Countries, Culture

MONGOLIA | A wondrous Journey to the Inner Self

 A wondrous Journey to the Inner Self

   By Janos Lidor

If there is one key characteristic about Mongolia one needs to understand before going, it is its
vastness and size. It is the least densely populated nation on the planet with just two people
per square kilometer (by comparison, the European Union has 112 people and the USA 36
people). These numbers don’t even tell you the true figure. 50% of the population is
concentrated in its capital, Ulaanbaatar, making the country even more bereft of human life.
So, if you want to be alone for a while, THIS is the place to go.
However ironically, if you want to experience human kindness, THIS is also the place to go.
Whether there is an adverse correlation between human density and kindness remains an open
question, which this travel log shall not endeavor to explore, but let the experience I had on
my voyage through Mongolia shine a little light on it.

After having already been on the road for many months throughout some of the “Stans” (e.g.,
Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan), the land-locked
country of Mongolia with its long history and once being the largest empire in the world has
always intrigued me. So, instead of going home, I made my way from Kazakhstan to Mongolia
to fulfill a childhood dream: Ride a camel through the Gobi Desert.

I shall not bother you with the logistics of acquiring a camel for a foreigner who does not speak
the local language, nor my ignorance on how to figure out how to pick the right one or even
how to nourish (or “store”) this large animal once on the road…let’s just say, I was fortunate
enough to find a local man who for some very reasonable compensation was not only willing to
come up with excellent solutions, but also aided me throughout the challenging logistics of this
trip which not only encompasses a trip through the desert but also brought me to the reindeer
herders in the North, the eagle hunters in the West, and into Mongolia’s most remote East on a
steel horse. Let the journey begin.

The South – Gobi Desert

Despite its moniker, the Gobi Desert is actually surprisingly green and rich in rivers and
pastures, which is why so many nomadic Mongolians move across it from spring to autumn to
feed their livestock of predominantly horses and goats. The nomads live in gers, the equivalent
of a yurt in other cultures – a big round tent that resembles somewhat a flying saucer from a
distance. Whereas there are a few towns sprinkled across the region, most people make their
home in their ger which can be easily disassembled and moved once the animals need fresh
nourishment.

So, as I set out on the back of my newly acquired camel, she was not my friend. She complained
and protested throughout the day. Trying to get her to move was not just a function of my
limited experience to ride this creature, but surely also her disdain she had for me for making
her walk-in temperatures that hit the high 30s Celsius (90s Fahrenheit) during the day. In
contrast to the single-humped dromedary camel though, the Mongolian camel, fortunately, has two humps making it not only more comfortable but also making her attempts to throw me of
rather futile as I was wedged in nicely between the rather comfortable setting.

How things would change! After just a day of ensuring good feed and water for my newly acquired friend
and removing the rather painful nose ring meant to control her when she would not listen, she
became my best companion. After pitching my tent one day two, she barely left my side. She
would greet me in the early morning by sticking her head into my humble abode and literally
follow me, wherever I went…at times a bit too close when I had to take care of business, almost
pushing me over and into it! I became very attached to her as she would be such a nice
companion and for over two weeks together, I do believe we created a bond whilst trotting
along with the most amazing sights of the Gobi Desert. As vast as it is, I managed to find local
herders that would feed and water us and often allow me to enjoy the comfort of their ger for
the night – all after the initial surprise to witness a foreigner on “camelback,” travelling their
land.

 

The hospitality one experiences is next to none: At arrival, the family would almost always
offer me a big cup of Airag, fermented horse milk, and a slightly alcoholic drink that takes a bit
to get used to. However, its health benefits are supposedly significant, so how could I refuse!
This was usually followed by offering me the best seat in the ger, furthest away from the
entrance and lots of food which appeared magically from all corners of the tent. It usually didn’t
take very long for the curious children to overcome their initial incredulity and then sit around
me and join me for dinner. The bigger challenge for me was at times to find excuses as to why I
would not drink more of the homemade liquor on offer. Staying at various gers, living with the
families, watching their busy life out in the desert, eating their food, and laughing with them in
the comfortable evening breeze was truly unique and inspiring. They took me in as if I were one
of them – a nomad in need of some shelter. Never once did they ask for compensation, but as I
have learned, I would always leave sufficient “tögrög,” the local currency, to cover my food and
the feed for the animal under a plate for them to find after my departure. However, I will never
be able to repay the gratitude I have for all those families that took me in and treated me like one of
theirs.

After about two weeks, I realized just how big the desert is and decided that a slightly more
efficient method of transportation will be required to move on: As hard as it was emotionally, I
traded my camel in for a sturdy horse with a family that really needed a camel to move their
ger soon to a new and more fruitful location. Saying goodbye made me sad, but also happy as I
found a good home for my trusted friend. I never gave her a name apart from “camel” as I
knew this day would come, but her beautiful face with eyelashes that would make any woman
jealous shall forever remain in my memory!

Mongolian horses are a bit larger than ponies, but probably a lot stronger than most western
horses. This one was no different. Even though I had to trail more water sources than before,
we made good progress along the steppe and the beautiful landscape and rivers that dot this
land. My welcome at the various families I came across was also a bit more relaxed as the horse
was a more common means of transportation, making me now realize that my previous arrivals
on camel must have quite unsettled some of the nomads I came across. Despite good progress
and a strong horse, I now realized that this desert was way too large to cross and water
resources constraint my progress. Also, having been now on the back of an animal for over four weeks, I ran out of things to think about…or rather thought more about things I’d rather not
think about…so it was time for another trade.

I was resting for two days with a nice family
whose son I notice was always joy riding on an old beat up Chinese motorcycle with no
apparent destination, just for the fun of it which from what I could gather did not amuse father
much…so I approached him to see whether he would be willing to exchange this old bike for a
proven long-distance rider…again, no name as again I knew it was to be goodbye eventually. His
immediate response and pleasure at the deal should have been a warning! We shook hands
and I was off the next morning excited to reach new destinations unconstrained (apart from a
full jerry can of petrol) of feed and water. I decided to head further south and maybe get close
to the Chinese border. The concentration one requires to ride what is essentially a street bike in
the rough terrain of the Gobi Desert was a welcome distraction. Avoiding rocks, finding more
smooth paths, the constant shifting of gears though also took its toll – not on me though. As I’m
cruising along with the sun setting, a long way away from any ger, my engine just suddenly
stalled. An awful sound emerged briefly from the engine block, a faint oily burnt smell…and that
was the last I heard from my pride ride…what a piece of junk! I suspect there was not enough
oil, combined with the heat of the day leading to a seized piston. Great! No tools, no spare
parts and 100 kg of metal that serves no further purpose. Stuck in the middle of…well…a desert,
with no more than two liters of water and some grub to eat.

I pitched my tent, got some food
ready, and called it a day…and a restless night as I realized that my water supply is limited now
that I have to hike with no idea how long until I find another ger on the horizon. Therefore, I got
up long before sunrise and started hiking for a few hours before it got too hot to save on water.
Exposed to the sun, I stayed in the shade of my tent for most of the day and waited for the late
afternoon to continue my trek to nowhere, but steady in one direction. The next day was a
carbon copy of the previous day: hike by night, stay in the shade of the tent during the day, and
hike until it was too dark to see. The moon was out and I could have hiked more but as my
water was down to less than ½ liter I need to have light to see the unmistakable white extra-
terrestrially looking gers that dot the landscape from time to time…my only hope to get myself
out of this mess – yes I was very thirsty, but not yet suffering as my load was light and the
evening hikes crossed mostly over flat land.
Lo and behold, early on day three, there it was: a white dot in the green distance, promising
freshwater, food, and some nice people. As I arrived, I tried to explain my predicament
mimicking a broken piston (I do wonder what they were thinking now!), but they did not even
ask. I must have looked a bit tired and scrawny and they immediately understood I need
something good: Three cups of fermented horse milk! Never tasted better and even gave me a
little buzz on my empty stomach. I stayed with them for three days until the family went to the
next town a day’s drive away and kindly gave me a ride – yes, I was not going to walk. I also
decided it was time to see something new: The North!

The North

If you head as far north as you can, past the majestic Lake Khovsgol, you are skirting along
Russia’s border. To get to my destination – visiting the reindeer herders – I need the help of a local man on horseback and spend three days with him to find the often-moving families that
herd these lovely and peaceful animals. While the ride itself is nothing short of magic through
lush and green countryside, dotted with rivers, streams, and the distant mountains in the
background, arriving finally at a local family dwelling that looks more like a wigwam was just
breath-taking. Upon arrival, the family emerges from the tent, and young children appear from
all directions, at once curious of the rare visitor on horseback. Just like they cannot help to
inspect me, I cannot help but admire them and their surroundings: Two tall white tents
positioned next to a stream, strategically located between two hills, one on each side, to
provide shelter from the often harsh winds that ravage the North. Yet the sight that amazed me the
most were the 50 plus beautiful reindeers that were casually resting near the tents, completely
unfazed by the commotion of the new arrivals. The guide obviously gave some instructions to
the family which I did not understand and gave me to understand that he will return in about
ten days. Tea was already served and so we all sat laughing inside a tent, checking each other
out.

The next days were passed mostly on the back of the reindeer’s which are surprisingly easy to
ride. While the father was at first skeptical, he subsequently allowed me to ride the reindeers
without supervision. This allowed me to join the family and assist them in their daily treks into
the countryside for food. The children followed me enthusiastically and taught me how to find
and properly pick wild onions and other local goodies…until my hands were full of blisters and
dirt. It was such a treasure to enjoy the day with them and proudly present my daily catch
which was properly rewarded with some alcoholic concoction later in the evening!
I should have had more of it, as the nights were bitter cold once the fire extinguished. My
sleeping back was surely not intended for sub-zero temperatures…or rather, I was not made of
the same tough material these guys were as they seemed just fine sleeping on the cold ground
that penetrated deep into my bones.

So the days went by at the same rhythm of the reindeer hoofs – very smooth and full of
gratitude to be allowed to stay with such a happy family. Despite the harsh conditions,
everybody always appeared jolly, good-natured, and hard-working. Everybody, even the
youngest children, helped out, milked the reindeers, picked vegetables, and took care of the
guard dogs that lingered in front of the tent, waiting for scraps to be thrown at them at dinner
time.
Yet it was time again to leave: The West was calling!

The West

The West is dominated by the old Kazakh tribes that have lived here in the mountains for
generations. Desolate, dry, and full of mountains, this part of Mongolia is known for its eagle
hunters. Before my arrival, I managed to find a local guide that was able to sort out yet another
horse for me so that I could ride to one of the local Eagle Hunter festivals away from the usual
crowds, a short two-day ride along a pretty good route made travel easy and my new horse had no trouble going up and down even the steepest paths.

As I arrived, I managed to find the eagle
hunter who was going to accommodate me for my time there and he greeted me with a big
smile. I could not help and be amazed by his bright blue, piercing eyes. Eyes that emanated
pure kindness. He brought me to his winter dwelling up in the mountains where a prepared
meal was ready for my arrival. I shared the room with the small family and we spent days
taking care of the yaks, the goats, and the horses – AND the Eagle. The eagle hunters catch them
while they are still in the nest, train them to hunt and as they start to mature, give them back to
nature so that they can find a mate and continue the cycle. This particular eagle was still very
young as the white feathers on his wings indicated.

A few days later, we left for the festival and the sight was stunning: Over fifty eagle hunters
came from near and far to measure each other’s skills, yet with a camaraderie seldom seen.
Everybody seemed to know everybody; my host introduced me to many of them – which often
included a shot of vodka! No wonder everybody seemed so jolly all day! So for two days, eagles
all around, eagle competitions, and also the occasional horse race where winning seemed of less
importance than entertaining the rowdy crowd. The winner this year again: A young lady that
has won a few times before – she is now internationally known for the documentary “The
Eagle Huntress.” (A must-see film!).
I also climbed the Western mountains (and got into some nasty trouble including injuries – but
that is another story!), rode a boat down rivers, and visited some interesting little towns before
the East called…

The East

As mentioned, Mongolia is the least inhabited country in the world and Mongolia’s East is the
least inhabited region of Mongolia…so it was time for a proper motorcycle. I rented a 500cc off-
road bike, bought a proper map, a tent, food and an extra jerry can of petrol. They say that
when something goes wrong at home, it is trouble, but when travelling, it is an adventure. Well,
this trip was full of “adventure.” It started on day two in the middle of nowhere, when I tried to
pick up my dropped glove while sitting on the bike and it fell over…no problem one would think
except this is no horse or camel, but a 220kg bike that will not get up by itself…it also loses
petrol rapidly when on its side…and when you have calculated every last drop to make sure you
can make it to the next remote gas station, you panic a bit when trying to lift it…exactly what
happened to me and only quick thinking allowed me to find enough strength and the right
leverage to right the bike up again so that I only lost ½ a liter of petrol…my emergency stash.

The trip from there did not get easier as recent rain made every stream into a river…rivers I
needed to cross. Rivers with lots of rocks and mud and ice-cold water flowing through them. An
inch too high and you can flood the air filter and you are done…you’ll be stuck in a river with
your bike, your equipment, and everything you have with you as the current will push you over,
the bike will drop and there is no way you can get it out again alone. But alone I was. To
mitigate the risk, I had to stop before each river, walk through it each time, check from mud,
rocks, logs, and other debris, and with my feet, find a way I could get through the river without the bike stopping of falling or getting deeper than my waist. One tiny mistake and you lose
everything…which is why smart people always travel with at least two riders…well, I managed
some serious rivers despite almost falling a few times, and then irony had the last laugh. A tiny
stream I saw from a distance and a bit cocky from my many successful “deep river” crossings, I
thought I could rush through this little stream as well: Well…I got across with the front wheel
and the back wheel mercilessly dug itself deeper and deeper into the soft ground before I could
get across and my bike was now stuck at a 45-degree angle in the mud – far far away from any
help. How I wished back my camel, my horse. I would have settled for a reindeer, but no such
luck. With luggage, roughly 250kg stuck in the mud! So after a few futile attempts to pull the
bike (and myself) out of this misery, I gave up and started to dismantle what I could from the
bike to alleviate its weight…after a good two hours of bone-breaking work, I managed to move
the bike inch by inch out of the shallow stream. This was probably partly achieved as most of
the mud was now sticking on me! In the end, all was good, I was sore and I got the bike running
again for the rest of the trip. I made it to a distant monastery, one of the few that was not
destroyed under a Stalin-led purge against the Buddhist in the 1950s, and marveled at its
remote beauty and resistance…even for Stalin’s henchmen, this was a step too remote and so it
felt. Remote.

And that was the East, the West, the North, and the South.

I know I only scratched the surface of this distant, yet accessible country and can really
appreciate its vastness. I would still be there if I had tried to criss-cross it with animals alone,
but I gave it a shot and what I saw, what I felt, and what I experienced is unique. You learn
about the different tribes, the ever-changing fauna, the various ways the inhabitants cope with
this often harsh environment…yet, because of its remoteness and distance, the hospitality you
encounter and the joy you experience, if you travel it right, you learn more about yourself than a lifetime can teach you.

Thank you, Mongolia.

 

Janos Lidor (1965) has been travelling the world since he was a young man. He has managed to see roughly 150 countries and territories around the world, always with his camera in hand. He not only travels around the world but has also studied, lived, and worked on three different continents. To boot, he speaks five languages, including Japanese. He is unique in that he has managed to combine his wanderlust with a serious education (Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley, Tokyo, Harvard) and very high-profile jobs around the world. In his own words: “I always wanted a good resume, so that I can always pack my bags and go travelling when I want and not have to wait until I retire.” Apart from his travelling enthusiasm, he is also an avid sportsman, with hobbies ranging from yachting, kitesurfing, paragliding, hydrofoiling, golf, tennis, all the way to table tennis. Up for a game?

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Hajo at

    Let’s go to Mongolia!!!

    • Reply Irma Heuven at

      Great idea. We have already the perfect tour guide #Janos

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