Desert Ghobi in Mongolia

Land without fences

Traveling through Mongolia is like making an expedition into another time. Our author followed Genghis Khan’s trail on horseback: 300 kilometers of solitude and intact nature

Carsten Stormer

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Black clouds and a steep dismount

How still it is before the cloudburst. The sun has crept behind black clouds, and suddenly the rain comes crashing down, seeping through our clothes. An icy wind sweeps across the Mongolian plateau from the Khentii Mountains. On a mountaintop 2200 meters up, forest all around us, we stand surveying a steep scree slope strewn with sharp rocks that plunges to the depths below. Our horses anxiously whinny and flare their nostrils.

I dismount, try to gain a foothold on the loose rocks and hope fervently that no one starts a landslide. I pull on my horse’s reins, look deep into his eyes and coax him: “Choo, choo, choo.” Five minutes later, he relents enough to take a couple of steps forward; then I stumble backwards and land on my rear end. The animal is probably just as scared as I am. A couple of rocks skitter down the slope.

The world trembled at his name

We are out to discover Genghis Khan’s legacy. With two hunters along to protect and guide us, plus a cook and two packhorses, we set out on our trek – in the saddle through the mountains and across the grassy plains of the Khentii Mountains in northeastern Mongolia. Eight days and 300 kilometers of solitude, pristine countryside and never-ending forest. It was here that the young Temujin grew into the warrior who would unify the Mongolian tribes and become the greatest ruler of all time. The world once trembled at his name, and even today, most people pronounce it with awe: Genghis Khan.

In a small bookstore on a side street in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, we found an English edition of the Secret History of the Mongolians, a well-worn copy of a book that was lost for centuries and only came to light again in the early 20th century. This book is our companion, and we dip into it whenever we can to read about the battles and intrigues, the mounted hordes, and life in Mongolia eight hundred years ago. It takes us on a literary journey into the past but is also relevant today – because the land of Genghis Khan has barely changed over the centuries. Much is still exactly as it was when the book was written.

„The world once trembled at his name, and even today, most people pronounce it with awe: Genghis Khan“

What was the legacy left by this man, who died in 1227, who had half the world on tenterhooks, and who created a realm that stretched from Korea to Hungary, from Siberia to India? At first glance, he did not leave much: no palaces, castles or memorial sites; even his last resting place is unknown. His real legacy is the country that to this day still bears the name of his tribe: Mongolia.

And the people of the steppes, despite having cell phones, the Internet and iPads, still otherwise live much as they did 800 years ago: as nomads in the yurts that cling like white mushrooms to the valley bottoms and mountain slopes. These people measure their wealth by the number of horses, yaks and camels they own, not by their bank balance. And Genghis Khan also introduced some other things, including diplomatic immunity, free trade zones, tax allowances, and religious freedom. In other words, he laid the foundations of our modern civilization.  

The final outpost of civilization

It takes us two hours to finally reach the bottom of the slope. My breath comes in gasps as loud as my horse’s, but we are unharmed. We keep moving, through pine forests and over mountaintops, 12 hours a day, at the end of which we sit around our campfire, exhausted and massaging our sore rear ends and thighs, very often too weary to gather firewood or put up our tent. We are thankful to our Mongolian guides for taking over, and they shake their heads and smile at their namby-pamby visitors from the city.  

We ride through mountains and forests for eight days, crossing streams and torrential rivers, sleeping one night in the ruins of a 17th century monastery. A legend has it that a Chinese prince with a broken heart once buried his dead consort there and that her ghost still haunts the woods hereabouts. We drink from mountain streams, erect our tents on mountain slopes, wash in icy lakes of glacial meltwater, battle our way through veritable clouds of flies and swarms of finger-thick mosquitoes.

„Nothing but desert and steppe all around us“

On a day when the sky cannot make up its mind between rain and sunshine, we reach the final outpost of civilization. The village of Terelj is a collection of brightly painted wooden cabins and snow-white yurts, a two-hour drive from Ulan Bator. We climb onto a battered Russian minibus and rumble along the rough roads toward the Gobi Desert. We are headed for the “Singing Sands” of Chongory Els, a four days’ journey from Ulan Bator. I sharpen my focus: nothing but desert and steppe all around us, and apart from a few solitary blades of grass and shrubs, and the bleached skeletons of camels, there is nothing on which to fix my gaze. Above us, vultures and buzzards circle in the sky.

Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Mongolia is gradually claiming a place on the international tourism map. The country has opened up to the world and its young democracy is attracting investors. The standard of living is on the rise; the economy is growing. One of its mainstays is tourism – even though the winter, in which temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Celsius, leaves only a three-month window in which traveling is half-way comfortable. 


The sound of the dunes

There are very few hotels outside the capital. Tourists venturing beyond Ulan Bator spend their nights in yurts belonging to nomads, who are glad of the chance of a little extra income. Teachers, students and herdsmen also earn themselves a little extra by working as travel guides in the summer. Its natural assets are the great capital of Mongolia: a land without fences, three times the size of France and with just under 2.5 million people living there. For each person, there are 13 horses.  

We have been rattling through the Gobi Desert in our Russian bus for four days now and have put almost 2000 kilometers behind us. The soft, well-sprung seats cushion every pothole. Outside our open windows, the desert presents us with colorful explosions of red, brown, ocher, yellow and the occasional touch of green. Camels silhouetted against the landscape appear to shimmer in the heat. At one point, we drive for hours through a stretch of hills covered with what looks like green fluff; a smell of chives wafts in through the window. When we reach the Flaming Cliffs, a rocky expanse of high desert dissected by canyons, we search for dinosaur bones and find some petrified wood. Time and again, we come across ovoos, pyramid-like cairns and stop to walk around them three times clockwise in the traditional way, throwing stones or vodka bottles on top: sacrificial offerings to appease the earth spirits. This makes a welcome change from the long hours on the bus and gives us an opportunity to stretch our legs.

„The wind whips grains of sand against our skin feel, which feel like needles“

Vodka is everywhere. We have a bit of a hangover from the evening we shared with a friendly herdsman yesterday, after finally reaching the Singing Sands of Chongory Els at the end of a nine-hour drive. They are a chain of mighty sand dunes up to 200 meters high that rise and fall like gigantic yellow waves amid the arid landscape. A handful of nomad families have erected yurts, and camels and horses graze at the oasis.

The evening sun bathes the dunes in golden light as we begin our laborious ascent on all fours. Our feet sink ankle-deep into the silky sand. Two steps forward, one step back. Take a deep breath, mop our damp brow and on we go. It takes us two hours to climb the 200 meters to the top of the highest dune, and we are rewarded by a breathtaking view, small waves of sand rolling away as far as the eye can see. The wind whips grains of sand against our skin feel, which feel like needles. We spend several hours on the backs of the dunes, then a soft humming comes to our ears and gradually grows louder. It sounds like a lone monk somewhere, playing a dungchen, one of those long Tibetan horns. We stop, shield our faces from the blowing sand, listen reverently and revel in the magic until the sands quieten down and all we can hear is the rush of the wind.

Farewell with intoxicated senses

On the way back to Ulan Bator, we stop at a small monastery, where a single monk is instructing two novices. The monk nods and gestures us to sit down with him. A fleeting smile crosses his face, then he gives one of the novices a whack on the fingers with a cane for staring wide-eyed and inquisitively at the strange visitors. The boy blushes deeply, turns back to the book in his lap and begins reciting old Tibetan verses aloud. As we leave the monastery, the monk gives us a wink.

„A trip to Mongolia is essentially a journey back to a time when life was simpler and the pace of life was slower“

Monasteries and monks are a sight that would have been unthinkable just 20 years ago because religion was prohibited under Communism. Many monasteries were torn down, thousands of monks were murdered, and ancient scriptures were burned. Now, although new monasteries are springing up and some of those that were destroyed are being restored, it has become difficult to find novices. A life of renunciation and privation holds little attraction for young people these days, and the promise of modern life has the children of nomads flocking to the cities.

Two days and countless potholes later, our Central Asian adventure is over. A trip to Mongolia is essentially a journey back to a time when life was simpler and the pace of life was slower. For us it has been an escape from the stress and noise of our busy lives; the hours and days like cutouts from time as we know it. Our bodies are weary, but our heads are clear and our senses intoxicated by all we have seen and experienced in one of the last Asian countries still all but untouched by modern life. 

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