Farewell to Mongolia


So it’s farewell to this unique country and it’s wide, open spaces and calm, colourful people. Immediately I crossed the border from Russia it was noticeable how different this country is. People smile more. They wear colourful Western and traditional dress. Their cars are new white and grey Japanese numbers. In the capital there is new building of office and apartment blocks on a colossal scale. Hundreds of cranes fill the sky line. This is all down to the discovery of new copper and gold deposits in the south of the country.

Hate are a few interesting facts to leave you with:

50% of the 3 million population live in Ulaanbaatar

The first dinosaur egg was discovered in the Gobi Desert

At the age of 18 the government gives every citizen a plot of land of 500 square metres. They immediately put a wooden fence around the perimeter and erect their ger inside.

There are still 300,000 nomadic herders on the steppes

There’s are still shamans who follow their ancient ceremonies

Mongolians are so very proud of Genghis and there are images of him everywhere although he died over 900 years ago.

These images reflect the many different feature of this magnificent country. I will miss the huge, flat vastness of the desert and the steppes and the peace and calmness that that brings. I will so miss the quiet and the opportunities for reflection.

Till next time and my next adventure.


A day at the races

Horses are the stars in Mongolia. Star horses have monuments, songs, paintings, lyrics, music and dances named after them. For every person in this country, there is an equal number of horses, making over three million in total.  They really do follow the horses. The final event of the Naadam is the horse racing which is held on flat, open ground about 30km out of the capital. Over 250,000 descend on the rolling course.

We arrive early to beat the traffic. A golden dawn lights up hundreds off refreshment gers who are just opening up for a busy day.

A number of races are on the card, dependent on the age of the horse. We are going to watch the Soyolon, a race for 5-year olds, over 22-24 kilometres. There are two things you need to know about Mongolian horse racing. The first is that all the horses are ridden by child jockeys aged between 7 and 13, although many look younger than that., and the second is that many ride bare-backed.

The races are ridden over a straight course over the steppe. Hours before their start time the young jockeys walk their mounts from the finish up to the start, over the hills and far away. They then turn around and race for home. It takes about half an hour to race back and the crowd crowds into ramshackle, stepped platforms to watch the final stages. The first sign of the approaching field is a gathering storm of dust in the far distance. Up to 100 horses can take part in these races. Tension mounts and the locals rise with a roar as the leading horses take form, accompanied by a small flotilla of outrider cars. The locals scream and shout and applause and whistle and yell encouragement as the winner leads the rest of the field in. Every finisher is greeted and it may go on for 30 minutes or so as many of the horses are exhausted having raced that far. Only one comes in riderless. I hope he didn’t come off too far out.

The rest of the day is spent with family and friends, on foot and on horseback.


The race over and it’s back to the struggles of the huge crowd, and, boy, is it huge and unrecognizable from earlier. Masses of spectators and family groups kick up a dusty haze as they move around the open hillside enjoying all the fun of the fair. There are some official looking rides and inflatables but most seem to be simple, traditional fairground activities set up by anyone with a bit of initiative. I saw one guy who was making ak killing with some half empty water bottles, some notes attached to each with an elastic band and some plastic hoops. He has a crowd off 50 strong, yelling encouragement and no lack of people wanting to pay to have a go. He has a huge wad of bills in his hand and his home-made hoopla stall is obviously a huge success. Other stalls include a host of Throwing Darts at a Rack of Balloons, Water Bottle Skittles, Paper Balls at Cans. All seems to require little brain and a lot of braun, judging by the prowess of the guys showing off to the pack.

Mixed in with the thousands on foot, are those on horse-back. You have to watch it as they come up behind you, unheard. The family groups proudly show off in their steed and matching livery. The more mature men go around in their Sunday best, standing straight and aloof. The problem is the young tearaways who at the earliest opportunity gallop at full speed into any open ground like lads doing spin turns in Blackbird Leys.

In fact initiative is the word. Every other van is crammed full with large plastic bottles of coke or lemonade or the bright colours of plastic toys or dolls or kites or home goods. They’d called in at the cash & carry on the way, set up on the grass and were flogging any tat to the passing crowd. There are several outdoor pool tables, pony rides, have your kiddies photo taken in front of this poster. The ladies has set up little stoves and are frying up meat dumplings to sell. Great for the cholesterol. The noise, the sounds, the colour, the smells, the press, the emotion of so many folk pushing about together is absolutely brilliant. Oh, I should add that there is no betting in Mongolia and limited prize money. It is all done for the pride of participation and winning is acknowledged with awards and certificates. Sounds like my kind of school.

Robin Hood or William Tell?

Archery is what it says on the can. Literally in the case of Mongolian archery. Rather than shooting at a target, archers shoot at rows of red or brown baked bean cans, made of leather, called hasaa and standing two or three high. If any part of the row is hit the judges start chanting and throw their hands in the air like the flying geese in the wrestling, to indicate success. If the arrow misses they indicate with their hand the height it passed over the top.

Men and women take part, the women over 60 metres and the men 75 metres. It is not just a question of hitting the row of hasaas. A score is only recorded if any one hasaa moves at least 8cm. Not a easy as it looks.

Each competitor is given 40 shots. 20 are used to hit a row of 20 hasaas stacked three high. The next 20 chances are given to hitting 30 hasaas lined in two rows.


Them bones, them bones, them ankle bones

This is played in a large shed in the stadium complex. The Ankle-bone Shooting competition involves the champion team from each province. Teams are made up of six to eight players of mixed ages, some old guys, some young, even some children.

Ankle-bone Shooting is a bit like a cross between bowls, Aunt Sally and Tiddley Winks. Two teams line up on low seats opposite each other. One or two shooters from each team face the far end of the carpet where there is a small wooden structure. Stood within it will be a number of ankle bones from a small animal. The further into the game you get, the fewer target bones there are. The winning team is the one that has knocked down the most bones, which is shown by the number stacked up on their side of the carpet.

Each shooter has their own style. A small, rectangular, piece of deer’s horn is used as the bullet. It is flicked from a polished ruler with a low edge along one side. The shooter will use his knee to steady the ruler and aim. He will use his middle finger to flick the bullet to knock target bones off the line. Each team will collect these on their own sides of the target box.

Ankle-bone Shooting is a noisy affair. Team members line up to take their shot. As each concentrates, his own team sounds out a mellow melody whilst the opponent’s team will try to distract the shooter with loud, sharp sounds and voices. Large cheers will go up when a bone its dislodged. With a many as twenty games going on at the same time you can imagine how loud it is.

“The games social role is to reach the younger generation to compete politely, to work together as a team and to have a calm team spirit.” Maybe the Premiership could learn a thing or two.


The Good, the Bad and the very Ugly Wrestlers

Immediately after the opening ceremony the wrestling starts in the stadium. Each province’s top wrestlers take part, 512 in total. They wear similar outfits which, so the story goes, is open chested so everyone can see they are male. In the past, when they were clothed, a woman took part and beat some of the guys until she was recognised by a family friend. Each bout has a judge allocated. The judges are the ones decked out in the dark blue and red. There are a whole loads of bouts going on at the same time with a tangle of wrestlers hard at it, judges observing, victors jogging about celebrating and four static soldiers whose job it is to guard the Nine Banners, representing the 9 horsetails of Genghis’ 9 Mongol tribes.

Some things you need to know about Mongolian wrestling. Firstly, and most importantly, there are no weight categories. So the lightest guy may have to fight the heaviest, and some of them are heavy. So, in the early rounds there are complete mismatches and if there is a chance that a thin guy can get one over a heavy one, the spectators give him all their support.

In the later rounds only the heavy, thick guys are left. The last 8.

Two of the last 4.

Secondly, ‘knee-dirtied’ is the Mongolian term for defeat. In other words, if you can get any part of your opponent’s body to touch the ground, you are the winner. Here are a few moves.

Once you have put your opponent down, you flap your arms in the air like a goose trying to take off, you rock around 360° stiff legged before jogging off to give thanks to the Nine Feathers. You return to your defeated opponent and run clockwise under his outstretched arm to mask respect for his participation. You then collect a token from the judge and progress to the next round.

Thirdly, there is no time limit so the bout can go on for 3 seconds or 30 minutes of even longer. Because of this the closing ceremony is always a movable feast. They start ’em young in Mongolia.




The Opening of the Naadam Festival

The annual Naadam Festival has been held over centuries. Originally it was a gathering of the Mongol tribes where the champions of each one would compete in three ‘manly’ events to establish who was the overall champion in each. These were wrestling, horse riding and archery. Ten years ago a fourth event was added, ankle bones (more on this later). Now it is a competition between the nine provinces that make up Mongolia today.

The Naadam Festival proper kicks off in the morning with a lavish opening ceremony involving 2,000 or so participants. This traces the history of Mongolia from early times, concentrating in particular on the uniting of all the tribes and the vast empire established by Genghis Khan which, at one point, stretched from Europe through to China and Vietnam. His grandson Khublai founded the Yung dynasty in China and moved the capital to Bejing. The period following communist control, independence and the subsequent growth of pride in traditional values is celebrated. In 1990 the population was 2 million. Now it has reached 3 million. The finale involves hundreds of youngsters, demonstrating their promise and potential for the future of this ancient yet young country.

Enjoy the scenes. Olympics, eat yer heart out.

Mongolia’s Day of National Costumes

Now it’s back to UB for the Naadam festival (see how I use the local vernacular for Ulaanbaatar). The only problem is that having survived 40+° heat and 7 days on the Cheesegrater the weather forecast is for rain. The Mongolian forecast is as reliable as the BBCs.

The whole thing kicks off with Mongolia’s Day of National Costumes when everyone, young and old, gets togged up in traditional dress for the day. This culminates in a cultural show on a large stage in the main square. 50 or so acts,aged from 8 to 80 go up and perform, dressed in some wonderful and amazingly colourful gear. They strut, sing, dance, parade, throat sing, and do things that Mongolian have been doing for 100s of years. These guys set up the largest land empire in history and they are so proud of their traditions and customs. Enjoy the audience and the performers.



24 hours with a nomadic herder

Just outside a stopover is the summer location of a small herder’s ger surrounded by the typical tall, wooden fence. The stove pipe protrudes over the top. On one side is his old, Russian built van. On the other are two standing motorbikes and a small, family saloon. A suitable distance from the stockade is his private Big Drop toilet, grandly painted a sunrise yellow. On the other is a wellhouse, a large concrete cube with a rusty metal door on one side and a pipe sticking out from the bottom leading into a long open trough.

I thought it might interest you to record the activity around this ger at different times of day.

Dawn is around 6. A herd of cattle are chewing the cud in the fresh, morning sun. A bit further away a large group of camels are penned into a small circle.

 The metal door on the left opens. Dad comes out, lifts the bonnet of the saloon, inspects the inside, closes the hood and goes back inside. A little lad in a red T shirt comes out, doesn’t make it to the Big Drop and piddles by the motorbikes.

A bit later two female figures, gran, daughter or wife, walk over to the cows and disturb their slumber as they reluctantly get to their feet. They milk them and return to the ger with a silver pale in each hand.

Around 9am, dad appears, gets on one of the motorbikes and drives off.

In 30 minutes he returns. Gone to check on one of his herds maybe. He wanders over to the standing cattle and moves them away into the desert leaving a small group of calves on their own. These wander off on their own eventually. Sometime or other the camels have been released from their pen and wandered off.

All goes quiet. Around lunchtime, a large herd of goats wander in from a different direction and hang around the wellhouse in a long line. The ger door opens and dad goes over. He claps them away from the rusty door and raises some water into the gulley. By throwing stones and shouting, he manoeuvres them to the water in groups and then dismisses the whole lot back the way they came, before going indoors.

Then the camels plod in from the west. They stand guard over the wellhouse and the gulley. Indignantly they spy the calves who are trying to sneak in to grab some refreshment. A couple of camel outsiders see them off and then the whole herd of snoitytoity bullies move off to the east having occupied the wellhead for a couple of hours.

At tea time the herd of cattle reappears, herded by dad on his motorbike. Having spent a bit of time drinking at the gulley they settle down for the night in their allocated spot.

As dusk falls, the camels appear, herded by a figure I have not seen before, riding a horse. They are corralled over by the yellow toilet. By dawn they will be gone on their travels. I don’t know where the goats spend the night.


In the Middle of Nowhere

At some points the four vehicles are racing side by side on this 44 lane Santa Pod, rough track, off-road highway. Gentle rises and dips spread ahead through the hard landscape, the only difference being that over the hours the vegetation dies out even more and the rocks and stones and dust take over permanently. Having covered 400 kilometres over this harsh, hard, unrelenting surface, hammering along at speed over the rough side of a cheese grater for 12 hours, we arrive at a small town. We officially name it ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ or Nowhere for short. In Mongolian it is Bayangobi ……… in the Middle of Nowhere.

This is the small town/village of Sevrei ….. in the Middle of Nowhere.

And this is Bayanzag which has a small regional airport ….. in the middle of nowhere and serving ….who, exactly – other than tourists who want to get our of Nowhere.


Lost and found in the Gobi Cheesegrater

So this is the Gobi. No romantic crescents of towering arcs of soft sand in oranges and reds with a robed tribesmen, piercing blue eyes pinning your heart to his from behind his headscarf, navigating his noble camel down to your caravan. Sorry, no. The Gobi is hard, uncompromising, hot, dusty, grey and empty with camels that grunt and complain and groan and spit and smell and slobber.

Today we expect to drive 300 km to the overnight stop. On the way we are seeking some caves where some Stone Age Men and their families lived many years ago. The fist part its easy enough. We start off in good spirits refreshed in Nowhere. The route is flat with only the occasional gulley when the driver has to brake sharply and ease the vehicle down one side and up the other. Easy. The sun is not yet fully up. Music is placing – a random selection of Mongolian throat singing, light Mongolian opera, some cowboy clip-cloppy stuff, Mongolian hip hop, some very inappropriate US rap and some Kylie.

It is unclear where this cave is, so our magnificent team of drivers stop at a group of gers and ask a herdsman, who is watering his goats from a well. A lot of gesturing and pointing takes place and that’s where it all starts to go wrong.

Our convoy becomes divided. Two vehicles, including mine, head off to the left following a set of energy wires towards the mountains in the distance. 

I call this part of the journey the Rally Cross Fun Fair. We are going across the landscape and crossing all the dry streams and water courses that would be torrents when the shows melt in the hills. So, every few meters there is a steep gulley, river bed, rut, dip, mound, wadi which has to be traversed with a similar technique – brake at top, descend sharply, hit bottom with a shake, rattle, roll, fling up to roof, grind up the other side with a churning of tyres, hit the top and dump over ready for the next one. It is just like a fun fair. I’ve named some of the rides – The Rough Track Helter Skelter, The Brocking 4×4 Bronco, The Gravel Slide Waltser, The Rally Cross Spider, The Dried Watercourse Roller Coaster. At one point vehicle number 2 gets pinned in the bottom of a gully with its back wheels clean off the ground.

We reach the mountains, which up close resemble even more the teeth in a crocodile’s jaw. We drive along the face for 30 minutes, rollercoasting the scree fans, eventually giving up this line of approach by descending a 75° slope, spotting a lad on a motorbike. When asked, he points. Oh no, not the dreaded pointing arm. 

The two vehicles, feeling cocky, chase off into the crocs teeth, following a dried river course up into the hills taking the wrong choise at any diversion of a line of wheel tracks in the gravel. We find ourselves up in some high grasslands but, judging by the more frequent stops and the more frantic conversations between our drivers, utterly lost. It is beautiful though. Not helpful. There follows half an hour of animated chat and lots of pointing. ‘Call the other vans on mobile’…….’no reception’. ‘Use your satellite phone’……’only got one so they can’t receive the call’. ‘Sat Nav’ is very similar in Mongolian.

There follows 15 minutes of searching through bags for the day nav and leads. Our drivers then pile into one van and screw up their faces as they study the screen. At this point the passengers were outside keeping themselves amused. We play I Spy (that did not take long), I went to a Mongolian Market. We made up jokes – There were 4 Brits, 2 Irish & 3 Mongolians lost in the desert….. Imagine our surprise when their vehicle moved around in 90° sectors obviously trying to find their position. Hmmmmm. I suspect the screen showed no roads or building and was just……..green.

Ok. Some thinking required. Let’s go back and find someone to ask the way!!!!!!! This sounds a good idea. Except, this is the middle of the Gobi. There is no sign of a dwelling, a vehicle, a person. Look, a herd of goats in the distance. Up and over hillsides, scatter the herd, no herdsman. There he is, over on that hillside. Up and over hillsides. Yayyyy. ‘Cave?’. More pointing. Oh no.


But, despite misgivings, after another 40 minutes of up and over hillsides, there in the distance, tiny, are two parked vehicles alongside a tiny orange roofed shelter.

That is what we’ve been looking for two hours. It marks the entrance to the cave.

Lost and found in the Gobi. How many people on this planet can claim bragging rights to that? Quite a few, it seems. It happened on four more occasions before we arrived at our overnight ger camp.. ‘Good game. Play it at home’.

Shankh chantings and airag

Today I really get the feel for life in this unique country. Firstly, I continue the drive across empty grasslands using tarmac roads and then dirt tracks and then off roading completely. The speed is constant whichever surface we traveled over – an even 60mph, swirling and curling to avoid the potholes on each of them. We are heading for a small town called Arvaikheer.

The stop at Shankh Monastery is truly magnificent. It seems today is a particularly auspicious day and the monks have begun their two hours of chanting sacred prayers, joined by the local villagers. A large bowl of airag awaits visitors and monks alike. One of the locals encourages us to try it out to the great amusement of some of the ladies.This is fermented mares’ milk. It tastes of light, cheesey yogurt with a strong alcoholic kick. After 4 or 5, the harmonies sound great and the climaxes of clashing symbols, two tone horns and wailing clarinet thingies, mixed with some smoke and incense, sets a spiritual atmosphere.

Outside the old men have had enough and are sitting around in the shade. The women are busy cooking little pasty things for the monks when they finish. At first, both groups are very shy. Eventually they relent.

Further up the valley we literally drop in to visit a nomadic family completely unannounced. Their culture dictates that all visitors are made welcome. Dad has set up his gers here for the summer. He has cattle, horses and yaks. He lives in three gers with one of his daughters and her two daughters and one son. We are invited in and we sample her yak curd (tangy cheese) and butters and cheeses from the mares that she milks every two hours. A large, plastic tub of airag stands in the corner waiting to be agitated. In the winter, from September to May, when snow covers the ground, they will move, with the other families, to find somewhere more sheltered and bunker down for 9 months. A really tough life.






Steppe-ing out onto the Mongolian steppes

Now this is delicious.. This is what I thought Mongolia might be like – miles around miles and miles of open grassland and rolling hills disturbed by absolutely nothing. Not a tree in sight, not a fence, not a wall, not a building nor a barn. Only the shadows of passing clouds corrupts the greenness but only by placing irregular patterns of darker shades on the troughs and folds and dips and rises of this expanding landscape.

Largish, grazing herds of sheep or goats or cattle wander contentedly yet arbitrarily,  mostly unaccompanied, although occasionally pushed along by a single herdsman on horseback or even a motorbike. I saw a pair with the woman on the back shaking a rattle made out of a large beer bottle with some stones inside. These herds criss-cross the steppes like moves on a chess board, the purpose of their journey only clear in their own minds.

Rogue groups of more lively horses and ponies canter about showing off to anyone watching until the midday sun quietens them down and they settle into groups, nestling close together to provide shade for each other. The odd collection of yaks or camels look imperious on the side of the road, waiting to be loaded up with goods or tourists to earn their men a keep. They frown or groan or chomp or even spit if their slumber is disturbed in any way.

Karokorum was the 13th century capital of the Mongol Empire. Built up with palaces and temples by Ogedei, the third son of Genghis Khan, it remained the centre until Khublai Khan established Bejing as a new centre of the Yung dynasty. Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) Monastery was the largest in Mongolia and built in 1586 on the ruins of the ancient capital.

And the usual tat alley outside.




First night in a ger camp

We followed the main road out of Ulaanbaatar, on the way dropping into Gandan monastery, the largest functioning lamasery in Mongolia and the seat of Buddhist studies. 70% Mongols are Buddhist.

Gradually the commercial and industrial areas peter out and the grasslands begin to show. The emptiness starts to stretch away from us on all sides. The road rulers straight ahead to the horizon on the gently undulating folds of a puckered up table cloth. Every few miles, off on one side or the other, a collection of low, squat circles or peaked painted rooves indicates a settlement of some kind, with horses stirring up the dust. Then we turn off onto a gravel track and head inland towards the ger camp and away from the road and humanity. The drivers take no hostages. Foot down, they charge through the scenery until we stop at the top of a small range of hills. Wowsa. Look at this. Just empty.

I am now, sitting outside my beautifully constructed ger. It is like a little felt house for three equal sized bears. Its lattice walls and painted timber rafters can be put up in a few hours. It has four little painted beds, a low table painted preamble with swirls & curls, with 4 little painted stools  around it. It just needs Goldie Locks to make the party complete.

These Mongols must have been small. I have already scraped or banged the top of my head on numerous occasions. The best was when I was putting on my Tshirt as I was leaving the ger. I hit the flat of my forehead on the top of the frame with such force that I dislodged two of the rafters which clattered to the ground past my shoulders. Didn’t hurt at all. Sounded good though.

The afternoon is spent searching for the Przewalski wild horses. I am sure that you all know that this is an unique species of horse that nearly became extinct but now over 300 survive on the Mongolian steppes. It is a bit like whale watching in the Indian Ocean. Instead of boats chugging about to get the first sighting, 4x4s charge along the dirt tracks, stopping, offloading their passengers, pointing at rocks that may or may not move. They are eventually seen cantering down to the grass by a small stream, where they stop and pose for photos from an appreciative audience. That’s them, the famous horses in the far group. 

The next day the real stuff starts. There is a bit of a health warning here. Many of the images are taken from the inside of one of the vehicles. I have included them to try and give you a flavour of the landscape and people rather than for their photographic qualities. Having picked up provisions, the four 4×4 set off out of town on the last proper road that we’ll see for seven days. A picnic lunch of mutton dumplings (like a donna kabab in a pasty shell) and we hit the dirt track. At this point the steppes are green and luscious. Gers dot the landscape and herds of cattle, sheep and horses wander and graze contentedly. All is at peace with the world.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the grassland becomes tired, gers become fewer and it is a motorbike rather than a truck parked outside and the herds are less frequent, goats and camels take the place of the others. The rimming mountains push out and away until they are only a faint outline on the far horizons. A hard, flat surface hammers out as far as one can see in every direction, punctuated only by tufty grass and small, scrawny, low bushes called saxaul trees.

The dirt track has simply vanished. In its place is a fan of light parallel ruts that head of in front of the vehicles and occasionally come together and cross before heading out on their own again. The drivers hammer along these ruts at anything up to 80 kph making strategic decisions at every junction about which route to take out. I think we are heading south into the desert. The heat is intense. Only one vehicle has working air con, the rest of us sit in the hair drier breeze from open windows. The only indication that you have any human company at all are the little squirts of dust far ahead or far behind from the other vehicles. Oh, just in case you wanted to know where you were, we pass two sign posts in the course of the day! Do you like this one?