In central Mongolia, just a few hours away from the coal-streaked haze of capital city Ulaanbaatar, hills of wildflower-filled grass stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s a place where picturesque meadows, melt into a horizon of dense forests and an endless expanse of sky. And that very word, “endless,” perfectly encompasses the vastness of this wide country, a nation nestled comfortably between Russia and China where the majority of land is wide, wild, and free from the constraints of city life.
Despite its vast appeal, Mongolia isn’t usually thought of as your usual Instagram-perfect teen travel destination. Over the summer, I had the chance to visit and discover the beauty of the country for myself through the Girl Scout ATS Destination program. Escaping the suffocating California July heat, I boarded a plane with eight other girls from all across the US, none of whom I’d ever met before, all of us headed far East to Mongolia, where we all forged close friendships, both among yourselves, and also with the young Mongolian horsemen and ATS guides who led us through our adventures.
Our typical Mongolian morning began as we crawled out of our camel hair sleeping bags and unzipped our tents to a flood of early morning light. Even in the early morning hours of 5:30, the Mongolian countryside was alive, as the youngest of the children herded cattle across the grass, bouncing along with the puppies nipping at their heels. Unfortunately, our early morning adventures began with a trip to the “bathroom,” if it could even be called that; picture a narrow, deep pit dug in the ground with two skinny wooden planks, layered above. So a simple run to the ‘ladies' room’ meant balancing on unbolted strips of wood above a fly-filled cesspool, praying that you didn’t fall in-and this was if you were lucky enough to even come across this makeshift bathroom at all in the wilds of the steppe.
After a hearty breakfast shared with our guides and cooked by fifteen-year-old Ulaanbaatar residents, Nomaneerden and her mom, the other girls and I tacked up our horses for a full day of trekking. Horses are best described as the life and blood of Mongolian history and modern culture, with Ghengis-or more accurately Chinggis- Khan’s famous and bloody rides into battle. However, these fierce creatures of war and work can more accurately be described as, well, short. Despite their height, Mongolian ponies are built with a short and stocky stature, complete with the ability to gallop for hours on end up and down hilly terrain-a quality that makes them extremely durable. My pony partner for the trip was a cute little brown horse, with a spiky mane and an equal sense of spunk to match. Living most days of the year completely wild, he was fiery, fast, and only half-tamed, proving his spirit by galloping faster than every other horse in the races we had against the other girls and guides.
Our day closed with setting up camp as we found a perfect, quiet spot in the middle of a forested meadow to pitch our tents. Well, almost perfect. The ever-present buzz of biting horse flies came in such terrible swarms that we were eager to escape to the safety of our tents. Only, we didn't have any tents to escape to, for the World War II-era Soviet van that drove ahead of us, toting all of our gear had managed to bury itself deep into a ditch of mud, with no clear way to escape. While our guides galloped off on the horses, in hopes that they’d find a van rescuer hundreds of miles outside of the city, us girls decided to pass the time with what we thought would be a short and simple walk up the tallest hill in the valley. This trek could more accurately be labeled as a strenuous hike up a mountain, but it still yielded the most breathtaking view I have ever seen, with acres and acres of untouched land and sky spreading as far out as the eye could see.
Once our van had been rescued from the muddy predicament, we closed the evening with a bonfire-a perfect opportunity to create community, and also keep away the horseflies. As the sunset on the tips of the tallest trees, our guides sang us traditional Mongolian folk songs, their perfectly melodic voices meshing together in beautiful harmony. We closed the night singing together, us Americans with the traditional Scout songs we know, and the Mongolians with their own versions of campfire songs. Even though our languages couldn’t have been more different, we were connected on the same plane of thought and community as we shared smiles and songs under the last embers of the campfire.
After several more days of exploring the countryside, highlighted by an impromptu thunderstorm, river crossings, visits to lost temples, wrestling our friends by the fire, and galloping through the trees, we said goodbye to our equine companions and Mongolian horsemen guides as we headed off to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ulaanbaatar, or as it’s more commonly referred to by the locals as “UB” is a sprawling metropolis that only recently sprung into being, as more and more Mongolians decided to make the shift from nomadic to urban life. We were lucky enough to have been in UB at the same time as Naadam, the equivalent of the Mongolian Olympics, where men and women of the highest caliber compete in archery, horse racing, and wrestling. We all attended the national Naadam opening ceremony, a massive cultural festival held in a huge sports stadium, where we heard traditional Mongolian throat singing, saw parades and dancing, and watched young contortionists show off their skills. Contortionists? It sounds crazy, but similarly to how many young American girls participate in ballet for a year or two when they’re very young, most young Mongolian city girls have at least a year of contortion under their belts.
Our flight out of Mongolia came all too soon. Having to say goodbye to this beautiful country only further convinced me that this would not be the last Mongolia saw of me-I know one day I will return to explore all of the other vast corners of the nation: the Gobi deserts, snow-covered steppes, and eagle-hunting archers of the East. Mongolian hospitality and the longing for the open country is a feeling that you will always carry with you.
Hello- Сайн байна уу? (Saan Baano)
Thank you- Баярлалаа (Bayarlalaa)