We begin our journey in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. The first capital of the modern Mongolian empire was founded in 1639 as a nomadic encampment and was moved to the present site of Ulaanbaatar in 1778. Today, UB (as Ulaanbaatar is commonly referred to) is a bustling metropolis of roughly a million people, where modern buildings compete with Mongolian gers and cars often share the road with nomads on horseback. Nearly 40% of Mongolia's population lives in Ulaanbaatar while the rest lead a nomadic life herding livestock over the vast meadows of the country.
Chinggis Square, previously called Sükhbaatar Square in honor of Damdin Sükhbaatar, the hero of Mongolia's independence from China in 1921, is the central square of Mongolia's capital. The official name was changed in 2013 in honor of Genghis Khan, considered the founding father of Mongolia. A large colonnade monument to Gehghis Khan dominates the squares north side directly in front of the Saaral Ordon (Government Palace). Less than 70 years later, in 1989, Sükhbaatar Square was also the site of the first protests against Soviet oppression, and rallies and ceremonies are still held here today.
Next, we visit the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a Tibetan-style Buddhist monastery that was built in 1838. The Tibetan name translates to the "Great Place of Complete Joy" and currently has over 150 monks in residence. The monastery is surrounded by long sections of prayer wheels. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, spinning a prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the sacred texts aloud.
Next, we visit the Culture and Art Palace in Nalaikh, a mining city southeast of Ulaanbaatar. With government support, the Palace fosters creativity among the area's youth by offering extracurricular music, dance, singing, art, drama, and computer classes. Currently, about 100 students take classes at the Palace and we get the opportunity to meet some of them and witness their artistic dancing talents.
After bidding farewell to the Mongolian children, we delve into Nalaikh's modern mining culture. Mining opportunities in this small city attracted a community of Kazakhs in the 1950s, and today, Kazakhs still represent a quarter of the population. Although Nalaikh's mines were closed decades ago, many of them are still excavated (often illegally) by Kazakhs. Today, we enjoy traditional Mongolian cuisine during a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local Kazakh family, giving us the chance to glimpse into the daily lives of our gracious hosts and to dress up in traditional Kazakh wedding attire.
For the next three nights, we stay in our first of three ger camps just as modern-day nomads and their ancestors have done for centuries. A ger is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt. The structure comprises an angled assembly or latticework of pieces of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown). The roof structure is often self-supporting, but large gers may have interior posts supporting the crown.
Next, we travel east into the Mongolian countryside to the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a nature reserve set in a deep valley between forested hillsides, granite boulders, and mountain streams. Nomads roam the surrounding hills, which are home to some 250 different bird species, rare brown bears, and a wealth of scenic hiking trails. After a short drive, in which we pass by the park's famous Turtle Rock, we enjoy a hike to Aryabal, a scenic meditation temple.
Next, we visit a nomadic horse-breeding family to better our understanding of the nomadic lifestyle. After a demonstration of horse-catching techniques, we learn about the process of fermenting unpasteurized mares milk. The mares are milked several times throughout the day and will produce 200-300 gallons of milk in one season. Once the milk is collected, it is poured into a horse-hide container that is hung inside the ger by the door where it is churned over the course of several days so that it doesn't coagulate and spoil, sometimes by visitors as they enter as a courtesy.
The people of Mongolia decided to honor Genghis Khan in a big way by erecting a steel statue of him astride his horse that stands 131 feet high atop a 33-foot-high coliseum. Built at the site where legend has it Genghis Khan found a golden whip that inspired his future conquests, it is said to be the world's largest equestrian statue and is symbolically pointed east towards his birthplace.
After three nights of staying at the ger camp, we return to the Nalaikh mining town to visit the Sain Nomun Monastery, where we watch monks practice meditation. The monastery consists of four major activities: Religious Customs, Ministry, Secondary Education, and Religious Education. The students also are trained in Philosophy, Humanities and Creative Arts. The education of the Secondary School of Sain Nonum Monastery is in accord with the standards of the Mongolian Public Education System. Not only does it provide an education that will prepare the students for professional management, it also promotes traditional religious customs and morals.
Covering much of southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is a breathtaking region of semi-arid desert terrain that is dazzling in its variety from rocky outcrops to barren stretches of seemingly endless, rolling gravel plains. It is the world's coldest and northernmost desert, as well as a great repository of dinosaur remains. Caravan routes have been crossing the Gobi since ancient times. When Marco Polo, seeking the fabled capital of the Kublai Khan, encountered this vast and unforgiving landscape in the 1270s, he proclaimed, "It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat." But nomads, and wildlife, do survive here as we witness first hand. Once we land, we are driven by jeep through the stunning Gobi landscape that rolls out to the horizon to our second ger camp where we stay for three nights.
Next, we explore Yol Valley, also known as Vulture Valley. We travel across the Gobi Desert by jeep to the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains and enter this deep gorge where we hike amidst impressive mountain scenery and learn about this area's endemic plants and local wildlife. One of the valley's most striking sights is glacial ice that extends six miles down the gorge in the winter.
Next, we visit an area of the Gobi Desert known as Bayanzag, but more commonly referred to as the Flaming Cliffs. The region is famous as the location of the first nest of dinosaur eggs and other fossils found here by the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s and it was he who nicknamed the site "Flaming Cliffs" for the surreal, glowing orange color of the surrounding rocks and cliffs.
One of Mongolia's most picturesque destinations, Khövsgöl is an idyllic landscape of thick evergreen forests, flowering meadows with grazing yaks, rugged mountains and crystal-clear streams and lakes. Khövsgöl Lake is a pristine alpine lake some 100 miles long, situated close to the Siberian border. The surrounding region is home to camels of the Gobi and reindeer of the taiga (coniferous forest), as well as several Mongolian ethnic groups, including Buriat, Khalk, Darhat and the Tsaatan.
Due to a flight delay, we attend a local Naadam Festival which is a traditional festival held throughout Mongolia during midsummer and is locally referred to as "the three games of men" comprised of Mongolian Wrestling, Horse Racing and Archery. Women have started participating in the Archery and Horse Racing games but not in Mongolian Wrestling. The Horse Racing event does not occur in a racetrack but rather across the Mongolian steppe and starts some 20-plus miles away from the finish line.
Floyd Schleyhahn Photography www.floydandjodi.com