There is that one overwhelming moment in every journey which can only be described as cinematic. The sweeping glimpse of a new country from the airplane, the first mouthful of a plate of food that was worth travelling for, the sight of a world-renowned monument… cherished moments that would be recalled over and over again.
Staring out at the steppes from the Trans-Mongolian train bound for Ulaanbaatar, I speculated about what could prompt that moment on this trip. After all, with its legendary heroes, Silk Road credentials and landlocked isolation, Mongolia was not short on drama.
The train ride itself was pretty unusual, for starters. Be it the Mongolian attendants who had ushered us into our coupe with exaggerated wide-eyed ‘Indian, Indian!’ gestures (clearly, Bollywood was big in these parts), or those hours spent locked up in the train on the border between China and Mongolia while immigration officials whisked away our passports for inspection. By the time the train pulled into Ulaanbaatar, there were quite a few out-of-the-ordinary instances, but a drumroll moment? Hmmm, not yet.
Part Chinese, part Russian and wholly unique, Ulaanbaatar is a welcoming city that refutes its frosty reputation of being the coldest capital in the world. Expectedly so, the aura of Chinggis Khan looms large, and his commanding statue occupies the centre of the main square. But not too far away is a mural dedicated to the Beatles, and lining the city streets are countless Korean barbecues. Traditional it may be, but Ulaanbaatar, like other world cities, was not impervious to global influences, old and new. However, we were here for the briefest of stops before embarking on our Mongolian road trip from the Gobi Desert. Ulaanbaatar’s modest domestic airport was buzzing even in the early hours. There were some tourists, the odd local, and workers off to coal, copper and gold mines in the far reaches of the country.
At Dalanzadgad Airport, we were met by our suave, young guide, Namra. He and driver Unuruu were to be our crew for the next eight days as we made our way back to Ulaanbaatar through the grand Mongolian outdoors. We zipped away from the airport in the well-stocked SUV, only to take an unceremonious turn into the depths of the desert half an hour later. Roads in Mongolia are still an urban phenomenon, and much of our road tripping was in reality going to be off-roading.
The South Gobi is not your typical ‘desert’. Yol Valley, with its grassy pathways meandering through moss-lined rock faces, is anything but arid. From ibex to snow leopards, the nooks and crannies of the valley are believed to be home to many animals. But all we got to see during the course of our hike were some pika—a small rodent that was bunny-meet-mouse-meet-something-cute-from-Disney.
Off-roading in Mongolia doesn’t guarantee many of the creature comforts we have come to regard as travel must-haves. There are no ‘facilities’ of the kind we are used to—no wayside cafés or toilet stops. For the latter, the wide-open deserts and steppes are all yours for the taking. There is the internet, but you’d catch a signal only when in proximity to a ‘town’, which is little more than a shop, a mechanic’s shed and a smattering of small homes.
Sleeping under the stars though is only optional thanks to ger camps—traditional yurt-like lodgings where road-beaten tourists can get a good night’s rest. From the basic to semi-luxury, ger camps come in all shapes, but you are always assured clean bathrooms and hot meals. The ger is a typical nomadic dwelling. Built with wood, felt and rope, they are sturdy enough to withstand the harsh conditions outside all year, but also light enough to be dismantled with ease.
Driving from South to Central Gobi, the land gets progressively drier. There are no road signs anywhere, but Unuruu, a veteran of many such trips, knew the way like the lyrics to the Mongolian ballads playing in the car. A rough, long ride through gravel-ridden tracks brought us to the vicinity of Khongoryn Els sand dunes, set within a more typical desertscape. We decided to make the final trek to the base of the dunes on camels.
Bactrian camels, with their double humps, are considered to be a more comfortable ride than their single-humped counterparts. One hump serves as a backrest and the other as a handle to cling on to. Not my camel though. The harsh conditions of the desert and malnourishment had rendered its humps limp. Namra had worse luck. His camel was in a particularly belligerent mood and made continued aggressive grunts. Namra eventually abandoned his ride.
Unknown to many, more number of dinosaur fossils have been unearthed in Mongolia than in any other country. The Gobi Desert is where the majority of these were discovered, and the ochre-coloured ‘Flaming Cliffs’ in Bayanzag were pretty much the centre point of the excavations. Numerous dinosaur bones and eggs were dug up over the years, most of which were carted off to western countries for further research. Excavations are now suspended, but the cliffs themselves were fascinating for the play of colours that took place in the changing light.
Back at our ger that evening, Namra demonstrated the intricacies of shagai—a Mongolian game played with sheep ankle bones, where each side of the bone signifies a different animal—sheep, goat, horse and camel. Post dinner, the ger staff put on a costume show showcasing the ethnic diversity in Mongolia—a fact that often gets lost in the overarching nomadic narrative. The boundaries and the very existence of the Silk Road may be contentious, but there is no denying that Mongolia is the cultural hotchpotch it is today because of untold external influences. Most notably Buddhism, which made its way here from Tibet. The Ongi Monastery, next door to the ger camp, was a thriving Buddhist centre in the 16th century. Its monasteries, temples and universities attracted people from all over, until the buildings were ruthlessly razed to the ground by the socialist government three hundred years later. Today, the handful of structures still standing are enough to convey the scale and grandeur of days gone by.
Further north from the Gobi Desert, there is a gradual but dramatic turnaround of scenery. The land is a lot more pastoral, there’s an abundance of streams and a lush flush all around. If the Gobi was the Mongolia of geography text books, this was the Mongolia of tourism brochures. We were now in the heart of the steppes—the Orkhon Valley. Horses, cows, yaks and sheep roamed free and the horizon was speckled with white nomadic gers. The recent rains had left the ground exceedingly squelchy, and we all but left claw marks on the sides of our seat as the 4x4 rocked perilously through ditches and fields.
From time to time, nomadic families let out their spare ger for travellers, and it was our absolute privilege to be able to spend a night in one of them. Erin and Ganaa, along with their children and a herd of thousand farm animals, had set up their home by a picture-perfect gurgling stream in the middle of the valley.
The family ger, as is the norm, is a one-room dwelling that functions as living, dining and sleeping quarters for the entire household. Yet, it had everything that was needed and more. A fully-functional pantry to the left, a cooking and dining area in the centre, a sleeping area to the right and an alcove straight ahead where a TV, a shrine, family portraits and bric-a-brac jostled for space. The ger looked lived in, and yet it was their home only for this summer. Before winter sets in, the ger would be pulled down and the family along with their livestock would move some place that would better protect them from the cold winds.
We settled into the little stools that were strewn around the family’s ger and savoured the impressive array of dairy products laid before us. There was cheese, cream, curd snacks, fermented mare’s milk and vodka distilled from cow’s milk. The nomads have a predominantly dairy-based diet in summer and each one of these was made in-house. The air of conviviality was enhanced when the youngest son returned from a wrestling competition, medal in hand. All of 12, the lad was already adept at riding a motorbike and herding sheep, and had his heart set on wrestling glory. Our guest ger, kitted out as expertly as any tourist ger, also had a wood-burning heater—a necessity in these parts even in the summer months. The following morning we woke up in time to watch the farm coming to life. After a simple but delicious breakfast of boortsog (fried dough) and fresh cream, washed down with salt tea (which by now had grown on me), we bid farewell to the family. They were kind enough to loan some of their gentler ponies for us to ride to our destination some distance away.
One of the main draws for summer visitors to Mongolia is the Naadam festival. Spread over an extended weekend in July, it comprises a series of competitive events in wrestling, archery and horse-riding. We arrived after the main festival date, but were fortunate to be in the vicinity of a smaller, local Naadam in Central Mongolia. With marquees and buntings as far as the eyes could see, it was like a giant carnival in the middle of nowhere. While a traditional mask dance was in progress in the main arena, child jockeys were readying themselves for races elsewhere. But most people were milling around in the fair area, where local artisans, stall owners and food vendors peddled their wares. Here, we tucked into our umpteenth khuushur, or fried dumpling, and concurred that it was the best we’d had.
Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, is the biggest urban centre in the Orkhon Valley. Sadly, today it has none of the splendour of the past, but is home to a well-curated museum of Mongolian history—one that does full justice to the legend of Chinggis Khan. Born to a nomadic chief, Chinggis rose to glory through his bravery and political acumen. Responsible for uniting the many disparate nomadic tribes in the early 1200s, he is loved and revered across Mongolia. His gigantic stainless steel equestrian statue, just outside Ulaanbaatar, is a fitting testament to this veneration.
The opulent Erdene Zuu monastery, not far from the Kharkhorin museum, was one of the earliest to be built in Mongolia. It only survived the widespread communist cull of the 20th century because of the party high-command’s directive to put up a front of religious tolerance to the rest of the world. It’s a functioning temple today, and an important seat of Buddhism in Mongolia.
Mongolia’s remoteness is not something one gets used to and becomes casual about—even after having been on the road for eight days and covering over 1,600 kilometres. Often hours would go by before we passed another car, and miles would separate one nomadic ger from another. However, all that changed as we got closer to Ulaanbaatar. Both the Hustai and the Gorkhi-Terelj National Parks are popular among those not wanting to wander too far from the capital.
Hustai attracts wildlife enthusiasts, who show up en masse to see the rare Przewalski horse, locally known as the Takhi. A stockier version of the common horse—and once on the brink of extinction—it was reintroduced into the natural habitat of Hustai some years ago. I was really looking forward to a sighting, but the Takhi were particularly elusive that day, and we had to settle for a ranger-assisted glimpse through binoculars.
Busy Terelj, where day-trippers from Ulaanbaatar head for a bite-sized steppe experience, was on the verge of crossing over to mass tourism territory. The Mongolian government has always maintained a restrained stance where tourism is concerned, much to the annoyance of tour operators. That tussle between keeping their land unspoilt and going all-out to bring in tourist dollars has been a fine balancing act for years.
Understandably so. For this was land that had come to define the essence of this country. The dominant nomadic life was for and because of this land. It is where gers are the chosen mode of housing because it leaves no trace on the land. Where throat singing grew popular because it mimicked the sounds of nature and the pitch carried well into the open landscape. Where dinner guests are served sheep’s head as a mark of respect for that which has come from the land, as no part of it should go to waste. There wasn’t one element of Mongolian life that was untouched by nature.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that in the Mongolian cinematic stage, land is not just the lead actor, but also the director and the producer. In every single frame and in every unforgettable moment. The drum had, in fact, been rolling all along.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
> Explore the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan and Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar.
>Take some time out to visit the sprawling Hustai, Gorkhi- Terelj and Khövsgöl Nuur National Parks.
> Ride camels through the Gobi Desert and visit the fossil-rich Flaming Cliffs. It’s where dinosaur eggs were first discovered.
>Try khuushur (fried meat pastry), national drink airag (fermented mare’s milk) and khorkhog (unique barbecue made with meat and hot stones in a metal jug).
>For souvenirs, pick up sour milk sweets, Mongolian felt slippers or cashmere apparel.