Mongolia:Where nothingness really matters- a story by UK newspaper Telegraph

Anna Murphy discovers that it's Mongolia's vast emptiness that gives its people a sense of community and belonging.

By Anna Murphy
Published: 8:00AM BST 11 Oct 2009

I have been to all sorts of remote places over the years but nowhere has prompted as much reaction as my most recent destination. "Mongolia?!" people would exclaim when I told them my travel plans. "Why?" they would ask, rolling their eyes. And then I'd tell them I was drawn by the immense nothingness – it's a country more than six times the size of England yet with only about 600 miles of surfaced roads – and by the very fact that it is difficult to imagine a place more "other" or unknown.
Even before my plane landed, this otherness was clear. We flew low over the country for an hour and all I saw was mile after mile of softly rolling golden steppe, the only occasional interruption coming in the shape of a round white ger, the traditional Mongolian tent in which the majority of the population still lives.
Driving from the airport through the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, an unattractive Soviet-style city, I saw my first ger up close. Yes, even suburban living in modern Mongolia for most people means a ger, albeit fenced in and gated, a peculiar under-canvas facsimile of our own suburbia.

Except a ger is not made of canvas. Any visitor to Mongolia soon becomes something of an expert on gers: outside the city you are most likely to stay in one, in a tourist camp. So you quickly learn that gers are made of felt – perfect for keeping warm during winters with temperatures as low as -31F (-35C), but also for keeping out the summer heat – and that, despite the fact they can be taken down in about 15 minutes by two people, they are incredibly comfortable and, in their tourist incarnation, verging on luxurious.
My first experience of ger living was in Ikh Nart, in the East Gobi. We travelled six hours by the Trans-Mongolian Express that runs between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing to the Red Rock Ger Camp. The train ride itself, so slow as to be verging on stately, was the perfect introduction to the country. First I saw the fertile grasslands unfurl before me, populous by Mongolian standards, with sometimes as many as half a dozen gers in view at a time, and with large herds of animals grazing nearby. The wealthiest nomads are the so-called "thousand herders" who have at least a thousand sheep or goats to their name.

Throughout the train ride, our guide, Tsoogii, kept breaking into song. "Mongolians love to sing," she told us. "Whenever we get together with our families and friends we each sing a song." She looked sad for us when I told her that British people didn't do the same. And she looked embarrassed for me when, after much pleading, I sang a toe-curling rendition of Silent Night.

It was the increasing levels of dust in the carriage that first signalled the Gobi was upon us. The nice train attendant who had been making us cups of tea for hours came to the carriage for help with the English instructions for her needlepoint. When she showed us the work in progress (a galleon in full sail at sea – though most Mongolians will never see the sea) it was caked in yellow dust. "Gobi! Gobi!" she exclaimed, before conjuring a surgical mask from here pocket.

Finally we reached our stop, except there was no station. The only people to leave the train were Tsoogii, my partner and me, plus an ancient-looking lady dressed in a traditional red Mongolian deel, or long tunic, who unceremoniously hitched it up and jumped onto the back of a waiting motorbike.

During the 90-minute drive to the camp through a landscape that at times looked like proper desert, but at others supported the occasional scrub bush and scented sage, we saw horses and the local Arguli sheep, rare elsewhere, with giant rococo curling horns.

The former live in so-called harem groups – one stallion and several mares – and are allowed to roam free until they are needed by their herder owners. They are ancestors of Przewalski's horse – the world's last true wild horse, of which only a few remain in captivity – smaller than European horses and with brush-like manes that stick upwards.

For many visitors to Mongolia, it is riding these remarkable creatures – which can easily travel eight hours a day, day after day – that is the chief purpose of their visit. We met people who had been on horse treks lasting almost two weeks and not seen a single road. These were wonder horses, they told us, horses that didn't seem to know the meaning of the word "walk", the slowest they ever get being akin to the Western trot; horses that love nothing more than to gallop and gallop, then gallop some more.

During our couple of days at the Red Rock camp, we went for the rather more sedate approach, hiking across the steppe each day, the perfume of sage filling our nostrils, spotting wildlife and birds through our binoculars. On our first afternoon we headed towards a small peak in the distance that turned out to be an ovoo, a cairn-like pile of rocks decorated with sheep horns and small metal cups and countless blue silken sashes, where locals make offerings – most often milk, cheese and dried curds – to the spirit of the mountain, asking for rainfall and good vegetation for their livestock to feed on. Evidently their offerings were working because that afternoon the sky turned a dramatically inky purple and the rain sheeted down. Mongolia is known as the "Land of Blue Skies" but during the summer months – the best time to visit – it can still suddenly rain at any time.

Luckily, back at the camp, our ger could deal effortlessly with rain of biblical intensity. The hole in the centre of the roof for ventilation, can be covered in seconds with a sail-like contraption of ropes and canvas. Indeed, every aspect of ger living has been expertly adapted over centuries to the particular requirements of the steppe.

The typical ger is about 20ft in diameter, its form reminiscent of a circus top. Inside are assorted pieces of painted furniture, slightly shrunken in dimensions and usually orange in colour – a chest, a dresser, a couple of beds. On particularly hot days the sides of the ger can be lifted to allow a through breeze. At the centre is a pot-bellied stove for cooking and heating water for washing.

On the second day we visited one of the local nomadic families. Unfortunately for my queasy European stomach, they had slaughtered three sheep and goats that morning ready for a festival the next day, and were engaged in assorted activities involving offal outside the ger. But, busy as they were, one of them immediately stopped and came over to offer hospitality, inviting us into the ger and offering us dried curds and airag, a fermented mare's milk that the well-mannered visitor, alas, is duty-bound to accept.

Hospitality is at the core of the nomadic way of life because it enables individuals to travel long distances without having to carry large amounts of provisions. If you turn up at a ger in Mongolia, you will probably be offered food, drink and somewhere to sleep.

The inside of this ger was remarkably similar to our own, the only real difference being the smaller truckle beds, and the fact that at night five or six people would sleep here, on the floors as well as the beds (I was told how older nomadic people would lament if there were "only" four people sleeping in a ger). There were also the signs of organised activity: in one corner stood jugs of yogurt, in another curds dripped through canvas bags hanging from the roof. Summer is known as the "white season" among nomads, the time when the diet is almost exclusively dairy products; apart from festival periods the nomads tend only to eat meat in the winter, most of it dried.

The next day we travelled by bus to our second ger camp, Jalman Meadows, in the mountains 75 miles north-east of Ulaanbaatar. Here, too, we stayed in our own ger, placed our orders in advance for our spell in the camp's "Shower ger", and were indecently well fed with delicious Mongolian food (the moreish staple is buuz, a kind of meat-filled dumpling). But the landscape couldn't have been different, with its pine-covered mountains, sparkling rivers and flower-spattered meadows.

The benign daytime temperatures – like the perfect English summer day – meant we felt ready to take on even the steeper mountain slopes, climbing to gain remarkable views over the surrounding countryside. Just as stunning were the flowers, many of them wild versions of our garden cultivars. Purple and pink scabious, tiny carnations, midnight-blue dwarf delphiniums, asters, alliums, globe thistles, poppies, harebells, thrift, hardy geraniums.

There was also more riding to be done, rafting down the rivers – your craft is pulled upstream beforehand on a yak cart – meeting more nomads as they herded animals, rode their horses with daredevil skill, and looked at us shyly and curiously as we walked past their gers. I had certainly found the otherness I was looking for in Mongolia but I had found, too, in this stunningly beautiful and fascinating wilderness, a surprising sense of belonging.



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