The Hidden Magic of Mongolia Reminded Me of Home

The Hidden Magic of Mongolia Reminded Me of Home

As remote as I was, it seemed closer to home than I imagined.

In 2011, I stepped on to the airport at Ulan Bataar, the capital city.

The first thing I noticed was the spartan, single-floored airport building.

It might as well have been a bus depot. No aesthetics, no cheer — just practical and functional.

And then there is Genghis Khan, the founder of the largest contiguous empire ever, peeking at you from every corner.

We got our first glimpse of his portrait in the baggage collection area.

His profile appears on currency notes, on Vodka bottles, in public places and from the high perch of his equestrian statue on the bank of the Tuul River.

Imagine living with just 50 people per square kilometre.

Bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south, this landlocked country covers an area of 1,564,116 square kilometres (603,909 square miles).

And the population is just 3.3 million people.

That’s how ‘densely’ populated Mongolia is. It probably has more camels, horses and goats than people.

They have a handful of places you can call cities. There, the influence of both Russia and China on infrastructure is unmistakable. Mongolia was free of them both only in 1945.

The rest of the country remains largely rural and nomadic.

Away from the urban centres the Chinese and Russian influence fades away. They occupied the land but never managed to insert themselves into its people.

You have to let Mongolia open up to you slowly. The Mongols are not to be rushed in any aspect of their life.

Horsemen roam the steppes, letting their Airag sit and ferment for days. They wait for cheese to mature as it dries in the sun, and families cure mutton to last through the harsh times.

I was in the country for a walking expedition across the Gobi desert.

After a few weeks in Ulan Bataar, we began our caravan-style crossing of the Gobi from Khvod in the West to Sainshand in the East.

It was a 1000 KM journey with our pack animals, the Bactrian camel and a local crew in tow.

Ten of us from different countries lived the nomadic life of the Mongols for over a month in what is probably the last true wilderness left on Earth. We walked by day and rested at night. Setting up our tents every evening, letting the camels graze and sleeping under the bluest sky ever with the sun barely dipping on the horizon at 9pm.

Our day began at 6am but our cook was up before us, preparing breakfast. That done, and tents packed, our next task was to load the grumpy camels with our bigger loads. There was much biting, spitting and kicking before everyone was ready to toe the line and begin walking.

We shared the task of towing a train of camels, two or three with each walker. Before the heat of the day picked up, we were off.

Our crew then prepared our lunch, packed up after us and went away in search of water. We had an old Russian van that crossed the desert floor easily. They did the roaming because we could not.

At around 1pm the van would locate us and we took our lunch stop. There was no shade, no respite from the heat. By mid-day we consumed about three liters of water and some trail mix.

Our full-sleeved layers and hats would be caked with salt from sweat. We had to cover our noses and ears to prevent water loss and to keep sand out. On some days it reached 44 degrees Celsius causing our water intake to soar and our appetites took a hit.

We all added extra helpings of salt to our food to compensate. Meals were mainly rice and pasta with canned veggies and cured meat.

Once we had rested a bit and filled up our hydration packs, we moved on.

Our halt for the day would be determined by the crew but depended on the camels. Bactrian camels like to wild graze and won’t eat from a bale of hay kept before them. So finding fodder for them was crucial. They worked harder than us. Once the crew located enough thorny shrubs and short grass for our eight camels to graze, they would stop, set up the kitchen tent and wait for us.

The blue kitchen tent became a metaphor for relief and respite. As soon as it was closer to 4pm we would keep our eyes peeled for the tent. Sometimes we saw it, sometimes it was a mirage. The first person to spot it would spread the cheer among all walkers.

Back at camp, we unpacked the camels and set them to graze first. Then we set up tents, stretched and had tea.

Dinner would be early, by 7pm. While it was still light we would gather the camels and tie them on a picket line. Some of my friends wrote in journals, poured over the maps or meditated.

After this, our eyes would barely take in the outrageously magnificent sky with billions of stars, before they gave in to deep sleep.

Traditional Give and Take

Ghengis Khan managed to unify an area from the Sea of Japan to Eastern Europe. Towards the south, his empire touched the Indian Subcontinent.

But in the Mongolian steppes, signs of any similarities with Indian culture are not quickly apparent.

You have to observe the gestures, get to know the people and immerse yourself in their ways for it to show itself.

For Mongolians, giving and taking is more than a transaction.

Blink, and you’d miss what happens.

The first time I noticed it was when I stopped to buy some juicy plums in Khvod.

The woman counted out the amount I owed her from the money I held. Then she handed it back to me so that I could formally buy the plums.

As she received the notes, she bowed slightly and touched her left hand to her right. Automatically, I did the same.

When Mongolians give you something or take something from you, they will always use their right hand while slightly touching their left hand to their right forearm. And then bow slightly as they do it.

It’s over before you notice.

It is a practice we follow almost all over India.

Indians prefer the right hand to receive or give things of importance, like money, documents, divine offerings, or religious items. Some prefer to touch their left hand to the right while they do it.

It came naturally to me when I received the change from the fruit lady.

Raw Landscapes

We began walking away from the Mongol Altai Mountains before the expanse of the Gobi opened up.

The stark landscape reminded me so much of the Leh Ladakh region of India.

Treeless valleys, thorny shrubs and gravel underfoot where we walked are features that the Altai shares with the cold desert of Ladakh.

It felt as if Ladakh had extended itself all the way from Northern India, through the Tibetan plateau, some bit of China, right into Mongolia.

To remind me of home.

Structural Impermanence

As we continued east, tiny settlements of 4–5 Gers or circular tent homes would occasionally appear on the horizon.

They would be flanked by a massive flock of goats.

Such was the heat that the whole scene would disappear as if it were a mirage. Did we imagine it?

From our cook and the crew we learnt that Mongols have no use for permanent structures.

The lives of the herdsmen are a cyclic passage of seasons, and the availability of fodder for the livestock determines when and where they move next.

Sure, the main cities like Ulaan Bataar and Choi Balsan are modern places with malls, tall buildings and housing.

Go a hundred kilometres away, and you’ll find the land is dotted with Gers, which are a hallmark of the Mongol way of life.

A Ger can be entirely dismantled, carried on camel back and set up again.

A place they can call home wherever they are.

If you have ever travelled deep into the Ladakh region, you will notice how fragile the structures are. People may no longer live in tents, but their homes are a mix of wood, hay and mud.

The Ladakhi people are traditional herdsmen and traders, constantly on the move.

When they caught up with the modern world, they attempted to settle down and built homes.

A flash flood as recent as 2010 destroyed several such settlements because the mud was simply washed away.

Even today, in the remote reaches of Leh, Spiti, Jispa and beyond, if you notice livestock movement high on the mountain, you will find a group of tents with a stone-fenced enclosure at the base.

Gracious Hosts

After we crossed the first 200 km, the mountains literally moved away.

Time stood still as we fell into a routine. Get up, pack up, breakfast, walk, lunch, walk, stop, unpack, dinner, sleep.

Days passed before we saw another human. But then we covered only 35 km a day.

One evening, we were setting up camp in the desert when we saw a lone rider approach us from the North. A man dressed in Mongol attire appeared in our camp on his steed.

He was as surprised as we were, and like us, he had not seen another human for weeks besides his family. He rode from a cluster of Gers, tiny white specs we could see far away.

The guy spoke to our cook and gathered all the information he could about this bunch of crazy foreigners walking his land. Then he rode off in a hurry.

Within 45 minutes, he was back with more people who wanted to meet us. He also got us a gift — a bucket of camel milk yoghurt that could have been made into cheese otherwise.

As remote as we were, not once did we experience harm, danger or robbery. Every encounter we had after days of walking was warm, friendly, curious and involved an exchange of gifts.

We took care to follow their customs, greeting by hand, never showing our feet to the hearth and sharing what we had in exchange for what they gave us freely.

In these remote regions, some Gers are never dismantled. Instead, they are stocked with cured meat, basic tools and weapons. People who get lost or need shelter can use the Ger to stay safe. The only condition — leave it as you found it.

In mountainous regions of India approachable only on foot, remote villages of the northeast and in small hamlets of my native state, I have experienced the same graciousness.

Sharing food, space and stories.

Neither the Mongols nor the people of my country have much to give. But they will never let a guest go unfed nor leave a traveler helpless.

I am amazed by the extra-ordinariness of the ordinary people I meet when I travel near or far.

Folks going about their daily lives, making time and effort to help a stranger. Sharing a piece of themselves, a slice of their time and making you a part of theirs.

And it occurs to me repeatedly that as different as we all are, how much we are absolutely the same.

6 Replies to “The Hidden Magic of Mongolia Reminded Me of Home”

  1. i have been in awe of you ever since i have known of aditis friend who walked a desert!i asked why did she? i was quietly told “its because she can!” i googled it that many years back because i could not believe people would embark on this by choice!
    over the years i have known you i have heard in bits and pieces of what was obviously another life altering experience for you , most of the stories shared while i was struggling to keep going on those “hikes”we have done together!
    while i believe that man will always move towards a non-nomadic life in the course of evolution and this is how it is meant to be , it is our connection with the wanderer within us that will drive the constant which is change.
    by the way , the touching of the right hand by the left hand is customary in Nepal as well. while exchanging literally anything..comforting to find familiarity in small gestures which transcend geopolitical borders isnt it?
    too heavy!
    when you say extra – ordinariness of ordinary people , i wonder how you would define extraordinary…

    1. Thank you for your wise words. I am sure this hand gesture is used all over the India subcontinent, perhaps in Thailand, Laos too.

      Trusting strangers with your time, attention and effort is extraordinary. I have never seen people who are NOT a part of the common public, or ordinary people go out of their way like this. They will go out of their way to make trouble, these high and mighty folks. That makes them very ordinary in my eyes. If I need help, I’d seek the common man in any country.

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