slider top

The Open Spaces of Mongolia

Into Asia’s enchanting frontier

Ulaanbaatar railway station. Photo: P.L. Bogomolov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ulaanbaatar railway station. Photo: P.L. Bogomolov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We took the 36-hour train ride (rather than the two-hour plane ride) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The cars had been made in Germany and were surprisingly comfortable; the food was really quite edible. On the way my traveling companions and I saw much of the Great Wall and some of Hubei and Shanxi provinces in north-central China. Then we passed through the endless flat monotony of Inner Mongolia, which is, Tibet-style, an autonomous region of China. In the next cabin was a 20-year-old Mongolian Buddhist monk (he joined the monastery when he was eight) who had been studying in India and was returning home for the first time in five years. He was sharing his quarters with a German management consultant, and next to them were a 21-year-old graduate student of Russian from North Dakota and a retired English teacher from Cleveland. There was a Polish novelist who wore five wristwatches in No. 5. In the next car were several Russians and Chinese, a few Mongolians, an outrageously beautiful French couple who didn’t speak to anyone, and some Hare Krishna from Slovenia who were trying (unsuccessfully) to convert us all.

After two days we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, capital of independent (a.k.a. “Outer”) Mongolia. Mongolia is a country one-sixth the size of the United States, with a population of about 2.5 million. Most of the people are nomadic, living in wood-framed felt tents and herding sheep, goats, yaks, camels, cattle, and horses. They do not have paved roads. They do not, in general, use electricity or own cars. They practice, as they always have, Tibetan Buddhism; in fact it was the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan who coined the title Dalai Lama more than 400 years ago. Many of the temples and monasteries, despite 70 years of Communism, are now thriving.

Though Mongolia has a literacy rate of almost 90 percent, and an impressively well-informed population, outside the cities the way of life is much as it was at the turn of the last millennium. The country has important copper and gold mines and is the world’s leading source of cashmere, but remains curiously immune to modernism and to full-fledged industrialization. After almost 80 years as an “independent” Communist buffer state between Russia and China, Mongolia has recently established democracy, and in the last election, despite the limited number of polling stations and the vast distances between them, more than 90 percent of the eligible population voted.

Mongolian ger equipped with a satellite dish. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Mongolian ger equipped with a satellite dish. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

From Ulaanbaatar the guides and I drove three-quarters of the way toward Kharkhorin before setting up our first night’s camp in a big field near a ger, one of the low-slung tentlike structures in which Mongolians traditionally live. In the morning, we woke to the sound of horse traffic. I sat up, pulled aside the flap of my tent, and saw a tall man wearing a long side-buttoned coat of blue velvet, tied at the waist with a yellow silk sash. I stumbled into wakefulness, half dressed, and followed him to the ger, where he gave me cheese and butter and a slice of fresh bread. Such hospitality is automatic in this nomad country, and endlessly delightful to a Western visitor. I tried his horses, provoking amused delight from the little boys and girls, who at the age of four could ride, and at six move more self-assuredly on their mounts than I can walk. An older child, perhaps 16, came to look at our car and gestured to the inside of the door with the bemused air of an action hero on an alien spacecraft. I showed him how one could rotate the handle to make the window go up (he thought this was amazing); and I showed him how if you push down the lock, people can’t open the door from outside (he thought this was hilarious).

We arrived in Kharkhorin on the first day of its Naadam celebration. Mongolians are usually friendly, but are at their best during this ancient festival of sports, which occurs in the height of summer (Naadam takes place July 11 through 13 every year). The number of horsemen we saw heading across the roadless countryside, and the bright colors they wore, told us which way to go even before we had spotted the first of the distant pavilions. As we came closer we picked up on the crowd’s excitement. The jockeys had set out near dawn, and there were more than 200 horses in the morning’s race. At least 600 others were parked in rows, and the spectators sat astride their mounts the way Western audiences sit in grandstands. Everyone was eagerly waiting for the first glimpse on the horizon of the winning stallion. The men and women mostly wore long robes, called del, often of velvet or brocade, tied at the hip with silk sashes of brilliant yellow and crimson and green. Saddles were ornamented with silver, and many of the riders had silver crops and chatelaines. Colorful hats, some trimmed in fur, crested in points like steeples. A few hotshot adolescents who had drunk too much airag (Mongolia’s specialty, fermented horse milk, which is what one might call an acquired taste) were riding fast, and from time to time the crowd had to part before them. Children and the elderly were pushed to the front, while the rest of us on foot strained to see over their heads. The air rang with speculations, with greetings, with family arguments and plans.

At last the first horse came through, and the cheering erupted. We parted to make way for an endless line of runners-up, all bearing jockeys aged four to seven. They cantered through the crowd and slowed only in the distance. Ribbons flew from the bridles. The winner was taken to a nearby field, where a lama in a flowing robe and a yellow pleated hat blessed him in the name of the Buddha. Everyone was laughing, and some began singing, and all the joy was for old and new friends alike. We received invitations–translated by our guide–from every Mongolian we met: Come into our tent, have some of our airag, have a fried piece of dough, some cheese. They struggled to communicate over the language barrier, swore brotherhood with us, gave us their hats to try on, taught us exuberant words in Mongolian.

The next morning we watched the wrestling, which took place closer to town. Silk tents were pitched in a great circle on a greensward. Cavalry kept the crowd more or less in order, though periodically spectators rushed forward and threatening words were exchanged. The judges sat under a blue canopy adorned with white sacred symbols. Music played loudly; people jostled one another for good views or shady spots. One by one, the wrestlers came out in long leather del, paraded past the cheering crowd, then removed their coats to reveal hand-embroidered wrestler’s garb. Each solemnly performed an eagle dance around a judge, then slapped the front and back of his thighs (thwack! thwack! and thwack! thwack!). Next, partners began sparring according to ancient rules, striving not to touch the ground except with their feet and the open palms of their hands, while forcing their opponents, with a hair-raising mix of weight and precision, down to the ground.

Women's archery competition at the Naadam festival. Photo: Zoharby. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Women’s archery competition at the Naadam festival. Photo: Zoharby. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nearby, the archers were competing, firing slender arrows over a long meadow. The men shot from a back line; the women, in white silk, stood a few feet closer to the targets. On another field was a pick-up game of polo. There were small stands selling cakes, carpets, or radios. The hillside that formed the backdrop for the events was a wash of color: the revelers had pitched a small village there. The smell of meat cooking on open fires mixed with the scents of curdled airag and the wild thyme that the wrestlers were trampling; the whole place took on an aroma unlike any I had known. Once more, the Mongolians were overwhelmingly friendly; I could have lived for five years on the hospitality they offered. I took a picture of one man who looked particularly noble in his saddle, and he swept me up onto his horse with him. From that lofty height I watched the sport as his friends asked me questions and gave me cow’s-milk liquor.

We left the Naadam, and as we traveled deeper into Ovorhangai province (Kharkhorin is on its northern edge), the paved roads stopped. Mongolia is a magical place, but travel there has its drawbacks. Imagine the worst dirt road you’ve driven. Now envision the worst stretch of that road; now that worst stretch in the rain; now that worst stretch in the rain immediately after an earthquake. You see in your mind’s eye one of the better roads in Mongolia.

We drove through muddy fields where it was impossible to see the road, and we forded rivers when our driver thought the bridges looked unstable. It was rough going, and more than once we had to get out to push our car–or to assist others whose cars had given up along the road.

But despite the wild jolting, the magnificence of that drive will stay with me forever. The great hills were nearly mountains. There were, however, no trees; and grazing animals had cropped the lush grass so low that it was as smooth as a golf course. We were on top of the world, so far as we could tell, and it was every bit as good a feeling as the cliché would have you believe. A brook flowed through the bottom of a valley, and yellow flowers bloomed all around. Slender columns of smoke came from the chimneys of ger here and there. Herds feasted on the vegetation: yaks and cows and sheep and goats and even the occasional stray camel from the Gobi, and astonishing numbers of horses running free. There were no predators and no hiding places; the feeling was of sublime peace.

Every so often a herdsman would come into view, smoking a pipe, watching his flock; children played and laughed by the water’s edge. Women emerging from their ger surveyed the scene with satisfaction as they arranged trays of cheese on their roofs to dry. Eagles circled overhead in lazy patterns, while smaller birds flew lower. Marmots darted from their holes and scampered in and out of sight. Here were stretches of earth that had been neither exploited nor deliberately preserved, that were almost as innocent as our planet in its prime. I have never encountered a terrain that was at once so magnificent and so unthreatening; there was no evidence of the monstrous force of nature here, only the golden, the light, the perfect.

Many visitors to Mongolia cross parts of the country on mountain bikes. Others ride on horses, as I was to do later in my trip. It is not easy terrain, but you want to be close to the land.

The yak, beast of burden and staple of the cuisines of the Asian mountains and steppes. Photo: Dennis Jarvis; source: Wikimedia Commons.

The yak, beast of burden and staple of the cuisines of the Asian mountains and steppes. Photo: Dennis Jarvis; source: Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the animals of Mongolia, I loved the yaks most. Large and inept, with vain faces and a gratuitous leg-obscuring fringe similar to what you’d find on a Victorian sofa, they moved with the disgruntled self-assurance of old ladies elaborately done up in tattered versions of a bygone era’s fashions. A few spry creatures waved their absurd fluffy tails in the air like parasols, or darted daringly across the road, mad great-aunts with spring fever. Most of them eyed us dubiously, offering no physical threat but preserving an air of mild disapproval. They liked being photographed; they would gaze straight into the camera and blink, flirtatiously.

Almost none of the land in Mongolia belongs to anyone; it never has. You can drive over any part you want; you can pitch a tent wherever you like. A herder in the Gobi Desert said to me, “When I move my ger, I feel the exhilaration of possibilities and freedom. I can go anywhere, put my house anywhere, take my flock anywhere, except maybe some few little places where they built a city.” He stopped for a moment to pour me tea with camel’s milk. “Tell me,” he said, “is America also a free country?” For the first time in my patriotic life, I found that question difficult to answer. One-third of Mongolians live below the poverty level, but when I talked about the American dream, he said, “Why would a son want a different life from his father’s?” I asked about his young children, who were playing underfoot. “I am sending them to school,” he said, “and if they want to be politicians or businessmen, that is up to them. I went to school and I chose to remain a herder; I hope they will make that choice also, because I can imagine no better life.”

The fashionable wisdom is that capitalism has won out over Communism, but I left Mongolia persuaded that these two systems had never been opposites, that the real opposite of both is nomadism, a way of life as close to joyful anarchy as humankind will ever reach.

We stopped several times for gas as we traveled south toward the Gobi. The desert starts gradually: bit by bit the plants become sparse, and then the land flattens. The smooth, glorious grass fades away. We drove for hours and hours across Dundgovi (Middle Gobi) province, which was dull and bleak. Then we came to Omnogovi (South Gobi), where the sand was even and yellow, vegetation almost entirely absent. An hour or two later we arrived at one of the Gobi “forests,” full of plants with thick stems and thin leaves, like old driftwood stuck in the sand and decorated with arugula. The color was very strange and very beautiful. And after that the real desert began, flat and without ornament of any kind, and vast, vast, vast.

Bactrian camels by the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Severin Stalder. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bactrian camels by the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Severin Stalder. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We spent the night at the Bayanzag–a region known as the Flaming Cliffs–where great crumbling formations of limestone, bright red and warm gold, frame and reframe the desert around them. The wind brayed at us through tunnels carved into the cliffs. In the distance we could see snowcapped mountains. There were fossils everywhere, as though the dinosaurs hadn’t bothered to clean up when they moved on to their next campsite.

We decided to spend that moonless night with some camel herders, which involved simply stopping at their ger and introducing ourselves. The camels of Mongolia are friendly, and they don’t spit at you as Arabian camels do. They are curious creatures that turn to follow you as you pass. Their two humps are topped with tufts of long fur. When they lack water, their humps droop like aging bosoms. At night, they howl–an eerie sound, like the spirits of purgatory crying out.

I liked the herders at once. There were a brother and sister and their spouses, none older than 25; their parents, who’d recently departed after a long visit, were encamped within a day’s ride. The couples invited us in and readily answered our questions. So I learned that camels are easier to take care of than sheep; your flock will not mix with others. You let the adult camels roam during the day, but you stay with the babies and yearlings and guide them home in the evenings. The mothers return to be with the calves, and the males follow them, so the herd stays together. Camels yield good wool, and they can manage with infrequent meals. The herders told me that about five times a year they pack their ger onto their camels to seek better grazing land.

We had by then learned basic ger etiquette, so we knew that men sit on the west side and women on the east, that you are always given something to eat and drink, and that it’s rude not to try what you are given. Usually you get milk tea, made with tea, salt, sugar, and whatever milk is on hand (this time, camel milk), and often you get airag. The herders made us soup from dried mutton, and we added some onions and potatoes. These items were new to them. The onions they liked; the potatoes they found “disgusting,” complaining that they “had the texture of dirt.” At night, a ger is usually lit by a single candle, and in the flickering light we talked until it was late, and the children started dropping off on the floor. Not wanting to use the only beds in the ger, we returned to our tents just outside.

The next day the rain began. It seemed unfair that there should be heavy rain in South Gobi province, where the annual precipitation is about five inches. It seemed particularly unfair that it went on for three days, making the road we took as we headed back toward Ulaanbaatar virtually invisible and barely navigable. It seemed utterly unfair that our tents were not waterproof as guaranteed and that none of us ever quite dried out. And it seemed cruelly unfair that I had gotten sick from something I had eaten at the Naadam and that it was now kicking in with a vengeance. I felt as though I were a dry-clean-only item in a mobile washing machine, in which I was tossing around getting damper and damper. We got stuck twice. We jacked up the vehicle, checked the tires, tore up nearby plants, and established traction by laying the branches underneath. I had just finished reading the manuscript of a friend’s novel, and its pages did very well for getting the wheels re-engaged. The earth might as well have been made of marshmallow.

Panoramic view of Khovsgol Lake. Photo: Zoharby. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Panoramic view of Khovsgol Lake. Photo: Zoharby. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For the first half of our trip we enjoyed camping and driving and staying in a different place every night. But now we’d had enough of it, so we flew north to stay in Khovsgol province for the rest of the trip. It’s hard to write about Khovsgol in a fittingly superlative tone after having described Ovorhangai’s beauty. Khovsgol was just as beautiful and very different. We took a bumpy four-hour jeep ride to Khovsgol Lake National Park. Having a national park in the middle of Mongolia is like having an urban development zone in midtown Manhattan, but in principle it means that hunting is forbidden, which explains why the wildlife is particularly plentiful there. Khovsgol Lake contains just under 2 percent of the world’s fresh water; it is enormous, lovely, dark, and deep. On its banks are fields of wildflowers so brilliant you might think you were looking at a shoreline of butterflies. All around the lake are steep mountains. There are no buildings with foundations anywhere.

We stayed at a resort-like ger camp called Toilogt, where we had a wonderful view of the lake and a very attentive staff who provided every service. Each morning we decided whether to take a boat ride, or go hiking, or ride horses, or ride yaks (which no one who had a horse would ever choose to do except for the novelty of it). Some evenings the waiters performed traditional Mongolian music. While we ate, the staff would light a fire in our ger stove, so when we returned everything was toasty and welcoming.

I’d heard of the Mongolian reindeer people, the shamanist Tsaatan, and had always wanted to meet some. The 500-odd members of this race tend to keep far from the beaten path; anthropologists and devoted travelers often have to ride three or four days through the woods northwest of the park to find them. We were in luck, however; a Tsaatan child had spent the night nearby, and he agreed to lead us to his cousins. We were told it was an hour’s drive and then a three-mile walk. We had not fully understood that it was a three-mile vertical walk, but we climbed gamely with our seven-year-old guide and a few relations he had gathered in the valley–assimilationists who had turned to goat herding. We followed the course of a mountain stream that runs into the lake. As we ascended, the view opened up behind us. From time to time the boy would point out a bear’s cave, or an eagle, or a deer.

A Tsaatan shaman in northern Mongolia prepares for a ceremony. Khovsgol Province, Mongolia. Photo: Taylor Weidman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A Tsaatan shaman in northern Mongolia prepares for a ceremony. Khovsgol Province, Mongolia. Photo: Taylor Weidman. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After about three hours of hiking we found ourselves above the tree line, and on the crest of the mountain we could just make out a tepee and a herd of animals. Soon we were at the encampment of the reindeer people. In their dwelling we were given the usual warm welcome, reindeer-milk tea, some nasty cheese, and fried biscuits. (“Done in reindeer fat?” I asked the oldest woman. She reached behind a cabinet. “We prefer sunflower oil these days,” she said, showing the bottle.) Along the side of the tepee were various practical hooks made from antlers, and a few reindeer-skin bags. We asked about a small bundle, hanging opposite the door, of feathers, ribbons, dried flowers, a duck foot, and part of an antler. We were told that it was a magical device, and it was made clear that further questions about it were not welcome. The boy who had brought us said that his mother was a shaman.

Then we went outside to see the animals: three snow-white reindeer and 27 brown ones. I’d always thought of reindeer as inhabiting an eternal December; these had shed their heavy winter coats and seemed happy with the afternoon sun. They came over to rub their noses and heads against us: their antlers were furry and sensitive, and we soon discovered that they loved to have them scratched. The father in the Tsaatan family saddled one up and let me try it out. I found that reindeer are very difficult to ride. They prefer that you not grab their antlers when their swaying trot threatens to pitch you off their backs.

The next morning, back in the valley, we rode horses. Given a choice between Mongolian and Russian saddles, we chose Russian–the Mongolian wooden saddles look about as comfortable as rocks. We rode along the lakeshore, and then through the pine woods, which, carpeted in close-grazed grass, resembled groves rather than the forest primeval. It was a protective landscape and they were beautiful horses, and the smell of wildflowers was with us all the time. When we finally came back, saddlesore but contented, to a dinner of roast lamb, we felt we had earned our supper in the most pleasurable way possible.

View of Ulaanbaatar. Photo: Bernd Gross. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

View of Ulaanbaatar. Photo: Bernd Gross. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I was glad to return to Ulaanbaatar, which is a funny, mixed-up city, with grand Neoclassical Russian buildings, one of the world’s most important Buddhist monasteries, and grim housing from the Communist era. The “four-star” hotels, however undeserving they were of such status, were a welcome comfort after our stay in the countryside. There were several pleasant restaurants, and a pretty park with elk in it behind the president’s house. We saw an exhibition of avant-garde Mongolian art and walked around the ger settlements, where almost half the city’s residents live. The expat community in UB (as Ulaanbaatar is commonly called by foreigners) has its own meeting spots–the weekly cocktail parties in the British ambassador’s back yard, and Millie’s Espresso, owned by the wife of an American businessman. It’s a perfect place for a slice of quiche and a glass of white wine, and not a drop of airag! The Westerners who live in UB are economists, diplomats, a few artists, lawyers, businessmen, and sociologists–and all adventurers.

Many of the Mongolians in UB are elegantly dressed, often in Western clothing, occasionally in hip, updated forms of Mongolian garb. They often carry cellular phones. There’s quite a scene at the big disco in the center of town, where young couples dance until dawn.

We went to the Hustain Nuruu National Reserve, outside town, to see the wild horses. We visited the National Museum of Mongolian History, whose astonishing displays of historic costumes and jewelry and wigs make the Paris runways look tame. We bought antiques; the authorized shops sell them with export papers, and you can buy fantastic objects for almost no money.

Throughout the city, there’s an amused, ironic view of the Cold War government, whose monuments are all over; in the former Lenin’s Museum, a Turkish restaurant has opened under the 80-foot-high mosaic of Lenin. When I walked in, I saw two signs: one on the wall that said, WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! and the other on a freshly whitewashed stand that said, DRINKS HALF PRICE BEFORE 6:00! UB is not really a commercial city, but it is lively, changing, aware of the modernity that the rest of the country appears to have escaped.

In 1931, a third of Mongolia’s male population lived in monasteries, and the nation’s wealth was concentrated in Buddhist holy places. Stalin’s thugs destroyed almost all of these, but a few remain. The most splendid is the Gandan Monastery in UB, the biggest monastery in Mongolia, at the center of which is a Buddha almost 100 feet tall, enclosed in a tight-fitting pagoda. Dozens of monks in long robes offer prayers inside and outside, and the aura of peace is strong even with the crowds of noisy tourists shoving through. I ran into my friend the monk from the Beijing train, and he greeted me with warm smiles and talked excitedly about his family.

Erdene Zuu monastery, Kharkhorin, Mongolia. Photo: Bouette. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Erdene Zuu monastery, Kharkhorin, Mongolia. Photo: Bouette. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

We had also visited the great monastery in Kharkhorin, named Erdene Zuu. Aside from Gandan, Erdene Zuu is the most spectacular and holy monastery in Mongolia, and it felt more ancient, less touristed, more hallowed. The monks there, ranging in age from 6 to 90, strolled through the unkempt courtyards in long red robes; inside the temples others chanted prayers, beat drums, and lit candles in front of golden Buddhas carved by Mongolia’s great 17th-century king and sculptor, Zanabazar. Worshipers made offerings and pressed their foreheads to images of the divine, then turned the prayer wheels. For $2, you could get the monks to offer special prayers for you and your livestock.

I loved each of the places I went in Mongolia, but I think the essence of the country is far more important than the sights; it doesn’t matter where you go. Anywhere in Mongolia (outside UB) you can see what you need to see, which is an innocent landscape and an immutable culture. Afterward, if you especially want to explore the Gobi or Khovsgol or find some yaks, you can go ahead and do that too. In China, the people take a curious nationalist pride in the idea that no one else will ever penetrate the complexity of their society. Russians believe that their despair is a state no Westerner can attain or affect. Mongolians, however, seem gloriously clear about their place in the world and are delighted if you want to join them there. You get a feeling in Mongolia not simply of history, but of eternity.