Mongolia. Steppes, Nomads and Traditions

On this distant land, the name of Genghis Khan still resonates through the steppe and its people carry in it an ancestral culture between traditional music, Buddhism and nomadic life.


I went 3 weeks trek in Mongolia last September and never had such an adventure so engulfed me with emotions.
I thought to find a wild nature, a shy people, an archaic culture. I saw a gradation of landscapes as sumptuous as surreal, Lake Kovsgol , a blue jewel surrounded by green mountains and eternal snow, in the desert of Gob i, sea of ​​sand and camels, passing by Ulan Bato r, capital city communist post between Mac Do and concrete.
I met the nomads , curious, funny, warm and proud who welcomed us, pampered and taught us to love their country with respect and humility.

But before you immerse yourself in Mongolian culture, what is overwhelming when you leave Ulaanbaatar is the diverse and varied paintings that Mother Nature painted here for us.

With an area of ​​1 566 000 km2, 3 times France, Mongolia is divided into 4 variable geographies.
To the north, the border with Siberia offers a mountainous region scattered with lakes with limpid waters and fish. From the center to the east, the steppe . Huge plains where a vast network of rivers and streams meanders for the greater happiness of herds that live in freedom.
To the south, the Gobi Desert, the largest desert in Asia , between sand dunes and camel caravans.

In Mongolia , all the colors of Nature are sublimated by the purity of the air and the extraordinary brightness of the sun’s rays that filter through the clouds to burst into aquatic reflections.

We are sometimes charmed by the naivety of certain paintings when, at the bend of a hill, some yurts appear at the edge of a river, a herd of yaks grazing peacefully around.
And the next day, we remain captivated by the perspectives of the horizon. With us, the eye is so quickly stopped by a building, a shopping center, an electric cable … There, it feels like you can go where the eye takes you.
This contributes to the incredible feeling of freedom that is born very quickly. Within the same geographical area, nomads can settle where the grass is the most tender to the rhythm of the seasons. No forbidden lawns or fallow land.
We bend his yurt (nomadic wooden house and thick waterproof fabric of homemade), we hitch 4 or 6 yaks and change camp for a few months.

Of the 3 million inhabitants in Mongolia, a third lives in Ulaanbaatar, the remaining 2 thirds are nomads and breeders of sheep, goats, yaks or horses. They buy from the city some staples such as rice, potatoes, flour and tea. The rest of their food comes from cattle: milk, butter, cheese, meat and even local alcohol (aïrag ) made from fermented mare’s milk.
Thus most herds live in freedom only guarded by a shepherd who follows them on horseback and gathers them for the night.

The big curiosity for the travelers that we are remains so the yak. This close relative of the cow is stocky and dressed in a thick layer of long hair which gives it a nonchalant air but which will protect it during the harsh winter months.

Because if in September, already fresh air is pleasant, the nomadic life in Mongolia is not a long quiet river.
The climate is the main obstacle facing the population. In winter, the temperature can drop to -40 ° C, snow covers everything and yurt camps are sheltered from the wind.
Over 12 months, only 4 months of rest, from June to September, between sandstorms and salvage showers.

And although this choice of life exposed to the vagaries of nature is less and less adopted by younger generations who join the cities, Mongolians are very attached to their history and traditions.

And especially to Tibetan Buddhism enriched by very ancient shamanic beliefs . Temples, statues, photos, incense … participate in rituals, but in everyday nomadic life, we invoke the supernatural stopping at each “ovoo  ” on its way. From a distance, this pile of stones strewn with strips of blue cloth is not cult. But for Mongolians, it is important to stop there if you want to continue your way safely. It is customary for each ‘passer’ to walk around it three times by throwing a pebble and making a wish for the past, a wish for the present and a wish for the future.
You will also have to turn the prayer wheels present in each sacred place.

But other rules of life are to be respected if you do not want to offend your guests. For example, always move from right to left when entering a yurt.
It is therefore important to be well informed before leaving.

But make no mistake, despite an austere and hostile environment, Mongolians love life. They talk and laugh a lot, they love singing and playing cards, ladies, …
During the trek, we learned to sing all the hits of their national “Patrick Bruel”. In the evening, we played games of wild cards that ended in crazy laughs …
It is of course difficult to discuss domestic politics, unless speaking Mongolian or Russian, but soon the universal language of the body allowed us to say the essentials .

Thus between CD player and mobile phone, modernity catches up little by little. And if they live in a very spartan comfort parents and children under the same yurt and without running water, most have a small generator or solar panels that provide a minimum of electricity.
Just enough to power some light bulbs and TV … to watch the wrestling fights broadcast by the only national channel.
They are indeed addicted to duels between sumo s, at least as much as horse racing that takes place during the big Naadam festival in July.
Some owners prepare themselves there all year long and, more than just a means of transport or a breeding animal, the horse is an integral part of Mongolian cultural and historical heritage.
Would Genghis Khan have built the greatest empire of all time on foot?
And you ? What adventure awaits you in Mongolia
 ?