A day in medieval Mongolia
I always hoped that I’d never have to hear Baccara’s Sorry I’m a Lady again. The song is pure 1970’s Eurotrash.
But here it was again, like a bad memory. It was playing in the beat up car that was taking us out of Ulan Bator and into the Mongolian countryside.
What an absurd scene, to be listening to Baccara as we are driving by the derelict, soviet-style apartment blocks on the outskirts of Ulan Bator.
My driver had put on a cassette with 1970’s and 1980’ music in the car (yes, they still have cassette players in their cars here – I guess that tells you a little bit about how old the cars are). After Baccara, we went on to hear a host of other singers that radio stations in the West have rightly banned from the airwaves: Chris Norman, Wham and Modern Talking.
Listening to this music as we were bumping along the pot-holed “highway” somewhere in the Mongolian grassland just felt bizarre. There were nomads herding their goats and sheep by the side of the road. Families were picnicking with a view of the passing cars. Wild horses were grazing on the open plains. And we were listening to “I should be so lucky” by the young Kylie Minogue.
Miles from modern civilisation
We went about 10 kilometers on this sandy road, which kept taking unexpected turns and which had bumps and holes that were hard to see.
My driver was going at least twice as fast as I would have driven on that kind of surface. I was a little uneasy and my palms were getting wet.
Then, as we rounded a bend, a palisade fence suddenly became visible in the wide open plain. It was almost like a mirage. The fence had a gate that our road led right up to. In front of it stood two Mongolians dressed like 13th century warriors and blocked our way.
This scene, accompanied by the 1980’s soundtrack from the cassette player, took the absurdity of this whole ride to yet another level.
The guardsmen stopped our car, exchanged a few words with my driver, and then let us pass. We followed the dirt road for a few more turns and arrived at a yurt camp. “The King’s Palace”, said a sign that was written both in English and Mongolian.
Unfortunately, that sign was just about the only thing that was bilingual at this open-air museum called “Mongolia in the 13th century”.
Hardly anyone at the “King’s Palace” or at any of the other five yurt-camps that make up this recreation of Mongolia in the 13th century spoke a word of English. And since I didn’t have an interpreter with me, I mostly just wandered through the camps and looked around.
“Mongolia in the 13th century” consists of six yurt camps and tries to recreate different aspects of life in Mongolia in the times of Ghengis Khan.
Apart from the “King’s Palace”, there is a yurt camp that concentrates on shaman rituals. Other camps are all about cattle breeding, soldiers’ life or the making of crafts.
But if you don’t speak Mongolian or have an interpreter, it’ll be difficult to talk to the people living in these camps.
A lady in one of the camps, who spoke a little English, told me that they got about a hundred visitors per day, which she considered “a lot”.
However, while my driver and I were taking our tour of the park, we were just about the only guests there.
The camps were kind of dead
Most of the 13th-century-employees were just waking up, cleaning the place or doing repair work. So they didn’t really bother to greet us or put on their little show for us. I guess they only show the shaman rituals or how make traditional arts and crafts when larger tourist groups come around.
The park supposedly covers an area of some 350 hectares (850 acres). So you’ll do quite a bit of driving, getting from one camp to the next.
For me, that was almost the best part of the trip. I got so see a lot of open Mongolian countryside, rocky hills, beautiful valleys, and vast grasslands. And the air out there was so much better than in downtown Ulan Bator!
When we’d completed our tour of the six yurt camps, we headed back out the main gate of the open-air museum.
The two guardsmen in their traditional outfits nodded good-bye as we drove by. Then they went back into the shade of the palisade fence to continue their summer-afternoon nap.
And the cassette player in our car started playing George Michael’s “Last Christmas”.