Ever since I can remember I’ve found myself enamoured with far-off lands. Jungle explorations, desert treks through the Sahara, far away Nepalese mountain ranges and small Himalayan villages. So it comes as no real surprise when I locked eyes with the possibility of Mongolia.
Attracted to the remoteness of it all, a long journey by rail into the heart of one of our world’s most unforgiving landscapes. To cap off the tail end of an emotional overland Journey across Asia, from Malaysia up to Beijing, it made sense to continue on northward, and make our way into the centre of Mongolia.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park
We arrived into the steppe in the morning from Ulan Bataar, the capital city of Mongolia and home to almost half of Mongolia’s total population. This was a trip into Gorkhi Terelj, A National park that despite its proximity to the city, still feels a million miles away. Mongolia is a land unknown to many, and even in the modern day, around 30% of the population is still nomadic, or semi-nomadic.
These lands have passed hands many a time, the area of what we now call Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires such as Xiongnu, Turkic Khaganate, Rouran, and the Xianbei.
On our arrival, ravens were perched about the place, as shiny as an oil slick. The air smells of coal fires and a sub-arctic wind whipped through the vast, dusty plains. A glacial valley slopes down the hill with a cluster of bare birch, mostly hacked down for firewood.
Enormous, Vast Landscapes
Shaggy cows and yaks nibbled upon whatever sprouts they could find, and occasionally, a solitary purple flower burst from the most unexpected of places. The land was unimaginably vast, I’ve never felt so remote.
Towering rock formations gaped at the edges, and small slushes of snow still decorated parts of the hillside. This was the very beginning of spring, and the day our ger camp was due to switch on it’s running water wasn’t until tomorrow. Winters are brutal in the Mongolian steppes, and the luxuries of plumbing are not practical whilst it is so cold.
The land around us was lumpy and laden with marmot holes, and the lolopping silhouettes of the creatures bounding across the hillside provided an unexpected novelty. Small, round Gers dotted the landscapes, reigned in by the bordering fences that designated each small camp.
Lands Beyond the Gobi
If you are not already familiar with Mongolian vernacular, and let’s face it, who is? Then you might have heard of the Gobi desert, of the Mongolian steps, of frozen tundras. All vasty far away and hostile destinations. But the name ‘Gobi’ is actually a Mongol term for a desert steppe of a very particular kind. One with enough vegetation to support the life of a camel, yet not enough for that of a Marmot.
Judging by the prolific existence of marmots, I expect we were beyond the Gobi and now into something more life-sustaining. Not that you’d know by looking around at this vast and inhospitable landscape.
A Changing Way of Life
Mongolia is the worlds most sparsely populated country after Greenland. Up until recently, a majority of the inhabitants lived nomadic lives, existing off their herds who live off the land. Following them around the country in tune with the seasons. Yet, the country is now in a period of rapid urbanization. More and more people are seeking out a permanent base in the capital city in the name of education and professional careers.
This exodus into the unfolding comparative metropolis of Ulan Bataar is leaving those back in the countryside with fewer people to do the work required of them, making things more difficult for the hundreds of thousands of Mongolians choosing to preserve the nomadic way of life, one that spans back at least a millennium.
Mongolians share a close relationship with the land and the creatures that inhabit it. Depending on the region, all manners of farming, hunting, and hoarding can be found. Here in the steppes of central Mongolia, the nomads raise horses, yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. If you traverse far toward the northwestern border of Mongolia and Siberia, you will find the Tsaatan people who raise reindeers. Further afield, thousands of kilometres in the far western Bayan-Ölgii Province, the Kazakh community of eagle hunters live.
Life inside a Ger
Inside our Ger is spacious and colourful, the walls decorated with blue, satin fabric and painted orange supporting beams. The many small poles that lead up to the highest point are hand-painted with bright, traditional patterns. The centre-piece of our living space is a small coal stove with a chimney reaching out beyond our ceiling.
Our host would silently enter through the day and night, sometimes with a small, playful boy in tow, and top up our fire with more wood and coal. This was protection from the springtime air which hovered around -8C throughout the night.
The walls of our sanctuary are flanked with 3, large, single beds made up with soft blankets and pillows filled like beanbags. A table sat between the beds and the fire, above knee-height with three tiny stools, one painted orange to match the beams. Over the days, we would come to appreciate those quiet, cool moments before the fire was once again re-stocked with blazing hot coals, bringing our small space back up to roasting temperatures.
Living a Nomadic Life in Mongolia
These Ger’s are designed to be moved frequently. Four times a year is normal in most parts of Mongolia, although only twice in this park. Traditionally the Ger’s are packed down and shifted by horses, cows or camels. Nowadays, with cars – regardless, a home can be re-assembled in just one hour – the sheer act leaves my mind boggling.
Gers resemble quarantine huts, bizarre alien formations dotted across an already alien landscape. The food choices were limited but freshly prepared and delicious. The main restaurant was closed, as were the shower blocks. Although this camp often caters to tour groups, we were the only guests so they would make up a table for us in the kitchen next to the warm, wood-fire stove. In this manner, we felt a more a part of the local landscape than part of a group. The season was still far too early, and cold, to welcome the larger groups of visitors.
Adventures in Mongolian Cuisine
Traditional Mongolian food is mostly meat based. Wherever you go, you’ll find meat-filled Buuz and delicious Khuushuur, a deep-fried meat pie, along with soupy noodles,. One particularly savoured delicacy is whole marmots roasted from the inside-out with hot stones. And let’s not forget Airag, the traditional drink made of fermented mares milk. I grew up in a land of British influenced foods. A cuisine mostly devoid of strong flavours, and without the organs of animals or anything too unusual. It wasn’t until I stepped out into the world, wanting to sample it all, that I realized I can struggle when it comes to the world of wild foods.
Each meal, a table would be set with napkins, a large flask of hot water, and facilities for tea and coffee. The food we ordered was always beef (or, perhaps yak). Tough but tasty and cooked into our choice of goulash or casserole. It would be served with two scoops of sticky rice and a small bowl of shredded carrots and beetroots in a creamy dressing. For breakfast, plates of sliced salami, cucumber, quartered fresh tomatoes and a fried egg, with a basket of bread on the side.
Our meals were far more Westernized than what true nomadic families live off during the wintertime. The cuisine is rooted in nomadic history, with a heavy focus on meat and dairy. They frequently leave out vegetables due to their difficulty to grow and preserve in such an unforgiving climate. I suspect we were particularly fortunate to be served up a side of salad, and fresh wedges of tomato with our meals.
Return to Ulan Bataar
The days passed by at a crawl, between our roasting hot get and the biting cold outside. Each day we would go for a few short walks, bundled up in all our layers. Our schedule revolved around mealtimes. As a visitor, I had the luxury of chewing through a new novel each day. Although, I’m certain for those who live here the daylight hours are precious and there is little time for leisure.
By the time I finished my fourth book, departure day was upon us. A young, English speaking host arrived as if from nowhere in a modern SUV to pick us up and drive us back to the city.
As we pulled out back toward the real world, people began to appear once again. Weary travelling animal keepers displayed giant eagles and camels on the side of the road. The frozen river began to thaw as it snaked through tiny villages of gers. After some more time driving, the few colourful buildings gave way to a McDonalds. The landscape returned to Soviet-style office blocks, a train station, and an abandoned fairground. It quickly became evident that we were back in Ulaanbaatar.