September 4th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia
Transcribed from written journal

We’re in UB for the next two nights. The return of electricity means I suppose I could type this rather than handwrite it, but I’d like to keep this journal fairly consistent.

Yesterday we were getting fairly frustrated with our supposed “training” regime. We were supposed to go riding around ten, but we didn’tt leave until half past eleven. When Mendee isn’t around (which is most of the time) organisation goes out the window. Even when he is there it’s a pretty haphazard affair.

We were riding with the guide who had been singing around the campfire the previous night – a lovely man, but he doesn’t speak a lick of English, which makes learning anything difficult. We were on new horses. Mine was quite energetic and never wanted to stop moving, but Chris had trouble getting his to go without a thousand exhortations of “choo!” Both of our horses tended to the right, like a car with dodgy steering.

We went ona ninety-minute circuit of the surrounding hills, with our horses fairly content to follow our guide. Horses seem a lot like dogs: there’s nothing they delight in more than shoving their nose firmly up another horse’s ass, even if that horse has just shat all over its hind legs. At one point my horse booked it for the ass of Chris’ horse, but for some reason turned aside at the last second, rubbing its head against the other horse’s thigh and resulting in my left knee being shoved firmly into the other horse’s anus.

As we drew closer to the camp, our guide communicated that he needed to go somewhere, but that we should carry on home ourselves. He galloped off over the hills, and our suspicions that our horses were only managable when following a guide were confirmed. Our horses wheeled and whinnied and wandered aimlessly, despite our kicks and reign directions and shouts of “choo!” We eventually managed to coax them down the hill and tie them to the line, although it was a difficult task.

We had lunch and sat around reading for a while. “This is bullshit,” Chris said. “We’re paying $50 a day for this and we’re spending 70% of our time sitting around doing nothing. I mean, what was that before? Was that ‘orientation training’?”He did an imitation of our Mongolian guide, smiling blankly and pointing around at the hills.

“Well, let’s ask them if we can go riding again,” I said. My ass wasn’t thrilled by the propsect, though.

We found the other guide, the younger one who speaks slightly more English. (We’ve been told their names several times, but I simply cannot remember a foreign name unless I see it written down; I’m bad enough at remembering Western names.) We asked him if we could go riding again, and he seemed open to that, so we untied the horses and took off again.

The first half hour of that ride was a nightmare, because that was how long it took to cover two hundred metres down the valley. Our horses simply refused to move. When we did manage to get them going, it was impossible to make them go in a straight line and follow the guide. “This fucking sucks,” I said. “I don’t want to spend two weeks either standing still or zig-zagging across the landscape.”

Fortunately this guide spoke a little more English, and could therefore point out what I was doing wrong. “You always hold too close,” he said, pointing at my reigns. I was pulling back on them (the signal to stop) and also saying choo, which was sending the horse mixed messages. He also suggested I hold the reigns with one hand to make the horse turn more easily, which seemed to work better. After a while our horses fell into a steady rhythm, following our guide. I hope it just takes them a while to get into it; I still felt like if the guide were to disappear, they’d behave like headless chooks.

We tried galloping, which was more comfortable than cantering or trotting, but not by much. You can either sit down and have your ass-bone pounded to powder (man, horse-riding is full of innuendos), or stand up and have tthe stirrups rub the skin off your shins. Walking is much more tolerable (which is good, because that’s what we’ll be doing 99% of the time) but even a few hours of that rips up your body. I have aching muscles all over. I hope it’s like Collie, where your body aches for the first few days of skiing and biscuiting but then adjusts. Otherwise it’s going to be a painful journey.

I was becoming disillusioned with the whole idea, partly because of the physical pain and partly because controlling the horses was so difficult. Chris, on the other hand, was becoming disillusioned with it becuse he found it boring. “It’s not like riding a bike or driving a car, where you have to stay focused all the time,” he said. “The horse does everything and you just sit there.”

“Well what did you think it was going to be like?”

“Fun. The landscape is pretty repetitive, and if you take away the fun – or it’s supposed to be fun – off riding a horse, well, that’s it.”

“‘I was never here for the horses. I just wanted to go camping and be in this environment. The horses were just a bonus.”

“The landscape is all the same. It’s just empty hills.”

“We’ve only been in this one tiny part. There’s forests, mountains, lakes…”

We argued about this for a while, but it was a moot point. For different reasons, both of us were considering throwing in the towel on horses and buying a pair of motorcycles or a four-wheel drive instead.

On the way back to camp, we stopped to visit a ger in a neighbouring valley. That sounds romantic and adventurous, doesn’t it? Riding horses and stepping inside a genuine Mongolian nomad ger? The thing about the people who live traditional lifestyles, though – be they Mongolian nomads or Amazonian tribesmen or Saharan tuaregs – is that although Westerners build them up as shiny virtuous noble savages, they generally live in abject poverty, and abject poverty equals abject squalor. There is nothing good about that. Ever since the industrial revolution, we’ve been stuck with the nagging suspicion that the way we live in modern society is Not Natural and must therefore be Wrong. That is why Oprah croons about how the Amish live such “pure and simple” lives, why tens of thousands of backpackers every year go to visit Authentic Tribal Villages in South-East Asia, and why people make movies like “Fight Club” or “Avatar.” People who grow up in a monotonous first-world suburbia lash out at it, without realising that the alternative is a monotonous third-world slum. These people whom we objectify in our minds as somehow living “better” lives than us would happily trade their gers and horses for cars, televisions and hospitals. (Many of them attempt to do so, and find that such luxuries are not forthcoming, but that’s not the point – this is about the attitude we Westerners hold towards them.)

I’ve written about this in the past, and actually visiting the developing world has only made these beliefs stronger. We watched “Lawrence of Arabia” in Beijing, a film that clearly positions the viewer to idealise the native tribes of Arabia, but I just couldn’t buy it. There’s a scene where an American reporter asks Lawrence why he likes the desert, and he replies “Because it’s clean.” He’s speaking metaphorically, but I still thought: “Really, Lawrence? Because this is a place where there’s no trees and water is precious, so I’m wondering what the Arabs do after they shit.” That’s what’s always behind the scenes, in movies and glossy Lonely Planet photographs: the shit. Visit these people who seem so exotic and wonderful, and you’re going to find squalor, filth and poverty. The illusion usually evaporates when you catch your first whiff of faeces.

Case in point, anyway – we sat around outside the ger waiting for our guide to locate the owner, noting the pieces of animal carcass, the bits of intestine, and some kind of rotting mushroom gourd strewn about the place. Inside the ger, we huddled around a table next to some bits of raw meat impaled on hooks on the wall, covered with buzzing flies. Our host gave us some bowls of yoghurt, out of a jar that was just sitting there on a hot day. Chris took one sip and wouldn’t touch any more; I drank most of mine to be polite, and paid for it the next morning. We tried some of the food we were offered as well – stale bread, awful cream and some kind of unappetizing chalky substance.

I don’t want to come off as a spoilt finicky Westener. I was grateful for his hospitality. But honestly, you try sitting in a wretched hovel in a developing country without feeling squeamish. Certain worlds should not collide. In any case, the point I was trying to make is that the people all over the world who live traditional lifestyles – in Mongolia, in Libya, in Brazil, wherever – aren’t happy simply by dint of not living in the Evil Commercialist West. Many of them would clearly like to; that’s why they wear our clothes and read our magazines and even try to immigrate to our countries. People decry globalisation, but they don’t seem to realise that it happens in large part because the people on the receiving end want it to. If the Mongolian kids of today are listening to K-Pop instead of traditional Mongolian throat singing, that’s their choice. I’m not saying people should completely throw out all their customs and traditions; it just bugs me that there’s a large number of Westerners, especially backpackers, who would like to keep that Mongolian man in his filthy ger rather than move him into a clean apartment, simply because they find it quaint.

Anyway, enough about that. I’m sure there’s plenty of Mongolian nomads (and Amazonian tribesmen, and Saharan tuareg) who would fiercely defend their lifestyles and denounce globalisation. That’s fine too. My point is that it’s up to the Mongolians (and more importantly, individual Mongolians) to decide. Western tourists shouldn’t come into the equation.

When we got back to camp we checked the photocopied Lonely Planet to see what kind of alternative transport there is in Mongolia. Motorcycles start at $1000 US and four-wheel drives at $5000 US, so that put the kibosh on that idea pretty quickly. We brooded about it for a while before eventually deciding to make a go of it anyway. I doubt we’ll manage more than two weeks tops, though, and that still leaves us with more than a week in UB sitting around waiting for our train to Russia.

A British couple arrived at the camp that evening for a single-day trek the next day, and we spent a pleasant evening talking to them. The next morning we were scheduled to go to the Black Market to buy the gear we needed, but we were hoping to talk over some of our doubts with Mendee. Unfortunately he was still nowhere to be found, so we jut drove into the city with the younger guide and started spending. Saddles, sleeping bags, jackets, beanies, bridles, hobbles, stakes, ties, saddlebags, boots and hats set us back 400,000 togrog; somewhere between $300 and $400 AUD. We can sell some of that back, but we still need to buy some other stuff – air mattresses, pillows, water tabs and especially food. We’re renting a tent, it’s cheaper.

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We’d organised to stay in UB tonight to have showers, soft beds and electricity before roughing it for more than a week, and since we still have heaps of stuff to get sorted we ended up deciding to stay here tomorrow night as well. The guide dropped us off at a guesthouse the Brits had reccomended and said he’d see us Monday. After he drove off, we found out it was full. Cue an afternoon of one of independent travel’s most frustrating activities: wandering around a strange town or city, carrying all your stuff on your back, looking for a hostel or guesthouse and finding over and over again that everywhere is either booked out or shithouse or both, all while the sun slowly drops towards the horizon.

Eventually we got lucky and found a place called Zaya’s Guesthouse, which was full, but which has a second location down some back streets. (Huge swathes of Ulaan Baatar remind me of “the projects” in any given Grand Theft Auto game: apartment blocks that somebody tried to craft into a nice community, but which instead became dilapidated dens of inner-city poverty, right down to the forlorn and deserted playgrounds.) We’re the only people at this second location… at all. No other guests, no staff. We basically have the run of an entire apartment to ourselvs, and it’s nice and clean and has hot water. We’ll definitely try to stay here again during our long wait for the train on the other side of the horse trek, however long that turns out to be.

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