Grazing in Central Mongolia

August 21 - September 4, 2009

An afternoon thunderstorm passes over, pelting us with rain, hail, wind and rumbling thunder at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur (Great White Lake) National Park.




We fly out of muggy, smoggy, fascinating Beijing, up into the clouds then northwest to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol of Mongolia. After an hour or so, the skies clear and the vast Gobi Desert, a light golden brown undulating landscape, spreads below us as far as we can see. We fly over the desert for another hour, then finally see our first gers, the round felt homes of the Mongolian nomads, easy to take down and move as they follow their herds of cows, yaks, goats and sheep. Thirty million animals graze the Mongolian steppe, ten times the number of people living here. The land below is a sea of green, with roads slicing the landscape, each with multiple parallel tracks where drivers have forged what they are convinced is a better path.

A couple of hours after takeoff we land in Ulaanbaatar (a.k.a. UB), a teeming metropolis where ultra-modern shiny glass highrises stand next to Soviet-era apartment blocks (a few converted to dingy hostels, like the one we stayed in), four enormous coal fired power plants spew clouds of black smoke that hang over the city and, just on the outskirts of town, hundreds of gers house the thousands of Mongolians who have moved out of the countryside and into the city. Over a million people now live in UB, more arrive every day, abandoning their traditional lifestyle for modern comforts. As we stroll down the street (mindful of pickpockets....), we stare at beautiful mini-skirted girls, tiptoeing in their plastic high heels down the broken, dirty sidewalks, bands of teenagers hanging out at the five story State Department Store (everything is available here), and scruffy men driving Korean, Russian, and Japanese cars, a curious mix of right and left-hand drive. UB is a chaotic frontier city, with a slightly dangerous, wild west feel.

Every road in Mongolia seems to be under construction and is flanked by numerous alternate routes.











Mongolian throat singing (Khöömii) is similar to the more famous version from nearby Tuva and is mesmerizing with many overtones produced simultaneously in the throat and nasal cavity. Here's an excerpt from the Blue Moon Performance in UB.

Sound Recording:

Khöömii intro (2:56)



We take up residence at the Khongor Guesthouse, where our room is so small that the double bed touches the walls on both sides, and we dance around each other to open the door. The place is grimy, but a great spot to organize a tour of the countryside. We meet travelers from around the world: Australian, Polish, Russian, Japanese, Swiss, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese. And we meet Dom, a friendly Scottish fellow, now living in Barcelona. The three of us hit it off immediately, and decide to travel together on a seven night, eight day excursion to central Mongolia. We will travel over 1500 kms in a Russian minivan, a tiny portion of the trip on the brand new, paved "Millennium Highway" (nicknamed the "Nowhere to Nowhere" road). We work out an itinerary with the Boss at the Khongor, who emphatically assures us: "Showers? No problem. Changes? Very flexible!" (Only later do we understand that two showers in eight days is considered excessive in Mongolia...) Next morning we meet Bulgaa, our 24-year old driver and Saikhnaa, our 29-year old guide and cook. We each take our positions in the van, all the gear, food, and beer has been stowed, Bulgaa's one soon-to-be-memorized music tape is loaded up and ready to play, and Saikhnaa starts chatting on her mobile, the first of many calls made throughout the hinterlands of Mongolia.

After a few hours we stop for lunch at a tiny cafe in the middle of nowhere. Saikhnaa helps us order a vegetarian lunch -- a scrambled egg with greasy fried rice, our staple for the next week -- and, with a sly grin, Dom pulls out what becomes our most treasured possession: A bottle of Vietnamese chili sauce, a godsend for our trip. Bulgaa doesn't say much, but he stares at our pathetic lunch, comparing it to his own: A steaming bowl of stewed mutton, with chunks of mutton fat, all floating in stinking mutton broth. The look on his face says it all: Who are these crazy tourists? Dom cracks one of his wry jokes, which takes Saikhnaa a moment or two to translate in her head, but by the end of lunch, we are all laughing together and realize we have become family, each intrigued by the other, bonded together for an incredible journey.


Dom, Bulgaa, and Saikhnaa.


Our 8-day trip cost just over a million tōgrōg. We spend several days retrieving huge piles of bills from the ATM to pay for it.





It took us two weeks to learn three words in Mongolian: hello, thank you, and beer.



On the first morning we are invited into our host family's new ger. It was recently constructed for their son and his bride after their wedding, and is beautifully painted inside and out. The men sit together on the north side of the ger and the women serve up treats and are sequestered near the door (which always opens to the south). We are instructed by Saikhnaa to sample some tidbits from the mound of sweetened yak curds and jelly beans left over from the wedding ceremony, sip freshly made airag (fermented mare's milk), and start off our day with bowls of Mongolian and Russian wodka. Yikes!

The custom is to sing a song after drinking wodka, and thankfully Dom takes up the challenge with the Scottish national anthem! This is followed by a snort of strong snuff doled out from an small ancient-looking snuff bottle. Slightly tipsy, we walk clockwise around the ger, stumble out of the ger (careful not to step on the threshold) and pile into the van for the day's 10 hour journey, tossing back and forth over bumpy dirt roads.


Family portrait in traditional dress.



The ger-meister starts a fire in the wood stove on a cold morning.


It takes two days of long drives to reach our main destination, Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), where we will spend three days. After a two and a half hour horse ride along the northern side of the lake, we arrive in the late afternoon at a group of four gers set next to a meandering stream in a wide green valley. A giant herd of goats and sheep are baa-aa'ing and milling about between us and the lake, and a separate herd of grunting yaks are settled in for the night on the other side. A family of traditional herders live here.

A hand-hewn wooden yak cart is covered with trays of drying yak cheese. The horseman motions for us to taste some of the little round ones. We exchange concerned glances, but how could we refuse? Tentatively we munch tiny pieces of the sweetened yak curds. Family members on horseback are busy rounding up the animals in the background. Suddenly we have the feeling that we've just beamed down to the surface of some distant planet. Star Trek's creators used Mongolian as the basis for the Klingon language, and we can't shake the feeling that we are surrounded by people actually speaking Klingon. That, combined with the observation that folks here are living a medieval lifestyle, yields a sudden wrenching sensation of cultural dislocation.

We are led into the nearest ger where the air is filled with the pungent odor of yak dairy products. Slabs of cheese are strung up, drying around the wood stove. A 40 gallon plastic barrel with a churning stick poking out the top is full to the brim with fermenting airag. The cupboard contains several shelves of various open bowls of yogurt, butter, and other unidentifiable milk products curing in the warm interior. Our backpacks are brought in and I ask unbelievingly, "We sleep here?" "Yes" is the answer and again we exchange glances. "Excellent" we say, and immediately dub our new home the Cheese Haus, which produces yet another round of nervous laughter.

We were to stay in the cheese haus for two days while we live with this amazing family. The first night we hesitantly sipped homemade wodka, but our lack of enthusiasm for the local brew made this the only occasion we were offered alcohol during our visit. Slices of bread smeared with thick yak butter and jam were really tasty, and full helpings of yogurt from the five gallon plastic yogurt container were surprisingly good. In general, the sanitary conditions were totally out of line with what we are accustomed to, but we all adapt and have a wonderful cultural experience a world away from home.

In the morning we are all wondering whether the growling and snarling dog sounds we heard throughout the night were the norm. I woke with memories of a series of very weird dreams. Just then Saikhnaa enters the ger with the morning feast of coffee, tea, bread, cheese, and jam. After discovering that Dom and I made the faux pas of sleeping with our feet pointing north, we learn that the local wolf pack had been busy last night and killed a sheep or two in the early morning hours. Apparently the wolves make their rounds to all the local herds, picking off stray livestock.

We try to imagine what this lifestyle would be like in the winter when the high is -20°C, blowing snow covers the grassland, and nights are very long. After all, these single-room gers combine living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom (bathroom is outside). We ask Saikhnaa what do they do out here in the winter? The reply: "Watch TV". Another bolt of lightning. Right, even here the gers have solar panels. These charge large car batteries, and at night they carry the battery into the ger, wrap some wires around the terminals, and power small electric lights, TVs, and DVD players. This is another of the many unexpected contrasts here in the Mongolian outback. Another is that the cell coverage is almost total. We see mobiles (and almost every imaginable household item) tucked between the roof felt and the supporting wooden struts of the ger. On our horse ride, the horseman is chatting away on his mobile. Later we see a motorcycle carrying a man and woman veer up the hillside, they stop and hop off the bike. I ask "What's up?" "Going up to get mobile signal..."

Sound Recording:

Milking the yaks (1:50)



Nomads on the move.


Mongolian toilet, excellent balance required!


Essentials for nomadic lifestyle: satellite dish, battery, ger, yak cart, motorcycle.






Shortly after the new moon, we have very dark skies over our ger at Tsagaan Nuur.


In Khorkhorin, we stay at a scruffy ger camp on the outskirts of town. In the darkening sky, strings of chattering, churring demoiselle cranes fly over us as towering storm clouds brew. Only light sprinkles eventually hit us, but in the distance we can see a rainstorm blanketing the distant plain. As darkness falls, two men ride in on a motorcycle, instrument cases akimbo. The older man, looking a bit reminiscent of Yoda, approaches to announce that he is a traditional Mongolian folk musician and would be happy to perform for us after dinner (for a charge of 5000 tōgrōg each -- about US$3.50). Sounds good to us!


As we finish our dinner of steamed dumplings (with chili sauce, thank you Dom) by candlelight (the power is out again) our musician friend wanders into our ger along with a few European backpackers also staying at our ger camp. He serenades us with his gravelly, eerie voice while playing various stringed instruments. The two-stringed bowed instrument has a nice carved horse head at the top of the neck.

Sound Recordings:

Chinggis Khan Folk Song (5:02)

Mongolian Love Song (3:57)


Vultures circle over the steppes.


Erdene Zuu Khiid, Mongolia's oldest monastery, was built in 1586 on the ruins of Kharkhorin, the capitol city established by Chinggis Khan. It flourished for centuries, housing 1000 monks at its height, but the buildings were almost completely destroyed and many monks were killed during the Stalinist purges of 1937. It reopened as a museum in 1967, finally becoming an active monastery again in 1990, when communism collapsed in Mongolia.



Whoa Nellie! Our camels are led by a bored thirteen-year-old boy as we hang on for dear life.


Young boys race after camels, yaks, horses, and sheep, carrying long branches and yipping at the herds. Everyone knows how to ride and they are mystified at our awkwardness in the saddle. We don't even know how to make the schhh, schhh sound to get a horse moving, and we never did figure out how to get a camel to go...

Horses are revered in Mongolia. When famous racehorses die, their skulls are placed at mountaintop shrines, like this one in Khorkhorin.




On our last day in the countryside, we watch in awe as a group of nine Takhi (Przewalski) horses, including three playful foals, graze in the lush bunch grasses at Khustai National Park. We sit quietly on granite boulders in the early morning light as they drink water from potholes in the rocks. The prehistoric horses painted in caves in southern France, have magically come to life before our eyes. These precursors to the modern horse were originally from Mongolia, went extinct in the last century, and only a few remained in zoos around the world. Through an international effort, they have been slowly reintroduced to Mongolia just in the last twenty years. Now a healthy herd of 200 roams freely here, and more in other parts of Mongolia.



After two weeks in Mongolia, we're heading overland back to Beijing.


Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Erlian, China, 8pm - 11am with our friendly Mongolian cabin-mates.




This is the "luxury sleeper" bus?! Erlian to Beijing, 4pm - 4am