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Mongolia - Land of Steppes and Nomads

Wild and wonderful Mongolia is an incentive organiser’s dream. Its extraordinary natural beauty, wide open spaces and colourful ethnic minorities with unique customs, provide a ready canvas for creating outstanding trips.

What will make them more special is the spontaneity involved, whether it be an encounter with a weather-beaten horseman in traditional dress, chance sightings of rare black-necked Siberian cranes wading in remote lakes or sampling timehonoured hospitality in the ger of a herdsman’s family, tasting yak’s milk yoghurt, cheese, airag (fermented mare’s milk) and even vodka distilled from milk.

Mongolia is three times the size of France, with only 2.6 million people, of whom a million live in its capital, Ulaanbaatar. Much of the country is sparsely populated, home to roaming nomads, who move, according to the seasons, from grassland to grassland, known as steppe, in search of pasture for their herds of cattle, horses, sheep, goats and camels, doing what their ancestors have done for centuries.

Aside from such ancient traditions and culture, Mongolia has a history dating back to Paleolithic times over half a million years ago. Skeletons of dinosaurs, mammoths and elephant-rhinoceros (some of them remarkably intact), and on display in Ulaanbaatar’s Museum of Natural History, have been found in its Gobi desert. Paintings on rocks and inside caves as well as carved ‘stone men’, point to the existence of a rich heritage. Its most famous ruler, Genghis Khan, is best known for creating the Mongol Empire (1206-1405), the world’s largest land empire, that stretched all the way to the Middle East. Add in its fabulous landscapes and it is little wonder the country is a natural magnet for tourism.

Yet tourism is in its infancy, as travelling in Mongolia is a challenge. There are no well-defined roads, only dir t tracks and hardly any accommodation so camping is the way to go. What’s more, you have to travel with a kitchen, lugging not only a cooking stove and food but also dining tables and chairs. But it is precisely such challenges that give rise to opportunities to make the trip a memorable one. For instance, the backdrop for dining is always spectacular – at the edge of a gurgling stream, on a hill overlooking a lake or in a national park with a sensurround view of snow-capped mountains. A well-planned menu with gourmet meals thrown in can enhance the experience.

To travel in Mongolia is to embark on an expedition. And for incentive participants, this element of adventure is enough appeal. Only 4WD vehicles can tackle the rough terrain, to which the ubiquitous Russian-made furgon (resembling a VW combi) and jeep are well suited. Each expedition must be accompanied by a furgon with fully equipped kitchen facilities, food and a cook. Fresh yoghur t, cheese and milk are available from hospitable herders enroute.

In some places, there are ger camps where groups can stay. These self-contained areas, with gers offering single or twin beds, have a restaurant and modern toilet facilities, making it a welcome change from camping out in the wild. For a warm welcome, the ger camp can greet participants with a welcome drink by costume-clad staff or lay on an after-dinner concert by local singers or musicians.

Where to go? With vast distances between regions, which are served erratically by air links and covered mostly by road, one can only explore parts of the country at a time. But the choices are wideranging. In North Mongolia, the home of reindeer herders, scenic pine forests and log cabins beckon while in Eastern Mongolia, reputedly the birthplace of Genghis Khan, blue skies meet swathes of verdant grasslands where herds of wild gazelle roam. Central Mongolia is known for its mountainous alpine lakes and Siberian forests, ancient monasteries and relaxing stays in ger camps for hiking and horse-riding activities, while the Gobi desert with its sand dunes, gorges and dinosaur fossils are an explorer’s delight.

However, it is rugged Western Mongolia with its soaring peaks, glacial valleys, lakes, mysterious burial mounds, stone-men and petroglyphs that fires the visitor’s imagination. Covering the most remote parts of Mongolia and home to five of the country’s highest peaks that form a natural border with China and Russia, the region offers some of the country’s most spectacular views.

The journey to the west begins with a flight from Ulan Bataar in a small plane to the aimag or province of Khovd. Its lively capital, Khovd City, with a good mix of numerous Mongolian minorities complementing the majority Khalkh population, has a handful of outfitters that can put together vehicles, drivers, guides and cook for any expedition. It is also a convenient base to stock up on food supplies and drinking water before setting off.

While camping can be done anywhere, sites chosen are usually near a river, stream or lake, from which water is drawn for cooking and washing up. Supplies can be re-stocked at villages along the way. Invariably dusty, they are also picturesque, such as Bulgan sum and Delun, with mountains looming behind their jumble of streets, gers located by the river, and minarets of mosques piercing into the sky.

Western Mongolia may only be a small corner of Mongolia but its diversity is amazing with the furgons and jeeps crossing high mountain passes, traversing narrow canyons and wide valleys, trundling through desert terrain, lush steppes and fording rivers.

The passing scenery is like an ever-changing kaleidoscope. There are panoramic vistas of gently rounded mountains in various colours and jagged snow-capped peaks at the foot of which are many permanent winter camps where nomads retreat with their animals for shelter.

There are mirror-calm lakes galore, the occasional alpine forest and, in summer, even carpets of wildflowers in mountain meadows. Dotting the landscape too, are ovoos, or stone cairns tied with blue ribbons (blue representing the sky). When coming across them, it is customary to do as the locals do – for good luck - walking around it clockwise three times, while adding onto the pile, three more stones and making a wish for each one.

And surprisingly, despite its remoteness, there are always gers in sight, dotting mostly streamrivetted plains where grass and water are plentiful for animal herds but even at the base of mountains. These gers are what makes any visit to Mongolia unforgettable, for they afford the visitor a glimpse of a traditional way of life that has remained unchanged for centuries.

The home of many Mongolian families, the ger is a round tent, comprising a latticed wooden framework covered by felt and canvas with only a stovepipe protruding into the exterior, to let off smoke from an internal furnace standing in the centre. The ger is very mobile and it is not unusual to see families packing up ger and livestock onto vehicles to move elsewhere. The ger is a distinctive feature of the Mongolian countryside and they are even part of the landscape in villages and towns. It houses an entire family who eat, sleep and socialise within its confines.

The simplicity of the ger belies its cosy and colourful interior, especially if it belongs to a Kazakh family, the most predominant of all the ethnic minorities - Kazakh, Tuvan, Torgut, Khoshuut and Uriankhai - living in Western Mongolia. Beautifully embroidered pieces decorate the ceilings and walls while beds are colourfully draped over ; owl feathers symbolic of the Koran (the Kazakhs are Muslims) occupy pride of place as do pictures of family members.

Gers are centres of activities. In the morning, goats and cows are milked, then sent off to pastures for grazing. In the evening, they are herded back to the ger. There is sheep shearing to do, animals to brand and wool threads to be spun. Add to this, yoghurt and cheese have to be made and butter churned from the copious amounts of milk available. These ‘white foods’ provide the sustenance of nomadic families and are always served to visitors who are warmly welcomed whenever they are in the vicinity of a ger.

As some Kazakh herdsmen are also eagle hunters, eagles can be found tethered outside some gers. Trained from as young as two years old, the eagles are used in winter to hunt marmots, rabbits and foxes, mainly for pelt. Eagle hunters will proudly demonstrate their craft, dressed in their ceremonial gear.

Above all, everywhere in Western Mongolia, there are echoes of the past, from the pillar-like ‘stone-men’ standing solitary in the empty landscape. Carved with human faces, and often shown with two hands holding a flask or sword, the pillars date back to the Turkic period (6th to 9th century AD). They are grave stones marking the burial ground of a warrior. There are also deer stones, in the form of pillars or slabs carved with symbols representing the moon and the sky.

And to cap an unforgettable Mongolian expedition, a trek – on foot or horseback - in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park to the Potanii Glacier will thrill participants no end. The 20-km glacier runs from Khuiten (4374m), the highest peak in Mongolia and four others, known collectively as the ‘Holy Five’. Despite the cold and windy conditions, the hike or horse trek across wide plains carpeted with wildflowers with constant views of the snow-capped Holy Five mountain chain, Potanii glacier and chalky glacial rivers are images that remain etched in the mind, making any incentive trip to Mongolia truly wild and wonderful.