ON THE HARSH STEPPES, HOSPITABLE PEOPLE
text and photos by Ellen Warner
On a trip through Mongolia, travelers find a warm welcome when they stop at a nomad's tent...
Jolt. The railway car shuddered. I sleepily opened an eye. It was 1 o'clock in the morning. We were at the border between China and Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railway heading north. China and Mongolia have different railway gauges, so at the border each railway car is rolled into a shed and hoisted into the air while the wheels are changed. When the train arrives at the border, the cognoscenti race off to shop for the three-and -a-half-hour process.
I had mistakenly thought I'd sleep through it, and once one is airborne there is no escape. My friend Catherine and I leaned out the window of our compartment to watch the commotion. The naked light bulbs cast an eerie glow, and a guard dog paced the platform. Chinese police had already checked our passports twice and looked under the seats of our compartment for stowaways. We felt as though we were heading into the unknown.
Such was the beginning of our trip to Mongolia last May. Next morning as we woke, we were crossing the steppes - seemingly endless wide-open grasslands, punctuated by gently undulating hills.
Mongolia is nearly three times the size of France, with a population of only about two and a half million, almost half of whom live in cities. The others are nomads who herd their horses, goats, camels and yaks in much the same way they did at the time of Genghis Khan.
In the early afternoon, we arrived in Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital city, with an official population of 650,000 but perhaps as many as a million people because of recent migration from the countryside. On first glance, U.B., as it is known, is unprepossessing - wide streets with comparatively few cars and run-down Soviet architecture - a city plunked down in the middle of nowhere. However, after a few days it developed the intimacy of a college town.
Catherine and I stayed at the Tuushin, a small, clean and pleasant hotel just off Sukhbaatar Square in the center of town. As far as we could tell we were the only tourists. The other guests were Americans or Europeans working for nonprofit organizations advising the Mongolian government on everything from housing and health care to the responsibilities of legislatures. After 70 years as a socialist satellite of the Soviet Union, Mongolia became a democracy in 1990. Its position between China and Russia makes it a strategic ally for the West.
During our two and a half days in U.B., we visited three outstanding museums: The National Museum of Mongolian History, known for its superb collection of tribal costumes, the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, which houses a large assemblage of Mongol painting and sculpture, and the Museum of Natural History, where one can see spectacular dinosaur finds from the Gobi Desert. The history museum is very modern; the others, though not state of the art, have reasonably good displays. Each time we were the only visitors.
We also visited Ganden Monastery on the outskirts of town. Tibetan Buddhism is firmly entrenched in Mongolia. By the 1920's, there were some 700 monasteries, and its estimated one-third to one-half of the male population were lamas. Almost all the monasteries were destroyed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930's; Ganden is one of a handful remaining. Lamas in saffron and crimson robes mingled with visitors from the countryside, most of whom wore dels. The traditional Mongolian dress for both men and women, the del is a long robe fastened with buttons at the neck and a bright sash around the waist.
On advice from a friend in Ulan Bator we made arrangements with Nomadic Expeditions to travel out into the country, and on the third morning our Land Rover arrived, piled high with tents, food, bottled water and extra gasoline.
Our plan was to travel on the steppes for a week, first west to Karakorum, then south through the Gobi Desert and finally ending up at Dalandzadgad, the capital of Omnogov province, where we would catch a plane back to Ulan Bator. We would drive about six hours a day, stopping often to take photographs - taking pictures was the main reason for the trip - or visit with nomads, and would decide where to camp at the end of each day.
Our guide's name was Gerel, and our driver Enkhbold. Gerel was 23, studied foreign affairs at the university, spoke perfect English and was able to answer almost every question we asked. Enkhbold spoke no English but had an engaging, shy smile and, as we were to discover, was a masterly driver, mechanic and navigator.
Within half an hour, we were out on the steppes heading west towardKarakorum on a two-lane tarmac road that Gerel said was the best and busiest in Mongolia. We passed a car every 20 minutes or so. The country was beautiful - wide-open spaces with gentle mountains. The Mongols are a country of riders, and we saw endless silhouettes of lone horsemen wearing dels and often carrying uurgas, long poles with circular ropes at the end for lassoing animals.
Gers were nestled against the hills. Most Mongols, even in towns, live in these white circular tents built over a collapsible wooden frame; with brightly painted doors facing south. In the center a stove (often fueled with dung) provides heat and a place to cook.
The grass was green, and the treeless steppes were bursting with small wildflowers. Herds of horses,
sheep and goats roamed, seemingly wild, but Gerel told us that in fact they all belonged to herdsmen.
No one owns land on the steppes. A herdsman and his family will stay in a place as long as there is enough grass, then pack up the ger and move on, typically returning to the same place the following year. We passed ovoos, piles of stones with silk prayer scarves at the top. Originally a Shaman custom, ovoos mark a sacred place or an auspicious point in a journey. One is encouraged to walk three times clockwise around these piles, add three stones or coins to the top and offer a prayer.
At the end of the afternoon, we reached Karakorum, the site of Genghis Khan's capital. All that is left are a bunch of gers, a few shacks and Erdene Zuu Monastery, which was reputedly built from the remains of a 13th-century palace. Erdene Zuu, built between the 16th and 19th century, was the first center of Lamaism in Mongolia. At its height it is purported to have contained up to 60 temples and 300 gers within its walls. Today one can see three main temples and several smaller ones.
Most impressive for me were the monastery's massive walls surmounted by 108 stupas spaced every 20 yards or so. As we walked around the walls in the early evening, I thought about Genghis Khan, who in the 13th century had united the fiercely independent Mongol clans, burst onto the world stage and ruled one of the largest empires in history, extending from Korea to Hungary. That night, we stayed in a ger camp outside Karakorum. About 10 gers for visitors surrounded a larger one which served as a dining room. Showers and toilets were in a separate building.
Catherine and I were shown to our ger, which had three beds, one on either side and one facing the door. A man arrived to light the stove. A single light bulb dangled from the hole in the ceiling, but the electricity wasn't working so we lighted candles.
Dinner that night, served by candlelight and accompanied by beer, was typical of others throughout our trip: cold cabbage salad, noodle soup, meat stew, rice and a biscuit for dessert. It was very tasty.
The following day we headed south. There were no paved roads, only vague tracks that traversed the steppes, crossing primitive bridges and fording streams. We passed yaks as well as horses and sheep. We never saw another car, although twice during the day we saw men on motorbikes. Our picnic lunch was next to a circular burial mound from the second century B.C.
The country became more barren and sandier as we reached the northern part of the Gobi Desert. Dead horses along the road were evidence of the recent harsh winter.
Toward the end of the afternoon we saw goats and a ger in the distance and decided to stop there. There is a tradition of hospitality on the steppes. Visitors are rare, and one is always welcomed with food and drink.
The customary Mongolian greeting as one arrives is to call out "Hold the dog!" - appropriate here as two ferocious dogs leapt at our approaching car. Entering a ger, a visitor walks to the left and sits either on the ground, on a stool or on a bed if there is one. The family sits to the right, and the back wall is reserved for sacred objects. Our hostess greeted us, with Gerel interpreting. She put a wok-shaped pot on the stove and boiled Mongolian milk tea - a mixture of tea, milk, a little butter and salt.
Where had we come from, she asked Gerel, and where were we headed? The tea was served in little bowls accompanied by bordzig, small hard wheat pastries. When wehad finished, she mentioned that her sons were combing their goats. Would we like to see how it was done?
Mongolia, together with Inner Mongolia in China, produces some of the best cashmere in the world. The goats grow a thick fine undercoat to stay warm, and in the spring, when they molt, the wool is combed off and sold by herdsmen to cashmere companies. We watched as thick white wool was combed off the bleating trussed goats with implements that looked like small rakes.
That evening we camped next to a gentle river. Gerel pulled out a collapsible picnic table and several stools and served us a delicious dinner of corn salad, noodle soup, beef and rice and a fresh orange dessert, cooked on a little stove in the back of the Land Rover. We washed our faces in the river, and looked for any form of scrub to hide behind when going to the bathroom.
Before long a family who lived in a nearby ger rode up to pay a visit, a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the trip. They brought fresh milk and yogurt. As we ate dinner in the fading light, watching a herd of goats scampering up a cliff across the river, we felt immersed in a world that hadn't changed much in the last millennium.
The next day, while refueling at the handcranked pump in the hamlet of Mandal-Ovoo, we took a walk and came across a school where children of nomadic families boarded during the week. This was Friday, and we visited the last seventh-grade class before dismissal. With Gerel interpreting, we found that some wanted to be nomads, one girl wanted to be a doctor and several boys wanted to be sports stars. Michael Jordan was their hero. When we left, most of the school escorted us to our car. We continued south towards the Gurvansaikhan Nuruu mountains and in the evening pitched our tent between two low hills, surrounded by sagebrush and miniature blue iris. While Gerel was making supper, I climbed to the top of one of the hills and looked out over miles of almost flat grassland. Two gers were barely visible, and sure enough, as we were eating dinner up rode five cheerful men and boys who chatted with Gerel and Enkhbold and politely stared at Catherine and me.
The Gobi is one of the world's greatest troves of dinosaur remains. Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History led five expeditions there in the 1920's and brought back dinosaur eggs as well as evidence of new species. For the next 60 years, during Soviet domination of Mongolia, Western paleontologists were not permitted to explore there. Within weeks after Mongolia declared its independence in 1990, a Mongolian delegation visited the Museum of Natural History in New York. Each summer since, Dr. Michael Novacek, curator of vertebrate paleontology, has led a joint American-Mongolian expedition to the Gobi, unearthing an astounding wealth of skeletons, fossils and eggs.
Gerel told us we might be able to see some dinosaur remains at Tugrogin Shiree, an old excavation site. We drove to the top of an escarpment, slid down to a gully below and walked along a riverbed. It had rained hard the night before and we were lucky. Enkhbold saw a small skeleton of a dinosaur embedded in the side of the escarpment, Gerel found some tiny dinosaur bones and Catherine saw a perfectly round, hard object that looked suspiciously like the dinosaur eggs we'd seen in the Natural History Museum in Ulan Bator. (Visitors should leave prehistoric remains in place, as it is illegal to export them.) Feeling very pleased, we scrambled back and had lunch on the rim.
In the afternoon, we headed toward Bayan Zag, better known as the Flaming Cliffs, the site of Roy Chapman Andrews's discoveries of the 1920's. Looking across the grassy steppe, we could see nothing that looked like a cliff anywhere on the horizon. After a herdsman pointed the way, Enkhbold soon recognized where we were and swerved to the right. We gasped with surprise as we suddenly found ourselves at the top of an escarpment looking down on canyons of red cliffs. Beyond them the flat valley floor stretched as far as the eye could see. It was not hard to imagine Roy Chapman Andrews arriving with his camel caravan 70 years ago.
On our last morning, we went into the mountains to see the Yol Valley, known for its unique landscape, icy almost year-round, and its wildlife, but it was shrouded in clouds. In the afternoon, we stopped at the South Gobi Museum in Dalandzadgad, which houses an interesting collection of prehistoric remains as well as local costumes and artwork. Dalandzadgad itself, with its wide streets and low concrete buildings, felt like a quiet cowboy town in a Western movie.
In the early evening, we stopped at a ger. This time our hostess was heading out to bring in her camels for the night, and we gave her a lift. She saddled a camel and began herding the others back toward the ger, insisting that we ride as well. It was surprisingly comfortable.
Reprinted with permission from the New York Times