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There’s a magic about Mongolia

Mongolia? But why would you want to go there? More Mongolians live outside their country than in it, with 3 ½ million in China and about 1 million in Russia, over half of the year is experienced in temperatures below 0°C, and the majority of the population live a nomad existence pitching their Ger tents wherever they please. But all it takes is one brief look to the surrounding horizon for your jaw to drop in awe at the rolling untouched mountains of the Gobi desert colliding with the unpolluted blue sky, and all inhibitions disappear.

Over the last few years Ulan Bator, the capital city and only built up area of any note in the entire country, has become one of the essential stop off points for Trans-Siberian soul-searchers and wilderness adventurers alike. With guesthouses, internet cafes, bowling alleys and espresso bars popping up in-between old Soviet grey architecture, beautifully decadent Buddhist monasteries, Ger camps and camel tracks, Ulan Bator’s streets have a slightly surreal sobering feel to them. As backpacker-clad camera-toters tuck into their pizza on one side of the road, children emerge from underground passages on the other with beaming smiles and playful innocence having spent the night trying to keep warm in the city’s sewage system.

Having navigated through the plethora of old army jeeps and cows adorning the two main streets of the city centre, a trip to the huge sprawling Khar Zakh market is essential for any traveller. Selling everything from a thousand varieties of recipes involving mutton, Mongolia’s national food, to clothes, carpets, plants, horse saddles and even yaks and cows, you can easily lose half a day wandering down the endless alleyways amongst local farmers and backpackers searching for the essential traditional Mongolian hat. The short trip from the market to the Zaisan memorial statue, a gift from the Russians as a sign of friendship and recognition of wars past, can offer spectacular views across the valley floor of Ulan Bator. Situated on one of the many surrounding mountains, the view of the sprawling Ger camps around the city to the left is as eye-opening as the strange sight of the new golf driving range to the right.

I don’t quite see the blue sky here..

But it is not until one ventures out of Ulan Bator that one experiences the real true delights of Mongolia. Joining one of the tours set up by the many hotels in the city or venturing out onto the edges of the Gobi desert alone will both be experiences that can’t be equalled. A ninety minute drive by jeep outside Ulan Bator brings you to the Gorkhi-Tarelj National Park boasting alpine scenery speckled with wild horses, camels, cows and of course sheep, as there are approximately six sheep to every person in Mongolia. Endless opportunities for hiking, climbing and rafting lie ahead, just don’t expect to bump into anyone as you really are at one with nature.

Numerous Ger camps and farms are scattered across the plains, most of which will offer an open door to the intrepid backpacker caught in horizontal snow storms or just in need of a mutton fix. Gers themselves are like Doctor Who’s Tardis, whilst resembling an unassuming tent on the outside, venture inwards to a world of hot stoves, televisions and fridge-freezers. After a night of Mongolian vodka and traditional mutton dumplings called Buuz, a two-hour trek through streams, valleys and woodland by horse is the perfect way to indulge in the Mongolian way life. Local horsemen and farmers are often more than willing to lead you to untouched breath-taking views and offer priceless local weather reports in return for cigarettes, the essential bargaining tool if you don’t want to be lost in the mountains of Tarelj forever – I can think of worse places!

Phil Boyle edits NVR magazine from his base in Shanghai.

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