Next Great Travel Writer: The Steppes of Mongolia

Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows and Suzanne Roberts, the winner of the Next Great Travel Writer contest, are blogging this week from Mongolia. Keith sends us this dispatch from the steppes of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

On our way out of town we stop at the Gandantegchilen Monastery—the biggest in Mongolia and a survivor of the 1930s Stalinist purges, during which hundreds of monasteries were razed and countless monks executed—and which Suzanne blogged about yesterday.

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We head out 70 miles north toward Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a 2006 location for The Amazing Race. It is in the steppes, which are uncharacteristically green due to this summer’s above-average rains. We drive 90 minutes or so, stopping briefly as the rain drives down in sheets at an ovoo, a sacred mound of stones crowned with a tangle of blue flags.

Thought to be an ancient tombstone or shamanist altar where horses once were sacrificed to the gods, ovoos guard hills and passes. We follow tradition and, for good luck, circle the cairn clockwise three times, tossing on stones as we go. We pass fields of yaks and sheep and cows—Mongolia supports 30 million livestock (a sheep goes for $100, a cow is worth $400). An old graveyard spills down a hill. We pass dilapidated buildings, gers singly or clustered in tiny encampments, and a dreary army barracks abandoned by the Russian army in 1990 and now occupied by Mongolian forces.

The gracefully hillocky country is ribboned with spiny ridges and palisades of granite that look like piled cannon balls and billowy clouds—you can read faces and creatures in the deeply weathered rock. Moose, weasel, wolves, and brown bear roam forests of cedar, pine, aspen, and larch. We rumble down a dirt track pooled with water to Melkhi Khad (Turtle Rock), one of the park landmarks—the jumbled granite outcrop that indeed looks turtle-ish, but there’s little else to see except the insides of a gift shop in a ger. Inside are pointy-toed sheepskin slippers, soft jackets, leather and fox fur hats, Genghis Khan T-shirts, postcards, leather wallets and boxes, horsewhips, jewelry, and prayer beads. Ten minutes more and we are at our ger camp—Guru.

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A string of Mongolian ponies huddles in the downpour. We dump knapsacks in our gers after entering through a wooden door on which hangs a small padlock hardly necessary in such a remote place. My ger is about 15 feet across and slopes to a peak about 7 feet high at a three-foot circular window. A small iron wood-burning stove has turned the structure into a sauna. There are three narrow single beds, a small table set with three glasses, and a thermos of hot water for tea or coffee. A bare light bulb hangs in the center. The ger is spartan but cozy and, by nomadic standards, I am in a suite—a ger this size comfortably accommodates a family of ten. I try to remember some of the Mongolian conventions relating to gers: When sleeping, men on the east side, women on the west, you keep the back of your head facing north toward the entrance (gers always exit toward the south); you never point boots toward the fire; and whistling is verboten—bad luck.

Later, we’ll see the staff erect a ger, something nomads do in 30 minutes.

Five accordioned lattice walls are arrayed in a circle around two pillars that support a central oval. Eighty larchwood poles fan out from the oval to form the skeletal roof, all lashed with horsehair.

This is covered in sheep felt—a single layer in summer, four layers in winter—then overlain with canvas and a white sheet anchored with ropes.

Modernity reveals itself at our camp: nomads use felt from actual sheep sheared in June to allow grow back before the forbidding winters descend, while here the felt is synthetic and imported from, yes, China. And the ger crew consists mostly of teenage Mongolians that seem, well, less than nomadic. One wears silky skin-tight black jeans and a silver-studded T-shirt with a “55” on the back. Another sports a Jimi Hendrix gimme cap.

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Lunch is horhog, a traditional meal of lamb and vegetables cooked over hot rocks in a closed pot and served communally.

We are each handed a greasy, scalding rock in a napkin, which we gingerly roll across our palms—Mongolians believe the grease and heat boosts stamina and reduces fatigue. We eat soup as the rocks cool, then dig into the mounds of fatty lamb and vegetables. We drink tea and coffee with powdered milk. Dessert is a Kit Kat bar. The rain continues to sluice down, putting the kibosh to riding or hiking. Some travelers watch The Story of the Weeping Camel—an extraordinary story of Mongolian herders’ efforts to reunite a mother camel and her estranged calf.

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Later, the rain slackens and by 5 p.m. the sun casts long shadows. After dinner, around 9, the light fades. I sit on the steps of my ger as darkness falls to reveal a sky whose deep black is broken by a starland of whorls, clouds, and pinpricks that reminds me of the summer-camp heavens of my youth in northern Canada. The soundtrack is a silence so deep you could be in a sensory deprivation chamber. It is noisier in the ger. As the stove creaks and clatters with the heat, logs pop and the wind rattles the walls of the ger. I sleep until dawn breaks at 3:30 a.m. Horses whinny outside. Birds whoop. I struggle against the early-morning cold and trudge to the crest of a nearby ridge and watch daybreak extend its hold on miles of green, hilly openness punctuated by the occasional cluster of cattle.

As I descend I watch the horses gambol on the slopes. I grew up riding, and my father would tell me stories of Genghis Khan and his great equestrian warriors. I’ve read somewhere that a Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings, and remember that a Mongol euphemism for going to the bathroom is to “go see my horse.”

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After breakfast, I mount a runty black Mongolian pony and spur it across a table of green grass. Its tack consists of primitive rope reins and a crude wooden saddle with a metal pommel and stunted stirrups. Despite my best attempt at the Mongolian supplication for equine speed—it sounds like “tchoo, tchoo”—I go a very little ways very slowly.

Shortly after I dismount, we pull out of camp as sheep spill down the slopes like ants on hot sand and a modern herdsman sits astride a motorcycle preparing to gather his cattle. I recall what our guide said earlier: “You can’t really live out here anymore unless you herd cattle. It’s just too hard to make a living. There’s little else to do.”

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Several miles down the road we encounter a nomadic family—who have one foot in the old world—herding—and another in the modern world, mining. The grandparents own the two gers and are hosting for the short three-month summer break their 38-year-old daughter (seven other grown children are scattered throughout Mongolia) and her three children—the youngest is a one-month-old in a stroller (in Mongolian hoorhon huuhed, or cute baby)

and the oldest is Bulgaa, 16, who has a cell phone in her front pocket. Father is at home 250 miles away in Erdenet, a mining town that boasts the world’s fourth largest copper deposit. His salary has helped make them well-off by steppe standards. The main ger comfortably seats a dozen and we are served green milk tea, goat cheese, yogurt, bread, and aarwl—a milk and sugar candy.

A small TV is tuned to Mongolia’s Super Bowl, the Nadaam Festival (more about this in a future blog). A Mickey Mouse clock tells time. A freezer serves as table and food storage. Bulgaa, who chews gum as we speak, has a computer at home (and an email address and High 5 online profile), and speaks English superbly. Despite the economic pull of the city, at least today she recognizes the power of her grandparents’ nomadic roots. “I like the country better than the city. It is prettier and freer. And the air is so fresh.” She does admit, though, that she has little time to relax here—she must collect dung and feed it to the stove and help herd the cattle. Despite her father’s mining work, the livestock remain central to the family’s life. Which is why Suzanne scored a linguistic coup when she asked Bulgaa’s grandmother: Uher mal targan uu? (Are the cattle fattening well?)

When we leave we pass a solitary basketball hoop and, then, the Ghengis Khan Golf Course with its condo-like apartments. Another country club looms ahead. Here and there are satellite dishes. We have been told that the Japanese and South Koreans are investing heavily in Mongolian tourism. Building more and more camps and hotels. I look at the mostly virgin hills, the vast open spaces, and wonder how long it will be before full-blown resorts push the herders off their ancestral lands.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts