It’s been a long day on and off the bike. All day sweating in the sun, slogging along gravelly/sandy roads, through which the back wheel drags and every incline requires pushing rather than pedalling. The mosquitoes are biting and my slow pace means they’re a permanent presence: I wear full length layers to keep them out, but it keeps the heat in and the Russian-strength mosquito spray mixes with the sweat on my forehead and runs down my face, stinging the eyes. I’m hot, tired and frustrated at the slow progress, I’ve averaged 5mph today. The incline drags on and I’ve been pushing for the last half hour.
Finally, I crest the top. The reward is beautiful: a mountain lake, 2,000m high and surrounded on all sides by rolling green hills, bathed in the soft rays of a long summer sunset. The track I’m following leads down to the gently rippling water, follows around the lake and passes by the white flecks of Gers (Yurts), accompanied by a smattering of cattle and goats.
The other side of the lake I see a group of three Gers, a waft of smoke drifting welcomingly from each one. The three families (or is it one extended) are sat in the centre, talking jovially whilst the kids buzz and hum around the outside. My tired legs give me the answer before I’ve even thought of the question – this is where I’ll sleep tonight. As I approach, the kids see me first and come running towards me – scouts and emissaries heading out to greet the foreign stranger. With a wave and a “hello” I carry on towards the adults, who have now looked up to see the what the commotion is about. I clear my throat. Now, with 20 eyes upon me spanning four generations, is not the time for timid pleasantries.
“Sen Baian Uu?” I announce in my best forthright manner.
A brief pause while the group takes stock of the bedraggled, bearded cyclist with flies surrounding him, who stands before them.
“Sain Sen Bain Uu!” responds one of the men, in kind.
Success. It seems I will be welcome here tonight. Safety for the night assured, I begin to go through the motions to make my intentions clear, first pointing at my tent “Maikhan”, then making the mime for sleep “Untakh” and finally a general wave of the hand in the area surrounding the Gers, “End” (“here”). The group of adults disperse, back to their respective gers and evening chores, whilst the chap who answered begins to show me where to camp. There always follows a debate between myself and my hosts, where best to pitch the tent?
“The grass is good here”…
“ah but the cows will be there”…
“this area is not flat”…
“that’s where we milk the goats”…
Finally a consensus is agreed upon and I’m shown to a spot and left to my own devices to set up my camp.
With the adults having now left me alone, the kids rush back in to the attention vaccuum. The older ones at the front, with the younger peering from behind legs, watching with curiosity as I construct my own, smaller Ger. I put them to work carrying the bags, each the same size as the child. They’re happy to be involved.
A change of clothes in a stolen moment of privacy, before it’s back to playing the entertainer. The rear baggage rack provides a good seat for a Mongolian kid, so I give the eldest a turn riding on the back as I pedal around camp. Buoyed by the success of their elder sibling, the younger ones follow until everyone has had their turn. The parents look on, roll their eyes, then invite me into the Ger for a cup of tea.
I step inside, right foot first over the threshold, as is traditional to avoid bad luck in superstitious Mongolia. Two beds sit around the perimeter, with further blankets on the floor, then a waist high cabinet, orange and decorated with dragon motifs, sits opposite the door, holding on top various bottles, a three piece folded mirror and black and white photos of proud Mongolian men and women. On the floor next to them is a satellite TV, solar charged battery and phone chargers. Two central pillars, a few inches in diameter, support the weight of the sloped ceiling, meeting the roof at opposite sides of a central circle which is left open to let in light and fresh air. Directly below is the stove, burning wood and dung, with the tea gently simmering on top. The Ger smells typically Mongolian – earthy, alive, of livestock and milk and goat meat curing from strings on the ceiling – a smell that made me retch the first time, but is now as natural to me as the milky, salty tea passed to me (to my right hand, for good luck) as I sit down, served with curds and sweetened fried bread. The food miles are low, all of 200ft. from source to plate.
The generations span the Ger, from the elderly Great Grandmother, her daughter, her son, then the sprawling, ever present children, who I can’t work out if they’re grandchildren, neices, nephews, or sons and daughters. We communicate in broken English/Russian/Mongolian, with a generous amount of gesticulation. I pull out my map and start naming places, a well worn tactic for mutual understanding but the conversational themes are quickly exhausted and I sit back on my stool to observe. Family life is routine and traditional, daughters come and go with milk from the evening milking, sons ride horses or motorbikes to herd the goats, the Grandad lies down and fetches the vodka from a cupboard, the great Grandma chooses her moment and puts it away again. The man who first greeted me and who’s Ger I’m in, wants to talk motorbikes, whilst constantly encouraging me to eat and drink. The Grandma, his mother, (although only in her fifties at a guess) brews the tea, before stepping back outside to herd a calf into the pen. She’s strong, grabbing the calf by the head and the legs, dragging it into it’s safe home for the night. There’s a real hardiness to the people here: the kids outside wrestle for fun, knocking each other about, then inside get a firm cuff from the parents for being too noisy. With winters getting down to -40, a thump from a sibling is small fry.
After a few more cups of tea, I say my thanks and head back to the tent, with little opposition from my hosts. The language barrier is high and besides, it’s getting dark outside. For a tired cyclist this is a good level of hospitality: a safe night, a few cups of tea, but not exhausting, vodka-fuelled conversation late into the night. I boil some water and knock up a quick final meal, fuel for tomorrow, eaten in the tent alone. Popping out to brush my teeth and relieve myself, the stars and galaxies are already out in the moonless sky above, more than I could possibly count, with the milky way a great ribbon through the centre. I fall asleep to noises centuries old, the gentle mooing of cows, braying of horses and waves from the lake lapping the shore.