Immense landscapes and warm hospitality make Mongolia an adventure like no other, writes Louise Southerden.
'Time isn't money out here," said our trip leader, the former Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Tim Cope. "Money has no value on the steppe. Animals have value." He would know. In September 2007, Cope completed an epic, 3½-year horseback journey of more than 10,000 kilometres - from Karakorum in Mongolia, former capital of the vast Mongol Empire, to the Danube River in Hungary, the outer edge of that empire.
Now we were retracing Cope's hoof prints, so to speak, trekking through the remote Kharkhiraa Valley in western Mongolia. Like him, we had support animals: nine camels and five horses that carried all our supplies and camping gear, freeing us to carry only cameras and daypacks.
For seven free-wheeling days we roamed over trackless, grassy countryside under blue skies and a blazing summer sun, in the middle of the largest continent on Earth. We crossed icy streams on horseback, camped under the stars, stopped to smell wildflowers, even swam in a glacier-fed lake, but mostly wandered, unhurried, along wide valleys lorded over by nameless, snowy 4000-metre peaks.
Best of all, the only other people we saw all week were the handful of nomads who spend their entire lives in this valley.
People are an intrinsic part of the landscape in Mongolia: more than half its 2.9 million inhabitants still live in "gers" (traditional felt and canvas tents) and 30 per cent are pastoral nomads, moving with the seasons and guided by grazing conditions for their sheep, goats, yaks and horses.
It's a supremely low-impact lifestyle: nomads essentially take nothing from their surroundings but water and grass for their animals (which supply them with meat and dairy products and fuel for their yak-dung stoves) and leave nothing when they move to greener pastures but a circle of flattened grass where their ger stood for a few weeks or months.
"The biggest difference between sedentary people and nomads is that the former change the environment for their own convenience and comfort - nomads don't," Cope told us during one of our leisurely outdoor lunches - most days we'd dine at a long, white table on the grass beside a river, the camels and horses resting nearby, like a scene from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.
"I think we can learn a lot from their values about family, community and friendship and their environmental awareness. Nomads have been living like this for thousands of years and they've proven that it's a sustainable way of living."
It wasn't long before we saw the simplicity of nomadic life for ourselves. Almost every day we'd see gers and call in - in keeping with a belief on the steppe that it's bad luck for a traveller to pass by without visiting. And despite the fact they rarely see foreigners in the Kharkhiraa Valley - Mongolia only opened its doors to outsiders after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had ruled Mongolia since 1921) in the early 1990s and few venture to this far-flung corner of the country - and that there were 17 of us (including Cope and our Mongolian guide, Tseren), the nomads we met were unfailingly hospitable.
Without formality or fanfare, they'd usher us through a small wooden door, usually painted sky-blue, into their gers and into another world. We'd sit on the floor, of course, the only furniture being a few beds and maybe a cupboard or two, and within seconds we'd all be served bowls of salty, milky black tea and plates of boortsog (fried dough sticks) and dried yak's curd. One morning, we visited two gers, half an hour's walk apart, where we were given vodka instead of tea, distilled before our very eyes from yak milk whey.
Some days we didn't see any gers but that didn't mean we didn't see nomads. On the last afternoon of our trek, for example, we were ambling across a wide, empty valley when a horseman, wearing a felt hat and a sashed Mongolian coat called a del, suddenly appeared beside us. He got down off his horse and sat on the ground, gesturing for us to do the same.
"Why are you walking?" he said, in a mixture of Mongolian and Russian, clearly puzzled to see anyone travelling on foot so far from any roads (our camels and horses had gone on ahead).
"We have no horses," Cope replied teasingly, in Russian.
"I have horses," the man said, pointing to a distant speck (his ger) and hinting that he could rent us some.
"We have no money," Cope said, which made the man laugh and exclaim at our obvious madness and misfortune, before he got back on his horse and rode off.
That night we said goodbye ("bayartai") to the animals who had made our trek possible and hello ("sainbainuu") to three Russian jeeps that would transport us deeper into western Mongolia for week two of our adventure.
Our destination was Tsaast Uul, which at 4193 metres is one of the highest mountains in Mongolia (the highest is Khuiten Uul, at 4374 metres, which straddles the nearby border between Mongolia, Russia and China). This meant travelling through the predominantly Kazakh province of Bayan-Olgii.
Kazakhs first came to Mongolia from Kazakhstan in the 1840s to graze their sheep on high summer pastures. Now, because of its isolation for much of the 20th century, Bayan-Olgii is regarded as the last bastion of Kazakh culture, which is quite different to Mongolian culture. Kazakhs live in gers only in summer, for instance, moving to mud-brick houses in winter, so their gers are large with high ceilings, to keep them cool, and are gaily decorated with embroidered wall hangings and colourful felt rugs.
Another Kazakh tradition is eagle-hunting. For 2000 years, Kazakhs have been training eagles to hunt marmots, foxes and wolves; we saw several hooded eagles on perches outside gers but unfortunately the hunting happens only in the winter months.
We'd planned an overnight horse-trek around Tsaast Uul, until we discovered that the valley below the mountain was drought-affected and the animals were on the brink of starvation. So we kept driving, following a steep, rocky track to the base of the mountain, where we stopped beside a couple of gers belonging to two Uriankhai families, another Mongolian minority group. This was to be "base camp" for our one-day hike up Tsaast Uul.
At 2pm, after salty tea and lunch, we set off. It felt odd to be starting a full-day walk so late but summer days are long in Mongolia.
No sooner had we hopscotched across a nearby river on well-spaced stones, however, than it started snowing. Then the grassy slope became steep scree that slid under our boots as we climbed (slowly) into dense cloud, losing visibility. At least we could still see the hooves and horns of long-dead mountain goats littering the ground, which made us wonder if we'd see a snow leopard (wherever there are goats in the Altai mountains, there's the possibility of snow leopards). Finally, breathlessly, we reached the top of the ridge and could go no further - ahead was a massive glacier, a dazzling wave of snow. But we were high enough: 3690 metres, one vertical kilometre above the gers. Suddenly, the clouds parted like curtains, the sun shone and it felt as if the whole world opened below us.
Too soon, although it was already 6pm, it was time to head down - by glissading and sliding on the scree, stopping to look out at the views in the evening light and aiming for two white dots (our gers) far below.
We made it back just on dark and, as the temperature plummeted, we all piled into one of the gers for dinner and a few nomadic songs, everyone rosy-cheeked from a day in the elements and the warmth of the yak-dung stove (which smelled pleasantly earthy).
That night, our hosts invited us to sleep in their gers, which is especially kind when your home consists of a single room that serves as kitchen, lounge, workshop, dining room ... and bedroom.
So, just as travellers have for thousands of years, we spread our bedding (albeit down sleeping bags and high-tech sleeping mats) on the hard floor, while our hosts shared single beds around us: mother and father in one, two siblings in another, grandma and baby grandson in another.
The next morning, we woke to snowflakes floating down on us through the open ventilation hole in the roof. Dressing quickly, we stepped outside and found everything - the gers, the jeeps, the goats, the women milking the yaks, our packs leaning up against the gers - covered in thick, powdery snow.
As we walked around in the whiteness before getting back in the jeeps for the first leg of our journey back home, I couldn't help feeling touched by the experience of travelling in this nomadic land. Not only are nomads connected to the land they inhabit and their animals, they're connected to each other and to passing travellers such as us. That's the inner beauty of Mongolia: behind the sunshine and snowfalls, the quiet spaciousness of the landscape, the sense of freedom and the abundance of time, are nomadic people whose warm hospitality is a welcome-mat to anyone wishing to trek or travel, however briefly, in their footsteps.
The writer was a guest of World Expeditions and Korean Air.
Korean Air flies to Ulaanbaatar via Seoul four times a week from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See koreanair.com.au.
World Expeditions has a 17-day Mongolia in the Footsteps of the Nomads trip, including seven days of trekking, seven days travelling by Russian jeeps and sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar and Olgii, capital of Bayan-Olgii province, led by Tim Cope, departing August 1. Trips are all-inclusive and cost $4690 departing from Ulaanbaatar. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.