Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mongolia: Land of the Blue Sky

What do you think of when you think of Mongolia? Prior to coming here, I had a vague notion of it as a place at the end of the earth, but not much more. I knew it was the home of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, but I had no idea what to expect. And although it is definitely a country that requires some work and a lot of patience to get into, it turns out to be well worth the effort.

So a little primer on Mongolia. It is the most sparsely populated country on earth, with just 1.4 people per square kilometer (compare to 200 to 300 per square km in most European countries), and a 13 to 1 horse to human ratio. Around 50% of the population is nomadic, living in mobile gers (yurts) and using herding as their primary means of sustenance. Most of the land in the country is simply unowned, meaning that you can wander around and camp almost anywhere you please. The country is so far inland that its climate is not affected by the ocean, so the seasonal differences are dramatic (Ulaan Bataar is the world's coldest capital, in fact), and from personal experience I can tell you that the thunder and lightning storms are worthy of a Hollywood movie.

All this means that travelling here is quite an adventure, as there are less than 2000 km of paved road in the entire country, so your average speed as you bump and jolt through mud in an ancient Soviet van is around 30 km/hour (18 mph). So it takes a while to get anywhere. On the other hand, Mongolian hospitality is legendary, and you can literally just walk up to any ger and you will be served milk tea and either dairy products in some form or homemade noodle soup, and they will inevitably let you camp next door and take advantage of their guard dogs. I think the weirdest thing I ate while here was airag, a type of local, homemade beer, made from fermented camel milk. It was surprisingly not disgusting - sort of like home brewed beer mixed with milk.

Of course most people start with a visit to the Gobi Desert, which I did too. The Gobi is actually quite varied, with quite a bit of grassy grazing land, some dried out areas that resemble deserts at home, huge sand dunes, and a red desert where many dinosaur fossils have been found. There's even a canyon that has a glacier all year round, despite the summer heat. Of course my most lasting memory will be when we left in a rush during a sandstorm at the dunes because our driver had drunk half a bottle of vodka and then realized we were short on time, and as we flew through the desert in the dark, the back of the van opened, my backpack fell out, and by the time we realized it, my camping mat had flown away in the strong winds. After we got the doors closed again, the driver was so drunk he almost flipped the van over, and then we camped (without my mat) on the most uncomfortable ground I've ever slept on because he literally couldn't drive anymore, and all the while he was laughing hysterically and grabbing people inappropriately... Our Japanese companion, who seemed a lot younger than she actually was, told us it was too much adventure and she wanted her mother.

After the Gobi we headed through the ancient capital of Kharakhorum to central Mongolia for some horse trekking around lovely lakes. In this area yaks were a much more important part of the herd animals, and most of the dairy products we ate came from fresh yak milk. There was also a preponderance of marmots, which you see running across the road all over Mongolia (and which Mongolians hunt and eat). Cute, but they actually carry the bubonic plague. I didn't even know that was still a problem, but apparently every year there are several cases of it here. I knew when I saw "marmot plague" in the list of important health terms in the phrasebook that I was in a different kind of place!

We then headed up north into the Darkhad Depression, where we attended the Nadaam celebration in a tiny town called Renchinlkhumbe. Nadaam is the biggest celebration of the Mongolian year, where competitions are held in the "three manly sports": horse racing, wrestling, and archery. Although the archery was pathetic, the other two were impressive to see. Horses are raced by young boys (aged 5-12), riding with no saddle, stirrups or shoes, and whooping wildly. Some of the horses inevitably arrive sans rider at the finish line. The wrestlers are even funnier, wearing red and blue outfits with speedo-type bottoms and open-fronted tops. Before they wrestle they have to do an eagle dance, in which they flap around like birds and pray to the gods. There are no height or weight classes, so sometimes the matches are quite uneven, and mostly they consist of grabbing on to each other's clothing and pulling with all their might. Much butt-patting is involved. It was definitely amazing to see the spectators, many of whom were watching on horseback. Actually this part of Mongolia reminded me of the American "wild west"... it really seemed like how we picture those times, except with Asian faces and Mongolian traditional dress.

So this was the highlight of the time in Mongolia. We followed that with a few days riding horses around Hovsgol Lake, and then back to Ulaan Bataar to clean up (only three showers in three and a half weeks!!) and get ready for the next leg of the journey. Though I did get a chance before leaving UB to see a concert of khoomei, or throat singing. I'd always wanted to hear it, and it's quite amazing. You hear the men singing in an impossibly low, throaty bass, and then at the same time they have this eerie, high-pitched whistle that I couldn't produce even if I wanted to. This kind of singing also exists in a region of Russia, but it is typical to Mongolia.

So all in all, Mongolia was an amazing country. Beautiful landscapes, wonderful, hospitable people, and endless opportunities for adventure make it a place I definitely want to return to. However, I also learned that it's near impossible for a solo traveller here, due to the nonexistence of public transportation, so it's best to come with a friend (or three) who have the same goals and limitations as you do. Otherwise you have to piece together a group from whoever happens to be in Ulaan Bataar, and then you never know what you'll get.

As always, there's much more to tell, but now I should go get my papers in order for tomorrow's bus ride to Siberia...

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Adventure map for 2009...