So long and thanks for all the khuushuur /Newsport (copy 1)

So long and thanks for all the khuushuur

Monday February 24th 2014

Former Wonga Beach resident and regular Newsport contributor, Steve McKechnie reflects on his amazing experiences living and working in Mongolia.

After nearly three and a half years here I will be moving onto the next challenge after a bit of down time in North Queensland to recharge the batteries and thaw out a bit.

I can honestly say I will miss Mongolia, so I thought I would spend a bit of time trying to analyse exactly what it is about Mongolia that has captivated me and what I will miss the most.

One of the great things about Mongolia is also the thing that turns a lot of people off coming here.

It is big and empty. There are about 2.8 million people here which is far less than Melbourne, or Sydney and with a land mass pretty close to the size of Queensland.

You start to get a feel for how remote and isolated parts of Mongolia are.

Especially when you consider that out of the 2.8 million odd people, about 1.5 million of them live in Ulaanbaatar.

That means the rest of the country is about as empty as the NSW State of Origin trophy cabinet.  

This was really driven home to me when I was fortunate enough to ride in the inaugural Gobi gallop across the South Gobi with five other expatriates last year.

There are not many places in the world where you can ride 700 kilometres without crossing a bitumen road or having to go around a fence or through a gate.

The down side to the emptiness is that there is very little  infrastructure outside of the main towns.

The roads are generally no more than a dirt track heading off into the desert or hills, accommodation is  in Ger’s and the long drop toilet is considered a luxury.

Make sure you take your own toilet paper.

For those who like a bit of adventure and don’t mind roughing it a bit, exploring the mountains, the Steppe and Gobi Desert area by 4WD, horse or camel is a fantastic experience.

The landscape is ever changing and very diverse.

From the high peaks where the snow never melts to the great expanses of the South Gobo that seems to go on forever, to beautiful rivers like the Tuul flowing through valleys that are lush and green during summer and frozen solid in winter.

I will miss the Mongolian people, particularly the people I have been fortunate enough to interact with outside of the city.

The traditional Mongolian is a very proud person, proud of their heritage and proud of their culture.

Even in a city Ulaanbaatar, where you would expect the day to day rat race over, the old traditions and culture are still visible everywhere.

I will miss Ghengis Khan being a part of everyday life.

I will miss the throat singing and hearing the Morin khuur or horse head fiddle being played.

I will miss the tough little Mongolian horses who have carried me over some of the most remote parts of Mongolia, over mountains, through half frozen streams, across frozen rivers, through sand dunes and stoney deserts and usually ended the day in a lot better condition than I did.

I will miss some of the traditional food however my waistline will not.

I have developed a soft spot for fresh khuushuur, a delicious meat dumpling and even salty milk tea on a cold day.  

I will not miss the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables we take for granted in far north Queensland.

I will miss the occasional drink of Airag (fermented mares milk) more so because of the hospitality that goes with it being offered some than the actual drink itself.

I will miss the festivals that the Mongolians celebrate each year such as the Naadam Festival in summer with the wrestling, horse racing and archery and the Tsagaan Sar winter holiday which is all about family and paying respect to the elders.

I don’t think I can honestly say I will miss the bitterly cold winters but I am no longer scared to go for a walk outside when it is minus forty degrees celsius.

These days, I don’t even bother with a jacket unless it is at least minus five.

I won’t miss the pollution or traffic in Ulaanbaatar which is officially one of the most polluted cities in the world and has some of the worst drivers I've ever encountered.

I will miss the annual camel polo tournament with the majestic Bactrian camels and traditionally dressed riders and the annual eagle festival.

I will miss seeing the traditional Mongolian costumes of deels and curled up boots.

I will miss all of the Mongolian friends I have made.

I will miss saying 'Saen Baenu' and 'bayarlalaa' and having them laugh at my Mongolian.

I won’t miss the concept that when the plane lands safely everyone claps as if it is a major accomplishment and not something to be taken for granted.

I will miss 'The children of the Peak', the charity I have been involved with, looking after the children and families who eke out a living scavenging at the rubbish tip through winter.

I will continue to support them from afar.

I will miss all the fantastic photo opportunities I have had over here.

I will be sorting through the thousands I have taken to select some of my favorites for the wall.

In some respects I will not miss the Mongolian concept of punctuality and sticking to a schedule.

That said, I'm sure when I'm stressed and sick of the rat race I'll reflect on the quieter times I've had  in Mongolia and really question who has the right priorities.

I will miss Mongolia very much.

It is the sort of place that, despite its hardships and problems, continues to hold onto its heritage and culture while finding the balance that being part of the developing world creates.

If you have thought about visiting Mongolia, go with your eyes open and it will be a trip of a lifetime.