Two years ago, I became obsessed with the Joanna Lumley travel series on the ABC. Joanna is a vivacious, hilarious woman most popularly known for her role on the hit show Absolutely Fabulous and that is exactly what she is. In her youth she was a model and actress, and she has spent her golden years travelling the globe and curating a series of utterly magical travel documentaries, including; The Land of the Northern Lights, The River Nile, Greek Odyssey, The Search for Noah’s Arc, Joanna’s Japan and Joanna’s India. I highly recommend all of these, but by far my favourite of Joanna’s adventures is that of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The Trans-Siberian stretches the length of the Russian continent. It connects to the Trans- Mongolian line at Ulan-Ude, Russia and travels through the capital of Ulaanbaatar – meaning ‘Red Hero’ – and onwards through the barren and ever-rolling dunes of the Gobi Desert.
Joanna featured this bizarre and mysterious country for one episode in her series, and I was fascinated by the nomadic culture of this historically powerful nation. I was captivated by everything from yurts – traditionally called gers – to the mesmerising throat singing tradition and even, the custom of passing around airag, a mare milk drink which is fermented in a cow skin bag and beaten until one is left with an acidic, weirdly refreshing and slightly alcoholic beverage.
The image that most stuck with me was that of Joanna standing valiantly a top the gigantic stainless steel statue of Mongolian dictator and warlord Chinggis Khan – referred to in Western culture as Genghis Khan. This statue has got to be one of the most bizarre things I have ever witnessed. Located about an hour and a half outside of the capital, one drives for all of this time and sees nothing but the occasional yurt and roaming herds of goat, sheep and yaks, and then suddenly, Chinggis Khan on horseback emerges from the arid horizon. This statue is larger than the Statue of Liberty and holds the world record for the tallest depiction of a man on horseback. I put this sight on my bucket list immediately but had no idea that the opportunity to experience it for myself would be just around the corner.
This winter, for the first time ever, ANU ran a winter course titled Modern Mongolia: Challenges to Empire, Economy and Environment as an elective through the College of Asia and the Pacific, in collaboration with the Mongolia Institute. Director of the Institute, historian Li Narangoa and archaeologist Dr Jack Fenner took 13 students of every different faculty and area of interest on a two-week adventure to Mongolia, which I was lucky enough to be a part of, and in fact the story I told on my application was very similar to what I have written above. Apart from knowing that I wanted to stand on top of the statue for the perfect photo opportunity, I had absolutely no idea what to expect or how much I would learn from this epic country and its welcoming people. Mongolia has the lowest population density of any independent nation state with almost half of the 3 million population living in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. While greater freedom, political democracy and a market economy were gained after the demise of Soviet influence, many Mongolians are nostalgic for the days where a centrally planned economy provided an organised system of education, healthcare and pollution management schemes.
The traditional nomadic culture of transporting one’s yurt, family and herds to different pastures with the seasons has shifted into a more stabilised existence in the cities capital. The tourism industry has only recently begun to flourish, with railway tours and horse and camel treks through the Gobi being the most popular way to see the expansive steppes and experience the truest form of Mongolian culture.
Being in a landlocked position between the two great powers of Russia and China, Mongolia has had to master the role of middleman. Finding itself in a very unique political and economic position, with its livelihood and export capacity reliant on the cooperation of its two neighbours, Mongolia has the addition of their ‘third neighbour’ policy with other countries such as South Korea and Germany.
Throughout the two-week stay, we traversed Ulaanbaatar, known as the worlds coldest capital – although we were there in summer which treated us to pleasant 30 degree days. We were fortunate enough to visit the ger districts, various Buddhist temples and the ancient capital of Karakorum. As we were there during the Nadaam festival – a cultural festival which puts on display the national sports of horse-riding, wrestling and ankle-bone shooting (not as brutal as it sounds) – we were lucky enough to see the proudest displays of Mongolian nationalism. On the days we left the city, we ventured to mine sites, archaeological digs, visited the iconic statue that I had been so dying to see, and spent some humbling days with Mongolian traditional farming families, who welcomed us so warmly into their homes. My favourite night was by far our evening of ger camping, where the group watched an epic sunset light up the ‘eternal blue sky’ that Mongolia is so famous for.
All in all, while it is a tricky place to get to and has been long left off traveller’s lists, Mongolia is fast becoming a travel hotspot for those looking to experience something completely unexpected. Named number seven on the Lonely Planet’s ‘Best in Travel List 2017,’ I would highly recommend doing some research about the amazing experiences to be had here, and about the unique and ever important role the country plays in regional dynamics.