Mongolia … vicariously!

Since my Grade 8 speech on my life’s ambitions, I have always wanted to go to Outer Mongolia. Well, last year my husband, David Dorward, did get to go as a volunteer with a Canadian government agency, so I at least got the benefit of vicarious enjoyment! It is everything you do and do not expect, and a country that will surprise you, he says.


We think of Mongolia as the land of wide-open spaces and few people. It is the 18th-largest country in the world, covering an area roughly the size of western and central Europe, and the world’s largest land-locked country. It is indeed the most sparsely populated with about three million persons, a large percentage concentrated around the capital of Ulaanbaatar (UB). UB shares the distinction of being the coldest capital in the world along with Moscow, our own Ottawa and Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. Most is open steppe with mountains in the north and the Gobi Desert to the south. Everyone has heard of Genghis Khan (or Temujin) who is still legendary there, and in the 12th century united the various tribes into the Mongol Empire – the largest contiguous land empire in world history (which even stretched into Poland)! Mongolia is sandwiched between China and Russia, and was occupied by them over the centuries, until “Outer Mongolia” officially became independent in 1945 with the Treaty of Yalta. “Inner Mongolia” is still part of China. Trade with China is very important for the Mongolians, economically, but they much prefer the Russians, my husband found while he was there, and Russian is actually the official second language.

What is so important today about Mongolia? Minerals! It is an important repository such ores as copper, coal and gold, and mining is a booming industry. Canadian, Chinese, German, Australian and Russian firms have started mining concessions there.


What struck my husband overall, was how technology has leapfrogged into an ultra modern system, in some ways ahead of Canada.

Technology sits side-by-side with their still thriving traditional cultures. Economically, agriculture is very important and about one third of households in Mongolia live from breeding livestock, following a nomadic lifestyle (although it is starting to fade). While in “the field”, David claims he never saw a single fence since leaving Caledon! His daily commute was dirt tracks through huge free roaming herds of horses, goats, cattle, sheep and Bactrian camels. The animals are all branded. So just where does the technology come in? Herdsmen’s yurts (or gers as they call them there), come equipped with government-provided solar panels to recharge their cell phones, which they use to call other herders miles away to locate their packs of animals! The mailman also finds them via new satellite technology out of Europe, used by their post office.

David had the distinct honour of being invited to and hosted in yurts by a number of families. On one occasion, it was special lunch prepared of goat and sheep “prairie oysters” by the herder’s wife, for which people come far and wide and pay “big bucks” because it promotes health and virility. He was also treated to a ride on his host’s favourite camel, one of 32 in his herd. In fact, the son was dispatched on one of the host’s 150 plus horses to locate it and bring it back. The very next day, this same camel and others were hitched to wagons, into which the yurt was disassembled within half an hour, and pulled to the fresh grazing as they still do every three months or so.

While the Mongolians are keenly interested in becoming a modern country, they fiercely protect their heritage, David said. His interactions proved a long history of strong women continuing to this day. There is a solid heritage of Mongolian warrior queens, including the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and others. One of David’s colleagues was from his tribe. Disney princesses take note that these women warriors were the first to wear the conical hats! His day to day dealings and colleagues included women with graduate degrees in experimental physics (“Sheldon’s” education!) from Germany and marketing degrees from Japan.


Tourism is expanding, and traditional music, arts, sports and festivals abound. The Tsaatan nomads in the north have built their entire life around their reindeer herds, including riding them. Games are held during the Naadam festival, including the wrestling, horse racing and archery skills which led to Genghis Khan’s battle successes. Horse racing fans please note: the ultimate horse race is the all important and very gruelling Mongolian Derby. Not for the faint of heart, their sturdy horses are raced forty km a day. The Derby covers 1000 km, and recreates Genghis Khan’s vast horseback messenger system. Last year’s winner was American, and the year before were Australian and British. In 2016 a Canadian was among winners, and Guelph veterinarian Tamara Beckstead participated in 2018. Another “biggie” is the Golden Eagle Festival. Around 400 eagle hunters in traditional dress on horseback compete with their birds, a sight to behold! National Parks with rare species also can be visited, and David was taken by his hosts to very remote areas to see the Przewalski’s horse and the Altai Argali wild sheep. Guides and tours can be readily arranged to participate in the outdoors and events. Local resident Priscilla Reeve had arranged with her friend, Ellen Helps, to go on a ten-day horseback riding trek through some of the more remote parts recently. 

Mongolians, influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, honour their animals by only using the ones near the end of their life for food, and Priscilla refers to a culture that embraces raising and caring for animals, paying “homage to all that animals contribute to {the} way of life… Neither growing or eating vegetables is very much part of their traditional way of life”. Local food reflects their nomadic roots, with much dairy and meat, so do not expect AAA tender steak or vegan offerings. The “Mongolian hot pot” was popular with both David and his colleagues: it is like a fondue where various ingredients are cooked in broth at the table. In town, David was able to eat Italian to KFC, besides imports from Russia and Poland. Vodka abounds, of course!

Warm and welcoming people, this is a super place to go for the more adventurous at heart amongst us. Priscilla also summarizes, “All of the trip was absolutely wonderful, well worth the long trek to get there, and a never to be forgotten experience”. See it before it is lost too!

Written By: Diana Janosik-Wronski

Author: LivingSpaces

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