Happy campers

If global overpopulation ever starts to get you down, you might consider a trip to Mongolia.  Here is an East Asian anomaly: a country so sparsely populated that for most of this century its government offered its people incentives to produce as many children as possible; a country three times the size of France with a population smaller than Singapore's.  The nation that used to be the most powerful on earth has dropped to the other end of that league.  It's very name, or at least its former name - "Outer Mongolia", is the very definition of remoteness.

Most visitors start in Ulaan Baatar and are usually happy to leave as quickly as possible.  The capital’s wide, dusty streets, crumbling edifices and gloomy housing blocks are as disheartening an introduction to the country as they are unrepresentative.  New arrivals rate the food quality low but soon find that they have to recalibrate the scale when they venture out into the provinces: Ulaan Baatar's restaurants are a welcome sight after a couple of weeks up-country without fruit and vegetables.

I grew to like Ulaan Baatar, but dragging myself away was well worth the effort.  I teamed up with four other travellers and hired a Russian van and its driver to tour the countryside, our goal the distant Khovsgol lake in the country’s north.  We found our driver on the main market bus route, his old, grey van crammed full of shoppers paying peanuts for the short trip.

The vehicle was the kind that made you wonder how the Soviets ever managed to put a man into space, but it turned out to be one of the better vehicles, mechanically if not aesthetically, on the road. This isn't actually saying much but it was four-wheel-drive and simple enough to be easily repaired.  Unfortunately, the seating and suspension arrangements were as basic as the engine.  We shopped for two weeks’ provisions and launched the van into an unsteady orbit of the Mongol countryside.

"No problem" said Munko, our driver, when we alerted him to the alarming cracks in the walls of three of the four tyres, but two hours down the road he was eating his words and changing the back right.  An hour later it was the back left.  It didn't bode well, but we soon left the rutted roads to forge our own tracks through the fields.  Driving cross-country is the favoured method of transport: much less punishing on the tyre rubber, if not on our backsides.  If the country is big enough to start with, the state of its roads makes it bigger still.

You don't have to get far out of Ulaan Baatar to be impressed at the scenery.  That’s where you find the rolling hills and where outcrops sprawl across the steppes.  Specks in every panorama are the traditional gers (known in Russia as yurts) - homes for nomadic families surrounded by their grazing livestock: big, weathered, felt-lined, circular tents with colourful, patterned, wooden doors and a chimney pipe protruding through the small skylight in the roof.  There is one design, inside and out, throughout the whole country and its history.  The door always faces south.  They are designed to be easily dissembled and reassembled, and can be carried on two camels.  Nobody owns, nor needs to own, any land in rural Mongolia: there is plenty to go round.  If you get tired of the view you can change it for another one, bringing a whole new meaning to the concept of moving house.

It soon became clear that Munko, and his father who had come along for the ride, were far from familiar with our chosen route.  Sure, we had maps but what use is a map when there are no signposts and one track peeling off down a valley looks much the same as another?  We stopped everyone we saw to ask directions.

Our delays meant that we had to find a field to camp in for the night.  Fortunately this was Mongolia and you can't move for fields, so we stopped the van at a scenic spot and pitched our tents just after dark and before the heavens opened.  The rains kept up the same pace throughout the following day, hindering our progress and denying us access to the isolated, not to mention unpronounceable, Amarbayasgalant monastery.  Mongolia can be extraordinarily dramatic in bad weather, but it wasn’t to last long.

We pushed further into the landscape, ticking animals and birds off an imaginary checklist.  Alongside the deserted track marmots scampered for their burrows and buzzards picked keenly at the occasional horse’s skeleton.  Yaks wandered casually across nearby plains through flocks of less exotic sheep; camels lazed by a seasonal lake.  Horses, proprietorially branded but allowed to roam freely, grazed among goats.  Above all of these soared and swooped the bird-life: geese and gulls, hawks and falcons.  Further into the hills and beyond the reach of the roads nomads herd reindeer and, so they say, some of the world's largest communities of snow leopards hide out.

A thousand kilometres down the road we finally neared Khovsgol lake, scenic highlight of northern Mongolia and just reward for four long days of rough travel.  The gearbox was showing signs of overwork as we climbed our final hill before the corkscrew descent to the lake shore.  By the time Munko had ground second gear into submission, the engine was begging to be returned to first.  At least we would have a few days at the lake to work on repairs.

We had arrived late in the day so the first thing to do was to build a camp fire and put the dinner on.  Unknown to us, our arrival had not gone unnoticed.  Mongolia may be sparsely populated but that doesn't mean that you're ever on your own.  As soon as we set up camp, here or anywhere in the country, we were invariably joined by the occupants of local gers.  They would trot up on horseback, park their steeds at a nearby tree, leave their goats grazing around us and pull out bottles of vodka and snuff - always offered with the left hand on the right elbow - for our compulsory consumption.  Conversation would inevitably be stilted but good-humoured, and our respective bits would be done for international relations.

Night comes late to northern Mongolia.  We relied on our fire to keep warm, its crackling twigs the only sound invading the silence.  In winter, temperatures can drop to minus forty degrees centigrade and you have to wonder how these nomadic people, not to mention their animals, pull through it.

When morning broke, we discovered a lake so pure we could drink from it but too cold even in summer for swimming or anything but the most cursory of baths.  We passed the time walking along the shore and in the adjacent forests, dropping in on local ger communities.  We lived the life of nomads, sleeping under canvas and taking advantage of a fledgling horse rental business operated by local herdsmen to explore the area more widely.  We were too lazy to angle for our dinner, choosing instead to support the local economy by buying freshly-caught fish from enterprising boys.  Munko and his father, who had finally admitted that it was their first visit to the lake, exchanged the track-suit, jeans and grubby T-shirts that had become their uniforms for traditional dels, smart long coats always worn with knee-high leather boots.  Suitably dressed, they posed in front of a Russian camera that looked even older than their van.

Tired of shooing away curious yaks from our cache of food I went for a walk, only to be invited into the first ger I passed.  I was sat down and treated to some traditional hospitality.  The local speciality is airag (koumiss in Russia), which is fermented horse's milk but is not, as one of my companions wryly commented, as good as it sounds.

Worse still are the sour tea and ageing dried cheese which are routinely offered to visitors.  They do mean well, though.  It's almost impossible to walk past a ger without being dragged inside and force-fed something unpalatable.  It's a Mongolian tradition that travellers are always welcome to food and lodging wherever they may travel in the country.  Just stroll up to any ger, announce yourself with the traditional call of "nokhoi khor" ("hold back the dog!"), and see for yourself.

So what happened to the Genghis Khan spirit, then?  The ferocious raping and pillaging that made the Mongol empire the biggest the world has ever known.  The only Genghis Khan spirit you'll find these days is the locally-produced vodka, named after the great man and, like Mongolian men I’m sorry to say, widely drunk.  The Khan's name and face appear everywhere: he is a national hero, even now in the age of democracy, for his work in uniting Mongolians and bringing them glory.  The methods of achieving his successes are necessarily glossed over.

These days, what’s left of the Mongol horde is not to be feared.  The Mongolians are overwhelmingly hospitable and kind.  They're out there among the hills, valleys, forests, lakes and deserts, waiting to welcome you with a plate of rancid goat's cheese.

Copyright Nicholas White 1999