“Don’t forget to look up at the stars,” advised my cousin when I announced a trip to Mongolia. “They flash and twinkle like nowhere else.”
Once I arrived, though, it was the vast, open horizon that seized my attention: sprawling expanses of grassland steppes; mountain ranges as jagged as a dinosaur’s back; and wind-carved desert sands rippling down majestic dunes. Three times the size of France, Mongolia’s population totals 2.9 million, fewer than the throngs that pervade Manhattan on a weekday.
After seventy years under Soviet domination, this remote landmass, tucked between Russia and China looks and feels like a country that survived near extinction and now controls its future. It won independence in 1990, transformed into a democracy, and then discovered a rich pile of coal, copper, and gold.
Mongolia’s rugged, developing tourist infrastructure appealed to my adventurous sensibility. I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, mid-June, on an overnight flight from New York via Seoul.
A driver from UB Guesthouse greeted my traveling companion, Michael, and I at Chinggis Khaan Airport. My guidebook listed pages of guesthouses with more or less the same $20 a night price (at 1,450 tugriks to the dollar) for a Spartan room with a shared bathroom. What sold me on UB was its location in Baga Toiruu, the historic neighborhood where Ulaanbaatar originated. They also arranged excursions outside the city. I was keen on journeying through the Gobi Desert.
The UB Guesthouse staff was friendly and attentive. Bolormaa (Bobby) Byambajev, a native of Ulaanbaatar, and her Korean husband, David Kim, started their lodging and touring business 14 years ago. Bobby offered us responsive, insightful travel guidance from my first e-mail queries throughout our stay.
Our first day, Michael and I strolled to Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s elegant centerpiece. It stretches out like a vast rectangular carpet, with an enormous, bronze memorial of Genghis Khan commanding its entire north-side block. The Soviets prohibited Mongolians from paying tribute to the 13th-century legend who built the world’s most extensive, contiguous land empire, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific Ocean. His armies had, after all, ransacked Kiev and imposed Mongol rule on most of Russia for nearly 300 years.
Since achieving independence, Mongolians celebrate him with unbridled devotion. The international airport, city university, and a luxury hotel bear his name and image, as do Chinggis Khaan (as he is known locally) beer, vodka, energy drinks, and merchandise.
The pretty salmon-colored State Opera and Ballet Theater inhabits the east side of the square. The Mongolian Stock Exchange, established in 1992, stands opposite it. Many of the city’s most notable landmarks, revolve around Sukhbaatar Square. We walked south, across Peace Avenue, to the sleek, five-star, luxury hotel, shaped like a sail, that dominates the skyline—the Blue Sky Tower and Hotel, all 23 stories of shimmery floor-to-ceiling, aqua-tinted glass. A flash of vertigo struck me as I gazed at the magnificent views of the city from the top floor lounge.
Metro bearings now established with remarkable ease, we were ready to plunge into a rural adventure. We poured over a map with Bobby. An hour’s drive from Ulaanbaatar to Terelj National Park looked like a good start. A two night stay in the guest ger—a Mongolian round, felt-covered, movable tent—of a host nomadic family would offer valuable insight into whether we were fit for a longer Gobi trip. The next morning Buggi, our airport driver, picked us up for the bumpy ride on the pot-holed highway.
Along the way, we visited Tsonjin Boldog, the sacred grounds where the young Genghis Khan discovered a golden whip, signifying future power and success. An iconic 250-ton steel statue of the Mongol hero on horseback, stands 15 stories high, and dazzles from the distance like a silvery meteor. Up close, it’s a remarkable vision: the world’s largest monument of a horse and rider posed atop a two-story, circular visitor center.
Approaching Terelj, massive, granite boulders littered the alpine mountains. A crisp June breeze wrapped us under a canopy of brilliant, blue sky. We arrived just as a traditional Mongolian arts and sports performance swung into action at a nearby camp. We spent the afternoon entranced by folk dancing, contortion, archery, and horse racing. For the next two days, we hiked verdant cliffs, rode horseback, and savored tasty stir-fried noodle and soup dishes that our host family prepared.
A week into our trip, and I still hadn’t glanced at the night sky.
Bobby teamed us up with two other Guesthouse couples, a driver, and a cook. We loaded up 16 gallons of water and enough food and snacks to last most of the 1,700-mile, six-day journey. Then we piled into an old Soviet van headed directly south to the Gobi, which means “waterless” place. Flinging this way and that in our big, clumsy chariot, we felt as giddy and carefree as kids on wild horses. Minty green meadows soon transformed into the bleached sepia hues of a faded photograph.
We drove six to ten hours a day over barely visible tracks on the desert floor—moving along, suspended in time. We rarely saw other vehicles, just herders on horseback and the occasional Mongolian on motorcycle. Flocks of sheep and goats crossing our path produced our only traffic jams. Split-second sightings of quick-footed marmots kept us alert and competitive.
“Hey, did you notice the stars last night,” asked Christian one morning. Responding to nature’s call in the middle of the night, he peered skyward and discovered the heavens ablaze. I vowed to view the celestial extravaganza that evening.
But the problem making nocturnal commitments in the Gobi is that by nightfall exhaustion penetrates the bones and seeps deep inside the muscles from the driving, the heat, and the focused attention to all the surprise details an empty cosmos offers. Lacking electricity most nights in our cozy gers, my eyes closed the minute the night awakened.
More nights of neglected stargazing strummed by. We hiked the flaming, red cliffs of Bayanzag, the dinosaur cemetery that was the inspiration for the film “Jurassic Park.” Roy Chapman Andrews, an American zoologist, unearthed the first dinosaur eggs there in the 1920s.
We slip-slided down the spectacular sand dunes of Khongoryn Els, a golden range of desert peaks stretching 110 miles. Sleek, muscled stallions grazed along a stream-fed oasis parallel the sandy slopes. A fine ash carried over by the winds from the Tavan Tolgoi coal basin 62 miles away lightly dusted patches of sand. The world’s largest untapped copper and gold mine also resides in this region.
In Dalanzadgad, the provincial capital of the Gobi Province, we luxuriated in hot showers and stocked up on supplies for the two-day return to Ulaanbaatar.
By the time I finally looked up to the Mongolian stars, a big smiley quarter moon had barged into the nightscape. Bright moonbeams flooded the skies. I barely made out the Big Dipper. If there’s one thing I learned from my Mongolia adventure, it’s go, look, see now before the heavenly flashes and twinkles fade away.
Giannella M. Garrett writes about travel and culture and is working on her first children’s book.