Visiting the Real Mongolia

Visiting the Real Mongolia

What you need to know

Although many travelers from Taiwan visit the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, true adventures seekers don’t settle for Mongolia-light, writes Tim Ferry.

By Tim Ferry

Any visit to Mongolia must include at least a night’s stay in a “ger” – the traditional circular tent used by nomads across Eurasia, more commonly known by its Russian appellation, “yurt.” If that visit occurs at the end of November during an extreme cold snap, however, a night in a ger is more than just a taste of culture, but a real experience in the harsh conditions of life on the Eurasian steppes.

Last November during my second night in a ger at the Ecotourism Ger Camp in Gorkhi-Terulj National Park in Mongolia, I awoke shivering under five layers of blankets. The local temperature had reportedly dropped to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and Celsius – the scales converge at this temperature — and the fire in the pot-bellied stove in the center of the ger had obviously burned itself out. “It’s your turn to feed the fire,” called out my chance ger-companion, a young Belgian woman who was on a trek around the world and had also made the curious choice to visit Mongolia in November.

My own visit stemmed from a missed opportunity to visit Inner Mongolia the previous month and a longstanding desire to see the country that had long persisted in my imagination. After years in Asia, I had regretted never having gone to Mongolia, and just had to do it, despite the potential for harsh weather. Extremely cheap flights helped finalize the decision, and a roundtrip ticket from Taipei to Hong Kong to Ulaanbaatar and then back to Taipei (via Beijing and Shanghai) cost little more than US$300. As I lay freezing in the ger, however, I understood why few people visited at that time of year.

Fire duty called and I rose to feed brimstone-odored chunks of actual coal – not charcoal – into the stove. But the fire was dead, with hardly a glowing coal. Despite the assertions of Bert, the Dutch proprietor of the ger camp, that coal burned longer and was easier to manage, I spent a half hour kneeling on the tarp-covered floor huffing and puffing into the stove with no result. Bert had either underestimated the difficulty of keeping a low-heat coal fire going, or had greatly overestimated our fire-making skills. We needed wood from the ger camp woodshed.

Outside, the cold was stunning, but thrilling too. The stars glittered brilliantly, the constellations clear against the backdrop of the Milky Way, the moon a bright half-crescent that looked near enough to touch. The camp was silent and bright in the moonlight, and I found my way to the wood shed without waking the cows huddled within a rail-fence enclosure or the ubiquitous ger-dogs. But as I gathered several bundles of split logs, I realized that I was missing a key ingredient to successfully starting a fire: kindling. I searched through the woodshed but there was no stray bark or small twigs to get a fire started.

I returned to the ger with several wood bundles, filled the cold stove and attempted to light the logs with a match, but of course this didn’t work. After spending another hour on the floor desperately attempting to get the fire going, I contemplated conceding defeat and waking up Bert for help when inspiration hit. I still had my notebook – a paper one, the old fashioned kind. And so, page by page, notes on Mongolian flora and fauna, history and geography, interviews with mining executives and NGO workers were sheared off, rolled up, and fed into the stove. Within minutes I had a roaring fire going, and spent the rest of the night feeding the fire and kept that ger as warm as a sauna.

It was probably the best use I’ve ever gotten from a notebook. More importantly, it was a great experience of the challenges and adventure of travel in Mongolia.

Adventures in gers are only one of the “must have” experiences when visiting Mongolia, a wild and woolly land of vast unpopulated steppes and deserts, where herd animals such as goats, horses, and camels outnumber humans by orders of magnitude while rare wild species such as wild Bactrian camels, saiga antelope, Przewalski’s horse, and snow leopards maintain viable populations.

The name alone is a byword for “remote” and conjures images of 13th century conqueror Genghis Khan’s rapacious hordes and mysterious and exotic Xanadu. Yet the independent nation of Mongolia is little more than a six-hour flight from Taipei. And as it has shaken off the shackles of 70 years of Soviet domination and entered the modern economy, Mongolia has become increasingly accessible to adventure travelers, even those with a taste for luxury. Shangri-La Hotels just opened up a massive 290-room five-star hotel and entertainment complex in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, while many other chains are also entering the market.

Few Taiwanese – or local expats living in Taiwan – take advantage of Taiwan’s proximity to Mongolia to visit, and even those with a taste for adventure will likely opt for the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.

Mongolia is “not really a popular destination for Taiwanese,” observes Luke Sha, a tour guide and sales representative for Earth Holiday Travel Service, a Taipei-based adventure tour agency. “They always want to go to Inner Mongolia and once they experience Inner Mongolia, they don’t really want to go to Mongolia.” Younger people prefer to go to Europe or English-speaking countries, he observes, while retirees will more likely include Inner Mongolia on their tour of China. He says the company only leads tours of 8-12 people on one- or two-week treks a few times a year to Mongolia.

This is unfortunate, as Mongolia offers a wealth of opportunities for cultural and ecological adventures, not just limited to freezing in a ger.

Here are some great reasons to visit Mongolia:

Vast landscapes of unparalleled beauty

Stunning vistas in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Photo: Timothy Ferry

With a total area of 1.56 million square kilometers (slightly smaller than Alaska) and a population of little more than 3 million, Mongolia is the least densely populated nation in the world, and as half of the population lives in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, the rest of Mongolia is all but uninhabited. The country offers stunning expanses of flat or rolling plains that are interrupted only by occasional herds of horses or camels, and perhaps a ger camp with its attendant goats and sheep. Sunrises and sunsets are brilliant.

While grasslands predominate, the Gobi Desert offers myriad harsh but beautiful landscapes, with flatlands riven by canyons and, due to the sporadic and highly localized nature of rainfall, interspersed with areas of lush grasslands that support an abundance of livestock and wildlife. Mongolia also has several mountain ranges, including the Altai Mountains of the southwest, which rise to 4,374 meters, the shorter Khangai range of south-central Mongolia, and the Khentii range north of Ulaanbaatar.

Roads are few, and much of the country is traced with tracks through the deserts and steppes that challenge the toughest 4x4s, only adding to the adventure.

While most of Mongolia consists of public lands that are free for use as pastures, the nation protects large areas of vital habitat in national parks and other reserves, including Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, conveniently accessible from Ulaanbaatar, and Khustain National Park, also near Ulaanbaatar and which supports the world’s only wild population of Przewalski’s horse, as well as the Gobi Desert Strictly Protected areas and many other biological preserves.

An array of impressive domesticated animals and wildlife inhabit these lands, often in large common herds that might include domestic and wild camels, Asiatic wild ass, several species of gazelle, as well as domestic goats, horses, and cattle – a veritable Serengeti of Central Asia! In the mountains reside argali (a wild sheep), ibex (a wild goat), and snow leopards. The northern forests are home to such species as brown bears, red and roe deer, reindeer, and lynx, while the extremely rare Gobi brown bear hangs on in the vast reaches of the desert. Wolves, foxes, and golden eagles, meanwhile, prey on wild and domestic animals throughout the country, helping to maintain wild populations at healthy levels while posing significant risk to domestic herds. Some NGOs, including the Mongolian Bankhar Dog Project, are reintroducing the practice of keeping livestock guardian dogs with the herds to prevent predation.

Herder culture

Any visit to Mongolia has to include a visit with a herder family, and hopefully a stay in one of their gers (although many tourist ger camps exist as well). The nomadic herding culture is alive and well in Mongolia, existing much as it has for millennia, with small family groups maintaining herds of the traditional “five snouts”: camels, horses, goats, sheep, and either yak or cattle. Depending on the quality of the pasture, these nomads typically move anywhere from two to twenty times a year. Some 73% of Mongolia’s entire landmass is classified as pasture, and surprisingly, almost none of it is privately owned.

Photo: Timothy Ferry

Herders are often gracious hosts, and many have turned hosting tourists into a lucrative sideline, along with cashmere goat herding and horse breeding, and will welcome guests with a cup of suutie tsai (milk tea) and boorstog (similar to donuts). Many are proud of their lifestyle and independence and enjoy talking with guests, but bring a translator as neither English nor

Chinese is commonly spoken.
An estimated 30-50% of Mongolia’s entire populace lives as herders, and as most urbanites have relatives who are herders, a good deal of flux occurs between the city and the steppes. However, while the herding lifestyle has survived the collapse of the Mongol Empire, domination by the Qing Dynasty, and 70 years of Soviet repression, many question whether it will survive globalization. Nowadays, solar power and wireless communication allow herders to remain connected even in remote regions of the Gobi Desert, and many gers are tricked out with stereo systems and TVs while smartphones proliferate. Yet, even as these technologies have eased the isolation, they have opened a window into a wider world of urban luxury and materialism. A teenage son of a herder told me that “100%” of his classmates in school have decided to abandon the herding lifestyle for a future in the city. The herder culture has already become largely a tourist attraction in Inner Mongolia, so don’t miss your chance to experience this age-old lifestyle before it fades away in Mongolia as well.

Great food and friendly folks

Compared to Taiwan, Mongolia is not necessarily the most genial culture in Asia, and in 2013 was even ranked the tenth least friendly country in the world by the World Economic Forum. Unfriendly stares often seem to greet visitors, and local expats give baleful warnings against flirting with local girls in the many nightclubs in downtown Ulaanbaatar, lest a local hero (or five) comes to the girl’s rescue. As a landlocked and underdeveloped country, its citizens have a heightened sensitivity towards perceived slights by foreigners, especially Chinese and Russians, according to Mongolian sources.

On the other hand, Mongolians I met were fun and interesting travel and drinking companions. A few glasses of Mongolian vodka (quite smooth actually) or Mongolian beers (perfectly acceptable mass-market lagers) go a long way towards bridging the culture gap.

Eating local means eating meat. But rest assured, this is probably some of the most ethical meat available. Most of it is goat, obtained from old goats that have spent their lives wandering across the vast steppes with their herd-mates, eating grass, butting heads, making kids, and providing cashmere until they are too old to keep up. They are then slaughtered, often on the open steppe, their blood feeding the same pastures that sustained them, their meat feeding herders and urbanites alike.

The meat so obtained is of course as tough as leather, although tastier. Real traditional Mongolian fare includes chanasan makh, a sheep or goat carcass dropped into a big vat, boiled and served on a platter, with diners using knives to scrape meat and gristle off of large limb bones. Other dishes include buuz (goat-meat, mutton, or beef-filled dumplings), as well as khuushuur (larger, deep-fried dumplings comprised of the same ingredients), and tsuivan (fried noodles, with meat and a couple of potatoes and carrots). The food is delicious, especially during the bitter winter months when the body craves fat and salt, but the tough meat takes a long time to chew for city-slickers. Remember to bring toothpicks!

The capital Ulaanbaatar

The view from Grand Chinggis Kaan (Genghis Khan) Square in downtown Ulaanbaatar. Photo: Timothy Ferry

Urban Ulaanbaatar offers its own charms and is easily worth a couple of nights. The city offers an array of places to stay, ranging from cheap guesthouses to luxury hotels, and nightlife is surprisingly lively. The Green Zone, a restaurant/bar/ expat hangout, is a good place to start. Amusingly cynical French proprietor Jesse presides over a diverse array of locals and expats: French uranium miners and NGO workers rub elbows with English teachers, local cashmere merchants and students over bottles of Mongolian beers and grilled cheese sandwiches. Bars and clubs abound, but remember this isn’t Taipei, and bar fights are reportedly a fairly common occurrence.

The National Museum of Mongolia is well worth a visit, with most of its space dedicated to the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his descendants, as well as to the post-Soviet era. Although its sections on the cultures that preceded the Great Khans, such as the Xiongnu (Huns), various Turkic states, and the Uighur, are fairly paltry, you’ll learn a lot about Genghis Khan!

The parliament building and Grand Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) Square are broad and dramatic, with bold bronze Mongol horsemen guarding the wings of the parliament, flanking a massive corpulent statue of the Great Khan himself.

Photo: Timothy Ferry

Ulaanbaatar contains several prominent Buddhist monasteries as well, including Gandantegchenling Monastery, a huge Buddhist complex that has been restored since Mongolia’s liberation from Soviet domination in 1990. The monastery features a 26-meter tall statue of a bodhisattva, as well as prayer wheels and multiple shrines.

Don’t settle for the Mongolia-light of China’s Inner Mongolia when adventure in the real Mongolia is only a bit farther away.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

(Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.)

TNL Editor: Edward White