Friday, August 8, 2014

Mongolia: Under a vast blue sky

It was lunchtime on the steppe in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country on Earth. So when our driver spotted a lone white yurt, we stopped for a jug of hot sheep's milk tea.

It was all part of a 10-day journey crossing central Mongolia that we'd planned through an affordable, family-run company that helped us design our own itinerary and shared our philosophy of travel: authentic cultural experiences that support small, local businesses.

"Comfortable" is not how I would describe our trip. But we did experience the hospitality and warmth that are as much a hallmark of the countryside here as the stunning landscapes.

At a lunch stop in one of the canvas-cloaked tents called gers, we felt nervous about intruding on the nomadic shepherds who surely must've had better things to do than host this unexpected band of tourists.

But our hosts seemed hardly fazed as the woman served us the tea and her husband cheerfully asked what brought us to their neck of the steppes.

More than a third of Mongolia's population is crammed into its bustling capital, Ulan Bator, where trendy fashion and fast food are easily found among the Soviet-style tenement buildings.

Once you leave the big city, though, it doesn't take long for the urban noise to fade, the paved roads to end and the sky to open up. Another third of the nation's 3.1 million people are considered nomadic, and their pastoral lifestyle is still an integral part of Mongolian identity. But its simplicity can be a revelation for Western visitors.

Somehow the lack of creature comforts seemed a small compromise for the unique opportunity to truly unplug and glimpse a way of life steeped in Mongolia's rural traditions. Our first stay was on rolling grassland about five hours' northwest of Dalanzadgad. Our driver happened upon the ger and hopped out to negotiate with its owner before ushering us inside. Our hostess briefly abandoned her daily chores to offer us a large bowl of fermented mare's milk, which we politely took turns sipping.

The cool drink, called airag, is a warm-weather alternative to hot milk tea, a salty concoction of fresh milk from a sheep, camel or yak brewed with a dash of tea leaves that, served with biscuits and dried milk curd, is a staple of Mongolian hospitality. I quickly developed a taste for the salty milk tea, but the pungent mare's milk was an experience that my stomach never quite forgave me for.

The mare's milk can also be distilled into a mild liquor called arkhi, a more traditional drink than the store-bought vodka popularised during the 70-year Soviet occupation that ended in 1990. Vodka, ironically almost all marketed using the name and image of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century warrior whose legend was suppressed during the communist era, is still considered "the good stuff" and flows for almost any occasion.

Such unexpected injections of modern influence into centuries-old customs are always fascinating to observe. Men in long robes would hop on motorcycles to catch up to their grazing flock.

Women would cook over a dung-fuelledre stove under a light powered by the ger's solar panel.

Despite newer conveniences, including cellphones and televisions for some families, life on the steppes certainly isn't easy.

As tourists, milking goats, sheep and yaks was a novelty until we realised each animal had to be pumped twice a day - rain, shine, or dust storm. Milk makes up a large part of the nomadic diet and dried dairy products are stocked for the harsh winter.

I spent many days wandering the expansive steppes, taking in the enormous, azure sky and enjoying a natural silence unmatched by any remote location I've ever visited. I felt like I was the only person on Earth, a tranquillity I started craving again after returning home.

Top tips

Bring small gifts. It's customary to present your host family with gifts, such as bottles of vodka for men, toiletries for women, and pens and notepads for children. Take photos of the family using an instant camera: they'll be ecstatic to keep a copy.

Pack layers. A common saying in Mongolia is that you experience four seasons in one day. In September, we saw everything from sunny skies to howling winds to blizzard on our trip from Dalanzadgad to Lake Khovsgol.


Getting there: There are several flights a week with major carriers into the capital, Ulan Bator (ULN), from Beijing, Seoul and Moscow.

Tours: The lack of English speakers, clearly marked roads and established tourist lodging in the countryside makes do-it-yourself travelling nearly impossible.

- AP

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