Bronze Award in Adventure Travel: The Great Escape

By Biju Sukumaran

Saline solution pools on my palm, magnifying the dust and specks of camel hair in my contacts, and cleaning them is now an almost futile gesture. But this was the least of my worries as I sit in my ger in the middle of the Gobi Desert, where our driver had pulled over to seek refuge from the sandstorm even now buffeting the walls of the glorified tent. Its top flaps sporadically, first idly, now furiously, letting both dust and flashes of light in, offering glimpsing of the room and its resting occupants, faces lightly covered with sand.

A City of Surprises

My time in Mongolia began a week ago, as I landed in the capital city of Ulan Bator. The summer months, where Mongolia’s harsh winters are mitigated by a touch of warmth, draws in the majority of the year’s tourists, while the city’s public transport groans under the strain of catering to those like myself, drawn to Nadaam, the national summer festival.

My guide and translator on this trip is a bubbly 18-year-old girl nicknamed Bubu, who struck me as out of place in a culture famous for stern horse lords and world conquerors. She liked playing computer games, listening to hip-hop and R&B, and singing Karaoke with her other young friends. My guide, like the capital city, was full of surprises, reflecting a new side of a Mongolia steadily emerging into the 21st century.

The largest city in the nation, it’s home to a population of over one million people. Originally founded as a Buddhist monastic center, the city’s original name, Urga, was changed to Ulan Bator, or “red hero” in honor of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a Mongolian leader in the 1921 revolution. Today the city is an important center for business and manufacturing, and as such is home to many international communities and expatriates.

On our way to an American chain restaurant, the Mongolian Grill, whose food bore little resemblance to the authentic food on the steppes, we passed shops selling designer clothes and high-end cars. We pass a Mercedes struggling to move through the congested streets, international restaurants and clubs, and youngsters flaunting designer jeans and popped collared shirts. My own guide sports her own unique style, and after some urging tells us of her friends, some vegan, who like playing Texas Hold’em and watching romantic comedies.

The buses and bus stops are all wireless, another example of the country’s growing fascination with modern technology, and when we finally make it to Sukhbataar Square, we are treated to its gigantic statue of Gengis Khan, the greatest of the Mongolian heroes. But the museum we visit close by describes a new Mongolia, a story of independence that outsiders tend to know little about. Bubu dances from foot to foot, her black Converses tapping on the floor, as the national anthem fills her with a sense of national pride and elation.

On the ground, the honking and general noise of the inhabitants reminds me of many a large city, but it’s only after climbing the hill to the south is a sense of perspective reached. Past hawkers and a bored Kazakh selling photo opportunities with his golden eagle, we trudge up the narrow stairs to the Zaisan Memorial, its circular mural depicting the friendship between the Soviet Union and Mongolia. There, despite the urban sprawl, the city is dwarfed by the green expanses of steppes that envelope the central region of the country. Located at the very edge of the city, the border between old and new, between a country’s urban progress and pastoral traditions, is perhaps most keenly felt.

Make Like a Mongolian

On our way to the Gobi, we had stocked up on simple supplies in a modern mall in Ulan Bator that specialized in camping gear. We opted against a tent, instead relying on the hospitality of the countryside. And although we did take food and water, we frequently made stops in one of the many small settlements spread out throughout the south, where the steppes transitioned to desert.

Outside the cities, the ger is king. Simply furnished a ger is the most ubiquitous of structures in Mongolia, the circular white tents dotting the rolling steppes to the ghettos of major cities, from the cold of the north, to even this, the harsh desert wastelands. Gers are hot in the winter and often come equipped with stoves that make them warm enough to be comfortable even in the most frigid of climates. At the same time, gers are constructed so they can be opened up, to allow for breezes in the warmer summers.

Yesterday, our driver had stopped after hours of jostling through rough dirt trails in an aged but well cared for Russian jeep. It could have been any small town in Mongolia, with its silent avenues and paved streets. Sailing past broken-down buildings we caravan in with another tourist group from Japan past a landscape of what I’d imagine post-apocalyptic Russia would look like after a nuclear holocaust. A few well-dressed 20-somethings kitted out in designer jeans and chic polo shirts make an interesting counterpoint to the dull browns of the empty lots and the traditional nomadic robes.

Our humble caravan makes a stop at a small shopping strip. A flea-bitten dog barks as we enter the general store. Biscuits, chocolate, candy, noodles, water, and the ever-present Chinggis vodka are in prominence. The sun from the entrance is blotted out as a gigantic Mongolian nomad, dressed in brown robes, a brilliant yellow sash, boots, and what looks like a cowboy hat saunters in. I’m forcibly reminded of an old Western movie, one of the many things about that this country that remind me of my native Texas.

Like a ghost town, only a few residents and a lone taxi make their eerie circuit around the settlement and the one restaurant seems to be the only place with any people in it. The menu lists a dozen dishes but the only one they actually have is translated as “meat and flour.”

Although the food in Mongolia is simple, it is always flavorful and filling. Meat – whether lamb, camel, or horse – is used sparingly, like a flavor enhancer. Often dried, and then put into soups, noodle, and rice dishes as a base, whole legs are boiled first in a stock and served as a side, and although I tend to be satisfied with the basic dish, our drivers crack the huge bones and suck out the marrow with gusto.

Few But Never Far Between

Back in the Gobi we finally meet the owners of what we had assumed was an abandoned ger camp in the desert. Out in the countryside, people are few and far between. Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth, with almost half the population living in the capital city. The rules for hospitality in such an environment are simple yet profound:

Always help travelers.

Because in this land of nomads, you never know when you’ll be in need of shelter.

The next morning I’ve given up on my contacts. As the sun rises to dissipate the chill of the desert air, we drive out to the dunes of Khongoryn Els, backed by the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains, the narrow strip of the Gobi that is completely filled with sand. Contrary to popular belief, most of the Gobi is actually arid rock, and this national park, a strictly protected zone within Mongolia, plays host to a number of rare plants and animals, including snow leopards and Gobi camels. The Kongoryn Els, known as the “Singing Sands” are comprised of massive dunes that reach up to 800 m high. Although only 20 km in width, the dunes are periodically subject to air turbulence coming off the nearby mountains, causing the dunes to “sing.”

The rest of my time in the Gobi is spent at another camp, where the natural hospitality of the Mongolian people shines through. In this arid climate, the camels are king. The gers are made of camel hide, we are immediately offered tea with camel milk, and the food of the night is a savory stew of rice with dried camel meat. Ameck, a camel herder, and head of the family, comes out to give us a ride through his arid kingdom. Bowlegged, he good-naturedly gives us a show on how to get on the camel, posing for a fellow guest who snaps a picture.

We leave the edges of the dunes the next day to head to the Cliffs of Fire, where, in the 1920s, the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews led an impressive series of expeditions, finding a number of excellently preserved fossils, including velociraptors and the first dinosaur eggs. According to popular lore, tasting a white rock and having it stick to your tongue guarantees that it’s a genuine fossil. Whether or not it’s true, the practice remains, with hawkers selling bits of rock to tourists to test. The view remains spectacular, and as the sun sets on the tan rock formation, they are painted a fiery red.

Yolyn Am, the Valley of the Eagles, is another contrast to the rolling steppes of the Mongolian heartland. Also located in the Gobi, the jutting peaks of the snow-covered mountains offer an oasis from the harsh realities of the desert. The entrance is like entering another world, where Golden Eagles circle the peaks, and green glades of grass and mountain flowers transport visitors to a scene from the Alps rather than Southern Mongolia. Even in summer parts of the valley floor are covered in ice, and the valley remains chilly throughout the year.

Same But Different

Our driver honks as he circumnavigates the ovoo in his car. Ovoo in most of Mongolia are piles of rock dedicated to the sky, a symbol of this fiercely nature-worshipping country. But here in the north, as the old jeep jars up and down across volcanic rock, the scene is quite different from the seas of green that characterize the central steppes. In this heavily forested countryside, the ovoo are now stacks of twigs, and as we look out into the sky seagulls circle instead of golden eagles.

We’re on the trail north to White Lake and Lake Khovsgol, where the well-to-do Mongolians living in Ulan Bator themselves go to vacation. The path is a trail of Mongolians driving with their families, packing campers, with cars and trucks strapped with camping gear. The dust rises in the distance as caravans abandon the partially built highway for the more well-worn, used, and standard dirt trail.

After hours on the roads, listening to Bubu’s selection of Mongolian rap and Enrique Iglesias, we arrive at Lake Khovsgol, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. After a long day traveling through the forests via horseback (our guide had only ridden once!) I settle down to the sounds of revelry at night. I reflect on the deep crystal clear waters, lapping at beaches of smooth pebbles, beaches that would not be out of place in the Caribbean but for the thick clusters of forest at the edge of the shore, punctuated by boisterous packs of shaggy yaks. I’m exhausted at the end of the day, but the full moon has risen, and the youth of Ulan Bator are out, dancing to hip-hop and techno along the edges of the lake around a campfire, and I can’t help laughing in the chill realizing how similar the scene is to my own native U.S., where bonfires and raves make a perfect combination under a moonlight sky.

Another similarity struck me a week before while traveling north. Near the holy city of Korakorum, the former capital of Chinggis Khan’s empire, our guide had found a local Nadaam Festival, far different from the more formal pageantry of Ulan Bator and Tsetserleg, another large city. Hastily set up stalls lined the outskirts of the main grassy field, hawking trinkets and fried street foods like hosher, a type of Mongolian calzone stuffed with meat or fish. Youngsters in their trucks and even younger kids strutting on horses flirt with each other, carrying snacks and looking coyly across bottles of coke. The whole affair feels like a U.S. State fair, except with horse racing, Mongolian wrestling, and nomadic attire.

On our way north we are treated to several other anomalies – hot springs on the way to the two lakes are a mandatory stop, not only because of the distance involved from getting from Ulan Bator to the northern country, but because they offer spectacular views of the transition from steppes to the forest, and close up views of horse herds that call the area home. Mornings are chill, but the excitement of hearing the hoof beats and neighing of the curious herds galloping next to camp make the chilly trip to the springs worthwhile.

Horses are the symbol of Mongolia, a Mongolian’s pride and joy. But perhaps the most impressive recent accomplishment of Mongolia lies in the nearby Hustai National Park, where in 1992 scientists and conservationists lead the reintroduction of the Takhi, or Mongolian Wild Horse, back into the wild. Comprising of 50,000 hectares, Hustai National Park offers visitors a spectacular series of ger camps with detailed information on the reintroduction of what is considered the only species of wild horse. Also, visitors have the opportunity to talk to experts and go out into the park to actually spot the species in the wild.

The White Lake is another of the lakes to the north. With rocky surfaces around the lake, bands of boisterous yaks roam, while well-to-do Mongolians camp and fish throughout the day. On my last day before heading back to Ulan Bator and the flight back home, I awaken to half-remembered memories of books, themselves half-remembered memories of Mongolia, Chinggis Kahn, and a country’s golden age.

“Temujin! Temujin” The boy screams to his playmate outside my ger. On the shores of White Lake, their screams take an excited edge as they kick the ball back and forth to each other.

Temujin – the name of the Great Kahn – did he once play, just as free, as the boy that now bears his name? Folded again and again, the old and new thread their way through modern Mongolia.


Biju Sukumaran is an American freelance writer and photographer currently based in South America whose work has appeared in (among others) National Geographic Traveller (India), Esquire (Malaysia), Time Out, Lonely Planet Magazine, and The Dallas Morning News.

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