128. Taking a Chance on Mongolia

Taking A Chance On Mongolia: We arrived in Mongolia’s capitol of Ulaanbaatar with no local money and only three expectations – that the air would be cleaner than China’s, that there would be fewer people than anywhere else in Asia and that we would embark the next day on a two week tour of what is undoubtedly the wildest, most beautiful country in Central Asia. Indeed, we got high on the pure air and the open spaces made us forget humanity for days at a time. The weather was perfect. The food was an adventure, on the order of roasted rodents and fermented horse milk. The language was impossible. And the driver and guide we hired to deliver us safely into the dreamy wilderness of central and northern Mongolia were saints, the kind of fast friends that you miss at the first moment of parting. It was a good two weeks.

Sloan: For the first few days, the landscape looked so familiar to me, remarkably similar to the American West romanticized in Remington paintings and episodes of Little House on The Prairie. But the deeper we rattled into the country in Balaara’s old Russian van (inset), on rough dirt roads, without a cellular tower, Waffle House or shopping mall in sight, I began to appreciate that this place is nothing like the American West. Visiting Mongolia was like simultaneously visiting the moon, Asia and some alternate reality where the white man never took an interest in Colorado. But my God, how it just goes on and on forever all around you, scenery so large and significant that it cannot be real. We traveled for days on these dirt roads, which is this country’s only kind of road, and rarely tired of staring into it all. Green and gold plains, thick pine forests, windswept deserts and mountains abound, all of it only sparsely populated by indigenous nomadic families living the lives of their thousand-year old relatives. There are a few more satellite dishes and black and white televisions rigged to car batteries, naturally, but the felt covered gers (yurts, like sturdier teepee’s), the demanding herds of horses, goats, and yaks, and the lack of nearly every modern convenience are still as they always have been. And if the Mongolian countryside is wild, then its towns are an unkempt, mildly successful effort to tame it. While the national capitol stumbles awkwardly and earnestly into the twin tempests of new capitalism and democracy, every other settlement still feels like an outpost on the edge of civilization. By the end of it, we were only thirteen days in this country and we could have spent three times that if not for the combined need to slowly make our way back to Hong Kong and the threatening advance of one of the harshest winters on the planet. Put this one on your list of places to completely lose yourself.

Amy: Mongolia was a giant breath of fresh air, literally. After 30 days during one of China’s most brutally hot and pollution hazed months of the year, August, I was really ready to explore the wilds of Mongolia and breathe freely again. I didn’t expect the dusty dirt roads filling my lungs most days but I didn’t mind it either. Mongolia’s vast landscape reminded me of the paintings hung in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum we saw in Tulsa Oklahoma back when we s
tarted this trip in November of last year. The people look to my eye like a gorgeous mix of Russian, Chinese and Native American. Apparently Native Americans are descendants of Mongolia and modern day DNA testing has shown they share a Y chromosome. Most Mongolian people are still nomadic in one way or another although I don’t think they’ve crossed an ice-bridge to a New World in quite a while. I’d read that the language can sound like two cats coughing at each other until one of them successfully dislodges an enormous fur ball. Sloan thought that description was a bit beyond the pale but after two weeks in Mongolia I think it sounds pretty true to life. Mongolian hospitality is unparalleled. The nature of being nomadic and also having the smallest per-capita population in the world means that when a stranger comes to your door you treat them like honored guests. Traditional tea, boiled goats milk with salt, and bread are offered immediately as well as a warm place to sit or sleep if needed. It seemed to us early on that everyone in Mongolia knew everyone else because there is an instant camaraderie where personal space and social barriers do not exist. Turns out that’s just the Mongolian way. It was hard at first to get used to people coming in and our of our “private” ger whenever they wanted (I learned the art of speed dressing) but I soon fell in love with the instant feeling of belonging.

Our guide, Otgo, was a joy to spend time with and he and I had really great discussions about Mongolian politics, democracy, capitalism and Buddhism. Indigenous Mongolians are historically more likely to practice Shamanism than any organized religion but Buddhism took a strong hold over Mongolia for many centuries until communism wiped out religion. Now that Mongolia is a new democracy with freedom of religion people are getting really interested in all the possibilities out there. Many western religious organizations have set up charities and mega-churches in Mongolia’s only city, the capital Ulaanbaatar. There is a giant 6 storey Mormon church for example and like we have seen in other Asian cities the youth are finding it hip to be Christian these days. Our driver, Balaara, was a once in a lifetime kind of character and I’m really glad we got to spend so much time with him. He’s one of those nonstop talkers who charms everyone he meets and who uses any means necessary, even vulgar hand movements, to get a message across any language barrier. I also loved the combination of these two Mongolians in charge of us for 2 weeks. The quiet, contemplative, university-educated 24 year old and the gruff, snot-rocket generating 41 year old lifetime driver and mechanic with 3 kids. Even when Sloan and I would be doubled over laughing at a story Balaara had just told in Mongolian, Otgo would still wait till the end and slowly translate everything for us in his best English. Adorable. Our biggest laugh moments were when Balaara would unleash all he had to say about American life as he knows it from the television shows he’s seen like “Why do you have so many car chases in America?”, “Why is everyone so fat, except you?” and my favorite or maybe just the one he said the most, “Schwarzenegger and Stallone, very strong men.”

The pictures above are left to right, top to bottom: Pine house in Khatgal; Bactrian camel we rode at Mongol Els; Horseman near Khovsgol Lake; Herder with yaks pulling timber at White Lake; Nomadic girl who came to watch us crossing a river in our van (her family is packing up to move for the winter in the background); Motorcyclists on the road above White Lake; Kids out looking for their lost horse; Motorcycle approaching; The town of Tsetserleg; Girl at her ger; The worst toilet in the best location; Gers at sunset in Mogol Els; Cattle herder in Central Mongolia; Yak hauling water home from Khovsgol Lake; Riding off into everything.


  1. Anonymous says:


    You guys are gonna be bored out of your minds when and if you ever make it back to states.

    Beautiful pictures, thanks for sharing.

  2. Charles says:

    Um, any chance you will catch some Mongolian wrestling (“Böke”)? Or have you seen it already? I think you’d like it; it’s better than hurling or whatever that Irish sport you saw was. Really! You know where I’m going with this – sumo. The top japanese sumo wrestlers now are both Mongolian, so there are some top-notch folks coming from the steppes. You could catch the next great wrestler in his prime.

    Ok, never mind.

  3. Sloan says:

    Sadly, our time in Ulaanbataar was so short that we missed out on all scheduled wrestling matches. I did get a nice long look at the “National Wrestling Palace” though, in all it’s spectacular crappy-communist-cinderblock glory.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Got the postcard! Nice opportunity to talk to Hana about traveling around the world. She wants to do it, too. I explained that we would have to sell everything and leave our house, so she’s thinking about it.

    Mongolia looks gorgeous, reminds me of a movie we saw last year: The Story of the Weeping Camel. You all look happy, road-weary but happy. Nine months is a long trek.

    Cowboy Hall of Fame (what’s the new name for it?) is in OKC not Tulsa. Everybody makes mistakes, just don’t let it happen again. :)

    We’ll have to think of some stuff to keep you from getting bored when you get back.

    XO Shannon