Astrologically, it was a good day for chanting, and inside the monks were hard at it in an atmosphere thick with incense and the rancid smell of butter lamps. Ancient Tibetan manuscripts were propped up like the Sunday papers among plates of bread and mugs of tea. They were saying prayers for the dead, chanting like auctioneers bidding for lost souls. Each success was announced by a cacophony of drums, conch shells, and cymbals. Outside, the abbot was stepping into a stretch Cadillac, the gift of a local businessman eager to smooth his path to paradise. Behind its darkened windows the ancient ascetic looked like a shrunken head.
I had come to Mongolia with a company called Discovery Expedit-ions, to join an environmental project under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme biodiversity team. Our particular mission was to help the Mongolian government establish a national park around Lake Hovsgol, in the north of the country - but our first stopover was in Ulan Bator, the capital. As always, there was a hidden agenda. Mine was to wear tall boots, ride a horse and talk out of the side of my mouth. A world of horsemen and big skies, Mongolia is for those who mourn the fact that they never rode with Billy the Kid or Doc Halliday.
Mongolians were born in the saddle, their lives defined by journeys. The Chinese called Mongolia "a moving country", peopled by nomads of no fixed address. Tethered to their rice paddies and their filial duties, they thought Mongolians were the neighbours from Hell, who cared nothing for towns or fields or the Son of Heaven. Marco Polo said they drank blood. Horrified, the Chinese built the Great Wall to keep them out. Inevitably, the wall was a failure and in the 13th century Genghiz Khan was only narrowly dissuaded from massacring the Chinese, all 45 million of them, to make grazing land for his horses. Five thousand miles to the west, the Mongol hordes were marching across the frozen Danube towards Vienna. They had created the largest empire the world had ever seen. But nomads never stay. The Mongol hordes came and went like the wind, and no one has heard much from them since.
Reassured by this, I set off to live my Wild East fantasy. I was booked to fly from Ulan Bator to Moron, (honestly, that's the name). At Ulan Bator airport, sheep were grazing round the terminal building. Our departure was delayed when the captain couldn't get into the cockpit. Someone had locked the door. A rather sinister-looking passenger produced a dagger the size of a cutlass and tried to jemmy it open for him. Another got out a pistol, but he was drunk and the stewardess, a formidable figure, managed to wrestle him back into his seat. Eventually the captain gained the controls by climbing ignominiously through the hold.
From the air you have a sense of Mongolia's emptiness. The size of western Europe, it has a population of about two million people. Most still live in gers, the round felt tents of these regions, scattered like mushrooms across the undulating steppe.
In Moron, too, the air smelt of mutton fat and dung fires. The usual fixtures of Mongolian towns stood disconsolately around a grid of empty streets: a bank that doubled as a bi-cycle repair shop, a shuttered theatre with Doric columns, two shops that sold Snickers bars and bridles and a municipal park where cows were eating the marigolds. Mongolians are not very good at towns. Habitation that is immovable goes against their better instincts, and most Morons lived in gers pitched in suburbs of standpipes and cannibalised trucks.
I dropped in on the monastery. Apparently its abbot was the former head of the local Communist Party. Sadly, he wasn't receiving visitors. He stuck his head above the wall and barked at me. He didn't seem to have got the hang of Buddhism at all.
A paved road reached the edge of the town then gave up. Rough tracks spanned out across carpets of blue and yellow wildflowers. Heading north, we rose over a low pass where yaks in glamorous coats were grazing among the bleached bones of their relations. A herd of horses wheeled away towards hills with rocky foreheads and smooth grassy flanks.
We stopped for lunch at a circle of gers pitched in water meadows by a silver river. Horses were parked along a clothes' line and flocks of sheep drifted on the higher slopes. A huge wolf-hound with a collar of spikes bounded towards us with teeth bared. Happily, a five-year-old in a pretty bow managed to intercept it before it reached my throat.
Hospitality is both an obligation and an honour in nomad societies, and a useful tradition in a land without service stations, There is nothing unusual about pitching up for a meal and a bed at the tent of a stranger. The freedom of the ger is offered without question. A man emerged now to welcome us. He was a little fellow with an anxious face. He wore a Mongolian del, a sort of padded dressing gown with a silk sash, and a trilby. Mongolians have a weakness for trilbies. Beneath his, our host looked like Tony Hancock.
Inside the ger, grass was pushing up through a wooden floor while painted trunks, the furniture of nomads, were piled round the walls. A churn stood by the door, and a tin stove percolated in the middle of the floor. A jumble of new lambs bleated on a pile of sheepskins. From the rafters hung a goatskin full of cream, a sheep's stomach full of butter, a pair of copper stirrups, and a calendar of the Lake District.
By way of introduction, our host handed round the family portraits. His parents, in blurred black and white, were an alarming couple. His mother, a fearful creature with a broken nose, looked like a heavyweight boxer. His father had the worried expression of a man married to a heavyweight boxer. Our host stroked the photographs sadly.
Drinks were served, a sort of high-grade rocket fuel warm from the still on top of the stove. They came in little china bowls, accompanied by small banknotes, tokens of welcome. Next came the snuff ritual. Mon-golian men on meeting one another exchange snuff bottles to sample each other's brand. It serves as a kind of male bonding. When I commented upon our host's bottle, his face crumpled and he began to sob.
Tears are not generally part of the emotional repertory of the Mongol- ian male, but once they get going it is dramatic. Not for the Mongol horseman a dainty sniffle and a dab at the eyes. Our host howled. Tears spurted on to the stove. Outside, the killer dog whined, and the horses reared. Inside, his wife began to cry, shaking like an epileptic.
We stared at the floor, feeling frightfully British. Between an-guished sobs our host explained that the bottle had belonged to his father, who had died only a few months before. He clung to my arm and wailed. We offered our condolences, and after a respectable lull made our excuses. I was sad about his Dad but I had an expedition to catch. Hanging on to the Hound of Moron, he waved us off tearfully.
The landscape became broken and wooded. We crossed rivers of dry boulders and climbed through spacious forests of Siberian larches. Eventually we emerged on the shore of Lake Hovsgol. In the late sun the water was the colour of pewter. Baroque clouds bumped the mountains on the far shore.
We arrived at the camp at day's end. Two big gers and sprinkling of fly tents were pitched in a meadow above the lake. A campfire was smoking in the last light, and tethered horses were grazing on the lake shore. An expedition flag fluttered in the evening breeze.
Discovery Expeditions pursue the notion that tourism, which will soon surpass oil as the world's largest industry, should in the more remote parts of the world be allied to development. The idea is that paying volunteers get the chance to traipse through the wild, meet indigenous peoples and forget about the mortgage while being involved in expeditionary projects that are of some material benefit to the countries they visit. Discovery are pioneers in the the art of contributory travel.
The professional staff on the expedition work closely with their Mon- golian counterparts, in particular Tomasuk, a park biologist whose knowledge and dedication to Hovs-gol was the stuff of legend. Like all the best conservationists he had originally been a hunter. As a boy he ridden with his father, whose job was to provide the state collectives with deer antlers, skins and meat. Tomasuk spent 200 days a year in the park and when we were all at home he would still be out making his rounds in the snowdrifts of the Mongolian winter.
Round the camp fire we had the first of our briefings from the expedition leader, Julian Matthews. Despite his weakness for a coat that would have cut a dash in Dodge City in the 1860s, he was level-headed fellow.
Our only concern, he was explaining, was bears. The key thing on meeting a bear was to stand your ground. If you turn your back you are prey. Bears are sprinters. They can out-run you, your horse and prob-ably Linford Christie as well. You must face them, and grunt aggressively. If bullying fails to deter, you move quickly to self-debasement, curling up in the foetal position and whimpering piteously. I silently resolved to go straight to the foetal position. Eyeballing bears, I felt, was strictly for other bears.
We divided ourselves into groups for a variety of horseback expeditions from the base camp into the remoter regions of the park. I decided against the bear expedition and opted instead for the search for ibex. Its shy retiring demeanour was more what I looked for in a wild animal.
I was with a group of four led by Martin, a geographer, who for all his youth was a reassuringly 19th-century figure, with spectacles, notebook and shoulder-bag full of strange instruments. The others included a British vet who struck a curiously Biblical note with his felt cloak, Bedouin headdress, and shepherd's crook; Tomasuk, the most irrepressible of companions with a smile that seemed to light up whole landscapes; and finally Bolt, a founder member of the Mongolian SDP. Bolt was a fine fellow in the David Owen mould, all radical eyebrows and watery opinions. He came, as intrepreter, armed with a book of proverbs.
The night before our departure, the expedition went for a knees-up at Purevdorj's tourist camp an hour down the lake shore. There may not have been many tourists, but in these remote regions Purevdorj's had a pretty racy reputation. The barman was said to paint his toenails pink. We rolled up like cattlehands on a Friday night.
The evening's musical entertainment was provided by the camp staff: the cook, the carpenter, the chamber-maid and her lover. The quartet consisted of an oriental lute, a dulcimer and two stringed instruments, variants of the Chinese er-lu, played like cellos. The music was a delight, though there was a love song about a horse that rather went on a bit. From time to time the barman appeared from behind a curtain in eyeliner and pale lipstick to perform spirited dance numbers that involved a great deal of shoulder-shimmying.
The highlight was the famous Mongolian hoomi, throat-singing performed by the carpenter. With a mysterious technique involving muscular control of the abdomen, chest and throat, the singer is able to produce several voices simultaneously. The soaring chords are meant to imitate the wind across the open steppe. It was spine-chilling.
The latter part of the evening was devoted to audience participation. Everyone was obliged to do a turn. Under the accomplished baton of the zoologist, the members of the expedition performed a four-part rendition of highlights from Fiddler on the Roof; we had been rehearsing much of the afternoon. For us, its chief appeal was that none of the audience had heard the original.
Bolt, the Social Democrat, sang a dirge about missing his mother. The vet, his headdress askew, performed a series of mournful ditties on his mouth organ. Later we danced the waltz. On the way home, we saw two grey wolves in the moonlight, sliding through the trees like ghosts.
We were up at dawn the next morning, packing our gear and saddling the horses. We followed the shore northwards. The lake was swathed in mist. In a meadow of harebells and willowherb we startled a pair of herons who flew towards the shore on elegant wings, their long legs trailing the grass. In the woods Siberian chipmunks were scampering between rust-coloured trunks. Above us the old grey heads of the mountains lay buried in pillows of cloud.
We were heading for the high ridges of Oroundich, at 9,160 feet the loftiest of Hovsgol's mountains. We tethered the horses in a wood and climbed the steep, bouldery slopes. The air tasted of stones. Beneath us the lake stretched its legs. On a long saddle between two rocky promon-tories, we began our work.
The basis of our survey was shit, or scat as I was learning to call it. We had been given a fascinating lecture about identifying animal shit. Bear droppings can be recognised by remnants of insects and an orange colour due to their endearing fondness for rhubarb. The moose produces cigar-shaped faeces, while the musk deer's are like chocolate-covered raisins. The wolf is blessed with scat the consistency of old rope, matted with the hair of his victims, while the ibex offers droppings like peanuts.
Armed with this knowledge we marched across the shoulders of the great Oroundich, faithfully recording the type, age and navigational position of every dunghill in sight. Later all this data would be fed into a computer at University College London and out would spew the relative abundance and distribution of various species in Hovsgol National Park. Of such unromantic pursuits are great expeditions made.
Our researches complete we climbed to the summit for afternoon tea. The winds blew as if nothing had stood in their way since the Bering Straits. Curled in the lee of boulders, we munched on Snickers bars and raisins. All Hovsgol, and much of Mongolia, lay at our feet. The long blue fingers of the lake nuzzled between the flanks of the mountains.
Bent into the wind, we walked across the summit to gaze down through the parting clouds into the valleys on the other side. From these heights it was an ethereal world of grass, the pastures of paradise. Cloud shadows as big as counties sailed northwards towards Tsagaan Uur, where the people rode reindeer instead of horses.
That night, round the campfire on the lake shore, Tomasuk roasted a sheep's sternum while Bolt, the Social Democrat, read aloud from his Book of Proverbs. Its pearls of wisdom had the surreal quality one had come to associate with SDP policy documents.
"When there is no dog, pig is dog," Bolt read.
I left the others to muse on this profundity, and walked down to the lake shore. The heavens were crowded with constellations, their reflections shimmering in the lake. A wolf howled, an owl hooted, and the horses, grazing among the bracken, farted happily. No doubt they were making their own contribution to the scat count. !
GETTING THERE: Stanley Stewart travelled with Discovery Expeditions (01747 855050), who are looking for paying volunteers for their conservation project around Lake Hovsgol this summer. Costs are from pounds 1,425 excluding air fare for 10 days. Discovery are also involved in expeditions to Guyana, Nepal and Ethiopia.
Comet Travel (0171 580 5000) has flights with Aeroflot from London to Ulan Bator, via Moscow, from pounds 450 return. STA (0171 361 6262) offers flights via Peking with Alitalia for pounds 573 return; from Peking to Ulan Bator with Air China costs around pounds 200. The Trans-Siberian Railway between Mos-cow and Peking stops in Ulan Bator. One-way tickets, costing pounds 360, are available from Imaginative Traveller (0181 742 3113). The full journey must be taken; stopovers are allowed but must be booked in advance.
FURTHER INFORMATION: The Mongolian Embassy (0171 937 5238), 7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL.
FURTHER READING: The Changing World of Mongolia's Nomads, Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall (Odyssey, pounds 14.95); The Lost Country, Jasper Becker (Sceptre, pounds 6.99).Reuse content