Getting to Mongolia really felt like something new though, starting with the big poster of Chinngis Khan at the airport and the fairly small-town feel of Ulaanbaatar. It looks a bit like Dunedin.Mongolia turns a lot of Asia on its head: it’s not crowded, the houses don’t have Chinese-style roofs, it’s warm but not humid & rainy in summer, and they don’t grow rice or eat with chopsticks. With fewer than three million people in a country almost five times the size of New Zealand, it makes home look crowded. Mongolia has the kind of big wide sky we’d experienced driving across Australia in 2005, with endless rolling hills covered in short grasses and herbs and only a few isolated patches of trees or occasional rock formations. The country smells of sage, thyme and livestock. Goats, sheep and horses were a frequent sight though the bulk of the land was simply empty. We saw some large black & white cranes and a couple of huge eagles with two metre wingspans.
Our guide Chim-ge was very helpful and friendly and spoke good English. We also had a driver whose name sounded like Reggae (we had fun trying to explain what reggae music is) who spoke no English but was very good at avoiding getting stuck in the mud. After a seven-hour drive across mostly dirt roads, we got to the ger camp where we were staying for the next two days. A ger is a round Mongolian tent house built around a central fireplace, with a south-facing door (the winds come from the north).
Mongolian nomads dismantle their gers and move home four times a year. That system allows the land to regenerate from grazing. The animals are the families’ livelihoods, providing income, food and even fuel for fires ie dung. We spent a couple of hours ‘picking up shit’ to help out, and also took a turn at milking the goats. We filled a fifth of a bucket between us in the time the mother and grandmother of the family filled two each. The other job was mixing the barrel of arrig, or alcohol made from fermented horses’ milk. We were presented with two bowls on arrival – it tasted like a sour yoghurt.
Mongolian food is almost entirely based on meat and dairy products and not at all spicy. They put some onion and carrot in our food but that was really a tourist concession. I found a native spinach plant growing nearby as a diet supplement – strangely the Mongolians don’t make use of that or the various herbs available. Many traditional nomads believe that vegetables are bad for you. They burn off all the protein and fat by working long and hard outdoors – in the city there were a lot of fat Mongolians however.
On the second day we had a side trip to Karakortum, site of the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and Chinggis Khan’s royal court (one turtle statue is all that remains). Each Buddhist country has a different style of artwork – the Mongolian style is influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and seemed to emphasise demonic looking creatures such as the blue-skinned three-eyed sharp-fanged ten protectors. Listening to the red-robed monks chanting their sutras was fascinating, much more polyphonic than the Korean minimalist style.
The monastery buildings had Chinese-style roofs but overall there was much less Chinese influence in Mongolia than I’d imagined. If anything we could see bits of Russia creeping in, especially back in town – for example the language is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. It was very interesting the feeling of Asia gradually fading away.
After a couple of days out in the country enjoying the smog-free air and the sounds of goats and sheep rather than traffic noise, construction work and hard-sell advertising, we headed back to Ulaanbaatar. We had timed the trip to coincide with the Nadaam festival (translates as ‘fun festival’), which is the big annual event consisting of wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing. It celebrates Mongolian independence from 200 years if Manchu rule. We were most interested in the opening ceremony, which was a feast of colourful costumes, dancing and Mongolian music which, as several locals said, evokes the feel of wide open spaces, galloping horses, cold winter nights and mountain passes.
We got our fill of Mongolian music over the next two nights, seeing both a smaller traditional ensemble and a big-scale stage show with a full Morin-Khuur orchestra. The morin-khuur is a kind of two-stringed cello with a rhombus-shaped body and a horse’s head carving at the top of the neck. They come in various sizes up to double-bass size and were surprisingly cheap to buy in the shops (about $80NZ – too big to travel with unfortunately and would need a case). Both shows were amazing, with costumes, dancing, musicians accompanying contortionists, and longsongs and throat-singing.
In all Mongolia was a definite highlight so far…