In Xanadu: A Mongolian Adventure
These days, it would take all the opium allegedly taken by Samuel Taylor Coleridge before he wrote his famous poem about Kubla Khan, the grandson of Genghis, before you could see the ‘stately pleasure dome’ the ‘fertile ground’ and ‘incense bearing trees’ in the countryside of Mongolia.
But the huge expanses of clear untouched nature, the flaming cliffs and rolling hills, the vast treeless steppe, and the friendly, uncomplicated people, more than make up for the absence of ‘honey-dew’ and the ‘milk of paradise’.
The Peoples Republic of Mongolia is an absolutely massive country, with, essentially, one main city, Ulaanbaatar, and one main road running through the middle of the country, connecting China to Russia. The people and landscape alike, are scorched by 40 degree summer temperatures, and scoured by -50 degree winters.
Mongolia as most people know, was home to Genghis Khan (pronounced Chengis by the locals) and nomadic life has changed little since his reign of terror. Outside of the capital, villages are few and far between, most of time connected by dirt roads or none at all. The majority of the country is flat steppe and it is normal to drive for hours on end without sight of life, apart from the odd ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) in the distance and herds of stocky Mongolian horses, Bactrian camels or yaks roaming the open space.
Mongolia is of course famous for the Gobi Desert and the diversity of its landscape makes it a fantastic place to visit, changing dramatically as you move down or across. One minute you can be on open steppe, the next standing under bright red cliffs spilling out dinosaur fossils, and the next standing on top of a sand dune, 300m high, 12km wide and 100km long.
The Mongolians have done well to retain their history, hemmed in as they were by the USSR and China. And although essentially a Soviet satellite state for almost 50 years, tradition remains strong and the way of life has stayed the same for the majority of people.
Weekly wrestling tournaments are still the main form of entertainment for many and the wrestlers still imitate eagles flying towards the sun before and after a bout. Nomads still use eagles to hunt and live a simple life in their gers, taking only what they need from the land and never letting anything go to waste.
In the last 10 to 15 years Ulaanbaatar’s population has exploded due to extensive investment in the mining industry, but Ulaanbaatar is not a typical city however, and you only need walk a few blocks north or south of Peace Avenue to find hundreds of thousands of gers sprawling for miles around the city.
Mongolia is not a cheap place to visit by traditional backpacking measures, nor is it an easy place to enjoy, but perseverance is rewarded with quite the most amazing scenery, friendly locals and an experience of the simple life, perhaps unavailable now, anywhere else in the northern hemisphere.