Mongolia was surprising, a mix of big city and vast plains, hard living and great vegetarian restaurants. The people are friendly and generous, happy to welcome you into their homes and to share their food, despite the language barrier.
The only city in Mongolia, Ulaan-Baatar has around half of the country’s three million-strong population in its grasp. The city is busy, with numerous cars and trucks adding to the dusty roads. Many people move here from the countryside, hoping to earn more money, hoping to develop a different lifestyle. Less and less young adults are willing to take over their family’s nomadic traditions and livelihood. Perhaps one day the only place you will see a ger (the traditional circular fabric and wood tents that Mongolian nomadic families live in; often known by their Russian name ‘yurt’) is in a museum. In the city, strange letters decorated shop signs interspersed with occasional English words: Edinburgh Scottish Pub; Sod Classic Shop; Singer on a huge mural of a sewing machine. After less than a day, myself and the two friends I was travelling with (Emily and Louise) set off to experience life in a ger for ourselves.
Only an hour or so after leaving the city, the landscape was dramatically different. Vast swathes of myriad hues of green covered the land; plains of grasses mingled with flocks of trees; occasional cows or villages added other shades of colour. Mountains emerged from the ground, adding their magnificence to the natural splendour surrounding us.
The nomadic family we stayed with consisted of an older married couple, a young woman who was a cousin of some sort, a young boy about three years old and a pet sheep. We were told that the couple’s children were grown up and married and lived in the city. The small boy was their grandson who had come to stay with them for the summer; the dozen or so other children who we saw around and playing had also been sent to the encampment to stay with nomadic family members for the summer. This gave both the parents and children a bit of a holiday whilst the grandparents could spend precious time with them and teach them some traditional processes.
One of these was milking the cows, which we all had a go at! This was done morning and evening every day, regardless of the weather (it rained the evening we were there so they milked the cows a little later than usual, once the rain stopped). I think I did an okay job of milking, although it wasn’t easy and I only did it for a few minutes. By this point it was quite chilly outside with a bitterly cold wind; I was very glad I’d bought a fleece in Ulaan-Baatar the day before as I’d forgotten to bring any kind of jacket or jumper on my travels!
The family’s primary income was from dairy farming and produce, so we also got to see (and taste) a couple of other products: sour curd which is dried in the sun on the roof of their outdoor seating shelter next to a dead bird so that the live ones wouldn’t eat it, and a butter-type spread. To us it was very strange because almost everything tasted or smelled a little like sour milk, and some things (like the tea) were much more salty than we were expecting. In Mongolia it is traditional to add salt to tea and milk; our guide and translator told us that she preferred tea that way as that’s what she’s used to. I personally didn’t really like it, but that’s not to say I couldn’t become accustomed to it if I had to. (Although I hope I never have to! I’m very typical English when it comes to tea drinking.)
Facilities were very basic. They had some electricity from solar panels on the roof, enough to power lights in the evening and a tiny television and satellite dish. The toilet was the other side of the cow field and was a shed with a long-drop. People washed themselves and their clothes at the nearby river. This was their summer location. In the autumn they would pack everything up and take themselves, their belongings, their gers and their cows to their winter location a few kilometres away. I have so much respect for these people; they have such hard lives and we just had a tiny taster of it.
Back in Ulaan-Baatar the next day we went on a city tour of the key historic and important areas, including the National Museum. One of the most impressive was a huge monument to Chinggis Khan (or as we know him, Gengis Khan) overlooking the central square. Bordering on another side was the National Theatre where we saw a traditional show including an orchestra made up of all traditional Mongolian instruments, a contortionist, dancers, fantastic costumes and – the best part – Mongolian throat singers. It was amazing! I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever go there.
Mongolia was a really interesting contrast to Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I found out lots of fascinating things about Mongolia, its history and its people. Four days was at the same time too long and too short – too long for staying in the city, too short for exploring the stunning National Parks and meeting the people who live in them. My recommendation would be spend one day in the city and much longer (if you have time) exploring, although make sure you check that the standards of where you’re staying match your preference, as they can range from the very basic (which we had) to complete luxury (along the lines of ‘glamping’).
Our next train took us about 38 hours to reach our destination, and as it was very similar to the first one I’m not going to write a separate blog post about it! You can read about it here if you’d like to.
Next stop: Irkutsk, Russia.