in the land of the KHANS

Travel
One hundred and eight stupas surround an area in present-day Kharkorin, the site of Genghis Khan's capital, Karakorum. From this valley, Khan united waring clans and began the Mongols' conquering reign of Asia and into Europe. In the 16th century, The Buddhist monestary Erdenezuu opened in the 16th century and at its peak about 1,000 monks lived there. It was purged during the rise in the 20th century of the communists but reopened in 1990. Teri Weaver/Stars and Stripes
From Stripes.com
One hundred and eight stupas surround an area in present-day Kharkorin, the site of Genghis Khan's capital, Karakorum. From this valley, Khan united waring clans and began the Mongols' conquering reign of Asia and into Europe. In the 16th century, The Buddhist monestary Erdenezuu opened in the 16th century and at its peak about 1,000 monks lived there. It was purged during the rise in the 20th century of the communists but reopened in 1990. Teri Weaver/Stars and Stripes

in the land of the KHANS

by: Teri Weaver | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 18, 2012

My first 72 hours in Mongolia had made a

believer of me. We'd covered about 130 miles by car, first going east

to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and then u-turning west, passing

through Ulaanbaatar to switch the car for a van and heading toward

the sunset.

I was traveling with my friend Brenda on a seven-day tour of central

Mongolia led by a delightful young woman named Aggie. In the next few

days, she would lead us to the site of Genghis Khan's capital, two

Buddhist monasteries and the view of sand dunes from atop two very

ornery camels.

But getting to and from these magnificent spots called for the

patience of a Red Sox fan and, frankly, the stomach of one, too. So

far, the road had been bumpy but manageable, and I began to think I'd

make it through the week without a bout of my usual carsickness. I

can't remember another time in my life when I've been more wrong.

In the afternoon of day three we pulled into Khustain National Park,

where the wild takhi horses live. The park is about 62 miles

southeast of Ulaanbaatar and the ride took around two hours, a

reasonable pace. The roads in Mongolia are few, and those that exist

are in a constant state of disrepair. I thought the road to Khustain

was fairly rough. I'd learn later those 62 miles wove a silk road

compared to what lay ahead.

After a quiet night at Khustain we awoke at daybreak for a quick

breakfast and a trip out to find the takhi. First we found Sandy and

Bob, a couple from Michigan we'd befriended. We said our hellos and

went looking for horses.

Khustain is really a reserve, nearly 200 square miles of land for the

takhi. The takhi are a short, stubby-legged and broad-nosed breed

that once roamed wild on the Mongol steppes. The wild herds had

disappeared by the late 1960s after too much hunting and poaching.

About a dozen remained in a few zoos around the world, which were

bred with some success.

Starting in the early 1990s, small herds from various zoos were

brought back to Mongolia, and now the country works with the

Netherlands to track and protect the horses, which number now close

to 200.

We lucked upon a herd grazing on a hill, then watched as a second

herd approached and the two stallions said their manly, hoof-slapping

hellos. After a few screams, the passing herd passed by and each

stallion remained king for the day.

We humans crawled back in the van and headed east toward Kharkhorin,

once home to Genghis Khan's capital, called Karakorum. We left before

11 a.m. with a little less than 200 miles to go. We arrived just

before 4 p.m. with a full understanding of the life of a bobblehead

and that the road to hell is paved with Mongolia asphalt.

We reached smooth land in Kharkhorin, where we settled our stomachs

with fresh air, rest and a bottle of wine I'd foraged in Ulaanbaatar.

Meanwhile, the owners of the tourist camp made us a traditional feast

of khorkhog, a mutton stew fired with hot stones. The cook heated

river stones in a fire, then dropped them into a huge vat. She added

the mutton, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips,

spices, salt and water, closed it with a screw-top lid and

set it atop her fire.

Two hours later, this pressure cooker delivered the best

lamb stew I've ever had and even convinced Bob, who hated mutton

until that day, that lamb could make a satisfying meal.

The next morning we toured the former land of the Khans.

We stood on land in the former Karakorum from which Genghis (more

accurately pronounced Chinggis) Khan steered an empire that stretched

from the Korean peninsula past Russia, Iran and Iraq up to Italy's

borders. The ancient capital was founded in 1220 along the silk road,

though the empire stayed there for only 40 years until another Mongol

leader, Khublai Khan, moved the leadership to what is now Beijing.

The Mongol dominance was fueled by its warriors, its horses and its

diplomacy, many historians now note. While massacres certainly spread

from town to town during the 13th century, the Khans also ordered

their soldiers to limit bloodshed and spare entire towns that agreed

to come under Mongolia's rule. Genghis Khan, known from afar as a

ruthless invader, is revered at home as a statesman who set up a

modern government and established a common written language.

It was Khublai Khan who first embraced Buddhism while ruling from

China, and by the 16th century, Karakorum had become home to 1,000

monks at Erdene Zuu. By the time we visited, the monastery and

Buddhism had suffered through persecutions of communist leaders.

Monks and sympathetic leaders helped hide relics, and the monastery

was allowed to reopen as a museum in the mid-1960s. By 1990, it once

again was allowed to be a place of worship and teaching monastery.

The visit to Karakorum and the history lessons reminded me of an

adage I'd heard on a past trip to Beijing. A Chinese leader

apparently told Khublai Khan that an empire conquered by horseback

could not be ruled by horseback, a saying with obvious truth.

But the vista also brought home a Mongolian proverb told to us the

previous night over dinner: Travel as far as you can while your horse

is alive and meet as many people as you can while your father is

alive. The dependence on camaraderie and reliable transportation can

never be underestimated, and traveling across frustrating yet

breathtaking paths with new friends - Aggie, Bob and Sandy - made for

one of the most rewarding adventures I've had in years.

But it wasn't without its challenges: The last night in a tourist

camp proved the coldest, complete with frost, and the camp workers

forgot to light our stoves in the early morning. We shivered through

breakfast and braved ahead, slinking back into the lurching van and

turning east to Ulaanbaatar.

We careened into town in time for a relaxing lunch, some cashmere

shopping, hot showers and a rousing concert by traditional

performers. The music included traditional throat singing and a trio

of string players, so that one performance sounded like Peking Opera

and another like a bluegrass jamboree.

Looking back, it feels magical that I got to visit such a monumental

land.

It also feels miraculous that we never once got a flat tire. It must

mean my 21st century horse is still alive, and that I'm ready to

return to Mongolia for another visit.

E-mail Teri Weaver at: weavert@pstripes.osd.mil

We humans crawled back in the van and

headed east toward Kharkhorin, once home to Genghis Khan's capital,

called Karakorum. We left before 11 a.m. with a little less than 200

miles to go. We

arrived just before 4 p.m. with a full understanding of the life of a

bobblehead and that the road to hell is paved with Mongolia asphalt.

know & go: Mongolia

At a glance

Mongolia spans more than 600,000 square miles, an area slightly

larger than Alaska. Ninety percent of the land is pasture or desert.

It has 2.8 million people, about a third living in the capital of

Ulaanbaatar. People speak Mongolian, a language using Cyrillic

script. Most also speak Russian and many in Ulaanbaatar speak

English. Ninety-four percent of the people practice Tibetan Buddhism.

The country now is a parliamentary democracy, having had three

presidential elections since breaking with the former Soviet Union in

the early 1990s. Climates are harsh in the winter and summers are

comparatively mild. Temperatures still vary dramatically even in mild

months, especially depending on the location.

Tours

I highly recommend an organized tour for traveling in Mongolia,

and there are dozens from which to choose. Some guest house owners

double as tour guides; other companies are operated out of their

homes. We found our company through a basic Internet search. It's a

member of the country's Ministry of Roads, Transportation and

Tourism, the Mongolian Tourism Association and International

Eco-tourism Society. The official travel season is May to October,

but I'd recommend June to September, unless you're spending more time

in the warmer south.

Tours range from basic features (like the one we chose) of

travel, short horse and camel rides and nights at tourist camps to

hardier fare, like treks by foot or horse, full-scale camping,

fishing and hunting, and journeys in the Gobi Desert. I would

recommend picking a company with a large staff, which you can gauge

in part by how many tours it offers. If you hire an independent

driver to hurl you around the countryside, think about who he will

call if your car breaks down. Also, no matter which company you

choose, it's a good idea to double check your hotel and flight

reservations by Internet and phone.

One thing we noticed about the tours: They aren't made for

families with young children. There's a lot of down time in the

camps, during which I took pictures and Brenda wrote in her journal.

But younger travelers might not be so happy, especially when it comes

to the long, nausea-inducing car rides. After five seasons as a

guide, Aggie said she'd rarely seen a family traveling with children.

Transportation

All railways and flights lead to Ulaanbaatar, the country's main

entry point. There are no direct flights from the States; most

Americans travel to Beijing or Moscow first. There are a fair number

of direct flights from Russia and Asian countries. Some travelers

come by train, either a 30-plus hour ride from Beijing, or a four-day

ride from Moscow. It's a great bargain, if that's your thing. A

one-way ticket from Moscow cost $50. No visa is required for American

visitors.

Lodging

Ulaanbaatar has a handful of multistar hotels, many starting at

$70 a night for a single room. Ours was one of nicest and most

famous, being the backdrop for one of the few travel books on the

country and home to one of the city's most popular restaurants.

Still, the hot water knob to the shower fell off in Brenda's hand,

and breakfast was a free-for-all buffet where we had to hunt down our

tableware. But it was clean and safe, with feather pillows to boot.

Budget hotels and guest houses also are available for considerably

less money.

Away from town, tourists stay in aptly named tourist camps. Take

the word "camp" seriously, and you'll be fine. Each couple has their

own ger, a traditional house made of canvas and felt and propped up

with wooden rafters. The ger (rhymes with bear) has no heat, save a

wood-burning stove, and unless you can talk your travel companion

into feeding it every hour or so, the nighttime temperatures call for

serious huddling under blankets. Our tour company suggested bringing

clothes to layer, and one night I slept soundly in two pairs of

pants, two shirts and a fleece top, and a knit cap. Showers and

bathrooms with flush toilets are available, though a walk across the

camp is required.

Food

Ulaanbaatar has a small collection of international restaurants

including French, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai and

Cuban. There also are a handful of Mongolian restaurants, though I'd

recommend avoiding ones that bill themselves as Mongolian barbecue.

Stir frying bowls of meat and vegetables while patrons watch isn't a

local tradition, and the meats and soups done up in the kitchens of

proper Mongolian restaurants proved much better. Our tour schedule

kept us from sampling any huevos rancheros and fried bananas, but I

did manage to sneak away to a French café for a coffee and a slice of

spinach quiche. The coffee was weak, similar to the instant grounds

we drank most of the week, but the pastry was wonderfully buttery and

flaky, a real treat.

The food quality varied in the camps, from delicious mutton

dumplings and lamb stew to homemade cheeses and yogurt to a

surprising selection of fruits and vegetables. The further out from

town, the fewer choices at meal time. Oddly enough it was the broiled

river fish at our last tourist camp that proved too gamey to eat. We

brought snacks of energy bars and trail mix, and with the huge

portions served three times a day, we always found enough to eat.

Vegetarian options were available everywhere we went, though in some

cases that option may mean you get more coleslaw and potatoes and

less of everything else.

Health care

Mongolia can prompt crossed-fingers when it comes to health care.

Ulaanbaatar has hospitals, but further out in the country visitors

must depend on sparse medical staff in sparse villages. Occasionally,

tourists must be airlifted out of the country at a cost of as much as

$100,000 to the traveler. It's best to check with your health insurer

about supplemental coverage before traveling. Also, be sure to bring

adequate supplies of prescription medicines, clearly labeled and

packed among separate bags in case one is lost.

Money

In January, a U.S. dollar was worth about 1,164 togrog. Dollars

are accepted at many shops in Ulaanbaatar and at souvenir stands near

tourist destinations in the countryside. In Ulaanbaatar, I had no

trouble getting togrog from an ATM at our hotel, though I've heard

that's not always the case. We traveled with about $500 each in cash

to exchange at the hotel and to spend on souvenirs, alcohol and tips

for our guides. Tipping in restaurants is not expected. Before the

trip, we had to wire cash to pay for our tour. The wire fee added

almost $100 to the trip's $1,000 pricetag, and frankly it made me

nervous. We found out later that wiring money - rather than a credit

card charge through the Internet - is quite common.

Etiquette

If you're lucky enough to visit a family in their home, you're

expected to bring small gifts. We packed jewelry, small toys, crayons

and paper, scarves, candy and cigarettes. If you are offered

something to eat, you should always taste it. Leaving food on your

plate is OK, but refusing to taste is an insult. If you clean your

plate or bowl, it may signal the hostess to fill it up again no

matter how full your stomach. Many people are generous with

photography, but you should always ask before taking someone's

picture, even if you have to mime your request with your camera.

Safety

As always, check the State Department's Web site for information

on your destination. For the first time in my travels, I registered

my itinerary with the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, more for concerns

about the country's sparseness than any worries about crime. We

walked around the capital city at night, on main roads around open

restaurants and busy hotels. The only danger we saw were the people

who tottered on their way home from celebrations. Use common sense,

be aware of your surroundings and keep your passport and money on

your body.

Source: The U.S. State Department, Lonely Planet

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