Mongolian roadtrips, criminal musicians and horse play on the steppe

Hip Hop Driver – Tomor

Steve rugged up

Seggie taking care of split ends

Nacho taking 5

Benj. Loaded.

So it’s a lazy sunny Sunday in Ulaanbaatar and the sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky and it’s almost reached today’s high of -17˚C. Big week.

It kicked off with a phone call from one of our potential cast who lowered their price over the weekend, but we were flat out with road trip preparations. On Tuesday we all jumped in a van at 7am and set off for Onderkhan in Khentii province. We were heading out catch up with Arslan, who was mixing traditional music and hip hop the last time we visited. Three years later after we first met him, we were keen to see what he was coming up with nowadays. We also wanted to film some ‘traditional’ Mongolia and get out of the pollution that descends on Ulaanbaatar every winter.

After a 45-minute drive there was still ice on the inside of the car, so our driver Tomor pulled up in front of a friend’s ger and as we huddled inside, he ripped out the passenger seat. Using a Phillips screwdriver, a rag and a set of pliers somehow managed to get the heating cranking. Within a couple of Ks we were peeling off layers as our van shot across the vast white landscape. Ulaanbaatar is a dirt bowl with a few patches of brown snow, but as soon as we got out of the city, we entered a world of white – as far as we could see the landscape was covered with 10 – 20cm of snow.

Stopping to film herders, vultures, landscapes, and old missile shells (the shells doubling as road markers!), we passed cars that had skidded on ice and landed in the ditch, and a truck that was missing its rear axle on its way to Jargaltkhaan. Arlsan had a mate there who was a traditional musician and we were keen to chat. We found him, got a hotel and wandered back to talk. In a small ger on the edge of the tiny town we chatted with Ganchuduru and learned about the epic singing of eastern Mongolia. Following the local custom, we gave him a bottle of vodka and promptly polished it off before walking back to our hotel through the snow. Half an hour later and climbing into bed, Tomor came into our room and said that Ganchuduru had come back. We walked into their room and there he was with his wife in one side and another bottle of vodka in the other!

The next morning we did a bit of filming of Ganchuduru (who was in far better form than us) and the town before driving the last hour to Onderkhan. We met Arslan for lunch and after he had finished his music rehearsal with the local traditional music ensemble, we filmed him with his mates blending traditional and hip hop (somewhat crudely on an ancient out of tune piano and morin khuur). After we did an interview in his place, then filmed him over the next few days as he rehearsed with the orchestra and went about life in country Mongolia. We were meant to film him performing with his mates, but none of them showed up, so we postponed it until Friday night – our last.

Friday got off to a good start. We visited some of his friends who are herders, and as they had a new ger and international guests, they were in celebratory mood. Arslan played a blessing on the morin khuur and the food, drinks and songs were plenty. Steve was battling a bit with the legs of sheep that everyone was gnawing at around him, but seemed to be comfortable occupying himself with drinking as many bowls of airag – fermented mare’s milk – as possible. As I was drinking my 7th bowl of vodka, it was midday, and someone suggested that we go horse riding. I jumped on and got led around. Seggie made fun at me, telling me that she’d show me how to ride a horse. She jumped on, and straight away it took off over the hills and the family started shouting and chasing after her! It was then that Steve stumbled from the ger and with a Mongolian hat and, with a belly full of Dutch courage, jumped on a horse for the first time ever. With his flowing beard he looked like Chinggis khan himself!

Nacho was still inside eating the last of the sheep, so we dragged him out and the Icelandic guys filmed us as we went to check out the horses. We jumped in a van and drove about 15 minutes past a few very similar looking herds of horses (is that the correct collective noun?) until we found the right one. After doing some filming, the father of the family we were staying with appeared on horseback (we had left him at the ger when we jumped in the van) and he was dragging a horse with him that he proceeded to give to me! Although Nacho and Steve were keen to eat it, the deal was that they would look after it, train it and race it in annual horse race of Naadam. They may have also named it after me, but by that point my memory wasn’t the best.

Sobering up on the way back to town, we confirmed with Arslan that we’d meet up at 06.00 for a performance with his mates who were blending the two. At 5.30 he came over and told us that the rest of the band was in prison! Apparently they had got in a fight with the cops and landed themselves two nights in lockup. We asked him to go there, explain the situation and find out if they could get out tonight for some filming, but he wasn’t keen on the idea. So Seggie and I went in there and asked and they said that they would be out by, 9.30am. Probably. We changed plans again, and Arslan said that we could do it first thing in the morning.

The next morning Arslan came over to the hotel and told us that although everyone was freed, one had gone to UB, another had gone to the countryside, and the others were in trouble with their wives. He was extremely apologetic and said that he’s send us footage of them jamming, but I think I’ll believe it when I see it.

On the way home we stopped off at Ganchuduru’s place and he played some more music for us. He’s the regional champion for a style of singing where the judges choose a topic and they have to come up with a song about it on the spot – ancient freestyling! We said we’d love to hear more on the history of Mongolia and came up with a mad freestyle which we heard the words Chinggis khan, Mongol, and hip hop! Can’t wait to get it translated!

We arrived home late Saturday night thanks to the amazing driving skills of tomor, and it was great to have Seggie on board, who put up with the three of us for five days straight. If anyone wants to place some bets on next year’s Naadam, I know a good horse…

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