Out of Ulaanbataar, and into the wide open Mongolian countryside.
The Gobi Desert, perhaps the most famous geographical feature in Mongolia, is nowhere near the capital city. It's a good couple of days solid bump and grind in a jeep to reach the Gobi, and with only limited time at my disposal I was forced to limit my expedition to the immediate area around UB.
So, after hooking up with two couples staying at another guesthouse, we headed east to Terelj National Park. Yep, I know I've been relying on Wikipedia a lot in this blog, but thought you'd like a bit of background. And i've been kinda lazy when it comes to taking photos. So check the linky.
We stood next to Turtle Rock (check the wiki), and you know what - it really does look like a turtle. Even more than in the pic. What isn't shown on the Wikipedia page is that there's a pool table next to it, albeit on a slope that renders most games unplayable. Seriously random.
With a cold, crisp and sunny afternoon at our leisure, we set out on a two kilometre hike up to the monastery set back into the mountain side.
You can make it out just beyond the gate:
The climb was well worth the effort, greeted as we were by a scene straight out of Lord of the Rings:
Arriving at the monastery we were met by a local guy, in his late 40s but looking a lot older, totally obsessed by my arm hair. Mongolians are pretty much bald when it comes to limb-fur, and he was so taken aback by mine that I think he actually wanted a couple of strands as a keepsake. I offered, but was politely declined.
Semi-nomadic life in Mongolia means living in a ger - a one room tent with a coal or wood fired stove in the centre, around which everything revolves.
A ger can be taken apart pretty quickly if needed, in readiness to move to a new location.
Just remember not to leave anything, or anyone, behind.
If you're a bit posh, you have yourself a multi-ger (nope, that probably isn't the proper term) - two or three of the tents linked together.
And this was to be our home for a couple of nights. Very spacious, warm and clean inside, life in a ger for permanant residents seemed solely dedicated to mealtimes. People were either preparing and cooking some grub, or they were munching away, or it was post-scoff clean up time.
And we were the lucky guests, so had the plum job of just sitting and eating. Diet was meat with noodles or rice, or meat in steamed buns, or just plain old glorious meat. All was washed down with Mongolian milk tea - probably nine parts goats milk to one part tea with a large dollop of salt for good measure.
The local semi-nomadic convenience store is located right next to the ger. Not bad if you're in the mood for meat or milky tea.
On our final morning in the ger, we were rounded up and called outside to take part in an event common for all who live out in the Mongolian coutryside - the butchering of a sheep. We watch it all. Before, during and after.
It may just about be the first time I've ever seen a living thing die in front of me. Something that isn't an insect anyway. I didn't take pictures, but for those with an interest (and a sense of imagination), here's how it was done.
Having first selected the fattest, plumpest sheep for slaughter, Mr Butcher (sorry, can't remember his name) brings the animal over to a plastic sheet no larger a coffee table. It's then flipped onto it's back, with the handy help of a tourist holding the rear legs. Sheep's, not the butcher's.
Mr Butcher then makes a vertical incision in the sheeps abdomen, probably about 4 or 5 inches in length. He plunges his hand and arm inside the animal, locates and then pinches shut a main artery. The sheep dies in seconds.
It is all incredibly quick. There is surprisingly little struggling from the sheep. There is hardly any blood or mess. It is probably about as effective and efficient a way of killing an animal for food as i've heard of.
Next it's time to take the sheep apart. Skin is removed, bones broken and organs removed. Blood is drained, bodily waste is chucked, and almost everything else is retained for eating. Even stomach lining. Wish I'd found out what that was for. Absolute minimal wastage.
Some of us help remove the skin and coat from the carcass, others transport meaty bits to the 'freezer' area (basically a shed alongside the ger) for storage.
It's just honest, necessary killing. For foods sake. It felt like a privilage to witness it.
But I hope I never have to watch it again.