Conquering Mongolia

17 Oct


It’s a summer afternoon, and the sunset has the steppe ablaze in a pink fire. Rob, Agnes, and I watch the clouds extinguish it to a chilly grey as dusk sets over the sweeping expanse of the Terelj. Our host, Davaa, calls out from a nearby ger — one of many dome-shaped tents that dot Mongolia’s nomad lands. “Judo match, Mongolia versus Russia!”, inviting us to watch the Olympics on TV.

“No thanks, we’re watching TV already,” Rob calls back cheerfully, gesturing at the sky, the rocks, the hills. “In 3D, HD, surround sound!” I add, laughing above the din of singing crickets.


Our Ger

Our Ger

It’s a funny thing, these little gers. Assembled in two hours, these shells of sheepskin and canvas can be outfitted with every modern comfort: linoleum-coated flooring, electricity, satellite cable, even air-conditioning. But the traditional Mongol tents are best at outstanding the elements of its rugged terrain — blazing temperatures of 40C in the summer, dropping to lows of -40C in the winter. Harsh is a word that describes it best, but the Mongolians build to overcome anything.

In history books, Mongolia is homeland to the great Khaans, the feared horsemen of the Far East, and one-time conquerers of all Eurasia. The year 1240 saw a compass stretching out on all directions under the protection of the Mongolian empire, as far west as Germany, as far south as India. All this from a small population of warriors on horseback, strengthened by military strategies that by many measures, are still completely modern.

Today they are still a nation of conquerers. Mongolian explorers have made it to the moon, to the Arctic frontier, to Everest’s peak, even to the past — dusting off dinosaur bones from the depths of the Gobi Desert.

Chinggis Khan

Chinggis Khan


Mongolia wins the Judo match, and we crack open the first bottle of vodka to celebrate. The brand is Chinggis, named after the greatest conquerer of them all. The inside of our ger is toasty and warm. Maybe just a little too toasty, but only because we insist on getting the wood stove going before the temperature starts to drop after dark.

The second bottle goes around later that night, over Poker. We share cigarettes, hands in our pockets, hopping up and down in the dark to keep warm. I attempt to explain tropical living to a puzzled Davaa as we try to keep down the last of the vodka. “It never gets this cold, even at its coldest! It rains half the year, and even still, it’s always sunny.”

“Oh, but that means that you have more trees, yes?” Davaa is quick to point out the differences in our climate and landscape. That night, I dream of giant trees emerging drunkenly out of vodka bottles, while shivering under a sheepishly old wooly blanket.






The next day, we get up with the sun. After a breakfast of homemade flatbread, berry jam, and cream, we set out to scale a tor looking over our camp site. It’s a steep climb, and my Chinggis hangover makes it almost unbearable. I start cursing for coffee, but Davaa is spry, as if last night’s bottles of vodka never existed. Dressed in leather school shoes, he hops from rock to rock, running ahead to point out different plants, burrows, and abandoned wolf dens.

Midway through the climb, we can no longer see the top of the tor. Our water bottles are empty, the sun is in our eyes. I fall behind gasping for air, and contemplate the fact that I am unfit, unprepared, and unhappy about this little excursion. A clunky camera bag weighs heavy against my sagging shoulders, my scarf is clingy against my sweaty neck. This is supposed to be a vacation, not torture! I want to shout but my mouth is dry and uncooperative, like the rest of my body. Birds circle high above. I envy them as I stop to shake out rocks in my sandals for the millionth time.

“Just a little higher!” Davaa is encouraging, but perhaps starting to doubt his clumsy city-dweller friends. He sings us Michael Jackson songs to help us through our apparent agony.

Rock eventually gives way to a softer soil, a more gradual slope.  Amongst the pines and squirrels, we spot cacti — traces of the desert, and little shells — traces of the sea. There is a strange chalky substance under the top soil. Mongolia is Land Of Dinosaurs. Despite my hangover I remember how old this land is, but can’t dwell on it as Davaa keeps pushing us up and up.


And before I realize it, we are standing at the top, our whoops of joy echoing off the cliffs.




It’s been over a year since our trip, but I find my mind’s eye often wandering back to the view of Terelj that morning: green, green grass stretching out, dissolving into a low, dense fog just above the horizon. Dirt roads cut through the green like veins, carving up the expanse dotted with foothills and gers here and there. For the first time all morning, I am glad my camera is with me.

But my perfect photo-op is short-lived. A fine feathery mist turns into true, honest rainfall roaring in the sunlight, filling the air with oxygen, the scent of wet pine and the enduring earth. Here everything around us is old, being made new. Again.

Up on that tor soaked to the bone, stubbed toes, every muscle beaten by the ascent — I feel a raw energy, an unstoppable fire in the heart. Pure freedom. Weak as I am, I am an eagle, a dragon, a velociraptor, I don’t know… something powerful, unrestrained.


I wonder if I had conquered Mongolia, or if it had conquered me.

Old and New

Old and New


One Response to “Conquering Mongolia”


  1. Happy Monday - October 21, 2013

    […] Ever wonder what it would be like to tour Mongolia?  […]

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