Newsflash: Following in the footsteps of the 'Man of the Millenium' Gengis Khan, it appears that backpacking badger finally crossed the Chinese Border into Mongolia, allegedly accompanied by an Olympic bobsleigher of Puerto Rican descent. Reports of excessive vodka consumption have been corroborated by local authorities.
So I finally made it to Mongolia! And here's what I learnt: Mongolians have warped tastebuds. It's a fact. Here's just a tempting taster of the culinary delights that the Mongolian kitchen has to offer:
- Airag - or fermented mare's milk. Yes - it is a slightly alcoholic (we are in Mongolia after all) drink which tastes like vinegar and cheese at the same time. Interesting.
- Blowtorched marmot. Step 1: Get a gun. Step 2: Loiter menacingly around marmot holes. Step 3: Shoot marmot. Step 4: Blowtorch marmot. Step 5: Consume marmot. Step 6: (Optional) Vomit.
- Sheep Intestines. Sadly I didn't partake in this culinary feast (I've never been more pleased and relieved to call myself a vegetarian). Tastes like s*** apparently... literally.
- Camel milk tea. With salt. 'Acquired taste' takes on a new meaning here.
- Dried Yak Cheese. Now I'm a huge fan of hard cheese - but this one takes the biscuit. Not only is it bitter and acidic and sour all at the same time - it's also rock hard - so hard that you have to suck the stuff for at least an hour before you can chew it...
I spent a week in Beijing before heading north to Gengis land and had a wonderful old time seeing all the sights and hiking along the Great Wall. I was also looking forward to exploring 'Old Beijing' - but some bright spark seems to have bulldozed the lot - with just a few suspiciously new-looking 'old' buildings remaining. Even parts of the Great Wall look like they were built in 2006... Roaming around the gorgeous Forbidden City and relaxing in the gardens of the Summer Palace were undoubted highlights along with perhaps the most bizarre night of my trip so far - which involved two Slovenians, a Croatian, a Rwandan, an Argentinian and little old me, a Star Trek karaoke booth, a LOT of alcohol, a United Nations rendition of Scarborough Fair and a very very very sore head the next day...
Mongolia is huge, vast, empty and beautiful. The whole of the country feels like some sort of elaborate film set and it's so deserted and wide and open and free that it makes you feel like running open-armed through the wilderness. (Ok - confession time - I have done this on two occasions...) The hills of the steppes roll and fold effortlessly into one another and the light at dusk and dawn bestows the landscape with an impossibly photogenic rich golden tinge. Leave the city behind and the modern world just seems to melt away and what looks like Middle Earth remains: sealed roads become dust tracks and Soviet-style apartment blocks give way to the Mongolian Ger - a wonderfully cosy circular tent-home used by the 40% of Mongolians who are still nomadic.
Staying and working on a ranch in Northern Mongolia was both exhausting and incredible - let's just say that haystacks are much, much heavier than they look... We milked cows and shepherded goats (I love them and I want one!) and transported hay and carried a cow's carcass with our bare hands (I nearly cried) and generally helped out with the lengthy preparations for the long hard winter.
Spending a week in the Gobi desert involved Russian vans, flat tyres (3!), flaming cliffs, scouring the land for dinosaur eggs, spectacular sunsets, huge silky sand dunes, two-humped camels stinking of rotten cabbage, striking lunar landscapes, diarrhoea, vodka, lovely warm gers, lighting fires, shooting stars, cobalt blue skies, blue-eyed goat herders, Boney M's One Way Ticket, lots and lots and lots of bumps, surreal Dali-esque scenery, Buddhist stupas and a hell of a lot of Haribo...
Well that's just about it for this installment - but some of you may be pleased/ disappointed / suicidal (delete as appropriate) to hear that backpacking badger is indeed hanging up her backpack and heading back to blighty on the 15th December 2010. Looking forward to all those catch-up drinkies! xxxxxx