What comes to mind when you hear the word Mongolia?
Genghis Khan…Mongol Hordes…vicious babarians held back by China’s Great Wall? Endless mountains of sand in the Gobi?
How about a lake 260 m deep containing 2% of the world’s fresh water? Or an ancient empire stretching from Korea to Bulgaria? How about decades of Russian rule followed by democratically elected government? Or maybe you work at a mining company, and think about all the mineral deposits waiting to be exploited.
A landlocked country of grasslands, forested mountains, rivers and lakes, Mongolia is, for most of the year, a place of extremely cold weather. For the summer months, the wilderness explodes to life with all kinds of flowers and plant blossoms. Birds, insects and people, emerge from months of hardship to enjoy the warmer weather and get ready for the next big chill.
In July (2010), I travelled with a group of friends across the central provinces of Mongolia up to the fresh water Khovsgol Lake close to the northern border with Russia. For over two weeks we shifted every 1-2 days to the next campsite. Sleeping in traditional yurt-like accommodation called Gers, we moved like a modern caravan through huge expanses of grassland, crossed creeks and rivers, passed families living far from anywhere tending to their herds. Every day the sun burned brightly in a saturated blue sky, and at night so many millions of stars shone with an intensity I have never seen before.
The food had a big focus on lamb…including milk and cheese. Lamb stew, lamb dumplings, lamb crepes, lamb noodle soup, fried lamb, barbecued lamb…you get the point. The meat was usually paired with something containing either carrots, pickles, or potato. Breakfast usually consisted of bread and jam, a form of porridge and a weak black tea, or instant coffee.
The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, is an overcrowded poorly serviced town bursting with rampant economic growth and mass migration. In 15 years, the city’s population has jumped 3 fold, to be around 1.2 million, in a total national population of 3 million. The roads are bad, the architecture a mix of old soviet aesthetics and excessively modern glass towers. Most locals live in unpaved suburbs surrounded by roughly hewn paling fences.
For foreigners, mainly huddled downtown in more modern high-rise concrete housing, the city is a frontier town in a nation of rugged frontiers. Imported groceries are available, and restaurants sell familiar cuisine from all over the world, giving expats their comfort foods of choice. You can buy Hollywood DVDs, games for your Wii, and music. But the place is devoid of chain-store restaurants. What’s also missing is omnipresent advertising, although the road to the airport features huge billboards for companies like Acer and Korea Air.
Yet it is the whiff of history and reminders of the constant struggle to survive the environment that makes Mongolia an especially surprising destination. In its infamous past, Mongolia ruled over huge swathes of China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. And yet the severity of the weather and the toughness of the environment turn each year into a smaller scale battle of endurance for everyone. There is little comfort in a place where the temperatures are typically below -30 C. The winter of 2009 was especially harsh, with huge losses for farmers. In many places we passed, the bones of yaks, sheep or goats, still lay on the ground where the animals had collapsed, presumably from exhaustion.
This reality is etched in the faces of many Mongolians in a way that seems far more pronounced than in other parts of North Asia. Yet while many people have a rough and unwelcoming demeanor, the people I met were polite and helpful and understanding. And there was none of the time-wasting haggling over prices you get in many other places.
So what did I take from 25 days in Mongolia, a land of surprising diversity in its people and landscape, a place of hard drinking and endless meals of lamb? It is a realization that what feels like one of the last frontiers of Asia, where paved roads and firewood are still luxuries, was once a country in the act of defining its own vision of Asia and Europe around 800 years ago.