We were happy to leave the busy city of Ulaanbaatar and the density of its people, buildings and cars, to head for the green pastures and vast open spaces of rural Mongolia.
The sprawling growth of the Ger District surrounding the city center means that it takes at least an hour’s drive, much of it in bumper to bumper traffic, to fully leave this congested city behind.
Our first destination was the ruins of the ancient capital city of Harhorim (also spelled Kharakhorim), located approximately 400 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar
While traveling around Mongolia, we found that absolute distances are not at all a reliable guide to how long it actually takes to get from one place to another.
The time it takes to cover a given amount of kilometers is instead completely dependent on the condition of the roads you will be traveling on.
There are not many paved roads around Mongolia.
There are a few, very few, well-maintained roads leading to and from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, but as you drive farther away, these roads quickly dissolve into dirt tracks full of impossibly huge potholes.
Most of these dirt tracks are simply made by vehicles driving over the same area, and gradually wearing away the grass – there are no road signs, nothing to guide the traveler except the knowledge and experience of his driver.
As we found out soon enough, 400 kilometers could be covered in a single day if you are traveling on a paved road, while just 50 kilometers on a wet and muddy dirt track, zigzagging our way around boulders, through thick forest and crossing deep creeks and rivers with no bridges, can easily take almost the same amount of time..
But I did not really care about how long it took to get from place to place, as I felt no rush to arrive at the next destination… I wanted to experience the place… To allow the Nature and the people to speak to me… To tell me about a way of life that is so different, yet so wholesome…. To let the place change and enrich me….
The landscape was striking and green.
It had rained a lot in the last few days, and streams and rivulets curved through the pasture land.
In many places, our “road” was washed out, or almost impassible with mud.
Hundreds of horses with no supervision grazed the land, running free along the steppes.
Most nomad families live in white Gers (yurts), which they move based on the season and the condition of the pasture for their animals to graze.
It is easy to distinguish a nomadic family Ger camp from a tourist Ger camp.
A nomad family will usually have one or two Gers (the second ger is almost always used as a kitchen), a herd of animals grazing nearby, a truck, a motorcycle, a small solar panel to power their one lightbulb and a small TV, and to charge their cell phone.
A tourist Ger camp will have at least a dozen Gers used as guest accommodations, a bigger ger or a wooden structure that serves as the restaurant and another one housing the showers and the toilets.
Nomads never fence their ger camps, since they do not own the land – they are only there for a season, although many families return to the same location several years in a row.
When they return, they always set up their camps with a respectably wide distance between one another, to make it easier to keep their herds separate while they graze.
The nomadic lifestyle does not allow for much socializing.
If you see no nomadic families settled in the landscape at all, it probably means that there is no convenient source of water nearby.
Fresh water from a well or from a river, is a must for the animals, as well as the people.
The men are in charge of the animals, while the women make the many types of dairy products, take care of the ger, cook, clean and sew the clothing.
The men do not always guard the herds.
In many places we saw the animals roam unsupervised, only occasionally do the men stick close to their herds, either on their horses or sitting by their motorcycles.
When the men do actively stay with their herds, it is usually to protect the animals from an attack by wolves.
Wild wolves are the biggest threat to the herds, and in many Gers you could see the hanging furs and skins of grey wolves that once threatened the animals.
One of the milk products that is much beloved by Mongolians of all ages is Airag, fermented mare’s milk.
The season for milking the mares starts in spring and runs through the summer into autumn.
To milk the mares, the nomads hobble them and bring the newly born foals to suckle at the mares tits.
Once the mares’ milk is flowing, they remove the foals and milk the mares.
They will milk their mares every two hours and when they are done milking for the day, they will allow the foals to suckle and bond with their mothers.
The mares milk will be processed into a thin Yogurt drink which will ferment naturally and become sour with each passing day.
Airag is not always an alcoholic drink, it is much more like a smooth drinking yogurt, more like a “Kefir” drink that is made from goats or sheep, but airag comes only from mares milk.
Children and adults drink it, and many nomad families sell it in reused Cola or water bottles to passing travelers, in order to supplement their income.
As we drove alone the green pastures, it was not uncommon for nomad kids to run to the car holding plastic bottles filled with Airag yelling: “Please sir, please buy my Airag! It’s delicious and only costs 1800 Tugriks!” ($1)
Each year, on the very last day of the Mares’ milking season, it is common for nomad families to socialize and to gather together for the first time in that busy season.
They will cook a whole sheep, bake some bread cookies, chat about the season, share stories and play the “Finger Game” deep into the night.
The Finger Game is much like a game of “Paper Scissors and Rock,” but it’s played a bit differently.
To play the finger game, people will divide into two groups.
The first person of each group will pull any of his/her five fingers.
A thumb is stronger than the first finger
The first finger is stronger than the middle finger
The middle finger is stronger than the ring finger
The ring finger is stronger than the pinky
But the pinky is stronger than the thumb.
The person that wins the finger draw plays against the next person in the line of the competing group.
The losing person has to drink 200 grams (a small glass) of a fermented mare’s milk that has been fermented long enough to be a bit alcoholic.
When a person is either very full from all the airag he has had, or too drunk to keep playing and wishes to go home, he must sing a song before he can retire home to his ger.
Most Mongolian songs are about the beauty of the landscape, their prized horses or about love, and surprisingly everyone can carry a beautiful sweet tune.
Aside from those very rare seasonal gatherings and the annual Nadaam festival, the women and girls in nomadic families rarely socialize with other families.
The men who are taking care of the animals tend to meet other men by the watering holes, like a wells or by the rivers, and share bits of information.
Nowadays nomads send their children to schools which are always boarding schools.
If the schools are fairly close by, the kids will come home on weekends, but if the kids study in the big cities, they will only come home in springtime during the school holidays, to help the family with the animals until school starts again.
Traditionally if a boy wants to marry a girl, he must bring many gifts, and ask her parents for her hand.
The tradition is that he must ask three times.
The first time the parents must say NO.
The second time they kind of roll their heads and play with their hands and say, Maybe…
And the third time they say Yes.
When the kids marry, the parents of the boy have to set up a new ger for the newlyweds, near their own ger.
The parents of the girl buy them the animals they will need to start their own herd.
It is common to buy about five horses, five sheep and five goats, and if they live in the South in the Gobi, also five camels.
As the parents age, it is the responsibility of their daughters to care for them and to bring them to live in one of their gers.
If there is more than one daughter, it is common to separate the parents so one daughter takes the mother, while another takes the father.
If the parents wish to live together and not be separated, one of the daughters will erect the parents ger near her ger and help them out.
All of these traditions are changing, of course, since many people nowadays rear fewer children.
In fact, Mongolia is so underpopulated that the government offers incentives and financial support for parents of young children. The more children a couple has, the larger their government subsidy will be.
At 1,564,116 square Kilometers (603,909 sq miles), Mongolia is the 19th largest and the most sparsely populated independent country in the world, with a population of around 2.9 million people.
We drove for hours through green pastoral landscapes, vast and beautiful, when we crested a hill and saw the landscape ahead of us had changed – we had reached the Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes.
Stretching for 80 km northwest from the Gobi, the Mongol Els Sand Dunes are a wonderful and striking sight, powdery sand dunes set against the majestic granite Khangai mountains, in the middle of the grassy green pastureland.
Many tourists ger camps are set up here, offering day trekking, horse or camel multi-day rides, or just photo opportunities for people driving through.
We had a late lunch in one of those ger camps of rice and vegetables with a mushroom soup that was edible but tasted as if it were made from powder.
Our driver, who seemed to wholeheartedly believe that his Toyota Land Cruiser is an indestructible combination of a tank with an ocean-going boat and a bulldozer, drove over the dunes to a remote locale where we could enjoy a secluded part of the sand dunes away from the crowds.
I was embraced and lovingly licked by a traditional breed of Mongolian dog, called the “Four Eyes,” because it has two blond spots right above its eyes, indicating that it might have supernatural vision.
Those dogs are often used as herding dogs.
They are loyal and hardworking, but they are never pampered.
They never enter the Ger nor are they allowed to sleep indoors.
They live outside protecting the animals from wolves, always on duty..
By the time we arrived in Harhorim, it was too late to visit the Erdenzuu monastery located there. Instead, we decided to dedicate the next day to visit Erdenzuu in leisure, and we made our way to visit the nearby smaller Shankh monastery.
Shankh monastery was founded in 1647 by Zanabazar, a revered artist, politician, religious teacher and many believe to have been a living Buddha, who became Mongolia’s first Bogd Khan (God King).
Known as the “Western Monastery,” it was one of the foremost seats of Buddhist teachings and practice in the country for almost three centuries.
At its height, Shankh consisted of several schools that specialized in Tantric rituals, particularly the Kalachakra Tantric philosophy and astrology.
It housed over 1,500 monks and served the religious, medical and educational needs of the region.
The Kālachakra tradition revolves around the concept of TIME (Kāla) and CYCLES (chakra).
It encompasses everything from the cycles of the planets to the cycles of human breathing and rhythms, and it teaches the practice of working with the most subtle energies within one’s body on the path to enlightenment.
I felt fortunate that we were the only visitors at this late afternoon time to the Shankh temple.
A young monk brought over a heavy set of keys and opened each of the halls for us, explaining briefly about the deities on the altars and in the scroll paintings.
As we toured the small temple, a few mothers living nearby had quickly laid out some things to sell outside the temple gate.
I have no need for dusty Buddhist souvenirs, but I decided that it would be a good idea to support them.
I selected a few things that my translator told me were found in the rubble of the ruins of the old buildings before some renovation work was done, and that the monks had allowed the local families to keep.
We checked into our ger camp and had a nice dinner of Tsuivan – handmade noodles with vegetables – and a fresh salad.
Jules and I are not really experienced campers.
In fifteen years of marriage, we have camped only once, while hiking in Bhutan.
We normally like the comforts of a clean bed and a hot shower, but we wanted to see parts of rural Mongolia where there are no roads, no services and only tourist Ger camps for accommodation.
Gers might not feel so much like camping, since the circular yurt, which has evolved in Mongolia from the basic Tipi shape, is much larger than a tent.
It has a stove in which to light a fire, and a bed which is elevated from the ground.
But a yurt is still not sealed from the elements.
Bugs, mosquitos, lizards, field mice, prairie dogs and flies can come in through many of the openings, and the toilets and showers are usually outdoors in a detached block.
You have to make your way in the cold and in the dark just to pee at night….
But all the minor anxieties about camping had been dwarfed by the prospect of all the amazing places we would see, and all the wonderful people that we would meet….
After dinner we drove over the open pasture into what seemed to be nothing but a roadless open landscape, to visit friends of Tuya and Nasa, so that we could see how a nomad family lives in Mongolia.
To be continued…..