public and private

Sain bainuu,  from Telenji, Mongolia,

     Everyone who’s been to Mongolia says it’s like no other place, or words to that effect. While this is a common refrain, no-one has ever been able to articulate exactly how. In the next two epistles, I’m prepared to give it a go.

     Yes, it’s a land of vast plains and seasonal rhythms but it’s also a land where horses run free, where nothing much moves before 10 am, and where 100% of the human population are said to share DNA with Chinggis Khan. (That has to be impossible.)

at Telenji

      We stayed the last two nights in a ger, which is a round, semi-permanent wooden structure wrapped in felt and calico, weighted in the centre by a suspended rock. Inside each ger is a fireplace/stove and painted wooden furniture, and rugs on the floor.

The gers are ideal for a nomadic people surviving in a place with not only wide diurnal temperature ranges but also immense annual temperature differences. The bedding is – as Linda, retiring at 7:30 pm, said from beneath the covers – very cosy. (I’m sad to report, dear reader, that she actually borrowed from our friend ScoMo with, “How cosy’s this?”. (A bit like, “How good’s Queensland,” it’s difficult to know how to actually answer this question.) Local etiquette dictates that, instead of knocking on the door of a ger, a visitor must shout out, “Nokhoi khor,” which means, “Hold the dogs”. 

What to eat in Mongolia?

     For breakfast we had juice from Seabuckthorn, followed by Mongolian yoghurt (yaks’ milk) sweetened with two small cubed morsels made from milk. For lunch, a debate about whether to add sauce to the buuz (hand-held meat pastries) or khuushuur (meat-filled dumplings).  The only sauce on offer: chilli sauce. For dinner, Khuitsaa (grass noodles and mutton balls), followed by vodka made of fermented horse milk. Most meals are built around the meat and milk staples, the vegetables only being added during the Soviet era. (Mongolia was not in the Soviet Union, but was heavily influenced.) 

    This is also a country where private property – although it exists in the urban settlements – does not dictate where one goes. If you want to reach a specific destination – by motor vehicle, on foot, by bicycle, or most likely, on horseback – you can access any plot of land and rest assured that no-one will accost you or require you to state your business. All rural land is owned by the state and access is free to everyone, even when it’s fenced. For a nation formed by nomads, this is not only common law but is enshrined in the Constitution.

ger at Telenji

        This egalitarian principle may also partly stem from a code of behaviour which applies to all members of society equally, regardless of their station or status. This code of practice traces its origins to the yasa, a code of laws instituted by Chinggis Khan in the thirteenth century. Confucianism – with its hierarchies and different rules for civil servants – was only introduced here in the nineteenth century. 

hitching a ride

    As in neighbouring Kazakhstan, people in Mongolia can hitch a ride on the street, hop in the back seat of a car driven by a complete stranger (not designated as a taxi) and pay an agreed fee on arrival. And even though they drive on the right-hand side of the road, most of the cars are right-hand drive. It makes overtaking a bit tricky but it certainly doesn’t prevent it from happening. (Interestingly, most of the fleet are hybrids.)


     So, dear readers, if I haven’t yet succeeded in articulating just how Mongolia is different from everywhere else, stand by for another instalment, after our nine-day trek in the Altai Mountains. We’ll be seeing the eagle hunting, horse milking and Mongolian wrestling (one of the three manly virtues); should be sufficiently unlike any other.
Bayartai from Mongolia


Other photos from hereabouts

eagle hunting is a big sport in Mongolia
heading towards the pass
Altai Mountains

Leave a Reply