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You can handle just about anything that comes at you out on the road with a believable grin, common sense and whiskey.” ~Bill Murray
We didn’t drive ourselves through Mongolia. We had our trusty driver, guide, mechanic, navigator, “Jack” of all trades for that. Jack, as he called himself, was an aging, nearly toothless Mongolian man that had seen some interesting times working for the Russian army. He now had his own Soviet Era military van that he drove around the steppes of Mongolia with however many tourists he could cram into the shaky, bellowing beast. He had a quick eye, and little English, but he could get his point across. He’d spot a wild animal, make sure we could see it, and then rub his stomach and flash a big grin, “eat, delicious!”
“What’s it taste like?,” we invariably ask.
“Horse!” he would laugh. This was his only answer no matter what the creature was or how often we asked.
We had the chance to try “horse” at one point along the journey in a small frontier town. It was served up piping hot, stuffed inside a pastry shell and deep fried. After several days with nothing but pasta, horse was delicious. As with so many other things, Jack was right about that. However, we could never get anything but tea to drink, there was never any whiskey in sight.
One afternoon, driving across the grassy plains, Jack spotted a dot on the horizon and turned the van towards it. We had told him we were interested in seeing how the nomadic people lived out here, and, with a grin, he brought us to a small compound consisting of two or three gers or yurts, make shift wooden corrals, and a multigenerational family. They were all out working hard in the hot sun, corralling and shearing the sheep. It didn’t look like much fun but they greeted us with huge smiles, laughter, and as much curiosity as our own.
We took photos of the family and of the sheep, and of the incredible vista this was all playing out upon. We offered to help but couldn’t do much more than helping to keep the sheep corralled up in the small pen, chasing any strays back into the mix. After some time the work stopped, and we spent some time with the the families using Jack as our interpreter. We had a few gifts so we offered these to the kids (mostly pens, pencils, crayons, coloring books) and made some new friends.
We had been there for about an hour and Jack was obviously getting antsy to be back on the track but the family wasn’t letting us leave. They really felt like they had to offer us something in return for the small gifts. The next thing we knew there was a large plastic pail being passed around. No it wasn’t whiskey, but it was fermented mare’s milk! The smiles and laughter rolled along, as we, each in turn, took a long drink from that old red bucket filled with the cool, bitter sweet concoction.
We drove off, hanging out the windows, waving and smiling, shouting goodbyes as the children ran along side the van shouting and grinning. It had been another incredible day in Mongolia.
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