Our Mongolian Diary Part One
Safari in the Steppes: Footsteps of Genghis Khan
It is not sufficient that I succeed – all others must fail.” Genghis Khan
On our most recent trip abroad to Mongolia, we travelled with Odyssey’s Unlimited, a company well known for adventurous destinations with small groups ranging from 8 to 18. Our group of 16 modern day nomads consisted of well-travelled people from all walks of life. There were surgeons, nurses, retired businessmen, financial planners and teachers. Our guide, Damidaa, was an interesting and engaging young man. As a young teen, he graduated from the state circus school and travelled throughout South Africa and London as an aerialist. After becoming disenchanted with the circus, he came to the US, travelled the width of the country from California to New York, working odd jobs as dishwasher and cook. His command of English, with all of its idioms and phrases, was remarkable.
Mongolia has long been considered to be one of the most inhospitable locations in the world. For many, it is the place where, as a child, you wished to exile that little sister, or who’s starving children those uneaten Brussels sprouts would give life! To travel in this land of gravel and sand, is to experience much the same existence Mongolia has known for centuries; ever since the 13th century. It is a land that is remote and stunning; blessed with endless plains with fifteen times more livestock than people, most with the same simple ideas of ages gone by. A place where there still remains a nomadic tradition of moving circular felt tents called gers from place to place.
There have been many dramatic changes in the recent history of Mongolia that explain the expanding city and the influx from the country of people leaving the nomadic life. Until 1989, Mongolia was a communist country aligned with the Soviet Union. Though the socialist/communist rule had many positive influences, these unfortunately were coupled with many misguided ideas such as the destruction of monasteries and the murder, torture and jailing of the monks. With mass demonstrations in 1990, the first elections were held and Russians living in Mongolia were leaving. This abrupt USSR pullout took with it the financial and technical assistance and left them struggling. Their current policy is to retain friendly relations with both China and Russia, but to adopt the line of neither country. Today Mongolia is a stable parliamentary republic.
The legendary Genghis Khan was a relentless warrior who forever marked his birthplace on the map. Genghis, born Timujin, united random tribes and successfully attacked and conquered the Chin Empire. Born in conflict, he spent his entire life at war and kept his nation together by slaughtering his enemies. At its height, the empire covered over 12.5 million square miles and 100 million people. He learned much from his conquests of the Chin lands that helped to continue his conquests and hold together his far-reaching empire. His combat strategies are legendary, due in no small part to some captured Chin generals.
Our adventure, timed to coincide with the Naadam Festival, began after landing at Genghis Kahn International Airport in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The city has the distinction of being the coldest capitol city in the world. It is home to about one million of the less than three million in the country. A land-locked country about twice the size of Texas, it rests between Russia to the north and China to the south. Inner Mongolia is China while Outer Mongolia is the People’s Republic of Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar is a relatively young city with few historic buildings, but is growing rapidly; a fact made obvious by all the cranes dotting the skyline. Somewhat drab and gray, the architecture consists of soviet style buildings and modern glass skyscrapers sitting side by side. Most noticeable is the Blue Sky hotel, a huge curved glass building sometimes referred to as “the pregnant woman.” There are also Ger Zones where nomads who have moved to the city still live in the traditional felt tents, many without water and sewer hook-up.
Gers (pronounced gares) are traditional circular wool felt tents. The felt is fixed over a wooden lattice frame supported inside by 2 upright poles. There is a circular wooden opening in the top with cross pieces that allow the stovepipe to exit. A separate piece can be drawn across this opening to keep out the rain and snow or remain open to allow the light to enter. There is a short, narrow wooden door in the front. Since gers are oriented SSE to take advantage of the NNW prevailing winds, the cross pieces in the top can work as a sort of clock. Superstition suggests that a sharp object be kept near the door. In the gers we visited it was usually a small saw. They can be very elaborately decorated and vary in size, but are completely movable. They are usually constructed around the furniture since the doors are so low and narrow. Cupboards, altars for worship and shelves, as well as the beds are found inside. There are high thresholds so one either quickly became used to picking up his feet and ducking his head, or was constantly sporting dents in the head or tripping out the door. As the nomadic herders follow the grass from their summer homes to their winter locations, the gers are disassembled, loaded on to trucks, horses or camels and reassembled at the new location. They always return to the same locations each year. Your space is never stolen by another family. They keep or carry no weapons, so we asked if there was ever theft of animals or personal goods. Our Local guide told us that this would be a rare occurrence, but that there are both “2 and 4-legged wolves in Mongolia.”
Sukhbaatar Square sits in the center of the city. The square is named for hero Damdin Sukhbaatar, remembered as one of the most important figures in the struggle for Mongolian independence. At one side of the square is a government building with a huge statue of Chinggis Khan (Chinggis Kahn in Mongolia is known in other parts of the world as Genghis Khan). He is surrounded by statues of his son, Ogedai Khan and grandson, Kublai Khan. On the opposite side of the square, is a small dinosaur museum. This museum houses the complete skeleton of the T-Rex discovered in Mongolia and illegally smuggled out of Mongolia. The theft was discovered in 2012 when the auction to sell it was publicized. The auction did bring a million dollar bid, but the sale was eventually stopped through much legal wrangling, and the artifact returned to its rightful place in Mongolia. Across the street is the Stock Exchange, open only 2 hours per day, up from one hour per day just a few years ago.
A short walk around the corner took us to the National Museum of Mongolia, a treasure trove of ancient history artifacts and traditional costumes and culture as well as exhibits depicting the political history of the country. An interesting protest statue to the ban of the death penalty stands in front.
The Gandan Monastery is one of the few Buddhist Monasteries to survive the destruction of the Communist regime’s cleansing in the 1930’s. It then reopened in 1944 under strict supervision of the Soviet Government, and underwent reconstruction in 1990 after Mongolia regained its independence and Buddhism began to again flourish. It now has about 900 monks and 10 temples and buildings, including a library and Buddhist University. There are long rows of prayer wheels that are spun while saying your prayers. As long as the wheel turns, your prayers ascend. Some are large and ornate while others are small and simple. There are more pigeons living there than I have ever seen in any one place!
Facing hideous holiday traffic, we headed for the Naadam Festival area. The origins of the Naadam Festival can be traced to as early as 200 years BC. The holiday became a regular national event when all the nomad tribes would come together to show the best of their physical strength, riding and shooting skills, qualities vital for the survival of nomad herders and hunters. It first served as a way to train soldiers for battle. Now it commemorates the revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country. The area surrounding the festival has a typical fair-like atmosphere with games of chance, vendors, food and children’s rides.
The festival, termed the three manly games: Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery, is held during the midsummer holidays. The wrestling takes place in the Naadam Stadium that holds about 20,000, archery in a smaller nearby stadium, and the horse racing on the open steppes alongside the highway west of the city. The festival begins with a ceremonious ride by medieval warriors bearing the Nine Yak Tail Banners of Chenggis Khan representing the nine tribes of the Mongols. (13. 14)
We arrived a bit late to the archery competition, but there were still participants there for photos and demonstrations. Mongols are almost born with archery skills and the Mongol warrior archer’s skill was legendary. It is said that the warriors could gallop their ponies, guided only with their knees, set their arrows and release them only at the split second that all 4 hooves of their horses are off the ground assuring that there is the least amount of movement to disrupt the accuracy of the arrow’s flight. Mongolian bows are very tight requiring great strength to stretch. Naadam archery participants still use the same type of bow that Genghis Khan’s armies used, carefully crafted of bone, birch, and deer sinew with glue made from fish bladders. Bows are drawn with a bone thumb ring.
The wrestling in the stadium was in full swing. Mongolian traditional wrestling is an untimed competition in which wrestlers lose if they touch the ground with any part of their body, other than their feet or hands. Wrestlers wear two-piece costumes, consisting of a tight shoulder vest and shorts. The current costume of the wrestlers came into use when a woman secretly entered the competition and did well enough to embarrass her male competitors. To prevent this from happening again, the current costume was designed to easily distinguish between the sexes! Women have started participating in the archery and girls in the horseracing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling where the winner becomes an immediate media star!
Unlike Western horse racing, Mongolian horse racing in Naadam is a cross-country event. It is the highlight of any Naadam Festival taking full advantage of the wide open spaces. The length of each race is determined by age class, ranging from ten to seventeen miles. Up to 1000 horses from any part of Mongolia can be chosen to participate. Racehorses are fed a special diet, their bloodlines seriously guarded. The Mongol horse, known as a pony, is shorter and stockier than the traditional racehorse. Children from 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys who train in the months preceding the races. No special course is prepared, so the horses cover the distance jumping natural barriers. While jockeys are important, the main purpose of the race is to test the skill of the horses. Mongols have had a special relationship with their horses from the time of Chenggis when the loss of a horse, especially in a battle, could result in death.
After an early departure in the morning and a flight of about 1-1/2 hours, we arrived in Dalanzadgad in the Gobi Desert. Though flights are notoriously unreliable, ours was right on time. We were aboard a 35-seat prop with our group accounting for about half the manifest. There is a strict 33 lb. per person limit on baggage, including carry- on, so our larger pieces were left at the Odyssey headquarters and we took only a 4-day supply. It was a smooth flight with the dessert visible below.
The Gobi Desert is located about 500 km from the capitol. In reality, the Gobi desert is steppes abundant with wildlife and birds. Its inhabitants consist mainly of camel breeders and about 285,000 domesticated Bactrian camels. It receives less than 4 inches of rain per year and some areas see rainfall only every few years! Winds can gust to 90 miles per hour. Only about 3% of the entire desert area is traditional sand dunes. We traveled overland to our ger camp located in the Gobi Gurvansaikkan National park, where we were housed in the typical circular wool felt gers. Now we are starting to get the flavor of living in Mongolia.
We were met at the airport by three 6-passenger Russian-made off-road vans. These would carry us throughout the Gobi. A kitchen truck followed us, carrying all the provisions for the entire time in the Gobi both on the road and in the camps. Our vehicles had never heard of shocks and the upkeep on tires must be unbelievable! Paved roads lead to and from the airport and to a few other destinations but by and large the way is unpaved, dusty, rocky and you navigate deep tire ruts and stream beds so rough that you hold on to straps inside to remain in your seats. It is much like travelling about 20 mph over a twisting waffle iron or washboard with the occasional pothole, or rut big enough to swallow a Volkswagen. The trip took about 5 hours. One soon learns that all distances in Mongolia are measured in time and not miles! Short distances can take long hours! Though our driver spoke no English, he always smiled broadly.
The camps can accommodate between 75 to 100 guests. They are a series of gers, one for each couple or guest with shared facilities in the common bathhouse. Ladies to the right, men to the left! Each ger contained 2 small single platform beds with a thin pad on top and a duvet. Pillows were about the size of a hand towel and filled with bee-bees or beads. They seemed to weigh about 10 lbs. There was also a small table or desk a tiny stool and sometimes a wood burning stove. Floors are dirt, covered with a layer of linoleum, carpets, indoor-outdoor carpet or a combination. They are snug and pleasant and we soon got used to the beds. Often at night, we could hear goats, yaks or cows munching the grass outside our ger, since we almost always shared our camp with some manner of herd. It was not unusual to have a family of tiny gerbils or ground squirrels living beneath your ger.
In the northern areas where the nights were cooler, the staff would arrive about 10 PM and start a fire in the stove and it would soon be warm and toasty. They would come again between 5 and 5:30 AM to start another to take off the morning chill. Most operated on generator and/or solar power, so the availability of electricity was only for very short hours, usually about 3 hours in the evenings. This meant the competition for the few available outlets for charging camera and iPad batteries was fierce. Hot water was scarce as well, and in most places the pressure so low that you were afforded a mere trickle. Despite their advertising, Internet access was never available, nor was radio, TV or newspapers. We became completely devoid of any news of the outside world for 2 weeks. Did Princess Kate have her baby? What was it? What happened in the Zimmerman trial? Cocktail hour was usually just beer, and not icy cold but surely tasted great after a long day.
Bearded Vulture, or Eagle Valley contains the world’s only desert icecap that melts in the summer but in winter can reach up to 30 feet thick. Our exploration took place on foot. The valley opens with a wide entrance, then narrows forming a gorge with cliffs high enough to block out the sun. A hike of about 1-1/2 miles brought us to a small waterfall and the stream that we hopped across several times, is the result of the melting ice cap. Ground squirrels scurried all over the ground and wildflowers bloomed on the steep sides.
A long and bumpy ride through the desert and along the Altai Mountain range to Khongoryn Els, home of the “singing dunes,” started our morning. Before our departure, a staff member blessed our vehicles with Airag to assure safe travel. These dunes are among about 30 locations in the world where the sand “sings.” Winds or footfalls cause the sands to emit a high-pitched drone. The dunes resemble a narrow ribbon of sand stretching for about 100 miles by ½ mile wide. The highest point is about 900 meters. The sands did not sing for us that day, as the recent rains had made them too wet. It was hard to imagine they were “wet” but the water in the nearby oasis was convincing. To climb to the top would require about 2 hours, so we climbed only part way. Some climbers could be seen as tiny dots high on the dunes. This day gave us the most incredible blue skies!
Exciting day today. We made a short drive to visit the home of a local camel breeder and his family. This gave us our first glimpse into the life of the nomadic herders. We were served camel milk tea (not too tasty but a traditional hospitality treat), and a question and answer period thru our guide. We explored the dunes on the domesticated double-humped Bactrian Camels. They have a slow, easy stride and sitting between the double humps assures that you will stay atop! They kneel for mounting and dismounting, so getting on and off is rocky. These large animals are hardy and can go without water for months. When they do drink, they can consume up to 30 gallons of water, and can run up to 40 miles per hour for short durations. They have a pitiful bray that sounds like crying, but since at the age of 3 there is a pencil-sized wooden rod pierced through their noses, perhaps that is the reason. This is used in place of the bit in the mouth.
Back at camp before dinner we learned some anklebone games. Families save and dry the anklebones from sheep and goats for use much like dice in various games. They can also be used for fortune telling. They are 4- sided with each side given a name: sheep, goat, horse, or camel. At first, it is hard to distinguish but you become pretty good at it in time. We played a horse race game. There are several different games the rules of which were complicated. Damdiaa was accused of making them up as he went along. After dinner we took a short ride out onto the dunes to watch the sunset. Beautiful!
(Please read the October issue for Part 2 of “Our Mongolian Diary.”)