Treading lightly in Khan country / by Thomas O'Malley

This Mongolia ecotourism piece was published in the Beijinger Magazine. 

As the antique Russian bus growled up the slope, he rose into view. A horseman, alert and imperious, surveying miles of empty steppe. It was Chinggis Khan, 40 meters tall and cast from silver steel that dazzled in the sunlight.

After two days in Ulaanbaatar, this was by no means the first encounter with Mongolia’s “Man of the Millennium.” He stares accusingly from discarded bottles of Chinggis Khan Vodka. He eyeballs strolling couples from his black throne in Sukhbaatar Square. His stony visage is carved, 60 meters tall, into the green hills that flank the city. In a recent wave of national pride, Mongolians have been doing all they can to rehabilitate the Great Khan, a man branded as an imperialist during 75 years of communist rule. Now he’s a brand in his own right, as omnipresent as Colonel Sanders in the US, though, one suspects, handier with a scimitar.

Passing the statue, the driver swerved off the asphalt and ploughed up a grassy track. Mongolia has less than 1,000km of paved roads, and just an hour outside the capital, we were bouncing along rolling grassland as soft as felt, bone white gers, (Mongolia’s yurts), scattered like tiny seeds across the landscape. Even today, half the country’s population still tends vast flocks of goats, sheep and horses, moving to new pasture with the seasons.

Our journey followed the Tuul River into the Siberian frontier, to a protected wilderness area called the Khan Khentii, home to elusive brown bears, wolves – and the birthplace of Chinggis Khan. Descending into an alpine valley afforded us the first glimpse of our home for the next few days: A dozen gers, arranged in a crescent sweep on a wide, grassy meadow above the flood plain. This was Jalman Meadows, a sustainable retreat co-operated by local herdsman and Nomadic Journeys, a Swedish travel company.

“The problem with Mongolia travel is that it’s not so slow these days,” Jan Wigsten, Nomadic Journey’s founder, told me over an espresso in Ulaanbaatar’s Le Bistrot Francais a day earlier. He was referring to Mongolia’s well-worn “jeep corridors” that ferry backpackers on budget, hit-and-run itineraries from one beauty spot to the next. Jan tells me his philosophy is simply to find a nice spot, relax and tune in to the nature - and local people – around you.

The first local I tuned in to was Yellow Horn, a shaggy, mild-mannered yak. Alexander, a neighboring herdsman, was driving the reluctant bovine to the river to collect water for the camp. Stepping aside, I ducked into the kitchen ger to find Alexander’s wife Batdavaa boiling yak milk to make uruum, a rich, clotted cream I would become well acquainted with at breakfast. Wandering the camp, it was clear just how involved the local nomads are, even providing animals and guides for horse treks into the wilderness.

Horses are a big deal here. The Mongolians sing pop songs about them. Kids as young as eight compete in grueling, 20km races at the annual Naadam festival each July. So how better to experience the landscape than from the back of a stout, grassland pony? Bold, the camp’s horse guide, led us off down the valley, blue mountains unfolding ahead in the clear air. Everywhere, pale Edelweiss danced in the breeze. Save for the clockwork buzz of grasshoppers, the silence was monumental. At one point, an eagle passed so low and languidly we counted its wing feathers, and made out the sharp hook of its beak. If this is slow travel, I’m all over it.

For saddle-weary riders, Jalman Meadows offers a novel therapy: a ger hauled to the river’s edge – good old Yellow Horn – and erected into an impromptu sauna by Alexander and his sons. After a refreshing plunge in the brisk waters of the Tuul, it was back to camp for dinner. Jalman Meadows is full board, and four days is time enough to taste the narrow spectrum of Mongolian cuisine. One evening, we were treated to a boodog, a traditional banquet of goat, steamed together with potatoes and carrots in a metal urn over a fire. The animal is one of Alexander’s own, so the idea of food miles hardly applies.

Nighttime on the steppe gives rise to a silver landscape of stars and galaxies, the bright moon casting long shadows from birch trees on the hillsides. Settling in amongst sheep-wool blankets, the ger creaking like a ship in the wind, my thoughts returned to the region’s most beloved son. For a ruler who founded an empire that stretched as far as Venice, little remains of Chinggis Khan’s legacy. No great urban centers, mighty monuments or works of art. That’s pastoralism for you – a way of life that leaves the faintest imprint on the landscape.

For that very reason, it’s wonderful to think that, in less than a day, this whole camp could be packed away and hauled off, a dozen flattened rings of grass the only echo of habitation. Comforted by the notion that – for a change– your pleasure as a tourist really isn’t causing much pain at all, you sleep almost as deeply as Chinggis himself, rumored to lie buried, somewhere secret, in the Khentii mountains.

Four nights and three days at Jalman Meadows including transfers costs from USD 299 per person based on two sharing. www.nomadicjourneys.com