Blog Archives: Mongolia


People of the Steppes

People of the Steppes

I am flying from Ulaanbaatar to Uglii in the far west of Mongolia. Beneath me, dark patches of forest, multi-coloured lakes and strips of undulating, bronze sand give colour and depth to the otherwise desolate landscape. Unbelievably, next to these features – on the edges of the forests, by the shores of the lakes and in the shadows of the dunes are people.

The tops of their gers reflect in the sun and shine like beacons from a forgotten world. In contrast to their natural surroundings these fabric homes are tiny but their presence out here in the silence, speaks volumes about a people with an innate will to survive, living a life far removed from the rest of the world. My anticipation builds at the prospect of exploring the wild country beneath me and meeting the extraordinary nomads who call it home.

I think back to what Jan, Steppes’ partner in Mongolia, said to me when we were planning our trip together.

“How do you spell Chigertei? I can’t find it on Google Maps…” I said to him.

“Forget Google Maps, they haven’t discovered this part of Mongolia yet, you’ll just have to trust me” he said with a mischievous laugh.

Walking through the bucolic valley of Chigertei I am glad I placed my trust in Jan. Two figures on horseback are ahead of us, adeptly corralling a large herd of goats. In front of the livestock is a small lake on which terns, cormorants and gulls feed. On the near horizon, the snow-capped Altai mountains that form the boundary between Mongolia and China, are pin sharp in the silvery light of late morning. The distant bleating of goats and the odd whistle and shout of the herdsman are the only sounds to break the serene silence. My senses are acutely attuned to the simple panorama in front of me, as if I am watching this timeless scene unfurl on an enormous high-definition screen with surround sound. The two herdsmen dismount from their horses, and it becomes apparent that one of them is in fact a young boy, no more than ten years old. Having effortlessly manoeuvred their livestock onto a fertile pasture, the father and son take time out together and lie down by the lake shore, propping themselves up with their elbows, one eye on their animals and the other eye on the Altai mountains that tower above them. It is a scene that conveys the essence of simple contentment.

The luxury of space and fresh air combined with a simple, pastoral lifestyle seems the perfect antidote to the stresses of the overpopulated western world. But it is all too easy to romanticise the life of a nomad. Living on the Mongolian steppes is harsh, especially in the winter when the cold is inescapable and bone-achingly cruel. It may be a life without complication and superfluity, but it is often a life lived on the very edge at the mercy of the elements. I am reminded of this when we meet with a herdsman, just outside the village of Deluun, on the outskirts of Hukh Serkhiin Nuruu National Park. We learn that he lost more than half of his livestock in the winter just passed and now his animals are in desperate need of fresh grass which is in short supply as the rains have yet to fall. He is stoic, and he deems our meeting as being auspicious. He gestures towards the sky where clouds are building and tells us that yesterday, he called on the local lama to give the pastures a blessing and to pray for rain.

“The rain is coming” he says with conviction and a big smile.

Hope is eternal on the Mongolian steppes. It is the belief of a better day tomorrow that propels the nomadic way of life.

Bulgan is a big woman with gold teeth and a kind face topped with a colourful headscarf. Formidable looking but soft around the edges, her young grand-children gravitate towards her as we take our seats at the north end of the ger (as Kazakh tradition dictates). We have been invited for tea with Bulgan and her family, whom like all the communities in this part of Mongolia are Kazakh. Bulgan’s daughter serves milky tea and bread with a fermented, salty butter that is strangely good. Bulgan tells us that she and her family only set up their summer camp here yesterday and will likely remain at this location for three months. She seems happy at this prospect and mentions how hard the recent winter was for all the people in the valley. Much of the livestock was lost, not only to the weather but also to predators such as wolves and eagles. Last night, we were looking at images of snow leopards captured by camera-traps positioned by researchers in the mountains just above Bulgan’s summer camp. I ask Bulgan if she has ever seen a snow leopard and she looks at me pensively. After a long pause, she tells us a story of another family who had to migrate their camp to a different valley because of a snow leopard encounter. One of the men, caught a snow leopard skulking around camp at night. He killed the animal, skinned it and ate some of the meat. The next night, two snow leopards came into camp and killed every single animal. The legend of the snow leopard looms large in the Altai. This is an animal worthy of fear and respect in equal measure.

Our flight back to Ulan Bataar is in the dead of night. I look out of the window but see no lights and therefore no sign of life. But I know it is there. I think about Bagan, the strong matriarch and her family. I think about the smile of the hopeful herdsman and the lama praying for rain. But most of all, I think about the bond I witnessed between the father and son on horseback, sat in the sun, dwarfed by the enormity of the Altai mountains. 

Steppes Beyond | Mongolia & Chad – Beyond The Ordinary

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While we do sell luxury villas, beach holidays and family holidays, our forte remains the creation of tailor-made cultural and adventure journeys to the more exotic regions of the world. Our objective will always be to show you the highlights of a country, but we also like to take you off the beaten track to see the lesser known, but equally interesting places, not frequented by large numbers of tourists.

Below is copy of my presentation on Chad and Mongolia at our Steppes Beyond event in March 2015. For more information on any of our destinations please do get in touch.

Start your beyond the ordinary adventure with us, call us on 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Town Mongol and Country Mongol

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“When did you last see your grandparents?”

“Many, many months ago.”

I look surprised. “But Boya, you have a young baby daughter? Do they not want to see her?”

Boya, my Mongolian guide, replied somewhat defensively, “But I speak to her (his grandmother) every week.” He added apropos nothing, “She has wisdom.”

I had just spend a remarkable few days with Boya in the company of Kazakh eagle hunters in the far west of Mongolia. We had not seen another soul for days on end – we were truly at the ends of the earth. We had been in the land of endless blue skies. We had experienced the classic rolling hills of central Mongolia, space, fluidity, landscape. The landscape was epic and empty. Our only form of transport the horse, Chinghis Khan’s limousine. My limited equestrian ability took succour in the Mongolian adage ‘Don’t be arrogant, even Chingis Khan fell’. It was life-affirming.

We had then got on a plane, an ancient Fokker, to fly back to the capital, Ulaanbaatar (or UB as it is known). A four hour flight in which I saw nothing except spectacular scenery – Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, a land of desert, dizzying expanses and blue skies.

Except in Ulaanbaatar which is shrouded in smog. Twenty years ago the population of UB was 400,000 and now it is 1.5 million. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, 27% of the population lived in UB. Today more than 50% of the population live in UB, meaning that more than half of Mongolia’s 2.8 million population live in 5,000 square kilometres of its 1.6 million square kilometres total.

Why this influx to the capital? Not so much a desertion of an ancient nomadic way of life but a number of bitter winters known as a zud which killed the nomads’ livestock. Over ten years ago there were 30 million livestock in Mongolia but 60% were lost in the winters of 2003 and 2004 and some more recently. The nomads had no choice but to pack up and move to the capital.

Yet they were not to give up their traditional life easily – ger translates as home and is their life, their symbol of freedom and hence the saying ‘if you can’t fart in your own ger your life sucks’.

Thus today 60% of UB’s population lives in the ger city a unique fusion of past and present. Small drab dirt plots demarcated by wooden fences and containing a small red brick building with corrugated iron roof and also a traditional ger. The Mongolian proverb, “Don’t forget your grandmother was born in a ger” still holds sway. The fires and stoves within a ger are not a problem on the plains of Mongolia but in the ugly concentration of UB they are an altogether different and contaminating prospect.

It was with this background that we struggled through the smog to meet Boya’s grandparents. Boya weeping and coughing – maybe this is why he does not visit the grandparents with whom he grew up. Whilst both his parents practised medicine in UB, Boya’s childhood and adolescence was spent with his grandparents leading a largely nomadic way of life.

‎His grandparents had moved to the ger village four years ago – the government gave everyone half a hectare of land to compensate for the loss of livestock. We took off our shoes and entered their house and were ushered into a simple room decorated by two proud photographs of the family. In the background a large sixty inch TV screen. Off this room were two bedrooms one of which contained a small shrine. Yurt. A small tv, fridge, freezer and washing machine. Eleven year old daughter doing her homework in the corner. Even here, as tradition and the harsh northerly winds dictate, the door faces south.

Grandmother (Togootsezen) was a midwife. Grandfather (Ishdorj) a commercial engineer. A tattoo on his left arm a mark of military service. She is a strong woman. She talks quickly, she talks easily. The antithesis of her laconic husband. She grew up in a nomadic lifestyle. Even when she was older she was an ambulance woman riding from ger to ger.

His grandparents speak no English and thus Boya was translating into Mongolian, a language crafted from centuries of coaxing and cajoling camels, horses and livestock.

“Why did you come to the city?”

“Retired. Family. No livestock.”

They had lost 200 sheep and goats, 100 cows and 20 horses. The animals died because of the snow – it was so deep that they could not reach the grass. Also because the cold froze their lungs.

“Would you go back?”

“We have no livestock.”

How do you respond to that? A change of tack in my line of questioning.

“How do you spend your time?”

“Doing chores around the house. Spending time with the grandchildren. Knitting.”

And to Boya’s grandfather, “What do you watch on TV?”

“Sport,” was his laconic reply.

Back to his more responsive grandmother, “What do you miss?”

“I miss the ground under my feet. The feel of grass. The sense of space. In the city there is nothing.”

“Except smoke. How do you find the smoke?”

“The smoke is not good. It smells. You can’t see.”

But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, according to her. “The government will sort it out. They will use the experience of other countries to make a better future.”

“And what of the future?”

“The nomadic lifestyle must remain.”

Boya’s grandmother does have wisdom. I am not sure how widespread that wisdom is. The government does offer grants for people to go back to the countryside but without livestock this has little appeal. The government needs to do more – it is now or never as already city children have a fear of animals.

Nomadism will not be lost forever, vestiges will remain, but it will be very different.

Discover Mongolia with us, call us on 01285 800 980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com for more information.

Gallery: A glimpse of Mongolia

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Mongolia has a sense of space, tradition and laughter that cannot be found elsewhere. Travel west to the Altai mountains and the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter. Few travel experiences can compare to riding on horseback in their company. Below is just a glimpse of what you can experience.

Video: Kazakh Golden Eagle Hunters

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Mongolia is not the exclusive preserve of the horseman, but if you want to experience the true essence of the country, it certainly helps. Over 70% of the population remain nomadic and as you ride across the flat open steppe you will still encounter isolated family ger (yurt) encampments whose occupants will inevitably offer you hospitality. The wiry little thirteen-hand ponies will seem a little small but their stamina is legendary and carried Genghis Khan across Asia. They will manage you for a few days!

The further west you travel and the more remote it becomes. The Altai Mountains in the far west are particularly beautiful in spring when a profusion of flowers appear, but one of the real spectacles remains the Kazakh eagle hunters who hunt on horseback in the winter.

Eagle Hunters of Mongolia

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Ulgii is a nondescript town of 35,000 in the far west of Mongolia. It was a three and a half hour flight from Ulaanbaatar on which I was the only westerner. My presence caused no raising of eyebrows nor did that of a Kazakh eagle hunter who looked noble in his long chapan (great coat) and fox fur hat, aquiline nose, wispy goatee and startled eyebrows.

I was met by Bek (Bekjan) and we headed west out of town. It did not take long to leave town nor to leave the comforts of the tarmac road. “Mongolian highway,” Bek beamed at me with no noticeable dip in his speed. “Mongolian Rally,” I retorted. Bek Beamed back with even more pride.

The landscape was forbidding and harsh but imbued with a stark beauty albeit from within the warmth of Bek’s Toyota Landcruiser. The scenery was yellow, brown and black – the colour bleached out by the harshness of the elements – and covered with a dusting of snow.

There was nothing. The emptiness was profound. Occasionally we passed yaks, the odd herd of sheep and once a Bactrian camel. A man was walking in the distance at the foothills of the mountain. Where was he going? Where was there to go to? The only vestige of civilisation we passed was the nondescript one horse town of Buynt where a group of men were cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen river to melt at home.

Three and a half hours later Bek stopped literally in the middle of nowhere. I got out and took a sharp intake of breath both from the cold and extent of my surrounds. I was in a wide flat valley flanked on both sides by high mountains. Everything was blanketed in snow. Pristine and immense, I could have gazed out over such vastness for hours but eventually took refuge from the cold in the small mud-brick Kazakh house in Mongolia close to the Chinese border.

Long before the drawing of arbitrary lines for borders reached these latitudes, this region was home to the first domesticated horses and the first hunting eagles: falconry was invented here. The Kazakh eagle hunters preserve the centuries-old tradition of riding with golden eagles to hunt for foxes, marmots and even wolves. Their love and knowledge of falconry is a source of pride and a badge of identity, as much as the extravagant fur coats and hats in which it resulted.

That is the extent of luxury in this part of the world; yet the welcome inside was both warm and friendly. The house was simple – no running water – with four separate rooms, two of which are separated by a stove wall. One room is kitchen/dining and the other three are bedrooms.

It is not the rooms that were inviting but the characters within. Dalaikhan, the eagle hunter, face creased by the elements, his eyes wise and alert. Tuyelbay, his loyal friend and berkuti – the Kazakh word for eagle is berkut and a hunter who trains and hunts with a berkut is known as berkuti. Kukhelbay, Dalaikhan’s brother, and his silent wife, Cakku. Jambal, their four year old boy full of pluck and determination – I have never come across a young boy so determined to ride a battered tricycle through inches of snow.

After introductions, much laughter and a revitalising noodle soup, we head out to saddle up. I am given a short briefing: “Mongolian horses are dangerous.” Unnerved by this passing comment, I struggle to mount the stocky, sturdy Mongolian horse – the saddles are Mongolian and much smaller than western saddles, being my excuse.

I am enveloped by down, Gortex and modern brands whilst Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay are dressed in a fox fur jackets with a heavily padded glove on their right arm on which sits a hooded eagle. They mount their horses, making it look unnaturally easy with a seven kilogramme bird of prey perched on their right arm. She – the Kazakhs only use female birds as they are bigger than the males – is hooded with a specially made hood called a tomega to keep her calm.

Unlike the glorious bird of prey I am ruffled. As if to add to my chagrin, Dalaikhan’s eldest son, Alpamis, named after a Kazakh hero, is assigned to accompany me. Worse still Alpamis puts me on a lead rein. A horse is worth US$800 alive and US$600 dead – I console myself that this is a surety until they realise that my horse riding ability is not as bad as it appears to be.

Thankfully for me, we walk and only occasionally trot. Not so much due to my limited horsemanship but the terrain – we are climbing ridges to get vantage from which to survey the surrounding land. The horses are sturdy and strong, both physically and mentally. They plod inexorably upwards.

I scan the horizon redundantly. Superfluous in that an eagle’s eyesight is seven times more powerful than the human eye. Everywhere I look I am awed by the spectacle. This is cinema on an epic and very personal scale. The scenery is overpowering. The lead characters are charismatic and iconic. At this precise moment, I do not want to be anywhere else on earth.

The hunters sense movement. The eagles’ hoods are removed. I shiver with frisson. I stare at the landscape in front of me with boyish desire, intent on being the first to spot something. A rabbit is sighted. Not by me. A cry goes up. The eagles are released. They swoop low to the ground. The prey is running. Desperately. The eagles are closing in. Then nothing. No success.

A dog yelps in fear as the eagles return and hover over it. The dog, unsurprisingly, does not follow us the next day.

It was all over in a matter of seconds. It seemed like minutes. Hours later we are back in the warmth of Dalaikhan’s Kazakh house. Layers shed, heavier with food and vodka, Alpamis plays the dombra, a long-necked lute. The women and children are next door. On the wall are carpets, one in particular displays the dombra and swans, which are a symbol of love. Alpamis sings of love, the Altai Mountains, a comedian and being away from home – an occupational hazard for a nomad.

The singing ends but conversation flows freely. Not least as I am intrigued to ask more about their lifestyle and their relationship with their eagles.

“What do you look for in an eagle?”

“Good claws. Big and strong. Wide chest. Sharp eyes.”

It seems fairly obvious but then Dalaikhan has been training eagles for 37 years – he was taught not by his father but by his uncle. He is also, incidentally, two time champion of the Ulgii Eagle festival. Dalaikhan has also taken eagles to compete in Kazakhstan but never won anything – hardly surprising in that it is a two day journey by bus. Even I can see that this is not the best preparation for an eagle, prompting my next question.

“What makes a good trainer?”

“It is a hobby. If someone wants to be an eagle hunter then the whole family have to like it.”

I discover what he means as my bladder gets the better of me and I stagger outside for a pee. In doing so bumping into the eagle in the darkness. Not outside but inside. She, the eagle, sleeps in his bedroom.

Dalaikhan brings the eagle into the room where we are. Her presence fills the room. The light does not trouble her. Nor the ambient sound. She responds only to the sound of Dalaikhan’s voice. Dalaikhan explains that eagles feel the emotions of humans – for example when humans are angry the feathers of the eagle stick up. Her feathers are beautifully calm.

Yet in spite of this connection, such affection, surprisingly, the eagle has no name. She is number seven. Simply a number in a long lineage – Dalaikhan has trained seven eagles. Like all of his eagles, he took her from her nest when she was young.

“How did you catch her? How do you catch an eagle?”

“It is a difficult process.”

Wonderful understatement. Eagles attack when their chicks are being taken. The eagles don’t bite but they flap their wings and it is all quite intimidating for the eagle hunters who lower themselves down a rocky outcrop to the nest by a rope using a stick to balance and stop themselves twisting on the rope. In the past there were many fatalities.

Dalaikhan has had her for seven years and she will soon be released to the wild

“Really. Why?”

“So that she can have her own family.”

“Do you have a favourite eagle?”

“Number six. She was brave but her best skill was her scouting.”

“Did you release her?”

“No she died,” the sadness in his voice palpable. “She was bitten by a rodent. The bite swelled. She died.”

He does not feel sad when releasing an eagle but did feel sad when number six died.  He felt grief at seeing her empty perch. He buried her. He has never been hurt by an eagle. Physically. Kazakh eagle hunters never keep any part of the eagle, whether talon or feather.

I am truly fascinated by this man. In awe of his bond with his bird and this ancient art. I want to know more.

“What do you think of the thirteen year old girl who recently won the eagle festival at Ulgii?”

“Her father and grandfather were eagle hunters. She has it in her blood but I am not sure about her future. When she marries her lifestyle will change.”

I think how easy this is to apply to someone else and would he say the same about his children and grandchildren. Will not their lifestyles change?

Dalaikhan’s response is typically measured, “Alpamis has not yet captured an eagle but he knows eagles and is interested in it as a hobby. I am one hundred percent sure that his son, my grandson, will be an eagle hunter.”

“If you are so sure then why do you live in Altai (the nearest village is some twenty miles away) and not out in the valley?”

“For my children, for school,” was Dalaikhan’s assured reply. He knows that if his hobby is to survive he and his children need to adapt: they do not want to become relics of the past.

Invigorated by this insight and the bright blue sky we awake to, I am captivated by my surrounds. The sun dazzles my eyes. The cold bites my legs. The snow squeaks underhoof as we head into the wilderness and the beckoning silence.

We scale the ridge like a Sioux scouting party, gaining height, gaining vantage. The views out of the landscape make me feel as though we are on the edge of the world.

On the snow-covered plains at the foot of the mountains, dark specks are hundreds of head of sheep and goats, tearing at the sparse vegetation. But it’s not on the herd that the eagle’s eyes are fixed but rather that elusive fox. It is down there, invisible to the human eye, creeping from the shade of a rock, somewhere.

Eagle number seven sits patiently. She scans the landscape. Surveys. Scours. Looking for the slightest movement.

Cries go up. The eagles are quickly released they fly low to the ground. There is much shouting, hooping and encouragement. Again to no avail.

We continue our search. Climbing ever higher. We have climbed 800 metres to reach the top of the ridge, 2,600 metres above sea level. There can be few more alien concepts than the sea in this remoteness.

Dalaikhan and Tuyelnay stand silhouetted against the most immense backdrop, eagles proudly on their arms. Unaware of the enormity of their environs, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay descend into idle chitchat. They decide to retreat to lower ground. Out of frustration, training or a desire to impress – I am not sure which – they leave their eagles behind. The eagles sit patiently as we descend.

Many metres lower and minutes later, Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay call to their eagles. I look round to see the eagles screaming in like racing yachts with a fierce wind behind them. They slice diagonally across the sky with a sudden, stunning turn of speed. For a moment, all I can see is wings. And then, with the insouciance of an illusionist, they are sat on their respective gloves. Their impressive talons the only betrayal of their innocence.

The search continues. I am not sure for how long – I am absorbed by the cinematic qualities of the moment. Another cry goes up. I sense a different tone to Dalaikhan’s voice. He is animated. This is not for show. We are beckoned down the mountain – on foot rather than horseback as it is too steep for us on horseback. Yet Dalaikhan and Tuyelbay trot down the slope with ease, almost nonchalance with a seven kilogramme bird of prey proudly to their side.

“Manul, Manul,” they cry pointing at a cluster of rocks. I strain my eyes in search of this animal that I had never heard of. What am I looking for? All I can see is rocks. Even with my binoculars.

I discover afterwards that a Manul is a local word for a Pallas’s cat. I am no more enlightened. Further research reveals it to be about the same size as a cat but with a thick tail with clear black rings.

A stone is thrown and the cat darts out. Was it really just in front of me? Only yards away? It was only a flash, but even I that fleeing (sic) glimpse, it was much stockier and longer – perhaps due to its long dense fur – than a cat.

The eagles are released. They fly high. They fly swiftly. They swoop in unison. It is over in a matter of seconds. A flurry of feathers. The manul scampers free. All that remains is the eagles locked in combat. This was not how it was supposed to end.

Galloping through Ulaanbaatar

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Try changing gear before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, and adjusting your expectations. This is a country where anything can – and often does – change. Mongolia is as beautiful as it is remote and still largely untouched by tourism.

The few people who live outside Ulaanbaatar are welcoming and friendly. We came across a Nomadic ger and “dropped in” as is customary, to meet a very shy husband and wife, with daughters aged 10 and 5 years – and a baby son just one month old! Remarkably she still produced biscuits to welcome us. We were the first tourists they had met. Fortunately the tiny baby boy will be nearly three months old before they have to move (which they do at the beginning of spring, summer, autumn and winter) and so will be stronger. Infant mortality is still high amongst these Nomadic people as conditions for much of the year are incredibly harsh.

Although it was a short visit to Mongolia, much was packed into this trip: horse riding, camel riding, trekking, camping and sightseeing all along the way. Cocktails were also briefly enjoyed before being enveloped in a severe sand storm! It is one of a very few countries left in the world where you can look in all directions and still see no sign of habitation whatsoever. However, look carefully and you will begin to appreciate the wildlife: we saw rare Argali sheep, the endangered wild Przewalski horses, native to the Mongolian Steppe as well as herds of yaks (not to be approached!) and goats, Steppe eagles, golden eagles (which are still used for hunting in western Mongolia), vultures and many hawks and smaller creatures such as marmots. Wolves were about, but not within sight during the day. Also hiding were snow leopards, easier to track when snow is on the ground.

Riding in a remote area to the east of Ulaanbaatar was another treat. It is a fantastic way to see more animals and explore. We found ourselves wading through deep streams and boggy marshland, leaving herds we passed undisturbed. We saw a horse in the distance unusually on its own: unusual because they are very much herd animals. Our guide galloped over to investigate and returned with news that it had a broken leg – probably having put its foot into a marmot hole. This served as a very stark reminder that we are visitors to this amazing country. Horses are working animals, not pets, in Mongolia and we cannot change or influence the culture or way of life here. Nature takes its course in the wild, even if it does mean leaving with a heavy heart.

I felt privileged to have visited – and cannot wait to return.

Mongolian Adventures

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This was a trip with a difference. I had not been to Mongolia since the late 1980s and even then had only stopped in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, whilst passing through en route to China. What changes would I notice?

Two things that I always remember from my first trip were a man on a horse holding aloft a yellow flag at a level crossing on the Mongolian steppe, in the middle of nowhere with not a soul around; and secondly buying a bottle of Scotch whisky from the Friendship store during communist times for US$4!

Being so close to China, I had expected to see some positive effects due to the Chinese economic miracle. However, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state and what I found were the remnants of this era: tenement blocks complete with mosaic wall patterns extolling happiness and the wonders that living in a communist system brings, namely happy people and industrious workers.

However the capital is modernising and religious buildings are being built and restored for this is a Buddhist country, albeit small. There are 2.6 million Mongolians but these also include a number of ethnic minorities including Kazakhs in the West. By contrast there are 35 million head of livestock.

I started by saying that this was trip with a difference. The main one being that I took my eleven year old son Luke with me. When Luke told friends and school that he was off to Mongolia he was met with amazed silence.

Our trip began in Beijing with a quick trip to the Forbidden City and a ten hour delay at Beijing airport because of strong winds blowing across Mongolia from Siberia. We finally arrived in Ulaanbaatar to find that the hotel thought we were Mr & Mrs Craven and had given us a king size bed which amused Luke!

The following morning we set off on a five day trek supported by a guide, a cook, two herders, two yaks and a horse. Within a couple of hours of leaving Ulaanbaatar we were in remote wilderness and during our time out in the Khentii National Park we saw no foreigners and only a handful of nomadic herders. We stayed in tents and had a ger, the Mongolian felt tent, for cooking and relaxing in. Riding through the vast open spaces was just incredible.

Next, we ventured to the South Gobi. The Gobi is huge and encompasses a multitude of landscapes. We flew down to Dalanzagad on a new airline called Eznis that rivals any western carrier in terms of comfort and service. Dalanzagad is a small town of Soviet buildings and gers.

The Gobi here is treeless but beautiful and people come to see Yolynam or ice valley which survives year round despite the summer heat. In another valley there is a frozen waterfall. There are sand dunes here too and camel breeders. We met one such family and sampled cheese and fermented camel’s milk. We were lucky enough to chance on a local horse festival. Wow. We spent the whole day with local people dressed in their finest costumes, with their finest horses and performing on their horses; rodeo, lassoing and poling.

Our next visit, five hours drive from Ulaanbaatar, was Arburd Sands. A strip of sand 20km long and a couple wide, this area is home to an extended family of nomads who are hugely respected for their horsemanship. From the ger camp we rode camels and took a trip to the nearby rock outcrops in the hope of seeing Argali sheep and Siberian Ibex. Sitting on the dunes with a telescope looking for eagles or the night stars was magical.

Our final visit was to Ikh Nart National Park, again five hours away and again part of the Gobi. There are a few trees here in the small valleys but no tourists. We camped at the entrance to a valley and on our first evening saw Argali sheep wandering close to camp. The next morning we met with the ranger and went tracking for radio-collared animals such as foxes, Argali, Ibex and lynx. We were not disappointed.

Few people visit and the season is short – June to September – but you still have to book early to get what you want. N.B. The infrastructure is limited and Mongolia does not do ‘luxury’ but for the slightly more adventurous it has immense rewards.

To talk to Paul about his time in Mongolia, or to ask his advice about a possible holiday there, please contact him on 01285 651010.