In the fascinating land of Genghis Khan, nomads & steppes

Mongolia, for a slow travel experience
2020-08-18
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/ Kolkata
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Gobi Desert, Mongolia

It may not be the hottest destination choice for the globetrotters yet, but Mongolia, with its rich history and incredible natural beauty that still preserves the traditional nomadic way of life, is a place waiting to be discovered.

At least a dozen films have been made on the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan as the natives pronounce) whose name pops up whenever Mongols or Mongolia is mentioned. The name Mongolia literally means the ‘Land of the Mongols’ in Latin. The vivid historical timeline of rulers Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan have dominated the image of Mongolia in people’s mind as a faraway land with fiercely warrior people.

Till 30 years back, under the heavy influence of the former Soviet Union, tourism in Mongolia was extremely limited by the socialist government, but after the democratic revolution of 1990, the country woke up to a market economy and presented itself as a unique and virgin travel destination offering a great combination of scenic natural features, a wide variety of untouched landscapes, nomadic lifestyle and culture.

Known as the ‘Land of Blue Skies’, Mongolia is blessed with about 250 sunny days throughout each year, hence sunglasses are necessary. The weather is bitterly cold during the winter, dropping down to -30º C in some parts of the country but summer is generally hot. The best time to travel to Mongolia is between May and November; however, July gets the highest tourist peak during the Naadam festival holidays. Nearly 40 per cent of the population lives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar while the rest are scattered throughout Mongolia with their 56 million head of sheep, goats, cattle, horses and camels. The famous Gobi desert is even less populated; hence tourists can expect a thinner crowd and peaceful time.

Entry visas can be obtained from the Embassy of Mongolia in New Delhi. There are no direct flights between Mongolia and India yet. However, numerous airlines provide a good connection between India and Mongolia with a convenient layover in Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo or Frankfurt, to name a few. Hunnu Air, a Mongolian airline, offers flights from Hong Kong and Bangkok to Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian currency is called Mongolian Tughrik (MNT) and one INR is equivalent to approximately 38.10 MNT. Decent hotel accommodations are available as well as local guest houses, however, verified sources like Airbnb etc. are better and more affordable.

Ulaanbaatar is the starting point for travel in Mongolia. Erdenet is Mongolia’s second-largest city and home to one of the world’s biggest copper mines and a famous carpet factory. Hovd is another historic city at the crossroads of traditional Mongol and Kazakh culture. Karakorum is another well-known name, the ancient Mongol capital established by Genghis Khan.

Equestrian statue of Genghis Khan, at the Statue Complex on the bank of Tuul River, Mongolia (Photo Credit: Alastair Rae)

The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is home to the highest mountains and largest glacier in Mongolia, as well as Kazakh eagle hunters. Kazakhstan does not share a border with Mongolia but is just a few km away. Uvs Nuur Lake is the largest lake in Mongolia and a world heritage site. The river Tuul is one of the longest rivers of the country, flowing from the Khentii mountain range creating a valley considered sacred for centuries by the nomads as they respect nature. And last but not the least, Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park lies in the southern part of the country on the northern edge of the Gobi desert. The higher elevations contain areas of steppe, a number of rare plants and animals including the mountain sheep, elusive snow leopard, Siberian ibex and the Gobi camel. Areas of sand dunes are found, most famously in Khongoryn Els or the Singing Sands. Another major tourist destination is Yolyn Am, which is connected with Dalanzadgad by paved road and a mountain valley that contains a large ice field through most of the year.

Not surprisingly Mongolian cuisine is heavily dominated by Chinese and Russian flavours. It is quite celebrated all over the world, including here in India. The most common rural dish is cooked mutton. In the city, steamed dumplings filled with meat, orBuuz, are popular. Khorkhog is a barbecue dish made by cooking pieces of meat inside a container which also contains hot stones and water and is heated from the outside. The extreme continental climate of Mongolia leads to limited use of vegetables and spices. The nomads make different dairy products from milk and use it while cooking. Suutei Tsai is a traditional Mongolian everyday beverage which is typically a milk tea with salted flavour. If interested one can find different types of alcohol like vodka, beer or even country liquor, branded as Chinggis Khan!

Mongolian cashmere is amongst the best in the world. Garments and blankets made of cashmere can be found in many stores. Mongolia is famous for its copper mines and copper bookmarks are ideal souvenirs to take home. The huge open-air market, Narantuulor the Black Market, in Ulaanbaatar offers the lowest prices on just about anything.

Anything but ordinary is how one could possibly describe Mongolia. The fascinating culture of the nomads, almost endlessly undulating green steppes and mystic traditions harking back to the legendary Genghis Khan may offer a fresh perspective of slow and immersive travel experience to the Indian travellers in the post-pandemic world.

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