There’s nowhere else on the planet like Mongolia. Nowhere even comes close when compared to this ancient culture that lives and breathes, that thrives in the same way as it has for centuries. History isn’t consigned to museums in Mongolia – it swirls around you, in the cries of the goat herders deep in the Gobi Desert, in the felt-covered walls of a traditional ger (round tent) in the middle of the Steppe, in the slap of flesh on flesh as wrestlers grapple with each other at traditional games.
Mongolia has natural beauty in spades. It has rolling hills and endless grasslands dotted with white gers on the Steppe. It has national parks riven with rocky outcrops and trees with golden leaves. It has deserts rimmed with snow-capped peaks. Wild horses roam. Eagles soar. But what most people come here for is the culture, the chance to immerse themselves in an ancient way of living, to check out completely from the world they know – the world of mobile phones and TVs, of microwaves and family sedans – and to embrace Mongolia. This country gives you no other choice.
Gers – the Mongolian form of the Turkish yurt – aren’t for show. These traditional dwellings are homes, rather than tourist attractions. Much of the Mongolian population still lives a nomadic life, tending to horses and goats and sheep, living for a few months in one place, and then packing up their gers and rounding up their animals and moving to greener pastures. Even on the outskirts of the bustling capital, Ulaanbaator, you’ll see gers dotting the landscape.
There are few concessions to modernity in Mongolia. In the desert, you’ll find some goat herders rumbling past on old Soviet-era motorbikes; most, however, still do their work on horseback. You’ll see plenty of Hummers and other SUVs cruising through Ulaanbaator, but that’s mostly because greater Mongolia has few roads – trips through the countryside here are done via compass rather than roadmap.
This is a land in which tradition trumps all, in which respect is paid to history, and to the heroes of the past. Genghis Khan is perhaps Mongolia’s most famous (and infamous) ruler, a terrifying figure who conquered half the known world in the 13th century, pillaging and burning as he went, and yet he is still revered in his homeland. The figure of Genghis – pronounced “Ching-gis” in Mongolia – towers over the Steppe just outside Ulaanbaator, a 40-metre-high stainless steel monstrosity of a statue that has to be seen to be believed. There’s also a Chinggis brand of vodka that’s immensely popular.
Food is still traditional here too; for better or worse. A Mongolian barbecue is not what you’re familiar with: here, hunks of lamb or mutton are put in a huge saucepan, to which hot rocks straight from the fire are added. The lid is placed on and the whole thing cooks from the inside. You’ll wash it down with airag, fermented horse milk that’s a local staple.
History also manifests itself in the Nadaam Festival, an annual gathering of pomp and ceremony that has been described as the Mongolian Olympics, a set of competitions you won’t see anywhere else in the world. There are only three sports on display at Nadaam, the “three manly skills” that reflect Mongolia’s deep-seated traditions and its citizens’ way of life: archery, wrestling, and horseriding. Competitors wear colourful, pointed hats and bright robes; locals fill the stands, watching as regional pride is put on the line.
The archery competition is fairly straightforward, as competitors shoot arrows at distant targets. The wrestling is a little more intense, as locals in barely-there costumes – small tunics and brightly coloured underpants – grapple in an attempt to bring their opponents to the ground. Most interesting of all, however, is the horse racing, where jockeys as young as five years old race wild Mongolian horses on a course that’s 15 to 30 kilometres long. It’s an event watched by tens of thousands of people every year, and a truly remarkable spectacle.
These traditions live on in the air, as well. In western Mongolia, close to the Russian border, ethnic Kazakhs have trained eagles to hunt for centuries and continue to raise these remarkable birds. These golden eagles and their masters form a close bond, and the birds will seemingly read their mind as they swoop from the heavens onto their tiny prey below. The masters take exceptional care of their birds. They are raised from chicks and are typically ‘honourably discharged’ back into the wild around the age of eight – well before their average lifespan of 30.
There is, of course, an urban side to Mongolia, if you choose to seek it out. The capital city, Ulaanbaator – or “UB” to the expat population – is a bustling hub of more than a million people. It’s the natural meeting point for the country’s disparate citizens, as well as the base for travellers and adventurers. Accommodation here is in internationally renowned hotels. The restaurants offer far more than just mutton cooked with hot rocks, and mare’s milk.
There are tourist attractions in UB too: Buddhist monasteries, ancient palaces, temples, and monuments to commemorate the hardships of the Soviet era.
However, it doesn’t take long to forget that this big city even existed, to drive out through the suburbs, to watch as the apartment blocks change to small houses, as the small houses change to traditional white gers, and as even the gers themselves disappear to be replaced by the endless beauty of the Steppe.
It’s then you realise: there’s nowhere else like Mongolia.