Grasslands, horses and thunderstorms – the Mongolian Experience in a nutshell

So it was that we pulled into UB, inspired by the unfathomably gorgeous scenery for the three hours of daylight we’d had coming into town, but embittered by that miserable train ride. It was Nadaam, day of the national festival, so we had little time to get going. Breakfast at the guesthouse consisted of bread, jam, butter and coffee, not exactly the most important meal of day in Mongolia apparently. The walk to the main stadium for the opening ceremonies, we were told, took 15 minutes. Nearly as hour later, we dragged our sweaty asses onto the festival ground. According to our tickets, we had assigned seats. To how many people they assigned these seats is unclear. There were about twice as many people in the stands as could comfortably fit. It looked like an Indian train car. A jolly big Mongolian in traditional dress elbowed out enough room for me to sit, with Sun in my lap. Close enough.

There were dancers, the President of the country, the “Mongolian Michael Jackson” and Mongol hordes, hundreds of soldiers in nomadic dress. That part was really cool. You can feel the legacy of Chinggis Khan in every Mongolian, and see actual Mongol hordes armed and ready, it was awesome. Chinggis himself appeared, in thespian form of course. But he’s on all the money, too, and in statute form in the main square. Mongolians are still nomadic, many of them, and even city dwellers may spend the summer in a ger on the grasslands. Their lifestyle has change little and they still have great admiration for the greatest of their number to ever walk the earth.

We ate khuushuur, which is fried dough filled with meat, except that we found a vegan one. As Buddhism recovers from Communist suppression – a process only 20 years in the making – vegetarianism is gaining a following. Western influence is also contributing. Mongolia has received a significant amount of investment, particularly in the mining sector, and there are worries that this, too, will corrupt the nation.

We drank kvas – they got it from the Russians and seem to really like it. We drank airag – the local fermented mare’s milk. We drank Chinggis beer, which is pretty good. And then we went back to the hotel. A thunderstorm blew in rather quickly, and so we had to wait an hour and a half to get dinner. Everything was flooded. It took forever to go even one block, it was so hard to find dry spots to zig zag a path. It actually took a few days for the streetlakes to dry out – surprised we didn’t see people getting around on horseback to solve the problem. Mongolia is definitely an experience.

After a couple of days in town at the festival, we headed for the countryside. Most people, if they’re not going for Nadaam, go to Mongolia specifically for the countryside. It is vast, endless rolling grassland, dotted with sheep, horses, goats and gers. We saw a few sites, like the Erdene Zuu monastery, but on the whole the highlight was simply being out there. The views were amazing, as were the stars at night. We slept in tourist gers, which were comfortable and cozy. We had an excellent guide and a serious vehicle. We could not have asked for more, really.

After we expressed an interest in trying more airag, our guide Gana took us to find some. How it works is this. You drive around looking for horses. If you see lots of foals, you stop in at the ger. This is what people do – they just drop in randomly on strangers. It’s part of the culture. So we stopped by this family and were treated to some airag from the bucket. It’s thin drinking yoghurt, very mildly alcoholic, and you’ll be full long before you’re even remotely tipsy. Three mugs each and we were bloated and ready to crash out. So that’s what we did. After all the intense traveling, it was nice to have very little to do.

We returned to the city and the next morning we dragged our bags to the station for the last leg of the journey, a 31 hour ride to Beijing. Everybody was dragging their bags, along with extra bags full of food and water. For once, our load seemed normal. We were fearful, though, as this was another Mongolian train. We were booked in 1st class, however, and this gave us hope.

It rocked. The cabins were brilliant, probably the best we’ve ever seen. The beds were stacked, so that the other side of the room had two things. The first was a chair – okay it was dusty and mildewy a bit and made me cough – but we had a proper chair to sit in. There was also a bathroom. It was shared between two cabins – close enough to private. With toilet paper, a shower, more amenities and less stench than most train bathrooms, this was luxury at its finest. The car was quiet – it was actually mostly tourists – and we settled in for a peaceful ride.

It was not without its glitches. The cabin with which we shared the bathroom was occupied by a sick lady, and I got that cold for a while. The border wait was long and boring again. But the Gobi Desert was awesome. There were random camels and fly-blown villages and endless stretches of nothing.

The next morning we awoke to China. We were out of the desert and everything looked, well, like China. That means grey and polluted. It means Communist apartment blocks and ramshackle mud villages. We could no longer read any of the signs – Mongolians use Cyrillic so we could still decipher signs there.

We rolled through some beautiful mountains and gorges on our way to Beijing, but we could hardly see any of it through the haze. There were no stops of consequence either, so we were glad to have a well-appointed cabin and a stockpile of instant noodles. When we pulled into Beijing, it was show time.

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