their English homework. It worries me when there are questions i don’t know the answer to!!!

Nariinteel

Nariinteel temple

We were then rushed off to our accomodation for the night, we boarded the jeep and drove approx. 20metres away to the Governors building, it would have been quite the walk! It seemed us 2 volunteers were to be staying in a bedroom set up in the office building, a nice warm room with 3 beds, a pail of well water and a television.

That evening we had dinner in the same Ger we had been to for lunch, i cant really remember what we ate but there was mutton, maybe soup with special extra fatty pieces. Then back to our bedroom, it appeared we were given the only key to the building so no pressure not to loose the governors key. Now usually i sleep very well but this night for some reason i was awake at 2am but didn’t stir until 4am when i realised my friend was also awake, we decided that as we were not going to sleep anytime soon we would put on the telly and see what Nariinteel Soum had to offer at 4am for entertainment, it seems a Toni Braxton music video marathon!!! Then the inevitable happened, i needed the loo, or the wooden slats located out the back on the building. I was not too pleased with this but it had to be done, so i went outside and again i was transfixed by the night sky in all its glory. Once i came out of my transfixture i decided i didn’t want to go round the back of the building as i had remembered that was where a local dog slept and i couldn’t deal with that in my pajamas so i just went outside the building, obviously nobody was around, there wasn’t a single sound in the Soum but i was then worried that what i had done would freeze any second now and in the morning the Governor would know and id feel bad for peeing outside her important building so i went back inside and grabbed the pail of well water and threw it over the ground, a bit like flushing the toilet i guess. That made me feel much better.

Day 3 Mutton Butz for breakfast, this really was just too much for me so early, but you gotta eat so i did and off to Khairkhandulaan we went.

This was easily the biggest discussion group we encountered on our trip and they felt the same about prices. But it was also easily the most stylish of the Soums, i mean the Herders. Maybe because it was just after Tsaagan Sar but the Deels, chaps, boots, belts, hats and Russian motorbikes were incredible, the best so far as seen in the pictures.

Khairkhandulaan herders association

Khairkhandulaan herders on bikes

Khairkhandulaan herders

Khairkhandulaan herder on Russian bike

Khairkhandulaan herder

We were happy to go back to Arvaheer after and to the comfort of a hotel and shower. We spent the evening enjoying not mutton but the local chinese restaurant with another VSO volunteer based in town and then onto a new bar to meet all the Peace Corps. A lovely time as had by all and what a lovely town Arvaheer is.

Day 4 fried egg for breakfast, Yes!!! Never has an egg excited me so.

the road less travelled Bat-Olzii

driving to Bat-Olzii

driving to Bat-Olzii

Then off to the final Soum Bat-Olzii in the North of the aimag, as they say in Mongolia the last camel carries the heabiest load and getting to Bat-Otzii was the most difficult of the soums to reach, there was alot of snow, we got stuck a few times but we got there eventually. It was a beautiful Soum in the mountains surrounded by pines and trees and obviously a prosperous income from all the wood. Now what i didn’t get was how can such a beautiful place had such bad Tsuivan (#4), it was awful and dry and the cafe was freezing, just awful.

VSO in Bat-Olzii

Beautiful Bat-Olzii

Bat-Olzii

The discussion however was good, much smaller and the 1st male Governor we had met so far as well as the 1st Soum to have yaks, due to the altitude. We decided after the meeting to drive back to UB as the awful cafe was the only cafe and above it was an equally awful hotel hence the decision to drive 7hours back to the city.

By this time i was relieved to be heading back to my apartment and my lovely bed, along the drive i saw my first caravan or herd of camels in the road, beautiful creatures, some were even blonde, they do however look quite uncomfortable when they run, not quite as elegant as the horses.

blonde camel drving back to UB

Camels

And so we got back to UB at 1am and enjoyed the perks of the city before starting over again in Hovsgol.

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About rdamm

I am about to embark upon a V.S.O. placement for one year in UB, Mongolia. I shall be working as a textile designer at Mongol Nekhmel, a textile company that produces cashmere, yak and camel hair clothing and homeware. I shall be sharing the skills i have gained in the last 10 years as a designer, creating connections and helping to open-up the products to the European and Japanese markets, therefore hopefully assisting to bring herding communities out of poverty. The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of V.S.O. www.vso.org.uk www.vsointernational.org
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