Wild Horses Drag Us Away
In three minivans, we left Ulaan Baator for the countryside with Tunga and Ayush, our second guide and a seasoned traveller with CCSF groups. 1% of roads in Mongolia are paved, and most of these are in UB. It’s supposed to be a six hour drive to our first ger camp stop, but actually took seven and a half hours. By the time we arrived, we were pretty hungry and had gotten adept at peeing behind small clumps of grass (no trees on the steppes) and feigning privacy.

Each van has one guide (Tunga, Ayush or Bob), who rotate around a bit. Our drivers don’t speak English, besides a few greetings, and are eventually dubbed "the young one," "the slow one," and "the fun one." Mostly I’m assigned to the "slow" van; our driver is very careful so our ride isn’t that bumpy. Ayush told us that he has lived in Korea (he plays Korean music cassettes) and also worked as a driver bringing used cars from Germany to Mongolia. (This was no piece of cake job: driving across Russia included evading being shot along the way.) Both Tunga and Ayush generously answered all of our questions about their country — those which are part of our class projects and many that are not. Ayush studied in Russia, and once we have a lively discussion about Russian literature: Ilf & Petrov, Sholokov, Bulgakov. She also likes The Master and Margarita, and we both try to describe the plot to Terry and Melanie.

I also asked Ayush about popular music tastes. Western music is popular and there are many Mongolian rock bands, who sing songs both in English and in Mongolian. Unfortunately we don’t get any chances to hear any of this music, although I did get the name of one group she likes, Altan Urag. (Doubt I’ll find this on Amazon.com, however.)
Our first stop was Karakorum, site of the capital established by Chinggis Khan in the 12th century. Nothing is left except for three of the four stone turtles that marked the city boundaries; one of these is just outside the wall of the Buddhist monastery complex which is still in use. The architecture is part Ming Chinese, part Tibetan, and part Mongolian. One young man in ancient military dress poses with a gold hunting eagle for photos.

Even with the old capital in ruins, wandering around the walls gives an impression of the majesty of location, and an inkling of the awe it must have produced in visitors.
No photo can adequately capture the Mongolian landscape: it is vast. The blue sky is immense, the horizon impossibly far on teh steppes, extending to hills and mountains in all directions. It’s easy to understand why the Mongolians worship the sky as a god. During our stay in gers on the steppes, there were several thunderstorms, which sweep across the plains and are quite impressive (I miss thunderstorms). The night sky is fabulous (when it’s clear). Our first evening in the ger camp outside Karakorum, Elizabeth, Tom and I stood outside for over an hour watching the stars (and the planets, satellites, shooting stars ...). I’m glad we took the time to do this, as subsequent nights were not as clear.
Home Sweet Ger
Home Sweet Ger
(photos from Amihan Makayan)
Naadam Festival

This is the huge summer festival, celebrated throughout Mongolia for three days in July. The largest Naadam is in Ulaan Baator, very crowded and using some stadium settings; our group attended a smaller and more local festival. It turned out that the Karakorum Naadam began a day early so that everyone could watch the wrestling finals on TV. So we missed the archery, but did see one of the horse races and some local wrestling. The most fun is just watching the crowds. A group of boys, 12-14 year olds, I’d guess, decided to pose for us, preening on their horses and cracking up when they view the results on our digital camera monitors. One stylish young woman sat astride, with two-inch spike heels on her boots. Many people wore the traditional "del" over a pair of jeans. Everyone was in a very good mood.
Nadaam Festival at Karakorum
After the final wrestling match (crowning a new local "elephant" who defeated the previous champion), Elizabeth and I wandered around looking for ice cream, which we did find in a small area at the edge of the festival grounds, set up with vendors and a half-dozen pool tables. Then we watched some pretty tricky manipulation of packing horses into pick-up trucks, and we returned home to our gers.

During our trip we stayed in three different ger camps, four nights total. The gers are far from luxurious (except perhaps for the Julia Roberts ger in Khurstain Nuruu National Park: we deduce this is the one with the raised glass skylights), but comfortable. One night there was a plague of beetles that attacked most of the gers except ours. The staff are young, friendly and hardworking; at our first stay ("Silver Tree" — named for the shockingly baroque liquor fountain structure commissioned by Chinggis Khan for his capital meeting hall) the owner told us that he hires students to work during the summer tourist season, and will pay their tuition if they do well.

Mongolian camp dogs are known for their tenacious guard duties. A traditional greeting when approaching a ger is "Tie up your dogs!" Ours appear suddenly and silently during mid-night trips to the WC, and then just as suddenly they disappear, their duty done.

Food in Mongolia is generally bland. Mongolians eat meat, preferably boiled. During the Marxist period, the Russians attempted to educate the locals into eating potatoes by forcing bags of these tubers on everyone. Many Mongolians surreptitiously cut holes in the bags and let the potatoes roll off their carts as they returned home with this unwanted gift. What remained, I suspect, is now fed to tourists. Our meals usually include potatoes in some form, plus bread and pasta. In the land of sheep, we are served tough beef for several meals running.

Actually, though, there are some decent courses, marinated "salads" of daikon or carrots showing an Eastern European influence. And the yoghurt is very good.
One evening we were treated to a more traditional local meal: a freshly slaughtered sheep cooked in a large pot, with potatoes and carrots. First rocks are heated and placed in the bottom of the pot, then chunks of meat, and finally the vegetables; a cover is added and the meal left for several hours to cook. Our cooks use a type of pressure cooker and place this over a fire to speed cooking. The result is pretty good. After the food, the hot rocks are passed around, and diners toss these back and forth a few times, coating their hands with the grease before passing them to the next person. Probably the hot rocks are more appreciated on winter nights, when the temperatures reach sub-zero.
Our guides arranged a visit with a local family, where we got to try airak (fermented mare’s milk, slightly alcoholic), fresh yoghurt, dried cheese (very salty), and milk vodka. These were passed around by our host after we entered his ger, traditional hospitality of an open and generous people. We plied the poor guy with questions (our guides explain that we have never visited a nomad before). Our host lives with his mother, his wife and two children. Their summer camp is three gers, pretty sparsely outfitted; many herders leave most of their belongings in storage at their winter locations, travelling light during the warmer months. This camp has a solar power generator and a TV, fifty horses (he would like to double this number to earn additional money through selling or trading), and sheep and goats (cashmere being their main cash income).

Airak is not as bad as I had expected. The milk vodka (deemed weak by our guides, who said that this can be distilled a few more times to increase the punch) is quite good. Too bad it’s not available commercially; at least, the only Mongolian vodka I saw for sale was made from grain, not cow milk. (No mare’s milk liquor is packaged for commercial use — this is strictly home brew.)
This was a very full day. After our drive from Karakorum, we had lunch, a hike across the hill to an adjoining valley where there is a ruined monastery/temple, the pot-cooked lamb dinner, and ... horseback riding!

An attempt had been made to arrange this the previous day, but the horses were booked until late, and there was a thunderstorm. Thirteen of us decided to try riding; it took some time to match everyone up with a mount, especially with a few non-riders, and many of us who haven’t been on a horse in decades (that would be me). So we had a slow and easy ride across the steppe. The Mongolian horses are small and sturdy, probably the most comfortable seat I’ve ever had riding. It’s a very lovely evening, and we all have a great time.
A twilight ride across the Mongolian steppe
(photos by Melanie O’Hare)
Next morning we were off to the Khurstain Nuruu National Park for our final night in a ger camp. This is the preserve for the "tahki" — the Mongolian wild horse, completely different species from those now in use by the nomads. The takhi (or Przewalski horse, named for a Tsarist explorer who identified the species for science) had gone extinct in the wild in 1969, decimated by climatic conditions and hunting, but through several international environmental agencies a breeding program was set up. In 1992, after Mongolia reopened to the West, a herd was introduced into the tahki’s native territory. There are now around 200 horses in the preserve.
photo by Amihan Makayan
These are the last remaining wild horses in the world, and are considered a forerunner to the modern horse. They are small, sandy in color, with short manes and a dark dorsal stripe. They resemble (and may be related to) zebras, and the animals depicted in cave paintings in Southern France (and in Mongolia).

The horses frequently come down to graze and drink at dusk and dawn, easier to be viewed. So we had an afternoon lecture (made much more interesting, by a dramatic downpour and thunderstorm), a little local hiking and shopping in the visitor’s center, and drove into the preserve after dinner.

Our luck was good, and we found a herd of around eleven animals: a stallion, several mares and three foals. They are quite beautiful, and our little groups stood or sat on the hill and watched them for some time. Another storm was approaching and there’s some spectacular lightning. I was in the final group leaving, close to dark, and we saw a second, smaller herd on our way back to the camp. Very lucky, indeed.

We made another trip at dawn the next morning, and found our same herd in another location. This time they were even closer (and there are no other groups around). The tahki are aware of us, but unafraid; we got some nice photos.
photo by Amihan Makayan
Mongolian wild horses
photo by Amihan Makayan
After lunch we drove back to Ulaan Baator, with time for a final shopping spree at the State Department Store. This is, presumably, the place to shop in UB: five floors of just about anything from pre-fab ger kits to Chinggis Khan fridge magnets. Most of the items (except maybe the bedroom suites we stumble upon looking for the WC) are aimed for tourists. Genuine-looking local crafts or antiques are pricey (and questionable). I pick up a few pieces of calligraphy (Mongolian script is very beautiful) and some nice postcards. And, at the very last jewelry booth on the way out, Mandy and I each found a nice pair of earrings (always my souvenir of choice).
If entering Mongolia was difficult — what with the bureaucracy, Gobi dust, smugglers and all — leaving the country was an even greater trial. OUr flight was delayed, so we had dinner in a restaurant quite off the tourist path, across the river from downtown on the way to the airport that was so new it was unfinished. And empty. We lingered over our meal, and then lingered some more on the front porches. (Bob graded our field journals, and Terry inducted all of us into the arcane Yellow Scarf Sect.)

Our 8:25 pm flight to Beijing was rescheduled for 11 pm, but once we arrived and cleared customs, we sat and watched several other planes come and go. No updates, of course. I think we finally left at one am, or later. I think they gave us some strange airline food. I think I slept a little. I know that once we did make it to BJ, they unloaded the luggage one piece at a time and hand-carried it over to baggage claim: this took forever. Finally on the bus, we were greeted by a new local guide who thought, quite mistakenly, that he was a comedian and that we would enjoy political humor at five am.

I bet Chinggis Khan and his Mongol hordes never had this sort of problem leaving for and returning from their raids. I bet they would have put a definitive stop to inane jokes, too.

Ah, the good ol’ days ....
Secret induction rituals of the Yellow Scarf Sect
(photo by Amihan Makayan)

Next: The Continuing Invasion of Dadu

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