Epic Mongolia: July 2016

Mongolia has been on my bucket list for a very, very long time. This is one of those ultimate destinations for a wanderer like me. It’s an entire COUNTRY of nomads. How could I resist such a siren call?

Traveling in Mongolia requires a massive amount of driving. Seriously. Hours of driving every. single. day. And you’re not always (or even often) driving on paved roads. Which is great fun for me, since I’m quite fond of dune-bashing and white-water rafting. That is until about the third straight day of it… or a serious injury (more on that later.) Either way, I’d guess most people would want some motion sickness drugs and a good dose of patience. Preferably an ability to nap on command and wake up only at perfect photo opportunities…

Sand dunes Mongolia

My first day into Mongolia I was dozing in the back of the car after my red-eye flight and felt the vehicle start to slow. My driver had spied a large group of horses and jockeys riding in a pack. I fully wake to discover it is one of the races of the Naadam festival. Jockeys (boys and girls ages 7-14) will be racing their horses and are trotting together to the starting line about 20 km away. So we park and I set up my camera for the shots, because why not? Have I mentioned how much I adore the flexibility of solo travel?

A half hour later, when the horses come throttling down the invisible track, I can hardly believe the ages of the jockeys. These tiny humans are really speeding. There’s a little good- (and not-so-good-) natured competition between them as they yell and flick crops at both their horses and each other. But most of them are intently clinging to the back of their galloping ponies. They’re dressed in brightly colored silks and blowing by an intensely green backdrop while leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The entire scene is a visual feast of color, nature, and youth.

There is no obvious race course (except roughly following the power lines and paved road.) In case a jockey falls a few ambulances are pacing the race as well. They drive directly on the grass and dirt, which I quickly learn is simply what one does when the few paved roads don’t go where you want to.

Horseracing Naadam Mongolia

Girl on horseback Mongolia

Welcome to Mongolia.

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IMG_4780Only an hour or so later, I find myself atop a camel and trekking across sand dunes. They stretch for 80km but are far divorced from their brethren in the Gobi Desert, hundreds of miles to the South. And in the next heartbeat I’m playing Legos with a 4 year old Mongolian boy in their family ger. His mother introduces me to traditional Mongolian food and his father teaches me the traditional custom of sharing snuff. Which is strong. As I thought it would be rude to sneeze, there were also a few awkward moments while my eyes teared and I turned a strange splotchy red.

IMG_7664The next day we hike across a mountain overlooking one of the most fertile valleys in Central Mongolia, and swat at a ridiculous amount of flies. By now my guide, Ching, and driver, Saka, have settled into the idea that I will stop us a hundred times an hour to take photographs. They’ve even agreed to re-arrange the day’s schedule so that I can enter the Erdene Zuu Monastery at sunset to photograph it. Which we are apparently going to do while tipsy. So first we have a picnic.

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The river is typically bright blue, but I arrived after about a week of rains

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Inside what is left of Erdene Zuu (the monastery inside of the ancient capital of Kharakhorum.) This was destroyed by communists, along with many other monasteries in Mongolia. The capital was abandoned hundreds of years before in favor of Beijing (which the Mongols conquered years ago in the on-going conflict with China and Manchuria.)

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This is how we Saturday afternoon

Thanks to Mongolian beer, I’m quite certain that every photograph I take inside the monastery is great. I mean, it’s just all SO beautiful!

I had picked up the tab for some Mongolian vodka earlier, so my guide and driver feel obliged to invite me that evening after dinner to taste it. I can honestly say that after hours of Mongolian toasts first under an incredibly vivid sunset and then starlight, two bottles of vodka drunk straight up and lengthy conversations in three languages (English, Mongol, and for some reason Korean), this trip has decidedly moved into Epic territory. How many times in my life will I be learning traditional toasts, traditional ways to pour and drink vodka, and end up sharing dreams and life stories with recently-strangers in 3 languages under a foreign sky?

The next day starts out slowly.

Very slowly.

Much to the amusement of Ching and Saka. Saka takes pity on me and drives particularly slowly over bumps in the road. Although he might also be doing this because he’s a little OCD about the maintenance and cleanliness of his SUV. I can hardly blame him if he is trying to avoid sullying the backseat with last night’s vodka.

Mongolia Ger Interior

Interior of the ger. The upper left photo is actually a tourist ger, the other two are of the family host’s ger

That night we join a family in the middle of the Hustai National Park for dinner. Because I was initially disappointed at the Western food offerings on my tour my guide quickly switched out for local Mongolian food. I have to confess at this point though that I’m quickly tiring of the salty milk, mutton fat soup, and grilled goat. There’s not a lot of variety and not many options out on the plains.

But the next morning I’m headed towards one of my biggest Bucket List items: riding a horse across the Mongolian steppes. So I’m content to continue to immerse myself in the local experience as it presents itself. And then stay up reading my kindle for hours that night while attempting to sleep on a board. Literally. But THE horseback ride and experience to end all experiences is just a few hours away so it doesn’t really matter.

Unfortunately, this does not go at all as planned. More on that in another post.

Mongolia does not disappoint. Clear, crisp skies. Wide open spaces. Incredible hospitality, and a people with wandering in their blood. It’s exotic, and wild, and achingly familiar all at once.

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