Entering Mongolia was magical. The soft, green hills welcomed us with open arms as we dismounted the train in Ulaanbaatar.
However, I will not sugarcoat anything – Ulaanbaatar is a hole in the ground. Yes, there is new construction work everywhere, and the city will definitely not be the same next time I visit it. However, as I am writing this I can assure you that there is a crazy traffic-jam outside, mostly because the roads (only built 5-6 years ago) are not suited for vehicles with wheels. My solution to the Mongolian government is to ban all cars and travel by foot or horse. It would be much faster.
That said, I only have good things to relay to the world.
Mongolia is generally not your usual tourist destination. I will gladly admit, that I knew little, or nothing, about this country before I crossed the border via the Trans-Mongolian railway. However, I have learned so much after having observed the culture for more than 5 days, and I hope more people will visit in the future. Mongolia is underrated, especially considering its historical facts: it was once twice the size of the Roman Empire, and before America was discovered, historians believed the Mongol Empire was as large as half of the world. The legacy of Genghis Khan is still the pride and joy of the Mongolian people, and his spirit lives on in most Mongolians who all yearn for wrestling and judo.
We stayed at the Golden Gobi hostel (not far from the station, see the map!) where we met two lovely French ladies we could go on tour with to the countryside; sharing the costs certainly makes it a cheaper affair. The country-life in Mongolia is like nothing I have experienced before. Firstly, I must praise the untouched nature of this great nation. It is unreal to be surrounded by nothing but emerald-green hills and soft plains. The varying green nuances (depending on the clouds and the sun) never gets tiring for the eye. What is even more spectacular is the diversity in the Mongolian vegetation.
You have rocky mountains, semi-Gobi deserts, green moors, rivers, freezing snow in winter and everything your heart desires. On our 5-day tour we got to meet four lovely nomadic families, and we spent three of the nights inside their gers (felt-lined tents). As plain and simple the gers are from the outside, as elaborate and detailed they are when you sit inside. The walls are covered in beautiful carpets and their wooden furniture consists of colorful and intricately beautiful details. During our stay, we got to ride Mongolian horses and camels; we have been herding cattle in all shapes and sizes, we have been hiking in the luscious greenery, eaten dairy products like there was no tomorrow and the list goes on. However, the best part of the tour was without a doubt the meetings with the families.
Our driver to the countryside actually worked double duty as our interpreter. But even when communication was scarce, the Mongolian nomads are extremely hospitable, and every meeting will therefore stay in my memory. Whilst it can be difficult to interact with the grown-ups, it was so easy to play with the kids. And boy oh boy, these kids were amazing! Not only do they constantly have the biggest smiles plastered across their faces, but they are also loving and caring towards all their siblings. From a very young age these kids have to help out with the household around the ger and with all the cattle. One little girl, probably not more than 2 years old, helped her brothers when they collected firewood. Every time they dropped something she would go and pick it up and bring it back to ger. Heartwarming. :)
The second family we stayed with was without a doubt my favourite. It seemed like it was a larger family with many more kids in all ages. Our interpreter told us it was a newly wed couple, and lots of wedding pictures were also on display inside of the ger. The kids of this family loved to wrestle, and the father therefore made a huge circle in the sand and then the games began. It was French vs Danes, Mongolian vs. Danes and everybody against everybody!!!!! The Mongolian language is extremely difficult to master, but laughter is universal. I had an amazing afternoon.
Virginie, our French travel partner, is an art teacher back home, and an amazing opportunity therefore arose. As payment for staying with the nomadic families, she would create beautiful portraits of either the man of the ger, or of any of the young children. This was such an amazing gift, and it was clear that it really pleased the families.
The diet out on the Mongolian steppes is somewhat limited. Of course we had a lot of fresh meat and milk products everyday. Only problem was that the families like to dry all their cheeses and dairy products, so that it is impossible to chew (except for the Mongolians – it appears they have teeth stronger than most canines). On the other hand, this makes the cheese last for more than 10 years. During my 5 days I also got to try to eat goatskin and also had a nice large bowl of aireg – fermented mare’s milk. Neither will be tasted again I can assure you ;)
Our last days in Ulaanbaatar (after many a loooooooooong showers) will also stay with me. The last night we went to watch the Mongolian National Song and Dance Academic Ensemble. This was one of the highlights of the trip so far. The show entailed ethnic dance pieces, which looks like no other dance I have ever seen before. Dance fascinates me on so many levels, and seeing such foreign movements drove me into a trance. It looks nothing like Bollywood or Thai dance, and each ethnic group has distinct and spectacular movements. The show also displayed many instruments, which I have never seen in my life. We got to listen to throat singing, which is nothing like I have ever heard prior. Please, dear reader, if you find time, YouTube Mongolian folk songs and throat singing – I promise you it will not be a waste of your time.
As the above paragraph indicates, describing Mongolia rightfully is extremely difficult for me. I have never experienced such a culture before. Its part Asian, part Russian, part Turkish, yet none of these nationalities suffice in explaining anything about the Mongolian culture whatsoever. This country is so untouched, yet still evolving. I think Mongolia has to be experienced, but I hope my fascination got across the screen.
Since a picture really is worth a thousand words…here are more photos. Hopefully they capture how extraordinary my time with the nomad families was.
The photos are taken by my trusty point-and-shoot camera, and edited in Lightroom 4 by my boyfriend. Being apart from him for so long, it feels good to know that an activity like this brings us closer together. :)
If you are interested in Mongolia for your next travel destination, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will give advice to the best of my abilities.