Warmth on the Steppes

A CROWD of spectators has gathered, waiting as Tom, one of the few foreigners to brave driving in Mongolia, prepares to make his move.

It’s been 40 minutes of psyching up and watching nearly every vehicle, from logging trucks to motorbikes, stall and get stuck in a fast-flowing tributary of the Selenge River in north-west Mongolia. A superhero Landcruiser is on standby rescuing the less fortunate – or less capable – vehicles with a winch.

But that’s not going to be us: Tom’s pride couldn’t bear it.

A strategy has been devised. The fan belt is off and the distributor has been covered in plastic.

We’re next. Deep breath. Slow and steady. The water is so deep it seeps in through the doors of the trusty Russian van. But Tom goes straight through. Success! Elation.

You can’t stay in Mongolia for long without a transport war story or two, and by the time I leave five weeks later I’ve got a whole collection. My favourite comes from a former AusAid volunteer who recalls being squished in the back of a taxi while the front-seat passenger called out instructions to the blind driver. Having been here, I believe it!

There’s a strong Buddhist influence in this landlocked country, stuck between Russia and China, and you can see how a bit of Zen would come in handy, especially when it comes to transportation.

Roads disappear almost as soon as you get out of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and what remains is a tangled web of unsigned four-wheel-drive tracks. Bus schedules actually allow for the inevitable breakdowns and flat tyres in their estimated arrival times (which means if you do get a lucky streak, you can arrive as much as 10 hours early).

This lack of infrastructure is one of the reasons Mongolia hasn’t managed to capitalise on the estimated billions of dollars in mineral deposits lurking beneath its surface, and why one-third of the country’s residents lives below the poverty line. It’s also one of the challenges tourists face.

But at the same time, it’s part of what makes Mongolia such an interesting place to visit. After all, it’s precisely that middle-of-nowhere emptiness that defines this place.

You can drive for hundreds of kilo­metres with nothing at all interrupting the horizon. Then suddenly a child-cowboy and a herd of livestock will appear. Then you might see a pocket of gers (better known as yurts to Westerners), the traditional portable houses made of felt and covered in plastic to protect them from the rain. Or a group of cranes or vultures swooping down. And then nothing again for kilometres on end.

This is not to say Mongolia is lacking in either culture or scenery. Traditional throat singing is still practised, and if you come in summer you’re likely to hear it at any number of festivals, or you can go to one of the professional traditional song and dance shows held most nights in Ulaanbaatar.

Every year between July 11 and 13 the city puts on Naadam, the biggest festival of the year, a celebration of traditional sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing, to be precise.

Smaller celebrations are held in the countryside on various dates in July, and even if you’re not interested in the sports, this is a good time to be in town if you can stand the crowds.

The giant celebrations in Ulaanbaatar include every­thing from fireworks to free hip-hop and rock concerts in the town square, to fashion shows, as well as an elaborate opening ceremony featuring acrobatic horseback riders, sky divers, a balloon launch and just about every other form of entertainment you could think of.

The best way to get out to most of the countryside is to hire a jeep, driver and guide. Prices vary but you can expect to pay about $100 a day including petrol, which you can then split between the number of passengers. Lots of agencies and guesthouses in Ulaanbaatar can help organise these, or you could fly to one of the aimag (akin to a state) capitals and do it from there.

Once you do, you may be surprised at just how diverse Mongolia’s landscape is. The steppe, that huge expanse of grassland that stretches through the centre of the country, is probably the best-known part of Mongolia, but it’s definitely not representative.

Head north or west and you’ll find vast lakes and deep larch forests, steep mountains and pristine rivers for fishing. The further west you go, the bigger the mountains and the stronger the influence of Kazakh culture. Head south to the Gobi Desert and you will indeed find endless plains and some spectacular sand dunes, but you’ll also encounter beautiful mountain passes and impressive gorges, including some filled with ice.

Along with jeep tours, many companies can help you organise camel treks or horseback riding adventures. Ger to Ger is a community-run enterprise that organises treks during which you can stay with nomadic families as you go. These homestays can take place in just about any region of Mongolia.

The sights can be stunning, but for most travellers it’s the nomadic culture and famous Mongolian hospitality that really stand out.

Brave a bus ride and you’ll find most passengers buy food and alcohol to share, so you’ll end up with a full buffet by the end. Occasionally a bus driver will stop at a mate’s ger somewhere and everyone will be treated to biscuits and a salty milk tea (it grows on you).

Get to know locals and you can bet you’ll be invited in to stay the night and loaded up with traditional mutton dumplings, deep fried mutton, mutton soup – and about 101 variations thereof. Oh, and more of that salty milk tea (or maybe some fermented horse milk, depending on the locality).

One fellow traveller told of a family moving out of their ger and into a neighbour’s when a storm hit, so that she and her four companions could have a place of their own for the night.

Taking in strangers is something of a tradition here.

Just don’t expect a fast pace. My advice: Zen up first. A little patience goes a long way in Mongolia.

Mongolia: what you need to know

- Mongolia has been a democracy since 1990 and is not a part of China.

- Theft is a concern, but violent crime is rare, and the country is generally considered safe.

- Temperatures can soar in summer and get bitterly cold in winter, but be prepared for anything. Bring sunscreen (it’s expensive and hard to find) and rain gear (even if you’re going to the desert).

- It costs $100 for a single entry 30-day visa if you’re travelling on an Australian passport.

- The Trans-Siberian Railway runs through Ulaanbaatar from Beijing or Moscow; flights usually stop in either one of these cities, or Seoul.

- US dollars are widely accepted; credits cards, not so much. There are lots of ATMs in the capital, but they aren’t always stocked, and you should definitely cash up before you head into the countryside.

- A few cities in Mongolia are served by trains, but for most places a jeep, driver and guide is your best bet. The bus is also an option if you’ve got lots of time, patience and tolerance for discomfort.

- Check out Ger to Ger for responsible treks and nomadic home stays: www.gertoger.org

- Camel treks and horseback riding are popular ways to explore the countryside even if you don’t have experience. Most guest houses can help you organise these. Another company travellers recommend is www.ashihai.mn

- Accommodation fills up fast during Naadam, so book ahead if you plan to be in Mongolia in mid-July.

First published in Medical Observer