If you were expecting tales from Tajikistan they will be with you soon but a perspective of more than 48 hours will probably give you a more interesting report, so for now I will fast track you through Mongolia on my very best ‘wind horse’.
The 1st July in Mongolia is like the 1st May in Northern Europe. The swallows have just arrived and started nesting, it has finally warmed up and the risk of frost or even late snow has gone and the flowers begin to bloom – all at the same time. The result is thousands of square miles of empty steppe every inch covered with a dense tapestry of hundreds of varieties of the most wonderful rare miniature alpine and more familiar garden flowers. Many I had seen before; edelweiss, orchids, lilies, saxifrage, delphiniums and forget me nots but some were not familiar. And everywhere the smell of the herb absinthe as it is crushed under the wheels of our 4×4 – as there are only a handful of roads and travel takes you at best along mud tracks or more often across the open steppe.
If you spent the majority of your life in temperatures regularly -35C you would celebrate the hot but only 6 week long summer and the Mongolians certainly do with their 3 day Naadam festival. In many respects it feels familiar as any English countryside county fair, people traveling from the surrounding area, dressed as for Ladies Day and showing off their skills and most importantly their horses.
The horse racing from a distance looks familiar too until you count the entries – about 150, look at the course length 30 Kms, the equipment – most are without saddles, the compulsory jockeys head protection from bike, motor cycle to over size construction workers helmets and then to the jockeys themselves most of whom are 6-10 years old, the age having been risen recently as a 4 year old won the main race. The noise as they leave the starting gate is nothing to the thunder as they head off into the distance and the cheering for the winner who is immediately taken to the winners enclosure where the horses sweat is scrapped off and used as a blessing on the forehead to anyone wanting good luck in the coming year.
Food and drink follow the horse, archery and wrestling completion days. In the winter Mongolians eat a lot of meat – horse, beef, yak, mutton and goat in the summer however they cannot keep meat fresh and have an abundance of dairy products so for a while adopt a white diet, mares milk – curd fresh and dried rock hard, yogurt and fermented as already described. For us as visitors we were served ‘beef’ often twice a day which tasted remarkably like horse to me but I thought the better of mentioning this to my fellow travellers not wishing to turn them to the prescribed vegetarian diet of tomatoes and cucumber at all meals.
I could do the clever link discussing the extent of the Mongolian empire all the way to Tajikistan or I could just say they seem to have an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers here too…..