Chinggis Khaan sits astride his powerful steed, clutching a golden whip in his right hand. Fashioned from 250 tonnes of stainless steel, this behemoth statue of the legendary 13th century Golden Horde leader (known by westerners as
) rises 40m from atop the 10m Visitors Centre.
Our guide, Undra, proudly says, "Chinggis united the tribes of the
, named them
and with an army of 100,000 skilled horsemen, conquered the most powerful civilizations of the time. What is less known is that he introduced written script, religious freedom, and sought to incorporate universal political and economic systems." Today he symbolizes united strength to
, making this
Statue Complex at Tsonjing Boldog
(54 km from the capital of
) a significant stop en route to where Rick and I will overnight in a nomad community.
Sanjay, our driver, pulls on to the dusty road again towards
Terelj National Park
where the vast undulating steppes (grasslands) morph into granite cliffs. We wander in brilliant sunshine amongst giant boulders - one stack resembles a dinosaur-sized tortoise, dubbed Turtle Rock. Further along is the Ariyabal Meditation Temple. We begin our cardio-taxing hike up the snaking path with 150
posted on signs along the way. At the top, our prayers are unleashed into the ether with the spinning of prayer wheels that surround the temple. The inside dynamic colour beholds an aura of tranquility with worshippers focused on a gold
at the far end.
Hours across the vast steppes again, we arrive at a small cluster of gers (
). Of the country's 2.75 million citizens, 30% are nomadic or semi-nomadic raising cattle, sheep and goats.
Undra leads us to the main ger of our host family. We are famished, but not for long. Okto, the lady of the house, spoons out delicious mutton, cabbage and noodle soup. All meals are cooked in a well-worn steel wok that fits over the woodstove/ger heater, which also serves as a basin to wash the dishes. Water is hauled from a community well, a kilometre away. Yet modernity has melded with tradition. All about the community, satellite dishes sprout like metal flowers. A flat screen TV sides a wall in our ger, and Okto answers a call on her cell-phone.
The sound of galloping horses and cheering crowds draws us down the street to where a mini-Nadaam is going on. What luck! - this is the next best thing to the
National Nadaam Festival
held annually in July, wherein participants from all over Mongolia compete in horse-riding, archery (once only for males, but now open to females) and wrestling (still only for the testosterone types).
As we join the circle of spectators, five young winners of the horserace are honoured in the traditional way - a medal and drink of airag (fermented mare's milk), and for the horse, a splash of airag on his backside. One young fellow looks about five, and a girl not much older, fitting the 5-13 age-group common for jockeys.
Wrestling begins. A dozen men strut out. One wears the traditional wrestling costume comprised of a blue Speedo-type bottom, and red top covering his arms and back. Undra chuckles, "The chest of a wrestler is exposed as once long ago, a strong woman entered the competition disguised as a man, so is an insurance against this happening again."
Wrestling in pairs, winners are pitted against winners, until the final match between the fellow in traditional garb and an agile opponent with six-pack abs. They lock in a slow dance, until blue-bottoms makes a quick clever move - and wins! With arms stretched he soars like an eagle around the national flag to celebrate his victory.
Towards evening Okto's husband Dasha arrives home. He has a dynamic presence, but like Okto speaks no English. When Undra reveals he is a shaman, I am somehow not surprised. My spine tingles as he relates through Undra how he deals with 77 sky spirits, calling them down with the well-worn drum hanging from the ceiling; his body a channel for their healing powers and wisdom.
Our guest ger is prepared with a fire in the stove, and after burning itself out, the cold is warded off with hefty wool blankets. After a breakfast of sweet tea and biscuits, the table is cleared for Shagai, played with dried sheep ankle bones - a game that has been around since Chinggis. The heart-warming hospitality of this Mongolian family and the timelessness of the steppes are forever ingrained in our memories.
More on Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar:
The steppes make up most of Mongolia's terrain, spiked by mountains to the north and west. The Gobi desert is to the south, where the camel is king.
The bustling capital of Ulaanbaatar has now tipped the population scale at 1 million. There is a wealth of museums, Buddhist temples, art galleries, traditional dance and Khoomii (throat-singing) shows, Mongolian BBQ feasts, funky cafes, shopping from street vendors to the gigantic State Department Store. The biggest single tourist danger is crossing the streets with the influx of vehicles of the nouveau rich from the mining boom in this mineral rich land; extraction still in its infancy.
Mongolian throat singing
: It is believed that the art of throat singing originated from south western Mongolia in today's Khovd and Govi-Altai region. Now, throat singing is found throughout the country and Mongolia is often considered as the most active place of throat singing in the world
Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of
"Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" now on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for six months of every year.