A heart the size of a fist and a white sponge of lungs. A bloody liver lies beside a large stomach. Next to it, partially hidden under a massive rib, there are kidneys. A chain of intestinal encircles it all. Intestines pile up in front of us in a big, silver bowl. What, on earth, did we get ourselves into?
„Guten tag!”, through a narrow ribbon of a river, hidden in the falling darkness man greets us in German.
A moment later, we wade up to our knees in the river to join Andreas and his Mongolian friends in the middle of a picnic. Andreas is German. He works at a Mongolian university at a government project. Tomorrow, he goes back to Ulaanbaatar. He does not want to, however.
„Bayankhongor! This place is fantastic! Those surroundings! These people! The most wonderful people I have ever met. So warm, so open and hospitable. Even in Germany, I didn’t feel as good as here, with them.”
As in confirmation of his words, the Mongols, whom we have joined pour vodka into plastic cups, offer a watermelon, bread, meat and spaghetti. They give advice, recommendations of places, ask about many things and share pieces of their lives in return.
„Oh, but I know Poland very well”, says Andreas’s friend, Chimed. „I used to import cars from Szczecin. And your machine is a good one. Very strong!”, he comments with a smile. „You can easily go north tomorrow. To the hot springs. The road has no asphalt, and you have to cross a small river, but you can do it. No worries.”
At once, the GPS is put to work. Feverish fingers draw intricate lines, showing the best route to Shargaljuut.
A golden ball of sun greets us in the morning. It illuminates the mountain range surrounding Bayankhongor, a shimmering little river that snakes in front of our “living room” and shaggy cows casually strolling through the water. We leave the adorable view in the rear mirror and set off to the hot springs.
From an asphalt road, a road sign and a GPS direct us to the left, onto the beaten strap of gravel and sand. A broad, non-tarmac stretch will lead us through the next fifty kilometres. There are few potholes, occasional dips in the ground, which can break the wheel when overlooked, but overall it’s not too bad.
A few kilometres further, Andrzej hits the brakes and jumps out of a car grabbing the camera.
Just next to the road, a group of people sets up a new ger. On the ground, stand already its wooden ribs arranged in a circle. Carpets, pieces of heavy quilt-like cloths and white linen lie around. Some furniture stands patiently between the fabrics: a metal bed with an old mattress, a few small wooden cabinets and a stove that will be placed in the centre of the construction.
Men and women try to lay slats, forming the foundations of the conical roof. The air is filled with their constant commands, requests and cues.
Noticing the car, they stop the work halfway through and run toward us. All of them mahogany-tanned. With a web of wrinkles specific only to people working in ever burning sun. All happily excited and smiled as if they saw a long-expected friend.
They admire the car, the map with our route. Peeking inside, they comment on everything with a stream of words which meaning we cannot grasp.
Using the universal language of gesticulations, Andrzej obtains the permission to document setting up a ger. At the same time, a woman detaches from the group of people. She approaches me and gently but firmly pulls me towards a field stretched behind the gers and fenced with barbed wire. Through a meadow and a narrow stream with a makeshift dame, we enter a vegetable plantation.
Sketching a wide circle with her arm, the woman shows an impressive size of the field they farm. In Mongolian, she explains what grows here: carrots, cabbage, potatoes, beetroots and kohlrabi. All pressed into small crests of vegetable beds.
So far, travelling through Mongolia, we have not seen vegetable plantations. This place is historically a country of herders. Herds of cows, horses, goats and sheep are a typical sight. Animals feed on the roadside pastures, or they lazily walk on the roads and in front of the cars. Per three million citizens fall twenty-five million of cattle. No wonder that almost the entire available land is dedicated to pastures, with only 2% left for the farmlands. Not only herders tradition, but also a harsh climate creates difficulties for the agriculture. Summers burn with merciless sun and winters freeze with temperatures as low as 50 degrees sub-zero. Farming in Mongolia is rather a necessity than an outcome of tradition and culture.
And for this exact reason, the farm we are right now on differs from the ones I know – neat, organised, with parts dedicated for cultivated vegetables. Here, beds of potatoes mix with cabbage and beetroots, carrots with onions, and so on. Here and there, between the plants, grow lush weeds, but it seems as the veggies are not bothered by it at all.
Only these caterpillars. The woman bends over a big cabbage and with a visible sadness shows huge holes in its leaves. I cannot understand a word from her explanations, but her brow drawn in a painful grimace speak for itself. A plague. Putting her palm in an imitation of a gun, she mimics the spraying sound and sadly shakes her head. They cannot afford pesticides.
On our way back, the woman continually pulls some vegetables from the ground, dust them off the sand and compose an impressive bouquet. It goes to us – a gift for the road.
We are gone maybe for half an hour, and the ger is almost finished by now. Heavy quilts and rugs forming a roof, together with the wooden circle of walls, are now covered with a rustling sheet of plastic foil. The group of builders, with a visible effort, covers everything with a white canvas, only a little thinner than the sailing one. While they pull ropes which bond and strengthen the construction, the husband of my companion shows up. He invites us to their ger.
On the way, we pass an old tractor with parts laying all over, a shaggy black mongrel, whose show trick is jumping high up on the mistress’s order and a now-defunct 4×4 van, acting as a pen for the sheep in it.
The ger we enter is very spacious. On the left and the central walls, there are metal beds. On the right side lies a mattress. There is neither a furnace nor functional furniture here, so we conclude that it is a “guest ger”. Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm this.
Before we sit down, the hosts give us small bowls and pour a warm white liquid from the thermos -milk with water and salt.
As the guests, we are continually being entertained by the conversation. A conversation that is as fantastically strange as beautiful. None of us understands the language of the others. And yet, both sides try to grasp at least the outline of the message. We nod our heads enthusiastically when it seems that we have succeeded. We raise our arms with embarrassment when we fail. And yet, somehow we manage to find out that the name of our host is Ganbatar and his wife is Cendayush, we can explain that we are on the way to hot springs and understand that the hosts will let us go but only after we share a meal. How can we refuse such a gracious offer?
We sit on a blanket spread on the floor. In front of us, stands an aluminium bowl full of cooked sheep’s offal. The best bits served only to the esteemed guests. Ganbatar cuts a piece of meat with a sharp knife and then passes it to the next person. With a universal thumbs-up gesture, he points towards the parts of meat, signalling which one are the most delicious. He should know the best, as he killed the sheep and overlooked the cooking. Ganbatar is clearly proud of his skills and that he can share them with guests. His happiness is even greater when – following his footsteps – we cut off succulent pieces of meat and praise them the way he does it – with the thumbs-up.
Cendayush, repeatedly adds new variations of mutton to the silver bowl. Now, arrives stomach stuffed with meat and vegetables. Over and over, she pours an aromatic meat stock into small bowls. Next, to me, she puts a box with a raw rib and some cuts. Another gift for the road.
During the feast, one of the neighbours enters the ger. Ganbatar exchanges a few quick words with him. He nervously glances in our direction and goes back to the anxious conversation. It turns out it was raining in the mountains. The small river we were supposed to cross on the way to Shargaljuut is now a deep, rapid stream.
The hosts, together with their gathered in the ger neighbours, try to figure out how to help us. From all the headshakes we can see that they do not give us high chances. On the other hand, they do not want to disappoint guests and spoil their plans in any way.
Ganbatar and Cendayush jump on a motorbike. They gesture to follow them to another spot where crossing the river could be still possible. On the way, they repeatedly stop at the neighbouring gers to gather some more information. Finally, beside one of the yurts, they tell us to turn from the main road and follow them through a meadow. Before we leave, however, the owner of the ger offer us bits of hard and sweet cheese. Heaps of it he gives us for the road.
The meadow is boggy with large spots of mud, broken by the heat of the sun. Swaying mercilessly to the sides, we follow Ganbatar, trying to avoid sharp rocks appearing in the grass out of nowhere. Suddenly Andrzej hits the brakes. There is a barbered wire just under our wheels. At once, our hosts-turned-guides clear it off for us.
The spot where we are supposed to cross a river sparkles with a rapidly flowing, wide ribbon of water. The stream is deep – waist-high. From the other side of the river, someone advises following its centre, where the water level is quite low, and only then to hit the opposite bank.
Long conversations and head-shaking. Ganbatar takes his shoes off to check the water level at another spot. Finally, the decision is made – we are giving up. Cendayush sighs with relief, just as a worried mother would do.
Before we turn back to their ger, however, we sit down by the river with a bottle of beer. And again we start this strange and magical conversation where nobody understands anything. In which, more than with words, you speak with your soul and emotions. Together, we admire the beautiful mountainous surroundings, rise the toasts, exchange phone numbers which, later on, no one knows how to use, and we laugh heartily at our Polaroid pictures.
The Mongolian proverb says: “Keep your hardness on the outside and your love within”. The wisdom of the saying was proved different. From the very beginning, the only thing that was shown to us was love and warmth. Linguistic and cultural barriers crumbled into pieces in the face of utter selflessness, generosity and kindness which total strangers offered us. However, another Mongolian saying proved to be true: “Posts support a ger, friends support a man in difficulties”. It is a quintessence of the entire Mongolian nomadic culture. In the hour of need, you do not have to knock on the ger’s doors – they are always wide open. Be it to a herdsman, who needs some milk or cheese, or a random tourist who showed up at the door by a total accident.