Mongolia, Land of Genghis Khan and of the Horse. Simple and utterly breath taking.
Joanna's stay with a herding family was just such a lovely interlude, welcoming her with open arms into their tented home like family, giving her the eldest Son's bed without a single blink. They smile often and seem utterly at peace with their lot in the world. Herding families are nomadic, packing up the whole kit and caboodle every few months to allow the cattle and horses to pasture on lush green grass often.
Horses are the most important part of the Mongolian economy and so the products made from Mare's milk are the family's source of income , their raw Mare's milk is made into skincare products. The scene where the family enquires as to Joanna's age is so sweet, there is a cheeky humour to these simple people,
"You look really young for Sixty Seven" he says gallantly
"When I use my mare's milk balm, I'll look even younger" she says smiling.
" We have a product, Tonic.. Use that one" He and his wife chuckle... One wonders if they supply the Tonic producers and frankly I hope they do!
I loved the way that Joanna tried the mare's milk products, she seemed to genuinely enjoy them. There was none of that demure, nibbling and diplomatic mentioning of unusualness, she just got stuck in! Her enjoyment of the boozy fermented milk was much more enthusiastic than mine might have been, but who is to say that they would not turn their nose up at a blue raspberry WKD, different strokes for different folks.
What a lovely couple they were and although undoubtably a spare existence, it seemed so idyllic too, everyone has a place in the process and it works, I do not think a great deal has changed since Genghis surged across the land with his marauding hordes and that is actually very comforting.
Joanna rejoins the train and her chat with the utterly delightful Dandi, handsome young man whose education in the UK made him the perfect travelling companion to explain that Mongolia faces a big decision and all reliant on the very railway on which they are hurtling through the countryside. being landlocked the choice of railway gauge is important to whom they ally themselves with for trade agreements Russia or China as both have different sized railway gauge .
The rather moody waiter who Jo's rather exuberant gesticulating nudges whilst delivering their beverages is the hero of this piece, taciturn yet desperately accommodating. I loved him on sight.
Three million people live in the country with half of them living in the capital. The people there are just now beginning to be allowed to remember their heritage now the Soviet rule in Mongolia has ended, it was illegal to make mention of their rider warriors and the Chingis Khan monument is a huge way of celebrating their most famous warrior. The politician and business man who financed the stainless steel erection of the man that dominates the skyline at almost the same height as Nelson's column is uncharacteristically meek for a bureaucrat. His pride in his people and their heritage is obvious but he humbly admits to his previous world champion wresting status with much drawing out by Joanna. If only all politicians were so humble.
The untouched nature of the Mongolian Landscape is now under threat as many foreign conglomerates are seeking access to the rich natural resources of the land. uranium, coal and other fossil fuels are in demand, but Joanna is only interested in Gold. The open pit mine she visits is like a massive hole ripped into the ground and it made me sad to see it . All resources must be sold back to the government and all pits must be refilled after mining ends, but I still feel sad on behalf of the Mongolian people.
The security is tight, but the people there were good natured enough to allow Joanna to step outside with a few nuggets to show the glint of the raw material in the sunlight. Sadly she was unable to stuff one up her jumper!
The distinct difference in the treatment Joanna and her crew receive from the Mongolian Border Control and their Russian Counterparts is startling. The tone turns ominous and threatening very fast and cameras are confiscated and Mongolian Traders are forcibly ejected from the train at the Border. The young Russian officer is so close to a Cold War stereotype that it is almost laughable, but Putin's Russia is no laughing matter.
Luckily they make it beyond the border and Jo has the chance to see the biggest Lenin in the business!
She also meets the Jimi Hendrix of Church Bell Ringers, as the Russian Orthodox Church again get a resurgence after the secular Soviet time, trailblazers in the world of campanilogy are hitting the scene.
This delightful and entertainingly informative episode left us on a high note as Natalya a young English Teacher told Joanna why she and a few pals spent hours sewing beautiful costumes to attend regency balls in the midst of Siberia, because they miss the structure and safety of the Soviet times and love Putin for his Strength.. Jo is less impressed.
The sight of all those swirling silks were a lovely end to this episode. I would love to go to Mongolia, would happily muck in with the horse herders for a week and yet, I feel slightly more trepidatious about a visit into Russia by train. I have friends who have visited Moscow and made to feel bad for not knowing the language so it's not confined to border staff, but I am very much looking forward to seeing Ms Lumley's final Siberian leg of this tremendously interesting journey!