18 July 2023
Mongolia is known for its large, untouched landscapes, including the expansive Gobi Desert, Altai Mountains, and stunning grassy steppes. Jokes about getting lost in its vastness or trying to find a needle in a haystack (or a wild ass in the desert) can be relatable as one treks around this immense country. These treks also produce some interesting experiences both wild and wacky, welcoming and weird, wondrous and wonderful and a few that are godawful.
Wild and Wacky
Perhaps the wildest experience is Mongolian driving and getting from Point A to Point B. Transportation in Mongolia, when something other than a camel is used, is challenging. Distances are long and roads are varying degrees of horrendous, if they exist at all. If one has driven on gravel roads, experienced potholes like mini craters, and winding narrow roads, it barely prepares one for the roads, or lack there of, throughout Mongolia. Camels, though possibly slower, could be preferable.
All Mongol drivers are frustrated Naadam jockeys.
I have written about our off-roading experiences in pervious posts. Suffice it to say, there are no roads outside of Ulaanbaatar. There are trails, paths and stretches of washer board, undulating pavement. No self- respecting Mongol driver would let a gully, riverbed, or ragged hill stand in his way of reaching his destination. You will meet far more horses, goats and camels on your path than cars. I am amazed the beating these cars experience.
No where in the world are drivers wackier than Ulaanbaatar. They give a whole new definition to rush hour and stop and go, bumper to bumper. Making u-turns, lane changes and entering the flow of traffic is an art in UB. Vietnam is renowned for its crazy traffic. I am positive they learned from the Mongols. I call this Spaghetti Driving as that is what it looks like with cars pointed in every direction across 8 lanes of vehicles just inches from each other.
Many times it is faster and more comfortable to travel by air. That said, domestic flights are pretty informal and because of a shortage of planes, a flight can leave at 2:30 in the morning. Of the 25 domestic airports in Mongolia, 15 are grass, 1 gravel, and 2 unpaved, with only 7 concrete runways. It’s been a long time since I flew on a prop airplane and our runway at Murun Airport was only slightly better than the roads.
Also wild are the animals. The thousands of horses, yaks, cows, camels, goats and sheep are not domesticated. They spend most of their time freely grazing steppes and in mountains. Some are used for labor and some horses and camels are ridden but not comfortable with the smell and sight of anyone but their owners. Most animals are not safe to be near and should not be approached including the dogs. Dogs have few manners and in general are not socialized to be around people. It is not uncommon for a nomad to have a thousand sheep grazing miles away under little supervision.
The friendliest were the reindeer whose massive antlers are sensitive. Didn’t know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was ticklish. Camels are calmer but less tolerant. They tend to put up with the tourist.
Wacky and ultimately regrettable? The increasing use of cars and motorbikes across the steppes and desert. Nomads and Mongols are faced with worsening destruction of steppes and forests as there is no regulation. Potholes and ruts are getting deeper, grasslands increasingly torn up by vehicles. As yet, the nomads are not concerned. It is an ecological disaster in progress.
Fermented mares milk is an acquired taste. To be polite, one accepts the cup always with the right hand. It usually is a large bowl, far more than the polite one sip rule. Mare’s milk may be good but once fermented it is pretty awful. Also, one is offered a choice of cheeses. Beware of the small cheese pellets. Equally awful.
Welcoming and Weird
A plethora of fun experiences can be enjoyed. Nomads welcome visitors into their ger, offering warmth, food, tea, sometimes fermented mare’s mild. They will freely share their customs and daily life. One can experience the building of a ger. One can observe the milking of goats, horses, and yaks. I got up close and ticklish personal with large reindeer. One can partake in a camel ride of the two hump variety. Horses are offered but Mongols are protective of their horses as few touch or ride these animals other than their Mongol owner. Essentially, all horses are half wild.
“Your Mongol baby is ugly.” We learned that it was not proper to complement a young child on their beauty as it teaches the child vanity. Instead, one commented on their faults and plainness. Builds character!
Wondrous and Wonderful
Few celebrations are as fun and exciting as Naadam. The pageantry and pride of a Mongol nation is wrapped up into a couple days of celebrations and competitions. Watching a group of armored Mongols racing at full speed atop their charging horses, weapons raised, explains how their ancestors scared the hell out of their enemies.
I discussed the accommodations in gers and will only repeat my summary: Regardless of level of amenities, the scenery is majestic. Sitting in front of a ger in darkness, wine in hand, looking up at the stars is impossible to beat – no matter what the comfort of shower or mattress. It can be nature at its finest.
Weather! Wait a few minutes for it to change. I probably saw more rain than usual, but also I saw more rainbows. The sky, clouds and shades of lighting are wondrous. Perhaps not appreciated as we crossed Lake Hovsgol, the morning sun can flee in an instant bringing rainbows and downpours. Billows of white clouds can quickly be replaced with blue-black sky lit with flashes of lightening. The sky is open and immense and I feel I can touch the clouds as they pass over the mountains and steppes.
Mongolia is a huge country, the 19th largest in the world. Within its borders, over 17 per cent of Mongolia’s landmass is designated as a protected area. There are 24 National Parks and many, many more locally protected areas. These parks are still home to nomads and to huge herds of animals. People are allowed to pitch a ger or tent almost anywhere and enjoy Mother Nature.
I have developed a whole new level of respect for my Prius. Here, at least half the cars I see are a Prius. These cars are taking a beating on Mongolian roads. They cross the steppes and desert as if they were a tank. No pothole, muddy track, riverbed nor dirt path hinders them. The Prius bounces along like a Sherman Tank. My Prius scrapes bottom just leaving my driveway.
And the Godawful
Despite the Mongol hoard of ger flys, drips from ceilings, and occasional lack of any soap or hot water, despite dim lighting, toilet tissue buckets and one electrical outlet per room, the positives far outpace the annoyances. So said with a bit tongue-in-cheek, there were some memorable experiences we were more than joyous to move beyond.
Our first bus in Ulaanbaatar was a relic which saw its better days decades ago. Combining Mongolia’s notoriously bumpy roads with a total lack of springs and shock absorbers equals a high level of discomfort. Add a lack of space which required a contortionist to fasten the seat belt. Sitting over the rear wheel well became a nightmare.
Mongolians love meat. It seems easier to grow than vegetables. Sheep, goats, cattle and chickens provide a plethora of food. But as my niece expressed it, “the meat is already dead, no reason the cook it to death.”
Another observation from my niece, “Land of the eternal blue sky my ass.” I’m still not sure if we had an unusually wet visit, but it managed to rain a lot. In parts of Mongolia there was severe flooding which closed roads and parks to us. It rained to some extent almost every day, even in the Gobi Desert. The worst part was our inability to see clear skies and stars. We did see several rainbows but only one night of cloudless skies to confirm the stars were still above us.
We got both rainbow and downpour on our boat ride across Lake Hovsgol. Everyone agreed this trip was godawful. Rain all night produced a beautiful rainbow over the lake. This, along with not having to drive an hour over muddy and rough grasslands, brightened our spirits. Temperatures were cool. Once out on the lake for our 40-minute trip, the rain began. All one could do was hunker down. Not a head was up looking for majestic scenery. We all were miserable except First Class who was shielded from the worst by the windscreen up front.
After 18 days out and about Mongolia, despite the ups and downs of Mongol roads and weather, we left with a true appreciation and love for Mongolia. Zanabazar was right on.
May the mongol nation exist by its own right.Zanabazar