Wednesday, August 22, 2012

NEWS: Snowy Green Mongolia

Originally posted on The Inquirer on August 13, 2012
|By John Henderson

White Lake, one of the many gorgeous lakes in northern Mongolia. (Bertrand Linet)
KHOVSGOL NUUR NATIONAL PARK, Mongolia - For me heaven in July is 60 miles from the Siberian border, sitting by a royal-blue lake so clear I can see fish 50 feet below the surface.

The only humans near me are four traveling companions and some Mongolian nomads cooking mutton. We're all outnumbered 3 to 1 by the curious yaks resting near me.

Yaks aren't the prettiest beasts. They look like horses with dreadlocks. But they certainly are among the most peaceful.

They don't see many tourists in this part of the world, so they eye me like giant cats waiting to be fed. Or maybe they'd like to ask, "Why are you here?" Yes, indeed.

Why Mongolia?

Just look around. The next day I'm riding a horse past the yaks and the lake and our ger camp deep into a lime-green forest. We pass through a meadow of wildflowers. To our left is a mountain covered in beautiful fir trees greener than anything I've seen in Ireland.

We're at about 7,300 feet and we see no industry. No factories. No trucks. No loggers.

"If this was in Europe," said Alex, a Dutchman I met on the trip, "this place would be covered with hotels."

Mongolia remains one of the last unspoiled destinations on Earth. It's not just because it's the world's most sparsely populated country. Its 2.8 million people are sprinkled around a nation a bit more than twice the size of Texas. That's 1.8 people per square mile.

You can travel overland for five or six hours through some of the world's most spectacular scenery, where mountains stay snowcapped year round, without seeing another person. The village of Shine-Ider has 100 residents. Mongolia has so few settlements, Shine-Ider is on Lonely Planet's national map.

Mongolia's unspoiled nature isn't by design. Foreign powers ruled Mongolia for nearly 400 years with the exception of pockets of freedom ranging from a few years to seemingly a few hours. From 1920 to 1990, the Soviet Union controlled Mongolia with an iron fist. No one could get in. No one could get out.

When Mongolia gained independence in 1991, it had more pressing needs to develop than tourism. Thus, I realize something while traversing overland 1,500 miles for 16 days.

What I'm seeing is pretty much what Genghis Khan saw 800 years ago.

My first brush with the life of Genghis Khan comes on my first day after we leave Ulan Bator, the gritty capital with architecture right out of 1960s Siberia but with a growing feel of cosmopolitan chic.