Mongolia: No Tourist Hordes, But Lots of Mutton And Pop Music, Too

By Joshua Kurlantzick, The Washington Post, Sunday 26 January 2003; Page E01

Rap music blared out of speakers on the makeshift stage in the open square. The music bounced off buildings and slammed through the bodies of gyrating concertgoers. Near the stage, tall women in Catwoman bodysuits screamed into each other’s ears. Young men with slick goatees slithered through the crowd. Could be any concert. Could be any town.

Without warning, an argument broke out near the stage. Before it could escalate, four youths dressed in a style appropriate for the Crusades—felt hats, armored thigh-high riding boots and long cloaks—appeared on horseback. They rode through the crowd, grabbed one of the combatants and trotted off—an impressive example of dispute resolution, Mongolia style. The crowd ignored the horses as they passed. And why not? Two hundred feet from the stage, hundreds of horses were tied to any available pole, post or tree. In Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, carpooling means three on a mare.

Throughout Mongolia, post-Soviet modernization is drastically changing one of the world’s oldest and most isolated nomadic societies. (Thousands of miles from any ocean, Mongolia’s 2.6 million people effectively are walled off, surrounded by the Altai Mountains, the Siberian tundra and the vast Gobi Desert.) At night, children of nomadic herders dress up in knockoffs of the latest Western fashions and dance to Latin-pop in hyperkinetic discos. During the country’s short summers, teenagers ride horses for miles into cities to watch rap concerts.

And as Mongolia updates, tourists are arriving in this remote outpost, which is slowly developing an adventure travel industry. Lured by raves about the country’s scenery from a friend, several friends and I took a two-week summer excursion to the homeland of Genghis Khan.

UB’s Charms

As we arrived in Ulan Bator, this scenic beauty was not immediately apparent. Squat, decaying structures dominate the city’s low-rise skyline.

Yet once we spent a week in Ulan Bator, known as UB, we began to appreciate its charms. Within the city, enterprising young Mongolians, excited by the warm weather—winter temperatures can drop to 80 below—had set up impromptu street cafes.

When not snacking, we toured the capital’s monasteries and museums. During late afternoon, many Mongolians visit Gandantegchinlen monastery, traditionally the city’s religious hub. Shuttered for 50 years, it reopened after the fall of the Communists in 1990, and again is a busy center of Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia’s primary faith. Inside, monks pray in front of Tibetan prayer wheels. Outside, wizened shamans read the palms of hip young Mongolians wearing fake Armani shirts.

Mongolians arriving in UB for the first time—during Soviet times most nomads avoided the city—often proceed from Gandantegchinlen to the Winter Palace. Built between 1893 and 1903, the Winter Palace was the home of Jebtzun VIII, Mongolia’s last Bogd Khan, or Holy King. The official line is that Jebtzun VIII was a hero who staved off foreign influences as long as possible, until the Soviet revolution engulfed Mongolia in the early 1920s. According to rumor, Jebtzun was also an alcoholic womanizer who died of syphilis.

Today, the Winter Palace is a museum of decadent court life, a lifestyle that pushed some Mongolians to join the Communist movement and helped pave the way for Soviet influence over the country.

As dinnertime approached, we tested UB’s reputation for horrendous food, and found it overstated. Five years ago, Ulan Bator offered the gourmand little other than an occasional Russian salad and dishes packed with mutton, the national staple. Now the city boasts French, Indian and even African restaurants.

My friends and I frequently took afternoon coffee at Millie’s Cafe, the favorite haunt of UB’s aid workers. (Mongolia receives the highest amount of aid per capita of any country in the world.) When Mongolia opened up, there was money to be made dishing up foreign food to expats who could not stomach the traditional diet of mutton, mutton fat and mutton marrow. Millie’s got in on the ground floor, and today loyal customers crowd in for the Mexican specialties and turbocharged espresso.

Wide awake, we power-walked to the Khaan Brau, a Mongolian-German microbrewery named after the country’s most famous dead warlord. It’s the hottest pub in town.

By early evening, the Khaan normally was packed with nouveau riche Mongolians who had made a killing in the early stages of the country’s economic privatization. In the corners of the pub, a few tourists stared as the young oligarchs, many dressed head-to-toe in black like characters in a Central Asian sequel to The Matrix, downed steins of brew and chattered in Mongolian and English.

The Club Scene

One night, we followed the Khaan crowd to Sukhbaatar Square, the main plaza and, on this evening, the setting for a rap concert. The performers, young Mongolians whose shaved heads and simple robes made them look like Buddhist monks, took little time to warm up. Within minutes, the musicians had worked the crowd into a moshing fury. Every so often, friends of the slam dancers would ride into the ground and prevent fights.

The concert was an exception. Usually after dinner we attended the theater or went dancing. Theater highlights included demonstrations of khoomei, in which singers use the backs of their throats to make eerie noises, and contortionists, a Mongolian specialty.

Finding discos was no problem. In the past four years, Ulan Bator has witnessed an explosion of nightclubs. Some places contain little more than a sound system and an enormous bouncer tasked with separating Russian gangsters, who have descended on the country in recent years, from Mongolian youths. Trying to look like kids in New York or London, most club patrons wear knockoffs of Western clothing. Wrangler jeans, Armani shirts, Gucci vests—it seems important to wear as many brands as you can fit on your body.

The real mob gets in, of course. But the best UB nightspots boast diverse crowds, edge-of-the-world vibes and low prices.

One of the trendiest discos in Ulan Bator, Fire Club remains crowded until late. We arrived just after midnight one evening to find twentysomething Mongolians in crimson suits dancing with peroxided Russian women who looked like Dick Tracy molls.

Nearly everyone at the club was young. Because the Soviets promoted population growth in the 1970s, today more than 70 percent of Mongolians are under 35. And Mongolia’s young party hard. Ulan Bator’s impatient socialites dance, drink and pair off at clubs with desperate abandon, as if worried that the hot spot might close that night.

In a country where 10 years ago there was essentially no nighttime entertainment, a rush to embrace freedom has created a generation used to seeing their compatriots push the limits of openness—political openness, economic openness, even sexual openness. These days, every nightclub in Ulan Bator seems to have a strip show that starts around midnight, but Fire’s is the most bizarre.

Around 1 a.m., the dance floor clears for a show that is a mix between blatant sexual come-on and chaste, ballet-like dance: Mongolian women alternately stripped and pranced around on their tiptoes. When the women started disrobing, few people even took notice.

Flying North

After a week in UB, we flew north into the Mongolian countryside. Almost as soon as our plane soared, we saw the vast, empty Mongolia we had imagined: plains dotted by lonely herders, crystalline lakes, rugged hills. Ulan Bator is an important part of modern Mongolia, and soon more than half the country will live in UB. But the vast spaces of the Gobi, the tundra and the rest of the countryside are part of Mongolia as well—and they are terrific spots for adventure travelers.

Our plane touched down in the provincial capital of Moron (pronounced MORE-own,) gateway to Lake Hovsgol, the deepest body of water in Central Asia. Full of sturgeon and other massive fish, Hovsgol is ringed by impressive peaks and tundra, which are home to ibex, bears and moose.

We had contracted to spend a week horseback riding around the lake with a guide, Ganbaater. He met us in Moron, where we exchanged Sain bainuu? (How are you?) greetings. We headed north by jeep to Khatgal, the closest town to the lake, along what Ganbaater called the best road in the area. Traditionally Mongolians churn butter by attaching milk to their saddle and riding along the country’s bumpy paths. On this road, you could have strapped milk to our jeeps and made cottage cheese. What would the not-so-good roads be like?

For dinner we had the first of our mutton smorgasbords. Despite modernization and an effort by the government to encourage citizens to eat more fiber, few nomads have altered their diets. Our guides even hungrily munched the mutton fat that dripped out of the dumplings we were gnawing on.

Along with mutton, we usually consumed dairy products I had never seen before. At every ger (the nomads’ tent-like homes), we were welcomed with airag, fermented mare’s milk, and small, pellet-like pieces of curd I thought would inevitably crack my fillings.

Leaving Khatgal, we drove to the lake. Ganbaater was right: The first road was the best. After Khatgal, our Japanese jeeps, a new introduction to the Hovsgol-area transportation mix, broke down regularly, though our guides seemed able to fix any problem.

Horsing Around Hovsgol

Our first glimpse of stark, vast, cobalt Lake Hovsgol was breathtaking. We touched the icy water, vowed to swim one morning and saddled up. Mongolian horses are not physically impressive, but they are sturdy. Small with tatty coats, ours reminded me more of dogs than Genghis Khan’s glorious steeds. Yet the horses withstood miles of pounding along rugged trails, as we passed several other tour groups and a few hardy independent travelers.

On the first two days, we rode along its western shore until the late evening—the sky was clear and the sun did not set until 10:30 pm. We would trot for hours, stopping to visit local nomads or stroll into the nearby mountains. At night we sat around plates of mutton, cheese and bread (Ganbaater’s mother had baked us delicious loaves), discussed whether democracy would affect the nomads’ lives any more than communism had, and rested our backsides.

Because Mongolia’s uneven terrain is fraught with potential disaster for a horse, Mongolian steeds move in a jackhammer-like manner. By taking short steps, they minimize their chances of falling. While bouncing in our padded Russian saddles, we marveled at our guides as they rode bareback past us.

By the second night we had ridden between 60 and 100 kilometers, according to Ganbaater—37 to 60 miles. He found it hard to be any more exact. Mongolia is so big, he said, and people move so much, that a few kilometers do not matter.

Indeed, though some Mongolians now wear watches and even use GPS systems, many nomads we met seemed to regard distance as relatively irrelevant. A mountain could be 15 or eight kilometers away—no one was sure and few people cared. Start riding and you will get there was the general attitude. At the end of the long days, however, I hoped that Ganbaater had overestimated our distances.

For the next four days we rode at a slower pace, taking more time to hike. During our walks we continually encountered ovoos—piles of stones placed at higher elevations in deference to gods worshiped in the centuries before Mongolians adopted Tibetan Buddhism. Most nomads still pay respects to these deities, who some believe still control Lake Hovsgol’s weather.

Per tradition, we would slowly walk in a circle around each ovoo before continuing on, sometimes trekking up to high Alpine cirques where the Tsaatan live in teepees. A minority, the Tsaatan live off the reindeer they herd around the tundra. Though their people are dying out, these friendly herders invited us into their homes and offered us reindeer milk.

On our last afternoon at Hovsgol, we climbed Uul Mountain, a 9,000-foot peak with a commanding view. Looking west, we saw the Darkhadyn Khotgor depression, a vast virgin forest. To the north, we glimpsed Monkh Saridag Mountain, the highest peak around. Beyond Saridag lay Russian Siberia—perhaps the only region in Asia more remote than Mongolia.