Mongolia – Travelogue


Ahh Mongolia – the only place in the world where the playground taunt “you’re a Mong” has little significance. The last stretch of unspoiled land in Asia, the lowest population density in the world, with horses outnumbering people by 13 to 1 (and most of its citizens living in Russia or China) – the ultra-friendly ‘Land of the Blue Sky’ is a firm backpacker’s favourite. Almost all of the locals I’ve met have been legends, and Ulaanbaatar feels a lot like a ‘more-developed Laos’, in its Buddhist traditions, laidback people and the noticeable absence of multinationals. In fact, according to a recent University’s ‘Subjective Well-Being’ survey, Mongolia is the happiest nation in Asia despite being amongst the poorest.

During the sticky and humid 4-hour wait at the border on the train from Irkutsk, the transition from Russia was marked, much to everyone’s’ shock, with a Mongolian official wishing everyone in the carriage a ‘happy stay in the country’. This simple but personal touch delighted all the tourists on board, worn down after weeks in standoffish Ruskyland. Russian trains are always suspiciously prompt – their fantastic timekeeping is related to the fact that the drivers are penalised if they’re not on time (this causes long waits just outside of stations if the train is early, allowing the driver to mosey on up to the station bang on time). Although this long wait was more related to the mind numbing bureaucracy on both sides, perhaps a similar ‘stick’ approach would encourage Virgin Rail to deliver the same efficiency… Despite Justyna losing her exit card, we survived the border formalities and were met, a few hours later, by a woman from our hostel as the train eventually crept into a rainy Ulaanbaatar in the early hours…

Our first stroll around the easily navigable capital revealed that Mongolians love and revere their founding emperor Genghis Khan – he adorns the bank notes, beer and all manner of merchandise. Though he resided over the largest empire in history, the rest of the world – particularly Mongolia’s neighbours – tend to (rightly) think he was a bit of a genocidal, bloodthirsty ruthless nut-job. Regardless of its curious fixation, Mongolia has become a shining example of an Asian democracy, though recently it has sold its soul to the US, WTO, IMF etc… – thus threatening the country’s nomadic tradition and poor majority.

Having showered and treated oneself to an absolutely delicious, big dirty English Breakfast at an Irish pub, we went to mail out some postcards (you have to love how, whilst other countries conquered the world’s governments, the Irish colonised the planet with pubs!). On our way to a political museum, we stumbled across the ‘Monastery-Museum of Choijin Lama’ – (always a favourite), which was spared destruction by the communists to demonstrate the ‘feudal ways of the past’. The crumbling old disused temple was filled with ‘tsam’ masks – enough to give anyone nightmares for weeks, the masks look fresh out of a gory horror movie and are used during religious dances to fend off bad karma (and probably all small children in a half mile radius).

A flick through the guidebook, kindly given to us by a Korean in Irkutsk, revealed that ‘UB’ had its own version of Disneyland – a children’s park near the temple we were stood at. Littered with, well… litter, and gaping big holes to fall down, the somewhat run-down park was dotted with colourful animal statues, which – frankly – looked almost as scary as the rickety, rusting fairground rides themselves. We risked a go on a weird manual monorail ride, which was perhaps the epitome of the word ‘contraption’ – basically a tandem peddling device sitting on a monorail about 3 metres off the ground. The grinding noises were indeed distressing, as was the wobbling, but we pulled through in one piece and after a bout of shopping (a phenomena I now must endure often owing to one having a girlfriend), we went to book theatre tickets…

The cultural show was worth the US$5 ticket price several times over. Acrobatics, contortionism, singing and dancing – it was a vibrant and lively showcase of Mongolia’s fantastically rich culture. English subtitles above the stage explained each act, one of them involved 3 women wailing like banshees on helium – it was more a test of audience endurance than anything else, but the next act – the awesome throat singers, made up for it. Next up was an elaborate but odd balancing act involving a cup and saucer, followed by a joyful dance about horses and another about milk (a Mongolian staple).

Next day, linking up with a couple from Holland, we embarked upon a 3-night, 4-day tour of the desert and countryside in a rather uncomfortable Jeep. About a quarter of Mongolians are nomadic, roaming the grasslands along with the wild horses, camels, gazelle, birds of prey, bears, marmots, antelope, boars, wolves, reindeer, elk, yaks, sheep and the like. All of Mongolian life centres around the family ‘ger’ – a circular tent, several of which we slept in during our tour. Unfortunately, we found ourselves staying in Westernised ‘hotel gers’, but every ger – which are scattered all across the desert landscape – are effectively hotels, restaurants and information bureaus to the passing traveller. It has to be like this as gers are often so thinly distributed across the land – Mongolians will therefore always invite a visitor to eat and stay over – hospitality is as inherent as it is essential.

Pretty much everyone in the country can ride a horse, most own several and we spoke to a taxi driver in the capital who found it hilarious that, in Britain, horse ownership is the super-expensive reserve of the bourgeois elite. Talking of which, our driver stumbled across an international horse polo competition on the first day of the tour. There were some brilliant photo opportunities and it was odd to meet the mainly British opposing team, who were very much upper class. I also got to try some ailrag – fermented horse milk with a touch of alcohol, a local favourite. To my ignorant self, it tasted like most foreign delicacies – bloody horrible. Mongolians love milk – they’ll milk anything, including yaks, goats, horses, reindeer, camels – even dogs (and in China, you can eat all of the above.)

I later got the opportunity to impress the other half with my own horse handling dexterity – after secretly crapping myself during the first hour, I was eventually whipping the beast into shape and having it run up-and-down the forest, flaunting my naturally glorious equestrian nimbleness! For a few dollars, we rode through the woods to a peaceful but intriguing Buddhist temple set on a tall rock. After climbing up and admiring the views, we rejoined our Dutch friends and got back in the dreaded Jeep…

The roads weren’t generally roads, they were mostly tracks where other vehicles had simply travelled before – it was a case of 7-hours of bone crunching bouncing-up-and-down every day, and it was sometimes questionable as to whether the day’s destination was worth it. Was the loss of half of my spinal cartilage worth the visit to a hot spring? …Our driver called himself ‘ Beijing’ and seemed to have a sadistic tendency of driving on the grasslands when there appeared to be a perfectly decent stretch of fresh, lovely tarmac running parallel. Beijing didn’t speak a word of English (except ‘danka’, which hardly counts), and it soon became clear than he was by and large completely lost throughout the whole trip, but made things up as he went along. With no signs throughout the majority of the country, and just a choice of half a dozen dirt tracks weaving between each other and over hills, it was a wonder he didn’t just buy a map. As my arse became airborne yet again, I cursed the fact I hadn’t shopped around for the tour and just booked through the hostel…

On the second night, the local kids at the ger camp seemed to enjoy my invisible horse routine as I galloped to the toilet whipping my imaginary mule. As I squatted down to business, I reflected on what a comedy legend I was. However, upon leaving the decrepit facilities, I realised the natives were actually laughing at the fact I’d galloped straight into the ladies WC… The group proceeded to tuck into an ambiguous meat dish whilst I fished out some of the supplies I’d bought along from the capital.

Our visit to Kharkhorin, the sleepy old capital, was a photographic extravaganza with 108 white stupas encircling the three main temples. We also had a short camel ride and heard some local people play the traditional guitar-like ‘bato-kin’ – one of which Justy purchased in Ulaanbaatar. After a final night spent in the ‘mini-Gobi’ desert (where, I’m proud to say, I finally got the shits when I braved the unspeakably dire latrine toilet), we made it back to the city having suffered only one break down – a broken fan belt.

It was great to be clean, static and back amongst civilisation after the 9-hour bumpy trip back. My backside was comatose for another day or two having suffered a battering from a horse, a camel, the shits and a lumpy jeep seat. Ulaanbattar was sunnier after a week of rain and we made plans to visit the holiest, biggest temple in the land, Gandantegchinlen Khiid. The name says a lot about the Mongolian language – Mongolian has been described as “two cats screeching at each other until one of them throws up” – indeed, makes German sound soft and romantic, and has about a dozen sounds which are just impossible to replicate for the English speaker.

Anyway, the temple was home to the tremendous Migjid Janraisig statue (The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction) – 26 metres of copper, gilded with gold and filled with 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs, 500 metres of silk, 334 sutras, two million bundles of mantras and an entire ger, complete with furniture. It was a sight to behold and Justy and I watched as local people came up to the alter, wafted some of the incense smoke, bowed and made offerings to the Gods before spinning the surrounding prayer wheels. As we’d arrived early, we were also lucky enough to catch some monks chanting – as the complex doubled as a university for 500 aspiring monks.

Those who have seen ‘The Long Way Round’ will have seen a segment about Ulaanbaatar’s ‘underground children’. ‘UB’ is the coldest city in the world where winter temperatures fall to -30c; it’ during this time that hundreds of street children retreat to the underground sewers and heating pipes, the only respite from the bitter cold. With unemployment at 35%, kids are often abandoned by parents – 80% of them are from one-parent families, and the kids often find themselves looking after babies, whilst still children themselves. See:

Justi and I really loved Mongolia and wrapped things up with a visit to a massive sprawling market to pick up supplies for the long train and bus journey to Beijing…

Thanks for all the lovely messages whilst on the road…

Tom =:o)