Travel: In the hoofprints of Genghis Khan: Banks of purple iris, steaming mutton, yak's cheese - and vodka that flows with the hospitality. Ian Robinson rides the mountains of deepest Mongolia

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The Independent Travel
I AWOKE in the night to a jolt and the clang of warning bells. The entire train had been shunted into a dimly lit shed. Whirring hydraulic jacks lifted my coach 10 feet off the rails, and industrious Chinese labourers removed the wheels, replacing them with a wider gauge. At a given signal a woman crane driver hoisted our bogies on to another line for our entry into Mongolia. A horn echoed over the steel ring of the wheeltapper; we were recoupled and rolling again. Curt Chinese border guards returned our passports. Meanwhile, in the restaurant car, the menu had been changed from noodles to mutton.

When I next awoke the Gobi sun was burning through the window glass. Moulting camels were wandering the scrubby desert. Nothing else interrupted the barren vista, save a solitary tree, clinging to a dry river bed. The featureless settlements were lonely outposts where a tough life was reflected in the ruddy, weathered faces of the inhabitants. On the windswept stations, local artists offered miniature watercolours depicting camels and gers (tents) under a washed-out sky.

Slowly, my window on the world turned green and undulating, and a crate of cheap whisky found its way into the compartment. Between swigs and songs, my excited travelling companions wrestled with a Mongolian-English phrasebook. 'What is your opinion of Mongolia? How many horses do you own?'

The train slowed as it spiralled down from the verdant mountain slopes towards a sombre-looking city. Sixty years ago, the capital, Ulan Bator, was known as 'felt city', a reference to the felt-covered gers, many of which may still be seen in the northern suburbs. Today, the city of more than half a million souls is an Orwellian concrete and granite sprawl. Its austere industrial face is one of empty railyards, decrepit apartment blocks, smoking cooling towers, motionless cranes, huge grain silos and a giant hoarding proclaiming the virtues of Soviet tractors.

For all this, an air of tranquillity pervaded the centre's wide, tree-lined streets. Surprisingly, in spite of Russian unpopularity, Lenin was still secure on his plinth outside the Ulan Bator Hotel. Nearby, the revolutionary hero Sukhbataar saluted victory from his stallion before the pink opera house. On Peace Avenue, with its unimaginative east European architecture, cows grazed the sparse verges and people with missing limbs begged. Dress varied from traditional Mongolian dels (loose-fitting tunics), to western attire, trilbies and high riding boots - bane of the shoeshine boys.

Orange trolleybuses trundled by. Undernourished horses stood tethered to telegraph poles while their owners wandered the packed floors of the city's only department store, where everything a Mongolian could need, from a camel-hair blanket to a refrigerator, may be found. Tugriks, the local currency, and American dollars accepted. In the bookshop the selection was equally broad: baby's teats, Rambo postcards, Michael Jackson posters, even a few books. For the best prices, however, everyone makes for the now-legitimate black market on the edge of town - a car boot sale without the cars.

Mongolians are glad that life is changing fast since the Communist-backed government fell in 1991. But the move towards a 20th-century Western lifestyle is gradual. To catch a plane here - assuming that the service has not been suspended because of fuel shortage - is traumatic. Anxious passengers crowded the steps of the ageing Antonov 24 turboprop. Even a ticket didn't seem to guarantee a seat. Safety procedures were non-existent, and my seatbelt came away in my hand. Yet, after a tow to the runway, the big engines coughed and we were airborne. As frost formed around my feet, I gazed down on remote clusters of gers that resembled aspirins on a snooker table.

Hovd is one of those towns in the west that civilisation forgot. Life from here on became basic. It seemed electricity and water were never on together. Horses outnumber jeeps, and Russian motorcycles are beginning to outnumber horses - a family of five on one machine is not an uncommon sight. Penetrating dust storms are commonplace, while the toilet is frequently a hole in the yard. Coca-Cola and cashmere sweaters are available at the dollar shop, but, for a country anxious to attract tourists, hotel rooms are spartan.

We swung our jeep off the cracked concrete main street to allow a celebrating crowd to pass, followed by a truck with a huge gold Buddha, glistening in the midday sun and surrounded by elderly, beaming, orange-robed lamas. Freedom of religion is returning to Mongolia, and a new monastery was being dedicated on the edge of town.

I horse-trekked over what seemed like untrodden earth, into the empty green valleys of the Altai Mountains. Traditions of horsemanship date back to the 13th century when Genghis Khan's fearsome cavalry dominated the world's largest empire, from Siberia to Arabia. Now, even horses pay a vehicle tax, collected by clipping the mane, which is used for rope or mattress stuffing.

In the steep Hovd River gorge, a brown torrent foamed between walls of pink granite. Mountain goats picked their way over lofty crags; razor-eyed kites perched in riverside poplars, watching for ground squirrel. To the ring of stirrup on stone I leaned back in the saddle, as I descended between enormous boulders towards a quiet Kazakh village.

An entourage of inquisitive children quickly formed as I spoke through signs and an interpreter. A proud hunter invited me to don a heavy sheepskin glove and to hold his golden eagle. This bird, raised from the nest, had caught more than 100 foxes in the past year. (Hunting with birds of prey has long been a pursuit in Mongolia.)

Many Kazakhs expressed a desire to return to their homeland, which some planned to do, encouraged by such material inducements as TVs, which their government was said to be offering.

I headed on out across the scrubby plain, where I encountered three enormous rock mounds, each surrounded by spoked boulder circles. Closer examination revealed time-ravaged statues and open burial chambers, stirring the desire to seek the lost final resting place of Genghis Khan.

Springy green riverbanks speckled with wild orchids and purple iris made perfect campsites. Our mounts were turned out to graze, and we fished for arctic char and salmon.

Covering up to 15 miles in a day, I rode slowly up dry river beds into rich alpine pasture. The lush valleys, providing summer grazing for the nomadic Mongols, were sprinkled with lichen-crusted outcrops. Often as many as 25 gers would be scattered over one area, curds drying on the roofs and pillars of smoke climbing from their stovepipe chimneys. At dawn and dusk women would milk regimented lines of goats and yaks, assisted by any children who weren't off collecting dung pats for fuel. Older brothers usually gallop out to you with a 'Sayn bayna uu?' ('How are you?')

Mongols never refuse hospitality, since all will be travellers at some time. And inside the wooden-framed gers, life follows a set procedure. The door faces south. Guests sit on the floor around the stove; the host sits at the north wall, where such proud possessions as family pictures, medals, bridles and radio are displayed. Airaq (fermented mare's milk) will be hanging in a goatskin bag, possibly beside the family motorcycle. A snack of yak's cheese, curds, freshly brewed tea followed by vodka, and more vodka, is quickly on offer. It is not done to place one's hat on the floor or to drain one's vodka bowl. Often, a visit will be treated as a special occasion, and a sheep will be slaughtered for a communal hot-rock feast. Mutton joints (and entrails) are steamed in a sealed churn by dropping red hot stones from the fire into a few inches of water. Afterwards, the hot stones are quickly passed from man to man before the participants fall upon the steaming pieces. Long thin pipes stuffed with tobacco normally complete the ritual.

For those who don't own a horse or camel, there is public transport. That usually means a Russian truck or jeep, prone to breakdown and repaired with lengths of wire and faith. In the company of a goat, two men, an oil drum and a refrigerator, I crossed spectacular terrain where the view more than compensated for our discomfort.

Road signs are as rare in the far west as functioning wells, and the landmarks are more likely to be a bleached camel skeleton, ancient standing stones or a shaman's cairn. Roads are often little more than a dusty, rutted rumour, following a lonely string of telegraph poles to infinity. Timeworn tracks pattern the hills, disappearing over passes linking unpeopled valleys and more breathtaking vistas. Some were green and lush, trapping our wheels in black mud; others were semi-arid; a few were still under two or three feet of ice. Scree slopes climbed to a distant sunlit cornice; beyond lay the towering white summits of Taban Bogd, lair of the elusive snow leopard, then Russia and China. After each tortuous ascent, the driver would park the truck into the wind to cool it down.

Our truck rolled to a standstill by a southbound gasoline truck returning with Russian fuel. Tied to the top were baggage and a live sheep. As the drivers exchanged snuff, a whole family spilled from the congested cab, soon to be sharing their yogurt with us.

Then there are laden camel trains - desert convoys. An entire ger and its contents are packed aboard these capable beasts as families migrate in search of better pasture. With their ungainly strides and condescending airs, the camels stare down their tethered noses, confident that no man-made vehicle can touch them.

Cautiously descending a first-gear incline close to dusk, my driver suddenly wrenched the brake and leapt from the cab, grabbing a rifle and fluffy yak's tail on a stick. Waving it hypnotically, he disappeared over the brow in a stooped run, hoping to mesmerise an alert marmot long enough to get within shooting range. Thousands are caught in this way for their meat and fur. He returned smiling, but empty-handed.

On 11 July, everything grinds to a halt for Naadam, a national holiday of feasting and sport, celebrating the People's Revolution of 1921.

After the military and civic parades, the events begin in earnest. Wrestling is to the Mongolians what rugby is to the Welsh. The opponents are formidable in their curly-toed boots, silk trunks, waistcoats and old army hats. Combat is preceded by a strutting eagle dance, with much arm-waving and thigh-slapping.

Elsewhere in the crowded stadium, men and women in colourful silk dels shoot arrows at a wall of surs (fist-sized felt balls) 60 to 70 metres away. Concentration is intense as the taut rawhide bowstring creases each competitor's reddened cheek. I made no effort to understand the complex scoring but 'Uukhai]' clearly signified 'Bullseye]'

The final day of Naadam is dedicated to horse racing. The course distance has not changed since the 13th century - a 30-kilometre gallop across the smooth steppe. The competitors are small boys and girls in colourful outfits who learnt to ride almost before they could walk. Thin dust trails followed their approach across the vast plain. By the finish the earnest child riders were well spread out, screaming in exaltation. Later, a solemn air pervaded the stadium as winning horses were anointed with fermented mare's milk.

I returned to the capital by truck, a five-day odyssey across the Hangay Mountains. Going east, the picture changes. There is irrigation and organised farming, four-spoked ox carts and bright white gers with neat wooden corrals nestling beneath forested slopes. The surroundings are alpine, the hills gentler; strips have been ploughed for barley and oats. Steppe eagles scoured the cultivated terrain; demoiselle cranes strutted by silver-blue lakes. The towns had paved, lit streets and tidy wood and brick houses.

We stopped briefly at Karakorum, Mongolia's most famous city, where medieval trade routes converged. Only a big stone turtle remains of Kublai Khan's original capital. On the outskirts, the monastery at Erdenzu once housed 10,000 lamas with no fewer than 60 temples. The handful that remain, after desecration by the Communists, contain rich examples of Mongolian Buddhism and folk art. Since 1990 the monastery has reopened; lamas have returned to their chants in the tiny chapel.

And always that solitary Mongolian rider is there on the lonely landscape, singing and standing in the saddle as he gallops across the velvet steppe behind his thundering horses.

Getting There: Air China to Peking followed by 32-hour Trans-Siberian Railway journey to Ulan Bator. China Travel Service & Information Centre, 78 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1V 7DG. 071-388 8838. Extensive, all-in trekking tours offered by Exodus Expeditions, 081-675 7996; also, Steppes East 0285 810267.

Health: Typhoid and polio shots recommended. Take thorough precautions with water, such as purification tablets.

General: Visas necessary. Although safe, the country is currently not very stable; this should be borne in mind when travelling. Be prepared for last- minute cancellations, poor transport, profiteers and theft.

(Photographs and map omitted)