Before I got to Mongolia, I heard from lots of travel YouTubers just how hospitable they are. And yes, that’s true. But they are also intense.

They are straightforward, don’t give smiles away easily, and some will stare you down if you walk into the wrong part of town. One woman I talked to at a bar said “You are not handsome, but you are not scary, you are a normal plus”. I guess the “plus” is a compliment? But hey honesty.

Mongols can also be incredibly giving and warm. I hate generalizing about people because you obviously have individual differences between personalities, but these were the trends that I saw.

The Intensity of Mongolia

One night at our ger (traditional tent) camp a group of construction workers checked into the tents next to mine. They were doing some kind of company getaway. They played basketball, drank vodka, and sang folk songs late into the night.

I didn’t much mind that. It was cool to hear them enjoying themselves even if I was trying to get to sleep. Then, at about 2 AM, I had a dream that a group of Mongol men were screaming and trying to get into my tent and murder me.

I woke up and was half right. Not about the getting into my tent and murder thing, but the construction guys were fiercely yelling at each other. Glass was being broken and big items were being pushed over. I stayed awake for the next hour watching my tent door (ger have wooden doors fixed into the tent structure).

I heard the owner of the camp confront the men and tell them to be quiet which they ignored. If there were any police nearby it would be almost impossible for them to get to us, the camp is only accessible down winding dirt roads with no signposts, and my guides had to be on the phone with the owner while driving just to find it.

The fight eventually died down and I assume the guys drunkenly passed out. The next morning the owners apologized to me profusely but I told them it wasn’t their fault and that the place was great considering. One of the massive construction workers said good morning to me, after laughing about me to his buddies for something (because I was brushing my teeth?).

He looked like he could’ve been in Genghis Khan’s horde, broad-shouldered, long braided strand of hair going down to his waist, much bigger than me. When he said good morning I ignored him, still irritated that they kept all of us up all night. Maybe not the wisest move but one of my guides was also a large Mongol man, so I felt OK dismissing him.

The Kindness of Mongolia

On the other side of things, some people I met were extremely hospitable. I stayed with a nomadic family in the National Park of Hustai. They were a family of 4 joined by the patriarch’s brother and his family. The leader, a man named Gunna, was my age (39), had bronze skin from an eternity outside, and a very gentle but also intense air about him.

His family moves with the seasons, packing up all their tents and herding their animals from place to place. He has about 20 horses, 20 cows, maybe 100 goats and sheep, and 3 giant Mastiff guard dogs. The dogs kept the wolves away from the herd. I was told that they only bark at approaching animals the size of wolves, and they barked 5 times during the course of the night.

Gunna’s 10-year-old son, dressed in a red hoodie and carrying around a foam sword, took me on a horse ride around the valley. Even though he was a kid, he expertly led me and my horse through rivers and herded up the calves with me before it got dark.

We rode by the guard dogs who were way out in the fields, eating the body of a sheep that the family just slaughtered to make me a meal later that night. The dogs came running up to me to get their ears scratched, blood and bone flowing down their faces.

Gunna later took me to see some wild horses. Apparently, the horses in Hustai and surrounding areas are the last truly wild horses in the world. Other “wild” horses have domesticated ancestors whereas the takhi in Mongolia have never been tamed.

We drove over truly authentic Mongolian roads, aka mud and dirt paths. Sometimes we just drove over grass when we wanted to connect to a parallel path. There’s a reason why so many people in Mongolia have off-road cars.

We got to a series of tall and steep hills to the left side of the car. We spotted some tiny movement at the top. Gunna gave me his scope to see a small group of tahki coming down the hill to get some water. Gunna said this is probably the closest we can get to them and that he, despite having lived in the area his whole life, also has never gotten closer.

We decided, let’s try to get closer anyway. We drove further away, and passed several vans full of foreign photographers trying to get the same glimpses as us. About 20 minutes passed everyone else, we got out when we spotted another small group of tahki in the distance.

We climbed up the hill slowly and quietly. Before long we got within only a few hundred feet of them. They eyed us suspiciously, but the horses never moved. We took our pictures thinking that they would run away if we got closer. Then, we just kept getting closer and closer and they never budged.

We got within only a few hundred feet of them. Something that Gunna had never accomplished before. Something that the park rangers earlier told us was impossible. But we did it. We hung out for a little while and soaked up the hills and valleys below us. Soaked up the experience of being so close to the horses that humankind has never brought under their control.

When you go:

If you visit Mongolia you will know the intensity and kindness I wrote about here. Both sides of that national personality are worth seeing! At times it can be frightening, but at others it will impress on you just how kind someone can be. Go and see for yourselves. Go and see a people unburdened by pretense, as free as the open plains

Written by: Shawn Swinger

 shawn swinger pictureShawn is a history teacher (Msc) who writes about life in Japan, international affairs and more.

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