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The Land of Genghis Khan

Finding adventure in the open spaces of Mongolia



A Mongolian looks out from the doorway of his ger, which he can move from season to season.

Photos by Vassi Koutsaftis

A young soldier in fatigues is running across our path waving a red flag. “This can’t be good,” I think. We’re in northwestern Mongolia, where we arrived on a dirt airstrip following a three-hour flight. Since then, we’ve been driving for seven hours in ancient Russian jeeps that rattle constantly as we rush to make it to the trailhead before dark. I’ve had a nagging feeling for several hours that we somehow got lost when we crossed a river earlier. The driver stops and has a heated exchange with the soldier, who seems very aggressive and is clearly intimidating him. The soldier asks for our passports and is also yelling about something else. The driver mentions “paper-paper.” I ask, What paper? What paper? I am sure the soldier wants to see some kind of permit, which we do not have. The driver and the soldier speak only a smattering of English, and I do not speak Mongolian, but I eventually decipher that the soldier’s commander has to see our passports. There’s a catch, though: the commander is not at the post, but will be back at 4:30. That doesn’t seem bad since it is now 3:45, but in these parts of the world time is a flexible concept. As I suspected, 4:30 comes along and, of course, there is still no commander. I push for more information. Now the soldier is saying the commander will be here at nine. Does that mean nine o’clock or the ninth of the month? I keep asking questions until a female officer comes out of the barracks. She is even less friendly, but I pour on the charm and convince her that she, the driver and I should go look for the commander while the others stay back as hostages.

We all paid a lot of money for an adventure, but we didn’t expect it to start so soon into our trip. We drive toward the mountains, asking every nomad we see if the commander is around. He has gone hunting on horseback into the mountains, someone says. Now we have no idea where he is or when he will be back. I keep pressing the woman officer for a solution. Suddenly, another officer walks out of a tent and informs us that he is second in command. I plead with him for help and he drives back to the military post with us, signs a short form and we are on our way to the trailhead.

The Snows of Mongolia

Seven of us are trekking through Mongolia’s Altai Mountains and have timed the nine-day journey to finish at the village of Olgii for the two-day Nadaam festival, one of the most popular events in Mongolia. The festival’s first day is all about wrestling; the second one features horse racing.

As treks go, this one is not that difficult compared, say, to an adventure in the Himalayas. The terrain includes beautiful meadows and open areas, with a maximum elevation of only 11,100 feet. Our support staff consists of two guides, two cooks, six camels and 28 horses, which carry our supplies, equipment and sometimes us. The local people are friendly and the nomads we meet along the way are hospitable and fun to photograph. On the day we are to cross the pass at the highest point of the trek, we begin early in splendid weather. As usual, the camels loaded with our gear pass us and we agree with their drivers to meet at the top. We keep the horses with us in case we need them to ford any rivers or ride if we tire. The trail crosses a couple of small rivers, then a gorgeous valley with a few herder camps, and eventually climbs steeply upward—difficult, but still not as challenging as approaching a Himalayan pass.

The ground is snow-free until we reach the top around noon. The camels and their drivers are there already, waiting for us. The pass itself is more like a long plateau and is covered with snow. Before making the traverse, we stop to have lunch, recover a little from the climb and put on our snow gear and gaiters.

I grow apprehensive about the time and want to take advantage of the clear skies, so we cut our rest short and head out across the pass. The horsemen stay behind, saying they will catch up shortly. Soon we are breaking trail in deep snow. About halfway across the pass, where the snow rises to our waists in places, I realize the horses and camels are no longer following us. I ask our guide what happened.“They turned around because they could not cross. The snow is too deep,” he says, softly. “Great,” I think to myself, “we are up on top of the pass in deep snow and the camels and horses left us to cross somewhere else!”

We have no choice but to push across the second half of the pass. There is no time to turn back, but even if there were time we would be without supplies. I eat almost a whole package of M&Ms and hold my temper. The weather is good and all of us are fit, but the going is still very difficult because we are not sure where the actual pass is. After a few hours, a number of detours and a dangerous descent on scree, we make it to the other side. Despite our weariness, we are elated by the spectacular view of the valley that lies before us—full of brilliantly colored wildflowers. The scenery is some of the most stunningly lovely I’ve ever seen.

We have only minutes to enjoy the spectacle. We have hours of walking ahead before camp and I am sure we will not get there until after dark. A few minutes later, though, a welcome surprise appears—distant horsemen, ours, coming up the valley to meet us. After crossing the pass by a different route, they rode ahead and set up the campsite, then became worried because we were so late. They’ve ridden nearly three hours back to find us.

The Road to Olgii

The next day, we take a well-deserved rest by the river, whose banks brim with wildflowers and, unfortunately, mosquitoes. Recovered, we set off for three easy days of trekking before rendezvousing with our jeeps for the long, rough drive back to Olgii and the Nadaam festival. At one point, we see a horse race in the middle of the plateau, a contest between a number of men from the surrounding mountain villages. It is exciting to see families, friends and the proud riders of all ages showing off their animals. We’re the only foreigners there and the hospitality is flowing as freely as the homemade vodka, so much so that we need to walk carefully around the “race ground,” because there are no rules in a Mongolian horse race and the horses, while small, are quite spirited.

On our last, dusty day before arriving at Olgii, the driver points to a distant ger, the traditional Mongolian nomad tent, and says something in broken English. It takes me a second to realize he is talking about eagle hunters. Looking carefully, next to the ger I see a large brown bird—presumably one of the eagles the hunter nomads use on expeditions to stalk foxes and other quarry. Everyone gets excited about finding the hunters, so we dash toward the tent. An older woman comes out and tells us her husband is away, but if we come the next morning he will show us more of the eagle.

That night we camp by a nearby river and early the next morning we meet the old man, who is welcoming and very proud of his eagle. The man and the bird seem to have a special relationship, something in their eyes that connects them—almost like they are in love. The eagle is female and seven years old, the man says, and he got it when it was a chick, a common practice, as hunters raise each bird like a child and form a deep bond with it. Hunters use only female eagles because they are more aggressive than males, starting when the birds are about four years old; when they’re around 15 they’re released into the wild.

Before a hunt, the hunters don’t feed an eagle for several days, making it very hungry. Then they ride on horseback into the area where there are rabbits and foxes, making a lot of noise as they approach to flush the prey into the open. They release the eagle, it attacks and kills the animal, and the hunters rush to the scene before the eagle rips off the fur. Occasionally, eagles are used even to hunt wolves—a more dangerous endeavor, since the wolf might kill the bird.

The Spirit of the Khan

The Nadaam festival is under way when we arrive in Olgii and we first stop in to see the wrestling, the most important sport in Mongolia. The wrestlers are grouped by age and weight and compete until there is only one winner in each class. The crowds are very animated during the match, displaying all the passion and frenzy of the most ardent European soccer fans. The prize for the heavyweight champion is a Toyota Land Cruiser and lots of fame.

After the second day of the festival—more horse racing, more wild crowds and, of course, more vodka—we flew back to the capital, Ulaan Bataar, and from there took the long flight home. I carried with me a renewed sense of what adventure is and much appreciation of the wonderful Mongolian people, that vast, open landscape they call home and their rich history and culture.

No figure symbolizes that culture more than the conqueror Genghis Khan, whose holdings stretched from Mongolia to Europe and included all of China, the Persian empire and half of Russia. His memory is omnipresent in modern Mongolia, as is his name—used for the airport, the Mongolian Airlines flagship Airbus, the main street in Ulaan Bataar and everything in between.

Even the best vodka in Mongolia is called Genghis Khan—and it is a conqueror in its own right. One night on the trail that potent brew fueled an intense discussion about who was the better hero, Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. The winner? Well, we were in Mongolia! Who do you think?

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