For a week we were pioneers in a country that has yet to build a single paved road from one side to the other and has no property rights.

Image for post
Image for post

By David G. Allan and Kate Rope

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2002 on the website David’s column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here:

ULAAN BAATAR, Mongolia — If you want a feel for what it may have been like to live in the American Old West, go to Outer Mongolia. If you could step back in time to a pre-Manifest Destiny Arizona, Nevada or Utah, you’d see what we saw: green and brown expanses of untouched steppe, sculpted valleys and peaks, fast-moving herds of horses, and nowhere the sight of concrete or commercialism.

Most of the nine days we trekked across the county in our horseless covered wagons, the only signs of human life we saw were occasional white gers (rhymes with “stairs,” nomadic roundhouses or yurts) dotting the plains like wigwams before the American expansion into Indian territory. Every few hours, we’d pass through a tiny budding town along the main unpaved roads, complete with wooden false-front buildings (think saloons) and places to tie your horses out front.

Image for post
Image for post

For a week we were pioneers in a country that has yet to build a single paved road from one side to the other and has no property rights. The latter distinction, a current legislative debate that threatens the wonder of camping anywhere you want, is rare in a world that is more interested in carving up resources than sharing them. As young American men heeded John Saule’s editorial in the Terra-Haute Express to “Go West,” Tecumseh, Chief of the Shawnee, exclaimed, “Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth. Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”

It must be confessed that we are not ordinary pilgrims. Just a couple of weeks into our trip around the world we took with us such comfort items as a fresh coffee grinder and personal coffee presses, a world band radio (that picked up BBC, VOA and many Chinese stations from Mongolia), Kate’s fancy shampoos and nice-smelling soap, and, because vodka was actually built into the travel expenses of this adventure, we packed along vermouth and olives for dirty martinis.

Move ’em out

After speeding above the parched brown vastness of the Gobi desert, our plane emerged above a luminous patch of green fringed on all sides by menacing dark mountains and stormclouds that tickled their spines with rain. The ride got bumpy and we were certain that we were heading into the storm. But, then the pilot banked sharply, giving us a better view of the green below and, coming into view, the frontier town of Ulaan Baatar. As we slowly spiraled toward the landing strip, we could see neighborhoods of picket fences, in each one a round white ger. Beyond them, three power plants exhaled into the sky amid blocks of rectangular apartment buildings. Before our survey was done, we were on the ground.

There to greet us and the horde of Kate’s fellow Luce Scholars was our host, Alex Mehfar, a North Carolinian who spent his Luce year in Mongolia and will soon leave behind the race horse he bought, along with his dreams of going local.

Driving into the city, we saw as many young women in high heels and tight skirts, giggling arm in arm, as we did old men, in long robes, riding their horses into town. And we got our first hint that life in Mongolia may be as wild as the landscape when we exchanged money at 9:30 p.m., next to an Italian restaurant/strip joint, and had to wait a few minutes while the family that ran the bank finished their dinner. Mongolian tugriks in our wallets, we wasted no time leaving Ulaan Baatar behind.

Riding into the sunset, at 10 o’clock at night, a nuclear red smear of sky silhouetting the nearby foothills beckoned us into the wild. Only a few miles outside the capital we were surround by the absolute darkness of non-civilization. A few hours later we stumbled into a campground of gers to sleep. Nuzzled in our sleeping bags on the floor of the ger, our last sight before sleep was the starscape through the wagon wheel opening in the middle of the roof.

The long and winding road

Nearly every day of our sojourn into the wilds of Mongolia was a long, bone-rattling session in either an SUV or a tank-green Russian transport vehicle (we dubbed “the Green Machine”) along dirt or mud roads riddled with large pot holes, steep inclines and a small river now and then. Nothing could stop the Mongolian madman behind the wheel of the Green Machine — not complaints, nor yelps of concern, nor large yaks blocking the path. The only thing that ever slowed us down was a flat tire that laid us up at the doormat of a nomad family.

The herders of the Mongolian plains are the most hospitable people we have ever met. This is partly out of necessity. Nomad families, making up half of the country’s 2 million population, move their homes two to four times a year to look for good grazing land and water sources. Help your fellow stranded traveler one day, because you may be in need of shelter the next. While members of our group took turns pumping up the spare tire, the rest of us were treated to bowlfuls of airag (fermented mare’s milk with the potency of a wine cooler that is drunk by everyone, all the time) and ate from a heaping plate of crunchy cheese curds and a blob of yellow butter that could have come from a goat, yak, cow or horse. We weren’t sure. The best thing about Mongolia was not the food.

Having learned the lesson of Mongolian hospitality early on, we didn’t hesitate one night, after hearing the pained lowing of what we thought was a cow in labor, to leave our riverside campsite and cross a field to investigate the source. It turned out to be a fight between two bulls for the right to a cow. We left the guys to sort it out when the family emerged from their ger and ushered us in.

Image for post
Image for post

Inside, under the heavy canvas and felt cover, light from an oil lamp illuminated the detailed and bright painting on the tables, chairs, chests and supporting pillars (all matching). Against the sides, brass beds were snugly covered with thick, colorful carpets, and, in the center, a wood stove kept the family warm. Against one wall were the wooden churns for producing the essential mare’s milk and the unending variety of butter products that are the dietary staple of the country. Our outstanding guide, Gala, was already seated next to the family shrine (there is one in every ger, and they all have pictures of the family and the Dalai Lama), the spot saved for the most important guest, and he gave some quick lessons in ger etiquette.

First, you must make yourself at home right away and never look uncomfortable, you must know where to sit (women on one side, men the other) and, most importantly, how to accept the offering of snuff from the head of the family.

The snuff bottle is often the nicest possession of the family, and is carried in a beautifully embroidered bag hanging from a man’s belt. When it is handed to you, you reverently receive it with two hands, your right leading, and admire it before you uncork the top, spoon the fine powder onto your thumb and take your sinus-clearing, brain-stinging sniff. Other ger etiquette, in case you find yourself in Mongolia and welcomed into a nomadic home: never put your back to the Buddhist shrine; if you don’t care for snuff, you can just sniff either side of the top instead; and always take the airag or vodka with two hands or with your right hand while your left supports the right elbow, and pass the bowl back to the host before it moves on to the next guest. (You don’t have to drain the bowl of airag or the shot of vodka, but you will get respect if you do. David’s enthusiasm for the tangy mare’s milk was rewarded with a full bottle of airag at the end of the trip.)

Finished with the formalities, Kate made friends with a smiley, chatty one-year-old and compared notes about how many children she had (0) with the boy’s twenty-three year old mother. Then we went outside to watch the bull showdown. It ended predictably when the smaller one gave up, and we said our goodbyes and went back to sleep by the river. In the morning, our alarm clock was the thundering of hooves, as the same family’s horses made their way home through our campground.

Dances with Cows, Goats, Horses, Sheep, and Yaks

Wherever we set up our tents, we could tell the time of day by what group of animals was munching on our lawn. The morning belonged to harems of horses and their possessive stallion who busily kept them in line, the afternoon was play time for the adorable goats and the not-as-adorable-as-you-thought-they-were-as-a-child sheep, and the early evening was when the cows liked to mosey in and grab a bite. The yaks were the most shy and stayed on the fringes, every once in awhile giving us a bewildered look from beneath their silly, shaggy bangs. One morning, while making his way back from an al fresco bathroom break, a large pack of horses headed toward David, who froze in indecision. The galloping steeds parted around him in a beautiful, adrenaline-charged Dances with Wolves moment.

After every group of animals, a young herder eventually rode up, dressed in the traditional herder deel (a long, thick robe, tied at the waist with a sash, and held together by shiny beaded buttons that work like cufflinks), and effortlessly moved his or her charges home. These were inevitably small children, who, though interested in us and happy to chat (often giving us rides on their horses), executed their responsibilities with the maturity of elders, tsk, tsking the stragglers home and handling their mounts as if they had been born on horseback, which they practically were.

One evening, when Kate had befriended a playful and absent-minded baby goat with the sniffles, the herd left him behind, and we discovered the patience herding demands. Walking on either side of him, we urged him up the hill to Mom, making slow progress, since he was mostly interested in nibbling flowers along the way. And, our respect for their horsemanship was quickly earned the day we mounted up and headed into the mountains.

The Mongolian breed of horse is smaller than the North American counterpart and when climbed a hill for a view over the beautiful Great White Lake (think Lake Tahoe sans the hotels, casinos and ski lifts and people) the horses groaned at our weight and inexperience. David’s horse stopped to eat the entire way up (perhaps he needed extra fuel to carry his 6'3" burden). And just before the peak, Kate’s mount decided to boycott and simply refused to proceed (she had to pull him back down the mountain by his reigns). At one feeding, David’s mare leaned over unannounced which sent him head first over the head of the mane. The spooked horse tore across the valley while David, only scratched up, watched from his seated position in the grass.

Image for post
Image for post

At times the plains seemed desolate, and you could imagine how unwelcome they might feel in the oppressive, unending winter. We often saw evidence of the harsh justice of the other nine months of the year when we passed several animal skeletons in a row. All animals are left to decompose where they have died, and bones, picked clean by vultures, are strewn about the country. But, a group grave usually means a particularly hard winter took them in one go. It only made us feel more like Daniel Boone when we tripped over a horned cow skull on our way went to relieve ourselves behind a brush, or saw tufts of brittle hair from a leg bone blowing in the wind. Fresh deaths were forecasted by vultures as big as donkeys that sat menacingly in groups warding others away from their carrion catch. Their neighbors in the sky were many, and Gala, a conservation biologist, was careful to point them out to us — graceful kites, small falcons, and majestic white and brown-flecked eagles which we saw flying as often as we saw one sitting by the side of the road watching us drive by.

But we came to see Gala less as an environmentalist and more as a modern Mongolian cowboy. During one long ride across the plain, he interrupted our talk about the country’s politics. “Listen to this music,” he said, “We love it, just listen.” And, in the midst of a modern pop song playing on the radio, sounds of a battle on horseback, complete with whinnies and whips, came in and a throat singer wailed above the beat. Another time, smoking a cigarette, he confided to us, “I will never leave this country. I can go wherever I want and camp wherever I want. That is freedom.” Back in his home Ulaan Baatar, days later, in a crowded disco, he complained, “Can you believe this place? This is not Mongolia, we were in the real Mongolia.”

Feast fit for a Khan

For our last evening in the countryside, we visited the family of Gala’s girlfriend, Odnoo (most Mongolians use only one name). Odnoo’s family had picked out a sheep to be slaughtered in our honor. Although we left the mutton to the more carnivorous of our group, we did watch its slaughter — a farm first for the both of us. An incision was made in the sheep’s belly at the hands of our overly eager Green Machine driver who then reached into the organs and snapped, by hand, the main nerve in the spinal cord. We were told that the silent but still squirming animal felt nothing as the driver finished him off by suffocating him with his hand. The unlucky lad was then carved into hunks and set to stew in an aluminum jug full of hot stones, carrots, onions and potatoes. Three hours later, the fat-laced mutton was piled into bowls of Khan-sized proportion and set out on a tarp. Dinner was served.

The feast was presided over by the matriarch of Odnoo’s family, an octogenarian and award-winning herdswoman, who came from the next ger over, and sat smiling at the head of the tablecloth passing out more than she ate to doting great-grandchildren at the hem of her deel and smiling as she sipped on the cheap Korean beer we had brought.

After dinner we went into a new ger they had built that day (it takes twenty minutes to assemble or break down a ger) for a christening ceremony with copious amounts of cheese products, airag and vodka passed around. Not wanting to offend the hosts we ate and drank everything handed to us in a fun night that disappeared into vodka oblivion and reappeared in the early morning hours of a hangover which followed us all the way back to Ulaan Baatar the next day.

After Russia, Mongolia holds the number two position for vodka consumption at a numbing 32 liters of vodka per person per year. The Russians (who nicknamed vodka “zelyonyi zmey” or “the green serpent” for its tempting and destructive characteristics) and the Chinese are the main importers of the stuff and Mongolia itself is full of distilleries built by and for Russians during their long military presence.

We had an earlier introduction to Mongolian vodka one chilly night at the Great White Lake as our group huddled around a few bottles of Chinggis Kahn (that’s Ghengis for non-Mongolians) brand vodka. (The legendary leader has enjoyed a nationalistic popularity since the Soviets withdrew in 1990 and his picture is seen hawking everything from liquor to internet service.) Alex circulated the traditional silver vodka bowl, making the first drinker performing the ritual of dipping your finger in the bowl and flicking vodka toward the four points of the compass. After our first bowlful, we poured our shots in little cups, added a touch of vermouth and some olives and sipped our martinis under the stars.

The Nomad Olympics

Dating back to the 13th century when Chinggis Kahn both terrified and rallied Mongolia with his legendary hordes, and his grandson Kublai Kahn ruled over the largest empire the world has ever known (from Austria to the Pacific, all of China and into northern India), the Mongolians were organizing competitions for what they call the three “manly sports”: wrestling, horseback riding and archery. The national competition, called Nadaam, preceded by county and province competitions, takes place every July in Ulaan Baatar and we had tickets to this serious, and at times bizarre, spectacle.

Image for post
Image for post

The opening ceremonies were an eclectic display of Mongolian traditional costumes, followed by a parade including a yak-pulled ger starring a Chinggis Kahn stand-in, a float of contortionists and acrobats, a dancing shaman, four clowns, a stiltwalker, Minnie and Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and a lone Snow White dwarf, Bashful, we thought. The motley crew circled the field to military marches. The National Horsehair Fiddle Orchestra played and the President gave a speech wearing a traditional deel.

But the crowd pleasers were the parachutists, more than a dozen, who jumped out of an old biplane that flew above the stadium. All but one successfully landed on the field with the unlucky lad crashing into the outer wall, and walking bashfully back into the stadium. The last jumper shot fireworks from a sack tied between his legs. But, not all of the fireworks went off, and when he landed mid-field the finale was released. Six or so fireballs screamed out of his bag in every direction and skipped along the ground before bouncing up into the stands. In front of us, girls minding a Coca-Cola stand ducked just in time as a fireball crashed and sizzled into the wall behind them. Only twenty feet away another firework jumped into the seats and burnt a grapefruit-sized hole in a woman’s dress.

A single nurse, 60-something and wearing high heels and a shower cap over some of her hair like a fashion statement, hobbled toward the injured woman (her high heels hindering her speed) as the people sitting around the victim doused her with water bottles. And while smoke signals around the stadium betrayed the unintended targets of other fireballs, the wrestling began. And that was just the first hour.

After the first few rounds, the wrestling (considered the most “manly” of the “manly sports”) started to get boring. The matches have no time limits, so they’ve been known to last for hours. A half hour into the wrestling, just as a cycling competition inexplicably began racing around the field, the crowd had dispersed. We followed them out to

Image for post
Image for post

catch some archery next door. But the horse racing was the most exciting. Years ago adult racers were replaced by small kids, because the horses, often poorly conditioned, would sometimes collapse from exhaustion. It still happens on occasion, and the young riders can be badly injured.

Give me a home, where the buffalo roam

Our last night in Mongolia we ate at a great Indian restaurant called, what else, “The Frontier.” Mongolians are well aware of their uniqueness in a world bursting at the seams.

Image for post
Image for post

As we left we felt a little sadness at the inevitability of industrialization and commercialization of what is still virgin territory. In 1990 Mongolians staged a velvet revolution that started with a hunger strike in the main parliament square in Ulaan Baatar. There was an election and the Democrats won. Unlike their comrades before them, the Dems began long-term reform instead of focusing all their resources on the constant upkeep of more visible infrastructure, like say sidewalks, and the masses voted them out and voted in the Communist Party. The democratically elected Communists (a whopper of a political contradiction in terms) is ironically in favor of the privatization of land. So it could just be a matter of time before this place is carved up, the legal system is besieged with land claims, and the big companies start buying up huge tracks of territory until Great White Lake has hotel-casinos, the Eastern Steppe is dotted with McDonald’s and bowls of airag are replaced by Big Gulps. We’re glad we saw it when.

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store