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by Carrie Kirby

An overnight train ride north brings you to the anti-Beijing: the roomy, fresh-air country of Mongolia.

Beijing residents who journey to Mongolia often feel they have been duped the moment they step off the train or plane. It is a feeling that intensifies as one moves away from the capital, Ulan Bator, and into the open countryside. When the sky is clear and blue not just above but all around, free of obstructions from horizon to horizon, and the only traffic on the road is a meandering herd of sheep, a Beijinger can¹t help wondering: What the hell was I doing in Beijing all this time?

Go north, young comrade, go north. Mongolia‹Outer Mongolia (to distinguish from Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia, now predominantly populated by Han Chinese)‹is the big sky country of northern Asia. Two bordering countries could not possibly be more different than Mongolia and China. When a train arrives in Beijing or Xian, train station touts board the train and try to physically drag travelers to places like "The World Important Imperial Hotel." Ulan Bator‹with the embryonic growth of a market economy‹has touts too, but they are shy. They say, "Excuse me, ma¹am, would you like a room? No? All right, thank you." And they go away. Ulan Bator has no McDonald¹s, much less a Dunkin¹ Donuts.

While Beijing is a smoggy, reeking 37 degrees in July, people in Ulan Bator are putting on an extra sweater in the evening and watching the occasional hawk swoop down in front of the parliament building in the center of town. And that¹s just the city. The real Mongolia is outside the few cities, where more than a quarter of the nation¹s 2.2 million people live as nomadic herdsmen, and the land is uncultivated and untainted. The livestock outnumber the people, and there are almost as many landscapes to choose from‹steppe, desert, mountains, forest, taiga‹all populated with wildlife that most people outside Mongolia rarely see. The growing tourism industry makes most areas of the country accessible, whether by plane, jeep (mostly on dirt roads since there aren¹t many paved ones), horseback, camel or yak cart.While Mongolia is short on monuments‹people who live in tents don¹t tend to leave behind much architecture‹the people and their festivals are a living monument to a culture that has retained many aspects of the Mongolia of Genghis Khan. Seeing a naadam‹a sporting triumvirate featuring horseracing, wrestling and archery‹is a rare opportunity to witness medieval traditions carried out not as a "cultural performance," but as a natural part of community life. Every National Day (July 12) there is a massive naadam in Ulan Bator, in which horses ride through the city and even through Parliament, but there are also regional naadams throughout the country at different times, and traveling to one can be an excellent combination of cultural and natural exploration.

I traveled with a Swedish-run tour company called Nomadic Journeys (www.nomadicjourneys.com) to a special naadam in Harhorin, a tiny town chosen because in the 13th-14th centuries it was Genghis Khan¹s capital, Karakorum, before the seat of the empire was moved to Khanbaliq, presently known as Beijing. This one-time-only naadam had a nationalistic flair and a dual purpose: To find the fastest horses in Mongolia by pitting the winners of all the provincial naadams against each other, and to consecrate the spot where a structure will be erected to house the new Mongolian banners of peace (white) and war (black). The great Khan supposedly kept such banners, made of black and white horsehair, in a Mongolian yurt (round felt tent) at the same spot. It was an occasion to revel in Genghis Khan worship, a fervor that has bubbled up anew in Mongolia now the Soviet Union has taken its place on the trash heap of history and dreaming of renewed Mongol greatness is no longer persecuted as "nationalism."

Harhorin is about 370 km west of Ulan Bator, which would be a three-hour trip in countries with a road system. We traveled on rutted tracks across the grassy steppe for two days, stopping each night at tourist camps. The journey began on one of Mongolia¹s few paved roads, which stretched out ahead and behind our bus like a support beam holding up both horizons. We stopped to photograph our first herdsman‹a young boy sitting proudly in his wooden saddle, lazily overseeing dozens of grazing sheep just outside the capital. We saw corpulent buzzards hunched on the steppe on both sides of the road; later the buzzards gave way to hawks, kite vultures and eagles. The driver stopped to repair the bus twice. The low mountains on either side of us became bumpy, pregnant-looking green hills, and bathroom breaks meant finding a slight rise in the ground to hide behind‹men on the left side of the road, women on the right.

We encountered only one or two other vehicles an hour, but had to drive slowly to avoid the cows in the road.When we finally arrived at our yurt camp at Hogno Han mountain, it was already 9 pm but the sun was still shining. Like a nomadic family¹s tent, each tourist tent had a potbellied woodburning stove‹which we had to use most nights‹and wooden furniture painted in vibrant colors with traditional motifs. In these days of modern convenience, nomads can buy these necessities at the state department store in Ulan Bator instead of handcrafting them. Unlike nomadic families¹ yurts, these were grouped around a restaurant serving ersatz Western dishes, and a bathroom building with (occasionally) hot showers.

The next day we hiked past a waterfall and through a field full of untethered horses, old animal bones and other more recent reminders of the enormous livestock population that roams the area, to Erdene Khombo, a tiny impoverished Buddhist monastery where we found five little boys in red robes dutifully chanting endless rounds of prayers before the head monk. After the lesson, the boys got up, folded up their robes, grabbed their baseball caps and ran down the hill to play. The abbot was an old woman named Davaa, who remembers when the monastery was more than two flat and dilapidated buildings‹as a child she saw the Soviets murder her father, the former abbot, and tear the place down.

On the third day traffic began to pick up, and rest breaks turned into tailgate parties where Mongolians shared their gas cans full of airag, a disgusting, mildly alcoholic beverage made of fermented mare¹s milk. By midday we hit the Erdene Zuu monastery, near the former capital of Genghis Khan. The 400-by-400-meter walls were bursting with Mongolians who had come to see the naadam. Grinning old couples wearing peaked hats, boots with curled-up toes and full-length wool robes (called dels) despite the warm day, zoomed into the old city gates on motorcycles. Those who came on horseback had to leave their mounts at the gate.

By the time the festivities started the next day there were more cars, horses and people assembled at the grounds than we had seen in the rest of our trip combined. It was like a medieval rock concert, with spectators on horseback crowding so close that the horses drooled on our backs, and trucks full of people and sheep pulled right up to the racecourse for a better view. Present for the opening ceremony and the raising of the banner were the president of Mongolia, the chairman of parliament, the most famous wrestler in the nation and allegedly a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. The crowd was allowed to stand within inches of the nation¹s leaders as the president and chairman solemnly exchanged snuff bottles with the wrestler and the Genghis descendant, and vice versa. Meanwhile, an old man with a wide toothless smile introduced me to the ritual, insisting that I take a small spoonful of snuff from his bottle and put it in my nose. In exchange, he took some of my chapstick on the tip of his finger and applied it to his cracked, dry lips.

The main event was first: the fastest stallions in the nation would run 30 km‹yes, three-zero‹with children as jockeys, and the first five would be considered Mongolia¹s finest. Mongolians breed their horses for endurance‹you don¹t conquer everything from Beijing to Iran on a sprinter. First the horses walked out 30 km from the finish line, then they turned around and raced back. The spectators waited out the three hours or so for them to return, then overflowed the paltry security ropes onto the course as they cheered the first horses to come into sight, their riders‹some only 5 years old‹wailing a victory cry and swinging the crop around in triumphant circles. Then we watched the less successful ones, like the little boy who came bouncing in at a trot and was unable to urge on his horse when it stopped completely, 25 yards from the finish line. Just as we were about to head for lunch, we saw one horse drop dead within sight of the finish line. At the last Ulan Bator naadam , in much hotter weather, several horses died.

Then there was the archery, where men and women use handmade bows to shoot at targets resting on the ground. When a target is knocked down, judges hold up their arms and sing an eerie, throaty song of praise‹a long song for a good shot, a shorter song for a so-so shot. The biggest crowds turned up for wrestling, where the celebrities strip down to their gaudy blue and red Speedo-like shorts and frontless shirts. The story goes that there was once a woman who, like Hua Mulan, disguised herself as a man and proceeded to kick a lot of ass. She beat so many wrestlers with her cunning strategies that, when she was found out, all future wrestlers were required to go bare-chested to prove that they belong to the (less crafty?) male sex.

We managed to get seats in the newly built, sap-oozing bleachers, which swayed a little lower as each additional person squeezed on. Behind us kids stood on the backs of their horses to get a better view. Like the horses, the wrestlers were regional champions, and the best ones threw their opponents very quickly. In Mongolian wrestling, you can use your hands and body any way you want (except for kicking) to get your opponent to touch the ground with anything but his hands or feet. After a victory comes the best part: The winner struts in front of the crowd, bouncing slowly with his knees, his hands waving above his head in a slow-motion imitation of a bird/man, a figure in Mongolian mythology. Meanwhile the seconds of the winners stand by, holding their peaked hats for them. Several matches went on in the big grassy arena simultaneously, narrowing the field from hundreds of wrestlers to dozens in a few hours.

As the wrestling wrapped up, the five winning stallions from the previous day were paraded into the stadium, some with their child jockeys, some without. The horses received medals pinned onto their head coverings, and announcers chanted the horses¹ merits over the public address system. Little attention was given to the brave little riders. A regional naadam can bring out the unique charms of a very small, thinly populated country. After practically rubbing shoulders with the president‹who was staying at another tourist yurt camp‹we had our photos taken with one of the nation¹s most famous wrestlers and returned to our camp to meet a nice old man who‹after 10 minutes of chatting‹confessed to being the American ambassador to Mongolia.

It is hard to decide what the best part of Mongolia is‹its people or its lack thereof. The low census count gives Mongolians a friendliness and laid-back cool that is the antithesis of crowded, cranky Beijingers. One of the traits of the Mongols I most appreciate is their taboo against showing surprise at the appearance of a stranger. Although there are far fewer Westerners in Mongolia than in the city of Beijing alone, we attract less attention in Mongolia. Mongolians wave, they smile, they proffer snuff, but they never, never shout "laowai!"

Nomadic Journeys also organizes camel treks through the Gobi, yak treks in Terelj National Park, horse treks and other escapes from urban tedium. On treks, Nomadic Journeys employs local herdsmen as well as Western guides, providing a unique chance to travel as the nomads do and meet some of the more‹than 25 percent of Mongolians who live for and by their herds.

To book a nomadic journey, email Jan Wigsten at mongolia@nomadicjourneys.com or see the company¹s website at http://www.nomadicjourneys.com.


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