LAST SUMMER, if my friend Gerel is to be believed, herdsmen rode for hours to collect their free bibles at a party organised for them on the Mongolian steppe. The American missionaries returned to the capital, Ulan Bator, delighted with the overwhelming demand. The herdsmen returned to their pastures, content with a year's supply of cigarette paper.
Gerel washed down his tale with a small bowl of vodka, breaking the spell his foreign tongue had cast over our yurtful of nomads. He and I were here to visit his grandfather's encampment, and the news that Gerel and I, his English guest, had arrived in a dilapidated Lada had brought a dozen herdsmen flocking from over the horizon. News travels fast on the grasslands.
Dressed in leather boots, long-sleeved gowns and headgear ranging from trilbies to bobble hats, the horsemen had dismounted and entered the one- candle yurt like a posse of extras from an exotic western. At first, they regarded us with curiosity and bemusement. Minutes later, they were sharing gossip, mutton, tea and snuff with us - and lighting up the Good Word.
Seven decades of Soviet domination did little to open up the mysteries of Outer Mongolia. Few outsiders witnessed the brutal efforts to bring Marx to the land of Genghis Khan. But the democratic revolution of 1990 has sponsored the recovery of a proud national heritage. The Great Khan, once reviled for his bloodthirsty conquests (and especially the Mongol domination of Russia), stares triumphantly from fresh, crisp banknotes, replacing the old mutton-flavoured reminders of the Soviet era.
For the traveller, the return of democracy makes accessible the way of life Marco Polo found here 700 years ago, on his journey to meet Genghis's grandson Kublai - Emperor of China and architect of Coleridge's Pleasure Dome. Stalin's puppets may have built factories and towns of concrete in the rush towards urbanisation, but nomadic tradition has weathered the storm.
Trackside yurts serve as Mongolian motorway cafs. You enter for salty tea and greasy dumplings and become part of the family. Outside, children chase goats, sheep and each other before an elder sets them a task - carrying milk pails or collecting dung for fuel. Straying horses, cows and camels are retrieved by riders charging upright in the saddle, in a manner that evokes Genghis Khan's cavalry hordes.
Hospitality, too, remains unchanged since the 13th century. On our arrival at Gerel's grandfather's place, an ex-wrestler of immense girth offered bowls of koumiss, fermented mare's milk churned in a cowskin on the yurt wall. The vodka bowl was passed around, brimming with the most enduring Russian legacy, long absorbed into Mongolian custom. Three finger-flicks appease the spirits before drinking can begin. When passing and receiving, the right hand is used, elbow cupped by the left.
Snuff does the rounds in prized jade bottles drawn from sleeves. Social pitfalls abound in the Mongolian web of ritual. The yurt's wooden threshold must be stepped over; tread on it, they say, and you tread on the owner's neck. Inside the felt dome, guests must always sit to the right of the hosts. No contact is allowed with the central poles that support the lattice framework. Ignorance of these customs is tolerated at first, but quick learning is appreciated.
Such ritual survives on the Mongolian steppe, even in the face of great social change. Gerel's grandfather was and remains a nomad, wandering with the herds and the seasons. His son, however, quit the pastures for a ministry desk. And his son Gerel wears jeans and sunglasses, drives a Lada and writes lyrics for Gen-ghis Khan (the rock band, not the conqueror). Set him on the grasslands and you expose a nomadic soul at odds with tower- block life.
Gerel is not alone in his discomfort. The self-sufficiency of the old ways appeals to many Mongolians tired of urban dislocation. News-papers hint at the medieval side of this pastoral idyll, outbreaks of plague and hospitals in yurts. Mobile schools provide sporadic education. Water comes by horse-drawn cart from the nearest permanent settlement, an hour's ride away. This really is the Wild East, a dusty frontier town of saddled horses, snarling dogs and rows of yurts trapped within wooden stockades.
Leaving Gerel's grandfather's place behind, we rumbled on in our Lada towards more relatives in a gully of rusting Soviet combine harvesters. As welcoming drinks flowed, snow-flakes spiralling down from the yurt's smoke-hole hissed on the stove the news of winter's onset. Gunshots sounding the early hours kept wolves at bay.
Like the winter, Mongolian drinking tends to be extreme - as do its side effects. That night Gerel's brother went by motorbike on a mercy mission to a sick relative, bearing a jar of yak butter medicine. On application it was found to be my Polish mayonnaise, essential for enlivening a diet of horse sausage and boiled sheep guts. The error was soon forgotten as the vodka slipped down. He returned through heavy snow to collapse on the stove in a paralytic heap, icicle-clad but alive.
Two days later blizzards halted our progress. We were saved from a night in our Russian-made freezer when the faint barking of dogs pinpointed the sanctuary of a yurt. Dancing firelight revealed a young mother and two naked toddlers spotted with burns. Yes, she said, we were welcome to stay. We gladly shared our provisions from another planet. A can of Peking beer was placed reverently in a make-shift Buddhist shrine beside pictures of Genghis Khan and the Dalai Lama. A redundant tele-vision showed long-term optimism that electricity will one day cross the wilderness.
We revived the Lada with a blowlamp to the engine, while the mother solicited good luck with a libation of mare's milk. Thus protected we reached our destination - Erdene Zuu, the 16th-century monastery at the ancient capital, Karakorum. Stalinist purges targeted Buddh-ism with a vengeance from which it is only just recovering. Three temples survive out of 100, hidden behind the monastery's striking wall of white stupas. The chanting of lamas hangs in the winds that sweep the desolate compound.
Yet Mongolia's fascination lies in Stevenson's advice: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.'' Nomadic societies leave few sites behind. The journey itself, however, is an arrival in another world. The state tourist agency invites you to sanitised, chandelier-lit yurts with showers en suite; China tempts visitors to Sinicised Inner Mongolia, where tour buses prompt yurt-dwellers to don ethnic garb over Chairman Mao suits. For the real thing, though, pack a pioneering spirit. Get to Ulan Bator, find a camel, horse or Lada and go. !
GETTING THERE: STA (0171-937 9962) flies to Ulan Bator from Heathrow for £686 return. The flight is via Peking, therefore check visas before flying. Train tickets from Moscow to Ulan Bator on the Trans-Siberian Railway can be purchased from Intourist (0171-538 8600). The price for a second-class return is £230.
TOURS: Explore Worldwide (01252 319448) offers a 10- day tour of Outer Mongolia, visiting Ulan Bator, the Gobi desert, Altai mountains, Karakorum and various historic and cultural sites. The trip costs £1,260
FURTHER INFORMATION: The Mongolian Embassy, 7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (0171-937 5238) can provide general information to travellers about getting around the country and accommodation.Reuse content