On the road from Ulaan Baatar to a ger camp
You would think that China and Mongolia, countries with a lengthy common border and an inextricably linked history would boast at least superficial similarities but this is not the case. China has the Great Wall, imperial palaces, ancient cities and centuries of recorded history. Apart from Ulaan Baatar however, Mongolia is a land untouched by time, untainted by humanity, and unfettered with 21st-century paraphernalia.
Ulaan Baatar is a fascinating city–the capital of a post-soviet nomadic country that is the seat of one of the fastest emerging markets in the world. That a city with this background and these defining features even exists, is incredible. However, a beautiful city, Ulaan Baatar is not. I would even dare to say that in terms of aesthetics and infrastructure, it has few redeeming qualities. For many, however, therein lies its appeal. It is a place with work to be done and immense potential.
Travelers to Beijing often comment on how Beijing is a city of contradictions: it is not unusual to see young urban professionals bike to the gleaming skyscrapers of the CBD from their siheyuan (traditional courtyard homes). But Ulaan Baatar truly takes the cake in all matters contradictory. As residential soviet-style block houses with salmon pink and baby blue roofs give way to wide boulevards and a beautiful, almost regal, statehouse, the many faces of Ulaan Baatar (or UB as residents call it) become apparent. Skirting around deep potholes at a pain-staking pace, we looked up at one point to see a looming Louis Vuitton–Mongolia’s flagship store.
As interesting as UB is, most travelers are attracted to the gorgeous Mongolian steppe, so moving on to greener pastures…
Although these grasslands get a lot of hype (and deservedly so), Mongolian terrain is actually surprisingly varied. Our journey from Ulaan Baatar to the ger camp took us through unbelievable sections of natural beauty–what started out as rolling hills around Ulaan Baatar, gave way to flat, endless grasslands with jagged peaks in the distance. We passed pine forests growing on the slopes of the hills, fields of purple flowers (highly reminiscent of the poppy field scene in The Wizard of Oz), exposed rock formations–and the best part? We passed a total of 3 cars once we entered the inner sanctum of the Terelj National Park.
As we came over a hilltop, the white tops of about a dozen gers suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The only sign of human life for miles around, the camp looked both temporary and timelessly rooted–as if it had been there for centuries.
The famous Mongolian ger is a heavy felt tent held up by a wooden frame that is often painted bright orange or sky blue. In the center of all gers is a small wood-fed stove, with a smokestack peeking out the top. Rudimentary and very Little House on the Prairie, these stoves are the reasons Mongolians are able to live out their frigid winters–they do an amazing job of warming the ger, a necessity even in the summer when nighttime temperatures dip below 10C (50F). Lying in bed, listening to the crackling of the wood and absolutely nothing else, I slept the deepest I had in a long time.
A must-do in Mongolia? Horse-riding! Mongolian horses are shorter and rounder than their prancing Arabian brothers but as you gallop across the open grasslands, you get the feeling that the sturdy little things could go on forever. In true nomadic fashion, Mongolians do not stable their horses but allow them to roam wild and run free. Local herdsmen will head out early to round them up and saddle them when you’re ready to ride.
Finally, a note for the foodies out there: Mongolian food is an interesting combination of hefty eastern European fare, vegetables, and the very Chinese staple: rice. As nomads, Mongolians traditionally depended on foods that could be found or brought with them–potatoes, carrots, mutton, beef–anything that had to be planted and waited on to grow was not an option. Chances were they would have moved camp by the time it came to harvest them. Hot potato soup and mutton perogies are the perfect warm, filling, homey remedy for those chilly nights.
Two countries, both alike in dignity… To visit China and Mongolia and uncover their intertwined histories, check out our cross-border journey: Beijing to Ulaan Baatar: A Cross-Border Journey Exploring China and Mongolia’s Shared History