Lost in Mongolia appeals to Aussie’s – they relish the idea of roaming the steppe wilderness in the ‘footsteps of nomadic herders’ (without a fence in sight), learning about its rich cultural heritage, unique Buddhism/Shamanism religion and connecting with the legendary stories of Genghis (Ghinggis) Khan.
I can testify to this having just returned from an adventurous trip to Mongolia with 11 intrepid IPT travellers – completing visits to Khustain Nuruu, Hogno Khan and Khan Kentii National Parks, Karakorum, Orkhon Valley along with Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in East Gobi.
Having finally washed the last of the Gobi desert dust out of my hair I wanted to share a few unique experiences of this inspiring journey through the cradle of the Mongol civilisation - some our group will probably not forget. This is not a trip for the "faint hearted" - but if you can forego some creature comforts then the rewards are there to be had.
In Ulaanbaatar (the capital), we chanced upon a religious ceremony in Gandan Monastery, only preformed in the spring equinox (not a dry eye in the place – or maybe that was the overpowering juniper incense). We were privileged to see a number of Przewalski (last of the world’s wild horse) and red deer herds. Each sighting celebrated with a shot of the national drink – Chinggis Khan Vodka. (the traditional vodka is known as Airag and is a summer seasonal drink made from fermented mare's milk). The word soon got around, with plenty of additional helpers for sightings, from the local ranger perched on a motorbike to passer by drivers and research scientists. We were bemused to find out it takes approximately four hours to travel forty five minutes – but the passing scenery is certainly out of this world.
The group was going for the record on most things – number of vodka shots for red deer sightings, number of songs you can sing during a breakdown, helping out thirty teachers in a bus that was bogged, getting bogged ourselves and asking for help from the thirty teachers, withstanding not one but two sand storms, helping locals re-build gers, discovering a plethora of ancient grave sites, sightings of the Hoopoe (bird), taking up the ‘Mongolian stance’ for pit stops (a story for another time), variety of hand movement charades for wildlife we saw – so our yelps of surprise did not scare them away (amused the local guides), the highest number of international visitors to hit one wholesale store at one time – all looking for chocolate (and more vodka)!
No matter how many times you are warned, one is forever hitting one’s head on the low door frames as you enter into the ger. Whilst the materials of the ger are lightweight to make it easy for herders to transport the gers (either on the back of a camel, a horse pulled cart or large truck for the wealthy herders) – it still hurts every time you hit it. Surprisingly enough it was the shorter ones of the group that made more direct hits with the wooden frames rather than the taller of the group.
We were fortunate enough to enjoy a number of nights sleeping in these comfortable ger cocoons – the locals refer to them as white seashell’s – a symbol of intelligence in Buddhism. Decorated with beautiful carved doors and pillars as well as handmade (woven and knitting) fabrics, the two pillars that hold toono (roof in a shape of a round opening) symbolise the man and the woman of the household, and walking between them is not approved of. A herder can easily tell you what time of day it is according to how the light comes through roof. Sometimes this occurred instantaneously at 6:30am when the staff of the ger camps opened the protective toono flap for our early morning birding walks. Due to wind mostly from North and Northwest, the doors of the gers always face south, useful to know when one is travelling in the countryside. Another useful tip for a traveller is not to step on the threshold as you enter the ger, for you would be seen as stepping on the neck of the head of the household.
Without a doubt it was the people we met along the way that transformed this walking holiday into an unforgettable experience. We were honoured to visit a Nomadic family's home – Mr & Mrs Bolt. “Seeing the strong personal relationships within the extended family group, their dependence on the environment and the trust that they will manage by working together” said one of our guests, Judy Hughes. A moment we will all remember from our time in Mongolia.