Martin Chambers

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Mongolia, Slowly

(first published West Australian. Travel. December 2009).

What would be the manner of a man
Who grew up in a house with no corners
In a land with no fences
Where the measure of the world is by hoofbeats
Not horsepower

Mongolia is a state of mind as much as it is a place. It is one of a handful of place names on this planet that inspire those with an adventurous spirit and the slightest excuse to pack their bags and head to the nearest train station. The train, because to get to places with a state of mind the journey is important. How you get there is as important as where you are going.  

Mongolia, the place, is a wide open land with rolling treeless hills, mountains, not many people and lots of horses. You can stand on a hilltop and see all the way to next week, a poetic truth because moving at horseback speed it will take all week to get there. At least there are no fences in the way. Without fences there are no corners and as the nomads live in round houses, called Gurs, there are pretty much no corners anywhere. And who needs them? Corners are just where the dust collects.

If you imagine what it would be like to live in a land with no corners and a view that stretches further than the desire to go there, you might begin to get a feeling for Mongolia and understand the people. Or you might just become like one of the goats and walk in endless circles. For after hundreds of generations of breeding the animals stick together as if they were in some invisible enclosure. I am reminded of goldfish who apparently cannot remember beyond the three seconds it takes to swim around a bowl, an invisible glass enclosure, and I wonder at what enclosures we have inside our heads and now we are getting to Mongolia: the state of mind. Wide open spaces and nowhere for dust to settle.  

This is why how you get there is important, and it is why how you move around Mongolia is important too. Slow travel, allow the mind time to adjust, contemplate, observe. Allow yourself to just be.

One form of slow travel might be by horse, and this is a popular tourist activity in Mongolia. Just about any of the Jeep tours will take you out of the city to one of the tourist camps, a collection of Gurs where you can enjoy a hot shower after a day in the saddle. It’s sort of authentic and you will meet lots of people. From New York and Ireland and Australia. And let’s face it, horseriding is uncomfortable and there is a reason most of the world gave it up for sprung seat comfort some time ago. I was told camels are more comfortable if you get one of the two humped types.  

We met several hard core travelers who were cycling around Mongolia. They all walked with the similar tender backside gait of a horse rider. ‘Road’ is a word as useful to Mongolians as ‘fence.’ One time, we were in a minibus traveling to a sacred site along a stretch of new highway and the driver took us off the tarmac to drive along a mud track parallel to the road. It was smoother. Couple that with the fact that cars and busses come into Mongolia from everywhere and although there seems to be a nominal rule about keeping to one side of the road, I think it was the right, both left and right hand drive cars share the road with slow moving underpowered and overloaded wagons. Only the seriously insane would even contemplate ‘bicycle’ and that wasn’t the state of mind I had in mind for Mongolia.

You could walk. Get away from the highway and I am sure there would be some great trekking. It’s a long way and you will need to carry all your food and water, unless you follow a river, and then you might as well be in a canoe.  

Go by canoe. In winter, most of the land cold and dry and there is snow in the mountains. In summer while Mongolia is hot it rains, and the snow melts, and all that water has to go somewhere. In spring and summer, into autumn, you can paddle a meandering path through the hills observing life as it has been for thousands of years. It is the perfect slow travel and rather than trying to imitate the locals you will meet them precisely because you are not. You move at their speed, but they will be as interested in you as you are in them.

We paddled a six day expedition down the Orkhon River, to the west of Ulaanbaator and near Erdenet city. For most of the 160km trip there are no roads, no access other than horse or canoe, and the river meanders between hills and passed cliffs, flowing slowly but unrelentingly with occasional easy rapids to add paddling interest. But the main interest is the landscape and the people that live here. 

On autumn mornings the tents are ice and the air cold. By lunchtime, when we pull the canoes to the bank and picnic on the edge of a grass plain dotted with distant Gur’s and thousands of goats, or horses, or cows, we are seeking the shade of the only tree for miles and our guide looks at us bemused as he sits in the warm sun. At the end of each day we camp to a golden sunset and watch the sky darken and the cold settle and our guide thrusts more warm blankets to us. He knows us westerners are soft.  

Eventually, half a conversation. At camp we eat plentiful western style food and drink unchallenging tea and coffee. We are invited up to a Gur to visit a nomadic family and find the tea interesting but politely keep drinking it so they keep refilling the cup. It tastes of milky mutton fat and salt. A similar ritual develops over arak, the fermented mare’s milk that tastes like fizzy yogurt and is alcoholic. If it gets better the more you drink it we obviously didn’t drink enough but these experiences are worth more than all the trinkets you can buy in the tourist outlets.

The nomads move with the seasons to provide fresh pasture for their herds. It was autumn and they had just moved close to the river so our guide had not met these families before, and neither had they seen canoeists before. The grandfather rode his horse to meet us by the river, spoke haltingly with our guide and while we collected drinking water from a stream he sat watching. He tapped the canoes to find what they were made of. These are people as beautiful as their landscape. 

It took us a meandering hour to arrive at his Gur while he had ridden there in about ten minutes. I was reminded of the goldfish again, the river going round and back and being not quite the same at each bend. Or was it. Hadn’t we already been here? The thing is, it’s all so beautiful so sometimes it pays to have a short memory. We continue down the river and days melt into each other and each one is a little bit different but all of them have no fences and there is no dust in the corners of my mind.