Every couple of days during my van trip across Mongolia, we’d have the chance to mix things up a bit and stop for a meal at what our guide called an ‘eating place’.
Usually this was a tiny dining room attached to a grubby kitchen in a lonely little outpost in the middle of nowhere. There was often a huge menu, and our guide would translate a few select items for us, and we’d place our order, only to be told what we’d asked for wasn’t available.
Going through the menu could go on forever, and more often than not we just had to make do with whatever vegetarian fare was on hand – whatever permutation of noodles, rice, potatoes or carrots the eating place had access to. Our guide had brought along her own bottle of Tabasco sauce, which we usually slathered over everything anyway. Some days the humble potato could be turned into the awesome french fry – I loved those eating places!
The towns themselves generally consisted of a few soviet block style buildings around a central square (and, in one case, a bank. Which no, did not have an ATM, and the girls who worked there thought it was hilarious one member of our group had even bothered to ask).
The buildings mostly housed shops selling a variety of packaged goods imported from Korea and China (including the ubiquitous Choco-Pie, which you can buy in bulk in any store in Mongolia, no matter how remote).
One particular afternoon we stopped at an eating place where we, as usual, surprised the living crap out of the staff. And as usual we were told it would be an hour or more before our vegetarian meal was ready, so we set off to explore.
We came across a sign in English advertising a museum, so we gave it a try. It was dusty and cramped, but it was positively bursting with all sorts of little (and large! and stuffed!) curiosities that made sense to someone, somewhere.
That someone was an old man who shuffled us through the two or three small rooms, pointing out things that were obviously important to him and that he thought we should see.
He chattered away in Mongolian, using furious gestures to help us understand what it was that he was talking about. We spent more than an hour with him, nodding and smiling so hard my cheeks cracked. Well, almost.
We had no idea what he was saying, or what any of the collections really were, but we appreciated the effort he was going to.
It turned out that as well as curating the museum, he carved tiny wooden figurines like the one above. Towards the end of our visit a younger man appeared, setting out the figurines and taking photos of them with a flashy camera. I wondered whether he was preparing to sell them on eBay.
Selling them in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, was probably more likely.
There was no entry fee to the museum, and the man charged us nothing for his time. He seemed simply delighted to have people to share his collection with. It was one of those completely unexpected experiences that happen every so often while you’re travelling – one that you don’t set out looking for but when it finds you, it leaves a more lasting impression than any sight you check off from a list in a guidebook.