Let me get vodka.
Because we are Mongols.
And the devil will get us early enough!
I'm on the train to Berlin Tegel and the Eurovision cracker Dschingis Khan from 1979 is in a loop in my head radio. Mongolia. Far and foreign - and all I can think of is this silly, racist song and the romantic notion of a huge country full of wild riders, where vodka flows freely, and weather-beaten nomads live in pretty yurts. A longing destination for nature lovers and people looking for authenticity, peace and deceleration, a place that falls outside of our superfast real-time world.
Even the check-in at Tegel Airport looks like a trip back to the gray Soviet times. Loved by nostalgics, the aging airport has some potential for frustration. But everything looks nice and truffy. The counter of the Mongolian airline MIAT is a bit rusty and rough, but somehow it has to be the same when you fly to Moscow, from where after a short stop you continue to Ulaan Bataar. Tegel is one of the few destinations that MIAT serves in Europe. The on-board service is simple but warm, the entry to Russia, as expected, jagged, the connecting flight deeply relaxed, and so I stand early in the morning in the gold-shimmering arrival hall of what could also be called Chinggis Khaan International Airport. Countless buildings, streets and monuments are dedicated to the country's most famous son, which seems a little strange to non-Mongolians, since the Great Khan is considered a cruel butcher and one of the greatest mass murderers of all time in many parts of the world. It just depends on the perspective.
There is not much time for mind games, our tour guide Zerenzoo "Zoo" Dashnyam from Tsolmon Travel, the most likeable and agile powerhouse in all of Mongolia, receives us. The petite zoo has already accompanied Reinhold Messner to the highest peaks in Mongolia, knows practically everything about her homeland and speaks fluent German, having studied in Leipzig during the GDR era. Generally speaking, a German in Mongolia goes further than English. Ideally you have a little bit of Russian up your sleeve.
We, that is me and an illustrious group of travel agents from all over Germany between the early 20s and mid-70s, will study the wonders of Mongolia for a week at the invitation of the tour operator Lernidee. We will spend a lot of time in our cute coach, which will drive us from pothole to pothole through a single natural spectacle. I know group trips from school, but whether it's a school trip or an educational trip, the rules are the same. Your seat remains the same throughout the trip and decides who you primarily deal with. People are insecure, and the getting to know each other is slanting to foreign shame triggering, but also touching, because it is a spectacle to watch adults in the self-expression program. Ultimately, we all just want to be liked.
I sit in the back of the bus, a choice that quickly turns out to be daring, as the last row is more of an ejection seat. Every pothole, and there are really many, I shoot up. Which has the advantage that at least I never fall asleep and so I don't miss anything from the wonderful view. Of course there are good reasons for the bumpy condition of the roads. Mongolia is a country of extremes. The nearest coast is thousands of kilometers away, which leads to an intense continental climate. The result is a temperature difference of up to 40 degrees plus in summer, and possibly minus 40 degrees in winter. In addition, long periods of drought, followed by masses of snow - overall poison for the road surface and therefore a challenge for every car or motorcycle driver. The daily temperature fluctuations are also enormous. The onion look is really appropriate here.
The city of Ulaan Baatar, the coldest capital in the world, surprises us at the beginning of June with vain sunshine and 30 degrees Celsius, for which none of the travelers is prepared for outfitting. We are also 1,350 meters above sea level and the sun is just falling on us. Good sun protection definitely belongs in the luggage. On the way from the airport to the city center, Ulaan Baatar presents himself as the only work-in-progress and huge urban planning chaos, stranded somewhere between tradition, socialism and modernity. The construction boom has seized the country and so huge apartment blocks and malls are sprouting from the earth, which are often empty or were set up in the middle of construction, in between a large power plant, yurts, corrugated iron crates and temple complexes occasionally mix into the cityscape, the few large streets are hopelessly overcrowded. Idyllic is different.
It is estimated that half of the entire Mongolian population lives in Ulaan Baatar, between 1.4 and 2 million inhabitants. Many people are not registered, which makes precise statements difficult. The rural exodus mainly draws the young people to the capital, where jobs and a modern life await. Nomadism, which seems so peaceful, is becoming increasingly antiquated for a large part of the Mongols and is dying out due to a lack of succession. The remaining nomads are struggling to survive with the consequences of climate change, overgrazing, pollution and industrialization.
A sad side note is the increasing alcoholism of many men who are among the losers of this change. On the other side of the coin there are emerging streets, international chains are settling and an educated and open-minded middle class is emerging. The center of the city is the extensive Süchbaatar Square, which houses the parliament building, the stock exchange and the opera and is lined with futuristic high-rise buildings.
We visit the zoo, the Buddhist Gandan monastery and the bizarre Chojdschin Lama temple. Monks pray for health, prosperity, happiness and 167 other occasions against donations, the price lists hang on the wall. In 1924 the country became a satellite state of the USSR. The Mongolian People's Republic was to become a modern communist state. This led to Stalinist cleansing, in which around 38,000 Mongols were murdered, mostly the intelligentsia and Buddhist monks. Monasteries and remnants of the original shamanism were largely destroyed. The 26 meter high gold statue of the goddess Janraisig of the Gandan monastery was also melted down, but was rebuilt in 1996 for the equivalent of five million euros in donations.
The evening program includes a performance of traditional Mongolian folklore with larynx singing, horse violins, national costumes and dances. I expect a terrible tourist show, instead I am completely enthusiastic from the first minute. The highly talented musicians, dancers and artists offer a huge show and will soon arouse curiosity about the rich cultural treasure of Mongolia. In addition, the costumes with towering hats and daring color combinations, simply wonderfully weird. Here one or the other science fiction mask or costume designer has certainly been inspired, a wild mix somewhere between Game of Thrones and Star Wars.
On the roof terrace of our internationally standardized Ramada Hotel, we have a spectacular view while we break the ice in the tour group with Mongolian vodka.
Early in the morning our off-road bus finally starts into the wild, 300 kilometers through the Mongolian steppe landscape west to Bayan Gobi. There is a lot of time to look out the window, headphones on and enjoy the expanse. Shortly after Ulan Baatar the traffic becomes quiet, people appear less and less in the picture, but herds of sheep, goats, cattle, camels and horses are shown to us. An estimated 52 million grazing animals inhabit the barren soils of the world's most sparsely populated country. Agriculture is practically impossible, animals are the most valuable source of food, vegetarians have a hard time, veganism is almost unimaginable.
Again and again we honk past large, colorfully decorated piles of stones that line the hills and crossroads. The so-called oboo are remnants of Tengrism, a form of shamanism. Victims in the form of colorful cloths, banknotes, but also bizarre gifts such as crutches or cropped horse legs are offered to the spirits and ancestors. Actually the hill has to be circled three times, otherwise misfortune is pending, for pragmatism this has been replaced by triple horns. Across the scenery is an 800-kilometer-long hiking dune, the foothills of which we cross several times on the way before we reach our overnight accommodation, the Hogno Haan Yurt Camp, which is picturesquely situated in front of a rocky backdrop. The traditional nomad tents are not only a design hit, the construction made of wood, felt and fabric is simply clever, minimalistic and yet cozy. Quickly cozy in winter and on cold nights, thanks to the stove in the center, cool in summer. Definitely a very special “hotel”. The growling stomachs are saturated with a meat-heavy meal.
Mongolia is certainly not a top travel destination for foodies. Little is spiced, the menu is clear, but the vodka is top quality. We destroy two bottles of the top brand Chingghis before we stagger happily to our tents, under an army of stars, because there is practically no light pollution here. The fire in the stove crackles me into a deep, restful sleep.
Day three of the trip takes us to Karakorum to the relics of the 13th century capital of the Mongolian empire and the extensive monastery complex Erdene Zuu, which was once inhabited by 1,000 monks. A spiritual place. The remaining monks radiate an incredible calm, the scenery touches. There are rich murals and art objects to visit. At the gates of the monastery, the tour groups can have their pictures taken in traditional Mongolian costumes. While watching a Chinese troop of this fun, an enormous golden eagle is almost casually put on my arm. The animal is impressive, as a facebook profile picture it beats all my previous likes, but actually that's bad with animals in captivity and such. However, I am assured that Mongolia has always hunted with golden eagles that are kept domesticated and that the animals are doing well. I hope that's right.
It gets dark early and after dinner and the obligatory round of vodka there is not really anything to do in the yurt camp. A splinter group and I do not want to accept this and go on an expedition towards the "city", we want to find a karaoke bar or another bar. It is pitch dark, only our iPhone lamps light our way through the pampas, dog barking and whining sounds from all sides. After about 500 meters a Mongol on horseback suddenly stands in front of us and looks at us completely amazed. Communication is unfortunately not possible, he points frantically towards the camp and pulls away. This strains the nerves of most expedition participants, whereupon they go back to the safe camp. The three of us move on.
After a walk of about half an hour, Patrick, Lars and I reach the "city" and move from light source to light source. No human soul shows up, the barking of the dog becomes more threatening, everything that makes an inviting impression from a distance is closed. At some point we find a petrol pump that is currently being refueled. The four people in the car are irritated, this encounter also fails due to the >
After breakfast we drive to the Hustai National Park, where the rare Przewalski wild horses are located. The Mongolian wild horse is the only subspecies of the wild horse that has survived to this day in its wild form. Little girl dreams from wendy times were. The tiny, beige-colored wild horses with the bristly mane chase through the plateau in their family clans. That is very sublime. A wonderful hike leads back to the yurt Campt, on which some marmots say hello.
Mountain Festival. We are well-rehearsed as a group, there is a sociable and friendly atmosphere. After dinner we occupy the ballroom and what you do on group trips, drinking games, of course. We sit there, grown-up people, clapping our hands on the table in time until one makes a mistake, has to drink and bawl. How nice. Some things just never change. Very late, for Mongolian standards, we sneak into our yurts. I feel like I'm in a holiday camp when I'm 15.
The morning after brings a hangover, maybe the collective exhilaration is inevitably followed by the camp koller? On the way to Mongolian Switzerland we stop at the monumental Genghis Khan statue near Tsonjin Boldog. The walk-in statue is 30 meters high and is currently the highest equestrian statue in the world. The base building contains restaurants and souvenir shops. With an elevator you can go to a viewing platform at the height of the gigantic head. The statue was inaugurated in 2008 and is definitely a prestige object. Germans, who we are, are quickly found all the defects of the statue. The stairs are of different heights, the museum in the basement is only labeled in Russian, the service in the restaurant is poor. The travel professionals literally take the property in front of the poor zoo apart, it is increasingly difficult for them to maintain their maintenance. Somehow the worm is in there. The situation is saved by throwing all of us into these crazy costumes and posing for a group picture.
Drive on quickly to the Gorki Terelj National Park. And what comes now calms all minds and peace returns. Mongolian Switzerland is simply breathtakingly beautiful. Before we reach our camp, we take the opportunity to visit a nomad family. Such visits are not uncommon, visitors are welcome. As a gift, you bring sweets for the children and a little money for the parents. We get to taste the sour, sour milk tea and cheese from our own production and can examine family life up close. It's simple, but modern technologies have arrived even in the most remote regions. Mobile phones and satellite dishes are standard equipment.
The Buuveit Camp in Terelj National Park is a dream. It is idyllically situated below imposing rocks on a lush green meadow. The cloudless sky shines in bright blue. It is the first nature-friendly camp in Mongolia. Recycling, water treatment and environmental protection are very important. The camp is ideal for hikers, climbers, riders and anyone looking for peace and quiet. For dinner, a traditional meal is prepared for us, dumplings filled with meat and herbs, buuds and chuuschuur, and lamb, which is cooked in a large milk jug on stones, including potatoes. The best meal of the whole trip. As a special surprise, we are asked after dinner to the campfire site, where the husband of Camp Manager Tsolmon, a well-known larynx singer, and our horse violin give us a mystical serenade. After a restful, dreamless sleep in a comfortable bed, my personal highlight of the trip is waiting for me, a ride on one of these agile, petite Mongolian horses. Since I haven't sat on a horse since childhood, I first show due respect and let the young guide guide me. After a few minutes, however, I trust the pretty warm-blooded horse below me and my skills as a rider and start trotting and finally galloping on my own. I stand in the crampons, the wind blows through my loose hair, a helmet is not worn here, we hunt in the monkey tooth over mountains and valleys, pure adrenaline shoots through my body, I am electrified. Wow! What a feeling.
The high should last for a long time. I hate to leave the camp. Everything is just right here. I could spend weeks here. But unfortunately it goes back to Ulaan Bataar. On the way we stop at a cashmere outlet. The country is famous for good quality at moderate prices. While parts of the tour group go on a bargain hunt, I enjoy the last rays of the Mongolian sun. To say goodbye, the "younger" group members want to visit one of the numerous karaoke bars, even if Zoo is a little concerned about our well-being on the dangerous streets of the capital. We don't let that stop us and we sip with beer and plenty of vodka in a cellar bar until early in the morning, where we sing ourselves hoarse. Unfortunately Genghis Khan is not in the playlist, but Moscow, Moscow, Moscow is ringing. At 4:00 am I fall into my bed blissfully, the alarm clock rings at 6. We hangover to the airport with a slight hangover. Let's go back to Berlin.
It was great. A journey shaped by the beauty of nature, a fabulously interesting culture, full of tranquility, but also adventures somewhere between tradition and modernity. I have overcome my fear of group travel. It can be a lot of fun with such a team. And zoo, it's just a treasure. And of course the vodka. I have a few bottles in my luggage and every sip tastes a little like this incredible breadth and puts me back on the back of my wild beautiful horse.
Many thanks to Lernidee Erlebnisreisen for the invitation and this great experience.