We hop off the Trans-Siberian Railway in the busy city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, home of Genghis Khan. After a month of challenging travel across Russia, perhaps due to my wife and I not understanding a syllable of Russian, our communications have been reduced to facial expressions and hand gestures. We’re excited to speak English with the manager of a hostel. Even in the sweltering heat of summer, sometimes the travails of travel culminate into the pleasure of simply being.
We book a 14-day driving tour that covers much of the northern and central parts of the Mongolian wilderness, and the Gobi Desert to the south. Amraa, the driver, and Erka, the English speaking guide introduce themselves. The Naadam (games) annual festival starts in July, and we hope to see some of it out in the rural provinces.
The four of us load up on food items, and cases of warm cans of Chinggis beer. It takes two hours to maneuver through impossible traffic congestion in this capital city, where over half of Mongolia’s 3 million people live. Pedestrians do not have right of way in these parts. Once outside of the city, the roads disappear and Amraa blazes new trails through infinite grassland steppes that smell like onions. “This grass is used as herbal medicine and also sprinkled on potatoes,” Erka explains.
Snap! The rear stabilizer bar break in half on this old Nissan Pathfinder that has no air conditioning. Amraa makes temporary repairs by strapping a steel rod across the bar with strips of rubber that he cuts from a tire’s inner tube. From this point on, he earns the affectionate nickname, “MacGyver the driver.”
Most evenings, MacGyver and Erka find a typical nomadic family that have several gers (yurts), and herds of sheep, goats and sometimes yaks. The families always say “Yes” to our request for room and board for the evening, and they enjoy the company of travelers. They offer us glasses of freshly made yogurt, Sautei tsai (hot goat milk with salt), and often some fermented milk with a bit of alcohol content. We eat mutton, goat or yak meat for dinner each evening. Erka translates for us as we sit around the dung-burning stove in the center of the ger, while we ask each other questions. Smiles and laughter dominate. This is a fiercely independent culture who open their hearts and homes to travelers.
Void of trees and bushes, little things like having nowhere to hide while going to the “bathroom” make us appreciate the easy life we have back in the states.
Nomadic families fold up their gers, pack either camels or horses, and move four times yearly to protect their livestock from the extreme seasonal temperatures. “We have 3 million people in this country, and about 40 million livestock,” Erka says. “Do you guys mind pitching your tent tonight? The ger is going to be pretty crowded.” Mare and I feel like pampered nomads, as we’re about three months into a six-month, once in a lifetime walkabout that takes us through six different countries. Try stuffing two backpacks for six different countries and climates!
We sit outside of our tent and stare at the infinite green grasslands, blue skies, and white cotton puff clouds that surround us on all sides of the Mongolian steppes. While sipping yak-milk vodka (a tad cloudy), the exhilaration of being in the middle of nowhere overwhelms us with awe. It feels like we’re sitting on the north pole, looking down at the circular slope of planet earth. Sometimes the travails of travel culminate into the pleasure of simply being.
While MacGyver blazes new roads the following morning, we come upon a Mongolian family whose vehicle had broken down in this sweltering heat. He jumps out and goes to work on yet another axle that had separated from the wheel. “I was stuck out here for over two days before I even seen another car,” MacGyver says through Erka’s translation. He fixed the car in a few hours, and we’re back bouncing and twisting over the steppes. Even Erka calls him “MacGyver” after that, as he is also familiar with the US television show. The drivers on these tours possess ingenious mechanical skills. “Everyone helps each other without saying a word out here, Erka says. “It’s the Mongolian way.”
Let the Games begin! Eventually we make it to the town of Dalanzagad, where the entire village participates in Naadam. “Wrestlers are like gods,” Erka explains. “Mongolians are not team players. They strive for individual dominance and can’t imagine taking one for the team.” I suppose that they would hog the basketball.
These annual games date back to at least the 13th century, and consist of wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Wrestlers clench each other by the shoulders and try to throw their opponent onto the ground. Once a wrestler touches the ground with anything other than a hand, the match is over. There is no time limit. Win and move on, or lose and go home. Only one champion emerges, and there are no weight classes. The winners of all 29 provinces in the country advance to the center city of Ulaanbaatar the following year, where one victor will emerge from each of the three games.
Mare and I feel privileged to engage in the energy of this festival, strolling around archers and wrestlers. We munch on delights such as kuushuurs (fried mutton pancakes) and skewers of mutton with tender chunks of fat. The costumes alone amaze us, and smiles abound.
Everyone gets excited at the horserace finish line. The best jockeys, between age 10 and 11 years old, ride the small, powerful Mongolian horses for 15 kilometers before one winner crosses the finish line.
The following day’s drive brings us into a different world of sand in the Gobi Desert, where wild herds of two-humped camels roam. All Mongolian camels have two humps. The tame camels in the coral outside of our ger make the strangest moans all night long. “They’re crying for their mother,” Erka says. We sit between the two humps and ride camels to the base of the Khongor Sand Dunes that evening. This is the only time we have felt like a “tourist” rather than a friend. The next morning, Mare and I crab crawl sideways up the soft sand to the spine at the top of the 1,000 ft. dunes, which stretch 70 miles long. We watch the sunrise, as the dunes move with the wind like a slow, slithering snake. At the top, wind sandblasts our face so hard that we waste no time sliding back down.
Back at ger camp, MacGyver and I look at each other and square off. We clench each other’s shoulders, and the wrestling match is on. It ends in a draw several breathless minutes later. We perform the wrestler’s victory dance, slowly flapping our arms like wings, while looking regally from side to side. He’s smaller than I, but surprisingly strong.
Man, do we stink. About ten days now without a shower. Almost by design, we pitch our tent this evening next to a river in North/Central Mongolia. Again, we’re glad that the ger was too crowded tonight. After another mutton and noodles meal, we sip warm cans of Chinggis beer. MacGyver and a few other drivers sleep in their cars not far from our tent. “They want to protect you from young Mongolian guys who sometimes drink too much vodka,” Erka explains. “They think that white foreigners are Russians. They want to beat them up for occupying our country several years ago.” Over 90% of the monks in Mongolia were murdered during the communist occupation.
Suddenly, a herd of yaks surround the tent. These beautiful animals hold a strange mystic for us. Perhaps because they resemble a couple pet dogs we have loved in the past. Yaks sustain life. Their dung provides fuel for fire. Their hair produces material for blankets and sweaters. Their milk gives yogurt, cream, butter, cheese, fermented alcohol and distilled (cloudy) vodka. At the end of their lives, their meat feeds families. Love the yak.
On our final night in wild Mongolia, MacGyver brings a live nanny goat to camp for dinner. He blindfolds it, ties it to a pole, and offers me the honor of slicing its throat. I can’t do it, so I respectfully decline, but have no problem eating the meat of course. The entire goat gets used in some manner, except for the hoofs. The cooks heat rocks on a dung fire, add them to a steel milk can, dump all of the goat meat into it along with a little water, and top it with carrots and potatoes. Cover and slow cook. The entire camp feasts on the meal.
After we all finish the rest of our rather hot cans of Chinggis beer, MacGyver and I square off for a final wrestling match. We call it a draw, but I think that he actually won.
Time for the two-hour drive through the congested city traffic of Ulaanbaatar back to our hostel. I must admit that a long overdue shower sounds terrific! Sometimes the travails of travel culminate into the pleasure of simply being.
Ron Mitchell is an American published author, traveler, & adventure blogger. Read more about Ron's adventures on his site, Ron Mitchell's Adventure Blog.