Author: Jack and Barbra Donachy
They’re back! In 1966, takhi (Przewalski’s horse) went extinct in the wild. Reintroduced to Mongolia’s Hustai National Park in 1992, the population of the world’s only truly wild horse is robust and growing. The chance to encounter these magnificent animals is one reason to put a trip to Mongolia near the top of your bucket list.
It’s a familiar story – one like-minded souls with itchy feet will understand. We had good jobs and were living a life of dreams come true in Alaska. During summer we lived on our sailboat in Seward. Lush, green-shouldered mountains topped with snow-capped peaks surrounded the marina, a postcard brought to life. We dined on the fresh salmon and halibut we caught and filled our camera’s memory cards with photos of otters, whales, eagles and bears. From fall through spring, we taught in a remote Inupiat village 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. To be sure, it wasn’t all caribou stroganoff and cloudberry pie in the Arctic. Downright terrifying winter winds occasionally shut down the village as temperatures plunged deep into the negative double digits, but we had close friends there and the life suited us. And yet…
The same urge that pulled us away from our California bungalow amidst fruit trees and wine country began to tug at us in Alaska. The job offers in Mongolia were unexpected. Intriguing. And ultimately impossible to refuse.
Dressed in a traditional deel, a nomadic herder tends to his sheep, goats and horses.
We didn’t know what to expect. Breezy books such as Lonely Planet Mongolia notwithstanding, there isn’t a lot of information on the world’s 19th largest (but least densely populated) country. Rosetta Stone isn’t available for the Mongolian language. The off-the-beaten-path feeling is definitely part of the appeal. What we’re discovering is a lightly trammeled country filled with vast landscapes, abundant (in some cases rare) wildlife, warm, generous people and a vibrant nomadic herding culture.
A beautifully marked saker falcon cruises the snowy steppe in search of its next meal. Listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Mongolia is one of the best places in the world to view these and other raptors. With over 400 species of birds recorded and diverse habitat, Mongolia is a top destination for birders.
So how does one get around in a country where paved roads, hotels and hot showers are few and far between? It takes a bit of planning, but for those with a spirit of adventure it’s not difficult. A web search will reveal plenty of tour guiding agencies, most of which offer packages and custom trips at prices well below what one would expect to pay in typical tourist destinations. Alternatively, since it’s possible to pitch a tent virtually anywhere in the country, a do-it-yourself trip can be mapped out.
Otgo and Nimka, guide and driver extraordinaire, respectively, traveling in one of the countryside’s ubiquitous Russian-built vans. Tough, repairable with elbow grease and duck tape, and roomy enough for passengers and gear, these vehicles are popular throughout Mongolia. “Where’s the road?” you ask. We’re on the road!
Our first encounter with Siberian ibex was thrilling. A majestic billy with thick, ribbed horns that curled over his back watched us from a jagged mountain peak as we hiked a remote canyon. Meanwhile, his group of females and young goats was grazing in a steep, narrow side canyon where we got this photo of two youngsters.
Part of the adventure in Mongolia is staying as guests in family gers, the yurt-like homes of nomadic herders. Designed for portability, many gers are nonetheless quite comfortably appointed with beds and other furniture. All of them feature a centrally located stove for heating and cooking. The stoves utilize whatever fuel is available, most often dry dung from the herdsmen’s animals.
Mongolia’s nomadic herders have a long-standing tradition of hospitality. The steppe-land and desert can be unforgiving, camps are miles apart, and one never knows when it might be his or her turn to rely on the kindness of strangers for a meal, a place to stay, or a hot bowl of milk tea. As tourism becomes more popular, many families are happy to open their homes to foreign travelers as well. Bring gifts (blankets, towels, sweets, coloring books and crayons are good choices), expect a hearty meal centered around goat or sheep, and be prepared for chilly nights under skies filled with more stars than you thought possible.
There are quite a few cool places in the Gobi Desert that are inaccessible to vehicles. That’s where camels come in. These are two-hump Bactrian camels. The ones we’ve been around have been even-tempered and comfortable enough, as long as they don’t run. If you’re offered camel milk airtz – cream cheese – by all means dig in! It’s delicious.
The nation’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a thriving city of just over a million people. The number and variety of hotels and hostels, bars and restaurants and shopping are more or less similar to cities of comparable size the world over. The traffic… is better left to experience than description. If it’s city life you’re looking for, any number of destinations in any number of countries would constitute better choices.
Herds of Mongolian gazelle in the thousands still migrate across the grasslands of the high steppe. They share this habitat with black-tailed gazelle, foxes, badgers, wolves, huge flocks of larks and other small birds, rabbits and incredible numbers of eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures. Meanwhile, Mongolia’s mountains are one of the remaining places where Argali sheep – the world largest bighorn mountain sheep – still exist in strong numbers.
If your taste in travel runs to the side of outdoor adventure and unique cultural experiences, Mongolia belongs near the top of your list. Take a week (or more) to float a remote, pristine river, fly fish for the world’s largest species of trout, check off rare birds on your life list, travel by horse, camel, van or motorcycle across the sweeping steppe or vast desert, climb towering sand dunes, see animals you’ve only read about, or take a multi-day balloon trip for a bird’s eye view of one of the planet’s last unspoiled lands.
You might even see a snow leopard!
***Since I’m in Antarctica without internet access for 22 consecutive days, I’ve selected a few articles from other great bloggers to share with you. I’ll be back on February 3rd, 2015 with loads of fantastic adventures from Antarctica to share. Chat soon.***