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Mongolia

September 2014

A country so vast, so strong, so extreme in every way possible. While more and more young people choose a new life in towns or the capital, 15 % of the population still live as Nomads. Spending two weeks with them in one of the harshest climes of the world was more than an unique experience.

Getting Adjusted

Mongolia is no country like others, so we were curious what Jagaa, our driver, and Ayuna, our guide, would show us in the following 13 days. It started with a first glimpse of Mongolian highways: Just a few main roads around Ulaanbaatar are paved – everywhere else you just drive wherever your Russian 4WD or motorbike can take you.
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Breakdown

A blessing in disguise for two Japanese professors, we met on the way: Their car broke down right next to the main road. With no cell phone reception in most of the country and the likely chance of no one passing by for weeks, a breakdown in other parts of the country might end deadly.
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Baga Gazriin Chuluu

Our first stop are the amazing rocks of Baga Gazriin Chuluu. Neither the remoteness nor the surrounding rocks saved the old monastery and its monks from the Soviet purge. Like a miracle, there are dozens of young trees growing in this oasis nowadays – with not a single other tree within hundreds of kilometers steppe around.
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Cold, Cold Nights

Don't expect any luxury out of Ulaanbaatar. A yurt, an oven, a few bed frames around, that's it. After the fire goes out, nights get freezing cold in the yurt. The Korean army sleeping bag was a true life-saver.
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Satellite TV

Even hundreds of kilometers away from the next town or village, there is one electronic device you will find in every yurt: a satellite TV. While often just an old black and white Soviet telly, some wealthy Nomads can even afford a huge flat screen.
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Tsagaan Suvarga

The following day brought us deep into no man's land. Tsagaan Suvarga is a sandstone rock formation in the middle of nowhere - half way between Ulaanbaatar and the Gobi desert.
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Soviet Style

There is just one transport vehicle that can compete with Mongolian horses: the good old Russian UAZ 452. Our 4WD was manufactured in 2005 – with barely any changes to the very first one built in 1965. A car made to last forever.
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Family Dinner

Food in Mongolia is basic and mainly depends on one single ingredient: the animal. Rice and noodles where the luxury we brought in our car.
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Starry Nights

I have never brushed my teeth in a place like that. The Mongolian sky at night is just overwhelming – unfortunately also unbelievably cold in late September.
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Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park

The very southern part of Mongolia is home to the Gobi desert. The "Valley of the Vultures" or Yolyn Am would not show us any vultures, but was an amazing hike anyway. A rather scary experience is the National Park's museum. This poor guy below is even one of the nicer (!) animal preparations.
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Nomad Life

Especially in areas such as the Gobi – with no lake or river and barely any rain most time of the year – it is unbelievable how people can survive. Everything depends on the animals. They are the Nomad's source of food, transportation, monetary income, even heating energy. Dung is the first choice to fire the oven.
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On the Edge

To survive, a family needs at least 300 animals. With 1000 a nomad is considered wealthy. To conquer the harsh weather conditions, a family should not just be depended on one kind of animal – most keep at least two types.
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Mongolian Toilets

Well, also those things have to be mentioned. Mongolian toilets are pretty straight forward: a hole in the ground, some planks on top – and if you are lucky some sort of wall around. This one here was the most luxurious during our whole trip, even with a roof! Bring your own toilet paper ;)
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Khorkhog

Jagaa is preparing the Mongolian national dish. All you need are some solid rocks, vegetables (yes!!), even spices, a lot of meat and a couple of hours to cook the whole thing in a huge wok.
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Khongoryn Els

Finally the desert as one might expect: blue skies, sand dunes, camels. The dunes of Khongoryn Els are also called "Singing Sands" – the heavy wind impressively demonstrated, why.
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Reaching the Top

Climbing the 200 meters sand dune feels like climbing the Himalaya. Of every meter uphill you slide 90 centimeters down again, while your throat is drying-out and the wind is sandblasting your face.
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Family Business

Slaughtering an animal is a nomad's daily business, so the family is a well-organized team.
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Mongolian Towns & Villages

Every 'Aimag' – the Mongolian regions – has a central town. There you will find all the basic supplies: a gas station, some shops, a boarding school for all the kids, a hospital and even more important: a vet.
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Ongiin Khiid

The destroyed monastery is a rather depressing place with the fate of its monks in mind. But the area at least offered one thing, we almost forgot: water. With temperatures around 0 °C it was unfortunately not really under consideration for the overdue shower or bath.
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Karakorum

Some long hours across the steppe later, we arrived in the ancient capital. A son of the great Genghis Khan, who by the way is still worshiped more than anyone else in Mongolia, ruled the biggest empire of all time from here. After some clashes with the Chinese in 1388, the town was eventually destroyed. Buddhist monks later built Mongolia's largest monastery out of Karakorum's ruins: Erdene Zuu. One of very few religious sites that at least partially survived Communism.
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Orkhon Valley

Kharkhorin is the starting point for entering the Orkhon valley, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We follow the river banks upstream. Even moderate distances stretch for hours, if you have to drive them off-road. But entering the Orkhan valley was actually one of the most comfortable rides, and one of the few with oncoming traffic.
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Mucky Pups

Those lovely twins probably just got the first cookies of their life. They were not convinced yet.
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Mongolian Dumplings

Closer to the arable regions in central Mongolia, even dough finds its way into the kitchen.
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Wood

Deeper in the Orkhan valley, close to Naiman Nuur – the eight lakes – forests cover the ridges. Wood makes a much better fuel to fire the yurt's stove, as it lasts much longer than dung. Lucky us, as we were facing the coldest days and nights of our stay.
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Friends for a Day

The beautiful dog accompanied us for our strolls through the area. Unfortunately he also stole our sleep at night, while chasing away the wolves.
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The Horse Ride

What a timing. Right after we left the UAZ behind for a three days horse ride in the wilderness, winter came around the corner. What started with a few snowflakes quickly became winter wonderland overnight. For a true Mongol of course, that was far away from being considered winter.
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Snowman

The snow lasted just for two days – still long enough to build a new family member.
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Slipping and sliding

The guide book described the shortcut from Orkhon valley to Tsenkher Jiguur as one of the worst roads in this country definitely not lacking in bad roads. True story! But the hot springs we found there, were worth everything. What a relief after eleven days without a shower!
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Last Days in the Wild

On the way back to the city, we spent our last night in the Mongol Els region. Here you find all three major landscapes of Mongolia in one place: Flat steppe lands, raw mountain ridges and even sand dunes. Plus a family, that had a little surprise for us: It was slaughtering day. If livestock is your only resource, you have to kill an animal once in a while. Killing and cut up a full-grown horse into pieces takes no more than an hour for six experienced adults and a child. If you are sensitive, please skip the following photos!
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Next Morning

Nature was already working hard on new life the next morning.
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Khustain Nuruu National Park

Our last stopover on the way back to Ulaanbaatar. The Thakis – or Przewalski horses – here are more lucky than their domesticated fellows: after the reintroduction in the early 90s, Thakis are now strictly protected by national law.
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Back to UB

The Soviet architecture and heavy air pollution hit us hard after 13 days in some of the most remote areas we have ever been to. Since Mongolia's transition to a market economy in 1990, the city's population doubled to more than 1.3 million people – nearly half of the country's population. With barely any city planing in place, there are now endless ger (yurt) districts sprawling around the concrete city center. As the yurt's main energy source for heating and cooking still is the typical coal fired Mongolian stove, the air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is one of the worst in the world.
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Gandan Monastery

A peaceful place in the middle of the city madness, where just the monks are in hurry to rush from one temple to another.
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Transmongolian Railway

The 30 hours train ride back to Beijing was the perfect way to let all the overwhelming impressions sink in – and Mongolia offered thousands of them, every day.
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Future Mongolia

Don't get me wrong after all those comments: Mongolia is far away from being an outdated country. There are smart phones, wind farms and extremely well educated, open minded people everywhere. They just managed to keep their very own, strong and proud culture of nomadism at the same time – and will hopefully still do so in the future.
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Bye Bye Mongolia

The Gobi desert is passing by one last time. We will come back, that's for sure!
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Border Control

Passing the Mongolian-Chinese border in the middle of the night is a rather strange experience. An empty railway station guarded by dozens of soldiers, the same incomprehensible announcement repeats on the platform for hours and finally the whole train is dismantled and equipped with new wheel carriages, as both countries use different gauges. The next morning we were back to China.
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© 2017 Benedikt Altschuh