Mongolia – Call of the wild
The burly Mongolian slammed into me and stuck his hand down my front pockets.
I blocked his hand instinctively.
Then rather unexpectedly, he gave me a goofy smile, raised his hands and backed off.
Behind me, his accomplice tried the same tactics on my two travel companions.
I shouted at them to watch out.
The accomplice also backed off and let my friends pass.
Bizarre as the incident was, it took place in broad daylight in downtown Ulaanbaatar (also known as Ulan Bator), capital of the nomadic nation of Mongolia.
In fact, we were just a few blocks south of Sükhbaatar Square, which is located in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, and along a main street.
Fortunately, we were left unharmed. But the incident is undoubtedly a reflection of the high crime rates plaguing the city since the fall of communism in the 1990s.
In the twenty years or so since the Soviet Union collapsed and brought an end to its economic support for Mongolia, schools, factories and communal farms in the country were closed or were privatised, while unemployment rates soared.
Meanwhile, poverty spread and people migrated to Ulaanbaatar in search of work that never materialised- prime conditions for the establishment of a criminal underbelly in the capital city.
The Australian government, for instance, noted that the incidence of violent crime in Mongolia is increasing, particularly in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and warned its citizens to “exercise caution and monitor developments that might affect their safety in Mongolia”.
The US State Department, on the other hand, warned that foreigners should not walk alone through Ulaanbaatar after dark.
Dire as the travel advisories are, however, they do not apply to the whole of Mongolia which is more than just its capital city.
Out in the steppes, where the lifestyles of the nomads remain unchanged for centuries, the gritty realities of life in Ulaanbaatar are a lifetime away.
Besides, even though Ulaanbaatar has enough attractions to keep you entertained for a day or two, like the Tibetan-style Gandan Monastery and the Bogd Kahn Winter Palace Museum, the main draw for Mongolia will always remain its boundless grasslands dotted with gers (Mongolian nomad tents), the gorgeous cobalt-blue skies and the forbidding Gobi Desert.
In other words, the great outdoors.
Due to a lack of time, we signed up with our guesthouse for a five day tour of the Mongolian steppes.
Our first destination was the Hustain Nuruu National Park, the home of Mongolia’s last remaining species of wild horse, the takhi, commonly known as Przewalski’s horse.
The chance to see these critically endangered creatures in their home ground sounded like a terribly exciting prospect, and I was brimming with excitement when I got there.
However, we were not allowed to get close to the horses and could also see them from afar – too far to even make out the features on their faces.
But I won’t say it’s an entirely wasted trip, for after all, where else in the world can you see these horses in a natural setting?
Over the course of the next few days, we bounced around in our van for hours on end as we traversed hundreds of miles of bumpy (our guide calls it bum-pie), dirt tracks, moving through the parched landscapes on the edge of the Gobi Desert, to the lush green steppes of Central Mongolia.
We were also privileged enough to stay with two nomad families in gers set up seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and in the absence of any other tourists.
This privilege, though, comes with a price.
The gers’ remote locations mean they’re far from any modern facilities.
Toilets are anywhere you can find a spot to squat down, while a bath means a traipse down to the nearest river.
That is, if you can find a river.
Our first ger camp was located in an arid region, with no obvious nearby water source.
But hey, when in Rome, do as the Romans.
Besides, what can we complain about when we awake each morning to the sound of sheep bleating, the smell of burning yak dung which surprising has no strong odour, and the vast, empty Mongolian steppes stretching away into the horizon when we open the door of our ger.
And what a magnificent view!
You may imagine the Mongolian steppes to be somewhat flat and featureless.
But what a surprisingly varied landscape we saw – from rugged mountain ranges to sparkling clear streams, waterfalls and of course, the green grass and blue skies.
And come nightfall, the constellation of stars unfolded before our eyes with startling clarity.
But the highlight for me, really, was to explore the steppes the Genghis Khan way – on horseback.
Galloping (okay, it was at most a trot most of the time) across the steppes with the warm rays of the early summer sun beating down on my back, and the chilled air blowing into my face, I felt a wild and exulting sense of freedom.
My skin tingled as the wind brushed against it and my whole mind and body felt more alive than it had ever been.
But our tender butts, unaccustomed to hours of horse riding, soon screamed out for us to stop, and we beat a hasty retreat to our gers for yet another round of salty milk tea.
A few days later, as my train arrived at the Chinese border town of Erenhot after a 16-hour journey from Ulaanbaatar, it felt like we had crossed more than just a border.
The wild, untamed country up north had been replaced by a cookie-cutter Chinese town, with broad boulevards and clean, paved streets.
We had re-entered the modern world we’re so familiar with, and from which we came from.
But I can’t help sneaking a look back across the border and wishing I was back there.
Perhaps the call of the wild still resounds within me.