There’s a couple of ways you can get to Terelj National Park from Ulan Baatar. First, and easiest, you can get a hostel or hotel to organise a trip for you. Second, and most economical, you can just show up for the 4pm bus and get on with it yourself.
After affording myself the luxury of a driver to Boroo, I decided that really only option 2 was available. So I duly turned up at the stop with a scrap of paper with “Тэрэлж” written on it. A sharp elbowed teenage scrum surrounded the bus door, leaving only myself, a Taiwanese girl wearing a face mask, and a man on crutches in bewilderment.
Fortunately there was one seat remaining at the back of the bus. Unfortunately it was to be shared with a gentleman who occupied 80% of it. His primary activity was to count his money, then gabble on the phone for 30 minutes. After which he enjoyed a brief snack of pine nuts before settling down for a good snore. A young brother and sister boarded. They delighted in eating custard creams over my lap, showering me with crumbs as they stared at my hair. The girl in front reclined her seat fully. At this point you remind yourself that the journey is costing less than 70p.
I get off at Turtle Rock, which seems like a major enough tourist attraction to merit accommodation.I catch an old man returning from milking his cows. He makes the sign for sleeping by putting his hands beneath his head. I do likewise and nod. He shows me into a ger and then returns with a basket of logs and a flame throwing device to light the stove. Soon the ger is nice and toasty. A knock on the door and some teenage girls enter. One can speak English and the other two just giggle. She tells me that she can ‘talk english’ but not understand. Fine I think, that’s about my speed for foreign languages also.
They show me to the kitchen where the grandmother is hacking up some mutton. Would I like dinner? Well, I suppose I would. Although maybe less so now I’ve seen that the water is coming from a dirty old plastic drum in the corner. In the spirit of things I agree to a meal.Twenty minutes later granny shows up in the ger with some nice fatty meat and a pile of waxy potatoes. To wash it all down is milk tea: hot water, milk and salt for the uninitiated. Like the calorie requirement of Sir Ranulph Fiennes for a girl who just sat on a bus all evening.
Before midnight she comes back again with a huge sack of coal and dumps it on the stove, bag and all, ensuring sauna-like conditions up until 2am. The heat and carbon monoxide induced delirium ends at 3am when the ger turns into a giant fridge and I scavenge blankets from the other beds.
The next day I decide to wander a bit further into the park. I don’t get too far before a car pulls over and asks if they can give me a lift. It turns out to be a hiking club called “echo” and they’re on a special excursion with 26 orphans from the city. Not content with an even number, they adopt me as an extra one. In exchange for lunch I humiliate myself at football, play terrible volleyball (fear of staved fingers has stayed with me since high school) and excel myself at skipping weirdly enough. There simply aren’t enough instances when being good at skipping comes in handy. Imagine, tough question at work you can’t answer, but then you pull out the rope and do 10 consecutive skips on one leg. Ha!
The hikers drop me at another ger camp on the way back to the city. Which could, in kind terms, be described as rustic. You’d get a picture but my VPN is not cooperating this side of the border. Another old nomadic man and his teenage boy show me into the tent. On my way to the outhouse/long drop hut I encounter their neighbour, Bimba, who is sawing wood with the boy. Bimba would like to show me the TV in his ger, and hands me the remote proudly before I barely cross the threshold. He lifts the special TV doily (to keep it warm?) to reveal a beast of a set. There are 50 Mongolian channels of cooking and wildlife to peruse. A couple of music channels have blonde female singers gyrating provocatively. I decide they might not send the right message to Bimba. I’m no Rita Ora, thank you please. The channel gets stuck on a Celine Dion world tour special. She’s in Johannesburg, and going on safari to scare the wild animals.
Bimba returns from wood chopping and boils hot water. He makes me a black tea. Which is not a bad change from milk tea. He pulls the sugar out of a drawer, indicating that it was safe from mice there. He then combs his hair and moustache. It seems like he is pulling out all the stops. At this point I’m slightly concerned that Bimba is lining me up to be his wife so I don’t stay too much longer.
A couple of hours later there is a knock on my ger door, and Bimba has prepared dinner. Saying no in Mongolia is somewhat of a taboo, but in this case I think it is the best course of action. I don’t think we’re compatible, and I certainly don’t see a future where I’m preparing his mutton the way he likes it every day. I go to the old man’s ger instead where there is a bit of a party kicking off. They’ve got the vodka and sweets out and are watching “Sumo Robot Wards” on the TV. Again, they duly offer me the remote to flick. The Celine Dion programme is still on. She’s in Dubai now, selecting costumes that cover her body parts. The party groans, nobody wants to see that, so we go back to the sparring robots. The group sings Mongolian songs to me, and then we finish on “Happy Birthday”. I don’t know if it was anyone’s birthday.
I’m a bit weary now, so I tell them I’d quite like to head back and sleep. The old man is having none of it. He helps my coat on and points to the road. Is he throwing me out? Apparently not, but he thinks I should have dinner judging by the mimes. We’re in the wilderness, in the only habitation for some kilometres so I’m not exactly sure where I’m supposed to get a meal from. After some remonstration, I insist I’m OK and go to bed, only to find that I’m sharing the tent with a mouse. My sister, who knows of these things, texts me to say snake poo is an effective deterrent. So is peppermint. Seems I forgot my snake dirt toothpaste. The shot of vodka they made me take at the party is turning to battery acid in my stomach, so I see his point about food.
Now that the stove is lit, the cows are sleeping against the walls of the tent enjoying the warmth. I fall asleep to the sound of chewing cud.