Think about Mongolia for just a moment. What visions come to mind? (It’s the land that gave us Genghis Khan…remember him from our history classes? He was Mongolia’s founding father…their George Washington.) Yes, he was a brutal warrior, amassing the largest contiguous empire in history… but he also established Mongolia’s first writing system, encouraged religious tolerance, and expanded the cultural horizons and trading routes for his country and those surrounding Mongolia.
Do you imagine a country with bustling big cities or with wide open spaces…a modern, cosmopolitan nation or a traditional one…or a bit of it all? It’s an enormous country…the 18th largest and most sparsely populated sovereign state in the world…with only 3 million people!
I must admit that when we finally landed in Ulaanbaatar (called UB by the locals) after two days of air travel, I didn’t expect to see such a large, buzzing, happening city.
This is Mongolia’s capital city…the coldest in the world. It’s home to nearly half of the country’s 3 million people and more housing is under construction. There’s a mix of modern and old architecture…some of the buildings are clearly from the Soviet satellite era (1921-1990.) Interesting that many of the city’s residents still live in gers (or yurts, as the Russians call them.) You can even find them in very close proximity to the city center…suburbs and outskirts are full of them. Old habits die hard…and they’re much more affordable than the newer, modern housing! Looking at UB, it’s hard to imagine that this is the capital of a country that’s primarily nomadic. It has nice shops, restaurants, malls, high rise buildings…skyscrapers…and ridiculous traffic, like any big city anywhere in the world!
With immense mountains and rolling plateaus in the north, west and southwest and the expansive Gobi Desert in the southeast, Mongolia is bordered on the north by Russia and the south, by China. A landlocked country, but it has numerous natural lakes, both salt and fresh water, with many large rivers as well. The landscape changed with each hour, as we drove on dirt roads…paths really…that crisscrossed through fields, sometimes leading to isolated settlements and small towns…like veins flowing to the heart.
The distances from place to place are huge and the transport infrastructure for tourists venturing outside Ulaanbaatar is non-existent. There are scarcely any paved roads…traveling is very rough!
With a literacy rate of 96%, we were surprised that very few people spoke any language, other than their own, outside of the capital. We were thankful for our knowledgeable guide, driver and our van. Although Mongolia is known as a ‘horse culture,” somehow I couldn’t see us touring this vast country on horseback!!
Awed and seduced by the simplicity and beauty of the variety of landscapes, we marveled at being in the middle of nowhere…stepping out of the van for a leg stretch…without a soul in sight.
There were only scattered gatherings of livestock, with many miles between herds…horses, sheep, cashmere goats, yak, cows and camels (once in a while) and in the higher elevations, the argali sheep, ibex and the little marmots. We even saw the only wild horses left in the world… It is said that Mongolia has more horses than people, but we saw more and more motorcycles…seemingly the new horse!
There are also great distances between gers (yurts) …between neighbors. So family is THE most important commodity to nomadic people. They live a spartan life in the silence of the mountains, the star-studded darkness of night and the sighs of the wind.
They have always lived in sympathy with the land, moving with their animals for the changing seasons. The traditional felt tent, the ger, is integral to their sense of national identity. It’s an easily transportable dwelling…a structure of circular walls, poles and peaked roof covered with felt and canvas and tightened with ropes made from animal hair or wool…the most natural dwelling in the world . Because it’s one round space with no corners, it’s quite roomy. We stayed primarily in gers wherever we were. A couple had electricity, the majority didn’t…and most had outside bathroom facilities. The little stove in the center of each ger kept us fairly comfortable, even when the temperature was below zero.
Because Mongolia is a country of extremes, the food consumed reflects what’s readily available, provided by livestock and hunting expeditions that yield fox, perhaps wolves, hares, marmots and deer with the help of trained golden eagles…a tradition among the Kazakh people for thousands of years. To survive the frigid winters, fatty meat is the most important part of the local diet. (If you’re a vegetarian, you probably won’t survive in Mongolia!) Fat helps the body “bulk up” for winter, along with a variety of dairy products, noodles, meat-filled dumplings, rice, some potatoes, horse milk (from the mares) and tea (with salt and butter.)
A few words about the Gobi Desert…
- it’s the most expansive, arid region in Asia
- it spans two countries…China and Mongolia
- the desert floor is mostly bare rock
- rock formations date back 70 million years
- it’s the home of the two-humped camel
- it’s the largest dinosaur reservoir in the world, yielding the richest collection of dinosaur remains’the first know fossil dinosaur eggs were found here in the 1920’s
- Gobi is the world’s 5th larget desert and Asia’s largest
- it’s made up of level, treeless areas; grasslands; alpine forests; sand; bare rock; mountains; salt plains; canyons and lakes
- it’s rich in natural resources like copper, gold and coal
For me, the best part of the Gobi was its human inhabitants, though few and far between…less than 3 persons per square mile. These nomads work at raising livestock…their life-blood…and are the most hospitable people on the planet!
THE HIGHLIGHT of our Mongolian adventure came as we traveled west to the city of Olgii…then continued to the Altai Mountains and the freezing cold. The roads were rocky and dusty…again, just paths traversing endless fields. Eternal blue skies and mountains surrounded us in this desolately stunning landscape…breathtaking…home to the Kazakh ethnic minority…the EAGLE HUNTERS.
Although Mongolia is primarily Buddhist, this is the only province where Islam is the main religion. Here, the tradition of hunting with golden eagles was born out of need for food more than 4,000 years ago. (It is said that Genghis Khan was an eagle hunter.)
Stark, where little actually grows, people had to depend on their livestock for all their needs. But they needed more to help them survive the uncommonly harsh winters. Thus, the practice of training eagles to hunt for the people began.
Throughout the deserted fields leading to the festival, nothing was stirring. Suddenly, a cloud of dust appeared in the distance, signaling the arrival of some hunters on horseback… solo and in groups… their eagles held high on their right arms. Exciting to see them from the back, surrounded by the mountains, but we drove fast to get in front of them and meet them as they approached. They couldn’t have been more accommodating, stopping for some photos. IT WAS A RUSH TO SEE!!! We had read about these intrepid eagle hunters, but to actually SEE them was extraordinary! Traditionally male dominated, it’s now open to women with the ability and passion to take on the challenge of becoming an eagle hunter.
There’s a festival each year where the eagle hunters from all over the province compete, testing not only the training of the eagles and the hunters’ skill, but also the bond between the raptor and the hunter. They’re rated for speed, agility, accuracy as well as best traditional Kazakh dress (made of animal skins from their eagles’ captures. ) Here are some photos I made at the festival…it was quite a sight to see!
In these competitions, the hunter must call his eagle down from the surrounding mountains to land on his or her arm or have her “capture” a piece of fur that represents prey…a hare, a marmot, a fox, etc….in a certain period of time. This tests loyalty, accuracy, relationship and the quality of the training…amazing to watch!! Sometimes, the eagles just flew away…never responded to the hunter’s call at all… and the hunter had to leave the arena to find her…the eagles trained are all females.
MONGOLIA IN A CAPSULE…
- extraordinary and most unique scenery
- warmest people
- no paved roads (other than in the capital city)…awful, rocky paths instead
- HANDS DOWN, THE GOLDEN EAGLE FESTIVAL was the most exciting event I’ve ever experienced
You say…”Why Mongolia?”
I say…”Why not?” (What a great way to celebrate Michael’s birthday...happy birthday, honey!)