So when Noah was invited on his third weekend away with a friend from school, this time we invited ourselves along, lured by a train journey and the opportunity to visit another city – Mongolia’s second largest. We set off for the station at 8.30am which was a bit of a struggle and a rush going by the last few lazy Saturdays we’d had. We met Noah’s friend, Sasha, and his mum, Oogii, in the ticketing hall and thankfully she is Mongolian so knew exactly how the queuing system worked and was able to communicate all of our dates of births – not the first thing you think you’d need for a train ticket – easily. Before we knew it the half hour that we had disappeared and we were running down the platform, past the big old diesel engine and carriages that I thought we’d be travelling on towards a very modern looking train. After lots of Mongolian discussions, about the fact that no one sits where their ticket number says, a couple of Mongolians moved and we were seated for the 4 hour journey on a train that I have to say was very modern and similar to those in the UK.
It was great to see some Mongolian countryside, for 4 hours the train twisted in and out of the snow covered mountains stopping at a handful of settlements on the way, some with just a little hut as a station, until a power station loomed in the distance and we discovered that Darkhan was just around the corner. There are many benefits to travelling with a Mongolian back to her hometown and one is that half her family still live there, so on arrival Oogii’s brother met us to take us back to another brother’s apartment. There were us 5, Sasha, Oogii and her niece plus her brother but here in Mongolia there don’t seem to be any laws (or any laws that anyone obeys) regarding number of people in a car, so 9 of us piled in and travelled 5 minutes to new Darkhan and their apartments. We had kindly been offered Oogii’s sisters apartment which happened to be in the same block as her brothers. No sooner had we settled in and it was time to go out again. We hired some sledges and then, 10 of us this time, squeezed in the car for a lift up the hill to a good sledging site. It really was great, like a bobsleigh run with ridges up the side, a turn to the left and even a big step up at the end!
I managed it a couple of times before we began the walk to Oogii’s parents’ house as we were a little cold. Later we discovered it had been about -30, so I’m impressed we lasted the hour that we did. We entered her parent’s apartment and immediately felt welcome. Her mum is one of 13 and Oogii one of 7 children so clearly they are used to homes full of people. There was instant juice for the children, coffee for the adults, pastries to eat and when her mum felt this wasn’t enough she appeared 10 minutes later with a plate of hot eggy bread, much to the children’s delight as they were still thawing out.
We returned to our apartment and 20 minutes later went for tea at Oogii’s brothers at 5pm, he wanted to entertain us with traditional Mongolian fayre – this meant buutz (mutton dumplings) and vodka! They also thought we’d like beer so went out to the shops especially for us, this was before we knew that there would be vodka and homemade red wine on offer too. So 4 hours, a bottle of vodka, a large bottle of red wine, a couple of beers, some Korean vodka, 2 buutz (sadly that’s a poor show but all I could manage, Mongolians eat about 20) and copious chocolates that happened to be on the table (to try and soak up the alcohol), we agreed that we’d had a lovely evening, feeling like we had really been given a genuine insight into Mongolian entertaining and THEN we agreed to coming round again for breakfast!
Breakfast was proudly presented by Oogii’s brother again and consisted of much the same. Imagine, if you will, feeling a little delicate and getting up for a breakfast at 9 that consists of mutton, potatoes, carrots, Mongolian tea (which is a very milky, salty, version, not a bit like ours really), a cup of coffee and a little tongue in cheek, more red wine – apparently we needed to eat meat to stop us getting cold later and because we were eating meat we needed to drink wine! Well, we decided that whilst in Mongolian – do as the Mongolians do. After our hearty breakfast the children went with Oogii and Sasha to see her dog and as it turns out walk on a frozen lake whilst Pete and myself went for a walk to Mongolia’s only suspension bridge which links a seated Buddha statue with a Morin Khuur (horse head fiddle) one. It felt good to be outside again breathing unpolluted air and standing by the statues we had good views across the city. After about 20 minutes though it was time to head back as neither the meat, nor the wine was doing a very good job of keeping us warm and the wind chill was -35.
Before long, the children returned and it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to the train station. The return journey was 4 and 1/2 hours and definitely felt longer. After 2 hours we stopped at a popular station and from that point the train was crowded, 4 people sharing 3 seats, Noah on my lap, cabin fever took hold and despite sharing sweets around our section at one point the children resorted to human skittles which involved train surfing in the aisle until a little Mongolian boy of no more than 2 and 1/2 walked from his mum to his dad and let nothing in his way stop him. If you got pushed over you were out! Tired and craving some toast and marmite we returned to UB at 7pm, just in time to unpack our weekend bags, pack the school bags, shower, eat and fall into bed, exhausted but happy to have enjoyed a weekend out of the city and a weekend of true Mongolian hospitality.