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Mutton, Raw Hide, Ger Tents (23/6/04)

I sit here at an internet Cafe feeling really rather hungry. My appetite has come back with a vengeance after a rather tough introduction last week- a bit of the compulsory traveller's gastro. I am still in Ulaan Baater 10 days after arriving in this fascinating city. 60 percent of the population live in 'ger' suburbs- basically huge sprawling suburbs of fenced in tents. Downtown you pass by a mix opf new landcruisers, and elderly herders wearing the traditional buddhust dele. Pot holes are big enough to swallow cars whole, and when it rains they literally do! The elections are coming up and so you can find campaign 'gers' in between apartment blocks sporting free billard tables for the public and every now and then the odd cheap pop concert. I have been staying with a family that i have come to know during my previous visits here. Jarantai, a 30 year old Deaf man, actually visited Australia in 2002- I will never forget how he had his head out the window for and hour when i picked him up from melbourne airport in the car. Much of the past week has been about meeting the family and trying to overcome more visa troubles. Despite being told one thing in Australia and Beijing, I am told another here. After 10 days of traipsing from offce to office, phone call after phonecall the miracle happened yesterday and I had my visa extended out to four months! Yesterday was cause for celebration for more than one reason. Bayara, Jarantai's sister had her final graduation exam after 4 years full time studying fashion design. The day began in classic style. Her brother's old 1980 mercedes had broken down again and the streets were flooded from rains and broken water pipes. For an hour or so we pushed started the car, jumped in, and would wait for it to again conk out. At 10 am we were late for her exam, covered in mud, and I had my arm in a puddle up to my elbow searching for a spanner that had just fallen off the towbar of the car pulling us out of a rather huge pond in the road. Due to there being no hot water in the city no one had washed for a day or so, and Bayara had been up half the night sick due to eating a bad egg. Considering this I was amazed at how calm Bayara was. Everything was going wrong and yet she just took everything in her stride. A few hours later I had my visa and she was dressed up in front of parading models displaying her designs to a panel of judges. Its easy to look and be astonished by how people cope in countries not so wealthy as our own....but it is another to truly understand what it must be like to strive and live dreams in the midst of living conditions that pit the odds against you. Makes so much of our problems in the west seem petty, especially when people here just seem to get on with things with little complaint. One of the highlights of the past week was visiting the black market so seek out some more horse gear. There were stalls after stalls with hundreds of different raw hide products hanging up. Three legged hobbles, whips, sweat sticks- and all smelling like dead animals. The horse bits all come in one universal size here, and the Mongolian saddles are wooden models with metal decorations placed to dig into the inner thigh. This shopping exercise made the trip feel a bit more real and the forested mountains surrounding Ulaan Baatar all the more alluring. With luck, I will actually get to try everything out tomorrow with a young horse trainer/guide/historian called 'Gansukh.' We will head out of town and try all the gear on a horse or two. On Friday myself, Bayara and Gansukh will then go to Kharkorin, 400km from here, and find some herders willing to sell horses. After a few days of living with them and training the horses the journey will finally get underway good and proper! (I just hope the trip will be easier than it has been to get this far!). Have to Run, Tim.