A Vegan In Mongolia: The Cost of Being Polite

I spent my first night in China on the toilet. I found myself there once or twice an hour – every hour – for the next 24 hours. How I got here, though, requires some backtracking...

golden buddha, looming smog

golden buddha, looming smog

As part of our Russian Adventures, Christine and I stopped for a few days in Mongolia. When planning the trip we chose Mongolia over more stops in Russia or China simply because it seemed a rather exotic location with an incredibly interesting history. In hindsight, I would have liked more days in Mongolia as there were a lot of things to be seen and done outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The Plan

city. smog. sky.

city. smog. sky.

Our plan was to divide our time between Ulaanbaatar and whatever we could find outside of the city. Again, in hindsight, more days outside the city would have been ideal. The city itself was rather unique – it was louder and dirtier than any city I had ever been to (or have visited since). The traffic was a chaotic mess, and the smog was impenetrable. Compared to the relative urban order of North America it was a sight to behold.

We arrived late in the evening and spent hours trying to find our hostel. In fact, we got so lost that we just spent the night in a run down hotel instead of the hostel we were seeking. Eventually, we found our hostel began our scheduled Mongolian Adventure. We wandered the streets and got a feel for the city, explored some shops and local restaurants before having lunch at a small cafe near the French embassy. Seeing as the soil surrounding the city was, well, sand, growing produce for a vegan-friendly diet wasn't exactly the chief concern of the culinary community. In fact, when we left the city it became vastly apparent just how hard it would be to grow food here. I didn't see a single garden and the only trees we saw were those intentionally planted and maintained. There was a sparse 'forest' in a national park a few hours away, but even it stood meagre and thin. What we did see, though, were rolling hills and flatlands in all directions. The sky loomed broader and brighter than anywhere I had ever been. We saw wild camels, and some of the largest birds of prey on the planet. We were not in Kansas any more.

golden eagles. terrifying.

golden eagles. terrifying.

We drove a few hours from the city on what passed as a road, but from our uppity North American point of view was just slabs of concrete more or less arranged in a straight-ish line. Eventually we arrived at a monument to Genghis Khan. And I mean a monument. In the city centre there were some great statues, including one of a seated Khan, but this was incredible and ridiculous all at once.

a seated Khan, in Ulaanbaator.

a seated Khan, in Ulaanbaator.

130ft steel Khan ftw.

130ft steel Khan ftw.

This statue was in the middle of nowhere. We arrived as the only tourists in the whole building...and we are talking about a building with a parking lot the size of several football fields. The statue itself was epic- it was Khan, on horseback, looking out into the distance. At 130ft. tall, and made of steel, it stood an interesting sight in the desert. Of course we had to go in.

the view from the top of the statue.

the view from the top of the statue.

The main floor had all the standard tourist trap requirements- mandatory tickets, postcards, doting and pleasant staff, and a dress-up area for photos. The noticeable difference here was that we were the only tourists; even our guide waited in the car. We decided to pass on the photo shoot and went to the basement museum where they had a room full historical relics from throughout the Mongol Empire. In all honesty it was very well presented and maintained, albeit with a heavy 'pro empire' slant, never failing to remind us how badass Mongolia used to be. Point taken.

We then took an elevator up through the statue to a look-out platform on the top of Khan's horse. From there you could see for miles. Looming behind us was the giant head of Khan, whilst before us his vast empire. With a clear sky it was a pretty incredible view, to say the least.

From here we went to a small village and were set to go horseback riding up to a cliffside monastery. I'm not a ran of riding any animals – being a responsible traveller is pretty darn important – but since we were staying with a nomadic horseman it seemed too impolite to decline. We chalked it up to cultural differences, and made sure the animals were treated properly – which I am happy to say they were.

The monastery was colloquially referred to as 'the elephant' because the stairs leading up to it gave it the appearance of an elephant's trunk. We rode up to the base and walked those stairs, as well as some other stairs and then a bridge. Also, more stairs.  Upon arrival we discovered that the monastery was locked. Nevertheless, the hike provided a magnificent view over the desert and was well worth the effort.

my apologies to the horse.

my apologies to the horse.

On our way back to the yurt we had to ride down a steep, almost-grassy hill, which made for a slow and awkward descent. Let's face it, we weren't exactly veteran riders. The horse Christine was on decided to make its own route down the slope, winding ever closer to a solitary tree. And closer still. Then, all of a sudden, she was too close. Without regard for its rider the horse went straight under the tree. My jaw literally dropped as I witnessed what happened next. With superhuman agility Christine somehow dodged a branch that most certainly would have removed her pretty swedish face from her pretty swedish shoulders. It was uncanny how far back she was leaning in her saddle, disappearing from sight only to miraculously pop back into view after clearing the branch. Truly, I was amazed. Even our guide couldn't help but be impressed.

But now, the less wonderful part, and the part you've all ben waiting for.


BEFORE our ride and stair climb we were invited for lunch. Being a stereotypically polite Canadian, how could I say no? I should have found a way because lunch was milk tea and meat dumplings. Fuck. I smiled a polite smile and tried to eat most of the kimchi instead, but there was no getting around this. They didn't speak english, and I didn't speak anything other than english, and so I bit the bullet and choked down a few dumplings. Or, rather, I pretended to. When no one was looking I spat out what I could into my hand, pocketed it, and later fed it to their dogs. Fortunately I had some milk tea to wash it down, right? Its burnt and bitter aroma- and panic- filled my lungs. There was no way my pockets could hide a pint of milky tea. This is where Christine became my saviour.

mongoliansunset

Reluctantly she downed her cup and set it beside mine. I picked hers up and pretended to drink from the empty glass. She picked up mine and unhappily drank my share.  There, done. A Polite Canadian Success.

That is, until they topped up our cups and we did the routine once more. This is where Christine became a saint in my eyes: the Patron Saint of Cowardly Vegans.

Bullets mostly dodged, we thanked the family- who were wonderfully nice and friendly and deserved far better than the likes of myself as a guest- and went out riding. Three days later, in Beijing, the dumpling remnants caught up with me and I spent a night and day perched upon the porcelain throne. I was on that toilet once an hour for over 24 hours. I will spare you the messy details, however, and send my sincere apologies to the housekeeping staff.

If you have dietary restrictions, planning ahead is a must when it comes to backpacking. Be upfront about it and save yourself some trouble. Will people get offended? Maybe. But it's better than ruining a few days being sick. My upcoming post Being Vegan While Traveling will delve into the topic a bit further.

For those thinking of the Trans-Siberia, spend a few days in Mongolia- or more. It's a very unique place, and well worth the time stumbling around the city or venturing out into the desert. For more information you can check out Real Russia and Seat 61

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