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Mongolia: Life on the Steppe

An invigorating and exhilarating place to visit, one of the last unspoiled travel destinations in Asia

When I read about Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag's plan to build a motorway across the country, and his dream of having 90 percent of the population settled in cities by 2030, I cringed

I have often been asked what one can see in visiting the cold, inhospitable regions of the world, when there are far more easily accessible destinations. And my reply is always the same.


As a young student at Cambridge, I had always held a passion for exploration and adventure, much to the annoyance of my tutors. In the late 1960's, headstrong and full of grand plans for the winter hols, I slipped the bonds of Trinity College with three friends to climb Buachaille Etive Mor, one of Scotland's giant mountain ridges.


This impressive cornerstone between Glen Etive and the haunting Pass of Glencoe rises in a resplendent squat pyramid, the epitome of Highland grandeur which throws down its gauntlet to every passer-by.


The weather forecast warned of blizzards and, right on cue, we sank waist-deep in to drifting snow. Ice axes in hand and trudging interminably into the storm, our resolve kept pace with the hastening wind. We spent a miserable night trying to bivouac and never even made it to the base of the mountain. I would love to say that we learnt from our experience, but as the wind howled and the tent shuddered under the blast of driving snow, talk soon turned to further expeditions.


I remember us squatting round the hissing primus stove cradling steaming mugs of tea gratefully in our mittened hands, and how the conversation came to centre on places such as Antarctica, Tibet and Mongolia – not surprisingly, perhaps in these hostile surroundings.

The call of the wild has compelled me to continue my passion for exploration and adventure, but at  an age when the anticipation of a warm bed, a roaring log fire, a hearty meal and a rare malt at the end of my climbs should be sufficient to sustain me, my thirst for discovery remains undaunted.

Earlier this year it was my good fortune to visit Mongolia, a spectacular landlocked country of mysterious deserts, fertile tundra forests, endless steppes, majestic snow-capped mountains, crystal clear lakes and a rich nomadic cultural heritage dating to the time of Genghis Khan.

Before I came to Mongolia, I was enamoured with the notion that you can get on a horse at one end of the country and ride all the way to the other side – roughly the distance between London and Istanbul – without hitting a fence or a paved road. When I read about Prime Minister Norovyn Altankhuyag's plan to build a motorway across the country, and his dream of having 90 percent of the population settled in cities by 2030, I cringed. From his seat in Mongolia's capital, Ulan Bator, he saw a backward country that needed to step into the modern age. From my seat in the traffic-choked streets of London, I saw what is perhaps the last untouched place on earth – a breathtaking country where the Kazakhs still hunt with eagles.

But how do you judge salvation or ruination? Cultural change is a tricky phenomenon, bringing with it a plethora of trade-offs that aren't necessarily obvious at first glance. Consider the impact of the Soviet era. Until 1990 the Soviet Union had Mongolia in a tight lock for more than six decades. Under direction from Moscow, Mongolia's socialist government obliterated the country's Buddhist establishment, killing lamas by the thousands and destroying the temples and monasteries that were the strongest institutions that most villages had. The government pressured herders to relinquish their animals to collectives and imposed bureaucratic strictures on a people who had rarely lived by clock or ledger.

Then again, most of those people had never learned to read either, and with Soviet aid Mongolia built schools across the country and brought virtually 100 percent literacy. Pensions, free health care, and regular salaries made the lives of herders less harsh and unpredictable. Perhaps most significantly, the Soviets kept the Chinese out. China had long regarded Outer Mongolia as part of China, and it wasn't until 1921, when the Russians helped oust Chinese troops, that Mongolia shook free of the Chinese yoke.

One look at China's Inner Mongolia, where ethnic Mongolians have been forced to settle on smaller and smaller pastures as Chinese farmers have poured in to take the best land, and it's hard not to see the Soviets as somewhat of a salvation for the country.

The area of what is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Rouran, and the Turkic Khanagate among others. In 1206, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, and his grandson Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan conquered China to establish the Yuan Dynasty.

After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated to Mongolia and resumed their earlier pattern of factional conflict and occasional raids on the Chinese borderlands. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Mongolia came under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan influence of Mongolia dates back to the Tibetan Empire expansion of Central and South Asia.

At the end of the 17th century, all of Mongolia had been incorporated into the area ruled by the fearsome Manchu's Qing Dynasty. During the collapse of the Qing Dynasty the Mongols established the Temporary Government of Khalkha on 30 November 1911. On 29 December 1911, Mongolia declared independence from the Qing Dynasty and this National Liberation Revolution ended the Manchu's rule that lasted 220 years (153 years after the collapse of the Zunghar Khanate).

The country came under Soviet influence, resulting in the proclamation of the Mongolian People's Republic as a Soviet satellite state in 1924. After the breakdown of the communist regimes in Europe in late 1989, Mongolia saw its own democratic revolution in early 1990; it led to a multi-party system, a new constitution in 1992, and transition to a market economy.

At 1,564,116 square kilometres (603,909 square miles), Mongolia is bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, east and west. It is the 19th largest and the most sparsely populated independent country in the world, with a population of around 2.9 million people. It is also the world's second-largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan. The country contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by steppe, with mountains to the north and west and the vast Gobi Desert to the south.


Approximately 30 percent of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic. To this day the predominant religion in Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhism, while Islam is the dominant religion among the ethnic Kazakhs. The majority of the state's citizens are of Mongol ethnicity, although Kazakhs, Tuvans, and other minority groups also live in the country, especially in the west.


I was in Mongolia on a relatively short expedition of five weeks, but my journey throughout this spectacular country would be long and often arduous. My trusted guide, Ulan Bator local Shinee Turbat; and my charismatic driver, nomad Sansar Haisvai knew their country intimately.


Although we visited the vibrant capital Ulan Bator and the historic Amarbayasgalant Monastery in the Iven Valley, one of Mongolia's largest Buddhist monastic centres, most of the extended stops were natural sights, including vast savannahs, towering snow-capped mountains and the barren Khongo Khan (also known as the "Little Gobi Desert"). Nevertheless, before we left the boundary of the capital we made a specific point of visiting the imposing Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue on the banks of the Tuul River.


Timur Yadamsuren, a Mongolian man whom I met in Ulan Bator grew up as a nomad but now works as a tour company manager in the capital, said something to me that I shall never forget: "France has the Eiffel Tower, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge, Rome has the Colosseum – but we have our whole country."


We were in for a very bumpy ride, traversing the country in Haisvai's trusty old UAZ Russian van for hours at a time. Mongolian roads can be tough to navigate and getting around takes persistence: It can take up to eight hours to travel as little as 150 kilometres (93 miles), an experience seemingly reminiscent of the M25 at rush hour. At night we slept in traditional 'gers' or yurts in Russian, which are movable circular dwellings that are designed to be easily set up and dismantled, usually made from a lattice of light wood (such as willow or birch) and covered with felt.


Although Mongolians are traditionally nomadic people, recent urbanization means only about half of the three million strong population still live this life, travelling with the seasons at their own will. Because of this movement, homestays with true Mongolian nomads are virtually impossible to organize in advance. Instead, we just turned up, hoping a family would take us all in, which I discovered was standard practice in nomadic Mongolia life. Nomadic Mongolians have always opened their doors to anyone who needs assistance, and those still living the nomadic life continue to do so.


We started looking for our first homestay about 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Lake Khövsgöl, located in the northwest of Mongolia near the Russian border, reputed to be one of the clearest lakes in the world. Turbat and Haisvai knew there were no camps nearby and advised me to look for two gers side by side, explaining that this probably meant they belonged to one family and consequently would be more likely to accommodate us all.


The first place we tried could not take us in because the man and lady of the house were away, leaving the elderly grandmother to look after the ger and small children. However, the second home, not far from the city of Mörön, was a success. Although the husband was not home, his charming wife, Puje, had some experience of travellers staying with her family four years earlier. We filed out of the van and self-consciously positioned ourselves wherever we thought appropriate as her daughter came around an offered us 'tsutai tsai' (salty milk tea).


When invited into a Mongolian home, it is rude to say no to anything that is offered. This will almost always include 'tsutai tsai' and 'tsagaan idee' (dairy sweets), and sometimes 'aaruul' (curdled milk), 'airag' (fermented horse milk) or 'arkhi' (homemade vodka distilled from the milk).


Around 5.00 pm, Puje's son arrived home from school and, after saying hello to us, began herding the cattle. Nomad children start helping with family chores at a very young age, and when they are four or five, most travel to the closest village to study. Education is highly valued here: according to UNICEF, 99 percent of Mongolian children are enrolled in primary school and most continue on to higher education.


With the help of Turbat and Haisvai's translations, any initial bashfulness was soon diminished. Puje was very inquisitive about our families, our way of life and what we did for work; and her children wanted to know about our bags, our boots and our clothes – they were literally thrilled about the unexpected turn of their day.


While Turbat and Haisvai cooked the evening meal (when seeking homestays it is customary to bring food and small, useful gifts such as soap, tea and coffee), Puje milked her cows and we played with the children. As Puje's son demonstrated his bareback horseriding skills and her oldest daughter posed for my camera, loving the sudden influx of attention, I caught Puje quietly chuckling, for she was about to present me with an exquisite turquoise encrusted copper milk churn that caught my attention earlier in the day.


Dinner was mutton and vegetables, cooked in the central stove that also heats the ger. We ate on the floor, our group using cutlery and plates and Puje and her children using their hands. Puje explained that she was very glad that we had come and couldn't wait to tell her husband about the surprising occurrence of our visit. The road near their home had recently been sealed and this had already changed their lives quite drastically. Her husband now travelled on a more regular basis looking for work, and her son could travel the 15 kilometres to school by motorbike whenever he was able to get a lift from his father or other parents. He used to stay with his grandmother in the village where the school was located for weeks at a time, but having her son around to help with the evening chores made a huge difference.


The implementation of sealed roads is a result of Mongolia's current coal, copper and gold mining boom, and the current government is committed to investing in infrastructure to capitalize on those opportunities. Construction only takes place in the months outside the long and harsh Mongolian winters, but sturdy routes are being built at rapid rates, allowing for greater vehicle traffic that could see Mongolia change forever. Because of reduced travel times, nomadic families are also travelling further distances to seek greener pastures for their cattle. Not every nomadic family owns a car or a truck, but most know someone who does, and it's rare to see gers being transported by horses or camels anymore.


After we said goodbye to Puje and her family, we travelled south on a mix of sealed and unsealed roads to the astonishingly beautiful Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake, also known as the 'White Lake' in the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia. Torrents of lava issuing from the nearby Khorgo volcano blocked the north and south Terkh rivers many years ago, so forming the dammed lake of Terkhiin Tsagaan at an altitude of 2,060 metres (6,758 feet ) above sea level. We then travelled southwest to the districts of Tsenkher and Karakorum, staying in ger camps along the way. Our last stop was the sandy Khongo Khan, which meant we were traversing through some of Mongolia's most remote areas with very few accommodation options. We soon found ourselves back on a rocky road, looking for a two-ger family to take us in.


As the sun began to set on another day, the yellow sand glistening as the light faded, we found housewife Urma. She was managing the household and tending to the livestock with her daughter and niece who had come to visit from a nearby village. Urma had never had travellers stay with her before, so suddenly the ger was full of people who had come to see the unexpected visitors, arriving on foot from nearby gers, or from further afield on horseback or by motorbike.


One of the visitors brought along a massive jar of 'arkhi ', which was passed around numerous times as we drank and laughed into the early hours of the morning with a large extended family and their friends, including a rotund and jovial 88-year-old women who guzzled the brew like there was no tomorrow.


The next morning Urma woke us bright and early with her loud shuffling around the ger. Sleeping in was not an option – like every other day there were chores to be done. We swiftly ate breakfast while Urma's niece hesitantly chewed on the dry muesli that we brought and her daughter quickly got the hang of how an iPad worked – two worlds merging into one.


Urma talked of one day visiting Ulan Bator – a trip that before the implementation of sealed roads may have never been possible. However, she had heard that there were now sporadic buses leaving for the capital from a nearby village. Having met us she wanted to see more of the world – an inspiring moment that may also make authentic homestay experiences even harder to find.


Mix up the vast landscapes of the Gobi, the snow-capped mountains of Bayan-Ölgi and the dramatic gorges and sparkling lakes of Khövsgöl. Sprinkle in the felt homes of the nomad and the cry of an eagle over the steppe. Add an abundance of Buddhist temples, mysterious ruins, outstanding wildlife and legendary hospitality. Then top it all off with a conqueror who started with nothing and ended up changing history.


If this description perpetuates your belief in an untouched country, then you'll be well rewarded for exploring Mongolia before its landscape changes forever. It is an invigorating and exhilarating place to visit, and remains one of the last unspoiled travel destinations in Asia.


- Peter Holthusen