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Mongolia by proxy #1

by Bernard H. Wood on February 8, 2013

Trips and Tales (Part 99)

From May to October MB manages Elstei camp, a mere 30 minutes out of Ulaanbataar. Positioned between sands – “not quite dunes” as MB describes them – to the north and plains to the south, easy access is granted to both as well as localised trekking-country suitable for the horse riding that the major proportion of paying guests enjoy. Almost everyone ends up riding, MB tells me, whether they are amongst the 50% (approx) that arrive with that specifically in mind or not. It must be hard to refuse when presented with the scenery that MB describes under endless blue Mongolian skies.

Elstei is a 30 to 40 Ger facility with a restaurant capable of catering (literally) to the varied tastes of guests from other cultures. Well, there’ll be something that everyone can eat at least even if the minutiae of every culture is not explored.

“Most stay here at the end of their programs,” MB tells me and after exposure to the heavy Mongolian diet of meat and dairy, the camp’s Russian and Indian cooks can offer something a little kinder to a person’s embattled innards by way of easing them back into “home” mode. I was wondering just what the hell I would be able to eat on a Mongolian stay-over, fancying neither of the staples. Fortunately fish and vegetables are available for my piscaterian/vegetarian tastes.

Under the blue skies of the Mongolian countryside

As other cultures fascinate me, I would be loathe to cause offence by refusing their kind offers of food. I’m sure that this must have crossed the mind of many a travelling “fussy eater” grown accustomed to the luxury of picking and choosing after a quick “pop down the shops”. Somehow when you have nurtured it and killed it, and are prepared to share some for free to outsiders, it comes across as something of a “bigger deal” to any with even the slightest amount of consideration.

MB tells me that this is not necessarily the issue that I may have first assumed. As with the availability of vegetarian food generally, it appears to be more of an “issue” the further away from the city or the camp a person travels. Locally and in-town, people have become a little more used to Westerners and their funny-ways, so a polite decline is not necessarily the start of an international incident.

Actually, MB reveals a certain playful curiosity in seeing just how far these foreign visitor types will go in sampling some of the outer limits of hacked-off this and that, all washed down with fermented mare’s milk – a brew that apparently can have quite a kick to it (no pun intended). Yes they will (I hear) stop short of feeding you pieces of rug and looking on expectantly, only indulging if the guinea pig is actually game for it. In essence it appears that the further outward you venture, the further back into tradition you simultaneously travel, and the more likely you are to push the issue of food-etiquette and the sensibilities of the culture offering to feed you.

Most visitors will fall under the generic blanket of “Western” he tells me: central European, English or American. Some may already be living in the East or travelling down the Trans-Siberian Railway. Others are “professional tourists”, here with serious intent to sample the landscape, culture and traditions of their hosts. Outside of the Western contingent; a significant percentage of Japanese are also in yearly attendance.

Each Ger contains between two and four beds making the venue suitable for lone travellers, couples, small groups and families. OK, it’s a given that you wont be attending if you are hoping to find amusement arcades and a log flume, MB and his crew are heading more towards the authentic at least. Even though this may include non-traditional exploits such as mountain biking, it does offer by contrast such delights as the Mongolian perennial favourite: ankle-bones. This was covered in some depth in an earlier blog post but essentially it is just that : the ankle bones of sheep and goats, tossed with the intent of landing in various configurations depending upon the game being played.

Oh yes, they are quite flexible in their repertoire: whether you fancy a round of “horse racing” or “birthing camels” it’s all there. Think of it as their equivalent of “cards” in 3D, but with added calcium and a good deal more vigour.

More next time.



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