I’ve been in Mongolia for just over a week. Life is mucccchhhhh diffffeerrrreeeent here. Itttttt mooooves at a sloooooooooooower pace.
My plan was to hook up with some other travelers to do a long 4WD tour of the Gobi desert and Mongolian countryside. I set up shop in the UB Guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar, posting my desired tour on the message board, and headed east for a couple of days to the Terelj National Park to get my first taste of Mongolian nomadic life.
I joined two lovely Australian girls for a peaceful two days of horse riding, hiking and meditation. Terelj was beautiful. The foliage was changing, the hilly countryside was broken up by craggy rock formations, horses in pasture and small nomadic settlements. I accomplished a life-list item which was riding a horse in Mongolia, taking a long day tour through the mountains to a lamasery.
Mongolia is generally not a place you come for culture, great food or sights. It is very raw, being one of the last remaining nomadic societies in the world (60% of Mongolians are nomadic). It is also one of the least-populated places, with only 1 person per 3 square kilometers or something crazy like that. I can’t tell you exactly why I wanted to come here besides wanting to ride a horse – something inside me was drawn to the wildness of this place. It is a frontier – very few paved roads and facilities outside of the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
My two nights in Terelj were fantastic – I hiked around, did some bouldering, found time to mediate in the crisp, dry autumn air. Light snow flakes fell one afternoon as we rode the horses. I realized I had been moving a lot the past couple of weeks – Western China, Beijing, Mongolia, and this was the first time in weeks that I literally just stayed put for a couple of days. This area appealed to me for some of the same reasons I love Colorado – open spaces, mountains, blue skies and quiet. The family we stayed with invited us in for homemade yogurt and cheese and vodka that they distilled from the yogurt. We shared a few laughs by using my Mongolian phrasebook as grandma kept refilling our glasses.
Two days later I found myself back in Ulaanbaatar, working out the details of a two week 4wd trip with a random group of solo travelers. After a lot of negotiation and decision making we had a driver, a 30 year old Russian jeep, an itinerary, food and a few bottles of Vodka. We were off. The plan was to spend about 7 or 8 days in the Gobi desert, then another 4 or 5 in central Mongolia. I’m writing this on the seventh day of our trip – we are currently snowed in and unable to drive today. Fortunately we happen to be in one of only two destinations that have Internet and a shower!
Our days have been generally similar – driving through vast landscapes of desert, hiking around gorges or sand dunes, then sleeping in a traditional Mongolian home, called a Ger. They are round, with a wooden frame and are covered with some sort of felt. If you’re lucky you’ll have a stove in yours. They are quite mobile and can be erected and taken down in a matter of hours as the families migrate with their livestock. Meals are extremely basic, the only vegetables that grow around here are potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Mongolians subsist primary on meat. Fortunately I’ve packed in a number of provisions from the city to help me survive the meager, meat filled portions. My next post will discuss my slight variation from the vegetarian lifestyle I began 4 years ago. At the moment I’m not feeling particularly inspired to go into the details of individual adventures, I’ll save that for another time. I will say that the Gobi desert is the most silent place in the world when the wind isn’t blowing. All you can hear is your heartbeat when you sit still. Our group started off very chatty and we are slowly finding the pace of life in the desert, enjoying the solitude and peace that comes with it. It is a harsh place, the people who live here work tremendously hard for very little return beyond basic survival. We’ve seen a wolf, vultures, gazelles, and of course camels, horses and sheep.
I’ve been sitting a lot with some of the ideas in my 4-month reflections, accompanied by a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and the silence.