Thursday, January 28, 2010

A horse of course, or transportation Mongolian style

Mongolia is a beautiful country with wide open spaces and rich in tradition. The geography spans from high, rugged mountains, to the sweeping desert to the hypnotic grasslands known as the steppes. Horses and camels are the favored forms of transportation used in Mongolia with motorcycles gaining in popularity. Four-wheel drive vehicles such as jeeps and vans, and planes lag far, far behind.

The population sits around 2.5 million with 1.5 million people living in the capital, Ulaan Baatar. The remaining 1 million live primarily nomadic lives across the country. With that in mind, it's not surprising that there is only approximately 1,500 miles of paved road in the country. The remaining roads grade from hard packed to make your own way, which is why horses and camels rule, and if you are lucky enough motorcycles and 4-wheel drive vehicles can get you to where you are going a little bit faster.

So here's a look at some of the popular modes of transportation.

Horses are by far the most important. These magnificent animals can go just about anywhere, with the exception of the deep sands of the Gobi Desert. They are sturdy and strong and can travel long distances. In addition to transportation, they are also critical for herding. There are two types of saddles used in Mongolia, the Russian, which is made of leather and the Mongolian which is made of wood. Given the option, always choose the Mongolian saddle (it's much more comfortable).

The two-humped Bactrian camels are especially popular in the Gobi Desert for transportation and are also depended upon for moving ger camps. They have been known to last over a week without water and a month without food. Even though they are slow, they are perfect for long distance travel and can carry heavy loads. By the way, there really isn't any graceful way to get up on a camel, but once you're up they are very comfortable to ride. Be patient and enjoy the scenery.

Motorcycles are gaining in popularity. They handle the terrain well and are faster than our four legged friends. Four-wheel drive vehicles are also a good way to travel but much more costly. But affording it is only part of the problem. In the w i d e open spaces, you won't find gas stations or repair shops. Our vehicle for the mountainous, northwest region was a 1964 Russian van with very high clearance, and it took us across places I couldn't believe were passable. The key here is to have a great driver to maneuver through the terrain during the day and double as a mechanic at camp in the evening.

When time is a factor, flying may be the only answer. The planes are older with minimum features but they serve the people and guests of Mongolia well. Over booking is not uncommon. Those that did not get a seat may sit on the floor or on the spare tires in the back. Who or what ever gets the seats first, stays with the seats. I choose to assume that the planes are maintained even though some of the tires looked a little smooth. I always felt better when a monk came on board.

What other forms of transportion have you used while traveling?

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