Meandering in Mongolia

By Michael Dickson

I must admit to being a bit of a history nut and when going on holiday I try and read something on the history of the place I am visiting. So a couple of weeks before leaving New Zealand I obtained, and read, a book on the great Mongol empire of the 15th century. Reading about the great Khans, and their huge armies of mounted archers reeking havoc from China to the Mediterranean, left me with a lot of expectations on what I would find in a country we hear precious little about.

Expectations not fulfilled? Not a single one. Mongolia is one of those places were you really get a sense of the past still having a place in the present, while the country struggles to join the 21st century.

The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, maintains many of the Soviet era buildings that have an austere, imposing air about them. Yet there are also a lot of new building projects starting to push the skyline higher. Mongolia is not all about the capital, but I found the driving quite chaotic, the black market stalls and the general activity in the city rather appealing, and all in a slightly masochistic way.

I spent six weeks in Mongolia with a team of archaeologists, excavating a series of Bronze Age burial mounds. These mounds, some only two to three metres in diameter and some upwards of 100 metres, dot the landscape. It is a visual reminder that there is a very real age to this place and a pre-history that goes back tens of thousands of years. The landscape itself is vast and getting around is not easy.

Tarsealed roads are sporadic and poorly maintained. So, if you want to see anything of the “real” country then you will be off-road in a big way…very soon. Forget your Remuera tractors, they will not cut it. We are talking serious, ex-Soviet era, (again) 4-wheel drives that are a little like a VW Combi on steroids. The roads, well tracks actually, meander around the country in a crisscross manner that defies any sane means of navigation, but the drivers of these ageing machines know exactly where they are going.

Although I can’t recall seeing one signpost in the time I was there, the general consensus was that they had some inbuilt GPS system…yeah right! If you are the type who likes to drive yourself around foreign countries … forget it! Hire a driver (we can provide the contacts) and let them do the driving AND the navigating. The cost is not great and they will show you places that most tourists don’t go near.

The scenery is diverse, from the Gobi Desert in the south to the high tundra in the north, but it’s the massive valley systems that run throughout the country that are the most imposing features of all. It was from these large valleys that the Mongol hordes descended on all known countries – from Korea, across the great Eurasian plains to the Middle East. It wasn’t hard to imagine massive armies of horse archers just waiting over the horizon.

The period of the great Khans, throughout the 13th century, manifests itself everywhere. Genghis Khan’s name and images of his impressive frame are everywhere. The international airport is named after him, so is the local vodka and beer. His face adorns the currency and there is a massive statue of him, in regal form, seated on the steps of the Parliament buildings. It is from this past that the locals draw huge amounts of inspiration, and the national festival, Naadam, is held for three days every year (around the 11th of July) to celebrate their nation and the attributes that were sought after by the Mongol Empire.

Colourful parades start the festival but it is the wrestling, archery and bareback horse riding that people come to see. The horse riding is a cross-country race with young boys riding bareback on a circuit that can be anything up to 20 kilometres long. No problem if the young equestrian falls off, as the horse can still win the race if it crosses the line first, with or without their rider. The country comes to a grinding halt for three days, similar to what happens when the Melbourne Cup runs. Businesses and public services all close down. But this is the celebration of a nation with colourful parades and tournaments and it is well worth going to see. Each regional town has its own tournament with the capital having the largest celebration.

Pride in the past is evident throughout the country. Many Mongolians still live a nomadic life and herds of goats, sheep, cattle, horses and yaks can be seen moving throughout the country as family groups move their flocks in search of water and greener pastures. Many of these nomadic people still live in the traditional round felt tents, known as Gers (or Yurts), but modern additions such as solar panels and satellite dishes give things a very surreal twist.

Meat can be purchased live and on the hoof, if you’re travelling throughout the country, but don’t expect too much of purchased meals. Green vegetables are a rare occurrence, almost seen as a sign of weakness; meat and starch rule and most meals seem to be “balanced” by a traditional potato salad. In one little establishment, with a very German name, the wait staff assured me that the hamburger patty that was on my plate really was a beef steak! Yeah…right!!!

People are what make any trip and my Mongolian experience was no different. Very few locals speak English, but there always seems to be a way to communicate the necessities that go beyond the language barrier. I found them to be a little stand offish to start with, but after a short time they show just what a warm inviting people they really are.

Make no mistake, the average wage here is very low. Your hard earned, and well spent, travel dollar will be greatly appreciated and although money is tight and foreign currency is much sought after, I was never once confronted with beggars nor felt threatened in any way, shape or form. This, I think, reflects the very proud nature that these people maintain 100s of years after the end of the great Mongol Empire.