The border crossing from Russia to Mongolia was late evening after dark. It wasn't until we woke the next morning that, as before, we were mesmerised by the change of scenery. Unlike Russia where trees were everywhere, the steppe landscape was of rolling hills as far as the eye could see, punctuated with occasional herds of cattle or horses. In the north of the country, thin snow still coated the higher ground, a truly magnificent sight in the early morning sun.
Traditionally, Mongolians have been nomadic herds-people living in yurts (or gers). These are circular tents with a wooden frame covered in woollen felt for insulation and waterproofing. Families moved around the huge landscape according to the seasons and grazing conditions.
Ulaanbaatar is the burgeoning capital of Mongolia. Its urban sprawl stretches for many miles either side of its centre. The government has been promoting free market reform in recent years and increasing numbers of people are being attracted in from the wilderness to a potentially easier city life. Old habits die hard however and there was the incongruous sight of yurts permanently sited in car parks or waste ground close to the railway. Settling into a brick and concrete city apartment after a life in a tent must be a step too far for some.
Everyone looks happy in Mongolia
Quite a few travellers were getting off in Ulaanbaatar to sample the culture. Many stay with families living in yurts out in the wilds for a few days, getting to sample the food (often mutton), trek or ride horses or even camels. The striking thing about the Mongolians was how smiley and content they appeared to be. It's as if, compared to Russians, they feel more optimistic about their future.
Gradually, the undulating landscape gave way to the famous Gobi Desert in the south of the country. Except in particularly dry years, the sand is obscured by a light covering of grass. Although initially less spectacular than the undulating lanscape further north, the sheer vastness of the Desert was a remarkable sight in its own way.
A Golden Eagle !
In all, we were passing through Mongolia for less than 24hours but it made a huge impression on us.