Thursday, March 5, 2009

Steppe-ing into Mongolia.


I
was born and raised in large metropolitan areas. I have spent most of my adult life living in and around Washington. I live a very comfortable life surrounded by buildings and cars and the sound of my cellphone ringing. But every now and again, I wander into nature to try and escape civilization but even around here, nature somehow seems to be bounded by man made things. Us city folk like to explore nature but only if we can have the conveniences of modern life close at hand :-)


Though I am a city girl at heart, I often I yearn for open space - to be able to stand in one spot and for as far as my eyes can see, in all directions, see nothing but expanse of space and open sky and for as long as I stand in that space, to not hear a single sound but the wind rushing by me. I want to be in a place where urbanity is hemmed in by nature and not the reverse.

Hence one of the reasons why Mongolia has always been on my list of places to travel to. Every time I think of Mongolia, I imagine myself standing on an expansive grassy plain that extends beyond the horizon to meet a bright blue sky.

By all accounts, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on earth with a land area of 600,000 square miles, which is more than twice the size of Texas and almost the size of Alaska, but with a population of only 2.5 million....roughly that of the Denver metropolitan area.

The landscape of Mongolia is predominantly steppe which is defined as a grassland plain that is devoid of trees with the exception of ones growing near rivers and lakes. The world's largest steppe region, often referred to as the "Great Steppes" includes parts of southwest Russia, pretty much all of Central Asiaa and extends into China and.....Mongolia.

The Great Steppes are characterized by a continental and semi-arid climate. Summer temperatures can peak as high as 40 °C (104 °F) and in winter drop as low as -40 °C (-40 °F). Unbelievable!

Besides this huge difference between summer and winter high and low temperatures, the differences between day and night time temperatures can also very great. In the highlands of Mongolia, 30 °C (86 °F) can be reached during the day with sub-zero °C (sub 32 °F) readings at night. I'm definitely keeping a close watch on the daily temperature fluctuations so I can make sure I bring along the right clothing....especially for the night. Unfortunately, the only place in Mongolia that seems to register on weather sites is Ulaan Baatar - not sure how representative temperatures in Ulaan Baatar are of the rest of the country.

So....the Mongolian steppes. How to spend the time? Well, horses are popular so I'm going to see if I can spend some time on one though I don't think trail rides are going to be a possibility. After all, what defines a trail when you have wide open space like the steppe?

When I first saw a picture of a Mongolian horse, I thought I was a pony but in fact, they are horses. The breed is known as the Przewalski horse (Equus przewalskii Poljakow). Not only is the Przewalski horse the national symbol of Mongolia but more importantly, it is the only wild horse recognized by all zoologists as a pure wild form in the zoological sense. In other words, it is the sole surviving wild relative of the domestic horse. Apparently, the breed has not changed since the days of Ghenghis Khan. Przewalski horses are among the most threatened wildlife species in the world. The entire world population consists of no more than 1,435 individual animals.

Horses are greatly cherished in Mongolian culture, particularly among the nomads because horses play an integral part in their daily lives and livelihood. A nomad with many horses is considered wealthy and having many horses which are also in good shape is considered honorable behavior. The mare's milk is processed into the national beverage airag but the animals are rarely slaughtered for meat. Naturally, horse racing is also a popular sport in Mongolia.....in fact, it's one of the three main sports of the Naadam Festival.

For me, being able to ride a Mongolian horse would be a truly memorable experience - I just need to find a way to make it happen!