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The Open Spaces of Mongolia

WE TOOK THE 36-HOUR TRAIN RIDE (RATHER THAN THE TWO-HOUR PLANE RIDE) from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar. The cars had been made in Germany and were surprisingly comfortable; the food was really quite edible. On the way my traveling companions and I saw much of the Great Wall and some of Hubei and Shanxi provinces in north-central China. Then we passed through the endless flat monotony of Inner Mongolia, which is, Tibet-style, an autonomous region of China. In the next cabin was a 20-year-old Mongolian Buddhist monk (he joined the monastery when he was eight) who had been studying in India and was returning home for the first time in five years. He was sharing his quarters with a German management consultant, and next to them were a 21-year-old graduate student of Russian from North Dakota and a retired English teacher from Cleveland. There was a Polish novelist who wore five wristwatches in No. 5. In the next car were several Russians and Chinese, a few Mongolians, an outrageously beautiful French couple who didn't speak to anyone, and some Hare Krishna from Slovenia who were trying (unsuccessfully) to convert us all.

After two days we arrived in Ulaanbaatar, capital of independent (a.k.a. "Outer") Mongolia. Mongolia is a country one-sixth the size of the United States, with a population of about 2.5 million. Most of the people are nomadic, living in wood-framed felt tents and herding sheep, goats, yaks, camels, cattle, and horses. They do not have paved roads. They do not, in general, use electricity or own cars. They practice, as they always have, Tibetan Buddhism; in fact it was the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan who coined the title Dalai Lama more than 400 years ago. Many of the temples and monasteries, despite 70 years of Communism, are now thriving.

Though Mongolia has a literacy rate of almost 90 percent, and an impressively well-informed population, outside the cities the way of life is much as it was at the turn of the last millennium. The country has important copper and gold mines and is the world's leading source of cashmere, but remains curiously immune to modernism and to full-fledged industrialization. After almost 80 years as an "independent" Communist buffer state between Russia and China, Mongolia has recently established democracy, and in the last election, despite the limited number of polling stations and the vast distances between them, more than 90 percent of the eligible population voted.

FROM ULAANBAATAR THE GUIDES AND I DROVE THREE-QUARTERS of the way toward Kharkhorin before setting up our first night's camp in a big field near a ger, one of the low-slung tentlike structures in which Mongolians traditionally live. In the morning, we woke to the sound of horse traffic. I sat up, pulled aside the flap of my tent, and saw a tall man wearing a long side-buttoned coat of blue velvet, tied at the waist with a yellow silk sash. I stumbled into wakefulness, half dressed, and followed him to the ger, where he gave me cheese and butter and a slice of fresh bread. Such hospitality is automatic in this nomad country, and endlessly delightful to a Western visitor. I tried his horses, provoking amused delight from the little boys and girls, who at the age of four could ride, and at six move more self-assuredly on their mounts than I can walk. An older child, perhaps 16, came to look at our car and gestured to the inside of the door with the bemused air of an action hero on an alien spacecraft. I showed him how one could rotate the handle to make the window go up (he thought this was amazing); and I showed him how if you push down the lock, people can't open the door from outside (he thought this was hilarious).

We arrived in Kharkhorin on the first day of its Naadam celebration. Mongolians are usually friendly, but are at their best during this ancient festival of sports, which occurs in the height of summer (Naadam takes place July 11 through 13 every year). The number of horsemen we saw heading across the roadless countryside, and the bright colors they wore, told us which way to go even before we had spotted the first of the distant pavilions. As we came closer we picked up on the crowd's excitement. The jockeys had set out near dawn, and there were more than 200 horses in the morning's race. At least 600 others were parked in rows, and the spectators sat astride their mounts the way Western audiences sit in grandstands. Everyone was eagerly waiting for the first glimpse on the horizon of the winning stallion. The men and women mostly wore long robes, called del, often of velvet or brocade, tied at the hip with silk sashes of brilliant yellow and crimson and green. Saddles were ornamented with silver, and many of the riders had silver crops and chatelaines. Colorful hats, some trimmed in fur, crested in points like steeples. A few hotshot adolescents who had drunk too much airag (Mongolia's specialty, fermented horse milk, which is what one might call an acquired taste) were riding fast, and from time to time the crowd had to part before them. Children and the elderly were pushed to the front, while the rest of us on foot strained to see over their heads. The air rang with speculations, with greetings, with family arguments and plans.

At last the first horse came through, and the cheering erupted. We parted to make way for an endless line of runners-up, all bearing jockeys aged four to seven. They cantered through the crowd and slowed only in the distance. Ribbons flew from the bridles. The winner was taken to a nearby field, where a lama in a flowing robe and a yellow pleated hat blessed him in the name of the Buddha. Everyone was laughing, and some began singing, and all the joy was for old and new friends alike. We received invitations--translated by our guide--from every Mongolian we met: Come into our tent, have some of our airag, have a fried piece of dough, some cheese. They struggled to communicate over the language barrier, swore brotherhood with us, gave us their hats to try on, taught us exuberant words in Mongolian.


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