For many years Mongolia lingered in the back of my mind. If it was ever coincidentally brought up in conversation, my heart would skip a beat, yearning to visit for no other reason than simply wanting to experience something like the last place on Earth. My impression of Mongolia before I visited was that it was an empty and wild country, a land of nomads. It turns out that this is actually pretty accurate. May 24th, 2018 marked the start of my 61 day Mongolian adventure.
It was my goal to submerge myself in the culture as much as possible in the time that I had. Being Canadian, I was only permitted a free 30-day visa (on arrival) and an additional 30-days at a cost. But “61 days in Mongolia”, right? Right. I overstayed my visa by a day, an incident I had not technically planned, but managed to escape with only a small tap on the hand. Regardless, this to me did not seem like enough time to accomplish everything that I wanted to do, but I made do with the time that I had.
I spent months learning about the history, the religions, the languages, the Cyrillic alphabet, the geography and whatever else I could dig up on the Internet before I arrived. The work that I put into learning about the country before the trip paid off. Going to Mongolia with some foundation knowledge helped me learn the questions I wanted to ask and gave some me great conversational tools that I could use when talking to the locals, which is what I was really there for. Learning some basic Mongolian and how to read the Cyrillic alphabet was particularly helpful. My botched attempts of broken Mongolia were appreciated by the locals, who, after a good laugh, would warmly welcome a conversation.
The trip was broken up into three regions: Ulaanbaatar (the country’s capital), Khövsgöl Aimag (to visit the Tsaatan Reindeer Tribe) and to Bayan-Ölgii Aimag (to experience the wilderness). I have summarized the purpose of each of these three areas below. More detailed articles of each location are coming soon.
1- Ulaanbaatar and surrounding areas (Улаанбаатар or “UB” as the locals say):
Ulaanbaatar is home to over two third’s of the country’s population. It is the economic heart of the country, where all the business goes down. Unlike the rest of the country, Ulanbaatar is more on the developed side of the spectrum, although the same cannot be said for the outer edges of the city. Modernization has taken the city so quickly that the outskirts of it’s center have not caught up. The equivalent of Ulanbaatar’s “suburbia” is a massive sprawl of gers (traditional Mongolian homes) spreading out from the city’s modern center. Even Google Maps navigation is unable to keep up with the fast growing city. This of course course poses a problem if you are trying to use GPS to navigate yourself around. As an alternative, taxi drivers and other GPSers use the “what3words” system, which can pinpoint any 3X3 meter area in the world by using three words.
Most traveler’s come to the country to explore what is outside of the city, which made me curious of what this city was all about. The story of urbanization is not a unique one, but Ulaanbaatar sets itself apart for several reasons: Mongolia has the third lowest population density in the world (1.9 people per sq km), it is landlocked and harder to access, and nearly all of its (Ulaanbaatar’s) current residents are young and come from generations of traditional nomadic living, having left their traditional way of life in search of opportunity. What I was most interested in learning about this city was how the synergy of the country’s traditional roots and urbanization rate were effecting the society.
I was in Ulaanbaatar for about a month. Many of my days were spent walking around aimlessly, admiring the diverse architecture, listening to the language of passersby and simply enjoying being there. On my days off work, I would explore the nature outside the city limits.
(More about Ulaanbaatar to come!)
A few photos of Ulaanbaatar
2- Khövsgöl Aimag (a journey to the Tsaatan Reindeer Tribe)
The ultimate purpose of going to Khövsgöl Aimag was to visit the nomadic Tsaatan Tribe (also known as the Dukha). In Mongolian, tsaa translates to “reindeer” and tan translates to “people”, thus called “Reindeer People” in English, a name that gives insight into their cultural identify and unique way of life.
The journey to the Tsaatan was a grueling 3 days long by land and one that challenged my tolerance of mosquitoes, rain, pain and my mind. Was it worth it? Hell yes.
The people of the Tsaatan Tribe and the reindeer that live in their home valleys forged a symbiotic relationship thousands of years ago that has allowed both to survive in the harsh conditions of the subarctic taiga of Mongolia. And like many other tribal communities around the globe, this endemic culture is facing threat of extinction as the younger generations are choosing to move to the cities to live a more modern and comfortable life.
In effort to preserve the tradition and wisdom of this tribe, it was my goal in going there to interview some of the elders of the community. For this, I needed a translator.
I am not naive in thinking that I could begin to grasp the full depth of their way of life in the short time that I was there, however my hope is to provide a small window into their world.
To gain a wider perspective of their existence, I set off on a three day overland journey to reach the Tsaatan. With the help of several translators and of my partner, I successfully conducted interviews with a some of the elders of the community. My interest in their culture was warmly welcomed and I was given the absolute privilege of hearing about their lives over cups of warmed reindeer milk.
(An article that profile’s some of the elders and of my journey to the Tsaatan will be published in the near future)
Some photos of my journey to the Tsaatan Tribe:
3- Bayan-Ölgii Aimag (journey into the unknown)
Around these areas, you see much less traditional Mongolian culture and more of a Kazakh Mongolian fusion. I had no plan going to Bayan-Ölgii Aimag. All I knew is that I had a backpack, a willingness to go with the flow and nearly two weeks to explore. After a few days of playing around with maps and prepping food, my partner and I set off to explore the area surrounding Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, home to the Altai Mountains.
Because we were unable to enter the park without an entire guiding crew, we opted to explore the lesser known mountains outside of the park. Over the course of several days, we hiked and hitchhiked our way deeper into the mountains until we reached a small village called Buyant. It’s worth pointing out that usually, when a nice van did decide to pick us up, we were two of over a dozen bodies in the vehicle. The hitchhiking stories of Mongolia are stories of sweat, vomit, white knuckles and squished limbs.
Remote and dusty Buyant was a surreal place. The gers of the village were enclosed by six foot mud brick walls. The dirt roads were mostly empty except for the occasional cat or kid playing around, kicking up dust as they ran past.
It was very evident when we arrived that this was not a place many tourists visited. The locals seemed surprised of our presence, some even offering assistance (in a language neither of us knew), most likely thinking that we had truly lost our way to some other destination. But we were exactly where we were supposed to be.
In all of my travels, I have never felt like such a small dot on this planet as I did when I was in Buyant.
(more on my Bayan-Ölgii aventures to come)
Some photos from Bayan-Ölgii Aimag (province):
Mongolia is a unique country in many ways. Start walking off in any direction, and it is unlikely you will come across much else than raw wilderness for hundreds of kilometers. In much of the country it is so quiet that you can hear the beat of your heart as you walk across its landscape. It is the ultimate playground for the adventurous.
I am personally very grateful that I could visit Mongolia. My eyes have been opened to a whole new culture and way of life. In my time traveling the countryside, there were times when I would take time to stop and look around, and try to imagine how different it was 800 years ago. I can honestly say that excluding the occasional (usual not usable) box TV in the corner of a ger and rusty motorbike zipping along, things wouldn’t have look much different. One thing that is worth mentioning is that solar technology is beginning to surface among the nomads– outside of some of the gers are small little solar panels that can charge small little gadgets such as phones. Pretty neat!
This is the way I did Mongolia, but as I traveled the country, I met up to some of the most inspiring people that I have ever met, each doing the country differently. I was only able to explore three little areas but there is so much more to see and learn from this place. I have already started to think of my next trip to Mongolia. It likely won’t be for a while, but it certainly has left me wanting to return for more.