During an extended trip to East Asia, my partner and I took a two-week trip to Mongolia, partially because our Chinese visas required it, and also because of Mongolia’s wild, largely undeveloped openness. For nature. After the extreme urban clamor of China, this sounded perfect.
We flew into Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capitol, from Beijing, and spent two days there before heading to the countryside. I was told by some long-timers that UB used to be attractive when the country was still under Soviet “administration,” but it’s hard to believe. Today, it’s a dusty and vegetation-free city made of large Soviet-style concrete block architecture with paint peeling off from the extreme cold of UB’s winters. Tourist-focused shops, of which there are many, hawk camel, yak or wool knick-knacks and sweaters alongside various products, from vodka to war helmets, commemorating Chingiss Khaan.
Traffic in UB is congested, and the roads, attacked as they are by extreme conditions, are in various states of decay. Air quality is exceedingly poor, owing to two main factors: the widespread use of coal as fuel for heating, and the unplanned growth of a city built for 300,000 swelling to over a million in too short a time. Mongolia only has about 2.5 million people, and over a million live in UB.
We were happy to head for the countryside. Our host and guide, Bogi, drove us several hours to the northeast, and found a “nomadic” herding family for us to stay with for two weeks. They had a ger (yurt) and agreed to prepare two meals a day for us. Perfect.
I had imagined epic blue skies, and these were definitely present, as the photos in this post attest, but in June, there’s an equal amount of rain and high winds in northeastern Mongolia. After a beautiful first day, it poured for the next several, and I was going a bit stir crazy from sitting in our ger without electricity or any sitting positions comfortable enough for me to write in.
I decided to head out on a day of walking, hoping to find internet access at one of the many camps or couple of restaurants I’d seen when Bogi had driven us in. The massive scale of grass floodplains and thin riverine forests here in northeastern Mongolia make them more suited to horseback riding than to walking, but I was a happy speck moving slowly through valleys full of the bleached skulls, spines and other stray bone bits of departed animals.
I walked for hours, sometimes joined by wary-then-playful dogs, passing alongside grazing horses, cattle, and several vomits of dandelion-munching yak (yes, that’s one of the suggested ways to refer to them, and I personally observed their great love of dandelions).
When you look at pictures of the landscape of an area like this, you can’t really see the impressively large volume of dung that occupies every slightly level, even faintly vegetative spot of earth. It’s natural — evidence of fertility and a rich relationship between the animals and land.
This is the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, in the Khan Khentee Protected Area, homeland of Chingiss Khan, in northeastern Mongolia. The nomadic herding families here, so heavily marketed as one of the cultural treasures of Mongolia, are, in fact, commercial operators who must hold commercial licenses in order to be in this area and who can no longer exist in their traditional lifestyle without the annual infusion of money they get from summer tourists. My host family does herd cows and horses, but they are here, in this particular area, for the tourist money. They’re charging 30,000 Mongolian tugriks (MNT), or around 21 USD, for a ger and two prepared meals a day, which consist mostly of rice, fried dough in various forms, and charred animal. (This is not a complaint, to be clear; when I travel, I gratefully eat what’s offered unless it seems like a clear health risk.)
It’s hard to grow vegetables in Mongolia, primarily because of the short growing season and also because of the herding and frequent overgrazing of ruminant animals, which diminishes ground cover and leaves what fertile soil does exist to dry out and blow away. It’s very dusty here. It’s been a dry and hot season so far, but it’s easy to see the plains and hills that have been grazed from green to brown where the animals have been set loose.
There are also, according to several locals I encountered on my day’s odyssey, lots of corrupt businessmen, mostly from UB, who bribe park officials to allow them to graze their animals in the national park, and my hunch is that if this is true, these businessmen are grazing animals on a far larger scale than nomad families or everyday herders, and thus they may be more to blame for the overgrazing.
Herding in Mongolia is brutally hard work that puts herders and the animals at the mercy of some of the most extreme conditions possible outside of Siberia or the Arctic. Wolves frequently prey on baby horses and other animals (the mother of a baby horse belonging to our host family was taken by a wolf just two nights ago), and temperatures routinely stay below -30 degrees Fahrenheit for months on end. Once or twice a decade on average a dzud occurs and kills millions of animals. A dzud, it was explained to me, is a certain set of weather conditions that turns the top layer of snow that accumulates in winter into an impenetrable sheet of ice. I was surprised to learn that most of the horses, cattle and yak in Mongolia are left outside to forage as best they can in winter. I did not know they could survive in such extreme cold — in California, I’ve seen horses with blankets draped over them when it’s in the 40s — but in Mongolia they can, unless a dzud occurs, and then they cannot find anything to eat and they starve and freeze to death. In 2008, around 8 million animals died.
I’d walked around 8km, pleased that my recently broken ankle was issuing only minor complaint, and stopped into two camps to ask after internet access, when a woman in a white Honda slowed on the road in such a way that made me think she was slowing to offer me a ride. But when I got closer to the road, she appeared only to be checking her cellphone, so I began walking back down into the valley before she honked and waved out the window and I walked back up again.
In Mongolia, most of the steering wheels in cars are on the right, but hers was on the left, so I got in on the right side, smiled, and she began speaking to me in Mongolian which I had no comprehension of at all. I pointed forward, down the road, and said: Internet? She didn’t understand me until I said it with a trilled “Russian” “r,” “Inter-r-r-net?” Ah! She understood. I tried to explain, slowly, using my hands, that down the road, there was a hotel – hotel?, yes she knew hotel – and that I thought there was inter-r-r-net there.
She began driving. With our severe communication gap, I wondered where this might lead. Within fifteen minutes of driving, I calculated that I would be too far from our ger to walk back before nightfall, and I wasn’t sure if she understood what I was seeking.
“Ulaanbaatar-r-r?” she said? No, I did not want to go all the way to UB, where I would likely be stuck for the evening, with no way to let F. know that I was fine and not to worry. We drove and then drove some more. I learned that her “English” name was Giny, and that she had a daughter, 15, a son, 13, and no husband. She handed me a thick presentation book for a Mongolian Horse Expedition Outfitter, and by pointing and smiling, explained that this was her business. One of the pictures showed her smiling astride a lovely chestnut horse with a thick mane. She pointed to other pictures in the book, and said “Kree-un.” After she said it again, I understood she meant “Korean.” Then she pointed to her mouth and said “Mongol, Kree-un. No English.”
Giny was wearing a snug-fitting plush pink top, and unlike most of the women I’d seen out here so far, her skin was smooth and clear – her hands looked well-moisturized and not nearly as rough as I’d expect on a woman who rode or trained horses for a living. I learned that she was 38, and had a moment of small shock when I realized I was older than she was. I’m not accustomed to seeing myself as older than people with 15-year-old children, even though if I do the math, that’s not terribly noteworthy, and this is clearly a case of my not updating my own self-image to match my actual age of 39. If I make it to 60, I bet I’ll still be having moments of mild displeasure or shock when someone refers to me as “sir” or “mister.”
Giny called her daughter on the phone, then handed it over to me. Her daughter spoke some English, and I explained to her what I was looking for. Then she spoke to Giny. Then Giny drove on, ever farther from where I was staying, giving no sign I could recognize that she had hope we’d find any internet.
I was beginning to feel very foolish for having been so keen to find internet access when I was in the middle of a national park in Mongolia. Still, I was enjoying this adventure as well, and I had a feeling that Giny would not strand me in the middle of nowhere. I thought perhaps I’d be spending the night in the home of strangers, and the idea held some appeal.
Giny pulled over. She looked at me. She said something in Mongolian. I asked her in English if we should go back, pointing back the way we’d come. We stared at each other for a moment, and I thought that Giny was really quite lovely. Then we both laughed and she turned around and we headed back. She made a few more calls. After the third one, she let out a celebratory sound and said “internet!”
We drove back, past the spot where she’d picked me up, and I thought that it was remarkable that this lovely stranger had now driven 50 or 60km to help me. We came to a sign that said “Ayanchin,” and she made a turn and we drove up a long dirt road, where I eventually saw a large white 3-story Western ranch-style house, about half a dozen white gers, and a three-story geodesic dome. This would have been noteworthy under any circumstances, but it was particularly unexpected in a place predominated by blocky Soviet-era concrete structures and the soft circular rising shapes of gers.
When she pulled up in the driveway, she looked for her business card for maybe ten minutes, then finally just wrote down all of her information for me. I gave her mine in return. She refused my offer of gas money or compensation of any kind. I hoped I might see Giny again, and made a mental note to look her up for a horseback riding excursion.
The place she’d dropped me off at looked like someone’s home. I walked up to it. The door was open, and there was a mat that said “Welcome.” I stepped inside and a woman who looked Mongolian walked by. I said hello, feeling awkward at having stepped into someone’s home, and she pointed behind her, to my left. The dining room was a restaurant, with six tables and a well-stocked bar at one end.
As I came in, I asked the bartender if they had internet, and he said they did, so I took a seat by a window, plugged in, and surveyed the menu.
Traveling sometimes makes me exaggeratedly appreciative of some simple comforts of home. I am embarrassed by this fact, especially when I’m in a place full of ex-pats, as I often am in China. Still, here in Gorkhi Terelj, I was thrilled to read a menu in English, and even more thrilled to see that it listed salad. Two different kinds of salad! With lots of vegetables! Oh happy day! I ordered one with beets and carrots and cabbage and cucumbers, along with a beer, and I opened up my netbook and deepened my happiness even further reading about the NBA and checking my email and writing down and emailing to myself as backup as many details about Mongolia as I could remember.
On my way out, I saw a very tall, white man smoking a cigar and folding his arms over the top of his big belly while he surveyed three Mongolian workers who were hammering strips of tar paper onto the plywood roof of a new structure that looked like it was shaping up to be a garage. He seemed eager to talk about himself.
“John,” he said, extending a big hand. He had a predictably firm-to-the-point-of-painful grip. I have large hands and, as a holdover of my upbring in the Midwest, I know to look men like this directly in the eye, and to shake their hands with a firm grip, as if I might take pleasure in crushing someone’s knucklebones. He told me about this thing they were building – “they don’t know a damn thing about this kind of construction, but I just have my way of doing things and I tell ‘em how it’s gonna be done,” puff puff…
I’ve encountered lots of men like John. So I wasn’t surprised when a great deal of his conversation turned to a reflexive and not always logically consistent hatred and distrust of government.
The government in Mongolia, John said, was corrupt, and they “stole everything.”
This made me think of an article I’d read a few days earlier, in the English language Mongolian Messenger. The title of the article was “Officials Defend False Income Declarations,” and here is one choice paragraph from the article, detailing a state servant who made false statements about income and property:
“The Anti-Corruption Agency found that Dornod Aimag’s Governor Ts. Janlav did not declare his private house where he now lives, four apartments which are owned by his family members, building with purpose for small-enterprise, [MNT]50 million income from selling his two-story private house, as well as 23 percent of shares of Dornod Company that is owned by his wife… MIAT Executive Director R.Bat-Erdene did not declare shares of Araknids Company, which is owned by his wife, a Nissan Murano car which was purchased for USD 24,000, a two-story private summer house and USD 6,500 in income from selling his Mercedes Benz C-180.”
John, who’d said that this “lodge” was really just his way to have a second home in the country, claimed corrupt officials were “scamming this ‘nature preserve,’” and getting free grazing for their livestock out of it. In UB (which he pronounced so it would rhyme with Darth Vader or masturbator), he snorted, the government was getting aid money from the U.S. to build the roads. In one breath, he disparaged the Mongolians in this area of Terelj for not paying taxes, but in the next breath, he was praising the Chinese economy for being great because “they don’t pay any taxes!”
In similar logically inconsistent fashion, after pointing to overgrazed hills in the distance and saying the government ought to just get rid of all these herders, because they didn’t “know shit about the land,” he told me he’d been the first to put up a fence around here, and that people hadn’t liked it. Mongolia proudly advertises in much of its tourist literature that it’s a land without fences, where people can ride and walk freely wherever they like. Then he said since he’d done it, others in the area had started putting up their own fences, and that it just “broke his heart.”
As he said this, I imagined John’s heart as a giant ham, beating away greasily somewhere above his big belly.
At one point, John also talked about “squatters” all over the natural park. “Squatters?” I said. “Yeah, they say they’re indigenous and have a right to it,” he snorted. “There aren’t any indigenous people almost anywhere in the world. Just go back far enough and you’ll see what I mean.”
I changed the subject and asked him about mining. Mining’s the biggest business in Mongolia. He said yes, that was the big business, but that it still “wasn’t shit.” I mentioned that it seemed like a big deal, and he said “Listen, you know how much coal they mined in all of Mongolia last year? 20 million tons [actually more like 5 million metric tons]. They don’t know real mining here. They took 240 million tons out of Colorado last year [actually more like 32 million tons]. You can’t even find a mine here – just try!” Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, and it’s hard to find anything if you don’t know where it is beforehand, but this hardly seemed worth pointing out to John.
I mentioned that a guy from Nova Scotia I’d chatted up on the flight into UB worked for a Canadian mining company setting up a camp in the Gobi, and that he’d said they were spending $40 million this year alone on the operation. John said “Oh, that one’s not going to be up and running for 5, 6 years. Peanuts. Mostly metallurgical grade coal they make steel from.”
I said the guy from Nova Scotia had told me it was a copper mine.
“Yeah, yeah, they’re all over the place,” he said as he threw the butt of his spent cigar on the gravel driveway.
I commented on how surprising it was to me that a country as sparsely populated as Mongolia had such a high literacy rate. I’d read and heard from several people that the rate was around 98%, and I’m pretty sure that exceeds the literacy rate in the U.S.
“Oh yeah, 100%. You can’t find a Mongolian who can’t read,” John said nodding vigorously. “But that’s all changing. The Soviets used to run the school system, and they were–” he brought one hand down in a chopping motion across his other forearm. “–Serious. The Mongolians learn their old language and their new one, just for starters,” he continued, “then a lot of ‘em also know Russian, Japanese, Korean…”
I said that I was amazed by it, and impressed at how many Mongolians I’d met who spoke four or more languages.
“Yeah, my wife speaks four languages. But I’m lucky. I’ve been here ten years and haven’t learned any Mongolian.” John said this with pride as three of the 450 Mongolians he claimed to employ labored away on his new garage.
John had also told me that he never had foreigners at his place, except for a few Chinese, who “always want to buy the place.” At just that moment, a dark late-model 4-wheel drive Nissan Murano, one of the vehicles of choice for police and Communist Party officials in China and, from what I’d observed in UB, for officials in Mongolia as well, pulled up and stopped. It was too clean for this environment, with an elegant looking Mongolian woman behind the wheel and an all-business looking white guy in the passenger seat, who rolled down his window. He had a gray contemptuous look on his face that reminded me of the fish-hook grimace Dick Cheney has. The gray man and John stared at each other for a full ten seconds or so. The woman in the driver’s seat looked mildly alarmed. John finally said “What’s the good word?” to which the gray man replied flatly, “This the place? You got the works, the house, the dome, some yurts?”
I took that moment to say good-bye, thanking John for his time and saying I had to hurry back. He waved feebly as I departed, preoccupied, the wave merely an afterthought.
The hike home was long but rewarding, despite the blisters forming on my feet. Knowing my route, I went farther from the road this time, through alpine tundra and over great loping hills with statuesque stone outcroppings at their peaks. Marmots occasionally emerged from holes in the ground and darted away, but I saw no wolves or roedeer, which are said to be common in the area. I read that brown bears, also once common to the area, are on the decline in the Khan Khentee, mostly because of a Chinese and Korean-driven thirst for bear gall bladders, which fetch upwards of $300 USD per, and are used in Asian medicine.
Many birds, including Daurian redstarts, Siberian blue robins and black kites flew near to me along my way, and perched on rocks and branches near enough to reach with my hand, looking inquisitive and unafraid. I also saw maybe a half dozen Steppe eagles and hawks, but they kept their distance. After rolling hills, and with the sun sinking perilously low on the horizon, I descended through birch and larch forest and picked my way through moist lowlands, where tufts of earth had to be stepped on like lilypads to avoid sinking into what I amused myself by thinking of as “the grimpen myre,” where some prehistoric Mongolian version of the Hound of the Baskervilles might be waiting to scare me to death. There were certainly piles of dung large enough to plausibly have exited from a prehistoric beast.
I arrived just before night fell, and my host family brought hot milk tea and stoked the wood stove in the ger for the night. I sat drinking tea while I watched the last blue of the sky fade in the circular hole in the center of the ceiling.