I was traveling from Germany to Thailand in the midst of a 14-month trip around the world. The airline gave me two options for a lay-over: Nepal or Mongolia. It was an easy choice; how often is Mongolia “on the way”?
The country is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. The landscape is utterly breathtaking and surprisingly diverse, ranging from the densely forested northern region, to the Altai mountains in the west, across the rolling hills to the steppe, and to the Gobi Desert.
The country’s population is less than three million and about one-half to one-third still live a nomadic or semi-nomadic life. People are tied to the movement of their livestock and many still migrate twice a year between their winter homes, which are sheltered from the winds and snow, and their summer homes, which have good forage for their animals.
Because of how sparse the country is and how far apart people live, there is a very strong culture of mutual generosity. If you get in any kind of trouble – if your car breaks down, if your horse runs off, or if you just need a place to sleep for the night – be assured that you will be taken care of (as long as there is a ger – a traditional home – nearby).
One of the biggest challenges of traveling in Mongolia was being able to maintain a healthy, diverse diet. There isn’t much of a growing season, so while you can occasionally find potatoes and carrots (and noodles for foreigners), most meals consist only of meat and dairy products. The most popular treats given to visitors are milk tea and “stone cheese,” a type of curd that has been dried, often on the roof, to achieve the quality that the name implies.
There are also the more obvious challenges of traveling in a rural country: lack of roads, showers, toilets, and ATMs. We went almost two weeks without a proper shower and almost as long without any phone or internet service. It can feel very isolating, and yet, there are few times when I’ve ever been so “present.”
My favorite part of the country was the far west, which is heavily influenced by migrants from Kazakhstan. I went there to attend the annual Eagle Hunter Festival, which was incredible. One day prior, my friend and I went hunting with two traditional hunters. They took us to the top of a mountain where we waited for the eagle’s prey – a rabbit or fox – to appear. When it did, the hunter unmasked his eagle and sent her off to capture the animal. If the eagle was successful in catching her prey, she would sit on it until the hunter approached and relieved her. The process was breathtaking to witness.
My advice for those traveling to Mongolia:
Don’t book anything until you get there. Your hostel in Ulaanbaatar can organize any trip for much less than you would pay online. Bring small gifts if you plan to stay with nomadic families; solar or shake powered flashlights were a big hit. Pack warm clothes and a four season sleeping bag, regardless of time of year. And have mix tapes or a good book on hand for your many long off-road van rides.