The little boy is sitting completely naked on his camp chair in the cozy yurt, transfixed by the cartoon he is watching on the satellite TV program. Every now and then, his energy level bursts and he embarks on some gymnastics on the chair or walks over to his two young sisters who are playing in another corner of the yurt to tease them. After some time, his father has enough of his escapades and switches off the television which is greeted with heart rendering crying. Even though he is the youngest member of the family, he seems to be the adored crown prince who gets his way - soon after the TV is running again.
It is day 75 of our journey to Brazil and we are in the middle of nowhere in extremely remote Western Mongolia where only very few Nomad families live in traditional yurts braving the freezing winter temperatures. While outside it is bitterly cold, kids run around unclothed inside the yurt which is comfortably heated by the traditional stove in the center. The mother and older sisters are busy cooking a traditional Mongolian meal on the stove while the family father is sharing a bottle of vodka with us. We quickly pick up on the local ritual of drinking - before each round of vodka, we dip the ring finger of the right hand into the glass and then flick the finger three times in the air to bless the drink and our host.
Tradition and modern life are converging here very visibly – while the design of the yurt and its brightly colored furniture is the same as hundred years ago and its oven is run with camel dung, solar panels ensure that there is power to run modern appliances such as a radio and the satellite TV with almost 60 channels! The family's wealth, like that of pastoralist communities in Kenya, is based on its livestock, but lifestyles are changing and the elder daughter studies law in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia's capital which is a staggering 48-60 hour bus ride away.
Mongolians are probably the most hospitable people on earth, for good reasons – Mongolia is the least inhabited country on earth, with three times the size of Kenya and only 2.7 Mio inhabitants. In other words, Kenya is fifty times more populated than Mongolia! In such a sparsely inhabited country with extreme temperatures, welcoming travelers into your home is vital to help them survive and the next time it might be you travelling and depending on the hospitality of someone else. Doors are never locked and visitors are not even expected to knock on the door before they enter – we learned, however, that before getting close to a yurt, it is advisable to shout out and ask someone to hold the family dog which otherwise will fiercely demonstrate its protectiveness of the family home.
After a couple of rounds of vodka, the father invites us to see and ride their camels. We walk out onto the plains and are amazed as the younger family members bring over a fraction of the family's herd of 500 camels – at market value, they are worth more than half a million US$. Thus, the family could easily afford a far more comfortable life in a town but they choose to continue to live their nomadic life out in the wild, changing the location of their yurt four to five times a year to ensure fresh pasture for their camels.
Riding a camel is great fun, but we soon realize that it is the camels who are in charge not us. In spite of our most spirited efforts, they walk in the direction they please which is generally the direction of the other camels in the herd. We take lots of images and surprise our hosts with print outs of some of the pictures. They are so excited that they don their best traditional outfits for a family photo session. After printing the images, they are passed on with lots of laughter from family member to family member and immediately included in the family photo album – a beautiful and touching Memory Foundation experience!
After a hearty lunch which reminds me of Kenyan Nyama Choma, we continue our spectacular drive along the hauntingly barren landscapes of Western Mongolia, with glacier-wrapped mountains, shimmering frozen salt lakes, herds of yaks, sheep, camels and horses but hardly any people. With the last light of the day, we are crossing a mountain pass and two hours later, we arrive at a tiny village. It takes us some time to find a place to stay here and at -35°C, it requires our combined effort to keep Pele alive through the night. We wrap him in several mattresses and one of us has to get up every two hours throughout the night to run his engine for 20 minutes.
It snows overnight and the next morning everything is beautifully white – covered in fresh glittering snow, Mongolia's landscapes with vast steppes and towering mountains all around are simply jaw dropping. I never felt and said "wow" as often as here! Without our local guides Erka and Amgalan, there is no way we would find our way through this wilderness – the main road through Western Mongolia is a dirt track, barely visible after snowfall and we often drive through virgin snow and for hours don't see any other cars. If we had attempted this part of the journey without local guides, we would have inevitably gotten lost at one of the countless junctions leading in different directions to the horizon – with potentially life threatening consequences given the brutally cold temperatures.
After five days of driving through the wild, we reach Erdene Zuu monastery, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, which is beautifully located surrounded by hills covered in snow. We come just at the right time for observing a ceremony and it is a wonderful atmosphere with colorfully dressed monks groaning and chanting. It is touching to see an elderly woman clutching a piece of paper with her prayer written on it and shuffling to a monk and handing her paper to him, together with a small bank note to thank him for passing her prayer on to the gods. The next moment, we are amused to observe one of the younger monks checking his Facebook account while chanting – tradition and modern life seem to be merging even in seemingly ancient and spiritual Mongolia!Two days later, we finally reach Ulaan Baatar, the coldest capital on earth. It lives up to this reputation with temperatures of -35°C and at these temperatures, sightseeing loses its appeal! Not surprisingly, we seem to be the only tourists in the entire Mongolia at this time of the year and everything that might be remotely interesting for tourists is closed - all museums and even the local ski resort! We are thrilled when we find the National Museum open, a welcome two hour reprieve from the arctic temperatures. Ulaan Baatar is the antithesis of the rest of Mongolia and it is a shock to be stuck in a traffic jam after days of hardly seeing any other vehicles. Pollution is a serious problem here and to curb this, authorities have introduced a system which prohibits cars to drive in the city on certain days, depending on their number plates. The result is that most people now own three cars to be able to drive all days of the week! Our days in Ulaan Baatar give us time to get Pele fixed - he has been doing extremely well on the rough Mongolian roads. Among other things, we change the design of Pele's roof rack as with the original design he is too high for most garages. We want to make sure that Pele fits into standard size garages as temperatures in Siberia and Far East Russia where we will be heading next are even lower than in Mongolia, with forecasts of below -40°C!