Mongolia, the land of the Eternal Blue Sky and home to the Gobi desert.
The numbers are impressive: Mongolia is the 18th largest country in the world, the Gobi desert the 5th largest desert in the world, covering an area of 1.295.000km2 (while Mongolia itself covers 1.564.114km2). Mongolia has 3 million inhabitants (with 2/3 living in and around Ulaanbaatar) but a stunning 64 million of farm animals such as Sheep, Goats, Cows, Horses and Camels.
But Mongolia is more than just numbers and a big desert. It is a country of contrasts and of colours.
Yes, colours, in the desert. I was surprised too. After a little bit of rain, the desert had a little green glow on the grounds. But more impressive were the rocky hills with tone in tone changing colours. And because there is not really a vegetation in the desert, these hills stick out even more.
And then you arrive in the extreme south of the Gobi Desert at the Khongoriin Els Sand dunes at sunset. The dunes glow in an orangey light and the green grass around the river in front of it is the greenest green you have ever seen. The Sand dunes are over 180km long and up to 27km wide. They can reach heights of 100-300meters. There is a constant north to west wind to make the dunes continually change their shape and to give them sharp curves and contours. Sitting on top of the dunes, watching the sun go down behind the Altai Mountain range is a spectacle not to be missed.
Traveling the Gobi Desert is not for everyone. The drives are long and you will not see many villages or trees for hundreds of kilometers. But then you reach another family at their Yurts and they invite you in, give you a bowl of Ayrag (fermented horse milk) and you learn about the tough nomadic life in Mongolia. These are the moments you forget how many kilometres you have already passed and you will be completely smitten by this beautiful country.
A little more to the east of the Omnogobi Province, we reached the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. All of a sudden, the landscape drops and gives way to this flaming red canyon. We had a special experience with the cliffs. Since our driver was not feeling too well that day, we decided to walk the short way from the Ger Camp to the cliffs. They told us 1km, but in the end it was at least 3km. Of course, we were prepared with enough water and a satellite phone. Basic safety when going for a walk in the desert sun. At sunset time, the wind over the cliffs just got amazingly strong and almost pushed us over the edges of the cliffs. Also an interesting experience.
Compared to Ulaanbaatar, the life in the desert is completely different. No running water, only solar power and a lot of countryside around the houses for their sheep, goats, horses or camels. In winter, the temperatures can drop as low as -35 degrees and family spend most of the time inside the little Gers. Chicken are hardly seen, as they would not survive the cold winters. Traditionally, Mongolians eat all parts of the animals. Giblets and animal fats form a big portion of the daily meals and help to keep the people warm in winter time and to give them enough energy to work with their cattle. Also they prepare a lot of Aaruul, the Mongolian curd cheese, traditionally dried in the sun. It literally keeps forever and therefore one of the core vitamin sources for the nomads.
In Ulaanbaatar, except in the poorer suburbs, you have normal stone houses, running water, electricity and all the comfort of schools, shops and restaurants you can think of. And in July, the whole city and surroundings turns into a Festival area. The Naadam Festival is the national festival and last three days officially, but the Mongolians party all week. Naadam Festival is held in the most enjoyable month of the most pleasant season in the country. Everyone takes the opportunity and enjoys the Festival in diverse schedule such as travelling to the countryside, camping out and gathering in their closest herds. Life in the city is on hold this week, most shops are closed or only sporadically open. The festival is portraying the 3 main sports in Mongolia, the „Games of Men“, horseracing, wrestling and archery. Everyone is dressed up in their nicest clothes, many kids have the Mongolian flag painted on their cheeks. It is a non stop party.
Mongolia also offers a lot of history. Surely you have heard of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Empire. While most people remember him due to his brutality, the raping, the robbing, the 500 secondary wives and all the murders, Genghis Khan did a lot of good things for the country. He was the first to unite the Clans to a whole, forming the country. And he, despite being analphabetic, knew about the importance of scripts and ordered the development of the Mongolian script based on the Uygur language. Also, he made his son write down all laws in the Yassa, the secret written code of law. Genghis Khan also set up the first capital of Mongolia in Karakorum (todays Kharkhorin), where he installed freedom of religion for the hole empire, but places of worship started to be built only with his successor. Genghis Khan built an empire, his sons destroyed most if it because they ware quarreling with each other over who has how much. Normal family behaviour I guess.
Today, Mongolia is a peaceful and calm country that has more to offer than its brutal past. But why not go there and see for yourself?