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August 22nd, 2011
Accumulations of white clouds fly across the blue sky. All around me is a lush green carpet that stretches as far as the eyes can see. To truly understand infinity, one could gaze at the night sky, but gazing at these Mongolian steppes takes a good second place. Although the steppe that I am standing on is as flat as they probably come, I can see hills rising up on the distant horizon. If any country qualifies for the world’s largest golf course, it must be Mongolia.

Closer inspection of the grasslands reveals dozens of different kinds of grass, flowers and other flora. Appreciation for nature surely grows fast by observing the differences of the grasslands with other areas within Mongolia. The plants that dwell here include Edelweiss. It is a plant that is quite rare in Europe and only grows in inaccessible places. But here you can find plains full of them, together with many other colourful plants and flowers. Various insects crawl around them, most notable are the large locusts that can be seen in huge numbers. Some of them have rudimentary wings that enable them to fly up and stay in the air for several minutes until any lurking danger is over.

Yak Tail Banners

That danger included the tour group’s driver. When he saw me struggling photographing one of these jumpy insects he simply grabbed one and, to everyone's horror, pulled its wings out so that it would make an easier subject for me. That is how I got to know that Mongolians are a very practical and straightforward people. You might not believe this given the location of their country which is wedged in between northern China and eastern Russia, but they are very European-like. Maybe it has always been that way; maybe it has grown out of the communist oppression and the related ties with the Soviet Union, from 1937 to the early nineties.

Mr. Zaro was a very pleasant man, though. He had been in the police force for twenty-eight years and he knew how to drive. Most of the Mongolian drivers that I have driven with did their utmost to show that they are the National Offroad Racing Champion, but only Mr Zaro truly deserved the title. As 90% of Mongolian's roads are unpaved he got a lot of chances to prove his skills. Mr. Zaro simply did not like to be in the dust of other vans. That he had not lost his Mongolian heritage was proven by him sounding the horn every time we passed an ovoo (a shamanistic cairn that is used to worship the Sky and the Earth).

Do you want to wrestle me, boy?
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

Lo and behold, calling to the spirits worked. When our van was up to its chassis stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere, he somehow managed to magic it out of the misery. During the communist era Mr. Zaro had worked in East Germany for half a year, But his vocabulary of European languages did not extend much beyond the odd 'Scheisse' and 'Danke Schön', both of which came in handy during our mud bath, but he was easy to connect with. Most Mongolians, especially those in the rural areas, can be a bit stoic and rigid to 'our' taste. In other words, they are friendly and hospitable people but you better not expect a smile back from people that you have not have spent time with. For that to happen, several bottles of vodka, a deck of cards and a set of photos on your iPhone can be great icebreakers. The guide, Dauka, who tripled as a cook and a translator, was also beneficial for getting in contact with the rural Mongolians. Besides that, she managed to come up with real sushi somewhere during the tour which led to loud cheers from our tour group.

I can tell you how the Mongolian steppe feels and through my pictures I can show you how it looks. But the smell of the steppes is something that you have to experience yourself. Each area that I visited smelled different, sometimes vaguely reminding me of the smells used in Italian cuisine. That statement did not apply to the areas in which the Mongolians herd their goats, cows, yaks or horses that can all roam freely on the vast planes. The dung that they output does not only produce a foul smell but also attracts an irritant number of flies and other insects that want to have you as dessert. Still, poop is highly valued here since nothing burns better in a stove then a dry yak's dump.

Browsing through the grass reveals
interesting animals (Terelj National Park)

Another competition that Mongolia would qualify well for is that of being the world's largest campground. Dotted around the countryside, and just outside of the capital, are many gers, the traditional roundhouse tent in which entire Mongolian families live together. Half of the three million or so Mongolians live in such tents. It enables most of them to move around twice a year to find the best grasslands for their herds. Do not make the mistake of calling it a tent in front of the Mongolians though; they prefer you to call it a house. Centerpiece of the ger is the stove where mom and her daughters do their cooking. Firewood and dried dung help keep the going, and since temperatures can drop significantly, the heat of the stove is a welcome plus. In winter the smoke of all these stoves makes the capital of Ulaanbaatar one of the most polluted cities in the world. The government is doing its best to convince people to live in brick houses with central heating. But who would choose a drab communist-style flat if they can live in a ger?

It is hard to imagine that from such a sparsely populated part of the world a massive army could have been raised to aggregate an empire from, in modern historical times, Russia to India and from China to the gates of Vienna. There have actually been three occurrences that a people came from these planes on a conquering mission. Under the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols whose horse riding armies ventured westward to create their vast empires. The most famous ruler of these empires was of course Genghis Khan, who gained it not just through force, but also most noticeably through incorruptible officials and good law and policies, on which most of the European law and government is still based. After having been banned under communism, the Khan is busy with a revival that shows in, among others, Genghis vodka, Genghis beer and a larger than life bling-bling statue of Him on His horse near Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolians just adore him.

Boymonks at Amarbayasgalant Khiid

The Khan fits perfectly in a newfound confidence of the Mongolians in their country. After relatively peacefully removing the shackles of communism from themselves they now face an enormous boost of their economy. In several parts of the country precious metals have been found in the ground and Mongolia's largest business partner, China, desperately seeks these. When at the airport I had a chat with an analyst from the Worldbank. He told me that because of the newfound riches the economy is forecast to triple in the next ten years.

The Mongolians like their traditions. One of these traditions is the Naadam festival- a competition that once kept the Khan's armies in shape. It is a Mongolian ‘Olympic Games’. At its core is a wrestling match, archery and horse racing. Sometimes additional sports are added, such as the traditional Mongolian anklebone throwing - with horse anklebones, I hope. Each reasonably large city, whatever that means in Mongolia, has its own Naadam Festival. I had the opportunity to visit both the Naadam in Ulaanbaatar and one in Mörön, a remote city of size in the north of the country.

A falcon passing a rainbow

The Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar had an impressive opening show. First the traditional nine yak tail banners were carried into the stadium by horsemen in traditional clothing and after that a show with probably about a thousand performers started. It is a spectacular blend of both traditional and modern styles. They probably hired some really hip choreographer because at one moment there were Mongolians in 13th century outfits running around in the stadium’s centre field angry battle moves, and the next they were wildly dancing to techno beats. Another modern element was the parade of the sponsoring companies’ logos around the stadium. Commercialism has seriously arrived at the Naadam Festival given the fact that it took about an hour to honour all the sponsors. Genghis Kahn would have turned around in his grave, of which its location is, by the way, still one of the largest mysteries in the world. Legend goes that not only those that buried him were killed to keep the location secret, but also those who killed the buriers lost their heads.

Most impressive of the three main sports is the wrestling. In Mongolian wrestling there is no such thing as a weight class and you will sometimes see immense sumo-size giants fight small muscular dwarfs. Both seem to have an equal chance of winning though. The rules are fairly simple: the first one who touches the ground with anything else other than hands or feet, has lost. And there is no kicking or hard hitting. There are multiple matches fought at the same time in a knockout-out (not physical!) system and the whole event can last several days until there is a final winner. The event flows over with testosterone, but there is also something very disarming and funny about it.

Soldiers (Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

Let's put it this way, don’t let the wrestlers hear this, but in their tight and colorful outfits they easily could have had their own boat in Amsterdam's yearly Gay Pride's canal tour. That idea was reinforced when I observed the ceremonial 'slap on the ass' that the winner of a match may put on the looser who turns his butt towards the winner to receive it after the match. That happens just before the winner engages into a small ritual ballet-like dance in which he seems to be mimicking a crane. Fascinating!

In the Naadam in Mörön I saw two Westerners participate. At first the Mongolians did not want to fight them, probably frightened by the thought of the embarrassment of losing to a foreigner which is probably even more disgraceful than losing to a woman, for which reason the wrestlers all wear open vests. But it did not take long until the two strongest Mongolian wrestlers were found and matched with the unlucky two who did not take long to lose. The crowds went wild.

Although the wrestling is male-only, women can participate in archery. However, they will be put about ten metres closer to the target than the men. Several targets are placed seventy-five metres away and it is amazing to see how even some of the very senior Mongolians are able to hit these targets. The horse racing is just as interesting, with sometimes six years old boys riding the horses in races that can last up to two hours.

Ulaanbaator is a drab communist-era slab of concrete. But it is a slab of concrete that is changing rapidly, as more than half of the restaurants and hotels mentioned in the Lonely Planet that I had are gone or have moved. But once you get into the countryside, which is only a few hills away, things could not get more traditional. We are talking here about loads of people in traditional clothes living their traditional family orientated lifestyles, herding their cattle and drinking their vodka made of mare’s milk, doing some wrestling and horse riding on the side. Located around the country are monasteries that survived the communist-purge of the 1930’s and that were revived after the freedom of religion was reinstated. If you love outdoor activities, then Mongolia is a country for you. Just don’t try to wrestle the Mongolians!!

Warm regards,

Next time: The Other Korea

Last time: Other Worlds

Inspecting the guard in Sükhbaatar Square
The Yak Tail Banners are
carried into the stadium
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
Dissonant (Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

A female Bo,
a traditional Mongolian shaman
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
A boy shaman, brought in
to bring good fortune to the festival
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
Do you want to wrestle me, boy?
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

Mongolian Wrestling
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
Some of these men are real giants
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
Aim and shoot at a target seventy-five metres away
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

Women can participate in archery,
but they get a ten metres lead
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
At the horse-racing track
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)
Inspecting the arrows
(Naadam, Ulaanbaatar)

One of the many colorful people
visiting the Naadam (Ulaanbaatar)
A pedestrian light with a galloping
horse instead of a walking man?
Only in Mongolia! (Ulaanbaatar)
The Winter Palace (Ulaanbaatar)

Dragon at the Lama Temple (Ulaanbaatar) Have you ever seen anyone do this?
(Lama Temple, Ulaanbaatar)
Mongolian Lady (Ulaanbaatar)

Zaizan Memorial,
constructed during communist times
Famous singer Munguntsetseg was just
recording her new videoclip when I passed
With all its grasslands Mongolia qualifies
for the world’s largest golf course

An ovoo, a shamanistic cairn
used to worship the Sky and the Earth
The Erdene Zuu Khiid temple Many stupas (Erdene Zuu Khiid)

Golden Eagles are used for hunting The mountainous landscape of the north The Orkhon Khürkhree waterfall

The crater at White Lake A lady and her ger (White Lake) A peek inside (White Lake)

What would you think if you were told
by your guide that you had to cross this bridge?

Four friends (Mörön) Let's call this horse Adolf
(Terelj National Park)
Some of these horseriding kids are
only six years old (Terelj National Park)

A boy and his dog
(Terelj National Park)
I ate goat almost every day
(Terelj National Park)
Caught in the act!

Dragon Fly Edelweiss grows abundantly
on the Mongolian planes
(Terelj National Park)
Colorful Spider (Khövsgöl Nuur)

Waterplants (Khövsgöl Nuur) Driftwood (Khövsgöl Nuur) The Assembly Hall of Amarbayasgalant Khiid,
one of Mongolia’s largest monasteries

The Mongolian deserts can be unforgiving Warm greetings from Mongolia!