Rugged Mongolia is an adventure destination where travelers can experience nomadic culture and vast, untouched landscapes. It is this wilderness about Mongolia, that is so unique. Not to be found anywhere in the world, expect the remote outback deserts of Australia and in Siberia, Russia
Mongolia had been on my bucket list for a long time. I had a colleague, who went to Mongolia for 4 weeks and came back to NZ with good reviews. It would have to wait for another 18 years, before we could visit this magnificent country. Europe and the Middle East have always been a priority over Asia, as we have family and friends living there.. but now it was the right time to go to Mongolia.
From the moment we woke up after the late night border crossing at Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot in the morning and saw the snow and camels.. I knew in my heart this was going to be a very special place, and a country we would want to come back to explore more with our vehicle.
We had taken Train 33 from Beijing, China direction Moscow, Russia on mid-week at 7.35 am from Beijing South Railway station. 31 hours later we arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, the following day at 14.35 pm.
First, we were greeted by the staff of our tour company SunPath Mongolia on the platform. I had looked up at the Novotel in Beijing, China the route from the railway station to the hotel. Something I would end up doing daily, because we had no international roaming on. International Roaming with an Australian mobile number is like AUD15 per day, so expensive for two retired nomads. I would take a screenshot of the Google maps on how to get from point A to point B. It should have taken us 15 mins by car, but ended up taken the driver 40 mins. The reason is the rapid development of Ulaanbaatar as a city, I will explain that in this article and how Mongolia came into existence, as it has such an impact on our story of Mongolia.
So welcome to Mongolia, one of the most beautiful countries we had ever been to. We have had the privilege of travelling to 68 countries once now in the world. It is one of our favorites and I have a feeling we will be returning to Mongolia more than once in our lives. It is a place so special, that it gets under your skin and can’t wait to return… but first more on the development of Mongolia, because we would hear more about the Mongols as we went west into Europe.
Facts and figures about Mongolia:
- Mongolia is the world’s 18th-largest country.
- Three million people live in Mongolia. An estimated 25 to 40 per cent of them live as nomadic herders.
- Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world, with only 4.3 people per square mile.
- Mongolia is known as the “Land of Blue Sky” because it has 260 days of sun a year.
- There are 13 times more horses than humans in the country, and sheep outnumber humans 35 to 1.
- Mongolian nomadic families get taxed on the number of horses they own.
WHO FOUNDED MONGOLIA?
Mongolia wasn’t founded by one person, but has a long and complex history. The pastoral nomads of what would become Mongolia were the first to domesticate the horse. As a result, pastoral nomads had a mastery of the horse not shared by sedentary peoples. It was easy for them to dominate the scattered agricultural societies in the area.
All Mongolian people recognise their kinship to one another, expressed through shared history and language. Traditionally, however, the Mongolian people have been divided into clans based on blood relationship. While war between clans was common, at other times nomads formed giant confederations which could threaten the most powerful ancient states.
The Mongols appear as fearsome figures throughout Chinese history. Successive groups threatened Chinese supremacy first through raids and then the formation of powerful empires on the border. In response to these incursions, the famous Great Wall of China was built. See our Blog “The wall of Walls”
The most famous Mongol incursions, however, were led by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. Genghis Khan’s military campaigns spread across Asia, creating an empire that at its height was the largest contiguous empire in world history, spanning from the Danube River in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east.
We would hear about the spreading of the Mongolian Empire by Genghis Khan as far West as Krakow in Poland. I asked the guide one day, why is this part of the city wall missing. He replied: “the Mongols had tried to conquer the city in the 13th century and they partly destroyed the city walls”. The Mongols even conquer Hungary and current day Croatia.
HOW DID MONGOLS FALL?
Following Mongolian tradition, Genghis Khan divided the empire between his four favourite sons on his death, while a general assembly of Mongol nobles voted his middle son Ögödei ‘great khan’. During this period, expansion continued: the Mongols conquered Russia and staged raids on Poland and even Germany. They also further expanded into Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
The division of the empire led to fueds after Ögödei’s death, however as Genghis Khan’s children and grandchildren fought to be the ‘Great Khan’. While all his descendants continued to expand Mongol territory, the Empire became so vast that there was little cultural consistency. The descendants of Genghis Khan began to identify with the cultures they conquered, such as Kublai Khan his grandson was the first non-Chinese person to conquer all of China. Mongolia was no longer the heart of the Mongolian Empire.
While the Mongols would eventually be expelled from China, Genghis Khan’s descendants would shape world history. Most famous is the ruler Timur (Tamerlane), who tried to regain Mongol power, staging invasions from India to Russia. Tamerlane’s descendants ruled Central Asia for centuries, and his descendent Babur would conquer Delhi, beginning the powerful Mughal Empire of India (note the similarities between Mongol and Mughal). In Iran, the descendants of Mongol rulers in the Middle East – known as the Il-Khans – ruled for centuries, creating a culture that fused Mongol, Chinese, Iranian and Turkish elements, particularly in the famed Chinese-style miniatures of the 13th and 14th centuries; while in Russia the last khanate was defeated as late as 1783.
WHEN DID MONGOLIA BECOME INDEPENDENT?
While the descendants of Genghis Khan continued to shape the world, the actual land of Mongolia was divided between rival tribes again. During this time there was a revival of Buddhism in the region.
Finally, China conquered large parts of southern Mongolia. While northern Mongolia was also conquered by China a hundred years later, significant cultural gaps emerged, as southern Mongolia was more closely integrated with China. Today, southern Mongolia is the Chinese autonomous province of Inner Mongolia.
By the late 19th century, European colonisation meant that China, though still technically independent, was essentially a shell of its former power. In 1913, Mongolia (along with Tibet) declared independence from China. However, Russia and China refused to accept Mongolian independence, and a treaty was signed in 1915 in which Mongolia was obliged to accept autonomy under Chinese rule.
Following the Russian Revolution, however, Mongolian nationalists formed an alliance with the Bolsheviks. After a brief period of Tsarist rule under the notoriously brutal ‘Mad Baron’ Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, Mongolia was declared an independent constitutional monarchy. Soon afterwards, the Soviet Union brought Mongolia under their sphere of influence. While nominally independent, the Communist ‘People’s Republic of Mongolia’ remained in the Soviet sphere of influence until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
One thing you might know about Mongolia is that it is the least densely populated country in the world. The reason why is complex, but it owes a lot to the extreme continental climate weather. Mongolia has very little arable land or land suitable for growing crops. Three-fourths of the land consists of grassy steppe, which support immense herds of grazing livestock. The rest is divided between forests and barren deserts, with a tiny portion used for agriculture.
The prehistoric people who lived in what is now Mongolia adapted to this environment. While some agriculture was present, the dominant culture of Mongolia was pastoral nomadism. The nomads of Central Asia were the first to domesticate the horse, which they used to herd livestock from steppe to steppe in search of green pastures. In the ancient world, nomads from Mongolia roamed from what is now Romania and Bulgaria in the west to today’s Manchuria (north-eastern China). Yet, unlike agriculture, nomadism could only support small populations, meaning that Mongolia never developed the population densities of nearby China.
Even today, an estimated 25 to 40 per cent of people still live as nomadic herders. Much of the sedentary population is urbanized, with the capital Ulaanbaatar comprising around 45% of the nation’s population with a population of 1.3 million.
HOW WAS ULANBATAAR ESTABLISHED AS ITS CAPTIAL
The long nomadic traditions of the Mongolian people are reflected in the founding of its capital, which traces its origins back to the establishment of a yurt Buddhist monastery in an area near the old imperial capital of Karakorum around 1639.
The monastery moved from place to place over the years, though as the population began to grow it came to move less frequently until settling in its present-day location around 1778. Despite enduring a long history of Chinese occupation under the Qing dynasty, the nomadic Mongolian region did enjoy a level of autonomy that allowed them to retain their culture and traditions over the years.
Following the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, the region even experienced a level of prosperity as a trade thoroughfare between China and the Russian Empire, facilitating the flow of goods such as furs, cloth and tea.
Chinese occupation persisted until Mongolia declared independence in 1911 following the collapse of the Qing Empire, though this independence was short lived, with occupation changing hands multiple times in the post-independence period between Chinese, Tsarist and Soviet forces.
The name of the capital Ulaanbaatar, meaning ‘Red Hero’ was chosen in 1924 over the popular alternative ‘Baatar Khot, or ‘Hero City’, marking a period of history influenced heavily by the Soviet Union, which came to succeed the Qing for most of the 20th century, establishing a Mongolian satellite state that remained until 1991.
Today Ulaanbaatar city bears the marks of both its history and vital present, with its functionalist 1960’s Soviet style architecture being the most visible reminder of its recent past. Links to its past can be seen in the main square, Sukhbaatar Square.
As the city grew up into its present day City, from being a Nomadic tribal area to a modern city. One has to remember that the Trans Mongolia railway only arrived in 1950. I don’t think, that any urban planning was done in those days. The city was meant to be for 0.5m people, not the population currently of 1.3m to 1.5m. The city simply does not cope. The roads are overflowing with Nissan Hybrid cars and people, hence the reason why it took us 40 mins to go 4.5 kms. I think this is a reflection of its history. It feels like Mongolia was an afterthought by the Chinese and Russians.. a satellite country
The winters in Mongolia are legendary for their length and severity. In fact, Ulaanbaatar holds the distinction of being the coldest capital city in the world, with temperatures routinely dropping from – 30 C to – 40 C in January and February.
It is important to note that the capital of Mongolia is the coldest in the world, with a yearly average 0.4 C so remember to pack accordingly, with this in mind it is best to avoid the winter months as the average temperature of -24.5 C is not for the faint of heart.
We arrived in early November at -5 C, by the end of November it was already -10 C during the day. During the night it was already -15 C to -20 C.
Mongolia is not a country for the faint-hearted. One should have done some previous travel to Asia and under developed country, otherwise I feel that the culture shock and the cold.. will put you off for life, but it should not be that way. It is an incredible country, that has so much to offer.
Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,
Ro and Mark
Traveller’s Nest Overland, Auckland, New Zealand
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