Discover Mongolia, the ‘Land of the Blue Sky‘, is appropriately named with its endless blue skies and vast, rugged land. It is truly one of the remaining untouched wildernesses in Asia and my last minute bucket list Asian trip of 2017 before moving back to Europe. This blog post has taken longer than usual for me to write because frankly, this was one of the most unique and challenging travel destinations I’ve encountered.
Like most travelers, I arrived on my flight in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (pop. 1,000,000).
Upon arriving, albeit three hours late, we were met at the airport by our guide and translator (the main local language is Cyrillic/Russian) who had graciously waited for us.
We then headed to our hotel in the city for the night. The hotel restaurant was closed. The lady at the front desk tells us there is a local pizza delivery service. We paid approximately $12.00 for a large pepperoni pizza and honestly it was the best $12.00 spent!
The next morning, our guides arrived and drove us to our first stop of the day to meet the grandparents of our host Mongolian family. The grandmother graciously dressed for the day in one of her finest traditional silk outfits called a “del.” She knew she would have visitors and I think she’s honored to have us – although we are the ones honored to be here. The inside of their ger home is decorated with a framed photo of Chinggis Khan proudly displayed amongst their many treasured family photos.
After a short visit with the grandparents and a few other family members that stopped by, we drove an hour south to our next stop along the Tuul River. The famous Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex, a historical place said to be where the golden whip was found, where the Chinggis Khan looming equestrian statue stands at an impressive 40 meters high or 131 feet tall with 250 tons of stainless steel. Here proudly stands Mongolia’s most famous person.
Once the largest empire ever known in world history, this military leader, warrior, and Mongolia ruler Chinggis Khaan ruled the empire during the 13th century. Born with the given name “Temujin” around 1165, he died at the age of 62 in 1227. Temujin was born with a blue blood clot in his hand and in Mongolian folklore, this was a sign that becoming a leader would be his destiny. Chinggis Khaan was married at the young age of 16 and by age 20 he began to build his large Army.
Next, we stopped at a local roadside market where we saw a two-humped Bactrian camel , an eagle, and a vulture. For a few Tugrug (the official currency of Mongolia) we took a few photos and got to hold these spectacular creatures. They are quite heavy, so holding them with wings perched out for more than a few minutes was challenging.
Next, we continued driving south for a two-hour stretch of the vast landscape dominated by grassy steppes and desert. As we drove along, it was amazing to see packs of wild horses and herdsmen among hundreds of sheep. Visibly noticeable were large circles and remnants of trash and broken bottles of past nomadic families, where a ger had once been located but now had moved on. Due to the extremely harsh seasons and dramatic changing weather conditions and food availability, most nomadic animal farmers usually move locations two to four times a year to the most appropriate locations. In winter, they often move in front of a mountain for shelter, while in spring, closer to a river. In the summer, they may move next to a river for water supply and in autumn up a hill to collect hay before winter.
By late afternoon, we arrived to meet our host family and learned about Mongolian traditions. We were the first American family they have hosted. Prior to any road trip, it’s best to familiarize yourself with a few of the local customs. Such as, it’s customary upon entering the ger to say hello only once – to everyone. We sat around the small table in the center of the ger on small plastic seats, where it’s customary for men to sit on one side of the ger and women on the other. I’m served a cup of fermented milk tea and a plate of dairy and store-bought candies. Children and adults alike, venture in and out of the ger repeatedly, onlooking curiously at their foreign guests. The eldest, the grandfather, sits at the table and opens an expensive bottle of vodka (a gift to our host family), places his ring finger in the bottle and lets the liquid trickle down his finger. An old tale suggests you do this prior to drinking to make sure you are not poisoned. The vodka bottle was passed around the table until empty. As we sat around the table, the matriarch women departed to begin preparing the evening’s meal. I am invited to the smaller, cooking ger to observe and takes photos as the women prepare the evening’s hot pot meal consisting of lamb stew and potatoes.
After our lamb stew dinner, it seems customary for everyone to have time for fun and games and light conversation, play outside with the children. While we didn’t understand much of the conversation, it didn’t take any words to know when the littles wanted your attention. This little cutie would reach for my hand and pull me when and whereever he wanted to go.
It was clearly obvious to me that this was a home. The larger ger is the family ger with the sleeping area and the smaller ger is predominantly for cooking. With seating covered in blankets, a cupboard for storage, a small table, family photos, horse racing medals, even a small television, for the nomadic life, a ger is not temporary even if the location is. The elders were very proud animal farmers and own approximately 1,000 sheep, in addition to many horses and cattle.
Today, the nomadic life still lives on with around half of all Mongolians living the traditional way of life in these felt-lined tents, despite the extremely harsh winters with temperatures reaching -40C. Some nomads have adopted a few conveniences of modern day living combined with the traditional way of living all while retaining their core values and familiar customs of their ancestors. A couple of the modern day conveniences I noticed during my stay was a cell phone (flip phone, not smartphone) and a small television set. They were powered by solar panels and generators. There was no running water nor any modern day plumbing; water was captured in rain barrels.
Nadaam Festival, locally called “eriin guryan naadam” or “the three games of men” is the largest traditional festival in Mongolia and the world’s second-oldest Olympic event. Wrestling, horse racing, and archery are held throughout the country annually during mid-summer. Women may participate in archery and girls in horse-racing, but none compete in Mongolian wrestling.
Hundreds of young children, boys and girls, ages five to twelve participate in the 20 kilometer horse race along the plains. The top five finishers take home coveted prizes and medals. Our host family’s young son participated in the horse race and finished in fourth place, adding another medal to the growing family collection.
Once a religious festival, Nadaam now formally commemorates the 1921 revolution when Mongolia declared itself a free country.
Spending time in Mongolia, a vast expansion of steppes and desert more than twice the size of Texas was like a dream come true. I am so grateful for our experiences in this unique country and for the hospitality. To learn more about Mongolia and see more images, check out my book, Discover Mongolia | Go Nomadic or to plan your own adventure, check out the links below.
“I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed” – Marco Polo