Finding the Sacred in Outer Mongolia
By Sharon Steffensen / "Yoga Chicago Magazine", November Edition, 2006/

About 15 years ago, my friend Joyce shared with me an article she saw in the Chicago Tribune about a train trip across Mongolia. It sounded intriguing to both of us. Last July, after seeing an exhibit of Mongolian culture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, I started to think seriously about going. By early August, Joyce, her 24-year-old daughter, Lotus, and I booked flights to Beijing and Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia), leaving September 10 for 19 days.

The travel agent in Chicago timed our departure from Chicago (a 13-hour flight over Canada, the North Pole and Siberia) to arrive in Beijing on Monday afternoon, so that we could take a plane Tuesday morning to Ulaanbaatar. There are only three flights a week to Ulaanbaatar from Beijing, one of the few cities in the world from which you can fly to Ulaanbaatar. It was a four-hour trip to the International Chingiss Khaan Airport (Mongolians’ spelling of Genghis Khan). Mongolians consider him to be a hero. After all, he united the Mongol clans, promoted religious tolerance and extended the empire from Beijing to Poland, creating the largest empire in terms of land the world has ever seen.

Upon arrival at the tiny airport, we took a taxi to Bolod’s Guesthouse, a backpackers’ dorm in Ulaanbaatar, which also arranges tours. We found it through Lonely Planet’s guide to Mongolia and had E-mailed Bolod before we left Chicago. It was located in a sunny, two-bedroom apartment that accommodated up to about 15 people. Within an hour, the driver and an interpreter showed up with a map and a tentative plan for our 10-day loop tour of the Gobi desert to begin early the next morning.

The interpreter, Erdenbat (Eric), offered to come along as a guide on our trip to the Gobi, and we decided to accept his offer since the driver, Jia, did not speak English. It would cost an extra $18 a day, in addition to $85 a day for the driver, van and petrol (split between us), and it proved to be well worth it, especially when it came to having Mongolian customs and observances (there are so many!) explained to us. Looking back, I can’t imgine the trip without Eric.

At Bolod’s we met Flurina, a Swiss woman in her 20s, who was trying to connect with people going to the Gobi desert. The Gobi is the destination of almost all tourists traveling to Ulaanbaatar. She decided to go with us, and we all went together to the State Department Store, where we purchased bread, cheese, apples, carrots, potatoes, toilet paper, flour, sugar, drinking water, coffee, tea, rice, onions and other staples.

That night we met an Italian woman who had just returned from a Gobi tour. She was exhausted, happy to be back at Bolod’s and told us stories about sandstorms, hard beds, biting flies and freezing nights.

Day 1
We set out the next morning, traveling south, and within a half hour we were on unmarked, deeply rutted dirt/sand “roads”--basically tire tracks in the sand. This was the kind of surface on which we would travel for the next ten days, with an average speed of 38 kilometers (22 miles) an hour. Our van was a high, sturdy, Russian-built, gray vehicle with four-wheel drive and two other floor gears “for special occasions.”

We soon stopped at an ovoo, a sacred, pyramid-shaped collection of stones, with a blue silk flag on top and other items laid on it, such as empty Chingiss Khaan vodka bottles or small amounts of paper money. Eric instructed us to walk clockwise three times around the ovoo and to put three stones or other items on the shrine. Usually ovoos were situated near dangerous inclines or sacred places or at the edge of a village. Often we stopped to perform the ritual; sometimes Jia just honked and kept driving.

For the next several hours, we bounced along in the van; I imagined my abdominal organs getting a good jostling, shaking up stuck areas and massaging the tissues. The terrain was flat, and you could see the horizon in all four directions. We saw no other people, only occasionally some flocks of goats and sheep.

We stopped for lunch near a sacred mountain--so sacred the guide would not tell us the name of it. Even the Mongolians do not say the name aloud to one another. Apparently there are many places like that. We ate bread, cheese, salami, apples and tea and coffee. Jia had brought a small stove so we had hot drinks at every meal.

That night we stayed in a ger (a one-room, round felt tent in which the nomad families live) in Baga Gazriin Chuluu, one of the many protected areas where no hunting is allowed. There were huge boulders surrounding the area, which Eric told us were part of an ocean floor in ancient times. The family, which had a six-year old girl and four-year-old boy, raised goats; the father also served as caretaker of the protected area.

This family, like many of the families we stayed with, owned two gers. When visitors arrive, they let them sleep in one of the gers, while the family sleeps in the second ger. The cost is between $3 and $5 per person. Inside, brightly colored carpets cover the walls and floor. In the center are two supporting poles and a stove with a chimney that rises out of the roof. Opposite the door (which always faces south) is the altar, or sacred area, where they keep statues of Buddha, candles, incense and family photos. On both sides are couches that fold down into beds, like narrow futons.

We were also surprised to see a vanity table with a three-way mirror and matching chest of drawers. The women nomads wear makeup (including blue eye shadow), Western clothing and even high heels when they go to the market. Most families also had a satellite dish outside and TV, on which they watch the BBC news and Western movies dubbed in Mongolian. The TVs are powered by an outside solar panel and in southern Mongolia, where it is windy, by windmills.

Eric instructed us on proper etiquette inside a ger: never point your feet toward the altar; visitors sit on the left side, the right side is for the family; don’t pass things between the supporting poles-- reach around; the stove is considered sacred since it holds fire, which is also sacred, and is always cleaned after cooking. You would never burn garbage or toilet paper in the stove. Instead of firewood (there are no trees), the nomads collect dried dung, which burns well and has a pleasant earthy, musty aroma.

That night Eric cooked Mongolian dumplings for us made of goat meat, potatoes, onions and garlic, which he boiled and then fried, a meal we enjoyed several times throughout the trip. Although I prefer vegetarian, I decided ahead of time I would eat whatever was offered.

Because of the sandy soil and lack of water in the desert, Mongolians eat mainly meat and dairy products. It was common to see a big bowl of goat’s milk sitting on the stove. The skin that forms on top is skimmed off and eaten (very delicious!) or stored in a skin to be used later for cooking oil. Pans of curd cut into rectangles are seen drying outside on the roof of the gers. Tea is made from goat’s milk; the alcoholic beverage is airag, or fermented mare’s milk. To me, airag tasted like thin yogurt--a bit sweet and sour. In fact, almost everything tasted like yogurt in one form or another. Later, back in China, I sorted my dirty laundry and it still had the sweet familiar smell of yogurt.

Day 2
The next day we drove through a narrow rocky pass near a gold mining operation. We stopped in a town called Mandalgov just as the afternoon session of school was getting ready to start. The older children attend from 8 a.m. until noon, the younger children attend from 3 to 7 p.m. The nomad children live in a dorm ten months out of the year; they have a three-week break midway through the term. Mongolia has a 99% literacy rate.

Since Ulaanbaatar, we had been driving through the steppe--low, stubby grass that goats and sheep eat. The terrain gradually gave way to rocky, gravely sand, which Eric announced was the Gobi desert. Since there was less for the herds to eat, and even less water, we saw even fewer animals and gers.

In the winter, many families move their gers near the villages, where they keep their animals in pens. By mid-September, most had already moved. Looking through binoculars, Jia finally spotted one ger. We drove across the desert to it and were greeted by a little girl wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and riding on a make-shift rocking horse made out of metal pipes. This family owned only one ger, but they let us pitch our tent nearby. It was a small tent for four people, so we had to turn over in unison, but we kept warm with two sleeping bags on the bottom and the other two on top. Jia and Eric slept in the van.

Shortly after we went to bed, I heard strange sounds just outside the tent. Florina, who had lived on a farm, reassured me it was only the goats and dog outside that had moved closer to the ger. All night I heard them snorting and breathing, sounds I became accustomed to and even enjoyed over the next several nights. The next morning we saw camels along the road and stopped to take photos.

Day 3
In Dalanzadgad (population 15,300), a major town along the Gobi route, we went to the large open market surrounded by stores to buy supplies. It was bustling with children in school uniforms, women shopping, old men wearing traditional long Mongolian coats and dogs. We saw motorcycles, bicycles, Jeeps, a Land Rover and several ice cream carts hooked up to generators. The large residential area consisted of wide dirt streets with gers and sheds hidden behind tall wooden fences. No trees or foliage grew around them.

Dalanzadgad is just north of the snowcapped Zuun Saikhan Uul mountains. Although this area is usually dry, this year it had rained a lot in July, so the hills were green and lush. This area was one of the most beautiful of the whole trip. That night we were given permission to stay in a resort for Mongolians only. We had wondered what Mongolian women do for fun, and we found out that night when we heard a big group of them laughing, drinking and dancing to music played on a car radio.

Day 4
The next morning we drove a half-hour to a place called Yolyn Am in the mountains, where we hiked through a deep canyon along a river to a place where the ice never melts. High up on the cliffs we spotted seven ibex. I would have liked to stay there a couple of days. Leaving the area, Jia took an adventurous route through a spectacular narrow gorge with only a few inches to spare on the sides of the van. This mountainous area ended abruptly as he drove up a steep hill and out onto a flat green plain. Here the road was smooth, and Jia could drive at 60 km (36 miles) an hour. Later that afternoon we drove west to Khongoryn Els to hike up and slide down the huge sand dunes (the highest is 990 feet).

On our way to the dunes we had seen a lone figure walking across the desert. She was still walking later when Jia looked for a ger for us to stay in. She had been collecting “firewood” a long way off and was on her way back home. We ended up giving her a ride back to her ger, where we stayed for the night. Her name was Togoo, which means “cooking pan”; her husband’s name was Od, or “all the stars,” and he entertained us in the evening with his accordion playing. Their ger was one of the most elegant-- larger than most, with beautiful carpets and furnishings-- like a living room where they entertained guests. It was situated high on a hill with a view of the dunes and the mountains beyond them on one side and rolling hills on the other.

Day 5
Bathing and showering were not possible, due to the limited water supply, and after four days I could no longer get a brush through my hair. It didn’t really bother me, but when a fly got trapped in it, I indulged in a few cups of water for a shampoo.

Before we left, Togoo gave each of us a piece of hard curd (it looked like fancy cookie that had been made in a mold) with the anklebone of a goat sitting on top. Eric explained the many uses of the bones: dice, telling fortunes, playing games and other purposes. Togoo sprinkled a few drops of fresh goat milk on each of the doorways of the van before we got in, and as we drove away, she threw the rest of the milk at the van for good luck.

We drove north to a place called the “flaming rocks,” an area with reddish sand and huge red rocks, where the world’s first dinosaur bones were found. In fact, fragments of bones are scattered around the area (people pick them up as souvenirs). We rode camels (they are soft to sit on) out to the rocks, where we spent the afternoon climbing around. After we returned, the owner chased the camels off to the hills on his motorcycle.

Day 6
The next morning we awoke early to the sun rising through the door of the ger. I was surprised that nomads sleep late (until at least 8 a.m.), which is about when the sun rose (no daylight savings time). Flurina explained that there is no reason to get up early. They can milk the goats whenever they want to, as long as they’re consistent. We continued driving north past an organized tourist ger camp (with a homemade sign pointing to the “bar and showers”) toward some mountains that were green part way up, topped with irregular, jagged black rock. The terrain was mixed: reddish sand, steppe and large mounds of green bush. Then black and yellow sand. There were no gers here since there was no water. We saw construction workers and heavy machinery digging a long, narrow trench for high-speed Internet access.

At Ongiin Khiid, we visited ruins of a Buddhist monastery, where 1,000 monks had lived until 1937, when the monastery and the monks were destroyed by Russian and Mongolian communists during the Stalinist purges. One of the temples is restored as a museum.

That night we stayed with a young family with an adorable seven-month-old son. They had lived in their ger for only ten days, and they were the most hospitable of all families we met. But we experienced more drama there than during the whole rest of the trip.

When we came into the ger, the wife passed around a plate of hard candies and bread, with fresh skin off the milk piled on top. Then she served milk tea with a cookie (or maybe a curd) that tasted like yogurt. Next came the vodka.

Mongolian protocol for accepting something is to always take it with your right hand, and support your elbow with your left hand. Before drinking vodka, you dip your right ring finger into the glass and flick the vodka into the air four times to honor the four directions before drinking. (If you choose not to drink it, you perform the ritual anyway and then slide your ring finger across your forehead.) The vodka was followed by airag (fermented mare’s milk). We played with the baby for awhile, and then the mother asked Lotus and me to help milk the goats.

As we went outside to milk them (their teats are very short and hard to grip), we found the husband killing a goat in our honor. It was quick and easy, and within a few minutes, the wife was cooking the organs in a large pan. (That’s why Lotus and I were milking the goats, so the wife could tend to the cooking.) Traditionally, the pan is passed around and everyone eats some of the meat-- and you must cut the meat off the bone toward you, never away from you. I ate a small piece of liver.

After dinner, we arranged our sleeping bags on the floor as usual, but this time the family, although they had a second ger, also slept in the same ger with us. I fell asleep almost immediately but was wakened later by what sounded like angry voices of people bursting through the door. It was dark in the ger, but soon a light came on and I saw the husband pass the candy/bread/milk skin plate to the late-night visitors. My first thought was that these were friends, but friends don’t barge in on people when they’re sleeping. Possibly this nice couple was in trouble with the law. Maybe they didn’t pay their taxes (if they pay taxes) and were being busted. Or maybe these were bandits who had seen the tourist van outside and were coming to rob and kill us. We’d be buried out in the desert and no one would ever know what happened to us. I started chanting to myself, “Hey Ram, jai Ram, jai jai Ram.”

The men left shortly, and all was quiet again-- for a few minutes-- until someone else burst in, also yelling. This time I looked up. It was dark, and the man had lit a match and was shining it around the room and looking at all of us. He looked mean. I was sure it was over for us. But like the previous visitors, he soon left. The next morning Eric told us that these were neighbors whose camels had wandered off and wanted to know if this couple had seen them. Apparently this is normal, and it wasn’t that late after all, only 11:30, but being asleep, I thought it was 2 or 3 a.m. Eric said the last man was drunk.

Day 7
We went horseback-riding the next morning with the husband. When we finally left in the afternoon, we were back in the steppe again, which was very green, and here we saw cows, horses, yaks and goats. There were rocky hills and mountains, and we saw circular graves (large circles of stones) from the Bronze Age. Eric said the “democrats” were buried there. He explained that by democrats, he meant leaders.

We drove most of the day to Shankh Khiid, one of two monasteries in the region that had survived the Stalinist purges. It was closed, but a monk opened it for us. We slept in a nearby ger in a pen surrounded by goats and cows that had come in for the night.

Day 8
The next day we drove a short distance to the hot springs in the town of Tserterleg. Finally a shower! The hot springs were accessible from a few stone rooms inside a long building built over the hot springs, which were varying degrees in temperature. Afterward we ate lunch in the restaurant nearby, which served soup with meat, carrots, potatoes and cabbage.

From there, it was a short drive to Erzene Zuu, Mongolia’s first Buddhist monastery. It’s built on the site of Chingiss Khaan’s capital, named Karakorum, which was established in 1220 and destroyed in 1388 by vengeful Manchurian soldiers. Whatever was left was used to help build the monastery, which was started in 1586 and took 300 years to build, but it was also badly damaged during the Soviet purges. The monastery contains several temples, and ceremonies are held there by the monks who live nearby.

A highlight for me at Erzene Zuu was that the gift shop had a real bathroom with flush toilets, the first we’d seen in over a week. It hadn’t taken long to get used to relieving ourselves out in the open-- over a hill, behind the ger, behind the van-- wherever. After a few days I was adept at squat pose. I could get my heels to the ground with no problem. The squat was the extent of my yoga practice out in the Gobi.

Actually, one morning early in the trip I came out of the ger and did a couple of yoga poses, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate. The real yoga (union) on this trip was with nature--the terrain, stars, people and animals. It was all about being in the wide, open spaces, far from industrialized civilization, back in time with people who lived pretty much the same lifestyle as their ancestors hundreds of years before them (except for the TVs, solar panels and motorcycles). If you ever want to get out to the middle of nowhere, the Gobi desert is the place. It is quiet and serene, and the population density is four people per square mile.

One thing about the people is they are kind, generous and fun loving. In the desert we never saw an unhappy face; mostly people are joking around and laughing, and that included Jia and Eric. At times I wished I understood Mongolian so I could know what they were laughing about-- I’m sure sometimes it was the ignorant Americans who kept breaking the customs!

That night, staying in the city of Karakorum, we slept in a tourist ger camp (rows of gers with four beds in each). A “throat singer” entertained the tourists who piled into one ger to hear him sing and play several string instruments, including a Mongolian harp.

Day 9
We left the town of Karakorum after loading up on meat and airag for the driver and guide to take home. (It cost much less than in Ulaanbaatar.) We opted to take a side trip north to Oogi Naur, where we stayed in a ger on a large, serene lake. It was windy and cold there, the grass was tall (knee-high) and the sky was overcast. When we arrived, the hosts were erecting a third ger, which took about an hour (Eric told us the record time is eight minutes).

Day 10
The next morning it was foggy and misty and the lake was invisible. Jia played a CD in the van of a Mongolian woman singing. It complemented the weather and the quiet mood of our last day. Driving east, we stopped at Tsogt village, where we saw ruins of a mid-16th century city and artifacts in the museum from the 9th and 10th centuries.

We were out of food and stopped at a restaurant for lunch. The choices were soup with potatoes, meat, carrots and cabbage or a plate of rice, meat and carrot salad with mayonnaise. Soon we merged onto a paved road that connected Karakorum and Ulaanbaatar. It was sad to see herds confined to one side of the road, unable to roam freely to the other side. The road was almost as bumpy as the desert, and sometimes Jia drove in the sand rather than try to dodge the potholes. We passed a truck with all the parts of a ger piled on top and lots of faces peering out of the cab. The total trip was 2,400 kilometers, or 1,440 miles.

Back in Ulaanbaatar
Back in Ulaanbaatar, we took showers at Bolod’s and visited the Gandantegchinlen monastery, the largest in Mongolia. Since 1990, full religious ceremonies have been held daily. We loved hearing the monks chanting and decided to return the next day. I could feel that their sounds were beneficial to the earth, to humanity, to life, even as my camera was being lifted from my pocket. (Eric had warned us against pickpockets.) I practiced detachment over the 32 frames lost and was glad I didn’t have a digital camera.

The monks sit on long benches on both sides of the room facing the middle, with tables in front of them. They take turns chanting, and when they’re not chanting, they talk, laugh and make jokes. The atmosphere is informal and casual. Most of the monks have memorized the prayers, but the very young monks chant from books. Their higher voices brought a sweet sound to the mix.

Eric took us shopping at the black market (like Maxwell Street, only 20 times as large) where he held our purses and bargained with the vendors. The next day he and Flurina saw us off at the train station; we then took the Mongolian train to the border (12 hours) and then a bus (a dormitory on wheels with two layers of beds and TVs) to Beijing. Flurina gave us some good chocolate (something we had not been able to find in the Gobi) for the trip.

September is the best possible time to visit Mongolia. For us, it wasn’t too hot, the nights were not yet too cold and the flies were few. For accommodations and tours, visit