Tales from the outer

On a yak safari, Max Anderson discovers sun-baked plateaus, singing cowboys and a ger for all seasons.

When the plumbing in Valerie Oltarsh's New York apartment explodes (again), it means evacuating for two weeks. Her husband, Rob, acts quickly to staunch the tears, holding out a Peregrine tour brochure.

Valerie blinks at the words. "A yak safari?" she says. "Oh god, yes."

Single travellers Jen and Margaret live on opposite sides of Canada and they, too, are unable to resist the concept of trailing behind a shaggy black yak.

I know so little about Mongolia that I've never really cared to visit but "yak safari" sells me in a second - it's a phrase packed with exoticism and otherness, an idea I can practically smell.

The 14-day tour starts in the Gobi Desert at Red Rock Camp, which is on no map that I can find. The camp is a line of lonely yurts sheltered by huge piles of smooth rocks that have seemingly bubbled up from the wind-blown plains.

There are no yaks here. "And no yurts," says our young guide, Namuul. "Mongolian name is gers. 'Yurt' is used by Chinese Mongols. Inner Mongolia."

Of course, we five visitors are on the outer and not least with the language, which grinds meaty vowel strings into patties of sound. The essential phrase "thank you" is "bayarlalaa", which comes out as by-rrrr-lla; by the time we learn to say it with any usefulness, the trip is over. Luckily we have Namuul, a tourism student from the capital, UlaanBaatar. He wears a Christian Dior T-shirt and looks as incongruous as we do among wind-burnt nomads but his translation is never less than valiant.

The Gobi, then, is our pre-yak induction and it comes in two parts.

Part one is "everything out there", which we walk into one fine blue morning. The Ikh Nart wildlife reserve spans 66,000 hectares and it swallows us in a flash of searing light.

The landscape is drier than a Salt Lake City wedding, dotted with skeletons, and we wonder what wildlife can survive it. But we're the ones being watched - by agarli, the cow-sized sheep that stand sentinel on the rocks, their giant corkscrew horns in silhouette. A Bactrian two-hump camel grazes in the shadow of a mountainous dune and a young cinereous vulture sulks in a nest the size of a small car while its parents are away, wheeling on their three-metre wingspans.

Our most remarkable sighting occurs on a sun-baked plateau dotted with chunks of white and purple quartz. A rider comes trotting up on his stocky Mongolian horse - he wears a sashed robe and carries a long timber pole with a noose at one end, his feet in stirrups like steel plates. He swallows some vowels and hawks them up again, to which Namuul replies, no, we haven't seen his lost cow. The rider reins his mount and gallops away.

People have been in the Gobi for thousands of years. On a flank of rock we're shown a delicate 300-year-old petroglyph of a horse; nearby are crude stone walls, remains of Tibetan monasteries where Buddhist priests trained from the 13th century until the Russian communists sent them packing in the 1930s. A little further, we go deeper into time, inspecting a rocky burial mound of a Bronze Age chieftain.

At a natural and fine shelter of rock, I poke around in the dirt and find shards of thin-skinned iron pots some 700 years old. A little more scouting and here is a stunning nugget of bronze, a crenellated gobbet some 2000 years old - and then a crystal flake perfectly knapped into a small blade that served in neolithic times, 8000-3000 years BC. Ten minutes of mooching in a single spot yields relics from modern man's most important chapters.

But on our walk we also find trouble. All five of us are experienced travellers but having a tour guide means we surrender our common sense; 20 kilometres from camp we realise none of us has any water left and Rob is badly dehydrated. A 19-year-old with an improbable number of letters in his name can't see what the fuss is about but he's dispatched back to the camp. Three hours later we're rescued by a two-wheel-drive Russian van called a Wadz, which comes spluttering over a steep ridge of broken rocks.

We're ready, then, for the second part of our induction - the ger.

The ger is the heart of Mongolian culture. It's home, survival and identity, a simple timber skeleton clothed in felt and canvas, secured with loops of string and belts of braided horsehair. It can be collapsed or erected in less an hour. Half of the country's people live in gers.

Red Rock Camp has a restaurant ger, a library ger and a shower ger. It's not as posh as it sounds (the toilet is a well-dressed hole in the ground; the shower comes courtesy of a weed sprayer) but it embodies the culture of welcoming strangers from the discomforts of the Mongolian wilderness.

I'm in love with my ger the moment I duck through its hobbit-sized door, swapping the desert evening - the temperature of which plunges by the minute - for a warm carousel of colour and texture.

The roof is a wheel of 50-odd spokes with a hefty rock on a rope (an anchor) dangling from its hub. The earth floor is covered with vinyl and in the centre is a wood-burning stove of decorated tin, plus a box of dried cow dung. My bed is piled with thick blankets made from the wool of sheep, goats and camels.

As the wind rumbles over the canvas dome, I light a candle. The flame is as still as if it were burning in a Bordeaux cellar.

THE tour breaks in UlaanBaatar for two days. There are no yaks here, either.

UB is an ugly, polluted city surrounded by soaring green hills and the traffic clearly wants to kill me. But Mongolia continues to reveal itself. I realise that while Mongolians look Asian, they've got things most Asians don't have. Space, for one thing - there are 2.6 million people living in a country the size of Queensland. They have an inclination to be unhurried, influenced perhaps by Tibetan Buddhism. And the women are splendidly buxom - I've no idea why.

Their fearsome language is now relayed in Russian Cyrillic, a legacy of 70 years under Soviet rule until independence in 1990. The Nabisco-type symbols sit atop the city's severe apartment architecture and it becomes a habit to gaze up and decipher them, though this is not without risk since most of UB's footpaths have been dug up and scraped into large heaps. The mining industry is now Mongolia's biggest earner but pavement-laying must run a close second.

So in two days I light-foot over the rubble to try as best I can to cover the essentials: history, religion, art and food. The national museum is a delight and I'm amazed to see relics on display much like I unearthed at the toe of my hiking boot. The nearby Museum of Natural History is a shabby throwback featuring stuffed animals and dinosaur fossils; a small shop on the ground floor sells pieces such as the one I unearthed, plus other antiquities that might have been best left where they were found.

Ghengis Khan is everywhere - on beer bottles, on expensive hotels housing foreign mine personnel and on a massive bronze seat outside the parliament building. Little is known of the chap they call "Chinggis" but he has been elevated to the status of founding father. Perhaps justly so. The Washington Post nominated him "man of the millennium" for fostering law and commerce; he also overran hundreds of millions of Eurasians with just 100,000 men.

At Gandan Khiid, a colourful, curly-roofed complex of Buddhist monasteries, I see young Mongolians rubbing sacred relics while chatting into their mobile phones. Monks in plum-coloured robes press into the Ochidara Temple to make an ungodly racket with horns and drums while pickpockets, presumably unfazed by karmic consequences, target the bags of Westerners. A 26-metre gold-leafed Buddhist god occupies the shadowy void of the main temple. It's impressive but in the desert we'd encountered rocks piled on hilltops hung with torn shreds of pale-blue satin. These shaman offerings to the sky god, Tengger, seemed infinitely more potent.

For culture, I forgo the Mongolian translation of X-Men: First Class for the Tumen Ekh traditional song and dance. I fear it will be akin to a jolly jumbuck show in Sydney but it's fabulous - an hour of colour, energy and music that (rather unlike most Asian classical fare) is accessible, exciting and a bit sexy. Then a portly man in graded sunglasses opens his mouth and begins throat singing. It's inhuman. Indeed, it's divine.

And food? While the sauced-up stir-fries served in the desert had been filling and delicious, they'd been disappointingly familiar - so I visit a restaurant named Modern Nomads and order a sheep's head.

Expecting an Arabian-type meat dish, I'm surprised by a greyish skull, neatly trepanned and inverted on a wooden frame. The brain cavity is filled with parts of an animal's body that only a vet could identify. I gingerly push aside a rack of teeth and tuck in, earning a grinning thumbs up from a Mongolian diner.

AT THE Jalman Meadows camp, 150 kilometres from the Siberian border, we're met by a yak.

The shaggy black behemoth has lyre-shaped horns. We come to learn that its butter tastes like an uncleaned byre and if you ever try to ride one, you should be sure to get a really good run at the mount (I practically split my kneecap on the beast's spine before sailing clean over the other side).

But the yak is labouring - not under the crude handmade cart to which it's yoked but under the weight of my expectations. Basically, Mongolia is proving a hard act to follow.

At Jalman, the view through the hobbit door of my ger is now a muted Montana, a place of luminous hills carpeted in yellow flowers and steepled with pine forests, a broad valley cleaved by the fulsome River Tuul.

We ride Mongolian horses and try shooting arrows with the Mongolian cupid-mouth bow. We set up a "sauna ger" by the river, using the freezing water to shock our skin into some glowing health. At night, Namuul plays the horse-head fiddle with tremendous skill, while young herdsmen sing, clearly for their pleasure as much as ours.

When the four-day yak safari heads out of Jalman, three burdened beasts stick to the wide flood plain, towing the kitchen ger and our tents while we hike into the hills. Our guide is 23-year-old Tumru, a Mongolian cowboy who wears a patterned tunic and a felt hat. He sings everywhere he goes, a sweet, unselfconscious baritone, singing us up to 750-metre peaks where the views are monumental and a bit prehistoric. This is mammoth herd country for sure but the wildlife is somewhat smaller - marmots and ground squirrels mostly - and the air is lullabied with the relentless call of cuckoos. Each afternoon we arrive at a new riverside location with four tents, three yaks and a kitchen ger tooting smoke into the fresh meadow sky. We bathe in the chill water when the sun is warm, or huddle around the stove when the rain sweeps in. Our cook sits on her portable cooler to stir-fry more hearty dishes - a happy pianist in front of a keyboard of pans - and the round felt interior fills with the sounds of chat, singing and that raw, raucous Mongolian language.

Occasionally, a muted, heavy grunt comes from one of the shaggy beasts tethered outside. And I realise that while Mongolia was once an outer space, it's now filled with things that are remarkable and contrary and beautiful.

A yak was just a big black cow that I knew all along.

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Ulaanbaatar for about $2035 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including tax. You fly to Hong Kong (9hr), then on MIAT Mongolian Airlines to Ulan Bator (4hr 35min). Or fly to Beijing and take the 30-hour train through the Gobi Desert. Australians require a $100 visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Touring there

The Peregrine Mongolian Yak Safari is a 14-day trip out of Ulaanbaatar. It costs $2595 a person, including accommodation (hotels, gers and regular tents), transport, most meals, a Peregrine leader and airport transfers (excluding international air fares). Departures in September this year as well as May, June, July and September 2012. Phone 1300 854 500, see peregrineadventures.com.




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