We have had an amazing time exploring Mongolia. We flew 3 hours from Seoul to Ulaanbataar. Mongolia has a population of 3 million in an area stretching 2392 km west to east and 1259 km north to south, bordering China to the south and Russia to the north. 3 million people and the same number of horses!
Mongolia gives you a sense of wide open space and vastness that photos can't capture. There is mostly steppe from the central region to the east, desert from the south to the west and forest-steppe in the northern regions. Only 3% of the country is forested so the landscape looks so bare. The currency is Tughrik and there are 1400 to the NZ $. They use the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet which made reading signs almost as hard as in Korea! Mongolians drive on the right hand side of the road, but the majority of cars have steering wheels on the wrong side - cheap imports from Japan. As in Korea, you are one year old when you are born.
Ghenghis Khan and his sons expanded Mongolia's territory way back in the 13th century and it has a long and fraught history with both China and Russia. As part of the deal with Russia to finally grant independence, Mongolia gave up Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, 400 km long. The first democratic election was only held in July 1990.
Throughout the towns, there are older austere Russian style buildings in need of a paint job. It didn't get dark until 11pm and got light at 6am. Mongolia was in the same time zone as Korea even though we flew west for 3 hours.
Our Intrepid Travel group of 12 consisted of 3 Americans, 1 Singaporian, ourselves and the rest were Australian. It was a really cohesive group with interesting, well-travelled people to places like Bhutan, Antartica, Easter Island, Iceland, Galapogus. Some were older than us! Our tour leader was a 30 year old Mongolian woman who spoke several languages as well as excellent English. We travelled in 2 Russian vans.
Often we would pass roadside cairns built out of rocks and festooned with blue scarves. If we stopped there, we would walk three times around clockwise, adding a rock each circuit and make a wish.
We stayed in ger (yurt) camps that were set up for the summer months. The gers had a strong wooden circle in the center held up by 2 posts, with concertina trellis for the sides. Spokes radiated from the center ring to the trellis sides. This structure was covered with thick felt and canvas on top. Sometimes there were drapes along the sides to cover the trellis. A wooden floor covered with carpets or lino and a fire box/stove as you walk in, and two single beds on either side completed the abode. Gers can be put up in half an hour. We had a fire lit a couple of nights (just for the ambience!) but had to fling the door open and let it cool down because it was way too hot!
In the countryside there are no fences and nobody owns the land. Nomad herders move from their sheltered winter grazing area to rudimentary barns and yards where the babies are born in spring, then move again to their summer grazing area. There they set up their ger (transported on the back of a truck now rather than pulled by horses as in the past). Several families might be grazing in the same valley, but the herders keep a look out for their animals. Fat-tailed sheep and cashmere goats (mostly black) graze together in flocks. The horses and cattle tend to graze independently. As we got further north it was yaks rather than cows.
Sometimes a town will agree not to graze certain valleys for a summer to allow the grass to rejuvinate. It seems to be able to be done without disputes, perhaps for now while there are still such vast steppes and relatively small numbers of livestock.
Now most people living in gers have a solar panel and often a satellite dish for TV and a motorbike which they use sometimes for rounding up the livestock.
I'll stop the Mongolia saga here for now and continue another chapter so you can see the photos and picture better what we are talking about.