Mongolia Is A Country

I am a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t know Mongolia was a country until I decided to visit. I guess I assumed it was a region that was part of China and part of Russia. But Mongolia is a democracy with a president and – since the Soviets pulled out in 1991 – it has a mixed economy. It is unlike any place I have ever visited.

 

Mongolia is a country of true nomads and is the most sparsely populated nation on earth. Except for the 3 million who live in greater Ulaanbaatar (yes with five “a’s”), most Mongolians live in the vast expanse of the steppes or the Gobi Desert. They live in tents called “gers” and move them when their herds of sheep, yaks, goats and horses have exhausted the grassland food supplies near their encampments.

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Our ger camp on our first night of travel.

Tails of the YaksWhich is related to at least the second most important fact about Mongolians. Mongolians are horse people through and through. When I asked Nomin, a young Mongolian living in Ulaanbaatar, whether she rides horses, she replied “Of course. I am Mongolian.” I asked 20-year-old Liam, who has spent most of his summers in Mongolia, whether he had competed in the grueling annual long distance horse race for 12-year-olds, he replied “Of course. I live in Mongolia.” Horses are prominently depicted in old and modern art, in the country’s emblem, and in movies and literature. For nomadic Mongolians, horses provide not only transportation across the vast steppes, they provide companionship and sustenance in the form of dairy and meat products.

Mongolian horsemen in traditional robes called “deels”

One of the early finishers in a long distance race at one of the many Nadaam festivals that occur every year in July.

There is a revival here of Mongolian-ness since the Soviets left, and a big part of that is Genghis Khan. In the 12th century, Genghis Khan amassed the largest empire in the history of the world using ingenious military strategies that did not include much you would recognize as mercy.   On the other hand, he adopted and implemented freedom of religion and figured out how to manage an empire that extended from Hungary to eastern China without an office — so he is worthy of respect if not love. Although the peace-loving Mongolians love him.

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The Genghis Khan statue in Sukhbaatar Square.

Another part of the cultural revival is Buddhism, which originally took hold in the 15th century. During the 1930s, the Soviets destroyed most of the Buddhist temples and murdered tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and priests. Today, Mongolians are returning to Buddhism even as the country modernizes and becomes more integrated with the global economy.

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One of the few remaining Buddhist temples in Ulaanbaatar.

Shamanism is an important part of the culture as well and is thought to be older than human history. We were privileged to meet with a 19 year old shaman who realized his calling at age 13.  Following a moving chant to a drumbeat, he entered into a trance that allowed him to communicate with important ancestors.

Mongolia – mainly Ulaanbaatar — has unfortunately been making news because of its terrible air pollution, which is especially bad in winter when householders burn wood, coal and animal dung to keep warm. It’s an issue here, along with the fair disposition of the revenues from the development of large mining projects and the impacts of climate change, which have forced thousands of nomads to move from the Gobi Desert north to Ulaanbaatar

View from Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatar Square. The city is a pastiche of architecture and outlook.

I am here to join a horse trek with 12 other Americans and we have just spent our first night on the steppes, where the sky is endless and that settlement next door is miles away.

Camel ride on the road to Lapis Sky Camp

So far, we all seem to be feeling the power of the land and the sky.

 

 

 

22 comments

  1. All of your travels and adventures are fascinating, Kim, and this one may be most of all! I guess because I know almost nothing about Mongolia, and it looks so different from anywhere I’ve been, too. I love that you ride horses (or camels) wherever you go, and look forward to following your escapades.

  2. Fabulous experience. Can’t wait to hear more about it. Would love to go some day. The city looks so modern, I was surprised. Somehow I thought it would be more untouched by the western world.

  3. You were riding the cutest came in the group. Yes, that is a low bar, but s/he cleared it handily!

    Years ago I went to Inner Mongolia which is still part of China. We visited Hohut and Batou going on a very modern newly opened freeway east to west, but after our stay we returned by airplane since the west to east part of the freeway had not been funded yet and the dirt road being used was jammed with oxen drawn wagons, horses and camels. Quite a contrast in transport technologies!

    In Batou we arose to see the beautiful Gobi mountains bathed in sunshine about 20 miles away. By 9 in the morning, the mountains had disappeared behind a growing cloud of smog and by noon we couldn’t even see the sun. Everyone was wearing masks to filter the residue of the half dozen large coal fired power plants located right in the city.

    Buddhist monasteries were “protected” by soldiers, and when we visited a couple of them, their history and functions were described as if they were cute exhibits at Disneyland.

    Best wishes for the rest of your adventure!

  4. Hi Kim, I understand that Ghengis Kahn left a very large footprint of DNA across the East and Europe…. (sorry for so many mixed metaphors!) Wow. Riding horses with the best of the horse people. I think Nick has a little Mongolian in him, from some ancestors from Siberia.

  5. Super exciting adventure–I have always been curious about Mongolia. I recently saw a lovely film about a young Mongolian girl who competes in falconry competitions. The landscape was practically a character in the film and it’s a landscape I hope to see one day. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

  6. I’m always curious about Mongolia and I hope I can vist it one day. How to get travel around? Is it easy to travel within the country or you need to join travel group from travel agencies?

    1. It is easy to travel here with various types of local and US tour agencies. You could rent a car and go out on your own — there are ger camps you can find in the countryside. However, if you want to do a horse trek I recommend either a reputable tour company or a lot of research. I joined a National Geographic tour and it was sensational — more posts to follow that will provide more information!

  7. Hello Kim: I am a friend of Michael Hall’s and he forwarded your blog to me recently which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was just in Mongolia last Fall and had an amazing experience as part of a research project studying Argali sheep. We were SE of Ulaan Baataar, perhaps not far from where you were, and certainly in the middle of nowhere with just the sky and endless desert all around. The wildlife were incredible: bactrian camels, horses, gazelles, ibexes, etc. Your pix brought back so many wonderful memories and make me wish I am there now. May go back next year as I am committed to a trip to Patagonia this Fall. Happy traveling!

    1. Thank you for the lovely note. I would like to return to Mongolia — to the places of wolves in the east and golden eagles in the west. It is unlike any place I have been in so many ways! Enjoy your trip to Patagonia!

      1. Hi Kim: Don’t know how this (Gravatar) works but I just received a message from you. I guess it’s in response to my earlier note about Patagonia. Great pix of the eagle on your head. I was only able to get close to one, about 3 feet away, but not enough to have it land on my head 😦 Reading your blog about Mongolia brought back such wonderful memories — heard myself sighing a couple of times even. But now I’m engrossed in working out some remaining details about going to Patagonia, including a side jaunt to an area called Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage site, and then eventually down to Torres del Paine in southern Chile. Will be spending most of my time helping out with a research project on penguins. Hope to be able to cuddle one even 🙂

  8. Very lovely pictures and story! ❤ In Poland (my country) there is quite a number of Mongols and they are always nice people 🙂 There is even a TV personality Bilguun Ariunbaatar and he is quite funny 🙂 Lovely pictures ❤

  9. Go, before it gets discovered. Already they are experiencing a huge influx of foreigners, especially from South Korea and Australia. The latter is because of recent mining discoveries there which is a mixed blessing. The country needs the capital for development but, at the same time, environmental pollution has increased dramatically, esp. in Ulan Bataar. Still, it is a unique country, not to be confused with Inner Mongolia which is a part of China. Their culture and history is fascinating, as is their lifestyle. I understand that mail delivery is now impossible in UB because of all the gers that have popped up, these from people who previously lived a nomadic lifestyle following their herds across the steppes. I definitely want to go back but after I come back from Patagonia.

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