Most visitors to Mongolia, even backpackers, form groups and hire a van and driver to travel around the country. If there are four or more of you this is barely more expensive than taking public transport, allows you to get to those hard to reach places (of which there are more than a few in Mongolia) and saves a lot of time. The latter aspect was made all too clear to me when I popped into the tourist information centre in Moron to get some info about getting to, and hiking around, Hovsgol lake, Mongolia's second-largest and the little sister to lake Baikal just across the border in Russia. The information centre was staffed by a Czech and a German volunteer and so, pleased at finding a fellow countryman, I ended up spending about an hour with them chatting about this and that. A topic that invariably cropped up was visas, as they were having problems with theirs. I still had 9 days left on mine and was feeling relaxed about getting to Ulaan Baatar in time to extend it ... until they informed me that applications for extensions must be submitted four working days before expiry and that the application can only be done in the capital. There wasn't a hope in hell that I would make it to the lake and back in time so I quickly altered my plans and plotted a new course heading east.
|Empty vodka bottles littering the steppe. Mongolian men are more than a little fond of the hard liquor and you will often meet some that reek of alcohol, even early in the morning. Usually they are harmless, but sometimes they can get aggresive.|
Such changes of plan are a common occurrence in my travels, and although it's a shame that I was unable to visit the lake I certainly don't regret foregoing the car and driver. I certainly won't see as much as some people do in a shorter space of time, and waiting for vans to actually depart has been at times exasperating. But the positives have far outweighed any negatives. The shared laughs and occasional shots of vodka. The music: Mongolians are hearty and boisterous people and sing along to their favourite songs with gusto. From heart-rending Mongolian ballads to the latest offering from Kesha (although they usually just hum along to the foreign ones) Mongolians like a good tune and a sing-song. I have got to witness the entire gamut of Mongolian society: young parents taking turns passing their baby between them; grizzled old men with skin the colour and texture of leather rolling a fag in an old newspaper; young students eager to practice their five phrases of English; well to do families taking an outing to the countryside over the weekend; and traders ferrying their bundles of goods from market to town. I have also built up an envious admiration of Mongolians' ability to sleep in a vehicle in even the most adverse conditions: being jammed tightly together like sardines whilst jolting along a bumpy road actually seems to have a soporific effect rather than the reverse. A very handy skill indeed.
Here's a video with some pics of Mongolia. The pictures aren't that great, but the song has become my soundtrack to the country - a huge hit last year you can hear it in every car radio.
The many hours on the road also give you plenty of time to contemplate and admire the scenery and the ever-changing cloudscapes and valleys dotted with gers looking like randomly forgotten, giant wheels of brie, or do a bit of wildlife spotting. As well as the ubiquitous ground squirrels I've seen plenty of cranes strutting their stuff on the steppe, marmots sunning themselves, a sea-eagle taking flight, kites fighting over scraps, jerboas manically hopping away from the oncoming car, and a rather nonchalant golden eagle posing on a fence post (not long enough for me and my camera unfortunately). Along with the wildlife is the human flotsam and decoration that is unique to Mongolia. There are the everpresent ovoos, usually perched on mountain passes, that maintain Mongolia's link with its shamanistic past despite the mostly Buddhist present. Most people will stop at them and place an offering of money, food or drink (there are usually a large number of empty vodka bottles scattered around them), and perhaps do a circumambulation, to ensure a safe journey. Also littering the countryside, though a little more haphazardly, are animal remains, and more specifically hooves. They are the only parts of animals that are not used and so are left scattered around wherever the animals happen to be slaughtered. Usually in piles but I've come across them everywhere; they're a constant reminder that Mongolian people live far more closely to the land than we are accustomed to.
|An ovoo garlanded in blue khadags (silk prayer flags).|
I think it apt that, in a Buddhist country like Mongolia, I had a minor epiphany about how you can get more out of travelling by applying some Buddhist thought. Earlier I was picked up by a trio of Israelis in their van. They were nice guys (everyone who gives me a lift is nice) and interested in the country, but I felt they weren't fully there. They kept talking about their favourite humus joint in Tel Aviv (for those of you who are interested, apparently Abu Hassan's in old Yafo has the best humus in Israel) and about how mouth-wateringly delicious the food is and what they would eat when they got back (they were only two weeks into a two-month trip). That's when I realised that they were not fully experiencing their travels as they were, at least in some part of their minds, still back home. I think it's appropriate that here, in one of the most Buddhist countries in the world, I have come to understand the link between travelling and Buddhism. (Bear with me, it should make sense.) In Buddhist philosophy people try to escape suffering by severing their craving or attachment to worldly things and thereby attain a state of enlightenment. Similarly in travelling philosophy, if you maintain an attachment or craving for home, be it food, TV, relationships or even your local football team, then you never fully enter into the present surroundings and truly experience them. I doubt it will lead to Enlightenment, but if you don't immerse yourself fully and let go of the line of security and familiarity that ties you to your comfort zone then I think there will always be something elluding you when you travel (not that you have to sever all contacts completely, but more important is the desire for the familiar). Perhaps I'm being a pompous travel snob, but I do believe that simply visiting a place is not enough; you have to open your eyes and your mind and try to understand what is going on around you - it may not always work, you may come away from it just as baffled, or even more so, as before, but simply going through the motions and ticking off places from a list cannot be the answer. I have seen too much of that to want to be anything like that.