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(April 6, 2013)

(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

NOTE: Our blog got stuck in Mongolia, perhaps because we were so reluctant to leave. Nonetheless, a little over two years later, we are going to finish this tale (even though we are back to our normal, less exciting, lives in the US).

From the vast Gobi desert in the south to the shores of Lake Hovsgol Nuur in the north, no name holds a higher seat of respect and honor in Mongolia than Genghis Khan (also spelled Chinggis Khan). Everywhere you look, whether it’s a street sign, storefront, or vodka brand, you see his name.

This is the best vodka on the planet.

This is the best vodka on the planet.

Up to this point our only exposure to Mongolia had been what we had seen and experienced in Ulaan Bataar. But even in the city you had this overwhelming feeling that there was a vast expanse of land beyond. We had seen it traveling across the great Gobi desert as we entered Mongolia on the train, and from the top of Zaisan hill overlooking Ulaan Baatar. This was, and in many ways still is, the land of Genghis Khan.

A few days after our arrival in Mongolia our family arranged for us to go to the “13th Century Village”, where we could experience how the nomadic people of that time used to live. We bundled up (we were finally putting to use all the multi-layer cold weather clothing we had packed), as usual, because the weather was still cold and overcast, and there was no way we were going out unprepared for the Mongolian elements. So eight of us – Bilgee, the second oldest brother of the family, his wife Gerlee, their daughter Dulguun, Chimgee, Oyuka, little Tergel, Kristin and I – piled into a fancy borrowed SUV and set off on our adventure.

By this time we had become one with our wonderful Mongolian family so the ride out into the countryside was full of conversation (despite the language barrier). It didn’t take long to drive out of the city towards gentle rolling bare hills as far as the eye could see; the harsh winter covering over the land was all but melted away. No rain or snow was expected but it was still plenty cold.

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We drove a good hour and a half down the two-lane highway, avoiding the many potholes along the way. My mind wandered off, thinking about what it must have been to ride horseback through these hills in the time of Genghis Khan. All of a sudden we came upon a couple of two-hump camels sitting by the side of the road. And what the heck is that! Are those vultures? Eagles? These birds were damn big! I mean they looked like they would have no problem carrying away little Tergel for their mid-day lunch – luckily they were tied to their perches.

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I wanted to stop and take some more pictures, but as the animals’ owner started to make his way to our SUV, Bilgee said we really didn’t have time for it and he was more concerned about getting to our destination. Anyway, we see this stuff all the time. YOU SEE THIS STUFF ALL THE TIME?! We don’t! I took what pictures I could before we moved on.

We drove on and on until we got to a little grouping of homes, when there was a quick conversation about where to go. Where to go? Well I don’t see any signs and I don’t see any other roads to take so what do you mean “where to go”. Did we miss the turn off?

“Oh no, this is right! Here we go. It’s this way!”

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Huh? Which way?

And with that we turned off the highway onto some dirt track. And off we went over the Mongolian terrain to…. I would like to say where but there were no signs, no roads, just a wide open countryside and we were rolling across it.

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I looked at Kristin with a look of “What the hell are we getting into here”. Now I have to say we were the only ones in the SUV with that reaction. As for everyone else, including little Tergel, they were all acting as if Disneyland was right around the corner.

So we were now driving across the Mongolian terrain for about another hour, and I have to say it’s impressive as heck. And if my mind was racing with images of Genghis Khan’s Mongolian hordes storming over these hills before we got off the highway, it was bursting now. And at the same time I was seriously having some second thoughts about this whole day. Where are we? How the heck are we going to get back? Seriously!?

At one point I asked Bilgee if there was much wildlife out here, like rabbits? After Oyuka translated, Bilgee said, “Oh yes! There are many rabbits here.” And wouldn’t you know it that at that exact time a rabbit ran right in front of the car from right to left. Everyone in the car exclaimed when they saw it and started congratulating me. Huh? What did it do! Bilgee said “It’s a good omen to have a rabbit cross your path from right to left, plus the fact that you predicted it makes it especially good!” Things were starting to look up.

Then off in the distance we saw what looked like a huge partially built wall. As we drove up to it there was an opening in the center of the wall large enough for us to drive through. This wall was about 20 feet tall and extended about 100 yards to each side of the opening.

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It looked like some Hollywood production company had come out here years ago and built this wall for some kind of bronze age blockbuster war movie and then just left the set up. What was on the other side? Yup, more vast Mongolian countryside.

Finally coming around one of the endless hillsides we saw a grouping of yurts (gers). I guess we had arrived! We were the lone car pulling up to these yurts. No sooner had we arrived when some nomads came out to greet us and begin to show us around the yurts.

Before we could step into our first yurt, a man with a big grin and a bag slung over his shoulder rode up on his tiny horse. He stopped in front of us, reached into his bag and pulled out a teeny newborn lamb. It didn’t feel like it in the biting cold, but it was officially spring!

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As soon as we stepped into one of the yurts, we had taken a step back in time. These yurts were well built, elevated a few feet from the ground with wooden plank floors.

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The walls and ceilings were extremely well insulated, thickly layered with wool blankets and animal skin. Around the inside walls were beds, storage cabinets, chairs and all the walls were decorated with Mongolian blankets, ancient clothing, and artwork. In the center of each yurt was a stove for heating and cooking, and with the vent pipe sticking straight up and out of the center of the yurt.

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It was in our very first yurt that we discovered how much Mongolians love dressing up. There were warrior costumes hanging on the walls, and Bilgee gleefully grabbed one and suited up. Next thing you know, they were piling armor on me, and I got my Genghis on!

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There were several yurts with costumes, and the family never missed an opportunity to dress up and take fun pictures (the kids were not quite as enthralled, especially towards the end).

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We were invited to have a Mongolian meal with some of the members of the nomadic family in what can only be described as the dining yurt. Kristin and I were soaking in the entire experience.

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At this point we were getting a clearer picture of the set up here. This 13th century Mongolian village has been set up as a tourist attraction, but the people showing us how people would live and work in the 13th century, were actually living and working here. There was nothing fake about them. This was their daily life. They took care of the tourist attraction yurts, but they lived in their own yurts just next to them (the ones with solar panels).

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They cooked their meals, raised cattle, horses, sheep, goats and their families out here. These were actual nomadic families. No dancing Disney characters here. No scripted tour guide spiel and no pre-packaged fun-time meals. These were real people inviting you in to experience what they do on a daily basis. We understood now why we needed to pre-book for this experience, so that these families would know when we were coming out. We had done that a few days ago, but we had no idea what to expect. Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags Amusement Park – heck no! This is real, and it was awesome and off the scale.

We spent the day going from one group of yurts to the next, each one another valley or a few hillsides away. You could not see one yurt from the other. Don’t ask me how we found them; I’m just glad we were passengers going along for the ride.

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Not only did we have a meal, but had our chance to ride a two-hump camel! And who got to ride it first? Kristin, of course.

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And in doing so, she got to realize one of her life-long dreams. I have to say, I too got to ride the camel, and it was fun.

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We got to watch the men brush goats’ bellies. It turns out the cashmere from these goats brings in a good income for these families – Mongolia is the world’s second largest producer of cashmere.

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Kristin and I were also falling in love with these wonderful Mongolian people, with their friendliness, their matter-of-fact warmness, and their wonderful faces. We will always remember one such face as we drove up to one group of yurts, and this small Mongolian girl standing there. She was one of the most authentically beautiful nomadic children we had seen, and the setting was perfect as she stood there at the entrance of the yurt with her rosy red cheeks aglow.

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It was just another one of those moments where we had to catch our breath in the sheer beauty of the moment. No sooner had we arrived, her big sister, and soon thereafter her father and big brother, all came riding up on their horses.

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We came across another rosy-cheeked child in another yurt.

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This nomadic lifestyle was really starting to grow on me. There were so many things to take in on this adventurous day. One of them was how marvelous it was to see how many of the men and women came riding up to us on their little Mongolian horses. These horses were small compared to what we typically see in the US—so small that the men riding them seem to dwarf them. And to realize that these were the horses Genghis Khan used to rule his kingdom with…wow, they may be small but these guys are powerful.

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Even Tergel got to ride a horse!

Even Tergel got to ride a horse!

Our time venturing around this great nomadic playground of the 13th Century Village was coming to an end and we needed to set our course back into town. We needed enough time to make one last stop while we still had sunlight. The entire day had been rather grey and overcast, and one of the last things we didn’t want was to be driving around this countryside in the dark. Don’t ask me how we found our way back to the highway, all I know is we made our way back through the hole in the wall, across a road-less, sign-less, slowly defrosting landscape to the pothole highway, and turned left.

So what was our last stop? On our way out to the 13th Century Village we had passed this huge statue of Genghis Khan sitting horseback.

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Impressive not only for its size (it stands over 130 feet high and can be seen from miles away) but also because it is made of stainless steel. Supposedly it is the largest equestrian statue in the world and it sits on the spot where Genghis Khan found a legendary golden whip. He faces eastward towards his birthplace.

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We stopped in and blazed through the museum of Bronze Age artifacts and history of the Great Genghis Khan Mongolian empire.

Xavier and the largest Mongolian boot in the world.

Xavier and the largest Mongolian boot in the world.

With a few minutes to spare before closing time, we climbed up inside the statue (out the crotch!), and out onto the head of the horse to take in the impressive views and snap some family pictures.

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We enjoyed the view of the landscape and what is proposed to be a massive yurt village and resort for tourists to accompany the Genghis Khan museum. Rumor has it that Jackie Chan is a big investor, along with one of Mongolia’s famous sumo wrestlers.

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This had been a special day and I didn’t want it to end. I took a long walk from the statue to the highway entrance trying to take a few more good pictures, but also to take in more of this country. Bilgee drove up in the SUV packed with our family, ready to head home. I reluctantly got in.

For all the pictures we took that day trying to record all the sights and experiences we had enjoyed there is one that got away from me. It left me breathless, but with an image that will live with me forever. During our venturing around the 13th century village we were always seeing these nomadic men, and some women, on horseback riding up to meet us, or just riding across the landscape. I found them iconic: these people of historic lineage in this land of Genghis Khan, this place where no roads are needed—all you need is your deeply-engrained sense of direction.

When we were leaving our last yurts in the 13th Century Village, one such nomadic Mongolian on horseback came racing by us and up towards the rocky peaks of one of the many hills. My eyes followed him until he disappeared behind the rocks. I turned to see the vast landscape ahead of me and wondered how they know where they are going. And then I turned back, and there he was. Sitting atop his horse between two large rocks at the top of the hill watching us drive away. The wind had picked up so his dell and horses mane and tail were waving in the breeze. It would have made for one fantastic picture. Hi Ho Silver and the Lone Ranger? I’ll take my Mongolian nomadic horseman any day.

– This post is dedicated in memory of Aav –

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