Tag Archives: Mongolia

The Endless Steppes

Within the soul of every Mongolian is the desire to live a rural, nomadic lifestyle unencumbered by the noise of the city and the smothering nearness of one’s neighbors.  On most summer weekends the capital of Ulan Bator, a city of well over one million, empties out as residents head to the mountains, the Gobi, and the steppes—those never-ending oceans of grasslands that cover well over half the country. Some people enjoy outdoor sports with horseback riding, hiking, and archery among the most popular. Swimming, boating, and water sports are a little more difficult in this frigid, landlocked country where water temperatures rarely rise about 55 degrees, even in mid-summer.

My Wife, Ruthann, Sitting On The Steps of Our Yurt

However, organized activities are not the primary purpose of these weekend outings. Many just relax in their yurts—felt covered tents—and enjoy the fresh air, endless vistas, and lack of cars, noise, and crowds. They join family and friends in groups that may total a dozen or more, eating; drinking vodka, beer, and ayrag (fermented mare’s milk); sharing stories; singing traditional folk songs; and experiencing a bit of the rural lifestyle that their parents and/or grandparents led before moving to the city and leaving the nomadic life behind–not unlike the dude ranches and campfire gatherings that try to recapture the spirit of  the American West.

The “Road” To The Yurt Camp. Which Way Do We Go?

On one July weekend my wife Ruth and I were invited to join Dr. Lkhagvasuren, the president of Genghis Khan University, his wife, Chugilma, and Nomiko, a young female student and translator, for a weekend holiday at a yurt camp 150 miles away. About one hour outside the city the paved road gave way to unmarked, rutted dirt tracks crisscrossing the grasslands in what appeared to be random geometric patterns. Lkhagvasuren, who had driven the route many times, navigated this vast, empty wilderness with a smile and an air of sureness that I took to be supreme confidence in knowing exactly where he was headed.  Fortunately, he did.

Dinner Being Prepared In Our Honor

Four hours later we arrived at the camp where a dinner was to be prepared in our honor, an honor that included selecting the sheep we would eat and watching it dragged kicking and bleating from its pen, slaughtered, and gutted in front of us so we might personally appreciate its girth and fattiness. After a few too many vodka toasts and the singing of some American folk songs at our host’s urging (I tried my hand at “Home, Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), we sat down to a very fresh mutton dinner. However, rather than the chops and roasts we were expecting, we dined primarily on the animal’s innards–stomach, heart, liver, and intestines. To Mongolians, these are prized delicacies and, as the guests of honor, it was presented to us as a special treat we were expected to consume with relish and gusto.

We ate (and kept down) as much as we could only to see the remaining offal brought to the table the following morning. As difficult as it was to eat this for dinner, a breakfast of cold sheep intestines soaking in milk exceeds even my ability to transcend cultural differences.  Fortunately, we were able to convince our gracious hosts that we would be quite content with toast and tea for our morning meal.

While I could not recommend the food, these amazing cultural experiences are what makes a working vacation so utterly unique and so totally different from your typical family vacation.  You really must try it.

(Read more about our Mongolian adventures in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

The Three Wise (Business) Men

Mongolians have a saying “The Gobi is not one desert but a hundred.” It is the largest desert in Asia, covering 35% of the country, but unlike the Sahara it is a crazy-quilt mixture of mountains, steppes, and plateaus, but only 4% sand.

However, today that 4% is our destination as my wife and I enjoy a vacation from Genghis Khan University where we are both teaching.  We set out in an old, Russian-made Jeep for an area called Khongoryn Els (the “Singing Dunes” in Mongolian), a remote wilderness of rose-colored dunes, some reaching the height of a 60-story building.  The 40-mile drive from camp traverses a roadless, trackless terrain, containing not a single village, not a single farm, hardly a single person.  After an hour or so the landscape changes rapidly from flat gravel plain to a rolling seascape of sand, and the driver parks our vehicle just below one of these massive formations.  We jump out, like children at the beach, and gaze at the uninterrupted vistas and stark beauty of this place. We scamper up the dunes, run down, and climb back up again, taking endless photos and drinking in the utter and complete silence.  My wife and I look at each other fully aware that we are standing in the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on Earth and quietly contemplate that isolation.    That is until…

Mongolians and Their Camels in the Gobi Desert

We turn around to see three Mongolians, three camels, and a dog lumbering up the dune.  They seem to have materialized out of thin air as a 360o scan of the area reveals no villages, no yurts, no dwellings of any sort.  Are they rangers?  (This part of the Gobi is a National Park.)  Do they need food or water? Are they part of a commercial caravan to Dalanzadgad, the only town of any size but well over 100 miles distant?  Worst of all, do they wish us harm?  (Our driver is relaxing in the Jeep at the base of the dune, quite far away and out of earshot.)   When they reach the top they dismount, smile, (we breathe a sigh of relief), open the pack carried on the back of one of the camels, and proceed to set up and display their wares–an impressive collection of handmade Gobi souvenirs!

Portable Souvenir Shop in the Middle of the Remote Gobi

Aside from our surprise at encountering anyone in this trackless wilderness, let alone three Mongolian entrepreneurs, we do not understand how they knew we were coming.  We saw no one on the drive, passed no telephone poles, saw no WiFi “hotspot” signs, not even a smoke signal on the horizon.  Yet, somehow our presence quickly and efficiently triggered their arrival and the creation of this portable tchotchke shop. My wife and I could only laugh at our earlier imaginings of being in the remotest place on Earth–true, but not too remote to conduct a little business.

We haggled, bought a stuffed camel for our grandson, paid for it, and smiled back at them, our only common language.  Once they realized we were finished buying, they bundled up their wares, loaded them onto the pack camel, and trudged back down the dune.  We wanted to see exactly where they were heading, but they passed out of sight over the next hill, probably to locate other tourists who will, like us, marvel at their unexpected appearance.

(Read more about our experiences living and working in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

July 4th, International Edition!

To all my U.S. readers: Have a happy and healthy July 4th holiday.  In honor of this, our national day, I am taking a brief break from my ongoing Kenyan narrative to describe some rather unique experiences celebrating this holiday abroad.

Because I often work during summer vacation, my wife and I frequently find ourselves celebrating July 4th overseas, but never so dramatically as our Independence Day in Hanoi.  Since I am in my mid-60s, I was of prime draft age during the Vietnam War era, and it was only good fortune in securing a draft deferrable job, followed by drawing number 322 in the draft lottery, that kept me stateside.

My memories of those contentious times run from sadness for those who perished to anger at what I believe was my government’s immoral and unethical behavior.  Therefore, when I traveled to Vietnam in July 2001 to present a series of workshops at Hanoi University of Technology I was prepared to hear hostile diatribes about U.S. foreign policy and to be an apologist for my country’s military conduct.  To my utter surprise, though, no one I met was angry or resentful about the war (in fact, they seemed to admire our economic and technical achievements), and everyone with whom I worked was willing to look beyond those horrible times and move forward.

During the stay my hosts took Ruth and I to a concert by the Hanoi Symphony at the impressive 100-year-old  Hanoi Opera House modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris.  Midway through the evening the conductor announced, in both Vietnamese and English, that to honor our national day the

The Spectacularly Beautiful Hanoi Opera House

orchestra had prepared a special piece.  Then they proceeded to play an energetic rendition of John Phillips Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever while the audience cheered and a giant American flag was unfurled from the rafters. All I could think was that this was happening in a country that only three decades earlier had been at war with us, a violent war that took 500,000 lives, destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, and denuded millions of acres of Vietnamese forest and farmland.  It is a moment I will never forget, and an experience that provides me with a tiny glimmer of hope for reconciliation in those seemingly intractable and never-ending struggles in Palestine, Kashmir, Sudan, and Somalia.

In the summer of 2006 my wife and I were living in Ulan Bator, Mongolia where I was teaching computer science at Genghis Khan University under the auspices of a U.S. State Department Fulbright Grant.  Ruth and I were invited to attend July 4th celebrations at the residence of the United States Ambassador where we had the privilege of meeting not only the U.S. diplomatic corps but also the President of Mongolia and high-ranking government officials from China, Japan, and Russia.  We watched fireworks, listened to a Mongolian band dressed in period costumes play July 4th music on traditional instruments–imagine America The Beautiful on a horsehead fiddle–and dined on classic holiday fare, hot dogs, potato salad, and cole slaw.  When I asked the Ambassador where she had purchased the food (trust me, hot dogs, potato salad and cole slaw are not standard Mongolian grocery items) she simply smiled and said “Now, you really didn’t think the diplomatic pouch was only for top-secret documents, did you?”  Silly me!