A country of extremes, surprises – and even extreme surprises. One of the least populated countries in the world with more horses than people. The temperatures vary from 45ºC in the summer to -40ºC in the winter; its capital is the coldest on Earth, with an average temperature of -3ºC. And it all lies just a 3-hour flight away from Incheon International Airport.
Best journeys are often those where you do not have time to prepare. That way everything comes as a surprise. My friend and I decided, on a whim, to join a Kyoryo Tour Group, and with the winter months in mind, packed multiple layers of clothes, countless gloves, hats, socks and cold-proof underwear to head north.
None of our friends had ever visited this country, and the internet offered little information – Chinggis Khaan, nomads, being a former Soviet ally, mining, cold, horses, cold, empty, cold…. Hence, the first glimpse from the airplane window was unexpected. Mongolia presented itself as a shining, glittering sea of snow-covered hills, diamond-like, without any signs of civilization. As the plane descended, all of a sudden the wilderness was pushed aside by countless yurts, small houses, Soviet architecture, roads and power supply lines – all visible as we approached Ulaanbataar.
The capital – inhabited by roughly half of the total Mongolian population – is worth a separate trip. It is like a rough stone hiding a gem inside it. But the purpose of our journey was not the city – we came to meet the nomads and their horses and after a short stay, we were off again.
So on a very early and very cold morning, we were introduced to two grave-looking drivers and their exotic UAZ – a cherished and highly appreciated product of the Russian automotive industry. Our belongings stowed away, we settled on the rather spartan seats and the expedition began.
The ride through the Mongolian fields seemed to never end. Leaving Ulaanbataar behind, we followed the well maintained intercity highway for maybe a hundred kilometers, until all of a sudden, and without any previous warning, we went off-road. The drive took hours, sometimes the land was as smooth as a highway, sometimes bumpy as hell. We had to admire the driver’s navigation skills, as every valley seemed to be the same as the previous, white fields and hills, with some grass every now and then, and slow herds of horses or sheep, wandering around and foraging for dry grass under the blankets of snow.
Meanwhile we got to experience the majestic sunrise over snow-covered hills that within minutes transformed the gray landscape into a glittering sea of light. But even this spectacular natural view wearied the eyes after a while and we were relieved to reach our host family.
We found ourselves in a ger – a traditional Mongolian home that has changed little over the centuries. Only the walls, made of carpets and blankets and an oven in the middle was protecting the family from the deathly cold, with temperatures dropping down to -40°C at night. The family relied on themselves, with no city authority or house management taking the responsibility for the habitat. If you don’t collect enough argul (animal droppings), you will not be able to keep the fire alive. And you will die – it’s that simple. The extreme surroundings are also the explanation for the legendary hospitality of Mongolian nomads.
Every visitor to a ger is offered a meal, a drink and a bed if they need one. The rules are very strict and follow the basic cultural principals of Mongolians. While living in these very extreme surroundings, people have to be able to rely on each other; help is essential and can save lives.
Offered this hospitality, we joined the family for a meal and a drink. First fermented milk, then the master of the house took out a big bottle of vodka, and we were offered a glass and expected to down it in one gulp. Our hosts were seemingly amused with our obvious inexperience in consuming strong alcohol in large quantities. It got even funnier; after struggling to finish our drinks, we found our glasses refilled immediately. This was welcome entertainment for the hosts, able to have a good laugh at the visitors.
The vodka and the oven warmed us, and we could have stayed like this indefinitely, but our hosts had prepared our next adventure, and were soon proudly presenting their herd to us. Scattered all over the neighboring valley, approximately a thousand horses were slowly wandering around, on an endless search for grass. A single herd might be grazing over several square kilometers, with small groups separating themselves from the main group. This was the main experience – to herd the animals. No sooner said than done, we had mounted our horses and, first (and foremost, carefully) went step by step, then bravely into a trotting pace and finally into a liberating gallop as we started circling around the horses, tightening our rides and making the horses come closer and closer. The herd was like split quicksilver – always on the move, never the same, coming together to protect themselves from predators.
During the next two days we visited another family and got the chance to ride the horses again. We learned to admire these wonderful animals: truly tough but very calm, smart and well-balanced. If made to work, these animals show great dedication to their duties; if left to rest, they reveal a fantastic ability to chill anywhere. We went away from the grasslands and made a journey through the hills to a national park. We met big, fluffy and very angry dogs and only got to understand their job later, as we found a carcass of a foal that had recently been torn asunder by wolves.
We got used to drinking vodka out of water glasses. We learned to wake up every couple of hours to load more wood into our ovens. Plus, we experienced the mighty cold of a deep and dark night if we failed to do so. We learned how to play a game with lambs’ bones, and eat a meal that consisted completely of meat. We learned that in Mongolia, chicken is something for vegetarians and after vodka you have to eat candy. We listened to the silence of the grasslands and admired the glittering night sky, festooned with stars, exceptionally bright. We heard the trees speaking in the silent night, as the temperatures dropped down to 30º below, with the wolves howling and the dogs barking protectively.
We experienced a gimmick-free civilization, and we experienced the honesty, the humor and the strength of the people who live in this wonderful country. And as we made to leave, some of us in the tour promised to return. I, for my part, am planning another journey to Mongolia soon. This time I will change the cold for mosquitoes, as the summer is as adventurous as the winter.