Every child has their mind set on visiting some foreign land, arbitrarily chosen through a well-written history book or narrative. I had three such places: Minnesota, a cool state that contrasted heavily with my beach upbringing; Africa—yes, all of Africa, where I insisted my hamster scampered off too upon breaking free from his plastic adobe; lastly, there was Mongolia.
I can’t quite explain this particular childhood whim, other than to suggest that the nomadic life spent living in yurts (Gers, to the Mongolians) has an adventurous draw. Having finally moved to Asia last summer, I’ve spent the better part of the last year begging friends to accompany me to one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. Blessed with great companionship, I soon found my hometown friend Alex and I seated behind a group of Swedish baby boomers, rolling away from the capital city and charming apocalyptic outpost doppelgänger Ulaan Baatar towards parts unknown.
Our camp was premium, both in quality and pricing. Three days at our camp cost roughly P13,000, but the result was a stay in Jalman Meadows, a far-flung Ger Camp located in a nature preserve well beyond the sagging tent cities that some cheaper travel organizations offered. Our Ger was brightly decorated, the canopy beds were warm, the site director perky and genuinely kind, and most importantly, the bathrooms were clean.
On top of the luxury accommodations, our camp could not have been situated in a better location. The swift changing rolls and swells create microscapes. All of Mongolia feels like a mash-up. Our camp was surrounded by a crest of hills that Julie Andrews would find suitable for frolicking. The shadows our hills cast shaded metamorphic outcroppings reminiscent of Hanna-Barbera’s Bedrock. At one point, I fell asleep as our van glided smoothly through a pastoral scene. When I woke up, the Gobi Desert stretched far as the eye could see. Trekking became not only an exercise for the body but also for the sense of wonder, each new curve of a riverbank allowing for observation of a radically new breathtaking scene.
Hours from the nearest city, these testaments of nature’s beauty were punctuated by nomadic life, wandering unfettered throughout camp. Our welcome packet informed us that Mongolian hordes, though tamed, were not used to being corralled; limitations spooked their Mongolian spirit. So there they’d be, grazing in the adjacent plains or galloping the dale below. Even the wild dogs were friendly, stopping by our Ger for a bit of playtime and face-licking before moving on to lands unknown.
Mongolian cuisine is all locally sourced and is staple-based comfort food. Potatoes, carrots, and beef abound, though the flavor palette is occasionally splashed with influences from their Russian neighbors through tangy cabbage or rich beets.
My personal favorite was the yogurt served each morning. Mongolian dairy is iconic. This yogurt could easily be why Greece is in economic collapse. The Greek yogurt market should quiver like the curdled milk solids they are in comparison to the heavy, well-balanced delight fresh Mongolian yogurt provides.
Just as the Mongolian wilderness is not a void, our journey was not devoid of things to do. For a nominal fee, we booked horseback riding with a guide. There was a bit of a lapse of communication, and so while we attempted to book the same day, we were told we’d have to wait for the next day for the journeyman to wrangle the horses from the meadows. Or at least, so we thought. Trekking up through a rocky cliff face to obtain a selfie overlooking the camp, we hear a rustle in the nearby trees. Out of the early morning fog emerges three gorgeous horses and a guide dressed in traditional nomadic Mongolian wear—or at least, what I presume traditional nomadic Mongolian wear is. It isn’t exactly like I have a reference point.
Though I’ve nearly no background in horseback riding, I soon find myself riding back down the cliff with ease, my equine partner expertly navigating the boulders as though he were not a horse but a mountain goat.
Beyond horseback riding, several more activities were offered. Proving the ease with which the Gers could be erected and dismantled, one day we had the staff create a riverside Ger sauna for us. With no one around but the occasional farmer and a history of losing my clothes, I alternated sweating in the hut and streaking down to the river to refresh. About a half hour into our quest for squeaky clean pores, a thud from the side of the Ger alerted us to company. I assumed it was the staff, perhaps bringing more wood for the fire. Upon inspection, it turned out to be a herd of cows and a stray yak had surrounded the Ger, grazing with no heed to our spa experience. Alex marched out for further inspection. I was thoroughly convinced that they were bovine, and that’s all I really cared to know. I firmly shut the door behind.
There was also a well-stocked library with books on Mongolia and an archery set for anyone who wanted to get their Genghis on. I spent quite a bit of time reading oral narratives about Mongolian women, and learning the shamanistic fortune-telling tradition of reading the future via sheep ankles helpfully provided
By the time we had to leave camp, I felt as though I had become somewhat of a shamanistic expert myself, as though the spirits had entered me, and accepted me to the land, unfazed like the cows or dogs.
So often when you encounter something you’ve built since childhood, an idolized movie star or a fabled locale, there’s a disappointment. It turns out they’re “just a person” or it’s “just an island.” Mongolia was more than I could’ve ever expected, even as a child. It is beautiful in its landscape, culture, and people. I treasure the land. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to think that the spirits of the land imbued with me some of that wealth, but I’d like to think they did. I ventured into Mongolia, and now, I can never again venture without it.
Photos by Elliott Hay