In the land of nomads lie rustic, natural adventures

There are some places in the world that still inspire romantic visions of a bygone era, times when life seemed simpler, more savage, close to nature. Mongolia is one of those places.

The name of this far-off land conjures memories of high school history and the illusive figures of Ghengis Khan and his wild horsemen-burlap-clad, bearded men, riding horses across the Asian steppe, conquering and pillaging anything and anyone who got in their way. In Mongolia, Ghengis Khan (pronounced and spelled there as Chinggis Khan) is a folk hero. His face is plastered on everything from beer bottles to hotel entrances. Yet, the Mongolia of the 21st century is a land rife with ironies: a nomadic culture with urban real estate offices; remote desert dwellings with solar-powered satellite television, and perhaps the greatest leveler of them all, thousands of miles of high-speed Internet cable being laid by the government, to bring modernity to a people who seem quite happy living in tradition, and, by the way, without much access to electricity.

“Why do you want to go there?” seems like a forward question, and yet one I was getting used to answering. My husband, Brady, and I had decided to go to Mongolia for a vacation. The first response almost universally was, “Why?” Well, because it sounded interesting. There are few places left in the world where open space and lack of development are the norm. Where the local people still live much the way that they did thousands of years ago; a place full of natural beauty and the stark realities of a nomadic lifestyle in a harsh landscape. Mongolia is that kind of rare place, and we wanted to experience it for ourselves before modernization seeps in to make the inevitable changes. This question only heightened my interest, and soon enough, we were on our way. Traveling through Beijing and on to Ulaanbataar, we visited the Gobi desert, rode camels on sand dunes, saw the ancient capital where Ghengis Khan reigned and rode horses across the magical Mongolian steppe. In the middle of the Mongolian countryside, I found a sublime reality, relaxation and raw adventure.

It was day three of full day horseback riding and after lunch we decided to stop and pay a visit to the neighbors. We stepped into the nomadic families’ home, their ger, without trepidation. The ger sat on a hillside near the town of Tsetserleg, Central Mongolia, but really, in the middle of not anywhere in particular. At this point I had come to understand that hospitality is second nature to the Mongolian people. Smiles are worn easily, even now with hundreds of flies buzzing around our heads, in our ears, landing everywhere. The autumn day had been warming with the sun, the last bits of summer holding on for dear life before retreat into a bitterly cold, long winter. In central Mongolia, the Aspen trees had turned yellow in anticipation of coming snows, the air crisp and cold in the evening.

We sat down on one of the twin beds in this circular home. A ger is a sophisticated tent really, developed long ago by a people who still live primarily as nomads, although that too is changing. The ger is what we in America call a yurt. A circular tent traditionally made from wood and felt with one door and a hole in the ceiling that acts like a chimney. The stove in the middle of the room has a pipe going out of the roof to release smoke from cooking inside the ger. In about an hour’s time, you can set the whole thing up or break it down to hit the road. Perfect for those afraid of commitment, or those running from the invading hordes. Most families have one ger for sleeping and one for cooking. Every winter they make a migration into the surrounding villages along with their animals to wait out the long, cold season.

Our smiling host began to pass a white milky liquid in a silver bowl around the room. Anytime you enter a Mongolian’s ger they will graciously offer to share whatever food or drink they may have. Today, “It’s Airag,” Badmaa our guide told me, mare’s milk. I had been reading about this and was excited to finally try it. The Mongolians make an astounding and entirely unique variety of foodstuffs from every kind of milk you can imagine. Being a nomadic culture, it has never been common to practice formal agriculture, that would require staying put. As a result, the majority of their diet consists of meat and milk products, things you can ferment or dry to last the winter.

To this point we had already tried curdled fermented camel’s milk (tastes a bit like melted blue cheese), goat’s milk both fermented cold and as a hot tea, yak’s milk and now mare’s milk. Airag is a sort of national drink in Mongolia; it’s got a bit of an alcoholic edge due to the fermentation, and everyone loves to drink it. I thought it actually tasted quite good and took several sips as the bowl passed around the room, despite the flies. They were everywhere in the ger and all over the food. Sometimes selective vision is a traveler’s best friend. We sat for a while as Badmaa spoke to our hosts in Mongolian. I looked around the room at the simple possessions: a bowl, two cups, a few bits of silverware. All throughout this trip I had been reminded of how little we need to be happy, how little we need to exist, and how with little in the way of possessions it’s not uncommon to see people smile more.

Next came the vodka. Down in the Gobi desert we had seen the home-brewing process in action. From goat’s milk, the Mongolians have learned to brew a type of vodka (or wodka, as they say). It’s brewed by catching the steam that rises off of slowly simmering fermented goat’s milk. An extremely innovative process – it seems long winters are good for ingenuity.

We had been riding horses all day, and probably hadn’t been drinking enough water, so vodka was not high on my list of desirables at the moment. I tried to take a small sip and pass it along, not wanting to offend our hosts. After Badmaa took it from me, also taking one sip to pass along, the whole room erupted in laughter and chatter. Badmaa looked at me with trepidation, “They say it’s rude for us to take only a sip, so now we have to each drink our own bowl.” I’ve been hazed in many different situations, but never did I expect to be hazed by nomads. A few deep breaths and one big chug got the vodka down my throat, everyone laughed at my twisted face as I struggled to keep it down.

We sat for a while with this family, a mother, father and young son, in their tent, just being. Seya our horse wrangler suddenly, without coaxing, burst into song, his handsome voice deep and strong, full of history and culture. He sang about Airag, the time of harvest, things Mongolian and ancient, in a beautiful voice as timeless as the landscape around us. Around the room, warm smiles spread ear to ear across our faces. Earlier that day he had graced us with a Mongolian throat song, a strange, otherworldly technique of singing that builds deep in the throat, almost like a human didgeridoo. We stood to leave, and my head was swimming a bit. Stepping outside, the sun seemed a little brighter than before. We thanked our hosts and watched as the little boy got his hands and face all sticky with the bag of trail mix and chocolate we had given him.

We got back onto our Mongolian horses, smaller than the American version, but just as fast, and started back toward home. A walk turned to trot turned to canter and then full-out sprint, faster than I’ve ever run a horse before. Seya let out a cry “Yawi,” “Let’s go!” and we all began to whoop at the top of our lungs sprinting across the golden autumn Mongolian plains. Yellow Aspen trees skirted the edge of the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. All around us, the landscape was reminiscent of the open sprawling plains of Colorado or Wyoming in the early days of the pioneers. Free-roaming yak, cows, sheep and horses grazed on the drying fall grasses.

As my horse approached a wild herd of horses, they began to run with us. Herding them at full sprint across the fields, I felt full and free and steeped in the tradition of this place. My horse ran with authority across the beautiful autumn landscape. The Mongolian countryside is a land without fences, an open steppe where strong and hearty people eke out a living any way that they can. There’s a freedom to it, a sense of clarity and simplicity that I haven’t felt before. Arm in the air, voice loud and clear crying “Chooahh!” we sped our horses on, knowing that this moment would live on in my memory for a lifetime. r

Fast Facts:

* You can enter Mongolia by train via Beijing or Moscow (the Trans Siberian Express) or by plane, landing at Ulaanbataar, the capital city.

* The best times for travel are the summer months of June through August. September is still warm enough in the central and southern parts of the country, but the landscape is full of autumn colors and getting cold at night. The rest of the year is cold winter (which some still enjoy).

* Hiring a guide is recommended, especially if you don’t have much time. Boojum Adventures is excellent (www.boojum.com), Nomad Tours is also very good. There are not many roads in the country and not many people speak any English outside of Ulaanbataar.

* Covering distance in a car is difficult and tiring. If you want to see several areas of the country, it’s best to fly.

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