To residents of the Great Steppes the mere word ‘Mongolia’ stirs up some memories of the great Ghengis Khan and the great steppes was this birthplace. How he was able to take a country the size of Texas in the U.S. and become the master of the largest land empire in the history of the world. He ruled everything from Russia, East through Hungary and back. This also included every country in SE Asia. He was able to control the entire continent of Asia, except for India. Kublai Khan, his grandson, was able to further the empire by conquering China. He started the Yuan Dynasty in the country.
After uniting the nomadic tribes, he conquered huge chunks of Central Asia and China. The Mongols controlled between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles. That is an area about the size of Africa.
Here are a few amazing stats about the country and its inhabitants. Comparing the life of a Mongolian to that of an American, for example.
As a Mongolian, they:
die 10.58 years sooner
are 3.8 times more likely to die in infancy
make 88.83% less money
are 23.29% more likely unemployed
spend 97.39% less money on health care
use 89.03% less electricity
consume 87.65% less oil
are 60.74% less likely to be in prison
are 83.33% less likely to have HIV/AIDS
The Great Steppes of Mongolia
We started our trip to Mongolia with a few weeks in Ulaanbaatar. Ulan is the capital city (hereafter abbreviated UB) and not like any of the rest of the country. The city is a huge sprawling mess with 45% of the countries population living there. The city has room for a population of a few hundred thousand. It has exploded to a population of over a million. In 1998 only 25% of the population lived in UB. Today that is 50% without any improvement of the infrastructure to cope with the added people.
Most Mongolians in the Great Steppes still live their entire lives as nomads. They work with their flocks of sheep, goats, camels, and horses which is their source of income. Oh yes, horses! Throughout the entire country, horses are roaming free in herds from 25 to as many as several hundred. It is awesome to see them running free in each valley.
They are a small horse, as the Spanish Mustangs in the Americas. What they lack in size, they more than make up for in heart and stamina. During the Naadam Festival (we will discuss that later) they race as far as 30 and 50 kilometers. No thoroughbreds can even think of coming close to that. The horse is and always will be the symbol of Mongolia. The horse is how the great Khan was able to amass such a huge empire.
Our Adventure In the Mongolia Great Steppes Begins
The first few days of our trip will take us to several places of religious significance. Their location is in the Granite Belt of North Central Mongolia. The lush valleys, filled with nomads and their flocks live in the unique mountains.
They look almost like stacks of pancakes in many places with round holes in them. They have what looks like huge air bubbles that were there when the rocks formed millions of years ago. We will see the Red and White Stupas which are cliffs carved by the wind. They appear like cities as you approach them from the valley floor.
This is also the richest area of the Great Steppes Mongolia. It is filled with mining operations from major players like Rio Tinto. and more. Mongolia is rich in all types of minerals like coal and gems. This is a large part of the money that supports the government of the country. Interesting side-note about how that money arrives back in the hands of the citizens. Every citizen of Mongolia receives a part of that income from the mining that takes place there.
We will be taking a long trip, some by camel, some by horse but most of it in the best 4 wheel vehicles I have ever ridden in. They are the Russian van that are relics from the 1970s. There are hundreds or even thousands of them in the country.
As they wear out, the locals keep rebuilding them. They will hold 6 people and their gear including tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear and food for your trip. They are high up off of the ground and rarely get stuck in the muddy roads of Mongolia.
The Great Steppes No Bushes – No Trees – No Privacy
We began our ride to the Steppes and at lunch pulled over for our first picnic lunch of many. Laurel and the girls all found out what life was going to be like with no plumbing, no trees, and no bushes. You had to walk until you found a hilltop, crossed over and then do your business.
A new experience for the Aussie girls we traveled with. Annie had been working for an NGO in Cambodia so not a huge surprise for her but a wake-up call for Helena and Anna. Helena is studying Chinese in Shanghai and Anna is about to begin her residency in Australia. She will be a doctor in only a matter of months.
Our guide is a 60-year-old Mongolian named Baisa (buy-sa). He is is our driver and Oyuna (i-you-na) our guide and cook. She is a language professor during most of the year at the University of Mongolia. Oyuna is a fountain of information and we could not have been any luckier getting our guides. Baisa is a master of the Russian Van and his van was recently purchased. We are only the second group to use it and it is in perfect mechanical order.
We’ll start with the area known as BAGA GAZRIIN CHULUU or Little Rock to the Mongolians. Located here in the Great Steppes you will find the granite area of the countryside. At Little Rock, the giant rock formations have small piles of stones everywhere. These piles of rocks can signify a place of sky-worship or a landmark.
Sky-worship and Shamanism was the religion for hundreds of years. That has since changed to Buddhism in most of the country. The area is full of caves and was once a site of a large monastery with over 500 monks.
During the time from 1911 to 1952, the country fell under the control of Russia. and most of the monasteries were destroyed. The monks were either killed off or if they were young enough, sent to Russia to work as slave labor. The main job was the building the Trans-Siberia Railroad.
The small monastery here at Little Rock is thought to be the place the 4th Dalai Lama began his education. After visiting both places we went into a lush green valley to a place with three Ger. A Ger is a round tent with heavy felt linings covered by waterproof canvas. The nomads are able to live in them year-round to temperatures of -70F or -57C.
Our First Mongolia Campsite In the Great Steppes
Our hosts met us as we drove up and we got our first glimpse of the inside of a family Ger. It’s not the Ritz and you find out how these people live with minimal comfort year-round in the steppes. We had 5 beds of sorts, little wooden frames with wooden slats and a flat piece of wood on top of them. The mattress was a small pad about a half-inch thick but this is luxury in the Great Steppes One or two comforters on top of that and (in this case, as in most) no pillow. The few times that we did have a pillow, they some sort of grain hulls which were very comfortable.
Our campsite was in a lush green valley about a mile long and a half-mile wide. There were herds of wild horses roaming at will in the valley. Huge rocks were available to climb on the outskirts of the Ger area for some nice photos. We had a good mutton and rice meal before retiring to a horse dung campfire for the evening.
Horse Poop Cooking
There is little wood in the Great Steppes and the dung, after it dries, has no odor and burns slow and has no smoke. Later in the trip, we had some wood stoves but the wood was gone in an instant, the dung worked out much better.
While we were sitting around the fire, a late-arriving van came in to use the third Ger. The owner of the Ger brought out a large metal grill and put it over the fire. A metal cask like a beer keg filled with smooth round rocks from a riverbed then placed on the grill. They became red hot and an entire leg of mutton with potatoes and carrots went into the keg. They roll the cask around on the ground allowing the rocks to sear and cook the meat. In only a very short time you have Mongolian Bar-B-Que or HOT POT. The other van shared their meal and it was the end of a great day.
Mornings in Mongolia’s Great Steppes
Early the second day in the Great Steppes I got up and sat on top of the large rocks waiting for my first Mongolian sunrise. I loved the quiet, the stillness and the pure nature of Mongolia. It was well worth the wait. The sky was beautiful. As the sun came up, it lit up the rocks on the other side of the valley and the green grass with the horses. A beautiful sight and a good way to start our journey to TSAGAAN SUVARGA or the White Stupas.
The Well For Better Eyes
We stopped at a place where a small round hole on the top of one of the rocks eroded to small pools under the rock. Baisa took all 5 of us up and pulled a small ladle out of the hole filled with water. We learned that this water might help cure eye problems and to rub it on the outside of our eyes. I did this, then drank a second ladle full, always trying to give it the best chance to work, but so far I still need my glasses.
The Great Steppes roads in Mongolia consist of two ruts, many times 10 to 20 sets running side by side all ending up at the same place. The roads are wash boarded and rough as all get out and we soon found out what the entire adventure was going to be like. There is little to see in the granite belt and we were soon in the endless steppes heading to the White Stupas.
After about a 9 hour ride we pulled into our campsite which was a Ger Village or campground. This was the location of the one hot shower we were to get for the next 7 days. We all had a shower and rested before heading to the stupas. Mongolia is light from 5:00 am till 11:00 pm every day. With only 6 hours of darkness, the days seem endless.
The White Stupas was as described so much more. Beautiful red, purple and yellow cliff faces. The most exquisite humps covering the valley floor were like a rainbow of colors. We spent hours hiking around the area and climbing to the top for pictures of the Red Stupas, far across the valley.
Leaving the Great Steppes
Newst in the Great Steppes we would visit them the next morning on our way to the Three Beauties and they would be the end of the Great Steppes. This is the location of the only glacier in southern Mongolia. How cool is that! In the middle of the desert, in the middle of Summer, there are remnants of a small frozen glacier. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Next installment will be the Glacier Park and the Gobi Sand Dunes.
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