28 Jun The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to Mongolia
Tudor T. explores the vast, unexploited geographical wonders of Mongolia.
Touring Mongolia for me was part of a bigger ‘South-East Asia On A Shoestring’ adventure, which overall took 4 months, mostly by train.
I’ve reached Ulan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital, after a 29-hour adventurous train/bus/tuk-tuk/camel/minivan/train journey which originated in Irkutsk, Russia. The Russian-Mongolian border can only be passed if you’re using a vehicle – either bicycle or car. Since I wasn’t using any of these at the time, it turns out that there are a couple of minivans offering a border-crossing service for 150 ‘rubles’ (10 AED). So after a couple of hours of haggling and flashing IDs, exchanging memorable soccer player names with the border guards, checking for illegal substances and well-wishing, I managed to get a 5-hour taxi ride to Ulan Bataar for 15,000 ‘Togrogs’ ( 28 AED).
Ulan Bataar’s air is quite polluted – there are little to no environment norms in place for vehicles and your lungs notice it first. There’s little to do in the city – a couple of museums and squares telling the story of the once-mighty Mongolian Horde and their worldwide feared leader, Genghis Khan. To this day one can feel a deep sense of pride and popularity when it comes to the figure of Genghis Khan. He’s everywhere throughout Mongolia.
And for a good reason, too. If you dig into your history books, you’ll find out that Khan was the founder of the great Mongol Empire, which to this day remains the largest empire in history. Ever. He came to power by uniting many of the nomadic tribes in northeast Asia and there are literally countless stories and legends of his military actions. His figure is also on all Mongolian currency banknotes and coins.
In any case, this was back in the 1200s. Following his demise the empire gradually fell over hundreds of years, reinforcing the saying that truly remarkable leaders arise once every thousand years.
Anyone who plans on visiting Mongolia will not do it for the capital city, but for the countryside spectacular landscapes and incredible lifestyle. It’s truly a Mecca for talented photographers – unlike my modest self.
So after a couple of nights in the capital, negotiations and planning in the hostel with other backpackers, we left on an 8-day tour very early in the morning. There are all sorts of options for these country tours, ranging from 5 to 28 days depending on how much time you can spare and how much you’re willing to see. Also, your tolerance to traveling in a shaky Furgon van across rough uneven terrain for 7-8 hours a day counts in the decision.
Mongolia is absolutely enormous. I’m pretty good with words and yet I can’t find the proper phrasing to describe how big it seems; we were driving for hours on a daily basis, hundreds of kilometers without seeing a single thing out the window except untouched barren desert nature.
This is a yurt (or ‘ger’), the traditional Mongolian housing structure. It’s made out of wood, covered with sheep wool and a large cloth. There’s always a furnace in the middle used for cooking and heating – it burns on manure since there’s no wood to spare for burning. There’s no imports, no shops, no malls, no streets, no mobile phones, no mobile signal or Internet – there’s literally nothing in sight for hundreds of kilometers. Except these yurts inhabited by nomads every now and then.
Some yurts have minimal furnishings inside, others have a layer of straws depending on how ‘wealthy’ the nomad family is. In any case, the inside is cool during the searing hot day and warm during the cold desert nights, because the sheep wool makes a perfect insulator. On one night the wind was howling wildly outside but you could hear a pin drop on the straw-scattered floor on the inside. Impressively effective.
The idea was that we would stop every 100kms or so whenever we found one of these yurts and our driver would ask the family head if they could host us overnight. In exchange, we offered sweets, chocolates or cigarettes since money is worth literally its paper value out here. If they accepted we would spend the night, otherwise carry on. We still had sleeping bags and tents – just in case we needed a plan B.
Mongolian Cuisine is pretty straight-forward and the most popular dish is called Buuz. These are dumplings of minced meat (preferably beef) wrapped in dough and steamed or boiled. They’re very delicious and the only variation is in how they cook them, whether steamed, boiled or fried in mutton fat.
Camel cheese is very popular as well, especially with the elders. Having tried it for the first time, it’s very, very sour. After they produce it, they leave it out to dry for a long period, which makes it even sourer. For a westerner, a fingertip makes for a large enough portion.
Remember the yurts? Mongols hang strips of meat on the inside and leave them there for weeks. Once dried completely, they either eat them as is or store them. Surprisingly there is very little smell, not very tasty though. Due to the climate, Mongols rarely use any spices or herbs in their food and most dishes are based on dairy products or animal meat.
The hamburger is thought to have originated from Mongolia. Story goes that in the 1200s the Great Mongol Horde needed ‘fast food’ so they could keep going on with their campaign. Soldiers would carry strips of meat (like the ones in the yurts) hung from their saddles along with pieces of dough. Whenever hungry, they would simply reach out, place a piece of meat between two pieces of dough so it wouldn’t fall and eat while riding.
Currency: The Togrog – 1 AED is roughly 533 Torogs
Population: 3,000,251 however there is a considerable margin of error
Language: Mongolian – it’s by far one of the most complicated languages I’ve encountered, in the sense that pronunciation makes it very difficult to understand even remotely what locals are talking about.
Capital city: Ulan Bataar, home to almost half the country’s population. It started as a moving nomadic prayer establishment in the 1600s and gradually turned into a busy manufacturing center.
Predominant religion: Tibetan Buddhism
Make sure you don’t miss the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia. If you’ve always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon but never had the chance, this is the closest alternative you will ever find. The area is also rich in dinosaur fossils and chances are you will spot some easily. It’s also known as the first place in the world where fossilized dinosaur eggs have been uncovered in 1923.
A trip to Mongolia cannot finish without seeing the Gobi desert. Although the Gobi desert covers most of Mongolia – it’s rocky, sometimes with patches of grass, other times rocky and partly covered in sand dunes. This is called a semi-desert, but after a good drive you will reach the impressive sand dunes.
“He who hasn’t seen nothingness will never truly appreciate things.” Every nomadic family tends to its animals which in turn provide them with food and manure for the fire. And they’re simply happy about it. Some yurts have jumped a bit into modernity – they have a couple of photovoltaic panels fueling a TV-set which is monumentally placed on a pedestal in the yurt. It will run for 2-3 hours daily, intercepting Russian feeds with the whole family ceremoniously gathered around the furnace on evenings. Other than that, life goes on as it did hundreds of years back and everyone seems happy.
The Mongol people are very hospitable and kind. Some of them also speak very basic English, although 98% of communication is via body language and smile. Looking forward to return!