When I was young, the name “Outer Mongolia” was often invoked to express the idea of the farthest reaches of the earth. This made the idea of visiting Mongolia seem both impossible and desirable. Fortunately, today, since the fall of Communism, Mongolia is not impossible to visit. But it’s still not easy.
Actually, it’s not that hard to get to the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (often called U.B. by locals). You can take a direct flight from Chicago to Beijing, then catch the two-hour Beijing to U.B. flight (which will probably be late), and you’re in Mongolia.
U.B. is surprising in that it doesn’t look like an Asian city. It looks like a Russian city. The important buildings at downtown’s heart seem to have taken their inspiration from St. Petersburg, and much of the rest of the city is made up of the grim, blocky, crumbling construction of the Soviet era. However, the city is in transition, and boasts several modern, elegant, Western-style buildings, with construction sites promising more of the same. International cuisine is also beginning to appear in U.B., from a Viennese pastry shop to a number of Korean restaurants (but no Macdonald’s—they voted against it).
Only a few Chinese or Tibetan-style temples show a connection with Asia. However, the connection with the rest of Mongolia is immediately clear, as the residential area of the city is largely made up of gers, the round, felt-covered tents of the country’s nomad population. (Ger is pronounced to rhyme with air, sort of, but leaning slightly toward gear.)
Outside of U.B., Mongolia becomes both more difficult and more Mongolian. There are few paved roads, so most driving is over whatever this rugged, rocky land throws at you. The jeeps we rode in were Russian, which, our guide explained, were designed to be reliable, but without any consideration of the fact that humans would ride inside. After several serious collisions between heads and roof, we learned to ride with one arm braced overhead at all times.
But as hard as the transit was, wonders awaited us at the end of each journey. Our first trip was north, to Lake Khuvsghul, which is across the border from Russia’s Lake Baikal. We flew in a Russian plane that surprised us by surviving our landing on an open field. A jeep and driver awaited us (there were three of us traveling together, plus our Mongolian guide), and we were off across grassy hill, rugged mountain, and rock-strewn riverbed to a ger camp (we lived in gers whenever we were not in U.B.) on the edge of the glorious, deep, incredibly clear lake. The mountains rose up around us, some barren, some heavily wooded. It was a place of remarkable beauty.
We spent three days in this remote wilderness, hiking in the larch-wooded hills, cruising out to a small, rocky island that was home to thousands of gulls and cormorants, and visiting the nearby reindeer people. We got to sample reindeer-milk tea and reindeer cheese, as we sat in a teepee (reindeer people don’t live in gers) exchanging stories with the matriarch of one family, a beautiful woman of 50. This was the first time we noticed something we were to eventually realize was nearly universal—almost all Mongolians (in sharp contrast to the rest of Asia) have perfect, or nearly perfect, straight, white teeth, regardless of age.
When it was time to leave Khuvsghul, we lurched and bumped back across the beautiful countryside to the grassy field where our plane would land. I loved seeing the Mongol horsemen in traditional dress standing by their mounts, waiting for the plane to arrive—a perfect image of a country in transition.
After one night in U.B., we were back at the airport heading for the Gobi Desert. Actually, Gobi means desert in Mongolian, so there it is simply “the Gobi.” We were amused to note that, not only was the plane the same one we had taken to and from Khuvsghul, the flight attendant was the same, too. Not a big airline.
Crossing the Gobi was a challenge in that, while it was no bumpier than the ride up north, the drive was far longer (200 kilometers), and it was hot (95+ degrees). The jeep overheated a couple of times, but our skilled driver always got it working again quickly. (We took advantage of the stops to stretch our legs and take photos of the fascinating, rocky, undulating, reddish-gold terrain.) Eventually we approached the Khongoryn Els, and our discomfort was eclipsed by the sight of the towering, 100-mile-long sand dune rising out of the rocky plain. It became even more astonishing as we got closer; a natural spring flows into a clear stream at the base of the giant dune, and the sand rises directly out of lush, green pasture, where horses, camels (Bactrian), sheep, and cows grazed.
The next day proved to be one of the most remarkable of the trip. Both our driver and guide grew up in this region, so they know many of the nomad families. When they were invited to a celebration of the first capture of young horses and first milking of the mares, we were included in the invitation.
The day started with the capture of the young horses. Swift, skilled Mongol horsemen were aided by friends on foot, and eventually the 1-year-olds were harnessed and tethered. Then we went inside our host’s ger for a bowl of fermented camel’s milk and the passing around of snuff bottles (along with instructions for the three of us on each activity, including the rules that you always accept anything you’re offered with your right hand, and never reach between the central ger poles, always outside them). Next came the vodkas: camel’s milk vodka, horse’s milk vodka, sheep’s milk vodka. The glass (there was only one) was presented ceremoniously, always to us first, as guests. Fortunately, you only had to drink a little, then could pass it back. Store-bought vodka, being more valuable (and stronger), was served in a tiny, beautifully decorated silver bowl, rather than the glass.As the day progressed, we’d go outside to watch the capture of the mares, the first riding of the two-year-old horses, the first milking of the mares. After each event, we went back into the ger for food (camel milk cheese, boiled mutton, noodle soup) and more vodka. The men began to sing mournful songs, mostly about the earth. Eventually, they turned to us and requested a song. Our guide said it would be impolite to decline. “God Bless America” (something all three of us knew) was a huge hit, especially because everyone recognized the word “America.”
More ceremonies and events followed. We finally departed late afternoon, only to return in late evening, to be taught how to ride camels. (This far north, the summer sun doesn’t set until about 10:30, so much can be fitted into a day.)
The next couple of days in the Gobi offered many delights: herds of swift, graceful gazelles, steppe eagles soaring overhead, whirlwinds dancing in the heat, and lots of interesting rocks for three eager rock hounds. We visited beautiful, wind-sculpted Bayanzag Valley, where astonishing discoveries have been made of dinosaur bones and nests of dinosaur eggs, and Yolyn Am, a valley, carved through rocky mountains, that is so deep that snow and ice linger into July. (Yolyn Am was also the only place we had problems with biting insects—nasty, swarming, little black flies.)
Then it was back to U.B. for one night, before heading 280 kilometers, by nominally paved (but due to be improved) road, to Karakorum, capital city of Chinggis Khaan (the Mongolian spelling of the conqueror’s name). All that can now be seen in Karakorum is Erdenzuu, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Those buildings, murals, and statues that were spared by the Russians are in astonishingly good condition, and the Tibetan influence is obvious.
The drive was, again, rough, but it offered a visual feast of green hills and valleys, herds of sheep and goats, horses and riders following clear, winding rivers, widely dispersed gers, and, in places, even the northern edges of the Gobi. This landscape, now green, now golden, stretched away on all sides, vast and rolling. Here, great armies once camped, and I found it easy to envision the legions of Mongol warriors from Chinggis Khaan’s day.
Back in U.B., we enjoyed the delights offered by the city. We loved seeing the wonderfully comprehensive museums of Natural History and National History. It helped us put much of what we had seen in perspective, and helped us attach names to some of the birds, rocks, plants, and animals we had seen. At a number of delightful concerts of traditional Mongolian music, we all became fans of huumii (Mongolian throat singing) and the morin khuur (Mongolia’s traditional, horse-headed violin). Sampling Mongolian food, from traditionally cooked lamb to a variety of dumplings, was also enjoyable.
We attended the Naadam Festival, an event first held 840 years ago by the great Khaan himself. It now celebrates both Chinggis Khaan’s birth and Mongolia’s independence. This two-day event features “the three manly sports” of horse racing, archery, and wrestling (though women may compete in archery, and children ride in some races). Horse races involve as many as 500 horses at a time, with the longest race covering 35 kilometers. Archers are so accurate that judges stand beside the targets at the far end of the field. Crowds throng each competition, but it is the wrestling that has most home viewers glued to their TVs. The event starts with 1,024 wrestlers, with the field being halved at each round. By close of the second day, one giant man emerges victorious.
The hills and plains near U.B. sprouted temporary ger cities. The best athletes and swiftest horses from all parts of Mongolia were on hand, as were the country’s president and dignitaries from several other countries. Ceremony is almost as important as sport, from the beginning parade to the presentation of awards (which can include handmade rugs or young horses, as well as money and trophies). There was even a Chinggis Khaan with his warriors during the opening festivities.
It’s not hard to understand why Chinggis Khaan should still be remembered so vividly. He and his heirs built the largest empire the world has ever known. At its height, the Mongolian Empire included everything from Korea to Eastern Europe, including all of Russia and China. It was the creation of a system of highways, along with the safety offered by the Pax Mongolica, that made possible the travels of Marco Polo and others of that era. While Mongolia’s recent history has been difficult, its past history is amazing. And now that they have emerged from the crushing burden of Communist rule, Mongolia hopes to become a world player again—though this time through trade and tourism.
While Ulaanbaatar will probably grow and modernize quickly, most areas will remain untouched for years to come, so you still have time to visit. Our Mongolian guide even promised that he’d be buying more comfortable vehicles, so you may never have to ride in a Russian jeep.
©2009 Cynthia Clampitt