Saturday 25 November 2017

Take the big red train to try Mongolia's ancient lifestyle

Barry Connell leaves Beijing for a felt tent with no running water, electricity or broadband

Barry Connell

SO rare are countries that have been virtually untouched by modern- day technologies and infrastructure, that when you've found one, you almost wish to pretend you have not seen it, to allow it to remain your secret. On the other hand, you want to share your good fortune so, if you're up for an adventure, open to challenges, if you wish to experience some serious cultural differences, then the ancient land of Mongolia will undoubtedly satisfy all those desires.

The Trans Mongolian train leaves Beijing for Moscow twice a week and staying on throughout the trip takes seven days. All tickets include a bed, which can be in a dorm of up to 50 people. First class, however, provides a pair of bunk beds with a bedside table and a shower which is shared with the neighbouring room.

The border crossing to Mongolia is reached approximately 13 hours after leaving Beijing and it takes several hours before departing onwards. Mongolia's trains run on a slightly wider gauge than the international standard and so the wheels, or bogies, are changed here.

The difference in the landscape is quite evident upon reaching the Mongolian hinterland. Gone are the agricultural, irrigated lands of China which are replaced by the barren, yet magnificent, Gobi desert. Gone too is any semblance of infrastructure, bar the long and winding train track leading us another 17 hours to Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). The outskirts of this city provide a sight that I had never before seen, with the view of gers as far as the eye could see. These small, round, felt tents are synonymous with Mongolia, and when passing them I thought anxiously to myself -- will I survive a week in one with a rural family?

UB has much to offer. An enjoyable few hours can be spent at The Museum of Natural History, which has a fine dinosaur collection, much of which originates from the Gobi. Although huge poverty is evident within the country, many UB locals enjoy socialising, and a lively night out is guaranteed.

The Sukhbaatar Square gives the city a fine open area and an air of serenity. The statue of Chinggis Khaan who established the Mongol empire takes pride of place here. Long gone are the days of expansion of this once mighty empire. Nowadays, the Mongolians sit anxiously between their Russian and Chinese neighbours. They seem thankful that the two super powers do not want to enrage the other and so Mongolia lies meekly beside them.

The real jewel in Mongolia's crown is its countryside and its diversity. A quarter of Mongolians are still nomadic, and you can feel as though you literally have the place to yourself while exploring its beautiful landscapes. Mongolia offers majestic forestry, fish-filled rivers and lakes, grasslands, mountain ranges, Buddhist temples, amazing steppes, deserts, historic dinosaur sites and unique wildlife. Add to that the most generous and courteous of people, herders moving with the seasons, and this is truly a kaleidoscope of experiences.

Some 450 miles west of UB, we then went another one hour off road to the most beautiful expanse of land where just two gers are situated. A week-long stay with a horse trainer and his family felt like a step back in time. The nearest 'town' was a half-hour horse ride away. It seemed more run down than any town I had seen in old Wild West films. Our home, with no running water, toilet or electricity, was the most relaxing of settings. So many aspects of the rural way of life had highly regarded traditions -- for example, whom you greeted first, who ate first, to where you sat in the ger. When you visit a ger for the first time the host will offer you koumiss -- fermented mare's milk. This very acidic drink should be at least sipped so as not to offend the host. The man of the ger controlled the almost daily routine of drinking vodka. He passed the one small cup to those present. Any visiting local drank first, ourselves next, then any other men, women last. and the cycle again began. The food was all prepared in the centre of the ger on a small stove and primarily consisted of dried meat from winter that was boiled with pasta strips or potato, a little bland but quite edible. The walking and horse- riding in the area was breathtaking. Camels, eagles, wolves and herdsmen all roamed the open countryside.

Life here was free of many of the stresses that encompass our own. No economy talk, no banks, mortgages, no mobiles, no need for a watch. We stayed with our hosts during the Naadam festival, which is hugely important to the Mongolians. Held in July, it's an annual two-day festival of the three manly sports: wrestling, archery and the mightily impressive horse- riding. Six to 10-year-olds race the horses over 25km courses. The Mongolians ride horses literally from when they can walk and seeing these children at the end of the races filled one with complete admiration for the bravery of their exploits.

Mongolia has a multitude of reasons to pay a visit. If experiencing ancient traditions and a nomadic way of life in the most idyllic of settings along with super generous people catches your imagination, then you won't find a more unspoilt, uplifting part of the world to help you reassess what matters most in life -- just don't forget your phrasebook!

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