The deli counter is piled high with plastic bags full of aarul – crunchy dried milk curd extruded in little curls that look like ancient pieces of macaroni. Behind the glass are blocks of cheese the colour of parmesan, and huge bowls of yellow skinned thick cream. The cheese smells more animal, more tangy, than what we are used to. We buy what looks most familiar—the parmesan look-alike. When we get it home I break off a chunk and put it into my mouth expecting a salty, nutty taste. A moment later I’ve spat it into the bin. It’s lemony, and crumbles like wet chalk.
It feels like more than two weeks since my sister dropped us at the airport, our backpacks stuffed with what we hoped would be the bare essentials necessary for surviving a full year in Mongolia. Longer since I had pulled out our giant atlas to work out where exactly Ulaanbaatar is situated. Simba the border collie nuzzled in for a cuddle, her soft nose obscuring China and the Gobi Desert.
‘Look how close it is to everything, Mattie!’ I exclaimed. ‘We could catch the train to Russia, to China. Japan is only a stone’s throw away, and even Europe isn’t all that far. Everything is connected. Imagine where we could travel to.’
Maybe Chinggis Khan and I have something in common. Although to be honest, conquering isn’t a top priority for me; I am happy just to see.
Only two weeks have passed, and now Simba is herding birds on my parents’ farm in Australia and I am realising how much there is to see here, without looking beyond national borders. There is so much to be explored. The mountains in the western aimags, with their wolves and eagles. The Gobi, where we are told you can scoop up sand and sift dinosaur bones through your fingers. Kharkorin, the ancient capital. Even the hills only five kilometres from the city, honeycombed with mountain bike and hiking trails.
First, however, we simply need to set ourselves up to live here for the next twelve months. Instinctively, we have picked up our Melbourne lives and are trying to recreate them in Ulaanbaatar. We have worn down our shoes searching the city for spin classes, a gym, hipster coffee. Vegetarian food we know how to prepare. We have purchased mountain bikes from a bike shop which doubles as the Belgian consulate. There is approximation, adaptation, but this is what makes even a trip to the supermarket interesting.
We have rented a one-bedroom apartment. It is near the centre of town, not far from Matt’s office. I am assured we will appreciate this when I am no longer sweating in the shade and the unfathomable freeze of winter cuts in. The apartment’s key selling points are what it does not have. There are no plastic chandeliers in the kitchen. The bathroom is not entirely fuchsia. The wallpaper isn’t decorated with sparkling holographic flowers. It is white, clean, and aside from a display cabinet which Marie Antoinette would be proud of, fairly innocuous. From our balcony, we can see the mountains of Bogd Khan national park. They are framed by two buildings, one of which is a construction site until 1am at the moment. I suppose winter is coming, and builders work while they can.
For now, the days are long but pass quickly. We eat at 9.30pm, an hour before the sun goes down. Our mornings are spent taking lessons in Mонгол хэл (Mongolian). Cyrillic letters are starting to make sense, and we are learning the fine but very important distinction between ‘у’, ‘ү’, ‘о’, ‘ё’, ‘ю’and ‘ө’, all of which are subtle variations on ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds. A slip of the tongue can make the difference between getting a glass of water, hair or poison, which is very good reason to keep practising.