Dumplings, hikes and wildflowers: How Australian volunteers make the most of weekends in Mongolia
Patrick Gallus was an Australian volunteer in Mongolia in 2016 and recently had the opportunity to go back. Here he describes a day in the Mongolian countryside, exploring the outdoors and indulging in home-cooked food.
“Pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch.”
Bujee is showing us how to make buuz, the popular, pervasive and delicious Mongolian dumplings. She rolls out a palm-sized disc of dough, adds a spoonful of chopped mutton and wild onion, and with five nimble pinches has transformed raw ingredients into a bundle of flavour.
Alongside her husband Naraa, Bujee runs the Mongolian equivalent of a bed and breakfast, hosting guests in one of their family’s gers: the round, felt-lined Mongolian homes. Beyond the home kitchen of our cooking class stretch the plains of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, part of a massive expanse of parkland which continues 200 kilometres northeast to the Russian border. It’s July, the height of Mongolian summer, and the vibrant blue sky and green grass are almost completely unbroken, apart from touches of white from gers on the ground, and whispy clouds above.
For more than 20 years Australian volunteers have supported the work of a range of community, government, and non-government organisations in Mongolia. That’s more than 300 volunteers who have had the opportunity to explore the unique Mongolian countryside.
On weekends volunteers often join locals escaping the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan capital Ulaanbaatar, heading to the countryside just a one-hour drive away. Say ‘Terelj’ to an Australian volunteer and immediately they’ll think of escape, play, relaxation: this is what weekends are all about in Mongolia. The endless rolling hills, rivers and woodlands outside of Ulaanbaatar are ideal for kayaking in summer, dog-sledding in winter, and horse riding year-round.
The buuz we’re making are reward for effort. Our day began with an hour-long hike up a steep nearby hill. Spoiled for choice in the massive park, we headed along a small creek past gers with smoking chimneys, surrounded by livestock and guarded by furry dogs. We walked along a valley and then up a grassy ridge, while herds of goats, cows and horses wandered past us on the hunt for their next feed. Wildflowers bloomed under their hooves.
Our climb was fuelled by a breakfast of homemade yoghurt, clotted cream and salty milk tea: a spread one can easily imagine Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire, tucking into 800 years ago. From our view on the hilltop the landscape looks like it has barely changed since he united the tribes and took off towards Hungary.
The Toyota Prius we spotted on our walk bravely bouncing across the terrain seemed out of place in the tranquil landscape. But hybrid cars are as abundant in Mongolia as the buuz - the ignition works in freezing cold weather, and they’re cheap. Early Mongolians conquered the land on horseback; today people dominate their city commutes from the driver’s seat of a Prius.
After conquering our own hill, we headed back to the family’s ger to tuck into our buuz. Bujee and Naraa’s kids are settled around the TV watching the 90s American film Godzilla. Mod cons like satellite dishes, low-power washing machines and electric lights have become common fixtures in gers, doing their best to blend in with the otherwise entirely traditional structure of felt, timber lattice and brightly painted beams. A stove at the centre of the ger is used for cooking and heating, and can be so hot in winter it glows red to combat outdoor temperatures nudging minus-40 degrees.
One in three Mongolians live in the countryside. One of the best things about being an Australian volunteer here is being able to experience the vast, open plains they call home. The spectacular landscape and famous hospitality offered to visitors, are something to be savoured. Not these buuz though. Straight from the steamer, they’re hot, delicious, and devoured in seconds.