A Weekend in Majestic Mongolia

07/26/2016 12:12 pm ET

Visiting Genghis Khan’s Spectacular Homeland

Oklahoma eat your heart out ― to say nothing of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and all those other “wide open spaces” where “the wind comes sweeping down the plain.”  Expansive though they may be, American prairies are literally dwarfed by Mongolia’s majestic steppes which stretch endlessly into the distance. 

Mongolia's landscape stretches endlessly into the far off horizon
Mongolia's landscape stretches endlessly into the far off horizon

Within the vast green landscape, herds of cattle and horses and flocks of sheep and goats roam without fences amid intermittent multi-mile long wheat fields stretching out of sight into the horizon. It’s bitterly cold in winter, but in the summer central Mongolia is an idyllic landscape stretching almost farther that the eye can encompass, interrupted only by occasional round white ger (yurt in Russian) homesteads. 

Grain fields recede into the distant horizon
Grain fields recede into the distant horizon
Unfettered horses graze on the plains
Unfettered horses graze on the plains
Herds of sheep and goats graze freely
Herds of sheep and goats graze freely
Animals graze unattended
Animals graze unattended
Traditional <i>gers</i> are found in the villages, cities, and countryside.&nbsp; <i>Yurt</i> is the Russian word for <i>ger.
Traditional gers are found in the villages, cities, and countryside.  Yurt is the Russian word for ger.

Throughout the country, paying respect to Genghis Khan is a primary priority.  My visit commenced in Ulaan Baatar with a stop in Sukbataar Square where his massive seated statue dominates the capitol buildings.  And before venturing into the countryside, another mandatory stop, a half hour outside of town, was a visit to the Khan’s mammoth equestrian statue  which towers over the countryside.  Visitors can take an elevator up inside the horse to access stairs leading to an outdoor viewing platform within the steed’s head.  At its foot, a museum commemorates the patriarch’s unique strategic and administrative skills which 800 years ago created the largest empire in world history, surpassing the achievements of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon. 

Genghis Khan presides over Ulaan Baatar's central square
Genghis Khan presides over Ulaan Baatar's central square
A mammoth statue of Genghis Khan dominates the countryside
A mammoth statue of Genghis Khan dominates the countryside
Genghis Khan statue viewed from within the head of his steed
Genghis Khan statue viewed from within the head of his steed

With merely three days and a lot of ground to cover, Sokol Tours arranged for a driver, Shinebayar O., to accompany me.  (Last names are rarely used in Mongolia,  he suggested I should call him Shiney.)   Moving along, over two-lane highways, we headed out into the countryside.  Off the main highways the roads are barely discernible tracks over the ground, with switchbacks and bumps and virtually no road signs.  I was grateful that Shiny seemed to sense the directions almost intuitively . Both days we stopped along the way for lunch at gers plunked within the landscape.  Cooked by friendly local families, the main dish would be shredded beef or mutton served over noodles, a dish that became a familiar staple.

Tire track routes are barely visible
Tire track routes are barely visible
Driver Shiney could discern barely visible road tracks
Driver Shiney could discern barely visible road tracks
A typical dish is meat with homemade noodles
A typical dish is meat with homemade noodles
Nomad families welcomed us for lunches served in their <i>gers</i>
Nomad families welcomed us for lunches served in their gers

After lunch one day while Shiney took a rest, the family’s darling five-year-old son and I walked toward another ger far off on the horizon and were greeted by a family with more adorable children.  Their mother offered me a delicious custard-like dessert she had cooked and we admired the banner of animal figures she had embroidered by hand to decorate the ger for the children.  To amuse them, she pronounced the animal names for me in Mongolian and I responded with the name in English. 

Embroidered animals decorate a <i>ger</i>
Embroidered animals decorate a ger
The children are enchanting
The children are enchanting

En route to the campground of gers where I was to stay overnight in Hustai National Park, Shiny got out the binoculars and we managed to spot a few of the prized Przewalski takhi horses far off in the distance.  Once nearly extinct, a dozen or so were collected from European zoos and rebred until the herd was sufficient to reintroduce back to the plains where they are a national treasure.

 

Prized Pezwalski horse
by Jeffery J. Nichols
Prized Pezwalski horse

 Both nights were spent at camps which were clusters of gers laid out around a dining hall, outdoor bathroom facilities, and bunk rooms for the drivers.  My circular tents were comfortable with a bed, clothing storage, and wood stoves so effective that I had to remove some of the covers in the middle of the night when I’d fallen soundly asleep after dinner lulled by the sound of gentle rain on the roof.

<i>Ger</i> camp near Karakorum
Ger camp near Karakorum
Costumed staff greet visitors to <i>ger</i> camp
Costumed staff greet visitors to ger camp
<i>Ge</i>r camp doors are colorfully painted
Ger camp doors are colorfully painted
<i>Ge</i>r rooms in camps can be elaborately furnished
Ger rooms in camps can be elaborately furnished
<i>Ger</i> camp dining hall
Ger camp dining hall
Tourists lounge in a <i>ger</i> camp pavilion
Tourists lounge in a ger camp pavilion

After Hustai we headed toward the historic region of Karakorum, once the capital city of the vast Khan empire.  A scale model in the excellent new museum illustrates what the town looked like in the 13th century when it was the empire’s thriving capital.  Today there is little sign of the ruined city  Arrows on the tourist viewing stand indicate where structures once stood. but except for a turtle marker there is virtually nothing left.

 

The Karakorum Museum exhibits displays describing the history of the region
The Karakorum Museum exhibits displays describing the history of the region
A model in the Karakorum Museum shows the historic city site
A model in the Karakorum Museum shows the historic city site
A turtle marker near the tourist viewing platform is a lone remaining artifact of once grand Karakorum
A turtle marker near the tourist viewing platform is a lone remaining artifact of once grand Karakorum
Modern Karakorum is a colorful village
Modern Karakorum is a colorful village
A local cowboy pauses to sip a Coke
A local cowboy pauses to sip a Coke

Many of the capital’s stones were confiscated to construct the monumental Erdene Zuu Khiid Buddhist monastery which now sprawls over much of the site.  Considered the most important monastery in the country, it once housed over 1000 monks.  Art and artifacts in one or two of its former 60-100 temples can still be visited and visitors wandering the grounds may overhear the sound of chanting monks.  

Stones from Karakorum built Erdene Zuu Kaiid
Stones from Karakorum built Erdene Zuu Kaiid
Temples in Erdene Zuu Kaiid house artifacts dating back to the 16th century
Temples in Erdene Zuu Kaiid house artifacts dating back to the 16th century

 After touring the monastery, we drove back to spend the rest of the day visiting museums, temples, shopping malls, and modern hotels of Ulaan Baatar.  I was sorry to miss touring the Gobi desert and the Swiss-like lakes and mountains to the north, but hope to see them on a return trip to the kingdom of Genghis Khan.

Blue Sky Hotel and Tower skyscraper in Ulaan Baatar
Blue Sky Hotel and Tower skyscraper in Ulaan Baatar
Memorial to the Beatles in an Ulaan Baatar square
Memorial to the Beatles in an Ulaan Baatar square
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