Minor Treatise on Russo-Mongol Travel

by Luigi Kapaj

A travel vacation should take you away from your normal environment and give you the opportunity to experience something new. One might consider such destinations on the other side of the globe as Russia or Mongolia. While they may be neighboring countries with many commonalities, they represent vastly different cultures and of the two, I have found Mongolia to be a much more rewarding experience.

The first and most striking thing when you arrive in Mongolia is the environment. The sky goes on forever. Whether you go through the mountains, steppe, or desert, the vastness of Kökö Möngke Tengri (the eternal blue sky) is a prevailing presence. Even the lands go off into the distance relatively unscathed. In such a sparsely populated country, there is rarely more than a single ger (home/tent) with one family’s herds, wandering about unfenced, for an entire valley however many miles across it may be. The sight seems to blend in as a small piece of a picturesque landscape with endless grass and sky all about you. Even the capital city would have the occasional nomad in from the countryside riding his horse down the street and high, uninhabited mountains all around with a rich blue canopy above.

In Russia, the ambiance was continually that of a rundown industrial slum. When I went camping and canoeing one weekend, the riverbanks were covered in dried crude oil. Another weekend I stayed in a youth hostel in a kremlin (monastery) where the local grocery store was barren of food and the nearby factory was dumping directly into the local river. However pleasant the setting may have been, be it a forest or fine architecture, the scars of industrialization were most memorable.

The way Mongolians embraced their traditional culture most contrasted with the modernized Russian disposition. It was not uncommon for a businessman to have "gone to the countryside" for a few days without notice nor for a prominent figure to don traditional clothes at a public function. Russians were more distant from their premodern culture and went so far as to disdain consorting with artists whom did not fit well into some dystopian Shangri-la. Mongolians, on the other hand, imbued their traditions throughout their modernity from the simplest personal level of a reporter keeping a set of shagai (sheep anklebone dice) on his desk to the most popular national sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing being held in the same rules and garb as has been done for hundreds of years. In Russia, the glory of their culture seemed to be bottled up in museums and palaces as relics of a bygone age, while in Mongolia, the glory of the culture was in the daily lives of the average Mongol.

In some ways, the differences between the two countries are very interrelated. For example, Ulaanbaator, the capital of Mongolia, looks very much like a large Russian town because it has been built under Russian oversight in the days of Communism. The Russian capital of Moscow is much older with ancient temples and palaces and was built under Mongol oversight in the days of the Golden Horde. The experience of having walked the streets of both cities and of being armed with knowledge of such irony was exhilarating.

You can travel through both Russia and Mongolia by train on a single trip, and indeed many tourists do, but there is so much more to experience by diversions within Mongolia. In Mongolia you can travel the countryside to spend time with nomads living the same life as has been lived for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years or gather for a Naadam (games festival) and experience a life unlike anything Russia has to offer.

I enjoyed my stretch in both countries and have many memories, both fond and fair, of the people and places I have seen. I apologize for being so curt in my presentation of such a wonderful experience as visiting Russia. But in no place have I felt in such foreign lands yet so close to being at home as my time in Mongolia.

© 2002, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on January 3, 2003

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