Nadaam, a midsummer festival that falls in the middle of July each year, is a national holiday in Mongolia. Much of the country takes the week off and travels to or from the countryside to be with family. One of the biggest holidays in Mongolia, it is celebrated with busy ceremonies, parades, and three games–horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Nadaam is an exciting, lively time when the country comes alive with Mongolian tradition and friends and family reunite.
Trisha, our friend Junru, and I took advantage of the national holiday and booked a flight to Bayan-Ölgii province, the westernmost province of Mongolia near Kazakhstan, close to the borders of China and Russia. Some of my roommates had been raving about Ölgii after returning from a recent tour there, and I was dying to go. We jumped at the opportunity, managing to throw together an itinerary and hire a driver in under a week, and soon enough we found ourselves in the airport at 5:30am one morning.
Our driver, Gantumur, met us at the airport, and we climbed into his old Soviet UAZ 452 van and shoved off. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he was an attentive, thoughtful, and excellent driver throughout the whole trip. Pretty sure I could add a minor in “Miming Language Communication” to my degree at Conn after this summer. It’s going on my resume at the very least.
We toured around the province, first driving west and spending two nights in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. To access the park, one tracks a beautiful river valley upstream via a dirt road studded with boulders the size of watermelons. Bright yellow, blue, and magenta wildflowers blanket the valley, growing next to the silty, turquoise glacial streams while long-maned mares graze riverside. We left behind paved roads after only 10 minutes into our journey, and did not see them again until we were back in Ölgii. The Russian van is an offroad behemoth, driving up mountains, over boulders, and through rivers. Driving in one all day is like being in a Disney World ride that doesn’t end after 15 minutes, but instead might last for 8 hours–it drives at all angles, tossing you left, right, and all around the cab.
Throughout the trip, we hiked up snow capped mountains, camped by the shores of alpine lakes whose waves lulled us to sleep, woke up at 4am to booming thunderstorms with gale force winds blowing the sides of the tent horizontal on top of us, and scared marmot, watching them scurry away with their lopsided gait. We heard eagles screech, were ravaged by mosquitoes, got the van stuck twice, and took quick dips in icy waters. The scenery of western Mongolia is striking, and it is sincerely one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
We spent time almost every day with at least one Kazakh or Mongolian family, always welcomed in with open arms. We all but drowned in milk tea and mutton and chowed down on plates of tsuivan and paneer. I had my first taste of homemade yogurt as well as airag, a summer drink of fermented mare’s milk.
We spent the day before Nadaam with our driver’s family and friends near Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We feasted on boiled mutton and were invited to drink vodka in the elder’s ger. We were pressured to sing along to their songs and even to lead a few of our own. A young couple had even been married the day prior, so in essence we crashed a wedding reception. They looked beautiful wearing their matching lavender deels. It was a very special day, and I again felt honored to be included.
After we had set up camp one evening, I decided to go for a sunset hike, since daylight persists through 10pm. I set my eyes on a mountain with a basin that still had snow nestled into its veins, and started uphill. Soon I heard two horses galloping behind me, and I turned to find two boys, probably around 12 years old, on horseback bareback, smiling and waving at me. We managed to exchange names and they hiked with me for a few minutes before one of them offered me his horse. I had ridden a horse once before, in Canada with my family many years ago. It just walked straight after our guide. But despite my severe lack of experience, this was an offer I could not refuse. After the boy showed me how to mount the horse, I bellyflopped on top of the poor thing amidst their cackling delight. After I was settled, the boy led me up the mountain for about ten minutes before we came to a steep incline. My horse picked up speed to climb the hill, and, not knowing how to ride a horse bareback, I found myself sliding towards its butt, lying on my stomach with my arms hanging onto his neck, crying out, before admitting defeat and hopping off. The boys went absolutely hysterical, and I with them. It was a funny, humbling moment, and we all laughed together. I continued upwards, on foot amidst cries of “Nice to meet you” from my new friends. On my way down the mountain, they followed me back to my campsite, where we joked around and shared candy bars before parting ways. One of my favorite memories thus far.
Our trip concluded with a home stay for two nights with a Kazakh family near Tsambagarav Uul National Park. We had a guest ger all to ourselves, decorated with colorful felt rugs and elaborate Kazakh wall hangings. We hiked during the day and ate delicious meals with them upon our return. One evening, a young boy grabbed my hand and led me into the herd of sheep and goats, showing me how to herd them back towards the gers. He was whooping loud and I followed suit. I am very grateful to the family we stayed with–they were fantastic hosts. The father of our host family even insisted on us wearing his traditional summer and winter Kazakh eagle hunting garb before placing his massive steppe eagle on our arm. Seriously cool.
Our trip to Bayan-Ölgii was phenomenal. I was exposed to landscapes and cultures that I never would have guessed I would experience in my lifetime. It feels good to be back in UB, showered and clean, and I look forward to seeing our dogs again and getting back to work in the field. More to come!