“Walk along the train tracks and head towards the big mountain, then ask the locals for Martin and Minjee’s house.” were the only directions I received from the workaway host.
I clambered through barbed wire dividing the train track from the vast green steppe, staggered through cattle fields, 18.5kg on my back and probably about another 10kg split between the two bags slicing into my hands, packing light never was my forté. I asked some locals, who were bathing their child in the open air with a just bucket of water and a bar of soap, if they knew where Martin and Minjee lived. They didn’t, and neither did the next few people I asked. After about 40minutes of clambering over, under and between obstacles, I finally tracked down the house and received a not so warm welcome from a Mongolian lady in dirty white shorts and a striped tshirt.
She led me through a wooden gate to an outside dining area, that was known as the ‘pagoda’, because of the design of the wooden structure, or perhaps because food, like religion, gave the volunteers meaning to go on.
After a moment of dread and uncertainty I was cheerily greeted by more than a dozen friendly Western faces – but not before I was grilled by Martin. Who am I, where am I from, what am I doing here – not in the curious traveller-friendly way, it was more as if I’d been called out at airport security with a bumbag full of cocaine.
Martin spewed up the groundrules, no drinking, no smoking, no fraternising with staff…it felt like my first day of boarding school. Or military service.
I scooped up a spoonful of rice, joined a table and nodded as each volunteer told me a name I forgot quicker than they said it.
When everybody had finished dinner, the following days duties were dished out. As I arrived so late I got out of going to the summer ger that night and was assigned to goat/sheep herding the next day. The other volunteers showed me the ropes – or should I say the stick – and Martin gave one simple demand – do NOT lose any, or you pay for them!!
Note: The train leaves Ulaanbataar at 11.45am, it arrives at 19.45pm and costs 7200 (£2.27). Arrive to the station 1.5hrs early in ordered to buy the ticket – there is an orderly ticket + queueing system in place – take a number as soon as you arrive and wait for it to be called. It’s a good idea to have the name of the place you want to go translated into Cyrillic as most people cant speak or read English.