Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Gobi Desert - Day 3, Sept 13 - Searching for Ibex and Knuckle Bone Championships

Ahhh, there is nothing like waking up to the crackle of a warm fire and the sun shining brightly!

After breakfast I set off with a driver to look for ibex and mountain sheep. He stopped several times and took out the telescope but we didn't spot any. It would have been nice, but the scenery was so beautiful I really didn't care. One of the places we stopped was Sacred Mountain and I tried to indicate to him I wanted to climb it. I don't think he was understanding so I took my hiking boots out of my backpack and pointed to he mountain. He pulled over and indicated that it was very steep. I tried to say I was only going to go part way but I don't think he understood.

I scaled the steep slope quite rapidly and turned around to take photos of the spectacular views. I was about to start back down when I spotted a lake over another mountain ridge, so I continued up a little further. I got a nice shot of an oasis-like lake in the middle of the desert!

As I was coming down I put my hand on a prickly plant and quickly pulled my hand away and pulled the stickers out. But it really stung and I hoped it wasn't something poisonous. I even took a picture of it in case it was and I had to show someone what got me. Now, even hours later, it still stings pretty good but it's not swelling and I can still breathe, so I guess I'll be ok. :)

I knew we were also headed to the knuckle bone shooting championships, which were being held that day, and after another 30 min or so of driving we arrived at a make-shift camp where the games were going on. Badrakh was there and took me around to the different tents and the different games going on. He said it was ok to take pictures so I took many and also videos. I can't wait to share them with you. Essentially, they flick a piece of deer antler at other pieces of deer antler from 8-10 feet away and whomever hits the most pieces wins. To get down to the final champion, the target piece gets smaller and smaller, and at one point they were aiming for a coin the size of a dime.

After a time I asked Badrakh if women cold play too and he said yes, one of the people who would be playing for the championship this year was a woman. So I asked if I could try it and a middle aged Mongolian man indicated to Badrakh that he would like to teach me. Only he wasn't really teaching me, it turned out we were playing a game and whoever lost had to give the winner a bottle of vodka. I'll give you one guess who the winner was.

After I lost Badrakh took us to a jeep that must have been his and gave me a bottle of vodka to present to the man I had lost to. Then we all sat cross-legged in a circle and he poured a shot. Badrakh interpreted that the first shot is thrown into the wind as a gift to the mountains. The next shot the man gave to me and told Badrakh to tell me he was honored as I was the first foreigner he had ever played knuckle bone with. I said I too was honored and asked the Mongolian word for 'cheers' and then drank the entire shot. They all cheered and passed shots around the circle. Most of them put their fingers in it and flicked it onto the air before drinking half and Badrakh told me it was also a gift to the mountains. So I made sure to do this each time I had vodka for the rest of the day - and I did have more vodka the rest of the day! It seems to be the Mongolian drink of choice, which makes sense I guess seeing that they are so close to Russia, and used to be ruled by Russians.

This guy I lost to seemed to take a liking to me and wanted Badrakh to take our picture. He was also kissing my cheek. Badrakh said he told the man he would send the picture to his wife if he didn't behave, and the man replied back please don't send the picture to his wife or she might not let him come to the games next year, and the whole circle roared with laughter.

I wandered around watching different matches and taking photos. I found some kids that had a pet bunny and he let me hold it. The kids were following me around and one spoke decent English. I ended up teaching them to play American baseball and they loved it! We played with an empty water bottle in place of the ball and fashioned bases from something that looked like old roofing tiles and bats from sticks. I was the pitcher for a long time and then one of the boys wanted me to hit so he pitched. It really was fun, and quite a heartwarming experience. I also got a couple of good videos.

I was getting a little bored and ready to go (I had been there probably 4 or 5 hours at that point) but Badrakh told me there was going to be a closing ceremony where they presented medals and drank aairag, which is the fermented mare's milk I'd read about and was determined to try! They had already set-up for the ceremony and the aairag was sitting there in a pot and Badrakh asked if i wanted to try it, but I didn't want to be rude so I told him I would wait for the ceremony. Turns out the ceremony was still a couple of hours away!

I climbed some rocks with the boys I had played baseball with as they wanted to show me some water. They had these small sticks they had sharpened and showed me how they used hem to climb the rocks with. I tried it, but I couldn't keep my balance using the stick, so I told them I would use my fingers. They looked at me a little unbelievably, but when I scaled the rocks with ease they seemed to be somewhat impressed.

We made it to the water and it turned out to be a little tide pool of sorts. They indicated there were 'baby fish' and sure enough, there were. I scooped one up in my hand and offered it to one of the boys who took it, but the other one seemed afraid to hold it. Eventually he did and I think they enjoyed it.

Then I took their picture and they each wanted a picture with me. They really were the sweetest kids. Then they got intrigued by my camera and wanted to take pictures of their families far below with my zoom. I knew I could erase them later so I let them play with it. Each time they took a photo, the one little boy who spoke some English would say "It's good!" and hold his thumb up. Lol

Finally it was time for he closing ceremony and I took some photos of the men getting their medals. After they received their medals they went around the entire circle and shook hands with everyone, including me. I must say, I was pleasantly surprised how warm and welcoming everyone was of me, a foreigner, at a tournament of a game of such national importance. Everyone constantly invited me into their tent for food and into their circles for vodka. The Mongolian people are quite hospitable and warm.

Oh, a side story. All the people shooting knuckle bone sit on these little stools with one knee on a little rug for balance. I really liked the stool and asked Badrakh where I could buy one - if it was collapsible or portable enough to carry home with me. After a time the son of the woman in the championships came up to me and handed me one of the stools that comes apart into 3 pieces so is fully portable. He didn't ask for money or anything, but I asked Badrakh what an appropriate amount was. He said maybe 20, which meant 20,000 tögrög, which is about $14. That's probably a little pricey for a beat-up stool, but I was happy to pay it because I now have a genuine knucle bone chair used by a woman in the championships!

After the ceremony I finally got to taste aairag! It's tart, but I liked it. Actually, I like it more than I do the warm whole cows milk they serve for breakfast, which I think tastes kind of gamey. I find that surprising, thinking milk from a horse would taste more gamey, but maybe it's because it's fermented and therefore tart. They said it was about 4-5% alcohol, and I suppose if you drank bowl after bowl you'd get drunk, but it didn't taste alcoholic at all to me. They also let the littlest children drink it so it can't be that strong.

I'm pretty proud of myself on the food front on this trip. In Irkutsk I had beef tongue and that local fish I told you about. And at the games when I looked at the pot of aairag, it had dust, a couple of gnats and some horse hair floating in it, but I still drank it right down! Anytime anyone asks me if I'd like "x" i say yes, even if I have no idea what it is. I always ask Tol 'is this Mongolian?' so I think she knows I want to try all Mongolian food.

Finally, it was time to go back to camp. It had been 9 hours since we had left that morning and I was quite tired. I took a lovely, and much needed, hot shower, had dinner, visited with the 4 Australian tourists that had come the day before and collapsed into bed before 10pm. Quite a day!

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