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April 10, 2007

Great Buys in Mongolia: Cashmere and Horsemeat


Day 32: We were on our way to pick up the horsemeat when I heard the greatest sentence yet uttered in the English language: "Let's go to the cashmere factory outlet store."

Let me back up a moment. I had just spent my first night in Mongolia, in Tower A of Ulaan Bataar's Hotel Bayangol, a Soviet-style edifice notable for the fabulous neon sign hanging over its restaurant, but not much else. Byambaa, my guide, picked me up at nine that morning and we piled into a funny-looking vehicle called an UVZ 3909 and drove west out of the city, headed towards a Mongolian ger camp.

You could be forgiven for thinking that our UVZ--which stands for Ulianovsky Auto Zavod and is pronounced "Uvzee"--is a lovingly restored 1960s van. It is in fact nearly brand new--a 2005 model, replete with no seatbelts, a one speaker stereo, and an underpowered engine that smells of kerosene even though it runs on regular gas. But there are three good reasons to drive a UVZ in Mongolia. The first is that there are lots of them, so parts are both abundant and cheap--a fact Toyota Land Cruiser owners have plenty of time to mull over when they blow an alternator in the middle of Rashaant. The second is that it has four-wheel drive. The third is price. A brand new UVZ costs about $12,000. I plan on importing one as soon as I get home.

Hotel Bayangol in Ulaan Bataar

A reassuring sign

Our first stop was the grocery store, to pick up the horsemeat. That's right, horsemeat. Mongolians revere horses for numerous reasons, and the way they taste is practically the least of them.

The horse is inseparable from the idea of Mongolia. The Mongol raiders that attacked China's Great Wall did so on horseback and today half the country still rides a horse to work every morning. As with cars, they come in different models. In the west, where it's rocky and mountainous, the horses have small, hard hoofs. Up north, on the other hand, where it's swampy, they have wide, soft hoofs. If you take a northern horse on a rocky or mountainous path, it will take a few steps and then simply lie down, at which point you dismount, give it a hug and say sorry. No culture has as rich a horse tradition as Mongolia--not even the people in Ralph Lauren ads. Mongolians consider horses to be carriers of a man's fortune.

They also make for a great way to get around. You need only drive a block or two in an UVZ to see the appeal of four-legged transport. And when they're no longer good for getting around on, they make for a good meal. I had come to Mongolia to ride horses as Mongolians do. If that meant eating a few morsels of the same beast I'm riding, so be it.

We were about three minutes into our journey to the supermarket when I saw the cashmere store, at which point I subjected Byambaa to an unending barrage of cashmere talk. "Do Mongolians make cashmere by any chance?...In the Gobi desert, you say...A special breed of goat just for cashmere?... So how much would a sweater cost?... You don't say...It would cost at least ten times that back home." At this point Byambaa uttered the greatest sentence in the history of the English language.

Cashmere galore

There are three cashmere factories in Ulaan Bataar, all tucked in the industrial quarter, next to the coal fired power plants and the lumber yards. We walked into the cashmere outlet store adjoining the best one, which looks like what you'd imagine a Soviet department store looked like in the 1980s.

But would Hef approve?

In about ten minutes, I had a pile of six sweaters going and was trying on a seventh--a grey cardigan; it fit beautifully--when I saw a vision that will stay with me until I die. It had been there the whole time, right in front of me, draped luxuriantly over the shoulders of the luckiest mannequin in the store. Somehow, in my enthusiasm, I didn't notice it. But now I looked up and was struck by what I met my eyes: a cashmere robe.

"How much for the robe?"

"About $120," Byambaa said.

We hit the open road with a full load of cashmere in the back that included several sweaters and a full-length cream-colored robe. Would it be possible, I kept asking myself, to come up with a believable reason to wear a cashmere robe to a dinner party?

Driving in the UVZ

The Mongolian steppe

An UVZ 3009 may be uncomfortable and unwieldy on the streets of Ulaan Bataar, but on Mongolian highways, which are in much worse condition than city streets, the thing just sings. It has big chunky wheels and a mushy suspension, so when you go over a bump or, more likely, 11 bumps, it gets a rollicking rhythm going.

Soon, we were driving through the Mongolian steppe, zooming across a treeless dusty plain that rolled in sweeping gusts toward the dune-shaped hills in the far distance. Mongolian Steppe has to be one of this planet's most underrated geographical genres, as heartrending as they come, and grand enough to change you with one look. In this country, the sky seems to be a lighter, crisper blue, and the clouds are a vision of fluffy contentedness.

We arrived at the camp in the late afternoon. I headed into my ger, which Russians and Americans call yurts, but are nevertheless known as gers. There was a fire going, and through the skylight--which is just an open flap in the cotton roof so that the chimney has a place to exit--was a patch of blue sky. I lay down on the bed, listing to birds singing and the fire crackling, breathing in the clean Mongolian air. I fell away into unconsciousness. It was the deepest I've slept since departing New York on March 5th. When I woke up, I thought of my new robe and smiled.

Posted at N 47 07.259  E102 57.71

My ger: Home sweet home

Site of my best sleep since leaving New York.  I wonder if I should set up a ger back home?


Hef would definitely approve!

In 1997, my partner Michael and I spent the night in a yurt near Grand Canyon's North Rim. It was June, but the altitude there is over a mile high so it got TRULY cold. The yurt was outfitted with bunk beds along the walls, but Michael and I were the only people there and, after an hour or so of extreme shivvering, we pulled the mattresses off our bunks and put them together, so we could warm ourselves with our own bodies.

Michael was very nervous that someone would come in and be shocked to find two men sleeping together. But I pointed out that A) we were not only dressed, but wearing everything we'd brought with us; and B) surely it would be better to come in and find two live men sleeping together, than two frozen dead men in their own bunks.

Another fantastic need to write a book about your adventures!

Are you sure that robe is cream? It looks kind of yellow to me.

Thanks for the latest post - any way we can get a larger copy of that pic of the Mongolian steppe?

When do you get to ride camels and drink camel milk? You know, the dichotomy of the soviet-era mall and the ger are astounding to me. Thanks for the great post!

Sounds like you had a full day - trying new food, trying out new transportation, shopping at an outlet and sleeping in a new and unfamiliar setting. Wow! Your tales keep getting better every day.

So what was Byambaa's "greatest sentence in the history of the English language"?

I am just looking over this entry and am very amused. I spent six weeks camping in Mongolia in June/July 04 and it is fun to relive part of it through your story (I too spent time at the Bayangol in UB). I actually sponsored our translator for a year to live with us in Western PA. She had lived in a ger for 15 years with most of her family. When she saw my house for the first time she asked, "How many people live in this building?" She was wonderful to have with us and was fascinated by how much stuff we have as Americans. She also thought a petting zoo at a local flea market was selling the baby goats as dinner items. When we explained that they were to pet, she was so confused and said, "But they looked delicious!"

Are their other Avenue's or route's a mother and daughter should take? reading on........

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