Sep 27 2010

Nomadic Homestay, Part V: Mr. Bold

Here are links to parts IIIIII and IV.

Mr. Bold

Our next stop was the ger of Mr. Bold, where we were supposed to learn the art of Mongolian archery. But Mr. Bold was off trying to catch a missing baby horse, which left us with his wife – a perfectly nice woman, who appeared perfectly tired of hosting tourists. (Oh, great — you want to take pictures of yourself in Mongolian outfits next to a ger? How creative.) She made us yet another lunch of fry bread and invited us to relax in a spare ger for a while, which we did before wandering up a big hill nearby and seeking out a stupa we’d seen from the ox cart. When we returned, she took the afternoon’s activities into her own hands and presented us not just with a Mongolian bow and set of arrows, but Mongolian jackets to wear while trying to shoot them. Which we did, with some success. The mother then offered to sell us our jackets. (They were nice, but what am I really going to do at home with a Mongolian archery outfit?)

She warmed up to us after we showed our archery skills.

Having realized that the only distinction between the four and five day ger itineraries was a round of dung collection (“learn how to collect dung in the traditional manner,” said our itinerary), we decided that for the sake of my blood sugar (and for the sake of not spending another afternoon alone in a ger), we would head home the next afternoon. It ended up being a perfect plan. And our last day ended up being far better than anticipated, thanks to the reappearance of Mr. Bold, who had successfully found his baby horse and was helping his wife make morning fry bread.

Mr. Bold, as befits his name, was huge. Not so much in height – though at just under six feet he was taller than most people we met – but in every other dimension. His substantial belly was perhaps the least imperssive of his attributes – I was captivated more by his long and fleshy ears, the width of his face, and his fingers, which were the embodiment of the expression “sausage-like.” Peter put it best when he compared Mr. Bold to a Mongolian George Foreman.

Mrs. Bold seemed much happier in the presence of her husband, who in turn seemed very happy with a tin of hard candies we had left for them, which he had emptied of sweets and filled with tobacco. We shared a breakfast of a fried treat very close to polish chrusciki; Mrs. Bold taught me how to tie a Mongolian button, which I will probably not remember how to do. We retreated to our ger for more sitting, and then were invited back for a lunch of an enormous bowl of noodles mixed with the previous night’s soup. Mr. Bold’s son had come back, a young tall man in a long gray coat tied with a bright yellow sash, who lounged on a bed at the back of the ger.

The younger Mr. Bold, in Peter's glasses. (That's the wind, not his stomach.)

Mrs. Bold had apparently told Mr. Bold of our skill in archery (which must speak very poorly of other tourists’ abilities) and eariler that morning, he had squeezed Peter’s bicep in appreciation. This led to his squeezing my bicep as well, which then led to me and Mr. Bold arm wrestling over a tiny wooden table.

This is just a hunch, but I don’t think. Mr. Bold was really trying. While his wife and son looked on with amusement, he enfolded my hand in his meaty paw, a swollen, cartoon version of a hand, and on the count of three, we began to wrestle. Or at least I began to wrestle. It quickly became obvious that Mr. Bold was pushing back just enough to keep his arm vertical, but not enough to actually beat me. This went on for a bit; he then snapped his wrist forward over mine – indicating that if he wanted to, he could crush me like a grape – and then let me beat him.

This must count as one of my life's most surreal moments.

After sharing a good laugh, we hopped on Mr. Bold’s ox cart – covered not with an oriental blanket, but with a filthy blanket with pictures of roses and the caption “Here You Are”) – and set off on a seemingly endless ride to our final ger, going over bumps so large that in several instances, I actually caught air. I had already suspected this, but our trip with Mr. Bold proved beyond a doubt that there is no comfortable position on an ox-cart.  After about an hour I was longing for my horse, despite the fact that it had rubbed the top of my butt raw.

Also, and I know I’ve brought up the subject of ox poop previously on this blog, Mr. Bold’s ox had a really bad case of diarrhea. I wouldn’t have thought that an ox’s butt would be fodder for nomadic jokes – I mean, it’s the equivalent of — and as commonplace as — a car’s tailpipe (if you will). But Mr. Bold had not lost his youthful sense of fun. Instead, he pointed at the ox’s brown, sticky legs, giggled, and said, “Urum!”

Urum is the cooked, butter-like cream that we had been eating atop our fry bread. It also happens to be the only nomadic dairy product that I liked, since it did not taste like the rear end of the animal from which it was derived. Thank you, Mr. Bold, I thought to myself. Thank you for taking urum away from me.

After what seemed like an endless journey across a flat plain, we eventually arrived at our last ger, the home of Ms. Unanu (sp?) a former food technologist and self-described “inherited sorceress.” She wasn’t doing anything particularly magical when we got there, though.  A large tray of milk curds sat on the top of her ger, drying in the sun; inside, Ms. Unanu was making dumplings in front of a small, orange flat screen TV that was showing a Mongolian-dubbed version of Jim Carey’s The Mask.

There were religious objects at the front of the ger covered with a blanket, plus a small shrine and a wall hanging of animal pelts. But what really set her ger apart from the others we had visited was the presence of a small, gravity-powered sink next to the door, complete with soap. And they used it! Her husband, who had been lounging on the floor watching Jim Carey, carefully scrubbed his hands before helping her with the dumplings. I don’t know if this had anything to do with sorcery, but I appreciated it.

After a lunch of fresh dumplings – by far my favorite food, especially since urum’s fall from grace – we sat around in her ger, the television now tuned to the Home Shopping Network. I wish I could have asked her what she thought of the ads for juicers, a humidifier, and a salad spinner that doubled as a potato peeler. Is this the stuff of nomadic dreams?

We were supposed to learn how to make dairy products with Ms. U, but due to our shortened itinerary, I instead just asked how she made her dried curds. Short answer: boil milk, add a little old yogurt, let dry, cut into pieces, let dry some more. She explained that babies really like to chew on sweetened milk curds when they’re teething – which would make sense, since the curds are the consistency of a dog’s plastic chew toy. Having tried both sweet and salty varieties, I can recommend neither. Both require heavy sucking to soften. The sweet ones look a bit like cheese doodles (hard, desiccated cheese doodles) and taste a bit like spoiled yogurt; the salty taste like parmesan cheese that has done hard time in a barnyard.

At 6pm, Ms. U’s husband went off in search of the engine for our ride home, an ox that was grazing on a nearby hill. And then we were off! Back across the valley. Back past the gers and through the trees. All was going well until we were approached by yet another group of young men on horseback, who appeared to be having trouble transporting their bull (I assume to the slaughterhouse). Could they maybe tie the animal to the back of our ox cart? No problem!

Peter and I then found ourselves literally sitting in the middle of an ox v. bull tug of war. Most of the points went to the ox, which didn’t even glance back at the additional 500-pound weight now resisting it from behind. It just kept on walking as the bull dug in its hooves and refused to move. The rope, easily more than a half inch thick, snapped. Twice.

By the time we got to the river, the situation had become more upsetting than funny; the ox, still proving the truth behind the adage “strong as an ox,” lost its balance and fell forward into the water, as a group of boys came up to the bull from behind and started pelting it with rocks. Eventually our driver gave up trying to help with the bull transport and urged the ox up the bank; the last I saw of the bull, it had collapsed on the edge of the river and was refusing to get up.  It was one of those moments that makes the animal rights activist in you want to cry – but then again, these are nomads. They eat meat. They had to get the bull to move. Still, I didn’t want to watch it.

We got on the bus at the first stop, and had just settled into its only two backwards-facing seats when it pulled into its next stop and we saw a familiar figure lumber on board, wearing a long wool nomadic coat tied with a bright golden sash. Mr. Bold! We waved to him and earned a hearty wave back, establishing our status as the coolest people on the bus – yeah, that’s our nomadic friend. But things took a turn for the worse when Mr. Bold pushed his way to the front of the bus and traded seats with the small woman who’d been sitting next to me. You know how I said previously that his face was wide? So were his shoulders. Despite the fact that the bus was relatively empty (by Mongolian standards), I felt more cramped than I had on our ride there.

Making things worse, if funnier, was that Mr. Bold was something of a one-trick pony, reaching for my arm, miming an arm wrestling match, and giving me a thumbs up, over and over again. (This was very confusing to the people sitting behind us.) After perhaps the 9th round, Peter came to my rescue by challenging Mr. Bold to a thumb-wrestling match, and soon several rows of Mongolians were watching with confused smiles as their thumbs darted and dodged, Mr. Bold complaining that Peter was moving his elbow around too much.

Luckily for us, Mr. Bold got off the bus after about 40 minutes. We arrived, exhausted, into the chaos of Ulan Baatur and checked into Hotel Ulan Baatur, a former luxury (or at least Soviet) hotel that needs some serious renovation work before it can reclaim its supposed glory. But at that point, we didn’t care. Real beds? Soap? A shower with sporadic hot water? Heaven.

Us and the Bolds.