Mongolia is one of those lands where you’ll still encounter roads trips taken by horse than car. It is said to have the best horseman on earth and this weekend gone they are celebrating Nadaam festival, the nationwide celebration of the three so-called ‘manly’ sports, archery, wrestling and horse racing.
Home to one of the few nomadic people left and with a population of around 3 million sprawled over an area three times the size of France, Mongolia is a place to get lost in vast wilderness.
The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar is home to 60% of the population and has been described as ‘welcoming albeit rough around the edges’ with a Soviet/Central Asian feel that hangs between modernity and ancient traditions.
Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital with an average annual temperature of -1.3 degrees and also supposedly has the most bars per capita for a capital city, where locals can drink their insides to warmth with the burning fury of vodka.
The reason most people come to Mongolia is not to hang out in bars in Ulaanbaatar, but to enter the steppe, the vast tree less plains of semi-arid pastureland and traverse the endless sparseness of the Gobi desert. The word ‘Gobi’ is actually Mongolian for desert steppe although the distinction between Gobi and desert proper often gets muddled.
Once you leave the capital, you can drive for hours without seeing any human activity unless it’s a ger or two (Mongolian yurt) as a white blob in the distance. Outside of the cities, most Mongolian people live in gers (pronounced ‘gher’), which are generally permanent but movable circular dwellings in the middle of the steppe, around which the inhabitant’s animals graze freely.
If you venture all the way to Mongolia be sure to spend some time with a family in a ger. Mongolians enjoy visitors and are usually happy to share some of their time with foreign wanderers. They’ll most likely offer you a seat and some milk tea, of which you should take a sip at minimum. It’s also customary for visitors to bring gifts so bring something they don’t have, think practically but creatively.
The ancient capital of Kharkhorin is half a day’s drive west of Ulaanbaatar built in the days of Genghis Khan and houses Mongolia’s oldest monastery Erdene Zuu. In Khustain Nuruu National Park you can see the world’s only wild horses, the Takhi, but which requires more of a trek into the middle of nowhere.
Mongolia is land where you can travel from one end of the country to the other without seeing a fence. It is not easily appreciated or understood in a pitiful few days so for those with adventure at heart, come with little idea of when you need to leave.