What we learned on the history
Our visit to the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar was the perfect way for us to get a great overview of Mongolia’s rich history. From there, our Lonely Planet and our tour guide, Ashley, were able to fill in many more of the details. Here’s what we learned:
For thousands of years (and even today), the Mongolians have been nomadic people. The nomadic lifestyle defines many aspects of Mongolian culture from the food they eat (based largely on the meat and dairy products of the animals that can travel with them) to their incredible hospitality to strangers (a necessity to ensure mutual survival as people traveled across the vast country).
Over the course of history, there have been 3 major dynasties in Mongolia that have extended beyond their own country. The first was the Hun empire which began around 200 BC (the famous Attila the Hun of 5 century AD was from this lineage). The second major dynasty was the Turkic dynasty which began in 6 century AD. And the final dynasty was the largest, and most renowned, the great Mongol dynasty of Chinngis Khaan in the 13th century. From a small nation with a relatively small army, he was able to conquer the greatest armies of his era. The empire he created was one of the largest in history stretching from China to Hungary and from India to Russia. Although renowned for being merciless in battle, he is better known in Mongolia as the great law giver. One major factor that facilitated the success of his vast Mongolian empire was from the laws he established from religious tolerance, to free-trade zones to diplomatic immunity.
In more recent times, Mongolia has gone from communist republic to a thriving democracy. In 1924, Mongolia’s desire for independence from China saw them siding with the Russian Bolsheviks and embracing communism. During this time, the Soviets imposed a huge degree of influence over Mongolia. One positive byproduct was the standardization of education and increase in literacy, which before communism was lower than 5% and by 1990 was greater than 95% (hence why Mongolia today uses the Cyrillic alphabet).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s, Mongolia went through its own transition away from communism to a democratic republic in 1990 and has since then gone through a period of rapid modernization. We experienced the modernized side of Mongolia in the capital Ulaanbaatar, seeing the new building constructions, getting caught in intense traffic and tasting the polluted air. However, it was only a short drive out of UB that showed us how the majority of Mongolians live on the country side, many in Ger tents, with strong ties to their nomadic heritage. This was the most interesting side of our Mongolian experience.
Lake Khovsgol and Horesback Trekking Part I
Picture a seemingly endless, dark blue lake surrounded on one side by steep, grey rocky mountains and green, rolling meadows full of Edelweiss on the other. Sounds like the Austrian Alps and the Sound of Music, doesn’t it? Well, I’m actually talking about Lake Khovsgol in Northern Mongolia and the place we spent the first 7 days of our adventure (and yes, Mongolia is covered in Edelweiss!).
Our typical day looked something like this: horseback riding throughout the day across a scenic landscape (including some scary moments with our horses), camping in the wild without anyone in sight (except the nomads and their livestock of course, who are the main inhabitants in this region), getting the run down on Mongolian history from our guide Ashley over dinner while enjoying a meal of potatoes, noodles, rice, fresh cucumbers and canned/ jarred vegetables (and all the possible combinations thereof), learning how to play Mongolian card games during down times (and a few Mongolian words, however, Cyrillic pronunciation is really hard to remember), listening to scary camp-fire stories about shamans (the main religion of most steppe and taiga tribes) and wolf attacks (not helpful if one needs to sneak out of the tent in the middle of the night to go the “bathroom”), cuddling up in our tent (wrapped into multiple layers of clothes to weather the freezing temperatures at night), waking up over breakfast with instant coffee mixed with milk powder (not like our beloved espresso, but hey, thank god we have coffee!), packing up camp, saddling our pack horses and off we go again.
And on one of the days during our trip we had the luxury to camp next to a hot spring. Wash day for us and our clothes!
One day we visited a family of Tsaatan people (Reindeer people). In contrast to the other nomadic ethnicities with their livestock, the Tsaatan live off reindeer. We were welcomed into their yurt (which is a tipi-like tent and different than the round ger tent that other nomadic tribes live in) and were struck by how bare bones it was. No beds (one of the sons was sleeping on the floor while we were there), no stools, no stove… really nothing. The family came down south to Lake Khovsgol in the hope to earn some additional income from tourism. They sell hand-made bags and souvenirs. Tourist camps pay them to stick around the area as a tourist attraction in the summer season (that said, we’ve unfortunately heard that coming so far south is to the detriment of their reindeers). One of the unanticipated highlights of our meeting with the Reindeer people family was kicking around a ball with their 4-year old son. He was a little bundle of energy and happiness.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery and racing horses across the steppes
Amarbayasgalant monastery is one of Mongolia’s national treasures. Built in 1737 and fortunate to have survived the former communist regime, the monastery is a beautifully designed Buddhist temple in a remote and spectacularly beautiful setting deep in the steppes of Mongolia.
We arrived here at the start of the 3-day annual prayer festival, where thousands of prayer goers flock and camp nearby (seeing the camping and the procession of cars entering along the dirt road kind of reminded us of Burning Man!). Lonely Planet said that this was the best time to come to the monastery; however, this is one occasion where I have to disagree. Once the festival was over, Christine and I really got to experience the awe of the place which is accentuated by its remoteness and peacefulness.
Starting from the monastery, we began our second horse-riding adventure. And while we would have thought Khovsgol would be hard to top, this was by far and away our best horse-riding experience. Each day we spent literally hours racing our horses, cantering and galloping through the beautiful steppes. It was simply exhilarating. At times we got concerned that we would wear out our horses but our horses never seemed satisfied to just walk or trot, and our horse guide, Zorig, assured us the horses could handle it. I guess they bring them up tough here in Mongolia!
Nomadic living is the hallmark of Mongolia. While it was born out of necessity to sustain ones life, many today chose the freedom and independence as a lifestyle (over urban life in the capital city Ulanbaatar). Christian and I got to experience this first hand, spending a day and night with our horse guide Zorig’s extended family. Nomads have a summer and a winter camp, so the place we camped at was their summer residence (their winter places have more stable, wooden houses than their ger tents and better shelter for their livestock).
We were put to work immediately. Our first task: rounding up baby cows and bringing them back to their stable and collecting dozens of dispersed sheep and goat (so that they don’t mix with livestock of neighboring nomad families). This was really fun and a good way to test our newly acquired horseback riding skills. Next up was milking cows. Sounds straightforward but isn’t. Well, Christian seems to be more of a natural talent on this one. The next morning we helped prepare the milk for further processing which meant aerating the cooked milk to get rid of bacteria. Dairy is a crucial part of the nomadic diet and milk finds its way into every meal. After that it got dirty: collecting cow dung and piling it up for drying (the dried dung will be used for fire during winter). Admittedly not my favorite activity 🙂 Many times during the day I had to think of my mum who grew up on a farm herself.
In our breaks we kicked around a ball with the kids or observed them trying to capture squirrels. They were on summer break and typically stay at a boarding school during school time.
If I’d summarize our observations from the day, I’d say: nomads work hard (and we have a new appreciation for all the work that goes into every cup of milk tea or curd chip we were offered), they are incredible hospitable and live by a mantra of helping one another out, and despite having a very simple lifestyle they seemed very satisfied and happy.