2008 Mongolia

23. 8. 2008, 10:27

"Crystal-pure air hangs over one's head and the ever-present green steppe is endless. At night, millions of stars twinkle in the dark. The natives consider distances to be relative, as their route to the nearest town will be the same tomorrow as it is today. The countryside forces you to wander around, offering some kind of liberty that I've never experienced anywhere else in the world. You follow this calling of the soul from yurt to yurt, trying to understand the life of this nomadic nation that once governed the world's largest empire."


The true Mongolia really begins as far away as all of the visible tracks end.

Criss-cross. Two words and so many options to choose from. Your intuition is the single thing that will reliably take you forward when wandering through Mongolia. Without intuition, you'll lose your way in this country very quickly. The existing maps are old and inaccurate, and the distances are rather measured in hours spent on horseback. A perfectly straight four-lane bitumen road connecting the east of the country with the west was just an election pledge by the old-new communists in the year 2000. They promised to build the road of the millennium, which would be two thousand five hundred kilometres long. The first hundred kilometres of it finishes west of Ulan Bator. There, the bitumen road changes to dusty, beaten tracks running off to an endless horizon. In this spacious country, one needs to deserve experiences. The true Mongolia really begins as far away as the roads disappear. At least we've got Ench, who wasn't yet at the westernmost tip of Mongolia, but at the key moments he is always able to show us the correct direction, which is beyond our comprehension. Ench wouldn't even lose his way in Bratislava, where he was studying for years... When we asked him how he does it, he smiled and answered: We Mongols carry a compass in our heads" and then he carried on sleeping on a shaking front seat.

For a long time, I carried Mongolia in my head as a special place on my map of the world. One fine day, my oldest son Juraj, four other friends and I, decided to pack everything necessary to survive in nature, a rubber raft for rafting the Mongolian rivers, ice climbing gear for getting over the Mongolian mountains and fishing rods and set out on a journey to the "wild east", to the country between Russia and China that is emblazoned with history and legends, the empire of which extended in the 13th century as far as Slovakia. Once an offensive nation, in the end it adopted the philosophy that a man should live at the place in which he was born. We wanted to experience Mongolia on our own. During such wanderings, you may be surprised by the fact that, despite such great expansiveness of its ancestors, it's a country with the lowest population density in the world. One person per square kilometre. Territory that is three times larger than France is inhabited by 2.5 million people as well as 33 million livestock animals. People live scattered around the country, at first sight as if alone. It takes a few hours on horseback for one man to gets to another; neighbour to neighbour. Large-scale wilderness and an age-old way of life imprinted on people certain rules that didn't change much until today. Their natural hospitality is really scarce in today's world.

Future Asian tiger?

There are actually two Mongolias. One is the capital city of Ulan Bator and the other one begins in the wilderness, right on its borders. The main metropolis still shows remains of the former development of socialism and Soviet help, leaving behind tons of grey concrete. After 600 thousand Russian solders left the country in 1990, the city experienced rapid growth, which suggests that this Mongolian metropolis may one day easily become a new Asian "tiger". The new, largest gold and copper mines will certainly minister to it. Luxurious all-terrain cars have forced the immortal Ladas and Volgas from the streets. Compared to the rest of the country, people also speak another language. The language of money. This language is understood all over the world and, moreover, even here money doesn't smell. Hotels, bars, shopping centres ... The city is only enlivened by a few Buddhist monasteries, one of them being the most sacred Gandan Monastery. Years ago, it was sanctified by the Dalai Lama himself, which didn't do the relationship with neighbouring China much good. We left politics to the politicians and flew far away from the rush of civilization to the untouched west of the country, to the town of Chovd, where we were awaited by Pudže, the driver of an old Russian army ambulance. It later appeared that the car we thought only ran by a miracle, is actually a real die-hard, the age of which may only be guessed according to the scope of daily repairs. Evening by evening, Pudže sat down by the motor with a cigarette in his mouth and cleaned the carburettor, or set the firing sequence of the cylinders in the motor, all the time covered in dripping petrol. After spending three weeks with us, he evened learned a few Slovak words. When we asked him whether the car was going to blow up, he only smiled and said: "Cigarette good!" And to find out whether we had understood him, he lit his lighter above the engine, while saying: "Fire not good!" At the same second, we all jumped off the car in panic.

The west is not the same as the west

The Mongolian west is different. The most remote and westernmost part of the country is covered with hundreds of lakes, wild rivers and the four thousand metre plus summits of the Altai Mountains. We decided to climb Mongolia's third highest glacier, the 4,202 metre high Canbagarav Glacier, so as to get the Mongolian-Russian-Kazakhstan triangle as if on the palm of one's hand. The westernmost province of Mongolia is inhabited by about sixty thousand Kazakhs. Formerly, there were many more of them, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many returned to Kazakhstan, hoping for a better life in their mother country. The word Kazakh translates as something like a "steppe vagrant". The Kazakhs travel nomadically with their livestock, live in comfortable yurts and many of them still like traditional hunting with eagles. One of our hosts, a true Kazakh, proudly showed us his female eagle, but the real hunting only takes place in winter. He explained that a female bird is more reliable. The eagle, which sees eight times better than a human can, gets part of the catch as a reward and after eight years its owner lets it go free. The same as the Mongols, the Kazakhs are also full-bodied, natural people. Nomadic life around livestock is hard work, but there are times when nobody could get them to work. One of them is Nadam, which is a traditional Mongolian village Olympiad. This celebration of strength and ability has been handed down from the time of Genghis Khan who introduced it for the amusement of the army after a victory in battle. The contest includes three disciplines: archery, horse racing and wrestling. One needs to be born to succeed in the Mongolian sumo that we also tried sometimes during our journey. The problem is that these sumo rules don't differentiate any weight categories. The natives have competitiveness in their blood.

Lakes full of fish

Ench's perfect orientation took us along different mountains paths that the common European cannot see before the AltaTavanbogd National Park. The highest hills of Mongolia forms a border region with a number of mountain lakes. We stopped at Lake Churgan and impatiently threw our rods in the water. In two hours, we caught about forty whiting. For next few days, we lived on fish. On the way, we met about fifty young boys who competed within the Nadam celebrations for the best horse. It's unbelievable how these seven-year old boys are able to ride for long kilometres in a fast gallop through such difficult terrain over which our ambulance can hardly catch breath. It's not just a saying that the Mongols are born on horses. In early evening, our camp turned into a ring. We offered our two wrestlers to the riders returning from the horse-race. Even though Slovakia lost with the score 0 : 3, our courage opened the heats of the natives. In return, they invited us to share some kumis, an alcoholic drink made from mare's milk. Even though the Mongolian Kazakhs profess the Sunni Islamic religion, many of them don't take Islamic law literally and so took a fancy to a bottle of vodka the same as their Mongolian neighbours. Next day, they bestowed their horses on us, packed us sour milk and yak's cheese and showed us the green heart of their national park, after which the highest peak of Mongolia was also named - Tavanbogd, which translates as Five Saints. It's 4,374 metres high and rises at the border of three countries. Because of the Chinese border we couldn't proceed further to the west, so we turned around and headed back to the east. Our guides took us along steep rocky paths and we tried to trust our horses to traverse above steep cliffs without slipping. For the next two days after such a stressful journey, we could hardly walk on our feet. Good job we brought a raft all the way from home.

Nomads' treasure

Livestock is everything the nomads have. They have already lived the nomadic life from the time of Genghis Khan. About four times a year they load all of their belongings on camels, or onto trucks that seem drivable only as if by a miracle, and wander from place to place to find pasture for sheep, goats and yaks. So that a herder's family can be self-sustaining, he has to keep about 250 livestock animals. They live in yurts, below a round wooden structure, the roof of which is covered by canvas and insulated from the cold by camel's wool. Inside such a yurt, one may find everything, including beds, the unthinkable "altar", a board with family photos, a stove and, next to it, sacks of dried dung which substitutes for wood. The century we are in can only be seen in this borderless plain thanks to a satellite dish placed next to the yurt. The natives charge solar panels all day long to be able to watch a TV set in the evening. They also take wayfarers to be an irretrievable source of information, so they invite you in, host you and even teach you the bon ton of the traditional Mongolian toast. One needs to put one's hand forward and take a shot with one's right hand, dip a finger in the vodka, sprinkle some on the ground and then just drink it in one go. Only here does one realize how we - civilized Europeans - are always in a hurry. We always need something and there is never enough time or money for it. If we were to be moved into a yurt, we would really find out what is necessary for life, and some of us would run away for sure. These people live the same way as their ancestors used to live a long time ago. They aren't hungry and they aren't cold. That is essential. It's hard to imagine that they don't desire anything else. Like driving a car, owning a flat that is always in the same place or eating in restaurants. And, at the same time, the children of some herders leave. When they are young and that's exactly when they are needed the most. In Ulan Bator, they suddenly don't need to move so much or take care of food or livestock. At the same time, they find stress. For herders, stress is an unknown term. Goats, sheep and yaks don't need to hurry anywhere; they graze on the steppes, sleep in the open air, and they know they'll be milked twice a day. The worst time is when it doesn't rain. "Not a drop in three months. Livestock is scraggy, pastures brown", complains the Ench's friend Uatchan, who we found high in the mountains as if by a miracle. Soon after we arrived, it began to rain. Uatchan promised to kill a sheep for us if it rained for at least an hour. It was a blessed evening. A sheep came down, as well as six bottles of vodka. Next day, the grass became greener...

Genghis Khan as the God

We left Uadchan's yurt, smiling. We crossed some kind of desert. We floundered across rivers, looking for a way to the interior of the country. It's a mystery to me how Ench finds the routes in the valleys and how he traces the invisible tracks left by a car that drove this way several weeks ago. There were more mountains, plains and meetings in front of us. But there were also days when we didn't meet anyone. We slept in the open air, in absolute tranquillity, below stars the number of which is incomparable with any other place. To the south, three hundred years ago, there was a sea at the place of today's Gobi Desert, the driest and second largest desert on the planet. Mongolia is to this day a paradise for geologists and all sorts of explorers. There are places here from which the history of the Earth may be read as if from an open book. People, as well as places, breathe with the past. Even though there is almost nothing left of the ancient Karakoram, the former capital of Mongolia, various messengers and envoys who visited this city left behind an interesting picture of it for us. It is said that people in the past professed twelve different religions, as the Mongolian khans were very broadminded. They divided their time evenly among Muslims, Buddhists and Christians who competed with each other for the souls of the Mongols. Apart from Buddhism, which the Tibetan monks brought to the Mongolian plains, the other religions have been kept from the time of Genghis Khan to the present day. Mongolian children are named after Genghis Khan, and his portraits can be found on banknotes, on streets or in schools. The most modern hotel in Ulan Bator also carries the conqueror's name. Eight hundred years ago, he managed to unite the local nomadic tribes and in 1206 he was proclaimed Khan (ruler) of all Mongols. He was literally famous throughout the world. Step by step, he occupied northern China, Central Asia, part of Russia, the territory of the present Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Tibet, and laid the foundations of the largest empire in the history of mankind. His descendents even invaded the territory of the former Ugrian Empire and also came to Slovakia. And today, not a trace is left after their great-grand children fold and move their yurts, just a clear area like an English lawn without a speck of anything on it. Mongolia is basically a country of which lovers of virgin nature may only dream. It's not indicated in vain as being the last bastion of unblemished territory in Asia. The nomadic past of the local natives didn't need any towns, services or infrastructure, and its cleanliness resulted from cultural rules against nature pollution that still apply today. If a bitumen road stretches as far as this nature, the intuition of the natives, which plays the main role in deciding the right direction when criss-crossing this virgin country, will disappear.

“Crystal-pure air hangs over one’s head and the ever-present green steppe is endless. At night, millions of stars twinkle in the dark. The natives consider distances to be relative, as their route to the nearest town will be the same tomorrow as it is today. The countryside forces you to wander around, offering some kind of liberty that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in the world. You follow this calling of the soul from yurt to yurt, trying to understand the life of this nomadic nation that once governed the world’s largest empire.”

The true Mongolia really begins as far away as all of the visible tracks end.

Criss-cross. Two words and so many options to choose from. Your intuition is the single thing that will reliably take you forward when wandering through Mongolia. Without intuition, you’ll lose your way in this country very quickly. The existing maps are old and inaccurate, and the distances are rather measured in hours spent on horseback. A perfectly straight four-lane bitumen road connecting the east of the country with the west was just an election pledge by the old-new communists in the year 2000. They promised to build the road of the millennium, which would be two thousand five hundred kilometres long. The first hundred kilometres of it finishes west of Ulan Bator. There, the bitumen road changes to dusty, beaten tracks running off to an endless horizon. In this spacious country, one needs to deserve experiences. The true Mongolia really begins as far away as the roads disappear. At least we’ve got Ench, who wasn’t yet at the westernmost tip of Mongolia, but at the key moments he is always able to show us the correct direction, which is beyond our comprehension. Ench wouldn’t even lose his way in Bratislava, where he was studying for years... When we asked him how he does it, he smiled and answered: We Mongols carry a compass in our heads” and then he carried on sleeping on a shaking front seat.

For a long time, I carried Mongolia in my head as a special place on my map of the world. One fine day, my oldest son Juraj, four other friends and I, decided to pack everything necessary to survive in nature, a rubber raft for rafting the Mongolian rivers, ice climbing gear for getting over the Mongolian mountains and fishing rods and set out on a journey to the “wild east”, to the country between Russia and China that is emblazoned with history and legends, the empire of which extended in the 13th century as far as Slovakia. Once an offensive nation, in the end it adopted the philosophy that a man should live at the place in which he was born. We wanted to experience Mongolia on our own. During such wanderings, you may be surprised by the fact that, despite such great expansiveness of its ancestors, it’s a country with the lowest population density in the world. One person per square kilometre. Territory that is three times larger than France is inhabited by 2.5 million people as well as 33 million livestock animals. People live scattered around the country, at first sight as if alone. It takes a few hours on horseback for one man to gets to another; neighbour to neighbour. Large-scale wilderness and an age-old way of life imprinted on people certain rules that didn’t change much until today. Their natural hospitality is really scarce in today’s world.

Future Asian tiger?

There are actually two Mongolias. One is the capital city of Ulan Bator and the other one begins in the wilderness, right on its borders. The main metropolis still shows remains of the former development of socialism and Soviet help, leaving behind tons of grey concrete. After 600 thousand Russian solders left the country in 1990, the city experienced rapid growth, which suggests that this Mongolian metropolis may one day easily become a new Asian “tiger”. The new, largest gold and copper mines will certainly minister to it. Luxurious all-terrain cars have forced the immortal Ladas and Volgas from the streets. Compared to the rest of the country, people also speak another language. The language of money. This language is understood all over the world and, moreover, even here money doesn’t smell. Hotels, bars, shopping centres ... The city is only enlivened by a few Buddhist monasteries, one of them being the most sacred Gandan Monastery. Years ago, it was sanctified by the Dalai Lama himself, which didn’t do the relationship with neighbouring China much good. We left politics to the politicians and flew far away from the rush of civilization to the untouched west of the country, to the town of Chovd, where we were awaited by Pudže, the driver of an old Russian army ambulance. It later appeared that the car we thought only ran by a miracle, is actually a real die-hard, the age of which may only be guessed according to the scope of daily repairs. Evening by evening, Pudže sat down by the motor with a cigarette in his mouth and cleaned the carburettor, or set the firing sequence of the cylinders in the motor, all the time covered in dripping petrol. After spending three weeks with us, he evened learned a few Slovak words. When we asked him whether the car was going to blow up, he only smiled and said: “Cigarette good!” And to find out whether we had understood him, he lit his lighter above the engine, while saying: “Fire not good!” At the same second, we all jumped off the car in panic.

The west is not the same as the west

The Mongolian west is different. The most remote and westernmost part of the country is covered with hundreds of lakes, wild rivers and the four thousand metre plus summits of the Altai Mountains. We decided to climb Mongolia’s third highest glacier, the 4,202 metre high Canbagarav Glacier, so as to get the Mongolian-Russian-Kazakhstan triangle as if on the palm of one’s hand. The westernmost province of Mongolia is inhabited by about sixty thousand Kazakhs. Formerly, there were many more of them, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many returned to Kazakhstan, hoping for a better life in their mother country. The word Kazakh translates as something like a “steppe vagrant”. The Kazakhs travel nomadically with their livestock, live in comfortable yurts and many of them still like traditional hunting with eagles. One of our hosts, a true Kazakh, proudly showed us his female eagle, but the real hunting only takes place in winter. He explained that a female bird is more reliable. The eagle, which sees eight times better than a human can, gets part of the catch as a reward and after eight years its owner lets it go free. The same as the Mongols, the Kazakhs are also full-bodied, natural people. Nomadic life around livestock is hard work, but there are times when nobody could get them to work. One of them is Nadam, which is a traditional Mongolian village Olympiad. This celebration of strength and ability has been handed down from the time of Genghis Khan who introduced it for the amusement of the army after a victory in battle. The contest includes three disciplines: archery, horse racing and wrestling. One needs to be born to succeed in the Mongolian sumo that we also tried sometimes during our journey. The problem is that these sumo rules don’t differentiate any weight categories. The natives have competitiveness in their blood.

Lakes full of fish

Ench’s perfect orientation took us along different mountains paths that the common European cannot see before the AltaTavanbogd National Park. The highest hills of Mongolia forms a border region with a number of mountain lakes. We stopped at Lake Churgan and impatiently threw our rods in the water. In two hours, we caught about forty whiting. For next few days, we lived on fish. On the way, we met about fifty young boys who competed within the Nadam celebrations for the best horse. It’s unbelievable how these seven-year old boys are able to ride for long kilometres in a fast gallop through such difficult terrain over which our ambulance can hardly catch breath. It’s not just a saying that the Mongols are born on horses. In early evening, our camp turned into a ring. We offered our two wrestlers to the riders returning from the horse-race. Even though Slovakia lost with the score 0 : 3, our courage opened the heats of the natives. In return, they invited us to share some kumis, an alcoholic drink made from mare’s milk. Even though the Mongolian Kazakhs profess the Sunni Islamic religion, many of them don’t take Islamic law literally and so took a fancy to a bottle of vodka the same as their Mongolian neighbours. Next day, they bestowed their horses on us, packed us sour milk and yak’s cheese and showed us the green heart of their national park, after which the highest peak of Mongolia was also named - Tavanbogd, which translates as Five Saints. It’s 4,374 metres high and rises at the border of three countries. Because of the Chinese border we couldn’t proceed further to the west, so we turned around and headed back to the east. Our guides took us along steep rocky paths and we tried to trust our horses to traverse above steep cliffs without slipping. For the next two days after such a stressful journey, we could hardly walk on our feet. Good job we brought a raft all the way from home.


Nomads’ treasure

Livestock is everything the nomads have. They have already lived the nomadic life from the time of Genghis Khan. About four times a year they load all of their belongings on camels, or onto trucks that seem drivable only as if by a miracle, and wander from place to place to find pasture for sheep, goats and yaks. So that a herder’s family can be self-sustaining, he has to keep about 250 livestock animals. They live in yurts, below a round wooden structure, the roof of which is covered by canvas and insulated from the cold by camel’s wool. Inside such a yurt, one may find everything, including beds, the unthinkable “altar”, a board with family photos, a stove and, next to it, sacks of dried dung which substitutes for wood. The century we are in can only be seen in this borderless plain thanks to a satellite dish placed next to the yurt. The natives charge solar panels all day long to be able to watch a TV set in the evening. They also take wayfarers to be an irretrievable source of information, so they invite you in, host you and even teach you the bon ton of the traditional Mongolian toast. One needs to put one’s hand forward and take a shot with one’s right hand, dip a finger in the vodka, sprinkle some on the ground and then just drink it in one go. Only here does one realize how we - civilized Europeans - are always in a hurry. We always need something and there is never enough time or money for it. If we were to be moved into a yurt, we would really find out what is necessary for life, and some of us would run away for sure. These people live the same way as their ancestors used to live a long time ago. They aren’t hungry and they aren’t cold. That is essential. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t desire anything else. Like driving a car, owning a flat that is always in the same place or eating in restaurants. And, at the same time, the children of some herders leave. When they are young and that’s exactly when they are needed the most. In Ulan Bator, they suddenly don’t need to move so much or take care of food or livestock. At the same time, they find stress. For herders, stress is an unknown term. Goats, sheep and yaks don’t need to hurry anywhere; they graze on the steppes, sleep in the open air, and they know they’ll be milked twice a day. The worst time is when it doesn’t rain. “Not a drop in three months. Livestock is scraggy, pastures brown”, complains the Ench’s friend Uatchan, who we found high in the mountains as if by a miracle. Soon after we arrived, it began to rain. Uatchan promised to kill a sheep for us if it rained for at least an hour. It was a blessed evening. A sheep came down, as well as six bottles of vodka. Next day, the grass became greener...

Genghis Khan as the God

We left Uadchan’s yurt, smiling. We crossed some kind of desert. We floundered across rivers, looking for a way to the interior of the country. It’s a mystery to me how Ench finds the routes in the valleys and how he traces the invisible tracks left by a car that drove this way several weeks ago. There were more mountains, plains and meetings in front of us. But there were also days when we didn’t meet anyone. We slept in the open air, in absolute tranquillity, below stars the number of which is incomparable with any other place. To the south, three hundred years ago, there was a sea at the place of today’s Gobi Desert, the driest and second largest desert on the planet. Mongolia is to this day a paradise for geologists and all sorts of explorers. There are places here from which the history of the Earth may be read as if from an open book. People, as well as places, breathe with the past. Even though there is almost nothing left of the ancient Karakoram, the former capital of Mongolia, various messengers and envoys who visited this city left behind an interesting picture of it for us. It is said that people in the past professed twelve different religions, as the Mongolian khans were very broadminded. They divided their time evenly among Muslims, Buddhists and Christians who competed with each other for the souls of the Mongols. Apart from Buddhism, which the Tibetan monks brought to the Mongolian plains, the other religions have been kept from the time of Genghis Khan to the present day. Mongolian children are named after Genghis Khan, and his portraits can be found on banknotes, on streets or in schools. The most modern hotel in Ulan Bator also carries the conqueror’s name. Eight hundred years ago, he managed to unite the local nomadic tribes and in 1206 he was proclaimed Khan (ruler) of all Mongols. He was literally famous throughout the world. Step by step, he occupied northern China, Central Asia, part of Russia, the territory of the present Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Tibet, and laid the foundations of the largest empire in the history of mankind. His descendents even invaded the territory of the former Ugrian Empire and also came to Slovakia. And today, not a trace is left after their great-grand children fold and move their yurts, just a clear area like an English lawn without a speck of anything on it. Mongolia is basically a country of which lovers of virgin nature may only dream. It’s not indicated in vain as being the last bastion of unblemished territory in Asia. The nomadic past of the local natives didn’t need any towns, services or infrastructure, and its cleanliness resulted from cultural rules against nature pollution that still apply today. If a bitumen road stretches as far as this nature, the intuition of the natives, which plays the main role in deciding the right direction when criss-crossing this virgin country, will disappear.

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