The nice thing about travelling by train is looking out the window. One gets to see the different faces of a country through its natural, agricultural, and industrial landscapes. But most often one ends up going from one big city to another and unfortunately, cities are becoming more and more alike. Leaving Russia behind and the ranches of Buryatia, we crossed the Mongolian border at night and saw nothing of its vast expenses. The next morning, we got woken up at six as we entered the capital – Ulan Bator. What shock it was to see a grey muddy industrial mismatch. It was cold and rainy and the yurts, or “gers”, dotted around like mushrooms, were the only hint that we had reached our destination.
The are only 3 million people in Mongolia and nearly half of the population has now settled in the region of Ulan Bator. Hailed as one of the fastest-growing economy in the world, the traditional nomadic culture is fast disappearing and modern Mongolia is erupting.
The first thing that struck us was the traffic – the fact that half of the vehicles were left-hand drive and the other, right-hand drive, and what was most peculiar was the number of hybrid cars. Apparently, there is no import tax on used hybrid vehicles in Mongolia so a large majority of cars are second-hand Prius from Japan, but there does not seem to be any emission standards, so the city is quite polluted. There is much congestion, the drivers are aggressive and mostly disregard pedestrians. There are very few bicycles, mopeds or motorbikes, surprising in a country of riders!
The second thing that struck us was the number of buildings under-construction. Even the giant statue of the Buddha now dwarfed by multi storey towers is going to be replaced by a 110m structure and larger Buddha!
We were in Mongolia only six days and because of various reasons mostly stayed in a rather soul-less Ulan Bator. Our stay there coincided with the Nadaam festival which is the biggest festival of the year for Mongolians. The festival is also locally termed “eriin gurvan naadam” (the three games of men). The games are Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery and are held throughout the country during midsummer. Women have started participating in the archery and girls in the horse-racing games, but not in Mongolian wrestling!
Most tourists go on organised tours around the country involving a lot of driving, some horse riding, staying in Gers and if time permits a glimpse of the Gobi desert . We could only afford an overnight trip to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park but this was by far the most enjoyable part of our time in Mongolia. We may not have experienced the steppes or the desert, but it was so nice to see a landscape little tempered by humans and beaming with flora and fauna.
We stayed in a ‘ger’ camp in the bottom of a valley surrounded by boulders, alpine-like vegetation and a Buddhist monastery. Our guide was an educated young woman, new to the trade and equally excited about seeing camels,but looked after us with much enthusiasm and appeared to enjoy escaping Ulan Bator as much as we did. We even had an opportunity to do a little horse riding and some scrambling around the large boulders.
On our return we stopped at the monumental statue and museum commemorating Mongolia’s national hero Genghis Khan. The next day we got tickets to the opening ceremony of the Naadam festival which was an elaborate and somewhat disorganised affair. The festivities kicked off with a colourful parade of athletes, monks, soldiers, musicians, and people dressed as ancient warriors. After that, attention turned to competition in the country’s most popular sport: Mongolian wrestling.
The funniest part for us was when one of Mongolia’s most famous pop star fell from his horse while showing off and making his horse rear just in front from where we were sitting. He did not get hurt but it was obvious that his ego got a blow. It is said that Genghis Khan died from falling from his horse, it made us wonder whether his ego had a part to play in that too!
We were not really into wrestling so we did not stay in the stadium for the whole two days! We followed some of the cross-country horse races on TV and were surprised to by how young some of the jockeys were. The jockeys are mostly children between 5 and 15 years who are trained since their first steps, like most of the Mongol people, but here, as people who have devotion for horses, the real winner and most venerated is the horse instead of the jockey. It is believed that the horse can give his best with a light weight on his shoulders. Unfortunately we missed most of the archery, there was so much crowd and by the time we found the place where it was taking place – most of the contests were over. We just watched few young archers compete in their traditional costumes.
Mongolia finds its itself at turning point and we hope that the fast development that is taking place currently and the large scale industrial activities such as the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi desert ,will not spoil this sparsely populated, incredible country and culture.
Till next time…