Text and photo: Juraj Sajfert
Chinggis Khaan International Airport does not inspire confidence, unlike the view I saw through the window right before we landed. Seeing the mild green hills, I immediately knew I’ve come to a special, friendly place. Smiles on the faces of drivers waiting for us, soon eradicated the paranoia that followed me there like a shadow. We landed on Saturday, 10 July, meaning that we had to rush to the municipal stadium for the central celebrations of the Naadam festival. This chief Mongolian holiday celebrates three sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing.
The opening ceremony was truly impressive. The riders are real acrobats, and it is hard to tell which folk costume is the best or girl prettiest in the parade. This was followed by wrestling, but the tourists are bored by looking at half-naked men entering the court and doing their eagle dance in front of numerous judges. Only here and there somebody actually wrestles. Archery takes place on a smaller stadium, so I gladly watched that, since the horse races take place out of town.
Ulan Baataar (Red Hero) is an overcrowded city. This bizarre combination of 70 year of Russian iron rule and the Mongolian traditional way of life struggles with its million inhabitants. You can imagine the crowds when everyone comes down for, and how difficult it is to get around the stadium through the heaps of food and souvenir stands. But no one is pesky, and no one will charge you “tourist fee”, although they know you have much more money than the Mongols, who barely make 200 dollars a month.
In the evening, we went to a nice restaurant that is frequented by wealthy Mongols. The smell of transition is in the air: everyone wants to be seen, arriving in nice car, Lexus, or even Hummer. As the band plays western rock standards, young girls are blinded by mobile phones. IF you want to attract their attention, it might be a better tactic to get their number instead of coming up to them and striking up a conversation.
Tomorrow morning, we head south on our expedition. We will spend the next eighteen days in three Russian made UAZ vans, a cook and a tour guide in tow. This is the best way to see more of Mongolia, because public transportation is either non-existent or very unreliable, and the roads are disastrous. That is why the travelers traveling alone, immediately upon arriving to Ulaanbaatar go to one of the guesthouses, and look to the advertising board seeking people who are travelling to the same destination, to share a jeep or a van.
We leave the asphalt road soon and ride the dirt roads, following previous tire tracks. The road network in Mongolia is mostly like this. We bounce around like sacsk of potatoes, and now we know why the vans have padded ceilings. Entering the semi-desert brought us the sight of unforgettable broad horizons and the first wild camels. Immense heat in one of the best known fossil excavation sites in the worlds, “the bright red burning rocks” follows us all the all the way to the desert town of Dalanzadgad.
After taking a shower in a public bath, we take a short drive to the Gurvan Saikhan National Park (Three Beauties), and it is quite cold among the three mountain massif in the middle of the desert. The amazing Yolin Am canyon is full of hawks and ice! The air is dry and there is no sun, so we pass by some crampons and ice axes. The contrasts continue after we arrive to the tourist yurts near Khongoryn Els (The Signing Dunes). We listen to the song dedicated to the kingdom of sand, made of dunes more than a hundred meters long, because there was sandstorm in the evening. Tomorrow we head south, and exit the desert sitting very comfortably on a very comfortable camel saddle.
As we travel north, things become lively. We pass through numerous huge herds that now include yaks as well. We come across yurts more often, so compared to Gobi I felt like I was in a metropolitan area, until I remembered: Mongolia has a million and a half square kilometers, three times bigger than France. There are only three million living in this area, with around the third living in the capital.
Half of the population is still nomadic. The old capital of Kharkhorin is a very uneventful city, so we kill some time playing pool on fascinatingly uneven pool tables in the city market. There are only a few temples left of the grandiose Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu (Thousand Wonders), and the Mongols visit them with extreme humility. There is nothing special to see here for us tourists, because Stalin had no mercy for Buddhism, so everything was almost completely destroyed.
But we were thrilled by Tsetserleg, the capital of Arkhangai region (Southern Taiga). It lies on appealing green hills. It is obvious that this town is attractive to the strangers, because an Englishman opened a very nice hostel there, where for 10 US dollars you can get an overnight stay in a double room.
It is almost impossible to find yourself beneath the altitude of 1,500 meters in Mongolia, but I certainly did not expect to find myself on a pass on 2,900 meters. It is cold and you can tell that we are close to Siberia. There is wood around, so people don’t burn dry dung. We enjoy some delicious yak yogurt. The next nomadic family we visit lives in much higher standard than the first one. Their yurt is bigger, more comfortable and better equipped. But the 14-year old is fascinated by an amazing device called the digital camera.
Huvsgul Lake is a younger sister of the Baikal Lake. It makes for almost one percent of global reserves of fresh water, and it is so clear that I wanted to fall down on my knees and start drinking. I also met Tsataani who came down to the coast. During the year, they live in a remote mountain region along the Russian border. This small nation tames elks they use for everything. They live in wigwams, are devoted to shamanism, and my attention was captured by the huge horns of their elks.
The ride from Mörön, capital of Huvsgul region, to Ulaanbaatar is terribly tiresome, and I would recommend everyone to take an inland flight (although it requires a little bit of courage). The roads are being built, but it remains to be seen how the crisis will reflect on already modest Mongolian public funding. If you still decided to bounce around a few days in a van that does not go over 30 km/h, it is comforting that the northern regions consist of big rivers and series of green mountains, so you will not be bored. With every kilometer, the landscape grows greener, until you reach the mining town of Erdenet, first true civilization for miles. You can indeed feel the Russian influence here, due to copper exploitation. We are on asphalt again, and our trip is much more comfortable. Still, I feel sad in a way. You should also visit the Amarbayasgalant monastery with a beautiful central temple, because it lies only 35 kilometers from the main road.
We made a full circle and spent the last night with traditional Mongolian song and dance. If for nothing else, it pays to see the guttural singers from the west, because it is hard to believe that someone can make those sounds only with vocal cords.
Taking stock on the flight back home, it was crystal clear that my dad would have liked it a lot. Mongolia is vast, the landscapes beautiful and diverse, people simple, fair and humble, but it is the sensation of freedom that takes the cake. It followed me on my way, and was lost as soon I saw the newspaper headlines in a kiosk on Pleso Airport in Zagreb.