Mongolia….Just that place name evokes special feelings: dreams of adventure, mysterious landscapes, and exotic cultures. It is said that whatever you are searching for in life, you can find it somewhere in Mongolia. I’ve been searching for the essence of Mongolia my whole life. I’ve found parts of it in other places in the world, but I’ve never actually been there yet. It is such a vast land, and which parts would you go to in order to find what you’re searching for? And, when should you go there?
Actually, the best time to have experienced it might have been millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic era. What is now the Gobi desert, was once a landscape of freshwater lakes and vast valleys, which made it a paradise for dinosaurs. My personal favorite, the Ankylosaurus, roamed freely here along with Velociraptors.
Ankylosaurus was a plant eater who carnivores didn’t mess with much. They had armor plating and a large bony protrusion on their tail that would devastate the leg of any predator. Today, you would have to visit the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag Park to see fossils of their remains. This area of the Gobi desert remains one of the largest dinosaur reservoirs of the world. Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who did research here, was the inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones of Hollywood fame.
We tend to look at a map of where things are and think that they had always been in the same place. But looking through the lens of geologic time, and with our recent understanding of plate tectonic theory, we realize that land masses can change their geographic positions, albeit slowly. When the Indian subcontinent smashed into the Eurasian plate, the Himalaya Mountains started their slow uplift near the end of the Triassic Period. As the Himalayan Orogeny grew in stature, the mountains blocked off any moisture from the nearby oceans, resulting in Central Asia becoming a much drier place. The warm, wet areas where dinosaurs once roamed slowly transitioned into the deserts and steppes that we encounter today.
Long after the dinosaurs died out, mankind arrived on the scene. To survive in this inhospitable environment, you needed to be nomadic to keep finding the resources to live. People lived in gers (yurts) and became pastoralists. You needed to find fresh grass and forage for your animal herds, which you survived on. Maybe what you are searching for is a life of living off of the land, your herd of animals, and being nomadic.
You’d better like to eat cheese and milk if you are a nomad living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Mongolia that you were searching for was found in the short grasses of the Steppes. Your life depended on your animals for survival. And your animals depended on the availability of fresh forage. Bitterly cold winters dipping below -40 and lack of moisture, means you have to move often. They don’t call Mongolia “The Land of the Blue Sky” for nothing. In fact, to really get to know what it is like, read native author Galan Tschinag’s novel “Blue Sky”. You will know what it is like to live in a Ger and herd animals after reading it.
You will likely drink Suteytsai (Mongolian Tea-Milk) every day. Made with 8 parts of boiled brick tea mixed with one part of milk, with some butter and salt thrown in, it is the ubiquitous drink of choice among nomadic herders. There is always a pot on, in case someone stops by. It is part of the culture to offer food and drink to strangers and guests. When offered to you, make sure to drink it all and not be perceived as being rude.
You have to be tough to live out here. The climate has a high annual temperature range, with blistering hot summers and brutally cold winters. Annual precipitation is scant. Grasslands and deserts are the dominant ecosystems. Besides being a skilled pastoralist, one should also be a great hunter of wild game. Being the first to develop and master new technological advances with the bow and arrow, along with mastering superior skills in horseback riding, allowed for more than just success in hunting wild game. Those skills transferred well into battles with other human societies that were encountered in the search for resources.
Founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongol Empire spread rapidly. At the height of its influence, the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Danube River in Europe. It holds the record for the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Their skill in horsemanship and the development of the compound bow made Mongol warriors uniquely suited to conquer areas that were open plains or flat areas. Each soldier had several horses and their armies were so much more mobile than that of their adversaries. It is said that the Mongol horse was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of the 13th century.
That was then. Maybe what you are searching for is to feel a connection to the history of that once powerful empire. Today, Mongolia is a landlocked nation in Asia that has been dominated by its more powerful Communist neighbors of Russia and China. Whatever part of Mongolia you want to go to, you are most likely to start your journey in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaan Bataar, or U.B as it is known, is the primate city of the country as well as being the capital. One can see the Soviet influence in the blocky architectural style of the buildings, with gers being located on the outskirts of the city. Whether you are arranging a tour or getting last minute supplies before heading into the hinterlands, U.B. will be the place to get it all done.
Look at the map of ecosystems of Mongolia below and choose what type of ecosystem you would like your adventure to be in. If what you are searching for is in the Gobi desert, there are many things you can choose from in addition to dinosaur fossils.
Try riding a camel in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National park. To really discover the essence of the Gobi Desert, I recommend reading Helen Thayer’s classic book, “Walking the Gobi.” She and her husband traveled over 1,600 miles across the Gobi with their two rented camels, Tom and Jerry. Thanks to that book, I feel like I’ve already been there.
If what you are searching for in Mongolia is a link to its culture and past, you might try visiting during the Naadam festival. This year it is held from July 9-21. Naadam is a celebration of Mongolia’s nomadic heritage and it features competition in three many sports; wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Tours from adventure outfitters such as Blue Silk Travel offer packages which include Naadam festival activities and excursion to the Gobi, and the ancient capital city of Karakorum.
You also might want to visit the Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) complex.
Maybe what you are searching for is a remote and beautiful location where time has stood still for centuries. A place so isolated, such as the Tuvan province in the Northwest of the country in the high Altai Mountains where you could come in contact with the Tuvan throat singers practicing their unique culture. There is NO other place on this planet where you could experience such an unequaled type of singing voice. While there, you could also travel by horseback or Yak and attempt to climb Khuiten Peak, Mongolia’s highest mountain, which part of the Tavan Bogd massif.
to see Tuvan throat singers, visit you tube….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WlI24rv__g
Modern day Mongolia is at a crossroads and facing rapid change. Recently, there have been a lot of discoveries of oil and gas. Mongolia lacks the infrastructure to bring much of it to market. Multinationals, mostly from Russia and China are building this infrastructure to take Mongolia’s resources to their markets. Traditional ways of life are changing fast…too fast for some of the traditional peoples of that land. In their book, “The Changing World of Mongolia’s Nomads”, authors Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall outline the challenges of many of these indigenous peoples. The Mongolian people have already adapted to changes brought about by living under the Soviet system for decades. Besides the political upheavals, economic change, climate change and Covid all present challenges in their own right. All of these changes together are resulting in the Mongolian people now searching for the essence of Mongolia themselves. Time will tell if they will be able to find it!