In search of Chinggis Khan

By Julie Skurdenis

By Julie Skurdenis, second of two parts (jump to part 1)

In January’s ITN, Julie explored remnants of Chinggis Khan’s empire.

Naadam Festival

The Naadam is Mongolia’s biggest holiday of the year. Held on July 11, 12 and 13, on the anniversary of the 1921 revolution when the Mongolians ousted the Chinese, Naadam originated in Chinggis Khan’s time when Mongolian warriors competed in three “manly” sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. They still compete, although, today, women and girls participate in both the archery and horse racing contests.

At the opening ceremonies on the first day of Naadam, horsemen enter the National Stadium dressed in Chinggis Khan-era regalia. Wrestling, archery contests and horse racing are scheduled on the first two days. Each of the competitions is somewhat unusual.

I never thought I’d enjoy the wrestling as much as I did until I watched dozens of wrestlers, each dressed in traditional heavy boots, tiny vest and bikini-like pants, competing at the same time on the same field. At the conclusion of each bout, the winner performs a brief eagle dance with arms outspread.

In the archery competition, archers shoot not at an upright target but at one planted in the ground. The horse races are run by riders five to 12 years old, male and female, who race across the steppe either nine or 18 miles depending on the age of the horses. To hear the thunder of hundreds of horses and see the clouds of dust rise miles off is a unique Mongolian experience.

During Naadam, hundreds of gers — circular felt tents that are still the traditional home for many Mongolians — are pitched outside Ulaan Baatar. This is the time when visitors and locals alike wander among them, stopping to sample the fermented mare’s milk called airag offered for sale.

Another uniquely Mongolian experience — both visiting the gers and sampling the airag. As our guide said, “After a few tastes of airag, it’s a good thing none of us has to mount a horse and gallop away.”

Ulaan Baatar

Karakorum/Erdene Zu and the Naadam festival alone make the trip to Mongolia worthwhile. But there’s much more.

Ulaan Baatar is a ramshackle sort of city but, surprisingly, offers quite a lot to keep visitors busy. There’s the Gandan Monastery, one of the most important in the country, with the splendid multitiered Migjid Janraisig temple as its centerpiece. The Winter Palace of Bogd Khan was the home of Mongolia’s last king; its six temples and the white Winter Palace are full of the Khan’s possessions — gifts from foreign dignitaries, scroll paintings, stuffed animals and birds and even a ger lined with skins of snow leopards (not my favorite exhibit). The Monastery of Chojin Lama is peaceful with five temples, now museums, within its grounds.

Ulaan Baatar also has some excellent museums: Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, which includes sculptures by the master himself; the Museum of Natural History with dinosaur skeletons found in the Gobi, and the National Museum of Mongolian History with a superb collection of traditional costumes, jewelry and medieval armor from the time of Chinggis Khan.

As for restaurants, there are a few we returned to again and again during our week in Ulaan Baatar (included in our tour price): the UB Deli for burgers, pizzas and American-style breakfasts; Casablanca for steaks, and Los Bandidos for both Mexican and Indian dishes.

On the road in Mongolia

We also traveled outside Ulaan Baatar for a week — an uncomfortable trip along rutted roads and dirt tracks with practically no rest room facilities en route. But, despite the hardships, it gave us the chance to experience Mongolia’s wide-open spaces, with seemingly endless vistas, where the principal inhabitants are not humans but yaks, horses and 2-humped camels.

Along the way there was the spectacular beauty of towering mountains and deep valleys, the arid splendor of deserts and the broad sweep of steppes.

We stopped often to place a stone on a Mongolian ovoo, a pyramidal collection of rocks honoring the gods, and to walk around them clockwise. Each night, we slept in gers — often quite roomy, with brightly painted furniture and pot-bellied stoves to take the evening chill away, although the bathrooms and showers were communal and often the lighting was candlepower.

I came to Mongolia in search of Chinggis Khan. I found him in the stone turtles of ancient Karakorum and in the remnants of Erdene Zu. I found him at the Naadam festival in the sports that have survived since the 13th century. But, most of all, I found him in the spectacular vastness of the Mongolian countryside that was the center of his empire.

If you go. . .

My husband and I traveled to Mongolia with Bestway Tours & Safaris of Burnaby, B.C., Canada (phone 800/663-0844, e-mail or visit, a company that has been offering trips worldwide for over 25 years. This was my fifth trip with Bestway (others have been to Iran, Libya, Vietnam and Burma).

Bestway arranged a 2-week tour with private guide and driver that included a comprehensive introduction to Ulaan Baatar and a week staying in five different ger camps in central Mongolia. A customized trip for two like ours costs about $6,000, without airfare. This includes accommodations, all meals, transportation, museum admissions and tickets to the Naadam festival. Bestway also offers an 8-day escorted trip to Mongolia for $1,600 each, excluding airfare.

There’s a reason I’ve done five trips thus far with Bestway. They put together first-rate trips even to remote destinations.

We flew Asiana Airlines to Beijing via Seoul and then Air China from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. Asiana, tops in my book for service and cuisine, offers a taste of Asia before getting there. Call 800/227-4262 for information and reservations.

Julie Skurdenis received a partial discount from Bestway Tours & Safaris.