I’m definitely having a moment. One of those times while travelling when I wonder how I came to be in such a fantastic place. I’m completely content with a belly full of Mongolian beef stew, a head full of excitement for an evening of traditional games and a heart full of instantaneous love for Mongolia.
The sun sets over an arid, desolate, tranquil panorama. I can see my Ger, a tiny circular shape below me, as I turn around slowly trying to take it all in. Photo after photo fails to do justice to this, one of earth’s immense views. The temperature this evening is hovering around -17 degrees, on the cusp of dropping off sharply, as the sun’s rays give up the battle to warm the patches of snow and ice that cling to the globular rock formations enclosing the valley.
To be honest, Mongolia had me at Ulaan Bataar. The city clearly struggles under its recently accommodated masses (over half of the whole country’s population, 1.5 million people, reside in the capital) and suburbs comprise run-down soviet era tower blocks with barricaded restaurants. However the place has a certain shabby charm that embraces you immediately and warms you from the inside, while your extremities are left to endure the biting cold. The Mongolian people smile shyly at you, their children gaze in wonder, slowly releasing an enormous grin as they realise that this visitor is also a human, if still slightly alien in this frozen country.
Surprisingly, even in mid-winter, Wednesday nights in UB are party nights. An inviting downtown bar buzzes with locals in smart work attire, supping litre jugs of an impressive array of brews. The atmosphere’s convivial and jolly, providing a welcome contrast to the inhospitable weather outside. I join them readily by ordering a Golden Gobi and a bottle of vodka between friends. Well, when in Rome…
A visit to Gandan Tegchenlin Monastery supplies further insight into the lives that the people lead here. All ages gather in ornate temples to stand in prayer, as monks chant in Tibetan script. Ancient tradition meets youth culture somewhat unromantically, as young monks sneakily check Facebook on their mobile phones. Today’s Mongolian monks are free to have wives, jobs and leave the monastery as they please. Apparently it’s quite common for teenage monks to strip off their religious attire at the end of a day’s worship and head for an evening out at Metropolis, the capital’s newest nightspot.
Driving out of the city, sprawling single-level concrete edifices gradually give way to snow smattered hills and more traditional villages. Dogs, horses, donkeys and goats zigzag across our path with reckless abandon. Mimicking the motion of the wildlife, all traffic also weaves erratically to avoid deep potholes, keeping me alert to the changing view. Villagers gather around old cars and truck trailers, presumably discussing a potential quick fix. An old farmer stands atop a cart brimming with freshly cut cattle skins, jumping on them enthusiastically for an unknown purpose. The road appears to stretch to the horizon, an endless pouter stripe through a yellow and white canvas.
Settling into the lifestyle here has been a breeze. The next few days will consist of hearty Mongolian meals, peaceful walks in the surrounds of camp and warm evenings by the hearth of the fire playing my new favourite game “Flicking the (sheep) bone”. That answers my own question of how I came to be here (in the physical sense at least). An appreciative resident of a Ger camp in the Mongolian Steppes amid some of the best scenery I have ever witnessed.
Night is now falling quickly and silently in the ‘Land of the big blue sky’. The sound of a bird flying through the air above punctures the quiet and rouses me from my reverie. The movement of its wings is deafening in the soundless dusk.