We like traveling to out-of-the-way places where we can experience the local culture, commune with nature and avoid a million other tourists. And when it comes to out-of-the-way places, you can’t get much more out of the way than Mongolia.
A landlocked country that rests between northern China and southern Russia, Mongolia is slightly smaller than the state of Alaska and has almost three million residents, more than one-third of whom live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. The rest of the inhabitants are primarily nomads who live throughout the countryside in gers or yurts, portable tent-like dwellings with felt-covered wood frames. Nomads move at least four times a year in search of grazing land for their animals and live as they have for thousands of years. The only exceptions are the solar panels and satellite dishes used to power radios and black-and-white TVs.
In the summer of 2006, after much research online, we planned a visit to the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. We booked our trip directly with a local travel guide who came with glowing recommendations and saved a considerable amount of money by avoiding a large tour company. We flew from Beijing, China, into Ulaanbaatar and spent a day exploring the sites before leaving the city behind, catching another flight to Ulgii (or Olgii) in western Mongolia where we spent 12 days trekking in the Tavan Bogd National Park. Our little group consisted of three Americans (me, husband and a friend), a local guide, a cook, several horses, a camel jockey and a Bactrian camel (the two-humped variety) that carried our gear.
After nearly two weeks of traveling with a camel, I can tell you the entire direction of each day was determined by the camel’s mood. He was prone to jumping into the river, soaking all of our gear, and he really didn’t like walking up hills. When he got tired, he would just sit down wherever he was or deliberately shift his load so that it had to be removed and reloaded, providing him with an hour’s rest. It was exasperating for our guide and camel jockey, and although his antics drove us to tears as often as they inspired uncontrollable laughter, in the end, the trip wouldn’t have been the same without him. Truth be told, he came in handy for carrying us across streams and, in his own special way, he was kind of cute.
Before our trek began, we had decided we would walk rather than ride horses, which is most get around in Mongolia. As a result, every local we encountered asked us why we were traveling by foot. We just told them we were crazy Americans. Locals also often inquired about our party of one man and two women. Most observed that the man was a lucky guy, until we explained that he was married to only one of us and that the other woman was a friend. Listening intently to this response, one elderly gentleman said, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was looking for a foreign wife. Our single travel companion quickly told him that she would be returning to the United States for work.
While we were trekking, we had every kind of weather imaginable — hot sun, violent thunderstorms, sleet, hail, even snow. Our guide told us it was very unusual for a Mongolian summer, but the variable weather contributed to the surreal beauty of the western Mongolia landscape. Minerals and lichen colored the rocky mountains a pretty reddish orange. Thick grass gave a soft green cast to smaller, rolling hills. Vegetation was, in fact, limited to grass; other than larch trees at some of the higher elevations, most of the mountains were devoid of trees and bushes. The sky was an incredible shade of blue, and never once did we see or hear a plane fly overhead.
We came across gravesites, ancient stone carvings of men standing in the middle of open fields and large petroglyph panels that were carved thousands of years ago. The best part of the trip, however, was spending time with the locals. Mongolians are extremely warm and generous and we were very often invited into gers to visit, rest and taste their food — fried bread, three different kinds of homemade cheese, goat butter, yogurt, fermented mare’s milk, yak vodka (distilled from yak milk), and real-deal vodka. Though the only way we could communicate was through our guide, it was a fascinating experience.
After our trek, we visited local eagle hunters, listened to the hauntingly beautiful songs of throat singers and, in a neary soum (county), observed the annual Naadam festival devoted to archery, wrestling and horse races (young boys race horses bareback for up to 35 km). As honored guests, we were treated like visiting dignitaries. A sheep was slaughtered, cooked and served, and at the end of the day we sat down with the locals to share a meal that included all of the various sheep parts, some more recognizable than others. We couldn’t have felt more welcomed.
Mongolia is a beautiful country that remains, for the most part, undiscovered. For those seeking a unique adventure, we highly recommend it. Go with an open mind and a willingness to try new things, especially the food, although strict vegetarians should keep in mind that mutton is the daily staple, since most vegetables must be imported from Russia. Be prepared to go with the flow, as plans often change at the last minute, but that’s all part of the experience and what will make you remember Mongolia for years to come.