Bumpy Mongolian roads lead to historic locations
My first 72 hours in Mongolia had made a believer of me. We’d covered about 130 miles by car, first going east to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and then u-turning west, passing through Ulaanbaatar to switch the car for a van and heading toward the sunset.
I was traveling with my friend Brenda on a seven-day tour of central Mongolia led by a delightful young woman named Aggie. In the next few days, she would lead us to the site of Genghis Khan’s capital, two Buddhist monasteries and the view of sand dunes from atop two very ornery camels.
But getting to and from these magnificent spots called for the patience of a Red Sox fan and, frankly, the stomach of one, too. So far, the road had been bumpy but manageable, and I began to think I’d make it through the week without a bout of my usual carsickness. I can’t remember another time in my life when I’ve been more wrong.
In the afternoon of day three we pulled into Khustain National Park, where the wild takhi horses live. The park is about 62 miles southeast of Ulaanbaatar and the ride took around two hours, a reasonable pace. The roads in Mongolia are few, and those that exist are in a constant state of disrepair. I thought the road to Khustain was fairly rough. I’d learn later those 62 miles wove a silk road compared to what lay ahead.
After a quiet night at Khustain we awoke at daybreak for a quick breakfast and a trip out to find the takhi. First we found Sandy and Bob, a couple from Michigan we’d befriended. We said our hellos and went looking for horses.
Khustain is really a reserve, nearly 200 square miles of land for the takhi. The takhi are a short, stubby-legged and broad-nosed breed that once roamed wild on the Mongol steppes. The wild herds had disappeared by the late 1960s after too much hunting and poaching. About a dozen remained in a few zoos around the world, which were bred with some success.
Starting in the early 1990s, small herds from various zoos were brought back to Mongolia, and now the country works with the Netherlands to track and protect the horses, which number now close to 200.
We lucked upon a herd grazing on a hill, then watched as a second herd approached and the two stallions said their manly, hoof-slapping hellos. After a few screams, the passing herd passed by and each stallion remained king for the day.
We humans crawled back in the van and headed east toward Kharkhorin, once home to Genghis Khan’s capital, called Karakorum. We left before 11 a.m. with a little less than 200 miles to go. We arrived just before 4 p.m. with a full understanding of the life of a bobblehead and that the road to hell is paved with Mongolia asphalt.
We reached smooth land in Kharkhorin, where we settled our stomachs with fresh air, rest and a bottle of wine I’d foraged in Ulaanbaatar.
Meanwhile, the owners of the tourist camp made us a traditional feast of khorkhog, a mutton stew fired with hot stones. The cook heated river stones in a fire, then dropped them into a huge vat. She added the mutton, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips,
spices, salt and water, closed it with a screw-top lid and set it atop her fire.
Two hours later, this pressure cooker delivered the best lamb stew I’ve ever had and even convinced Bob, who hated mutton until that day, that lamb could make a satisfying meal.
The next morning we toured the former land of the Khans.
We stood on land in the former Karakorum from which Genghis (more accurately pronounced Chinggis) Khan steered an empire that stretched from the Korean peninsula past Russia, Iran and Iraq up to Italy’s borders. The ancient capital was founded in 1220 along the silk road, though the empire stayed there for only 40 years until another Mongol leader, Khublai Khan, moved the leadership to what is now Beijing.
The Mongol dominance was fueled by its warriors, its horses and its diplomacy, many historians now note. While massacres certainly spread from town to town during the 13th century, the Khans also ordered their soldiers to limit bloodshed and spare entire towns that agreed to come under Mongolia’s rule. Genghis Khan, known from afar as a ruthless invader, is revered at home as a statesman who set up a modern government and established a common written language.
It was Khublai Khan who first embraced Buddhism while ruling from China, and by the 16th century, Karakorum had become home to 1,000 monks at Erdene Zuu. By the time we visited, the monastery and Buddhism had suffered through persecutions of communist leaders. Monks and sympathetic leaders helped hide relics, and the monastery was allowed to reopen as a museum in the mid-1960s. By 1990, it once again was allowed to be a place of worship and teaching monastery.
The visit to Karakorum and the history lessons reminded me of an adage I’d heard on a past trip to Beijing. A Chinese leader apparently told Khublai Khan that an empire conquered by horseback could not be ruled by horseback, a saying with obvious truth.
But the vista also brought home a Mongolian proverb told to us the previous night over dinner: Travel as far as you can while your horse is alive and meet as many people as you can while your father is alive. The dependence on camaraderie and reliable transportation can never be underestimated, and traveling across frustrating yet breathtaking paths with new friends — Aggie, Bob and Sandy — made for one of the most rewarding adventures I’ve had in years.
But it wasn’t without its challenges: The last night in a tourist camp proved the coldest, complete with frost, and the camp workers forgot to light our stoves in the early morning. We shivered through breakfast and braved ahead, slinking back into the lurching van and turning east to Ulaanbaatar.
We careened into town in time for a relaxing lunch, some cashmere shopping, hot showers and a rousing concert by traditional performers. The music included traditional throat singing and a trio of string players, so that one performance sounded like Peking Opera and another like a bluegrass jamboree.
Looking back, it feels magical that I got to visit such a monumental land.
It also feels miraculous that we never once got a flat tire. It must mean my 21st century horse is still alive, and that I’m ready to return to Mongolia for another visit.