A few weeks ago, I was bouncing down a bumpy Mongolian highway, seated in a Russian-made UAZ van with my wife and two friends. Our driver was a larger-than-life character named Oyunbaatar, or Ogii. He wore a beret and as he gripped the steering wheel, dodging potholes, he’d occasionally bark out streams of mystifying Mongolian.
In Russia, a UAZ van is known as a Bukhanka, or bread loaf, because of its boxy appearance. With impressive suspension, these off-road vehicles can be seen across Mongolia, rugged as the country’s vast grasslands.
As we soon learned.
Suddenly, without warning, Ogii veered off the highway, hit the gas and accelerated across the scrubby landscape and up a hillside. Within minutes, he had brought us to a 360-degree view of the steppes – with flocks of animals grazing in the distance, next to groups of white yurts, or gers as they are called here.
This is what travel is like in Mongolia: Huge distances. Broad vistas. Big skies. Bright stars.
For a week, we slept in gers, hiked mountains, rode horses, swam in lakes, soaked in hot springs. Along the way, we met several Mongolian families, including traditional herders who seasonally move their gers and animals to greener pastures.
For lovers of nature and ancient cultures, Mongolia remains a relatively undiscovered gem.
Covering 603,000 square miles – roughly the size of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah combined – Mongolia is vast, but home to a mere 3 million people. Half of them live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Most of the rest are spread out on the grasslands, making a traditional living herding and breeding livestock.
Yet even in the outback, signs of modernization are everywhere.
On our first day on the road, we came across a large flock of camels, including some newborns. The camels made for excellent photos, but we were surprised by the two shepherds that soon arrived. They were riding a motorcycle.
The next day, we stopped at a ger camp, perched on a plateau and run by an elegant woman named Yandag. Inside her ger, Yandag was making a batch of urum, the Mongolian name for clotted cream, or “white butter.” She soon stepped outside to track her livestock with the aid of some high-quality binoculars.
15,000 Number of Americans who visited Mongolia last year.
Outside her ger stood solar panels and a satellite dish, for watching television.
Some Mongolians fret about the rapid change that is sweeping their country. One of these is Oyuntsetseg Suidaan – Oyuna – an Ulaanbaatar college English teacher who was our tour guide on the trip.
Oyuna isn’t nostalgic about the communist days of a quarter-century ago, when Mongolia was still a closed-off Soviet satellite. But she also doesn’t want her country to forget its history and customs.
“Little by little in the city, we are losing our traditions, our character,” she lamented one day, as we discussed Mongolia’s full-throttled embrace of capitalism. “We are becoming selfish.”
Perhaps that is why Oyuna chose to bring her 12-year-old daughter, Khuslen, on the trip. All of us were charmed by Khuslen and her unbridled enthusiasm. As for Oyuna, she seem delighted that her little city girl could experience the character of the countryside.
Americans don’t need a visa to enter Mongolia, but there are no direct flights from the U.S., so you’ll need one for a neighboring country.
In every ger camp we visited, families would invite us inside and offer us something, usually suutei tsai – salty milk tea. As we sipped our drinks and chatted, we took note of the colorful, ornate furniture inside these tents, including the altars festooned with photos of several generations of family.
The land of Genghis Khan is a rare destination for American tourists. According to government figures, last year there were fewer than 15,000 visits by U.S. citizens to Mongolia, compared with 258,000 by Chinese passport holders. For lovers of nature and ancient cultures, Mongolia remains a relatively undiscovered gem. It feels like one of the last frontiers in Asia.
A typical road trip takes you west from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, through Khustain National Park, where Mongolia’s semi-wild Takhi horses are protected. More than 300 of these golden horses now roam the park, the result of a successful reintroduction project supported by the Dutch and Mongolian governments.
3 million Number of residents in an area the size of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah combined.
Further west is Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve, which is dotted with remains of old Buddhist temples, and one active one. You can camp here, explore the ruins and hike up a lovely creek into hills filled with wildflowers.
Many schedule their tours through Mongolia to catch one or more of the Nadaams – local festivals held in July and early August. These festivals, which celebrate Mongolian wrestling, archery and horse racing, are true spectacles. One of the most colorful is at Karakorum, about 230 miles west of Ulaanbaatar.
Back in the mid-1300s, Karakorum was the capital of Mongolia, made so by the heirs of Genghis Khan. But the city’s glory didn’t last long. When Kublai Khan conquered China, he decided to move the capital to Beijing. The city’s residents have never forgiven him for that.
But Karakorum is making a comeback. At the fairgrounds, crowds of people attended the Nadaam, some arriving on horses, some in new Toyota Land Cruisers. Troupes of sequined girls danced before an appreciative audience. Young men sat tall in the saddle, taking selfies of each other. Older women practiced archery. A nearby polo match kicked up a dust storm.
Every day seemed to bring some new visual splendor. We passed by a deep gorge that looked like a tributary to the Grand Canyon. We camped at a lake so vast and undeveloped that you just wanted to stare at it for hours.
But the thing I’ll remember most was a toast on the first night of our trip. Ogii, our driver, pulled out shot glasses and a bottle of Mongolian vodka. He insisted that we partake, and of course, how could say no?
The customary Mongolian toast involves dipping your right ring finger into the glass and flicking it three or four times. First we toasted the sky, then the earth. The last time we touched our fingers to our foreheads, gave thanks, and knocked back the shot.
We all did this. By the end of it, we felt like we were all members of a time-honored, secret club.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth
If you go:
Tours: We booked our tour with Tselmeg Erdenekhuu, who runs Meg’s Adventure Tours in Ulaanbaatar. ( http://www.megmongolia.com/) Costs for a seven-day trip are about $665 per person for three people, which includes a driver, a guide, a van, lodging, food and tours. It does not include airfare. If Meg’s is booked, Lonely Planet has suggestions for other tour companies.
Connections: There are no direct flights from the United States to Mongolia, but Ulaanbaatar is served by flights from China, Japan, South Korea and other countries. Mongolia makes for a relaxing diversion after a week of touring China.
Preparations: U.S. citizens do not need a visa to visit Mongolia, but a visa may be needed for surrounding countries. A sleeping bag and a pad can be helpful for sleeping in gers, which may or may not have mattresses.