Sleeping on the steppes of Mongolia
AS OUR bus leaves Ulaanbaatar for Gorkhi-Terelj National Park - a district of traditional portable dwellings called gers, just 40km east of the Mongolian capital - we wait impatiently for the hectic cityscape to give way to the open steppes, for the stuffy smog to be dispelled by fresh, cold air and for Hummer H2s to give way to horses and motorbikes.
The shanty houses that proliferate Ulaanbaatar's suburbs seem to continue forever, as we make our way towards the endless steppes and open sky.
We arrived in Ulaanbaatar on the trans-Mongolian train from Beijing. As day gave way to night, we stood watching the open steppes roll endlessly by, as the train continued its journey along the ancient tea-caravan route from China to Russia. Tales of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and the Gobi Desert brought wonderful adventures to mind.
The carefree ride through the open steppes was interesting, and we found ourselves constantly scouring the great outdoors for the grass that would feed the cattle.
We certainly did not expect any surprises until the "iron horse" pulled into Ulaanbaatar Station in the late afternoon.
Mongolia's capital is chaotic, with wild traffic, and the city is difficult to navigate. The Mongolians might have happily adopted urban living, but have little idea how to live with each other or, to be honest, to cope with the city.
Perhaps they lived in the steppes for too long before being forced to make a living in town. What is certain is that the Mongolians, male and female, drive without any regard for others. Every so often, we come across an accident on the road, caused by a careless driver changing lanes without signalling his intention to do so. The result is a traffic jam that traps everyone. It takes us two hours to clear the city limits for a journey that should take no longer than 15 minutes.
The bus is heading east, leaving the sun behind. After crossing the river and making a series of turns around the rolling hills, we reach Gorkhi-Terelj in the early evening. The national park is a tourist zone and offers a rare chance for foreign visitors to have a glimpse of Mongolian nomadic culture. You can check into a resort, bed down in a Mongolian ger and tuck into ham and eggs for breakfast.
Our ger hotel is perched on the hilly slope, and offers a nice view of the beautiful valley and the high mountains.
The cold wind gusting across the steppes slices through my jacket, sweeps the violet flowers across the steppes and turns the smoke rising from the gers into angry swirls. Pulling my coat tighter, I think I understand what drove Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire to conquer the world during the 13th century - the cold and sheer loneliness of Mongolia. They headed west to what is known today as Pakistan and Iran for spices and warmer air.
To warm myself, I decide to go for a walk around the households scattered in the valley.
Contrasts here are stark, more so than in the town. Families live in the ger, yet drive big sport utility vehicles like a Toyota Land Cruiser. I would sell the expensive car and put the money into a nice cottage. But then, I am not Mongolian.
"The ger is all right. And, without a big car, you will not make it through the winter," says our guide, Wanchai.
The Mongolians also need a big SUV to survive out in their rugged empty land.
There is nothing fancy about our ger at the resort. Painted white, it looks like a huge Chinese bun. Besides two small beds, the ger houses have nothing but a stove to fend off the extreme cold. Even though that does not do its job particularly well, we sleep soundly through the night.
The national park draws visitors for its rock formations, and among them are strange shapes known as Turtle Rock and Old Man Reading A Book.
A small portion to the south of the park has been developed for tourists, with restaurants, souvenir shops as well as horses and camels for rent.
However, the best part of visiting Gorkhi-Terelj is the experience of sleeping in a ger and taking long walks through the vast steppes for a quick dose of "nomadic life".
After one night, many visitors head back to Ulaanbaatar - where the night is warmed not by stoves but by cheap vodka and sinful nightlife.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
HOW TO GET THERE
ULAANBAATAR and Beijing are linked by air and the Trans-Mongolian Rail.
Most tourists take the train to Ulaanbaatar and return by plane.