Magic in Mongolia
Dateline: August/September 2008
It’s a feeling I love; one of unfettered freedom, vast vistas and unlimited horizons. The two wheel marks that were the track we were following stretched away, seemingly, to eternity. On most maps you can get, the track is actually more grandiosely known as the ‘A0201’, the major highway south from the capital. But this is Mongolia and what is actually on the ground bears very little resemblance to what is drawn on a map. It was a lesson we had learnt very quickly once we had crossed the border from Russia and now as we headed deeper into the Gobi Desert we reveled in the freedom of the wide open spaces and imagined, for just a moment, that we were as free as the nomads we saw herding their cattle and goats around us. Needless to say we had quickly fallen in love with this country and its stoic, hospitable people.
About the size of Queensland with a population of about 2.4 million it is one of the least populated countries on earth. But contrary to most people’s perception, it is much greener than you may think; in the north there are vast areas of forest dotted with lakes and cut by fast flowing mountain fed streams, in the west are great, permanently snow-capped mountains while the heartland is rolling, grassy steppes. In the south and south-east the grassy plains give way to semi arid desert country but as we were to discover there was variety and magic amongst these as well.
But it is a harsh country and we were seeing it at its best – in late Summer, early Autumn. In Winter much of the country suffers with temperatures as low as -40°C, while Spring is dry, dusty and windy; summer on the other hand can bring rain storms while temperatures can climb to over 40° in the desert country.
The camping though is fabulous no matter where you are. With no land ownership outside the cities and a heritage that endowers the nomad with special privileges you can wander at will and camp wherever you want. Of course, you’ll probably find a family of herders camped at the very best spots and their grazing animals are near everywhere but they proved to be of little concern and in fact, added to the whole experience that is Mongolia.
There were only a few times that we camped that we weren’t approached by a horseman, a family in a Land Cruiser, or a couple of young kids out collecting water or cattle dung to be dried for fuel. Invariably they were friendly and just as curious of us as we were of them. Their stock, used to be corralled during winter were also curious and if any came by they would mill around the camp, sticking heads into tents, billies, pans and vehicle doorways.
Mongolia though must be the last country on earth that relies so much on the horse for transport. Every village we visited exuded a ‘Wild West’ atmosphere with wide dusty streets, timber buildings and horses tied up to hitching poles while cloak–draped cowboys, ostensibly straight out of a Clint Eastwood ‘spaghetti western’ movie, walked the sandy streets or lolled against a post smoking.
We also came across herding families on the move with their stock and all their possessions loaded onto camels and horses. It was a great sight with a dozen or so heavily loaded camels.
From my diary:
... We came across a big mob of people and animals all on the move. It was fantastic as they were carrying their gers on their double humped Bactrian camels - not the single humped Dromedary we are used to in Australia – and they were strutting along behind their human leader. There were kids and girls pushing sheep and goats, sprightly horses dancing under their riders guidance, granny in her traditional attire riding a horse, a couple on foot who were leading a large group of heavily laden camels; we stopped to photograph them. They were pretty friendly, wanted vodka, took a few smokes we offered but not the woolen caps we had. I guess they thought our measly stuff wasn't as good as they made! As we came down the valley there were hundreds – no, thousands of stock – hundreds of horses, 50-100 cows or yaks or crosses (known as khainag in Mongolia); a few dozen camels, dozens of dogs, and the rest of sheep and goats.
Ubiquitous in Mongolia too, are the herders’ gers. These tents dot the grazing lands like white mushrooms and spring up just as quickly, taking about four hours to erect. Low and round they allow the wind that seems always to blow from one direction or another to flow over them, their felt walls not flapping or cracking like canvas but instead muting the outside sounds. They are also surprisingly warm and with a small dung-fed stove in their centre they provide the nomads with a secure, warm and homely abode. That’s made even more homely with the satellite dish and small solar panel that feeds sat TV- CNN amongst them no doubt - straight into the heart of the ger and to a small colour TV set sitting proudly inside. We found the contrast amusingly contradictory; like the cloaked cowboy that would pull out a mobile phone to ring home, a girlfriend, or to find out the latest cashmere wool prices.
The sprawling city of Ulaanbaatar
Our sojourn into the Gobi was also one of contrasts. We had headed south to the Gurvan Saikhan National Park, just one of a number of parks and reserves that cover much of the Gobi (13.7% or 21.53 Million ha of the country is inside reserves of one sort or another) – this one is the second biggest in the country being 2.7 Million ha in size and protects much of the spectacular surrounding range country and the area’s varied wildlife.
We had walked into the Yoly Am Gorge, which during winter is filled with ice but is, at the end of summer, just a trickle of water flowing through a steep sided narrow ravine where at one point the creek tumbles over a low waterfall. Later we drove through the nearby Dugany Am Gorge, the vehicle track like many in outback Australia, following a creek bed for the whole way. When water started flowing down the creek and green grass appeared on the narrow banks we couldn’t help but stop and camp – it was a magical spot!
Next day we were travelling across a vast plain with mountains ranges to our north and south. Closer and in the lee of the mountains to the south was the long tongue of sand known as the Hongory Nels, the biggest dunes in the Gobi. These dunes stretch for over 100km, are 12km wide at their widest point and are up to 300 metres high. We were hoping to see them from a camel’s back but the Gobi had one more big surprise in store for us. That evening it started to rain and it didn’t let up for 36 hours; the dunes and mountains were shrouded in mist and the wind blew like it was the harbinger of winter. In fact it was; next day when he rain stopped and the weather cleared, from a point some distance north we looked back over rolling desert plains, the dunes hidden, but the mountains standing proud and now dusted with a fresh coating of snow. It was a magical view.
A few days later, after a bogging or two (rain does that in the Gobi as well as in the Aussie deserts) we were back in Ulaanbaatar, the hectic capital of this great country. We were preparing to head for Russia on the final incredible leg of our trip across Europe and Asia, but it will be hard pressed to beat Mongolia and all the pleasant experiences we had there!
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon