THE border between China and Mongolia is a confusing one.
Rickety Soviet-styled jeeps ferry potential travellers between the two countries - with a stack of permits to get you through the red tape and congested traffic that can stall you for hours.
It is only 16km between the Chinese and the Mongolian sides but once you step through Immigration, all you see are rows of cars, jeeps, buses and trucks lined up bumper to bumper.
When the driver of the bus I am on decides to cut the queue, tempers flare.
The border guard starts throwing rocks at the bus windshield, and every single driver has his head stuck out of the windows, yelling curses in their guttural native language.
Welcome to Mongolia, the tenacious country that was once one of the largest empires in history (1206-1405AD).
With an unstoppable army on horseback and Genghis Khan holding the reins, it conquered nearly all the territory between East Asia and Eastern Europe at the peak of its power.
No small feat, seeing that it is the least densely populated independent country in the world.
Today, a third of the population resides in Ulaan Batar, the capital and largest city. As for the rest of Mongolia, most of it is rolling countryside and desert.
On the train to Ulaan Batar, I am reminded of how the country has never quite lost touch with its nomadic roots.
The sprawling city seems to materialise out of a stretch of never-ending countryside.
The colourful disarray of its buildings is captivating: zinc-roofed houses are planted right next to traditional gers - mobile tents used by nomads.
Famous for being the coldest capital city in the world, with severely harsh winters, it also has a certain edge to it.
Even though you are surrounded by concrete, mostly Soviet architecture, by the expansive Sukhbaatar Square in the city centre and by fascinating museums - you constantly get the sense that this country has never been tamed.
Perhaps it is the abundance of dinosaur fossils in the Natural History Museum, all found within Mongolia itself, or perhaps it is how the Naran Tuul black market - full of fascinating antiques - is a perfect cover for well-organised pickpocketing. It could also be how members of the older generation are determined to wear their dels (traditional robes) while strolling through the modern city streets.
And more than that, perhaps it is how you are drawn to the vast green hills that loom in the distance.
HARSHLY BEAUTIFUL: Stunning plains and tall, craggy mountains greet visitors to Mongolia.
The call of the wild
MY TRAVEL buddies and I are in a Landcruiser heading towards Tov Aimag, Mongolia's central province. We're travelling back in time: the commotion of the city dies away bit by bit, and then we realise we are bumping along on a dirt path instead of a tarred road, and that white gers are flashing past our windows instead of concrete buildings.
We are trying to find a nomad family that one of my friends, Clayton, stayed with two summers ago.
HORSING AROUND: Horses are an important mode of transport in Mongolia. A boy rides one next to a
ger, or a mobile tent used by Mongolian nomads.
Armed with only photos of the family, our treasure hunt is in full swing as we stop at various gers to ask for directions. We know it might be too much to hope for success - after all, they are nomads, and permanent addresses are out of the question.
But it seems to be our lucky day. The first woman we meet scrutinises our photos and says: "I know him. He's on the other side of the river."
The next two men we meet are on horseback, with a wild horse in tow.
Catching a wild horse takes a tremendous amount of skill; you leap on your horse, hanging on to the reins as well as a long pole with a noose at the end, and loop this around the neck of your prize catch - while going at top speed.
Much to our disappointment, they do not recognise anyone in our photos but they do know where we can find a bridge to cross the river.
Our hunt goes on, fuelled by the beauty of the landscape. Purple mountains stand strong against the horizon and an expanse of never-ending grassy plains. Flocks of horses graze freely in the fields, their heads bobbing as they calmly watch our car amble by.
We finally pull up at a crowded sheep pen where we can barely make out the silhouettes of nomads tending to their livestock against the sparkling sunlight. Suddenly, Clayton does a double take, and he is out of the car and into the warm embrace of one of the nomads who had so eagerly hosted him two years before.
We are quickly ushered into the nearest ger and platters of sour cheese curds are set in front of us (think of it as a rural version of chewing gum), as well as bowls of airag - fermented horse milk, which seems to be the national drink.
My first sip of the white, carbonated liquid sends me into gastronomical shock: It tastes like a mix of alcohol and bitter yoghurt. But for the sake of courtesy, we hold our breath and gulp it down.
Mongolian hospitality can be overwhelming. Out comes a boxful of vodka, which they pour into bowls. Their love of vodka is exceeded only by their love of serving it to guests.
Our host soon hands round his prized bottle of snuff, inviting us to take a sniff. He also saddles his personal horse and sits me on it, which in itself is a gesture of respected friendship.
As we visit each ger in the vicinity, we stumble on what seems to be a traditional and very lively hair-shaving ceremony for a five-year-old girl. More than 20 of us are crammed into a single ger, and all the Mongolians present spontaneously burst into song.
These resilient people have the spirit to live through long winters and keep their heads up through their lifelong hard work.
And yet, they constantly find occasion for light-heartedness and fun, maintaining the unique hybrid of a culture they have borrowed from various nations in Central and East Asia.
Our host, a burly man with a hearty laugh, asks me to be his second wife. He motions for me to sit next to him and throws his arm around me.
I say "I do", and down a bowlful of vodka as the room erupts in laughter and cheers.
He knows I'll be coming back to visit him.
Photos: Corrie Tan
|5 things to do
1 Do wear a well-hidden money belt to the Naran Tuul Black Market, or hide your money in inconspicuous places. Also, avoid crowded aisles so you won't be a target of well-organised mugging. The market itself is a fascinating experience, don't give it a miss.
2 Do get out to the countryside. You can't say you've experienced Mongolia if you haven't seen how beautiful it is. Try to visit during summer to avoid the biting cold and the rain.
3 Do check out Naadam, a huge annual festival, if you're here in July. Events include Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery. Naadam is celebrated very differently in the city and in the countryside.
4 Do go out west to visit Bayan-Olgii, a Kazakh area within Mongolia that has some of the most beautiful and untouched landscapes imaginable.
5 Do try to book a room or a ger at the cozy Oasis Guesthouse, on the south-east outskirts of Ulaan Batar. Comfortable, convenient and run by an adorably charming Austrian- German couple, it's also a magnet for interesting travellers from all over.
1 Don't wander around Ulaan Batar by yourself at night. Its modest daytime appearance does not mean it's equally welcoming at night.
2 Don't refuse gifts, food or shots of vodka from your nomad hosts. Accept them graciously, because hospitality is second nature to them.