Wild, wild east

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 July, 2008, 12:00am

For decades it's been one of the most elusive and therefore most alluring of destinations. The Trans-Mongolian Railway, branching off the better-known Trans-Siberian, slices through the sumptuous realm where the Central Asian steppe, taiga, blue lakes, the Altai mountains and the Gobi Desert meet in a high, landlocked plateau between Siberia and northern China's plains.

When Mongolia's former Soviet-style rulers were granting only transit visas, the train's windows were pawed and misted by more than a few dreamers. For this was the land of Genghis Khan, the relentless 13th-century warrior who conquered much of the known world and struck fear into more hearts than any leader before and perhaps since.

It was the most pristine environment in Asia, teeming with wildlife and livestock, and peopled by - as Jasper Becker, author of The Lost Country, puts it - 'wandering tribes, prophets, shamans and mystic kings - where the wolf still stalks the wild horse across the treeless plain and where the eagle hangs in the blue sky searching the bare mountains.'

It was another world, so inaccessible it might as well have been the moon. It could take years to obtain permission for a limited visit and then there was the task of actually getting there. Today, you can take a daily 21/2-hour flight to Ulan Bator, the capital, from Seoul.

The city is the first surprise. It's a place of shopping malls, yellow cabs, miniskirts, supermarkets, billboards, boutiques and restaurants, where a plush western hotel is almost within sight of a yurt encampment. It's where a crowded fashion catwalk juts out alongside stately buildings topped with massive signs from the days when the old regime called the tune, patriotic exhortations ranging from 'Let's improve Mongolia' to 'May Mongolians' faith always improve and develop like their fire'.

Shot of Russian influence and indifferent to the Chinese, Mongolia has eagerly aligned itself with the globalised world. Capital-dwellers throng a branch of the Californian-based Mongolian Barbeque chain, even though, as one young diner admits, the expensive fare on offer bears little relation to anything ever served at her family table. It's all about the thrill of the new and there's no shortage of that.

Yet it's the thrill of the ancient, the uncovering of things once hidden, that is bringing the world to Mongolia. The red carpet at Ulan Bator's airport seems only rarely to be rolled up; in recent years figures such as George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and a roll-call of dignitaries and diplomats from other countries have beaten a path to the capital.

For tourists, the biggest draw in a country that recently celebrated its 800th birthday is July's Naadam festival, a showcase of Mongolians' equestrian skills, archery, wrestling and knuckle-bone throwing. There's something exhilarating about watching ranks of traditionally dressed riders surging into a packed, open stadium on the same compact, sprightly breed of steed on which Khan rode into battle, surrounded by dancers, athletes, musicians, monks, soldiers and nomad herders.

You're forever reminded that there's a horse-to-human ratio of 13 to one in Mongolia. During Naadam, up to 100,000 people - supposedly half of them on horseback - line the sides of a wide valley to cheer on more than 400 entrants in a race so long and ferocious that it is not uncommon for some of the horses to die of exhaustion before the finishing line.

More sedate are the popular eight-day horseback expeditions through the mountains outside Ulan Bator. A slew of local tour companies have opened up the extremities of the country, which is the size of Alaska, utilising a network of warm, comfortable yurt camps tucked under mountain outcrops, by lakesides and in deserts. Some have shower blocks, gift shops, visiting singers and after-dinner screenings of local films such as The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog, made by Oscar-nominated director Byambasuren Davaa.

If you prefer a bit more comfort, it's also possible to take a 4WD for two or three weeks to venture into western Mongolia or follow a loop south to the Gobi Desert and north to the alpine lake of Khovsgol Nuur. The country is unfenced and open, roads mean little, and private property is still a vague concept. Like the herders, you're free to head off in any direction you fancy and stop where it suits you.

It's a landscape of dinosaur quarries, raging rivers, desert monasteries, deep canyons, high dunes, mountains, forests and glaciers, which, for sporty types, provide a backdrop to activities as diverse as camel trekking, kayaking, riding, swimming, climbing, hiking, fishing and dune sliding.

Although Mongolia is a far-flung destination for many travellers, it offers a good starting point for further exploration of the region, which remains relatively untouched by tourism. The Trans-Mongolian Railway connects with the Trans-Siberian to take visitors to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, or east to Vladivostok. And Kazakhstan, Manchuria and the Russian republics of Tuva, Buryatia and Altai are within reach. A Hamburg to Shanghai car rally also snakes through the country during the summer.

But horses remain the soul of Mongolia, no matter how you choose to get around, and they're often at the centre of the cultural performances on offer in the capital. Khan looms large in local history, and his exploits are the subject of many equine shows.

Yet the legacy of the country's Soviet-dominated past means there are also classical orchestras and ballet companies with distinctive local characteristics. Mongolian compositions feature prominently, as do local instruments such as the horse-head fiddle, played by Khan's descendants with the vigour of warriors and a sound as enchanting as the empty expanses of the country itself.

Getting there

Korean Air (koreanair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator via Seoul.