From the Gobi to the Grasslands

8 – 24 June 2010, Mongolia

Of the many stops on our round-the-world trip, I was really looking forward to Mongolia. I pictured unending grasslands punctuated by only an occasional yurt. I thought of vast, blue skies and weathered Mongolian cowboys. Mongolia may have appealed to me because I thought it would be a little more like home. After two months in the heat, humidity, and occasional chaos of Southeast Asia I was looking forward to wide open spaces and the long summer days of my own latitude.

We flew from Japan back to China, spending a few days in Beijing before catching another flight to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We enjoyed our short time in Ulaanbaatar, but it certainly wasn’t the Mongolia I’d imagined. Ulaanbaatar has extravagant amenities like electricity, running water, permanent structures, and paved streets. Ulaanbaatar is actually very cosmopolitan; many people were dressed much more fashionably than us. Interspersed among utilitarian Soviet-style apartment buildings are a department store, brewpubs, and a great variety of restaurants.

Our first priority was to arrange a tour. We had only two weeks in Mongolia so independent travel wasn’t really an option due to a lack of public transportation and other infrastructure for tourists. After checking with a handful of tour operators and guesthouses we found five other travelers interested in joining us for a 14 day trip through the Gobi Desert and Central Mongolia. With our tour settled our next task was to stock up on supplies. We expected warm days but also needed to be prepared for cold weather. We headed to Ulaanbaatar’s sprawling market and bought long underwear, hats, and sweaters.

On the morning of our third day we piled into a four wheel drive Russian van and headed out of Ulaanbaatar. We were joined our guide, Baska, and driver Byra. Baska worked tirelessly throughout the trip. She rose before us and went to sleep after us. She prepared all of our meals, often crouched over a camp stove in the back of the van. Byra kept us entertained by joking that every woman he met, including Allison, was his girlfriend and about how his three little children would rush to greet him when he returned home so they could ask him for money. He managed all of this with an English vocabulary not exceeding fifty words. It was a pleasure to travel with both Baska and Byra, and Allison and Baska became particularly good friends as the only girls on the trip. We also enjoyed the company of our tour group. While I have neither the space nor the inclination to repeat many of their stories here, I will say that one of the more amusing nights involved several bottles of Mongolian vodka, the first match of the World Cup on a battery powered television, a goat, and a gushing head wound.

We quickly fell into what would become our routine for the next two weeks. We drove hour after hour over rutted and bumpy roads, stopping for an occasional break and at midday for lunch. After several more hours of driving we would stop for the night. We stayed with nomadic families in gers, which are round, single room tents. There was furniture including beds, cabinets and shelves for cooking supplies around the perimeter of the ger, and a stove in the center. The wooden framework as well as the furniture was painted bright orange and then decorated with elaborate patterns of blue, green, purple, and gold. There was no running water but most families had a small solar panel to power an electric light. Our accommodation was typically a happy medium between shared quarters in a nomadic family’s ger and huge tourist camps with twenty or thirty gers arranged in neat rows. Most families had an extra ger for tourists. Every few days we’d roll into a dusty frontier-type town to buy food and supplies. Some of the towns had public baths where we could have a much appreciated shower and watch a torrent of sand and dirt go down the drain.

The Mongolian landscape really did remind me of home. The Gobi Desert is reminiscent of the American southwest, although the sights at our national parks are grander and more awe inspiring. Central Mongolia’s grasslands and pine forests could have passed for Montana. The skies may have been most impressive; during daytime they were a beautiful deep blue and at night, with almost no light pollution, they were filled with countless bright stars.

Our experiences with the Mongolian people were the most memorable part of the trip. Our group was split between two vans, and during the first afternoon we became somewhat concerned to find that Byra had lost sight of the first van and didn’t know the route. He steered to higher ground and craned his neck out the window but couldn’t find the van. After about a half hour we made our way to a small village where Byra asked for directions from a nomadic family. They invited us into their ger and offered generous portions of homemade yogurt and biscuits. We cautiously tried the food; I was a little wary of unrefrigerated dairy products, and realizing that the same hands that had just tossed another lump of dung into the fire had also kneaded the dough didn’t help either. On another occasion Byra careened off the road towards a ger after noticing that the nomads were milking their mares. Apparently fermented mare’s milk is a special treat in Mongolia, and he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to sample some. I tried a few sips and would probably liken it to milk that’s been forgotten in the refrigerator during a long vacation, but without the chunks.

Our most unique memory from Mongolia may have been our stay with Baska’s relatives. The family doesn’t normally host tourists so the experience felt more authentic than some of our other homestays, especially since we were able to participate in their newborn baby’s naming ceremony. During the ceremony the mother and grandmother washed the baby in three different types of baths while the father poured shot after shot of vodka. Neither of us typically do much drinking at 10:00 in the morning on a weekday, but Baska suggested that it would be rude to refuse. After they finished washing the baby, he was swaddled and passed to the father who whispered a name into the baby’s ear. After about an hour we staggered out of the ger into the blinding sunlight, feeling lucky to have been a part of this special event.

Another highlight of our time in Mongolia was a small Naadam festival. Naadam is celebrated each summer in villages and towns throughout Mongolia and features competitions in traditional Mongolian sports: wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Midway through our tour we learned that a Naadam was planned for a nearby village, and we changed our route so we could attend. We reached the village and then continued driving into the desert for several kilometers, when suddenly a circle of vehicles appeared. In the center Mongolian men competed in wrestling matches wearing little more than a Speedo and shoulder vest. Prior to starting a match the two competitors would dance around the arena, slowly moving their arms like an eagle flaps its wings. When the match began the wrestlers circled each other, and would then often lock arms in a prolonged and unexciting stalemate, which ended when one finally gained the upper hand and threw the other to the rocky and unforgiving dirt. In Mongolian wrestling a competitor loses as soon as he touches the ground.

Several times during the festival the crowd suddenly rushed away from the wrestling to catch the end of a horse race. Unlike the short sprints of western horse racing, Mongolian races are cross country events. At this Naadam the jockeys walked their horses 15 or more kilometers to the starting line before barreling back to the festival grounds. It was never completely clear to me why they couldn’t just run a circular route. We also caught some of the archery, which seemed to be a rather subdued event. We saw just two competitors, one of which was a teenage boy being pretty much clobbered by an only slightly older girl.

Mongolia exceeded our expectations, and our only regret is not having more time there. With an additional two weeks we could have seen Lake Khövsgöl and the forests of Northern Mongolia or visited the less touristed East or West. Although we were initially wary of traveling with a tour, in Mongolia the groups are small and there are plenty of opportunities for authentic cultural experiences. Even with so many countries left on our round-the-world itinerary, we’re certain that Mongolia will rank high on our list of favorite destinations.

One Response to “From the Gobi to the Grasslands”

  1. Tom says:

    Great pictures, great write-up and great beard. Bring me back instructions on how to build a ger, I’m thinking my next “apartment” will instead be a ger. Safe travels!

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