What are the first things you think of when you hear the word Mongolia? If you are like me, Genghis Khan and where is that? I didn't know too much about Mongolia until we decided to travel there in May of 2009. What I learned is this very diverse country that borders China and Russia is a unique treasure that is very much undiscovered. With rugged mountains, flaming cliffs, vast deserts and nomadic people, Mongolia proved to be one of the top 5 places I have traveled to.
But how do you travel in Mongolia? The language is difficult at best, few people speak English, sometimes there are just plain few people if any to try and communicate with. So where to start? We did a little research and decided to go for broke and hired a driver and an individual guide through a company called Nomadic Expeditions. They are outstanding. If you are thinking of taking such an adventure, I highly recommend them. Whether you prefer to travel as individuals like us or in a group, they can arrange an itinerary for you to see exactly what you wish.
There are no paved roads in Mongolia outside of Ulaanbaatar the main city. This meant that at times we were following the tracks made by previous travels and at times we were creating the road - especially in the desert where the sands blow and the roads disappear as the days go on. A desert is an interesting place as it stretches as far as the eye can see like the vast waters of the ocean. I never understood mirages and then I actually saw them, as if there were an ocean just beyond reach and never came.
Mirage in the vast countryside
This is a rugged country in that it is definitely the survival of the fittest. The blazing sun makes it difficult for anything to survive, but it does and it is magic when you witness it. We were going climbing in an area called the Flaming Cliffs, they get this name as the colors of the cliffs change with the time of day and way that the sun hits them. At times they look as if they are on fire, at others just an ochre color, dry sandstone against the blue sky. They have found many dinosaur fossils in this area, which is south central Mongolia. We didn't find any fossils, but we were lucky enough to see wild horses galloping through the valley as we drove to the cliffs. We stopped and watched them. It was silent other than the whistle of the wind; just strong enough to push my hair across my face. The smell of dry sand and freedom surrounded us. There was something so emotional about these wild horses moving at the speed and direction that they wanted, in a pack, and without any intervention from anyone or anything. They were majestic.
Flaming Cliffs (photo courtesy of ATJ )
We stayed at a place called Three Camel Lodge during this portion of the trip. It was exceptional, we had our own Ger with an attached Ger for a bathroom. We had a wood stove with a bin of dried camel dung that they called 'pucks' for burning. There was a huge deck that surrounded the main hall and we sat in the evenings looking out at the immensity of the Gobi desert that lay at our feet. I watched a baby goat being born, dogs running and playing and then sleeping, birds circling. It was a different pace, a different life and you felt small in the vastness of it all.
Another area we climbed was the Khavtsgait Valley and mountain. There you can find petroglyphs carved into the stone, as you climb higher and higher, there are more and more. It is amazing because there are no fences, no signs, no tourists, no people, nothing. You have this lovely landscape all to yourself (well almost, more to come on that). You can touch and examine the petroglyphs, take photos, relax and sit on them. It is still an open and free landscape and a beautiful one at that. So, we climbed to the top of the mountain which was part of a range. Mother nature was calling the boys, so I sat on a rock facing the range. It was beautiful, there were bits of grass peeking through the rocks. The wind softly blowing and again the silence of the land, no noise pollution at all. But in the distance I heard this sound, I couldn't quite place it. It was getting louder and louder though. I looked to my left and saw this heard of goats and sheep eating their way up the mountainside. I sat very still and was surprised that they continued on their path and ate the grass around me and never gave me a second look.
Most of the Mongolian people still live in Gers or Yurts. They are very nomadic in nature and can collapse their Ger in under an hour to move on. We were fortunate enough to come across people living in the Gers dotted across the countryside in our travels. We met a father and son that were raising goats. They had a single horse that they were trying to 'break in' and a newborn calf that was very interested in following us around including into the Ger itself. The son wore these incredible traditional Mongolian boots. They had a pointed toe almost like an elf shoe and stitching detailing the sides. We sat in the Ger on the floor and they explained about their living. Our guide translated for us. We drank tea, which I felt guilty about because I had no idea where or when they would have access to water again. One question I asked was why they stored their saw above their door which is traditionally painted in bright and ornate decor. The door is also very short, so you have to duck to enter. It is common for the saw to be there for superstition in Mongolia, the saw represents that the relationships of those who enter have not been severed or something similar to that. I think it is like giving a penny with a knife as a gift, you can't cut the penny and it represents to never sever the relationship. Anyway, it was very interesting to see the differences in the way they live in comparison to ourselves.
We visited Gorkhi-Terelj National Park where we rented horses from a farmer to ride up to Turtle Rock. We were now in the north east of Mongolia, it was snowing in the mountains and the temperature had dropped considerably. We were not really prepared for this and had to layer most of our clothing that we brought on the trip. The family that had the horses also had cattle. They just had a calf born that morning. It was too cold outside to leave the babe, so they wrapped it in a blanket and brought it into the Ger and tied it to the lattice that makes up the wall. The children were so excited to show us the baby. So we took pictures of them on the digital camera and showed them. Each picture came with a giggle of delight and a new pose. They made me smile, it was a pure innocent joy.
In short, the people we encountered in Mongolia were hard working, and nomadic in every sense of the word. They were very welcoming, hospitable and kind. They opened their homes and families to us, they shared their lives with us. The countryside was vast, diverse and beautiful. It appeared untouched by human hands. I hope that you have a chance to visit there before it becomes an overrun tourist destination full of queues and ticket takers. Could that really happen? What a horrible thought...
Andy is posing, (our truck is that spot at the bottom for perspective) on our hike up to see the petroglyphs
This is me hanging out in the desert
I love to see the people in their traditional garb, I had to take his photograph