We grabbed a quick breakfast amongst American expat business people at the Blue Sky hotel before taxiing down to LG hostel to meet up with Will and Phie. Put our main bags in storage, and handed over a huge wedge of local currency to pay for our two day excursion.
Our guide is a lovely lady called Bimba and our driver is a young fella going by the name if Ogi. He's driving a souped up UAZ purgon, fitted with a second fuel tank, padded seats, larger wheels and raised suspension, all of which will prove useful over the next few days.
Leaving Ulaan Baatar we drive west for eight hours, stopping first at a cairn to make offerings for good luck, and a then road side cafe for lunch of beef and scrambled eggs served in an iron skillet, with salty milky tea.
Having read about airak, Genghis Khan's beverage of choice, I felt I had to try it. It's fermented mare's milk and is evidently extremely popular here in Mongolia and has been for thousands of years among this horse loving nation. We stopped at a Ger by the side of the road, next to a corral of horses, knocked on the door and were greeted by a smiling woman and her 1 year old daughter, wearing little bells on her booties.
In the centre of the ger was a large metal system of bowls and cylinders, placed above the dung-fired stove. The mares were milked in the morning, then this system was used as a distillery to make Airak and a refine that further into a clear vodka like spirit called arkhi. Other by-products included a kind of cottage cheese, which could be turned into very sour biscuits which we were offered.
As for the Airak itself, it was served to us in a fine silver bowl, and tasted like a thin cheesy yoghurt with the subtle fizz of fermentation that you might associate with a potato salad that's been left out in the summer sun too long. I guess you could get used to it. More easily quaffed was the arkhi, much like a gentle poteen, or a weak vodka with a hint of Greek yoghurt. Though again it didn't suit all of our western palates; and half an hour after knocking back a couple of glasses, I was feeling pretty gripey. In return for this gastronomic adventure we offered a bag of chocolate biscuits which I hope our host's daughter would be old enough to enjoy.