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The Final Frontier

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


I woke up before dawn and headed to the Capital Airport in Beijing for the final leg of my journey, leaving behind a lifetime worth of memory, single-serving friends (borrowed that one from 'Fight Club'), and promises of returning to the places I visited. The heavy rainstorm continuing from the day before reflected my mood, and there was no room left to feel excited about visiting the place I've dreamt about for years. Finally, I took out the English copy of Valley of Fear (Sherlock Holmes) I had picked up in Beijing and began reading, just to give my mind a break from the melancholy mood I was in.

The flight to Ulanbator was quite full of people traveling there for the Naddam Festival. It was sheer coincidence that I was heading to Mongolia the day before the festival began, and I hoped my dumb luck would continue throughout my trip here. I was so immersed with my book that I did not once look out the window to get an aerial view of Mongolia. As the plane began to descend I peeked outside the window to get my first view of Ulanbator, and what I saw could hardly be called a capital by western standard. Scarcely any buildings above 5 or 6 stories tall, and two giant chimneys in what looked like an industrial area in the southern end stood out just by their sheer size compared to the rest of the city. It seemed most of the traffic was concentrated in the center and the eastern side of the city. In comparison, the western fringe of the city looked like the shanty town packed with old one-story homes expanding up a gentle slope. As soon as the plane touched ground passengers were up and moving about, and it didn't take long for it to reach the gate. The airport had one terminal, two gates (one International, one domestic), and about 100 feet from Custom to the front entrance. Only 90+ day trips required visa, and one could easily be obtained at the airport if not arranged beforehand.

On my way to the guest house I realized I was ill-prepared for this trip. I had not done any research and foolishly made the assumption that English was well spoken here. I learned that Mongolia was divided into two parts after WWII, with the Chinese taking over what is known today as Inner Mongolia, while the Russians took control of the northern half. When USSR dissolved in 1990, its former territory became an independent nation we now know as Mongolia. However, after over 40 years of Russian rule, its influence could still be seen everywhere in Ulanbator. For example, the traditional Mongolian writing is no longer used, and of the 35 letters in its alphabet, 30 are Russians. Almost all the signs were in Mongolian, and people on the streets returned blind stares when I spoke English to them. Clearly I was not in Kansas anymore. However, I later learned that after 1990 schools began teaching English and the western influences were evident in the growing number of western cafes and restaurants, though they all concentrated on one of two main streets of the city.

I had already booked a room at a guest house and arranged for them to pick me up at the airport. The guest houses in Mongolia are hostels that also operate tours, while hotels are, well, just rooms, sometimes even without a front desk, although there are now a couple of modern hotels catering to business travelers. The system works because the small number of leisure travelers who come to Mongolia do not spend much time in the city; foreigners visiting Ulanbator mostly stay at guest houses for 2-3 days before heading out to see the rest of the country in 4x4s with tour guides. The trips typically range anywhere from 5-21 days, but I also met amateur photographers at the guest house who had been in the country for almost two months, documenting the daily life on the plains during several trips around the country. In China I met travelers from all walks of life with different purposes for visiting, but people who chose to come to Mongolia seemed to be a similar breed that made it easy to connect. All of us had been traveling for an extended period of time, and most of us left behind a world of comfortable living and stable jobs to come to the frontiers to replenish and rekindle our spirit. We understood why the others are here, we appreciated the opportunity to be here, and we appreciated the fact that such place exists. We cherished every moment, every singular experience, and we hoped that in these moments we would find what we came for, even if we didn't recognize it at the time.

After checking in at the guest house I decided to explore the city and get lunch, but first I had to look up the Mongolian currency and the exchange rate on the Internet. It turned out $1 equates to about 1,350 Tug, and doing this math in my head proved too difficult for me, as I mistakenly took out 10,000 Tug from the ATM, thinking it was roughly $75, and panicked at the restaurant when I saw an order of hot dog with fries and Pepsi wiped out all my cash. By the way, for that $7.5 withdraw, my bank charged me a fee of $10. I went back for another 50,000 Tug, and that lasted through my entire trip until I got back in the city. I also found it interesting that the largest denomination is MNT20,000, and no coins just like in China.

The traffic on the main thoroughfares and the surrounding streets were worst than anything I saw in China, mainly due to the fact that most streets had one lane each direction, and the two major streets had two each direction, hardly enough to handle the amount of traffic. Not nearly enough parking spaces in front of most shops and stores, and as a result of inadequate infrastructure, traffic were often caused by lines of waiting cars extending into the streets from parking lots, thereby blocking traffic. There's even less regard for the pedestrians than in China, and traffic laws were hardly observed; cars often had to go around a parked car because its owner had gotten out and stood few feet away talking to friends, exacerbate already congested streets. Yet somehow they made it work in what I would describe as 'orderly chaos'. I saw both right- and left-hand drive cars on the roads, good thing they were driving in the same direction on the same side of the road. In addition to regular city buses, 'private buses' often packed 20 people in a space for 9. Residents in the less-affluent outskirt of the city who came to the city for work and errands would use these 'private buses'. When they stopped to let passengers out, it was like playing the game of how many clowns could fit in a Volkswagen Beetle.

Feeling unprepared and a bit overwhelmed, I returned to the guest house and turned to the TV as a barometer of local culture. I discovered that about half of the 20 or so channels were in Mongolian, most of them showing the wrestling matches from last year's Naddam Festival, one cultural program showing traditional Mongolian song and dance performed on a stage recorded at an earlier, unknown event, and a couple of movie channels playing Mongolian productions that appeared quite dated (one was in black & white). The other half of the channels were showing programs in English, Russian, Chinese, and Korean. I later learned that Mongolians preferred to emulate Korean pop-culture. They were the first foreigners to invest in Mongolia after its independence, and played a big role in helping to modernize Mongolia, lending expertise in everything from industrial development to business management. Most of the cars on the roads less than 10 years old were Hyundais, and young women copied the latest fashion of Korean celebrities. Speaking of fashion, I noticed quite a few hair/beauty salons during my exploration earlier in the day. In fact, the number was extraordinarily high for the size of the city. In my opinion, it reflected the traditional Mongolian culture. The nomadic culture is still deeply-rooted in today's Mongolia, where men are respected for being fearless warriors, while beauty is highly valued in women. They put a lot of effort into looking as beautiful and attractive. However, their demeanor felt genuine and not superficial at all.

The next day the guest house arranged for its guests to attend the opening day of the Naddam Festival. We arrived at the square in front of the National Congress to witness the calvary carrying the nine white banners of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) from the parliament to the central stadium. The festival celebrates the 3 manly games - wrestling, archery, and horse racing - considered to be essential skills since ancient time. The opening ceremony and both wrestling and archery took place at the central stadium. The atmosphere was festive, with vendors and carnival games occupying every available space around the stadium. It's a national holiday and it felt like everyone in the city were there. We were stuck in traffic and arrived at the stadium late. Tickets were hard to come by and no such thing as assigned seating. The stadium could fit probably 10,000 spectators but had about 2 or 3 times that number crammed in. We stood at the opening of the tunnel we came in, with no place to go while getting pushed and shoved by the crowd coming in behind us. It was so crowded that I could fall asleep standing and not fall down. My instinct told me to carry my backpack on my chest, and it turned out to be a wise move, as we later learned that one of the girls in our group had her bag slashed by pickpockets while she was busy taking photos. It was every man for himself so I waded through the crowd and made my way to the bottom where there was space for me to kneel down by the railings separating the field from the grandstand. After awhile my legs were numb but I dared not lean against the railing like others, as the railing was already tiling forward at a 70 degree angle. The opening ceremony was a lot of pomp and circumstances, highlighted by a team of sky divers landing in the middle of the field. Interestingly, the parade consisted of not athletes, but representatives of corporate sponsors rounding the stadium. By western standard the production value could be described as 'provincial', but that did not diminish how much people enjoyed the ceremony.

Wrestling was originally a game to test the strength and wit, but some sources say it was initially aimed at training young kids how to tame and domesticate wild animals. 512 wrestlers complete in a single-elimination tournament with no weight/age divisions. After 9 rounds of competition lasting two days, a national champion is crowned and given state title by the decree of the President. The competition is steep in rituals and a match can sometime last up to an hour until a winner is decided by forcing his opponent to touch the ground with any part of body other than hands and feet. The participants I saw were huge men with incredible balance, strength, yet nimble. Later on my trip I played around with my driver and gained an appreciation for the skills of these wrestlers (that's a nice way of saying I got my ass kicked). It is no wonder the best current sumo wrestlers in Japan are all Mongolians.

Archery was first introduced for hunting 3,000 years ago, and later used in battle by Attila the Hun to wreak havoc throughout Europe, whom Mongolians revere and consider to share the same ancestry. Unlike wrestling, archery competition at Naddam festival are divided into age divisions, as well as by gender. The bow has no sight and the string is made of taut roebuck neck skin, while the arrow is made of young willow stick and vulture feather. Men shoot 40 arrows from a distance of 75 meter at a wall made of leather rings 4 meter long and 50cm high. I saw a committee of brave judges hovered around the target, hooting and hollering to signal a direct hit. I came to realize the difficulty later on my journey when I had the opportunity to try my hand at archery. My first attempt was a feeble one and barely covered 20 feet of distance. On my second attempt I used all my arm strength to cock my arms in the ready position, but my arms were shaking so much that I couldn't hit the broad side of a mountain. Hitting a 3x4 target 50 feet away required a combination of strength, sight, as well as accounting for the wind and the angle of trajectory. A Mongolian warrior I'm not.

We left the stadium around noon. By then I had gotten used to the crowd (it's all good once you let go of the concept of 'personal space') and not having any feelings in my legs. We got on the tour bus and headed out of the city to where horse racing was taking place. It was going to be my first experience on the open plains of Mongolia, and on the bus ride I felt like I was on a pilgrimage visiting the holy sanctuary. I'll never forget how I felt the moment I stepped off the bus, so overjoyed that I began doing cartwheels until I fell flat on my back looking up at the blue sky, and imagined I was floating in a green sea. I laid there until finally a face appeared above me and politely asked me if I was ready for the boxed lunch the guest house had prepared. While enjoying my lunch, someone said something I couldn't agree with more - 'This is what I imagined Mongolia to be like, not the pile of concrete and dirt we just came from.'

The large crowd that have already gathered there 3 hours before the riders arriving enjoyed their picnics and watched children flying kites in the big open spaces and no mountains to block the breezes. In the distance we could see threatening rain clouds, and before we knew it they were upon us, scattering people to take cover under tents. Just as quickly the rain stopped, and that was our first lesson on how quickly the weather could change on the open plains.

The horse is the most valued possession for Mongolians. It is the main means of transport and considered men's best friend, serving as the symbol of power, strength and loyalty. Mongolian oral literature, songs and poetry are closely related to horses, and the most popular musical instrument are fiddles decorated with wooden carving of a horse head call Morin Khuur. Horse riding is one of the most important abilities all Mongolian men must master. Unlike horse racing in the States, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event up to 30km long at full gallop the entire time (about one hour to cover the distance). The riders or jockeys were children with no saddles to achieve lighter weight, and through training they had developed special bonds with their animals. In addition to crowning the champion, they also give special award to the last horse - not as mockery, but as herders' tradition not to blame but to inspire it to win the next race. Due to the distance of the race, spectators could only gather near the finish line. The grandstand was full so people lined up along the trail stretching about a mile long in order to get a look at the action in its final stretch. We could only estimate when the riders might be approaching and waited with anticipation as the moment near. All of a sudden, someone shouted out something and pointed to the west, and we all looked toward the direction and spotted what looked like a car in the horizon, then another, and another. Moments later we saw the first racehorse, a magnificent beast even from afar, with chestnut coat and dark mane and tail. About 30 yards behind it were two horses furiously trying to close the gap, with one (a dark beauty) closing the distance with the race leader down to about 10 yards. Then, as if it was just toying with its chasers, the lead horse picked up its pace significantly with about 3/4 of a mile to go and galloped victoriously toward the finish line. Not willing to give up, but sensing his horse had given all it could, the jockey of the black beauty eased up and petted his companion on its crest in a show of appreciation, and graciously accepted a well-deserved second place, earning thunderous cheers from the crowd. The rest of the field made their way across the finish line soon after, and it's quite amazing that after an hour of full gallop, the field of roughly 100 horses were separated by just a few minutes apart.

After the race the rest of the group headed back to the city, but I met with my tour guide (and her boyfriend), my driver, and the four of us with a car full of supplies embarked on a 5-day journey through central Mongolia. There are no 'standard' tour packages in Mongolia. I had gotten in touch with the owner of the guest house before I left on this trip to discuss my schedule and preferences, and he came up with a customized itinerary that roughly cost $130 a day which included: English-speaking guide, driver, car & gas, food and lodging. It was past 5pm and we had much ground to cover to reach the family whom we were staying with for the night, so I hurriedly said goodbye to the group and we were off.

We traveled on a two-lane paved road with steppes on both sides and not a single car on the road with us for about 3 hours. Occasionally I would spot a group of 2 or 3 gers in the distance and herds of animals grazing in a safe distance from the road. I wasn't in a talkative mood and didn't ask Dena (my guide) many questions. Baat (my driver) and Jak (boyfriend) didn't speak any English but they weren't talking much amongst themselves either, so we traveled in silence. The scenery had changed from lush grassland to more desolate, and giant rock formations appeared in the distance. Dena told me we're near the Khognokhan Mountain and the sand dunes. Unlike the southern Gobi desert in China I visited, where not a sliver of green could be seen, the desert in this area was full of vegetations, which made raising animals possible, thanks to the moisture from frequent rains. It was beginning to get dark and all of a sudden we veered off the paved road and went onto a trail toward a group of gers. The ride was very bumpy and the trail did not make a straight line toward the gers, but curved to go around deep ditches. Sometimes the trail split into two heading in different directions, each trail led to the settlement of a family. There were no signs and no point of reference, so the driver really must know where he's going, and even then there is no guarantee you'd find what you're looking for, as Mongolians move throughout the year in search of ideal pasture for their grazing herds. I did not know at the time that I wouldn't be seeing pavement again for the next 5 days.

There're typically 3 options for lodging on these tours - ger camps, local families, and camping in tents. I asked to stay with families where possible for two reasons: to observe first hand the daily life of Mongolian families, and to help provide additional source of income to them. Gers (the word literally means 'home' in Mongolian) are built with a wooden frame all around made by binding narrow planks of wood with thin stripes of animal hide, and the cone shaped top is supported by two beams and thin wooden trusses running from the top of the frame at an angle and connected at the top to form a circular opening for light and ventilation. Layers of animal hide cover the entire structure to shield wind and rain, while also keeping the gers cool during the day. These gers last 10+ year and must be easy to take down and put back up again when the families move, so no nails are used in the construction to prevent the rusting metal from rotting the wood. Typical family ger runs no more than 20 feet in diameter, enough room for a wood burning stove in the middle (and a metal pipe as chimney through the opening at the top), two twin size beds, and a couple of dressers. All of their personal possessions must fit in this space. Most families own a solar panel but it seemed the electricity generated was used mainly for two things - TV (even though only 2 or 3 channels were available out here, at least they provided a connection with the outside world) and mobile phone charging (I'm not sure why, as there's no reception in most of these places). Water must be fetched from wells and used efficiently (i.e. water used to wash food is saved for later to wash dishes, rain water is collected and used for cleaning).

It was almost dark when we arrived at the settlement of our host family. Dena told me she was leading a tour a couple of years ago and the nearby ger camp was full, and spotted this family's settlement and asked the family if they could put the group up for a night. It's very typical for Mongolians to open up their homes to total strangers (a survival practice on this vast, scarcely populated land). Since then she's stayed with them on several occasions. The family was made up of parents, the son in his early 20s and his wife, a teenage daughter, and an adorable 2-year old granddaughter. We couldn't call ahead to let them know we were coming (there were no phone reception out here), but it wasn't like there was much preparation required. The family served us milk tea as was the Mongolian custom and then moved into one ger and we took over the one normally occupied to the son, his wife and their daughter. I wanted to explore the surroundings, but it was hard to see anything in the dusk, and lightnings in the distant sky accompanied by gale force wind signaled the approaching thunderstorm forced me to cut my walk short. By 9:30 we were all inside the ger, and the sound of rain drops falling on the ger was deafening. I could hear the dogs barking outside, corralling the goats frightened by the lightning. Dogs in Mongolia are no pets and they work hard. They survive on scraps and I even saw them devour entire pieces of bones. Yet they are well behaved and devoted to their owners. The American dogs will not likely survive a week out here, and the same can be said about their owners.

There was nothing to do so I began writing in my diary next to a lit candle, while watching flies and moths fly toward the flame on suicide missions. I'd visited many places before and I always had an idea of what to expect, but I was completely out of my elements here. I thought about the wonderful experience I had in China, the great people I met there, and I started to question if I made the right choice in coming here. My head was filled with the romanticism of tranquil scenery and exotic culture before I came, but now it was time to face reality - flying bugs, questionable sanitary standard, lack of plumbing...even though the conditions were not that different from a desert camping trips back in the States. I slept with the hoodie of my sweatshirt over my head to prevent any bugs from crawling into my ears while sleeping. In the pitch black I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when there was absolutely no light whatsoever, there's nothing to adjust to. The complete darkness played tricks with my mind, made me question if I actually exist physically (that's the same concept as the sensory-deprivation chamber). While lying in the darkness I told myself that in order to make the most of this trip I must let go of any preconceived notion of this place and temper my expectation, then I fell asleep dreaming of clean sheets and hot showers.

I woke up at six next morning and went out for a walk. Although we're in a desert, it's teeming with life, butterflies, beetles, giant winged grasshoppers, bees, and the usual lizards and snakes. The animals were already out grazing and I came across a man shepherding his herd of cows from his coral in the high grounds toward the lusher pasture further below. Typical day for a Mongolian meant waking up at daybreak to take the animals out grazing, then returning home by mid morning for tea, leaving the dogs to watch over the animals. Women do chores around the house in the morning, prepare lunch, follow by nap time in the afternoon. In late afternoon men head out again to fetch the animals home, then they wash up after dinner and get ready for bed. In China I had heard comments about the Mongolians being lazy, and not make better use of their time to make more money, but I think it is all a matter of perspective. For Mongolians their wealth is in their animals, and as long as their animals are healthy then they have everything they need. This is their lifestyle for thousands of years and they see no reasons to change, and I'm inclined to agree with them. Life moves at a slower pace in Mongolia, and so did I - walked slow, ate slow, moved slow.

After breakfast we went to explore the sand dunes on camels. Unlike my experience in China, the saddle here consisted of a rug and nothing else. I was given the reins of my own camel and that proved to be a mistake. First, the stirrups were too high for someone my size, so my legs were uncomfortably rubbing against the rough hide of the camel and the buckles of the metal rings. I was told to stand up when the camel went into a slow gallop (or else suffer the most painful pounding on my most tender region). When I stood up, the inadequate length of the stirrups forced me to lean forward, so I pushed back against the camel to regain my balance. Well, he didn't like all these movements at all and began gyrating from side to side, throwing me off his back. Fortunately I landed on soft sand and suffered no serious injury, except for my bruised ego. I decided that was enough and that I needed to preserve my body for the horseback riding later on the trip.

For the next four days we traveled throughout central Mongolia, covering various landscapes and terrains, sometimes blazing our own trail, crossing streams 3 feet deep, speeding and sliding on wet grass...so many white-knuckle experiences I had blisters on my hand from grasping the handle bar. It would've made a great commercial for Range Rover. We were usually on the move throughout the day, making one or two stops at 'point of interest', but to be honest I didn't come here for the history lessons. I told Dena we don't need to stick to our itinerary, that riding in car all day isn't my definition of fun, so we agreed to take things slow. The decision was a win-win for everybody; they'd sleep in a little later, and I'd have time to take morning walks, we'd enjoy hearty breakfasts and get to know each other (Dena as the translator), then go on roller-coaster rides (the nickname we gave to the car rides, which Baat was more than happy to make sure the interpretation stayed true). By 5pm we'd make camp with animals everywhere, goats would poke their heads in our gers, hoping to snatch a piece of lettuce from our supplies, horses strolled past on their way to nearby streams for drinks, cows grazing right next to our parked car. While Dena and Jak prepared dinner, I'd go on long walks, finding bone fragments strewn about, spotting vultures feasting on carcases, apparently fresh victims of careless drivers. After a long day of car ride, these walks offered the opportunities to stretch the limbs and gather my thoughts. My favorite part of the day was finding a place after dinners to sit down and take advantage of the daylight to write in my diary and read. Each day I felt I had shed another layer of gunk built up from being in a toxic environment the past year (metaphorically speaking, of course, but I found it ironic consider I hadn't showered in 5 days).

On the second to last day we were supposed to begin a two-day horseback-riding trip. This had been a dream of mine and and I often joked about retiring to Mongolia and herd yaks. However, the camel ride from a few days ago left me with severe saddle burn, and riding in car all day since then didn't help. I was faced with a dilemma - to do what I came here to do and suffer physically, or listen to my body and give up on the dream. Well, I remembered how I felt after 2 hours of camel ride, and if I went ahead, how I'd feel on the 14 hour plane ride home, and in the end the mind was willing but the body just couldn't comply. I was disappointed but I told myself it's the right decision. Perhaps dreams should stay what they are, dreams.

The next day we headed back to Ulanbator earlier than scheduled so I could shower at the guest house before flying to Beijing. I had an interesting experience in Mongolia but I'd been on the road for a long time and my heart and body were both telling me it's time to go home. I think this is the perfect sentiment to have at the end of the trip, and I'll be revisiting Mongolia in my dreams, and in these dreams I'll be riding horses on the vast open plains without a care!

permalink written by  Chihyau on July 16, 2010 from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
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Chihyau Chihyau
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Welcome to my blog!

Many of you have heard me wax poetic about the open plains and the nomadic life of Mongolia. Well, I'm finally getting off the couch and trekking to the edge of the world in search of my private Shangri-la.

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