Mongolia: The Big Empty is Full of Surprises

Panorama in Horgo, Mongolia
Panorama in Horgo, Mongolia

By David Rich

Nine parallel dirt tracks swept across the vast Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, half a dozen Russian SUVs fighting for the lead as they headed into the big empty like a squadron of vicious gray bumblebees.

Being first was of utmost importance because only the lead car avoided eating a plume of dust.

My sedate Mitsubishi dropped out of the dust cloud and wheeled away from the Russians onto the rim of the Flaming Cliffs at Bayanzag, the birthplace for the legend of Indiana Jones.

The flamboyant Jones was modeled on Roy Chapman Andrews, the American archeologist who discovered the Flaming Cliffs, home to the first and largest cache of dinosaur eggs ever found and the skeleton of the original velociraptor.

Photography at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert
Photography at the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert

I sat transfixed by the light, snapping shots of brilliant orange cliffs that glowed like the slot canyons of Arizona and Utah where luminescence also cascades like a fluorescent waterfall.

The fabled Gobi was full of surprises, starting with Eagle Valley in Gurvan Saikhan National Park where eagles naturally soar, legendary Mongolian horses canter and the sheer central canyon is filled with meters-thick ice, year round.

From there it’s a short swirl to the vast Khongor Sand Dunes, the highest I’ve ever seen or breathlessly slogged up, 800 meters or 2600 endless feet of whipped-cream mounds of faux quicksand. The reward lies in reaching the top and jumping down in a half mile perpendicular plunge, like flying on an airborne pogo stick, compensating for the sheer agony of up.

Attempting, at the bottom, to race camels that refused to move faster than a labored shuffle proved a gross anti-climax.

The reason I went to Mongolia and the reason most people go is to see, feel and taste the Naadam Festival’s Three Games of Men that begins on July 11 every year, a tradition reaching back into the mists of time, 2300 years.

I watched the spectacle in the ancient capital of Karakorum, starting with the wrestling in traditional costume, the Dzobag Shodag. This get-up consists of a diminutive Speedo gapped below a tiny jacket, the back embroidered with a raptor.

Hooking Thumbs

A referee texting during the wrestling competition at the Naadam Festival's Three Games of Men
A referee texting during the wrestling competition at the Naadam Festival’s Three Games of Men

The competitors first danced with the referee and then got down to business, hooking thumbs into the diminutive corners of the other’s Speedo.

After a few flying tosses it was over, the winner triumphantly flying around the sprawling grounds like a swooping eagle after drinking fermented mare’s milk at the judge’s stand. After the ultimate clash the winner celebrated the title of Titan.

The archery was impressive, particularly by the distaff set in dressy gowns and coifed perms, who likely failed to attain the traditional status of supermarksman, instead perhaps qualifying as supermsmarkspersons.

The more traditional portion of Nadaam was the horse races, all ridden by seven- to twelve-year-old kids, traditionally along a 20-mile course but only 15 miles in Karakorum, ending among cheering throngs as the exhausted horses flew across the line.

Archery contest at the Naadam Festival in Karakorum, Mongolia
Archery contest at the Naadam Festival in Karakorum, Mongolia

As we watched in horror, one collapsed at the finish, dragged off by a tractor, and two arrived without riders.

The winners were feted by their families in photos rendered poignant by grandma in a flapping kimono and pointy hat.

Chinngis vodka, Mongolia's favorite
Chinngis vodka, Mongolia’s favorite

The Nadaam games had already been celebrated for 1400 years when Genghis Khan became the ruler of all Mongols in 1206, honing the skills necessary to conquer a third of the world. His eventual empire stretched from the Danube in Austria to Korea and from Siberia to the Himalayas.

The empire has now shrunk back to 600,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers), but his likeness remains eternal.

Chinggis’ grandson Kublai became the emperor of China, moving the empire’s capital to Beijing (then called Ta-tu, the great capital) in 1265 and hosting Marco Polo at the summer palace in Xanadu aka Shangtu in southeast Mongolia, where Marco hung out for 17 years, finally returning to Europe as Kublai’s ambassador.

The face of Chinngis, as he’s called in Mongolia, has been artistically etched onto the bottle of Mongolia’s top vodka and whitewashed onto the high hill bordering the sprawling capital of Ulaanbaatar to the south.

My best appreciated pleasure domes were the cultural shows staged with traditional instruments, throat-singing yodeling ranging from bass to treble flute, dueling soloists and contortionists.

The most impressive instruments were the two-stringed horse head fiddles ranging in size from violins to cellos handily manipulated by seeming Yitzhak Perlman protégés and the long double-reed horns swung on by Benny Goodman-type musicians who could have taught at Julliard.

Playing a two-stringed horsehair fiddle in Shangtu, Mongolia
Playing a two-stringed horsehair fiddle in Shangtu, Mongolia

These hipsters accompanied crystal-shattering divas and frenetic keyboardists unseen outside the most revered jazz clubs. Always the show ended with contortionists apparently without bones, twisting themselves into the most amazing of pretzels. Though truly weird their mind-bending loops were scintillatingly exotic.

A kaleidoscope of impressions personify Mongolia:

· Grasslands sweeping up to the horizon dotted with gers aka yurts, each and every one graced by a solar panel and satellite dish, encircled above by eagles, hawks and falcons galore

· Nomads on cellphones texting aboard camels, ditto wresting referees texting during Nadaam matches, eco-gers, vegetarian and internet cafes, a myriad of competing universities and one of the most corrupt governments in the galaxy

· Mirrored lakes strung along bogs bordered by soothing hot springs next to luxurious log-cabined resorts reachable, as everywhere in Mongolia, only via the most horrific dirt tracks where begrimed kids hawk oversized bottles of fermented mare’s milk

· Grazing goats with green-painted horns slurping well water poured into concrete troughs, herded by tenders on motorcycles and accompanied by vendors tending long tables of knickknacks no matter how remote the area

Kids selling fermented mare's milk in Mongolia
Kids selling fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia

· Bactrian camels with twin humps for comfy riding and the preferred mode of moving disassembled gers between winter and summer pastures, sustenance provided by delicacies of blowtorched marmot

· Gaudily painted Buddhas in ancient monasteries, the few that escaped Soviet annihilation, attended by monks in training at the tender age of six, blowing conch shells to summon the faithful

The big empty was truly an illusion.

When you go:

Be prepared for extremely slow travel over interminably dusty tracks interspersed, during the rainy season, with mud holes and no public transportation worth mentioning.

Speeds off the few hundred miles of paved roads average about 30 MPH (50 KPH) in a sprawling country sparsely populated by less than three million people, almost half of whom reside in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, which may be reached by air only from Moscow, Beijing or Seoul.

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