World Travelers - Mongolia: Among Genghis Khan’s Heirs

World Travelers - Mongolia: Among Genghis Khan’s Heirs
“Welcome to Mongolia!” the customs officer says to me in perfect English while tapping me fiercely on the shoulder. Greetings like this don’t happen often at border crossings. What he probably meant was more like: “Lad, since you managed to survive our chaotic border post, you shouldn’t have any problems in the country beyond.”

Everybody has to pass a total of eight counters, where an important stamp is placed onto an important document before permission to enter the country is given. The whole procedure seems to be a test of whether you can handle what’s to come later.

One of the two asphalt roads Mongolia has to offer is leading me south. Here at the border to Russia, it cuts through treeless green mountains. There are even some signposts in English, the last ones I shall see for the next few weeks.

By the time the paperwork is finished, it’s almost dark, so I have to look for a place to pitch my tent. This turns out to be easier in Mongolia than most places, as the whole country lives in yurts and commemorates camping as a way of life. The meadows are kept cut short by livestock, and there are no fences. Everyone is free to go anywhere.

Lonely roadside camping in the Altai Mountains.

After the town of Bulgan, the asphalt ends. From this point on, I find I need every bit of tread on my tires, especially after a thunderstorm, which makes the red clay of the path very slippery. I wouldn’t want to end up here in the rainy season. In the downhill sections, even first gear seems too fast. I battle with the unfavorable weather and road conditions, but continue to slip and fall down. After a few miles, I decide to take refuge from the rain underneath a huge rock. The break helps to recover both my physical state and the road. As soon as the sun comes back out, the surface dries up and becomes ridable again.

Help and Hospitality

It’s been two days since I passed the last town, and I’m amazed at how pristine the country appears. In the distance I can see some yurts, the traditional dwelling of the nomads, made of felt and wool. Shepherds in long dark coats sit on their horses and camels. In a broad valley, this combination is especially photogenic. While setting up my tripod, I’m thinking how interesting it would be to see a yurt from inside, but I would never have the heart to ask for permission to enter. Today however, it seems luck is on my side. I hear a squeal behind me on the road. I turn around and watch a motorcycle with a seized back wheel stopping in the ditch. I walk back the 50 yards and realize what happened. The chain came off and blocked the sprocket. Now it is jammed. The driver is calmly getting his tools out. The problem doesn’t seem to bother him too much. I offer support, and he smiles and nods encouragingly. Together and with the assistance of an archaic wrench, we get the chain back onto the very worn sprocket.

That was easy. Now the really amazing part begins. For my very little support, Murum, the driver, wants to hand me over a leg of the half goat he has strapped on the back of his 150cc, two-stroke Russian motorcycle. Once I comprehend, I’m stunned by the gesture and politely refuse. So I get an invitation to his home instead. I can’t refuse this one—it was my exact desire a few short minutes ago.

Moving Mongolian tents is a complex effort.

We arrive at his home after crossing pastureland that reminds me of a small golf course. Three kids play at a creek, and a woman is milking a goat. The yurt is shining white in the afternoon sunlight. Excited, I step inside through a small entrance and immediately feel like I’m taking part in a live fairy tale. The brightness from outside suddenly is dimmed to half-light. The air is cool, the atmosphere cozy. Murum’s parents, who were dozing on their beds, seem happy about a break from the norm and immediately get up to welcome me. I sit down tailor-seat-style with them.

At first I’m worried that I’ve stared too long at the small box dangling around his father’s neck. But I quickly learn that sharing a snuff is the usual welcoming gesture among Mongolian men. I’m offered the box, and the old man shows me how the brown powder has to be sniffed. The moment I try it, a biting pain hits the inside of my nose. The expression on my face must have conveyed surprise and torture, because everyone else is laughing.