The Kochi-based businessman Balram Menon talks about his experiences in Mongolia. On an average, the country receives only five Indian tourists in a year
Photos: Balram Menon going dog-sledding; the statue of Genghis Khan
By Shevlin Sebastian
The ten Siberian huskies began barking in unison as Balram Menon stepped onto the sled. The time: 10.30 a.m. The place: Gorkhi-Terelj National Park at Mongolia. They set off. On all sides, there was snow and bare brown trees. The temperature was minus 20 degrees even though it was the month of March. Soon, the dogs picked up speed.
The Kochi-based businessman felt thrilled, as they raced through the snowy expanse. “There is a handle which could be used to apply the brakes and control the sledge,” says Balram.
A kilometre ahead was a man inside a jeep. “His job was to keep control of the dogs,” says Balram. “If they see some animals they will get distracted and try to attack them. So, he blows the horn and removes the animals from the path. The Huskies are ferocious dogs but they have been trained to be friendly with human beings.”
Suddenly, the sled hit a rock hidden under the snow and Balram went flying. He had a soft landing on the snow. So he got up quickly and chased the sled and managed to get on.
After an hour came the lunch break. A barbeque was lit and meat fried. “I was feeling so hungry the food was welcome,” says Balram. In the end, he traversed 28 kms before the journey came to an end.
Balram got interested in going to Mongolia when he saw a dog-sled video on Facebook. The page belonged to a man called Bold Purvedelgar from Mongolia. So Balram contacted Bold. “He is one of the few Mongolians who can speak English,” says Balram. “He told me to come to Mongolia and would arrange everything.”
Asked about the temperature, Bold said that it varied from -20 to -40 degrees Centigrade. “He asked whether I could cope with that,” says Balram. “I told him I was prepared for the challenge.”
In the end, Balram had to wear five layers of thermal clothing.
As for the route, since there is no direct flight from Kochi to Mongolia, Balram flew to Colombo. From there, he went to Bangkok, Beijing and then to Mongolia. “It took around 18 hours,” he says.
Apart from dog sledding, Balram tried paragliding. This was at Tsaonjin Boldog Province, around 100km from the country's capital Ulaanbaatar. “We had to walk up a mountain and then run on a flat ground and leap into the air,” he says. “It was very exciting.”
Another highlight was visiting the huge statue of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the founder of the Mongol Empire at Tsaonjin Boldog. “It is the world's tallest equestrian statue,” says Balram. “The horse is 120 feet high. The statue is made of stainless steel.”
Genghis is regarded as the father of the nation. “While the rest of the world thinks he was a terror, for the Mongolians he is a hero,” says Balram. “He had the largest army in the world and conquered large areas of Asia and Europe.”
Genghis was following a religion called Shamanism, through which you interact with spirits. “Before embarking on a war, he would communicate with the spirits, so that he would get an idea of whether he can win the war or not,” says Balram. “But after the conquest of Mongolia by Russia (1921-24), shamanism was completely destroyed.”
But the traditional food and culture survive. Balram stayed in a tent, called Ger, which is made of horse skin and hair. “It offers a good protection against the cold,” says Balram. “They have small ovens and use horse dung for fire. But there is no electricity, no digital communications and no bathrooms. You have to go out into the forest to do your ablutions.”
The food is unique and different. The staple food is steam dumplings. During winter, they have meat products, so that they can feel warm. And in summer it is cheese. There is also a national drink called airag, which is made from the fermented milk of a mare. “It is highly alcoholic in content,” says Balram. “One sip is enough to send you floating.”
As for the attitude of the people towards Indians, Balram says, “They are very friendly. They feel an affinity because the people of the North-East of India look like them.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)