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Tuesday, Oct 15, 2019

Three girls and a Mongolian hot-pot

Anecdotes from a girls’ trip to the steppes of Asia, which promised adventure and delivered surprises

brunch Updated: Oct 06, 2019 00:45 IST
Aarti Sethi
Aarti Sethi
Hindustan Times
(Aarti Sethi)
         

In the heat of Delhi’s summer, the idea of travelling to one of world’s coldest deserts is very, very appealing. So we set off for the Gobi desert in Mongolia, three girls, planning to camp in a ger, the multi-layered cloth and wood tent that has been used on the steppes for centuries. After all, those history classes about the glorious Mongols, the nomads who made an empire out of nothing, an empire larger than any that preceded or succeeded it, whether Alexandrian, Roman or Napoleonic, have to count for something!

Camping in a real ger, a multi-layered cloth and wood tent used on the steppes for centuries, takes tourists back in time
Camping in a real ger, a multi-layered cloth and wood tent used on the steppes for centuries, takes tourists back in time ( Aarti Sethi )

Now here we are in Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia’s capital – powering through the museums prior to heading to camp. In this erstwhile Soviet city with nice hotels, bars, and restaurants, complete with traffic snarls but minus Starbucks, I whizz through the museum on Mongolian dinosaurs, then dive into the National History Museum that displays the costumes and weapons of the nomadic tribes. It’s interesting to see that despite the ruthless reputation of the Mongols, torture instruments are invisible from their culture until later centuries when Chinese influence begins to show. The highlight of the museum is a completely reconstructed ger, with the inside as it would have been in the 12th century. I can’t help wondering how one survived in it, with raging storms and temperatures of 40 below zero. We will find out soon, as soon as we get out of the city.

But tonight, we are contemplating the cuisines of the region: local, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. We are most intrigued by the Mongolian hot pot. For centuries, as the nomadic tribes dwelled in their gers, they kept a soup boiling over the fire for most of the day. Freshly-slaughtered meat was cooked in this soup as and when the warriors returned to the village after pillage.

When in Mongolia, do try the traditional soup
When in Mongolia, do try the traditional soup ( Aarti Sethi )

In modern-day UB, as the capital is fondly called, we need several small meals a day just to figure out the many flavours. The Bull turns out to be an outstanding UB chain of eateries. The meats are fresh, raw, sliced and cubed, and with an array of fresh vegetables (and an alarming variety of mushrooms), they are meant to be dipped in a hot pot and cooked on the table. I have had this dish all over the world, but feel obliged to say that the Mongolian hot pot is the best in, well, Mongolia.

Seeing stars

It is a short flight on a small plane to our first camp on the outskirts of the southern Gobi. Although there is luxury to be had in these gers (like the Three Camel Lodge), we’ve chosen to stay as true as possible to the original version. The inside of our ger is basic, but surprisingly warm. The door is built on the southern side to avoid the screaming cold northern winds.

For centuries, as the nomadic tribes dwelled in their gers, they kept a soup boiling over the fire
For centuries, as the nomadic tribes dwelled in their gers, they kept a soup boiling over the fire ( Aarti Sethi )

Ger customs are intriguing. It’s rude to whistle inside, or stand on the threshold. There’s a ‘smoke- hole,’ which can be covered in the extreme cold. And it’s believed that if the smoke goes straight up, the weather will be nice.

Sheep and goats are a common sight in the colossal grasslands
Sheep and goats are a common sight in the colossal grasslands ( Aarti Sethi )

The restrooms are a walk away from the tents. As I step out at midnight on the first day to brave the howling wind and an oncoming storm, the first thing I notice is that the wind is very loud. Stopped by practically nothing, they shriek across the grasslands. There will be no leopards out tonight, girl, I tell myself. It’s too cold. Only when I trip, fall and land on my back, do I look up and gasp with delight. The stars. There is almost no sky to be seen, so dense and bright are these suddenly not-so-distant celestials. What magic is this? I am transfixed till I realise that I am also frozen, and this show must not go on. If it were not for the scraped elbows and stars in my eyes, I would be convinced it is a dream.

The law of double gravity

Mongolia is home to the Bactrian camel, the two-humped ungulate. I had seen one before in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh and at the time, simply couldn’t understand the fuss. I still don’t. We climb on and it is comfortable until it starts its surly, lurching motion, even more aloof in mobility than in stillness. True nobility.

Bactrian camels, the two-humped ungulate, are found in Mongolia. Seen in this pic is Gaurika Sharma.
Bactrian camels, the two-humped ungulate, are found in Mongolia. Seen in this pic is Gaurika Sharma. ( Aarti Sethi )

It isn’t till you cross from the grasslands to the vast (erstwhile) prehistoric sea that tranquility begins to grip you. The first thing that strikes me is absence. A complete lack of sound and smell. And life. The sand dunes are gigantic, like small mountains, and I can only imagine the storm they spin when they decide to shift. The vast ocean of cold, golden sand is endless. And like all gargantuan things of nature, it forces you to reconsider your place in the world, and if you’re not hungry or thirsty, then the universe. We walk, we sit, we climb, we lie down.

A short flight on a small plane lands you on the outskirts of the southern Gobi
A short flight on a small plane lands you on the outskirts of the southern Gobi ( Aarti Sethi )

At most places the sand is soft and deep, pulling you in up to the calves and making you feel like you weigh a ton. This must be the opposite of the feeling in space, a sort of exaggerated gravity. Susy and Gaurika attempt to climb a dune, and I stare at them in awe. Apparently, local teenagers run up the dunes, summit, and then slide down the slopes on boards in a local sport called sand surfing. Once on flatter ground, I see them dance about, jeer at one another, exchange high fives, and spit on the ones who were last. Sports is such a competitive, bonding, human experience anywhere.

(From left) The guide Davaana with the author’s travel companions Susanna Wiesenfahrt and Gaurika Sharma
(From left) The guide Davaana with the author’s travel companions Susanna Wiesenfahrt and Gaurika Sharma ( Aarti Sethi )

Camping near the dunes is like sleeping next to a dam. What if the mountainous dunes shape-shift at night? Everything within miles would be buried! It does not happen. And as at most times, doubts that creep into your mind in the dark within earshot of howling wolves and screeching gales seem ludicrous in warm morning sunshine. The only thing that seems dangerous at this time is camp food. Fermented camel’s milk, and mare meat. Yes, vegetarian food in the Gobi is a myth. Boodog is a famous nomadic dish made from marmot meat. You skin the carcass, remove the bones from the neck (and the bowels), insert red hot stones and close the neck again. Meat roasted like this is delicious. I just am not sure about the marmots.

Hu are you?

After camping, the plan is to drive for a day through rural Mongolia, soaking in the steppes. The grasslands are colossal, and like the neighbouring Gobi Desert, endless. Just when we begin to discuss the possibility of getting lost, our Land Rover breaks down. There is no apparent danger from bandits because we haven’t seen anyone for hours. Some camels cross us, then a few horses, a herd of sheep. It’s only when a goat comes and casually gives birth next to us that we realise we are not really far from human settlements. Proximity and distance are subject to perspective.

The Black Market or Naran Tuul is an upmarket version of Chandni Chowk where you can buy just about anything
The Black Market or Naran Tuul is an upmarket version of Chandni Chowk where you can buy just about anything ( Aarti Sethi )

It’s a common misconception that the Mongols under Chinggis Khan were atheist. They were in fact, shamanists, and many Mongolians are the same today. Shamans believe in the concept of the eternal blue sky, which protects them from the forces of nature. They have a deep respect for nature, and this perhaps accounts for the fact that there is no garbage to be seen in the desert, grasslands or bodies of water. We stop at an ‘ovoo’ in the middle of nowhere, and our lovely guide Davaana shows us how to pray there, Shamanist style. We are Indians, no religious practice can seem strange to us.

Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, is home to a number of museums
Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, is home to a number of museums ( Aarti Sethi )

When we reach UB again, we explore the local markets. Traditionally, the arid lands afford the growth of root vegetables and little else. Looking at the markets now, you realise that along with meat and some serious dairy, fresh fruit and produce is now a way of life in Mongolia. At the markets, locals are only a part of the crowd. The rest are tourists, chic fashionistas and sourcers. Almost every foreign product from world cuisine is easily available. As are heads of pigs and sundry organs. The Black Market or Narantuul is an upmarket version of Chandni Chowk where you can buy just about anything. We see sheep shears, truffle shavers, goldfish, Aladdin’s lamps, fake beards, porn, glow-in-the-dark mouse pads, kaleidoscopes, and a replica of the Pope’s robe, amongst other useful objet de désir. And we find what we are looking for... music from the popular Mongolian band, The Hu. I cannot recommend this guttural, throaty, catchy, Alpha music enough.

The meats and veggies at the Bull are cooked at the table. But, vegetarian food in the Gobi is a myth!
The meats and veggies at the Bull are cooked at the table. But, vegetarian food in the Gobi is a myth! ( Aarti Sethi )

Our last meal in Mongolia is completely local. Throughout the trip, we have had great recommendations from our new friend Ganbyar, the son of Mr Lkhagva Baatsuri, the consul general at the Embassy of Mongolia in New Delhi. We tried the best of Korean cuisine, hot pot, some extremely desi Chinese, and even the stray samosa. We end the trip with buuz (meat-filled dumplings), khuushuur (meat-filled dump- lings) and manti (also meat-filled dumplings). All simply delicious. It is meat heaven indeed, but carry your own Tabasco.

Beatles fans have a ball in the Mongolian capital
Beatles fans have a ball in the Mongolian capital ( Aarti Sethi )

The best part of the trip remains the people. The winking vendors at the Black Market, our driver in the steppes who sang along to the music without knowing a word of the language, the gift shopkeeper at the museum who threw in the fridge magnets because I was Indian, and the complete strangers who came up to us in restaurants (more than once) singing Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy ... Aaaja ...aaja... aaja.

Author Bio: A former executive with the Swatch Group, Aarti Sethi is a free-spirited soul based in Delhi, who is loved by friends for her sense of humour, and hated because she loves dogs more than people!

From HT Brunch, October 6, 2019

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First Published: Oct 06, 2019 00:45 IST

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