Mongolia: First steppes for kids' holidays

Your biggest worry will be whether the children will fall in a cowpat. Lijia MacLeod on why the land of Genghis Kahn is a surprisingly good place take your small hordes
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The Independent Travel

It was the geography that clinched it. We had been discussing whether to take a family holiday in Mongolia. It is hard to lose sight of toddlers on grassland which stretches as far as the horizon. There would be no worries about them falling into the hotel swimming pool, or drifting off to sea, or wandering into the traffic. There aren't really many cars in the land of Genghis Khan. Come to that, there aren't many roads. A carpet of cowpats is the only major hazard on the steppes, and the odd rabid dog.

There are also the people. Generous and hospitable hosts, they are survivors in a vast wilderness where animals outnumber people by 10 to 1. Those roaming herds would be a definite attraction, we thought, for two animal-loving daughters, May May, aged three, and Kirsty, aged one. So when my husband Calum went to Mongolia last July to cover elections for The Independent, May May, Kirsty and I went, too. We hoped our girls would fall in love with the country as we had, but friends in China were shocked. "How can you take children to such a poor and backward place?" they shrieked. "What if they get sick?" One even told me a horror story about the Mongolian doctor whose cure for a broken leg was, apparently, blood-letting. But we reckoned our girls were pretty robust, so we set off.

Mongolia is less than two hours' flying time from our home in Beijing, yet it resembles another world. Instead of crowded city streets where skyscrapers and industrial pollution block out the sun, Mongolia greets visitors with the freshest of air and wide-open vistas under a big blue sky. That is, until your taxi from Ulan Bator airport reaches the city itself.

Don't be put off by this Soviet blot on the landscape. Nomadic traditions are literally just around the corner and all you have to do is follow the goats trotting across the Stalinist city square back to their owner's ger (don't use the Russian "yurt"), in the tent-strewn suburbs. Newish hotels such as the Genghis Khan tend to be soulless and overpriced, so we found a "home-stay" with a Mongolian family. These $10 (£7.40) b&bs include use of a kitchen, but we chose a mutton-heavy barbecue at a restaurant called, you guessed it, Genghis Khan, before the former Communist Party held its pre-election concert.

Just over a decade ago, the Communists had no need for elections. In today's young democracy, however, they must buy votes by appealing to every age group. On stage, homeboys rapped in Mongolian, shaking their baggy trousers and baseball caps. "We want The Lipsticks!" May May chanted along with the crowd as they waited for the star turn, the Spice Girls of the steppes.

Our Mongolian landlady proved a godsend after May May vomited throughout our second night. It was election day and many hospitals were shut, but we finally found a Russian clinic. The paediatrician cut an imposing stereotype, her bottle-blonde beehive almost diverting attention from her enormous bust. "I would criticise you if you were Russian," she told me severely. "It's risky to eat local food. This child is seriously ill and must be hospitalised immediately."

My heart sank until my new friend the landlady, the voice of experience, whispered: "Don't worry, the Russians always exaggerate things." Luckily, the wards at the clinic were full, forcing us to go to another hospital where the Mongolian receptionist claimed she was also a doctor, and dismissed us impatiently with some local medicine. By lunchtime, May May recovered to enjoy the dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum, while Calum interviewed the future prime minister.

Eight years ago, Calum and I had hired a battered old Lada in Ulan Bator to navigate the pot-holed track to Karakorum, former capital of the all-conquering Mongol empire. Stuck one night in an early winter storm, we feared we would die of hypothermia in our Soviet-made freezer, until the sound of distant barking pierced the snowfall.

Following the sound, we reached the salvation of a nomad's tent, where a mother nursed two children, spotted with burns from the stove. Just after midnight, her husband returned, blind drunk. He collapsed on the stove and extinguished the fire, leaving us to shake with cold till dawn when we offered him kill or cure: our last bottle of vodka. Duly refreshed, he rustled up a combine harvester to haul our Lada back into action.

Despite this experience, we were keen to explore with the children and our landlady managed to find us a four-wheel drive and a driver to escape from the city. As we drove towards rolling grasslands, just turning green, our spirits were lifted as high as the blue sky. The children never tired of spotting the other traffic: "Look, sheep! Goats! Horses! Cows! Yaks! Poo-poo!"

Terelj, some 50 miles (80km) north-west of Ulan Bator, is a deservedly popular destination. Hundreds of animals roam the green valleys between low hills thick with forest. Our girls went wild, running and falling on the grass, pointing and shouting. I had never seen them so excited. Their favourites were the baby goats. They picked up a grey-coloured kid, squabbling over who should stroke its soft fur first.

Our hostess Oyuna, a kind-faced woman in her 50s, greeted us with a bowl of fermented mare's milk. Tourism had been good for Oyuna. Her ger was spacious, with a wooden floor and painted furniture. Two large fridges stood like sentinels either side of the door. Her grandchildren awed May May with their riding prowess, charging upright in their saddles like the dreaded Golden Horde. May May listened enviously as she heard how some nomad children learn to ride before they can walk. Such a skill would certainly have kept her sister Kirsty, still an unsteady walker, from tripping headfirst into so much manure.

Yet a nagging suspicion about Oyuna's place was confirmed when 20 Japanese tourists disturbed our afternoon nap. They thought Calum had "gone native" by marrying a Mongolian (I am Chinese) and he was reluctant to disabuse them of the notion. However, we quickly relocated to Gachuurt, just 15 miles (25km) from Ulan Bator, but still in the heart of the steppe. There is nothing touristy about Gachuurt. In a ger pitched on the open grass, Kirsty and I slept on the only bed, an iron door on bricks, while Calum and May May slept on a plank of wood on the ground. Having forgotten our sleeping bags, we clutched grimy sheepskins to keep warm, as we stared through the smokehole at another magically starry night.

The next day May May took her first ride on a horse. I was impressed with her lack of fear even when the horse galloped quickly. The elder son of our hostess rode with her, while I rode alongside. Sitting on the hard wooden saddles (no wonder the boys were standing), May May and I rode for an afternoon across the grassland. Many days later my body was still complaining, but we loved every minute of it.

Kirsty was more impressed with the pair of camels we discovered on one walk. They sat with swaying jaws, chewing the cud and ignoring our presence. For the next few days, the girls chewed like camels at every meal. Thankfully, I had bought vegetables and noodles in Ulan Bator to relieve the monotonous nomad diet of mutton, entrails and fried dough.

"Be prepared, your lives will be changed forever," friends with children had warned me when I became pregnant. The arrival of May May and Kirsty has changed our lives in many ways, but having children has never stopped us travelling. We simply take them wherever we go. I have always loved travelling but I was already 26 by the time I boarded my first flight, the long-haul from China to London, to marry the Briton I had met in Beijing's Forbidden City. By comparison, our two little girls are already seasoned travellers. Besides Mongolia, China and several European countries, they have visited Thailand, Laos, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and South Korea. South-east Asia tops the list for many reasons, but principally because people there would never conceive of, let alone hang up, the sign "well-behaved dogs and children welcome" that greeted us outside a Devon country pub. We took our custom elsewhere.

From Burma to Bali, the welcome given to young children is genuine and accommodating. Restaurants may lack high chairs and other western fixtures, but you hardly need them, as waitresses compete to whisk your children away, leaving you to enjoy your meal. Thailand's beaches, elephant rides, food and smiles make it a sure-fire winner for people who want to try long-haul family holidays.

I started taking May May on reporting trips around China when she was two months old, carrying her in a sling. She proved an effective icebreaker when interviewees were nervous, and was certainly no obstacle to more adventurous excursions. Down in Guangxi, in south-west China, I fancied a three-hour trek to a hilltop carved with paddy fields. May May was six months old and 29lb (13kg) in her backpack-cum-stroller. I looked at her little face and wondered whether this trip was, in fact, feasible. Then three Yi minority ladies hawking jewellery came up with a solution. All of us would make the trek, with the trio taking turns to hold May May for 10 yuan (75p) each. I still smile at the clash of styles in the photo: one fat baby with bald head, and her beaming entourage, whose custom is to bolster their hairdos with large wigs made from their own hair.

I hesitate to predict how our wanderings will affect my daughters, or how much they will remember. For now, they are literally broadening their horizons, and learning that their way of life is not the only "normal" way. When we got home to grey Beijing after green Mongolia, May May rushed to her room to set up an Ikea play tent in which she had previously shown little interest. "This is my ger," she told her friends. "Isn't it cool?"

Getting there

Steppes East (01285 651010; www.steppeseast.co.uk) offers a 15-day group tour of Mongolia from 9-23 August from £2,180 per person, including return flights to Ulan Bator, all domestic flights, all transport, full-board accommodation, six-day trek and the services of a guide. The next trips run from June to August 2002.

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