Mongolia. I just had the vaguest idea of where Mongolia was when I received a brochure announcing a trip that included Mongolia as well as Yunnan province in China. It sounded so foreign and so inviting. I'd be learning more about Genghis Khan and the Gobi Desert. I'd be sleeping in gers (the age-old nomad dwellings), eating traditional foods, meeting the people, seeing the landscape and finally learning about Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia.
After many hours in flight -- more than 22 from Boston! -- I finally arrived at the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar. To my surprise, it was a bustling, very Western looking capital with all the cars, traffic, restaurants and high-end shops one would see anywhere in the world.
Mongolia is a landlocked country with Russia to its north and China to its south. It is the 19th largest country in the world (slightly smaller than Alaska) with just fewer than 3 million people, half of whom live in the capital. It's a young country, with 34% of its population under the age of 15. Outside of the city, most Mongols are nomads and horses are at the center of their lives. They are the main mode of transportation in the countryside and children as young as three are taught to ride. We hoped to have a taste of the traditional national beverage of Mongolia called airag which is fermented mare's milk, but unfortunately there was none available. A reason to return?
There are very few actual "sights" in Mongolia, but there is much to see. To visit Mongolia is to have the rare chance of seeing a nomadic society in action. The traveler to Mongolia must re-adjust her or his expectations to see what is distinctive about the culture and geography and not to expect what isn't there. Unlike other countries where you travel to see museums or landmarks, Mongolia is a country where you go to see the scenery and the people and experience the beautiful unspoiled countryside. It is dramatic, vast and open with gers materializing in the horizon, an occasional galloping herd of horses or flocks of sheep and goats wandering across the road or into the cemeteries.
Gers are white round felt-lined tents that dot the Mongolian landscape. They look identical from the outside but can be quite elaborate and customized on the inside. Gers are perfect for the nomads since a family can assemble and disassemble them in under an hour. I was looking forward to spending some time in the gers, and on this trip we spent nine days in three separate ger camps in different parts of the country.
Because the places we wanted to see were so far apart, we spent a great deal of time traveling by bus. My first impression was that the countryside was uninteresting -- gray and fairly indistinguishable in every direction. But as we spent more time on the road, I began to see subtleties in the sweeping landscape -- shades of gray turned into pale green which then turned into light brown, patches of shrub grass appeared and just as quickly disappeared. Some areas were quite mountainous, and some were so flat that I felt as if I could see the curve of the Earth in the distance.
I was quite curious about the types of food we would get in Mongolia and was pleasantly surprised at the variety, bearing in mind that this was Mongolia, not Italy. The meat was "meat," and we were never quite sure whether we were eating mutton, beef or yak, but it was all nicely spiced, marinated and appetizing. The vegetables served were limited, but quite ample consisting mainly of carrots, potatoes and onions. We also had lots of flavorful yogurt and yogurt cheeses. We met a retired chef from Germany who volunteers his time at various ger camps training the kitchen staff on ways to make their foods tastier and presentations more eye appealing.
But probably the most fascinating part of Mongolia was the Gobi desert. It was endless. We watched the sun rise and the sun set in the Gobi. We rode the two-humped Bactrian camels. We explored Vulture Valley and the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag where dinosaur eggs and velociraptors were first found. We watched a sand storm approach and marveled at how half the sky was still blue and clear while the other half turned brown. The wind picked up and in seconds, the blue sky was gone... turned to sand. Some of us felt like it was a magical place. As we walked around our campsite, it seemed as if it was just miles and miles of miles and miles.
The difference between Inner and Outer Mongolia? Inner Mongolia is actually in China whereas Outer Mongolia refers to the actual country of Mongolia. Mystery solved.
For more information about this OAT trip click http://www.oattravel.com/uln or call 1-800-873-5628