Seen from the Trans Mongolian train, the Gobi desert at sunset is an ocean of stillness. Under a new moon, the landscape slowly turns from pink to olive. A motionless Bactrian camel is silhouetted against the horizon, breaking hour after hour of nothingness. A wild horse lowers its neck to graze, a yak stares vacantly as if he’s been transported into a time zone far beyond where he belongs. A lone yurt, the octagonal tent which the Nomads erect in no time, forms a secure, warm home, complete with stove and shrine.
We alighted at Ulaan Bataar to head out to a ger camp for two nights under the stars, about an hour’s minibus ride out of the capital. Next morning, a nervously eager party gathered around a corral whilst our guide went off to catch the horses for the day’s expedition. Hours later, flushed with effort, my daughter declared that she wanted to stay here for a very long time and go galloping across the grasslands again and again. I climbed to the top of a hill to gaze, uncomprehending, at the vastness surrounding me. Pristine light bathed the distant, empty steppe. Nothing could rob this scene of its solitude. A cluster of yurts far below marked a settlement of sturdy, swarthy horsemen and their families. They milk mares and ferment the milk to make a very alcoholic beverage which made our young guide go bright red in the cheeks. They top up the barrel every day with freshly drawn milk, and use some to make a delicious kind of nougat. They live, breathe and smell like horses, and are extremely hospitable despite their bewilderment at the increasing number of visitors who come to gawp at their rare lifestyle, in return for a small gift such as a key ring or pen. When we departed, they gave us the traditional send off, galloping, whooping and waving alongside the minibus until we were too fast for the horses.
Mongolia is a charming destination for those with a sense of adventure and humour. Perusing a menu consisting of only eggs and bread in the Urge restaurant, you’ll need to remember the latter. Where else can you buy a roll up chess set which stinks of burnt wool, or hear the strangely haunting but utterly peculiar sound of throat singing, which is simultaneously the song of a bull frog and a canary?