Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mongolian Permaculture: Day 39 - The Governor of Zamiin Yyl


Very, very early start this morning.

The jarring alarm goes at 1:45am to get us up in time to meet our driver at 2am, who will bring us to the train station at nearby Erdene soum in time for the 4am train to Zamiin Yyl, a three hour journey in 3rd class seats, so that we can meet our new friend the Governor at 7am.

If there is any consolation for waking up at that un-Godly hour, it is the Gobi night sky.

The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon, the Big Dipper pointing the way to the North Star, and thousands more stars shining down as I crane my neck skywards in wonder. I had no idea the Milky Way could be so bright in the northern hemisphere.

It takes an hour to get to the train station, and after our tickets are purchased we sleep on the hard floor inside from the cold with a dozen or so more locals. The 4am train rolls in right on time at 5am and we all stumble aboard, bleary-eyed and only half-awake.

We thought that there would be plenty of seats available on the first train out to Zamiin Yyl, especially considering that Erdene soum is the last major stop before reaching the border town.

We were wrong.

Bodies, bags and babies are stacked three high in each compartment, no bigger than a standard double-bench seat on a Melbourne train… except that as many as 12 people, plus luggage enough for a week away, were stuffed into each cell. Stray feet, head-high were the major obstacle as we navigated the narrow passageway from carriage to carriage in search of a non-existent spare seat.


Three hours later, we peel ourselves out of the train at the last stop. Welcome to Zamiin Yyl. This border town to China has grown from 7,000 to 20,000 in only 3 short years, and sheer volume of people streaming out of the train, not to mention the new buildings, and English signage speak of the financial prosperity its trade with its neighbour brings.

Mongolians have long memories. Over 200 years ago, the Chinese ruled over the Mongols for a period [perhaps payback for when the Mongol Empire streetched from Chinese coast to the shores of the Mediterranean?], and Mongolians still have a sour taste in their mouth about it.

The Chinese border is the only one that attracts any attention from the Mongolian Army, and if you are Chinese National seeking a visa for entry to Mongolia, well, good luck…

…and if you are a Chinese National looking to set up shop in Mongolia, well let’s just say that you had better have a very thick skin, and perhaps even some martial ability to deal with potential challenges… but I digress!


It is drizzling, cold, and wet, and we look like grumpy wet cats as we get our bearings. Minde asks me quietly if the Governor gave us his name-card, and what our back-up plan is if our happy friend from Sainshand turns out not to be who he says he is. I have a brief moment of panic, then shrug and remember some words of wisdom a jolly [and very round] friend from home once shared with me:

“When in doubt… eat!”

My panic turns out to be short-lived as the Governor rings Minde’s phone; he was on the same train and has been organizing his luggage and a car for us. He has pulled up from the trip in way better shape than us, looking very slick in dark glasses and sharply pressed clothes.

After a tasty meat broth breakfast, we are shown to the Government building around the corner. Most officials are on annual summer leave and there is no electricity in the elegantly appointed building; we walk down a long, dark narrow corridor towards the light at the end of the tunnel …


…which turns out to be the most lushly appointed ger we have been in all trip: plush red carpet, hand-carved posts, radials and furniture, black & white photos of a camel train stretching to the horizon, and a framed shadowbox of the Mongolian flag at the head of the room.

TheGuv disappears to organize our return train tickets and continues his search for a car to take us to the Vegetable Growing Plot he wants us to inspect. A couple hours later, he pops back into the Government Ger, train tickets in hand but no closer to finding a driver… so we pile into the back of a little sedan and are bounced along to the Government Tourist Camp outside of town.

It seems that there are no government vehicles or drivers in sight; they are all attending an official function somewhere else involving copious amounts of, err, networking and vodka… so we are ushered into replica of Chinggis’ ger, a large ger mounted upon a wooden cart that would have been pulled by a team of oxen.


TheGuv apologizes for being unable to deliver upon his promise of camel rides and horse rides and a sampling of traditional milk vodka, and cheerfully offers up a bottle of Chinggis Gold instead.

This presents a dilema, as The Aid Agency we have been working for has a strict no-alcohol policy, and with good reason, as the Mongolian appetite for vodka could only be described as voracious. To refuse would risk insulting our host’s hospitality, but to indulge would reflect poorly on the Aid Agency we are associated with.

We settle on a diplomatic compromise by taking sips of the enormous coffee-mug shots he pours for us, and thus begins a long afternoon of Q & A between Rick and TheGuv about how he can improve vegetable production, and encourage Mongolians to buy locally grown produce instead of the imported Chinese varieties of chemically grown vegges.

All in all the day is a success, even though there is no camel rides, no horse rides, and none of the formerly promised traditional milk vodka sampling.


TheGuv proposes our team return the following year, in partnership with an Aid Agency’s sponsorship, to work on another Gardening in the Gobi project.

Nice to have friends in high places!


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