Think you’re hard core? Plan a trip to Mongolia, and think again. Adventuring to this immense and empty land, one of the harshest and most remote landscapes on earth squished between China and Russia in the heart of central Asia, ain’t for pussies. This is a land that created warriors so fierce they conquered the largest land empire the world has ever known; a land that still sees 40 per cent of its population living as tough nomadic shepherds in gers (the Mongolian version of a yurt) year-round, despite temperatures dropping below minus 40 in winter. It’s a land that breeds wrestlers and archers, more yaks, eagles, two-humped Bactrian camels, goats and horses than you can poke a bottle of vodka at (Mongolians make and drink a truckload of that too), and the most skilful and resilient cowboys in the world, who can break in a wild horse faster than your best friend can say, “where the hell’s Mongolia?” Go there and prepare to have your metal tested, in the best possible way.
Your introduction to Mongolia will likely begin in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Ignore your inability to pronounce the name and the boxy, depressing-looking Soviet-era buildings (a throwback to pre-democratic revolution times when the Soviet Union was Mongolia’s political, cultural and economic dominatrix), and make your way to Gandan Monastery. During Mongolia’s communist regime from the 1920s till the ’90s, more than 18,000 Buddhist lamas were killed and all but three of the country’s 800 monasteries were looted, destroyed or both. Gandan was spared as a state showpiece, and as you traipse through the complex of gold and crimson pagodas trying not to knock over countless urns of smouldering incense, you’ll understand why.
When you’re done spinning your sins away on the army of groaning copper prayer wheels, you’ll want to organise yourself a ride out to the monolithic 40-metre silver statue of Genghis Khan – the man who basically ruled the world from what is now Russia right down to India, in an empire that’s never really been matched. The statue is smack bang in the middle of nowhere, so climb up to the viewing platform that juts out of Khan’s horse’s head and gaze out over the ger-smattered landscape he ruled 800 years ago. How’s the serenity?
There’s no better way to finish up your introduction to this great land than with a bit of Mongolia’s Got Talent – be entertained by Mongolian throat singing, a contortionist display that makes FKA Twigs look stiff, and traditional music and dancing by the Tumen Ekh performance ensemble, followed by a hearty meal of stir-fried vital organs at Nomad restaurant. Don’t vom; you’ll need the sustenance for the journey ahead.
THE NOMADIC WAY
Hands up: who’s fantasised about living in a yurt? Ülger domgiin (that’s Mongolian for fabulous), because you’ll be spending a good chunk of your time in Mongolia inside a ger. These squat structures, which look like a mini version of a circus big top, are perfect for the Mongolians’ nomadic lifestyle since the sturdy wooden frame and felt coverings can be packed up, loaded onto camels or yaks, and moved to greener pastures in less than an hour, three or four times a year. They’re also perfect accommodation for travellers, with dozens of ger camps scattered throughout the heroic landscapes. You’ll most likely be invited into a real nomad’s ger at some point during your journey – but before you even think about stepping inside you’ll need to brush up on your ger etiquette, because Mongolians can be easier to offend than your posh grandma. Always enter with your right leg first. Never ask a nomad how many animals are in his herd; it’s like asking to see the contents of his wallet. Never say thank you when you’re offered food (likely homemade yak’s cheese) or drink (likely homemade fermented mare’s milk called airag; an acquired taste), or snuff; it embarrasses Mongolian people. Man up if you’re called on to help slaughter, skin and cook up one of the family’s goats, or to help brew up a bottle of yak vodka. But most importantly, learn to play the ‘finger game’. No you pervert, not that finger game – the seriously addictive Mongolian version of rock, paper, scissors. You’ll also need to learn a folk song (Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Shoop’ doesn’t count), because this game ain’t over till the loser shoots vodka and sings.
If you’re smart, you’ll plan your Mongolian odyssey for July when hundreds of naadams, or horse festivals, are held all over the countryside. There are 3.4 million horses in Mongolia for under three million people, so it’s no surprise that their horsemen are known to be the most talented in the world. They often start riding at the age of two when they’re literally strapped into the saddle by their parents, and the jockeys you’ll see racing bareback in the naadam will be kids as young as three. The older horsemen clad in traditional deels (calf-length embroidered tunics) will be busy catching and riding bucking, whinnying wild horses with a hypnotising level of balance and strength… until they’re hurled off into the dust with nothing more than a hearty chuckle. You’ll see the fascinating and mildly hilarious intermission of Mongolian men wrestling in turquoise undies and cropped jackets with their chests exposed, to prove that they aren’t women in disguise, and you might even get a bit of archery thrown in to complete the trifecta of the ‘three manly sports’. #realmen.
FOLLOW THE VISTA
What you really come to Mongolia for, though, is nothing. You come for the endless steppe, the sprawling and arid landscapes that make you feel small and insignificant, and that remind you of how all that really matters in life is this: the outrageously vast, open sky dotted with the occasional spiralling eagle, the dusty earth beneath your feet, the sun warming your skin and, later, the cosmos of stars dusting the night sky. If you head down to the southern Gobi Desert region, you’ll encounter some pretty spectacular nothingness, like Eagle Valley, where you’ll hike past craggy rock faces descending steeply into a bed of lush grasslands upholstered with purple wildflowers, or the Flaming Cliffs, monolithic red sandstone formations that you’ll climb as they’re set ablaze by the setting sun and also where the world’s first dinosaur eggs were found in the 1920s. Then there’s the colossal Ogii freshwater lake. Here, you’ll swim out into the glassy waters as far as you can go, washing the desert dust off your body and failing to remember a time when you felt so open, so free, and so damn hardcore.
Nina Karnikowski toured with Frui