If you're an intrepid kind of traveler and love nothing more than rolling out your sleeping bag and drinking fermented horse milk, then read on. Robert and Janie Smith are those kind of people…
Wedged between Russia and China, Mongolia is the great landlocked nothing where driving on a paved road is cause for celebration - because it’s probably not going to last. Outside the capital city of Ulan Bataar and the other towns and cities scattered around this massive country, there is very little tar seal to be found. Driving is usually on heavily rutted dirt tracks through an often harsh landscape.
These roads would see most New Zealand cars shudder themselves into oblivion within hours, so box-like Russian-built vans take travelers around the country. While they rarely get above 70 km/h, will never win beautiful car awards and can suffer catastrophic engine fan breakage in the middle of the desert, they are remarkably sturdy and can handle a bewildering range of conditions, from the flat desert plain to water-ravaged mountain passes.
It can still get incredibly uncomfortable, bouncing around in these boxes for hours on end – but it’s the only way to see the vast emptiness of Mongolia where you can drive for hours without seeing any sign of human interference in this harsh and beautiful landscape.
This lack of anything is the most notable thing about the Mongolian landscape. Rolling hills, green with fresh grass, aren’t carved up by barbed wire fences and locked gates. The entire country is wide open, with nomadic natives shifting around as the weather dictates and letting their herds roam free.
In Ulan Bataar, it’s a little more crowded, with the capital city housing one-third of the country’s three million people. Massive potholes, open manholes and incomplete footpaths prove that road maintenance is no better than that in the countryside. But at least they actually have roads.
As the city attracts more Mongolians from the countryside, it is facing an increasing problem with gridlocked traffic. Mongolian drivers park wherever they feel like, and crossing the road becomes an adventure when observation of lanes, traffic lights and general road rules are non-existent.
What to do in Mongolia
Those keen enough to brave the traffic will find plenty to do in the city. In between crumbling communist towers and modern (but still shabby) office blocks, you’ll find the country’s museums, biggest monasteries and colourful art galleries. The Natural History Museum offers up some impressive dinosaur remains.
Like the rest of the country, the city doesn’t have a huge amount of tourist traffic coming through, and while many city-dwellers are able to speak English, travelers are still a reasonably rare sight. The country, which spent much of the 20th century under communist rule, still has some infrastructure issues – the supply of essentials like power and hot water aren’t always guaranteed, but there are some signs of progress, especially when a jetlagged Kiwi far from home can find a Bledisloe Cup test on his hotel television.
Some of the city’s hotels still need some lessons in hospitality. It’s easy enough to deal with the baking rooms on chilly days, as thick insulation that is vital in the winter months becomes stifling, but relative inexperience with tourists can lead to big misunderstandings and people wandering into your room at 11pm.
Beyond the city, there is a lot more space and freedom. In fact, the country has so much uninhabited land that Mongolians can claim any part of it for their own without paying anything. It really does feel like an endless horizon out there on the Mongolian plains, stretching on forever. Mongolia is a vast and wide country, with a staggering amount of geographic variety.
The Gobi desert, which occupies a fair chunk of the south, is comprised of vast plains of sun-blasted nothingness climbing up steep roads that lead to another, higher plain. Sand sucks at the tyres and even the reliable Russian van can get stuck.
Further north, and the roads start to disintegrate further as melting snow and a small amount of rainfall carve gorges in the track. Acres of rugged trees begin to appear, clinging to life on the top of small hills, unburdened by any undergrowth.
The country, which is sandwiched between Russia and China, generally has a cool climate, and winters are particularly cold. Travel is only really possible during the short summer months when the heavy snow disappears. The last winter was especially harsh, with millions of precious livestock succumbing to the cold, but summer has returned by July, and the snow that blankets most of the country is almost completely gone by then.
The wildlife is just as diverse as the land – although goats and horses can be found everywhere. It will be a bit harder to find the incredibly rare Gobi bears and wolves, and impossible to find the mythical death worm, but there are plenty of two-humped camels down south and hairy yaks up north.
Horses are still an indispensable part of this wide-ranging society, and while they are used for dairy and meat purposes, they are also a useful way to get around this land of no roads. Slightly smaller than the horses that are often found in other parts of the world, Mongolian horses are tough while still obeying the slightest instructions, and their human masters take exceptional care of them.
The other livestock wander freely over the landscape. While there are no fences to cage them in, they still stick reasonably close to their human owners. Younger yaks in particular showing no fear of people as they wander in and out of the gers – the traditional Mongolian tent – and taking off with welcome mats to chew on, if humans aren’t taking too much notice.
Where to stay
A local guide isn’t just useful for pointing the way in a country without road signs, they can also arrange accommodation in a local family’s camp. Many families are willing – for a small fee to take the sting out of the recent harsh winter – to welcome tourists into their family ger, offering fermented horse milk or yak milk tea before setting them up in their own tent.
Each ger tent is almost identical with a design that has been fine-tuned over centuries to offer maximum comfort and the ability to quickly pack up and move on. A series of wooden trellises and poles hold up the sturdy covering, creating a comfortable atmosphere in the middle of nowhere. Each ger can easily hold half a dozen travelers and all their gear, with plenty of room for an eating space.
Like everything else in Mongolia, gers are very warm, even with a big hole around the middle metal chimney, and offer a distinctive smell of horse and hot milk and smoke and wet wool and ancient wood and sweet yoghurt and tea.
Dining Mongolian style
Tea is always offered, should never be refused and always accepted with the right hand, but it’s all right to put aside the fermented horse milk. While not as bad as it sounds, the drink can result in the unfortunate discovery of a new allergy, which is especially unfortunate when the nearest medical facilities are a long way away.
A Mongolian with an allergy to fermented horse milk would be hard to find though, as they gulp the stuff down by the bucketload. Meat and dairy play a large part in their diet, and while a vegetarian can still get by on the few vegetables that are available, vegans wouldn’t last long.
Dumplings are a popular Mongolian dish, packed with meat or mashed vegetables. There is some horse meat, but most of it comes from the yak or goat. Living with the nomads means there is bound to be a goat slaughtered at some point, and for about $60 a tour group can buy the whole thing. The guides cook the meat together in a giant pot and produce a succulent meal, topping it off with toasts of straight vodka.
Vodka is the drink of choice for almost all Mongolians and is remarkably cheap. A single bottle can cost less than $2, or you can splash out and get one of the fancier brands for $8. Out on the hard road, empty vodka bottles can be found tossed in the remotest areas, more ubiquitous than the roadside shamanic piles of rock and ancient deer stones that dot the landscape.
The nomads of the Mongolian plains have grabbed onto one benefit of modern living with great enthusiasm, and solar power panels are used extensively in rural areas, where power lines will never venture. It makes sense in a country that rarely sees rain to take advantage of an abundant power source and allows rural folk to enjoy the latest round of Mongolian Idol.
But plumbing is also an issue this far from civilization, and while the lack of toilets can be a problem, especially if you come down with food poisoning in the middle of the Gobi, showers should also be cherished. While tourist ger camps are the best bet to wash the day’s travel off, water is not always guaranteed, especially in the south.
Fortunately, the dry climate reduces the damage from six people sitting in a van all day, and there is so much to see in the Mongolian wilderness, nobody cares about the smell. There are hot springs, elaborate monasteries, ruined places of worship and dinosaur bones lying around in the rock.
The dry and dusty towns of the desert transform into houses painted in vivid reds and blues, perched on rolling hills, but the gers and horses and welcoming smiles are everywhere.Mongolia has never really made any effort to check out its own mineral wealth, and there is no need to fence the livestock, but Mongolia is a rapidly changing country, and the opportunity to see it in its unspoiled glory will not last forever. See it now before they fence you in.