Mongolia: Journey Through The Wild, Wild East

The GoNOMAD Adventure: Mongolia

By Lauryn Axelrod
GoNOMAD Founder

Chingissin Ger Camp in the hills outside the city. Lauryn Axelrod photo.
Chingissin Ger Camp in the hills outside the city. Lauryn Axelrod photo.

When I was a kid, Mongolia was the end of the earth – a desolate, dry place where your parents threatened to send you if you were bad. I believed them.

But my parents didn’t know what they were talking about. Neither did I. If I had, I would have misbehaved on purpose, just to be sent here a long time ago. Imagine the American West of legend, when Native Americans and buffalo roamed free and cowboys wrangled horses and drove cattle across wide open plains, across towering rocky mountains, through lush forests, beside blue lakes and clear running streams.

This is the real Mongolia: a land where nomads still live in gers (yurts) and teepees. Where horsemen gallop across fenceless lands, horses graze beside yaks, reindeer, wild Ibex, Argali, and camels, where eagles cruise the ever-blue sky and dinosaurs once drank from desert oasis lakes. The land of Chinggis Khan, the great conqueror: remote, romantic, and most of all, adventurous.
Gobi desert nomads in Mongolia.

In late August, my 12-year old son, Joshua, and I spent 12 days exploring this fascinating and beautiful country from the high Taiga forests of the Siberian north to the dunes and dinosaur burial grounds of the south Gobi Desert.

We traveled over 4,000 miles via horseback, camel, jeep and prop plane, sleeping in tents and gers, sharing airag and camel curd with nomads, learning how to play traditional Mongol games with sheep anklebones, and discovering Mongolia’s ancient way of life and challenging future.

Gers and Arrows

Thompson Family Adventures arranged our journey through Nomadic Expeditions, one of Mongolia’s most respected adventure tour companies. Nomadic is also exceptional in its ecotravel commitment and well-trained guides and drivers, who offer custom and group trips that range from horse trekking to dinosaur fossil hunting expeditions. Our guide, Badmaa, met us upon arrival in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital city, and we drove directly to the Chingissin Ger Camp in the hills outside the city near the site of the famous Naadam Games.

This would be our first night in a ger, the traditional housing of nomads. Made of a wooden lattice frame, roof beams and felt coverings, gers are both warm and spacious. Ours had two comfortable brightly painted beds, a woodstove for heat in the chilly nights, a table, stools and felt rugs and animal pelts on the wooden floor. It didn’t take long for us to decide that ger living was the perfect accommodation in Mongolia (if not at home, too!).

At the camp, Josh and I had the opportunity to try our hands at Mongolian archery. Chinggis Khan and the Mongol hordes were notorious for sweeping out of the steppe on horseback, and firing arrows with uncanny accuracy. Archery is still practiced and considered one of the “Three Manly Sports” of Mongolia and championed in the Naadam Games (though women are also strong archers and competitors)! We weren’t so good at it. Even from standing position, it was hard to hit the yak skin target from 30 meters away with a deer horn bow. Still, we had fun trying.

After dinner — our first sampling of the Mongolian meat and dairy diet — we went for a walk in the surrounding hills, where herds of horses and sheep had come to graze, and cicadas called out to the rising pink moon. We could tell we would like it here in the Wild, Wild East. And we didn’t have to misbehave to get here!

Horse trekking in Terelj

The next morning, we drove the opposite direction out of Ulaan Baatar to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, Mongolia’s first national park, for two days of horse trekking and camping along the banks of the Tuul River. En route, we stopped at an Ovoo, one of the thousands of rock pile shrines that Mongolians have erected over the centuries to mark a sacred place or important pass. After circumambulating it three times, and adding stones as offerings for a safe journey, we were ready to begin our trek.Tim Cope riding with his dog across Mongolia.

We met our wrangler at his family ger. While nomads are traditionally hospitable, opening their doors to any and all passersby, custom dictates a rather strict set of rituals to follow when visiting a nomad home. Visitors must cross the threshold through the low door, move clockwise, and take their seats on the left side, feet pointing away from the shrine at the back (but not at anyone else).

The hosts will then offer tea or airag — fermented mare’s milk — along with an assortment of snacks. It is impolite to refuse anything offered, so Josh and I had our first tastes of the sour airag, urum, a creamy, butter-like spread, and bitter, dried yogurt sweets, all of which are staple foods for nomads. As vegetarians, we knew we would have to bend our dietary restrictions somewhat, but it would take years of living in the steppe to acquire a taste for these treats.

After the visit, we mounted our horses, and in our soft padded saddles (even Mongolians pad their wooden saddles for long journeys), we were off to explore the park. Think Wyoming. New Mexico. Wild sage grows around isolated rock formation and bare mountains with jagged crevices so perfectly carved they look painted. For four hours, we rode through this awesome (what other word could describe it?) landscape, stopping to climb “Turtle Rock,” loping along as our wrangler whistled what sounded like cowboy songs. In fact, Mongolians believe a song is your best partner on a journey. It wasn’t long before we were whistling, too.

We stopped to camp along the banks of the Tuul in an idyllic, tree-lined spot where the river runs shallow, but clear. A Mongolian fisherman waded in a few yards above us. A herd of horses forded the river, their owners, dressed in traditional Mongol dels and pointed hats, stop to visit. The wooden yak cart carrying our supplies arrives and we prepare dinner. Afterwards, we sit by the river and watch the golden light wash across the land and fall asleep to the sound of the gently rushing water and the braying of a stray bull that has come to visit our yak.

The next morning, we break camp and ride back to our base, passing bizarre rock formations that look like five praying monks, a sphinx, a grimacing Mongol warrior in a bronze helmet. More herds, more herders, isolated gers and nomads walking alone nowhere. A young boy rides up, bareback and barefoot, wearing a cowboy hat and wielding a lasso – our guide’s son. He chats with his father for a few minutes and then rides off, fast as the wind. We may not yet be Mongolian horsemen and women, but this first trek has us thirsting for more. As much as possible, we will be on horses; the only way to really experience the land and lifestyle of Mongolia.

The Land of Reindeer

Part of our goal in coming to Mongolia was to explore the vast geographical diversity, and so our next destination is Huvsgul Nuur, or Lake Huvsgul, in the far north near Siberia. The 13th largest lake in the world, Huvsgul contains almost 2% of the world’s freshwater resources. More than 200 miles long, reaching to the Russian border, Huvsgul is one of the cleanest, most pristine bodies of water in Asia, and surrounded by birch forests, high mountains, and the unique Tsaatan, or reindeer herders, it is also one of Mongolia’s most beautiful and remote protected areas.

Mongolia camel master
Mongolia camel master

But getting there isn’t for the faint of heart. Our bumpy 1 ½ hour turboprop flight to the town of Muren had us praying to land. But the following 4 ½ hour bone-rattling drive over dirt tracks and rocky dry riverbeds through the steppe made us think the flight wasn’t so bad after all. Our Russian-made minivan grinds and shakes through the dust past isolated gers, herds of yak and yak/cow hybrids, and camels. The sun beats down and the horizon seems like it never arrives.

And then, we enter the forest, the air cools, the dust settles, and we catch our first glimpse of the sparkling blue lake that will be our home for the next three days. A few kilometers further and we reach our camp, a settlement of gers nestled on a wooded headland between Huvsgul and a smaller lake, Toilogt. It’s a near-perfect setting. But it’s also almost 9 pm and it’s been a grueling day.

We eat dinner and retire to our ger. After lighting a fire in the woodstove to ease the Siberian chill, we take one last look at the full harvest moon tinting the sky and the lake a deep orange. Alaska, I think. A northern Maine lake, says Josh. No, we remind ourselves, this is Mongolia, too!

Good Horse!

The next morning we begin the day on horseback again for a short trek along the shore to a higher vantage point. Our wrangler/guide, Muna, is a laughing faced local herder who enjoys watching us ride his spirited horses. And such fine horses they are! Short legged and short-maned, these are the Mongolian horses we always dreamed about. They fly through the trees, along the shore, up and down hills, dodging yaks and cows, gers and nomad children, responding to each command. Muna laughs and “chus” the horses faster, teaching us how to say “sang mur!” Good horse!

From our high ridge resting point, we survey both shores of the lake the locals call “Dalai Eej,” or “Mother Ocean,” sustaining their herds in the summer, providing fresh water and fish even in the dead of winter.

But, as we learn, Huvsgul is suffering. Global warming has been devastating the area. All those dry riverbeds we crunched across to get here were running and full three years ago. Many of the 60 rivers that feed this lake have dried up, and the lake, which is normally frozen solid until late June, is thawing sooner.

The water temperature is rising by one degree Celsius per year, which is enough to form algae along the pristine shores and kill off some of the fish for which the lake is famous. Even in nearby Lake Baikal, which is fed by Lake Huvsgul, the water temperature has changed and the rare freshwater seals that live in the lake are dying. From our perch atop our horses, Josh and I feel as if we are gazing on an entire endangered world.

One of the world’s most beautiful and unique places may soon disappear, and with it, a way of life that has existed for thousands of years. That night, we are treated to a performance of traditional Mongolian song and dance. Songs about horses and the beauty of the land sound like old cowboy ballads. But the droning sounds of the Muring Huur, or horsehead fiddle, and Khoomi, or two-toned throat singing, remind us that this wild place is not the West, but the East.

Day-long trek

The next day, we prepare for a day-long trek high up into the mountains to visit the Tsaatan, a unique ethnic group of reindeer herders that have lived in this area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The Tsaatan (from the Mongolian word for reindeer, Tsaa) are also endangered: their rapidly disappearing group of 60 families is being pressured by the changing environment, politics, and irresponsible tourism. Most of the Tsaatan spend their summers in an even more remote valley 4 days trek further northwest, but one family has moved closer to the lake to be near a daughter that married a local Buryiat, the majority group that inhabits this area.

Following Muna again, we walk our horses along the road that ends 45 minutes later in a dense birch forest lined with pink wildflowers. In the clearings, nomads cut and prepare hay for what promises to be a harsh winter. Two hours later, the forest ends above the tree line and we begin a treacherous, uphill climb past bare precipices.

Horgo Mongolia
Horgo Mongolia

Rock by rock, step by step, our horses slowly pick their way up the impossibly steep path until we reach a clearing, a barren cradle nestled between rock peaks where the Tsaatan have made their camp for now. A single white teepee sits in the middle. Two young boys come out to greet us and invite us in. They are the sons of the family: one is 16, the other 14. Their parents are down in the valley below cutting hay and have left the boys in charge of the reindeer that are now scattered on the rocky hills.

We enter the teepee. Inside, reindeer pelts line the walls and floor. Reindeer meat dries on the tree trunk rafters above. The boys offer us tea and reindeer milk curd, a delicacy for Mongolians, and much mellower than the horse or sheep curd we’ve eaten before. It’s actually edible. After a few minutes of talk about the weather (important to nomads) and the animals, we go back outside to meet the reindeer.

Soft Reindeer

The family keeps about 30 reindeer – some old, some young. Over half the herd comes over to us. Who knew reindeer would be so gentle and friendly? Or that they are so soft! In summer, their antlers are covered in fur, and their pelts grow thick for the coming winter. For 20 minutes or so, we marvel as they rub their noses in our hands, their antlers against our legs.

The youngest herder brings a large white male over to let Josh ride him! His antlers are as tall as Josh! Soon, the reindeer tire of us and return to pasture on the barren hills.

We bid farewell to our hosts, give gifts of batteries (for their portable cassette player) and pens (for recording notes about the herd), and begin our descent back down from their camp.

As we pick our way back through the rocks, Badmaa explains that the Tsaatan are also affected by the global warming trend. Many of the plants and herbs both the people and their herds depend on are disappearing. The number of reindeer are dwindling: some families are giving up herding reindeer and are taking up cattle or moving to the cities.

Their unique lifestyle, which includes one of the last shamanic traditions in the world, is almost extinct. To protect them, the Mongolian government is considering assistance and is looking into severely limiting tourism to their lands. However, because the one family has moved into the lake area and is open to visiting with foreigners, it prevents the others from being disturbed.

Mongolia: Journey Through The Wild, Wild East 2By the time we reach the forest again, Muna is impressed. Most foreigners don’t make it up the hill on their horses, let alone back down. We qualify as real Mongolian riders now, and therefore, can gallop all the way back to camp.

For at least half an hour, Badmaa, Josh, Muna, and I are neck and neck, racing through the trees and fields. After several miles, Badmaa and I tire and fall back, but Josh and Muna continue on, side by side, smiling; Josh in his baseball cap and sneakers, Muna in his del and pointy hat, like father and son, riding off into the wild.

A Gobi Safari

The next day, we leave the forested lakeside (and that brutal 4 ½ hour drive) for the dry desert of the Gobi. An early morning flight from UB lands us on the sand runway at Dalanzagad, the capital city of the Omongov, or South Gobi, the hottest, driest, most desolate, yet fascinating area of the immense Gobi.

There are actually several Gobis, or desert regions, in Mongolia, but the South Gobi is famous for its geological diversity, wildlife, and dinosaurs. We had come to search for dino fossils and to explore the Gobi Gurvansaikan National Park, an area of diverse geography from dunes to ice rivers, and home to numerous rare animals including the Ibex, Argali, and the elusive Snow Leopard.

We trade our bumpy Russian minivan for a smooth Russian jeep and drive 30 minutes over packed sand roads to Nomadic Expeditions new Gobi Eco-Ger camp, Three Camels Lodge. A collection of 30 ample and comfortable gers built around a solar and wind-powered wood and stone lodge building, the camp is Mongol version of a luxury Montana lodge. And here, in the harsh Gobi, such luxury and environmental sensitivity is a welcome treat.

Mongolia: Journey Through The Wild, Wild East 3
Endless vistas of Mongolia (Photo by Susan McKee)

From the camp, we could venture out into the wild reaches of the desert. Our driver, nicknamed “Chuun,” or Wolf, for his hunting prowess, would accompany us on our safaris and would prove to live up to his name. Our first excursion took us an hour deeper into the desert to Bayanzad, or The Flaming Cliffs, a red sand and rock canyon. In the 1920’s, flamboyant American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews discovered large dino fossil fields here that held the first ever dino eggs and a new dino species, the Oviraptor, or egg stealer! 80 million years ago this was an oasis, teeming with prehistoric animal life, but now it is a graveyard of oddly shaped cliffs and rock formations leading down to a sandy bottom where dino bones lay buried.

Dino Shards

Shards are easy to find. To determine if the white rock in your hand is real dino bone, place it on your tongue; bone will stick. We find several small pieces, fragments. Badmaa finds an anklebone imbedded in rock. But Wolf knows of a better place where he discovered a secret fossil he has hidden from unscrupulous locals.

A few miles further on we stop and walk to a cliffside where Wolf unearths an intact fossilized leg of a three-toed protoceratops, the most common dino living in the area! We gawk and touch this real specimen, amazed that it is lying in the sand here and not in a museum. Now, it is easy to imagine this desolate, dry land filled with dinos, birds, early mammals, prehistoric palm trees. This is the real Jurassic Park!

The next day, we are up at dawn for another hunt – an off-road Mongolian safari in search of rare, live animals in the mountains and valleys of the Gobi Gurvansaikan National Park.

No sooner do we enter the park boundary than we spot our first wildlife: a distant silhouette of a lone Ibex — a wild long-horned goat — atop a rocky peak. Inspired, Wolf veers off the dirt road and we go careening and crashing through a dry streambed in search of more. But it is early, and the animals are still sleeping, so we head deeper into the park to Yolyn Am, a dramatic desert canyon valley with a year-round stream that is usually frozen well into July. Now, in late August, the stream runs shallow and clear, giving life to the desert around it.

We begin a leisurely mile-long walk along the stream, watching Bearded Vultures circle above, passing ovoos, and jumping from rock to rock as we criss-cross from one side to the next. The valley closes in. Ragged rock walls, eroded by the millennia, rise up on either side. The path is only four feet wide now, the width of the stream.

A small waterfall blocks our path. When the stream is frozen, the ice here is 10 feet high, making the canyon impassable. But now, we can climb down easily. A few feet later, the canyon widens again, then narrows, then widens, and on and on for several miles. We hike on for another mile or so, watching hoopoes and other birds dive and swoop, and pikas – desert chipmunks – run and hide.

Back to the Jeep

Upon our return to the jeep, Wolf is ready to do some serious animal hunting and almost immediately he spots a small herd of Ibex on the side of a mountain – two males, three females, and several young goats. He’s off the road, chasing them, heading them off, meeting them on the other side of the valley, trying to get closer, closer! He clearly loves this adventure and his enthusiasm is contagious. Josh is urging him faster, faster.

I never thought I would like a wildlife safari, but I find myself cheering as we come within ten feet of the herd. After 20 minutes of admiring these long-horned beauties, we leave them in peace and head back to the camp for Horhog — a traditional Mongolian Barbeque of whole goat, slow roasted from the inside out with hot rocks.

Before eating, diners must pass the hot rocks from hand to hand among themselves for health, luck, and warmth (important in those cold Mongolian winters). Surprisingly tasty, the meat is tender and juicy, like Pot Roast. After 10 days of an almost completely carnivorous diet, we have learned to love the Mongolian beef. So much for being diehard vegetarians!

After lunch, we are off on another safari, this one by camel. We cross the desert again to one of the few areas of sand dunes in the Gobi, the Moltzog Els. For 20 kilometers, the prevailing winds dropped isolated reddish-golden dunes, one at a time, at the edge of a Saxaul forest. And in the middle of these dunes sat a herd of two-humped, or Bactrian, camels! We enter the ger of the camel herders, engage in the traditional tea and snack routine, negotiate a price for a camel ride, and then climb between the humps of the lumbering beasts and are off!

Our camels walk slowly, efficient animals that they are, their huge feet splaying across the soft sand. Every few meters they stop to eat, lowering their long necks and chomping off the leaves, stems and even roots of the nearest shrub. For an hour, we meandered through the dunes, the swaying of the camels lulling us into imagining the Silk Road caravans that plied this desert hundreds of years ago. In places, we even crossed the remains of the real Silk Road, marked by white stones that distinguished the route and “lit” the way at night. The camels knelt beside the largest dune and we disembarked. And then it was time to play in the sand. We kicked off our shoes and raced to the top. We sat, slid, jumped and wiggled our toes deeper into the cool sand below.

Looking for more Animals

As the sun lowers, we return to the jeep and Wolf speeds off in search of more animals. In the distance, he spies a herd of white-tailed gazelles, their telltale trail of dust stretching on the horizon. He floors it and veers off the road across the desert floor.

As we get closer, Wolf urges me to take a photo, but the fleet-footed gazelles run so fast, I can only capture their dust. Still, it is exciting: the animals of the Gobi have added life to the desert, and made these endless crossings so much more fun! But we can’t help but wonder how long: Ibex, Argali and gazelles are all endangered species. How much longer until they are fossils buried under the sand?

That evening, we sit outside our ger, gazing at the stars, brighter and more plentiful than we have ever seen. The Milky Way stretches unimpeded from horizon to horizon – a sash across the dark sky. And then, like a beacon, the Space Station transects the sky, moving across the desert at the speed of sound. Somehow, it seems fitting.

Here in an ancient land once ruled by dinos, where nomads still live as they did thousands of years ago, and Chinggis Khan set off to discover and conquer, the symbol of the future, of exploration to more remote places, watches silently from above. Building for the Future We spent our final day back in Ulaan Bataar, visiting monasteries, museums, and children’s shelters, learning more about Mongolia’s impressive past and challenging future. UB, as it is called by local aid workers and expats, is a dusty frontier town with a distinctly Soviet flavor.

After having moved 17 times, the current city was built by the Russians in the 1920’s to serve as the capital of the new Socialist Mongolia. A city for a country of nomads. Thus, today’s UB is a sprawling, confusing maze of Soviet-style cement apartment blocks, old Leninist monuments, massive squares and fortress-like buildings surrounded by “ger suburbs” — ramshackle dirt and fenced tracts where former nomads have settled in small plots with a “winter ger” and a summer wooden “cottage,” some with satellite dishes lying on the ground in front.

Outside of town, cattle and horses roam beside motorcycles and cars, and the ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries dot the hills. Once the largest Tibetan Buddhist center outside Tibet, Mongolia’s monasteries were almost all destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930’s, and most monks and lamas imprisoned or killed. Only a few monasteries remained unscathed, but others were left in ruins, and are being rebuilt by the reinvigorated population.

We visited Gandan Monastery, the largest and most active in Mongolia, and the only one in UB that was left standing by the Russians. 150 monks are now in residence here, studying and praying. Chants are held each morning and Josh and I were fortunate enough to catch the morning prayers, led by our guide, Badmaa’s, uncle, the senior lama of the monastery!

Next door, the Chenresig Temple houses a reconstructed 25-meter tall standing Chenresig, the Buddha of Compassion. In the 1930s, the original statue was chopped up and carted off to Moscow to be melted down for bullets. The new one, cast of bronze, gold and precious stones, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself, is surrounded by almost 10,000 donated mini statues of the Buddha of Longevity and is a powerful sign of the revival of Buddhism in modern, post-Soviet Mongolia.

Later, we stopped at the Natural History Museum to see some of the dino bones and eggs that were found in the Gobi (and haven’t been carted off to foreign museums), and then spent several hours exploring the superb National History Museum. One of the top 100 museums of the world, the National History Museum traces Mongol history from it’s prehistoric roots through Chinggis Khan, the Manchu Occupation, the Revolution and Communist Era, and finally, to the very recent period of independence and democracy.

At the border of China and Mongolia, some of the classic cars in the race await their turn to cross.
At the border of China and Mongolia, some of the classic cars in the race await their turn to cross.

Exhibits are clearly presented and the relics are all carefully selected, including Bronze Age pieces, domestic and animal husbandry tools, and rescued relics from monasteries, and lots of Golden Horde weapons. For all its long history, Mongolia is a very young country. When the Russian Soviet government collapsed in 1990, it left Mongolia high and dry. In 10 years, the country has been forced to create an independent democratic government, form a constitution, develop an economy, and deal with new social problems like unemployment and homelessness, all without much help from outside.

One of the most significant social problems facing Mongolia is the large number of street children in UB. Abandoned, orphaned or runaways, these kids roam the streets of the city, living in the sewers in winter, surviving any way they can. International and local NGOs have set up orphanages, schools and other facilities to house, feed and educate the children, but the need is great. Before we left the States, we had discovered the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation, a UK-based NGO that runs several programs and projects in Mongolia to provide for the needs of the street children.

When we arrived in Mongolia, we arranged to visit the foundation’s Children’s Ger Village, a residential community for orphaned and abandoned children in UB, to bring supplies and donations we had collected. Located in one of the outlying ger suburbs, the village houses, feeds, educates and cares for 31 children between the ages of 2 ½ – 15. The kids live in “Family Gers” with a “Ger Mother,” and the youngest attend an on-site kindergarten, while older kids attend the local school. The facility also has two greenhouses for vegetables and flowers, a bathhouse made from a converted shipping container, a community ger, a playground, and a game room with ping pong and pool tables for the older kids.

Josh and I were able to visit with the children and observe older kids working on a felt-making project led by an Irish volunteer. It was inspiring to see these kids happy, healthy, and living a decent childhood under the circumstances. Even though our donations were limited to what we could carry in our packs, we felt good that we could support the kids in any small way. Still, our donations alone couldn’t solve this problem or any of the other challenges Mongolia faces.

From Global warming and child welfare to economic development and conservation, Mongolia clearly has struggles ahead. But in the 12 days, we were privileged to spend wandering from north to south, we were able to see both the fragile beauty and the strong spirit of this wild country and her people. With the determination and pride of the descendants of Chinggis Khan, Mongolia forges ahead, preserving an ancient and rare way of life and merging it with a hopeful future. With luck and with hard work, the wild, wild east can survive. And you don’t have to be bad to go there.

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