Malle Field Report: Mongolia
A 4000 mile circumnavigation of Mongolia & The Gobi Desert
Words by Robert Nightingale – January 2017
After 20 days and 4000 miles circumnavigating central Mongolia and crossing the famously inhospitable Gobi Desert, you learn a few things. Amongst these new found talents forced upon me by the Mongolian experience were; How to drink semi-rancid fermented horses milk with a smile. How to navigate a country with no roads, no signs and an almost ungraspable language.
How to dig out a jeep from deep mud and soft sand in less than 5 hours. How to take on Mongolian wrestlers without losing face. How to drink vodka for breakfast…and realising you’ve never experienced hospitality like that of the nomadic peoples of rural Mongolia.
My wife Eunsun and I flew into the capital Ulanbatar at 3am on a Saturday looking for adventure. The capital city is one of the ugliest cities you’ve ever visited, a mishmash of huge Russian built Soviet tower blocks that were erected after the Soviet purge in 1929, surrounded by the ger districts, packed full of gers (yurts) and smoke. Half of the entire (3 million) population of the country live in UB and you can feel it! But like many seemingly ugly urban backdrops, the beauty is in the people and the culture, as friendly as you could ever wish and they have a thirst for parties that would rival any hedonistic Londoner (which we soon learnt is just part of the Mongolian disposition).
Within 24 hours we went from the mundane experience of airports, plastic wrapped bland food and multiple long-haul flights to the wild festivities of a huge (hot, loud and dusty) nomadic celebration of sporting prowess, war games and hunting skills hosted by the monks from the local Monastery, which all happens under the canvas of nomadic tents – the Nadaam did not disappoint.
The Nadaam is the Mongolian equivalent of the Highland Games, where Monks, Archers, Wrestlers, Horse Racers, Eagle Hunters, Traders, Enthusiastic Herders and locals don their exquisite traditional dresses (the Delft) and head from afar to compete, party, cook and celebrate with great vigor. This was the last official Nadaam of the year in Mongolia (before the Arctic winds set in) and we were eager to get involved. The horse racing, wrestling and archery events gain in size, speed and chaos all day and end with big and dusty final heats to decide on the overall winners, with the monks from the local monastery performing several huge dances over the course of the day. The last dance results in a dancing parade with a huge bonfire in the centre, where the masked monks throw religious objects into the flames, whilst the crowds scramble over each other to touch the beards of the monks – very good luck.
With some adventures you just have to take whatever method of transportation comes your way, in our case through a chance encounter at the Nadaam we met a very polite and friendly local guy called Chuuka, who spoke a few words of English well and had a 20 year old Land Cruiser, which was soon at our disposal. The next day we stocked up on provisions and headed North form Ulanbataar, journeying 1000 miles over the next few days towards Kovsgull (a huge 120 km lake) in the Taiga on the southern edge of the Tundra. With a map, compass, a small gas stove, a tent, the jeep filled with water, food, 3 spare tyres, a fist fill or Mongolian tugrig we got stuck into the nomadic way of life.
When navigating in Mongolia, you just need a rough heading, the name of a land mark (a monastery, town, dune or lake) and at least a few words of Mongolian. In 99% of the country there are no real signs or roads, just faint lines in the dirt that resemble tyre tracks. These ‘roads’ are continually changing as the nomadic people move their herds (yaks, goats, camels, sheep and cows) to better grazing and quite often the road will end in completely random places, usually where mushrooms, berries or nuts can be found at the right time of year – so you have no choice but to turn back and search for another set of faint tracks that lead over the desired horizon.
We traveled across the endless landscape from ger to ger (usually 20-100 miles apart), seeking the direction from one family to the next. The further you go into Mongolia the less traveled it becomes, the more wild and the more of a novelty you become. Whenever you come across a ger, quickly you’ll be ushered in and once seated cross legged around the fire, in the ornate and smoke filled ger, all manners of Mongolian hospitality will be unleashed on you. From the obligatory koumiss (fermented horses milk), camel biscuits, vodka, goat, mutton, sweets, cigarettes and snuff.
The gers are completely off-grid, often powered by small solar panels, heated by yak dung which they cook on too, the ancient design is snug in the colds of the North and cool in the heat of the Gobi Desert. Each ger is always South facing and will have a beautiful Buddhist shrine that sits in prize position in the centre, decorated with pictures of the family and their children on horses, or on motorcycles. This country loves their motorcycles!
Often the herdsmen will travel away from the ger for days with their herds of yaks and goats and when we were camping in even the most remote places often a friendly herder will appear out of nowhere, come and sit by the fire for a while, make polite conversation in Mongolian and smile. We learned the way to a herders heart was always the polite offering of two cigarettes and half a glass of vodka. Occasionally they’d stay for dinner and it was always amusing to watch a local guy politely try a homemade curry for the first time. The herders we met had a very graceful and quiet way about them, delicately eating food with elegant precision. We made curry on an open camp fire with local vegetables and trout from the nearby river, trout curry became my speciality… definitely an acquired taste too. But they would always enjoy my Eunsun’s strong cocktails most, before they’d saddle up on their horses or Chinese motorcycles and disappear into the night, to tend to their animals and protect them from the wolves and bears.
After many days traveling through the North and Western Mongolia, camping every night under the stars, fishing, staying in gers with the families and traveling from one ancient monastery to the next, it was time to finally head South and into the Gobi desert. The Gobi stretches for thousands of miles along the entire southern border of Mongolia with China and it was the place Marco Polo and his Father feared most on their multiple journeys from Italy to Mongolia in the Thirteenth century. It took days of off-road driving 10 hours a day to reach the centre of the Gobi.
Vast arid landscapes go on for days, most of it just sandy scrubland, but once you find the heart of the Gobi it reveals flaming cliffs (with dinosaur fossils), oasis’s, vast herds of camels and antelope, mirages and finally the Khongoriin Els with the huge arabian-like sand dunes that stretch into the horizon. Each night we’d try and find an oasis to sleep next to, so we could wake up for the sunrise and watch the wild camels and wildlife come down to drink from the pools in the cool of the early morning. Hundreds of miles from the nearest building and any light source, the stars are truly amazing with shooting stars steaming across the night sky frequently.
The daily routine of waking and sleeping with the sunrise and sunset is a beautiful existence, there’s no access to wifi, cellular networks, no phone, no gps, nothing digital. Just the sun, the stars, the land, the rivers, gers, animals and the day revolves around exploring, fires, gathering and cooking – a simple and natural existence.
It’s not always easily traveling in the desert, most of the tracks are faint lines in the sand/scrubland and the thorny bushes which are unavoidable at times and are always yearning to pierce your tyres and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. On one of our most beautiful and hotest evenings, when we’d hiked for two hours up to the top of the largest dunes at sun-set, at the base of the dunes we could make out the two little dots of the tent and the jeep. For some reason Chukka didn’t like where we’d set up camp…or fancied a slightly un-sober joyride in the sand. Within seconds we could hear that whining sound of a 4×4 bogged down in the sand (a familiar sound), 4 neat jets of sand sprayed up into the night air, forming patterns as they fell in beams of the head lights. After we climbed down off the huge dunes in almost darkness, we spent two hours trying to dig the jeep out. Night fell, as did our spirits, so we decided to try again tomorrow.
The next morning three hours of digging in the desert heat saw the jeep inch closer and closer to the firmer ground, only 10 feet away. We had every available surface out; wooden boards, floor mats, tools and even the chopping board stuffed under the wheels for traction, inch by inch of back breaking work we finally the got it free from the soft and dangerous sand. This was not the first or last time we got stuck, part of the adventure and normally someone usually appears out of somewhere to help out, or sit and watch.
Most vehicles are really not designed for the Mongolian landscape and the long bitter winters, cheap Chinese motorcycles and second hand Honda Prius’ are the wheels of choice and we constantly came across these stuck in knee deep mud or stuck in river crossings, always a good opportunity to meet some locals and help them out.
After several days crossing the Gobi, soon the dunes are behind you and the grasses of the steppes become greener and lusher, the rivers return and the herds of camel are replaced by the more familiar sight of yaks and goats. Upon crossing the natural border of the Gobi into central Mongolia, we got word of a local Nadaam in a North Easterly direction. After a days off-road driving we came across a small desert town (10-20 wooden structures, a shop, a single petrol pump) based around 2 wide dusty streets. The town was eerily silent, not a person in sight and the local stray dogs seemed to own the town. Then we noticed 10-20 horses tied up outside the small slightly run-down lime green town hall. We went inside and the entire town of maybe 100 people were all cramped into the town hall, all in traditional dress noisily arguing and discussing the rules of the Nadaam; from the number of wrestlers allowed to compete, to the length of the horse races, all this needs to be vigorously discussed and voted on in the chaotic court.
After a few hours medals are given to some of the oldest men in the village for bringing the best horses, then we’re all ushered outside for the first event of the evening; The boys wrestling. There were gers on the hill set up specially for the Nadaam and filled with trophies, medals from previous years, sweets, biscuits, breads, Koumiss* and vodka. Being the only foreigners there, we were taken from one ger to the next to meet everyone and offered healthy pours of vodka. Being the national sport of Mongolia, wrestling is a big deal and the local boys took it extremely seriously, in the middle of a big crowd they strip to the waste and wrestle each other, with some of the rounds lasting 15 minutes or more. The boys give it everything they had, in front of their proud Dads cheering them on.
After the wrestling we were pushed into a ger as the unofficial guests of honour (apparently it’s very good luck when people from very far away come to visit and share food) and were the first to be presented with a gigantic bowl of fresh steaming goat…being a vegetarian, I had no alternative but to just grab the largest piece in front of 40 eager on-lookers, bite in and give the thumbs up to pleased smiles from the crowd and another large glass of vodka pushed into my hand enthusiastically. The grinning local children insisted on more and more photos and wherever we went over the next 3 days we always had a group of the sweetest, Mongolian children hanging off each sleeve. After multiple English lessons, the children still believed my name to be ‘My-name-is-robert’ and would shout ‘my-name-is-robert’ at every opportunity.
Later that evening after a game of tossing the ankle bone with some very big and rowdy monks my short and unsuccessful career as a Mongolian wrestler started and finished. Refusal was not an option and once you wrestle one guy, every guy and local boy nearby wants a go at wresting the new foreign guy. My only hope was that the boys were small enough to lift up on a shocker or the quantity of vodka had lessened the mens level of balance…but sure enough 90% of the time I was tossed in the air and found myself lying on my back in a crowd of cheering kids. The best strategy is to be very quick and use the element of surprise, once the wrestle starts try to kick out the back foot and topple the wrestler by quickly landing on him…10% of the time, it works every time!
On the second day of the Nadaam we woke early to the sound of a beautiful chanting by the local children, called simply ‘the horse song’, before each race the riders (boys and girls aged between 7-13) ride round and around in a circle chanting the same slow and melodic song. Then once the leaders are ready they raise a flag on a motorcycle and start driving into the distance, cars, trucks and motorcycles follow the procession of 30+ horses as they walk 20km in a straight line. I tried to ask one of the organizers ‘why not make the horses race in a circle?’, to which I received a puzzled look and realised this is the way it’s always been. Once the motorcycle odometer marks 20km the bike turns around, the horses assemble in a group, the flag falls and the tiny jockeys lurch into the race at lightening speed, with a huge cloud of dust erupting into the air. Whips cracking from one side of the horse to the other, the entire chaotic group or jockeys and riders, trucks and motorcycles race towards the finish line in a chaotic cacophony of shouting, engines, the cracking of whips and dust. The children are amazing, wrapped up in a mismatch of semi protective clothing, motocross pads and bicycle helmets…or shorts and tee-shirts they give it everything they’ve got. This was one of the toughest races I’d witnessed. Finally the first horse crosses the finish line, both rider and horse drenched in sweat, greeted by their proud parents and the entire village is out to congratulate each rider.
On the third and final day of the Nadaam we’re woken early again by local children tapping on the tent and whispering ‘my-name-is-robert’ and eagerly persuading us to join the families for breakfast. Bleary eyed, unwashed and groggy from the last nights festivities, which included a branding party – where all of the local herdsman bring their cattle brands and build a big coal fire in the ger, then press their red-hot brand into a huge felt sheet, so that all of the local herders recognize who’s brand/livestock is whose – with the obligatory overdose of goat, vodka and cheap tobacco. Within seconds of sitting down on the floor, a glass or vodka is pushed into our hands…it’s 7am! The reason for the early rise and the apparent excitement, it was the final of the wrestling championship, where the biggest and best vie for the champion title and the prize money! Mongolian wrestlers are very big guys, ornately dressed they compete against other with national champions and the local guys giving it a go. Each wrestler needs to compete with all of them, so the first round is 7 year old boys competing against 15 stone (120kg) 6ft 8” men. Soon the competition heats up and each time a winner beats his opponent, the loser must concede by flying under the wing of the winning wrestler, who then does a slow motion dance for a few seconds mimicking the grand soaring of the victorious eagle, with his arms out-stretched, quite a spectacle.
All great things must come to an end, and sooner than we’d like we have to head back to Ulanbataar and our Mongolian adventure neared the end. I can’t recommend the wild and untouched natural beauty of Mongolia enough. The people are so welcoming and their hospitality knows no bounds. Once you leave the rather ugly cities and towns, real adventure, beautiful people and wilderness awaits you.
The Kit – Malle Essentials
We were traveling with all Malle kit and I’ve listed a few key essentials to bare in mind when traveling through Mongolia or through larger areas of relatively un-chartered land in that region (Mongolia/China/Kazakhstan). Pack really light, only take the bare essentials!
We tried to travel as light as possible using; one Edward/Ex backpack for my kit, water bottle, maps, books and fishing gear. One larger Bruno/Ex weekender for Eunsuns well packed wardrobe essentials, books and our first aid kit. A Vincent/Ex duffel filled with the tent, two hiking sleeping bags and the Expedition Roll, which was perfect as a waterproof and padded ground blanket in the tent and for evening fireside camping/cooking. We carried spare cash (1/2 a million tugrig) in the Henry Wallet and our passports were kept close in the Alexander passport wallet.
Our map of the country was essential, there is no wifi/3G/4G or cellular communication outside of the capital and a handful of other large towns. Our essentials included: Compass, water bottle, camera, knife, lighter, spare bottle of vodka and spare cigarettes (for meetings with herders), sweets/balloons/pencils (for local children or for when meeting families), fly fishing kit (the Taiman fishing is spectacular and tasty on the campfire), notebook and pencil (good for last resort communication – to draw maps, directions and land-marks), a gas stove, a good jeep with plenty of water and spare tyres, jacks, wooden boards for digging/running the 4×4 out of sand, a small spade or shovel and bio degradable wet-wipes to keep clean – showers are in short supply (non existent), we never found one in 20 days and washing in rivers is frowned upon for Buddhist reasoning (you can take a bucket of water from the river/lake, but you must never wash in it).
*Side Note – Koumiss: The traditional Koumiss is made in a large skin vessel, made from a cows skin stretched 4ft across a wooden frame, each morning the fresh horses milk is added and churned with a large wooden paddle (meaning some of that mares milk will be months old. Koumiss tastes like…very sour, salty, thick slightly rancid yoghurt (with bits floating on the surface that you learn to blow away before sipping). Upon entering a ger you must receive with both hands out stretched, drink it three times (or finish the entire bowl to really impress) and pass it back to the exact person who handed it to you.
This is easy when there’s only one of two of you in the ger, but if you find yourself at midnight in a packed ger with 30-40 people all dressed in near-identical traditional delfts feeding you glass after glass of vodka and then bowls of koumiss in between, it’s a challenge! If you return it to the wrong person, with a big grin they will twist your ear roughly, tease you relentlessly and laugh until you can locate the correct person to receive it. Koumiss is most definitely an acquired taste, but with enough mental dedication and deep breaths, a liking to this strange liquid can almost be achieved after a few weeks.