The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky

Mongolia, the "Land of the Eternal Blue Sky", is clearly a fascinating country – a world of its own, unparalleled and unique. There aren't many places in the world with such a deep-rooted and yet lively nomadic culture, rich history and grandiose landscape. The sheer endless, lonely and windswept steppes and rolling green hills, the spectacular high-mountain ranges, as well as the beautiful, mysterious and deep Taiga in the far North are all affectionately adored and revered by the sparsely scattered but warm-hearted people who inhabit them together with their livestock. To most of these people particular mountains, springs and – most importantly – the "Eternal Blue Sky" are even sacred. They are not just features of the landscape – they are alive.

Nomadism: Life with the seasons

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One fact often mentioned by impressed visitors to Mongolia is its extreme climate and the specific mode of life it has brought about over thousands of years. This is not surprising: Not many other places in the world can claim up to a 100°C difference between the lowest winter- and the hottest summer-temperatures. As a result of this extreme climate, Mongolia is the country with the northernmost desert and the southernmost permafrost in the world. Winter (or what Europeans would typically consider winter) holds the country in its iron grip for more than eight months, and most rivers break up not before May. But then, the seemingly dead and frozen steppes suddenly begin to burst with life. The young animals get born, the grass becomes green and the people and their herds move to their spring and summer camps, often in remote valleys. Milk is now flowing in abundance. While in the cold winter months meat and fat had been the most important source of food and energy, now only few animals get slaughtered and instead most countryside-families produce (and live by) huge amounts of fermented mare's milk (airag), yogurt (tarag) and cheese (biaslag), and dry large stocks of curd (aarul) on the roofs of their gers – which is the Mongolian term for the nomadic homestead that is known around the world as "yurt". This way, much of one summer's amount of milk can be stored for months, and will serve as a healthy and tasty food-supplement through the long, cold and hard months that follow – in which people often have to work hard for their and their animals' survival and in which the nomadic annual circle will be completed. This way of life has its roots in ancient history. And although it has been adapted and developed pragmatically over and over again in times of change and trouble, in its essence it has remained alive until today.

Ulaanbaatar: Mongolia's capital and antithesis

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Arriving by plane on Chingis Khaan International Airport, you will instantly experience that Mongolia is not only a wild and romantic place of nomads, horses and livestock. It is also perhaps one of the most centralized countries in the world with a rapidly growing urban population. Around half of the state's roughly 3 million inhabitants currently live in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's lively and bursting capital with its museums, shopping malls, posh bars and its growing armada of big and expensive Land Cruisers on the one hand, and its sprawling informal suburban settlements, its daily traffic jams and often terrible smog on the other. Four giant, coal-fired power plants, as well as hundreds of thousands of cars and the almost constantly burning coal-fires of the poor suburban households create massive air pollution, especially in winter. Hence, the city is nowadays often nicknamed "Utaanbaatar" ("Smoke Hero") – instead of Ulaanbaatar, which translates as "Red Hero".

Before Mongolia's socialist revolution of 1920, "Red Hero" was known as either "Urga" or "Niislel Khüree" – "capital monastery". Then, under communist rule, the city was built up with wide avenues, Soviet architecture and at the time modern panel flat tower blocks all connected to a city-wide district heating system, planned to accommodate around 200,000 people and far less cars. However, with the fall of communism in 1990, and with the economically very difficult times that followed, especially after a row of deadly cold winters around the millennium killed a great percentage of the country's livestock and ruined the livelihood of ten thousands of families, the city began to grow massively and chaotically, in a way becoming the antithesis of what Mongolia is famous for: Overcrowded, rushed, and at times even claustrophobic. And yet still thousands of countryside people move to the city every year, lured here by the diverse promises of urban life.

To the countryside

As one leaves behind the last scattered gers and industrial buildings of Ulaanbaatar, the picture changes completely: The smog clouds gradually disappear, the wide steppe-landscape opens up, traffic radically decreases and in fact after a while the only disturbances and "traffic jams" on the road will be created by herds of cows, sheep and goats claiming the right of way. Infrastructure fades out with every kilometer away from the capital. In fact the only bigger concentrations of settled life will be come across in form of the few much smaller province-capitals and around the widely scattered, village-like "sum-centres" that serve as the administrational infrastructure for all rural life, settled and nomadic alike. With very few exceptions, roads are in a completely desolate state or simply not existent. Once far away from the urban world, expensive Western and Japanese Jeeps become an increasingly rare sight. Instead, this is still the undisputed domain of the old, unpretentious and absolutely no-frills Russian UAZ Jeeps and minibuses. Usually packed with passengers up to under the roof, these hard-working iron beasts of burden deliver goods and people to the farthest villages of the country as well as to nomadic camps even. Out here, you'll see camels grazing, children playing in front of their families' gers and horsemen herding their flocks of sheep and goats. And occasionally you might see two guys transporting a living, bleating goat on a Chinese motorbike. Time becomes irrelevant, the concept of hurry ridiculous. "Tavtai Morilno uu" – Welcome. Welcome to this fascinating country in the heart of Asia that has kept its nomadic heritage alive until this very day.
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