Set amidst a rolling sea of green, Mongolia is a landlocked nation with a rich cultural history. Renowned for its expansive steppe terrain, it’s landscape beckons those with an insatiable wanderlust, and it’s no surprise that its vast grasslands fostered a nomadic, herding tradition that was responsible for the growth of the Mongolia Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries.
I first visited Mongolia in 2013 to film an episode of Boundless. That trip was spent in the north of the Country on Lake Khovsgol, and as we were focused on the 100km race, I didn’t have an opportunity to explore much of the country, or the culture. I left feeling like I didn’t get a true Mongolian experience, but I was intrigued by one thing in particular – the lack of fences in the countryside.
I was looking forward to finally having the Mongolian cultural and natural immersion I wanted back in 2013. One of the first things I noticed upon leaving the airport in Ulaanbaatar (UB) was how much the city had changed. Gone were the roads so potholed that I figured departing Soviet soldiers had just randomly tossed grenades from the back of their troop carriers for fun as they rolled back to the USSR. The traffic was still buzzing as we drove north to meet the team in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and along the way I saw a snapshot of Mongolia today – traditional gers occupying greenspace alongside the busy highway, but mixed amid high rises and modern looking sub-divisions. I could see Russian era coal fired power plants – logically numbered 1, 2, and 3 – completely encircled by residential and commercial buildings, belching black smoke to provide energy to this growing city.
As we left the city behind, a more traditional, and iconic, Mongolia appeared on the horizon, with gers, livestock, and herders going about their afternoon completely uninterested in the cars and SUVs that sped along the highway beside them. Once in the National Park (just called Terelj by the locals), we stayed at the comfortable Ayanchin Lodge – which would serve as our hub of exploration, and the only reliable wifi in the region. Terelj is a large park known for several main attractions – a deep glacial lake, a popular hot spring, rock climbing, and a buddhist monastery.
What really made Terelj unique to me, was that Mongolian herders are permitted to live within the park boundaries and have formed several small villages of gers and livestock. I appreciated the effort that the government was making to balance tradition and coexistence with conservation. I learned from our guides and translators that much of Mongolia is still strongly rooted in the nomadic tradition and most Mongolians, even those living in urban areas, maintain very strong ties to their animals and the land.
I experienced this firsthand when we joined a local woman at her ger to “help” her milk her cattle and yaks. After the milking was completed, we watched her prepare the milk into a yogurt and perform her daily prayer with the milk prior to eating that morning.
Despite living within an hour drive of the capital and having two daughters in university, this woman was the antithesis of modernization. She was ~40 years old and didn’t use Instagram or take selfies. Her property held a traditional ger, a very simple three-room brick house, some animal corrals, and a small barn.
She milked her cows, herded them, and shoveled their waste into the body of an old van to be used as heating fuel in the winter. Her’s was, by our standards, a very basic but difficult life. I’m sure she could have found a way to make a living in UB if she wanted to, in order to be able to enjoy some of its modern conveniences and luxuries, but it seemed to me that this life was the life she and her husband chose to live. All of it drove home the first world nature of most of my problems, which admittedly, come from excess, not deficiency.
Outside of some cultural experiences, like spending time at the traditional ger, and visiting a buddhist monastery built in the mountains near by, I was able to explore a number of mountains in Terelj. Whether I woke early to run before breakfast, or took advantage of an afternoon break, I made sure to explore all peaks within striking distance of the lodge.
Most had beautifully run-able approaches that often involved dodging livestock, and when the grasses gave way to forest, I found the bushwhacking easy and enjoyable (save the one branch that split my lip). The scrambles required to reach each summit felt like the right degree of technical difficulty to tackle them alone, and without ropes, with the granite rock providing incredible traction and grip, and a low risk of flaking or crumbling in hand, or underfoot.
Playing alone on mountaintops comes with a certain degree of risk, and while I’ve always considered my personal safety while moving in the mountains, my risk tolerance has definitely changed since becoming a husband and father in the last year and a half. It’s not that I won’t tackle technically difficult objectives, it’s just that I realize that there is a lot to lose if I make mistakes now – so I factor that into every mountaineering equation. I’ve found that it means that I spend more time considering my options, and various factors such as weather, rock quality, my energy level, equipment, and preparation a little more seriously than I did in the past, when I figured that my fitness and skill would carry me through.
Of the mountains visited, both alone and and with our new friends from the UB hiking club, Zorgolkhairkhan was the most spectacular. One of Mongolia’s sacred mountains, this peak sits alone in a vast steppe, a mountain range rises behind it – separated by a wide valley. After driving several hours outside of UB, on both paved and dirt track, it felt like we were a world away from civilization. As we set our campsite at the base of the mountain, we watched a few Mongolian men pass us to retrieve water from a nearby well, riding a cart pulled by a camel. Their life seemed so simple – and almost purely subsistence based. There was something enviable about that. The mountain itself pulled at me to climb it. With exposed granite sloping upwards to the summit at an angle that seemed runnable, I was eager to begin our sunset hike. Once moving with the group, I was pleased to find that it provided a sustained but enjoyable climb, with ample opportunity for scrambling grippy granite slabs, and getting up close and personal with the rock.
Urok, our UB hiking club guide showed us a well known cave near the summit, with a soot blackened roof dating back to time immemorial where Mongolians and their predecessors would have prepared a meal over a campfire – possibly dung fuelled, as wood is hard to come by on the steppe. The team pushed on to the summit where we were rewarded with spectacular views, and a summit festooned in prayer flags, something which I had come to expect after visiting several peaks around Terelj. From the summit, Urok told us the story of how Chinngis Khan (the Mongolian pronunciation and spelling of the English version Genghis Khan) spent a season camped near the base of this mountain with best friend, Jamukha, before he began his historical military campaign and rose to become the great Khan (Fun Fact – it’s estimated that as many as 16,000 million men on Earth have a DNA link to this infamous ruler). Around the base of the mountain lay ancient burial sites, most, if not all, long since looted, but all still representative of a different time – perhaps the time of the Great Khans.
Sitting atop a mountain, thousands of feet above the steppe below is a place for introspection. Golden eagles sore below you, occasionally catching a thermal to rise up in front of you – hoovering for a brief moment, before either being carried higher, or plunging below the horizon again. The wind blows – erasing any sounds from the valley below – and centres you in that place, and moment in time. If find that these moments are rare in life, and when you can recognize them – they are worth fighting for. These moments brought the entire Mongolian trip full circle for me, as these were the simple times, where schedule, and work demands only existed at the base of the mountain. On the summit, was time for meditation, deep thought, appreciation and gratitude. Gratitude that there are still places on this planet where we can escape our insane calendars, and reconnect with the important things – the simple things. What I value most about these trips and cultural immersions is how they make me think about my life, my priorities, and the things that I let stress me. They remind me about what matters most – which is family, health, and maintaining a deep appreciation for the natural places that help us find our centre.
By Ambassador Simon Donato