Travels to Mongolia

"Encounters in one of the last frontiers"

A land forgotten for a time and hidden from the rest of the world for over 70 years by the Soviet Union, Mongolia is one of the last untouched frontiers of the world today. It is a place of unimaginable natural beauty and home to a culture of people who are seeking their own identity again as they mix history and tradition with modernization and globalization. Mongolia is politically independent now of its neighbors yet its future is linked with that of China and others.

The International Forum travels to Mongolia, beginning first in Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. Its buildings are a reminder of the years of Soviet influence but today it is also a bustling center of a market economy that is developing at a rapid pace and a civil society with roots in a democratic legacy passed down from the time of Ghengis Khan. Participants meet with people involved in this economic and social transformation and seek to understand both their challenges and successes.

Following this, the program moves to the South Gobi where we travel in the footsteps of the nomadic herders.  Mongolia is one of the last horse-based nomadic cultures left in the world today.  Through encounters with nomadic families, village leaders, school children and entrepreneurs we gain a rare glimpse of a culture which dates back to the 12th century and search for answers as to how it will survive the influence of globalization and progress.

Mongolia is undergoing a transformation as dramatic as its neighbors: China and Russia, yet it is unique.  Its democratically elected government is steering it towards a capitalist market economy but it has not been easy.  After the initial shock of the soviet withdrawal and the loss of aid and economic support, Mongolia was plunged into economic depression, high unemployment and inflation, foreign debt, poverty and resentment.  Yet today it is transforming itself and there is a renewed national spirit and sense of empowerment.

“Nomads are closer to the created world of God” wrote the Arab historian and philosopher Ibn Kkaldun, “and removed from the blameworthy customs that have infected the hearts of settlers”.  He believed that they alone escape the cycles of decadence that infected all civilization.  Only regular blasts of their cleansing winds allowed civilization to sustain its own virtues.

- from In The Empire of Ghengis Khan by Stanley Stewart

Mongolia's relationship with its neighbors reaches back thousands of years.  At the time of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907AD) Mongolia was ruled by the Uighurs, of Turkic origin, who came to the aid of the Tang Dynasty during some of its most violent years.  The Uighurs led Mongolia until they were taken over by the Kyrgycs in 840.  Mongolia remained a loose confederation of nomadic clans until Ghengis Khan the "universal king" united most of the Mongolian tribes and created the world's largest empire from Korea to Hungary.  His grandson, Kublai Khan, was to finish his work by invading China at the time of the Southern Song Dynasty (with its capital in Hangzhou) and became the emperor of the Yuan Dynasty in China (1271-1368).   The legacy of the Mongol empire was limited, while no great cities, art, architecture or culture remains to the extent of other empires, the Pax Mongolica which lasted a hundred years opened up safe trade routes and markets across the world. Europe was connected to Asia for the first time. The Mongols provoked change and disruption in the societies they encountered and the seeds of globalization were sewn.

bullet Why did this nomadic culture leave the steppe and go out into the world to conquer it? 
bullet What caused them to go home and stay for the next 800 years?

The twentieth century saw Mongolia in the middle of a power struggle between Russia and China, with Mongolia regaining independence and autonomy in the early 1990's. 

bullet What is the nature of Mongolia's relationship with its neighbors now? 
bullet In what ways does an experience in Mongolia provide a lens through which to understand what is happening in China today?
bullet How does Mongolia recognize the benefits of globalization and modernity while maintaining its own traditions, culture and effective indigenous ways of solving challenges and creating opportunity?


Travels to Mongolia engages participants in encounters such as:

bullet meeting and speaking with people involved in leading change in Mongolia through education, business and healthcare
bullet visiting with local school children, village leaders, families and entrepreneurs to understand the challenges they face, what they are learning and their outlook for the future
bullet engaging local and foreign scientists in discussions about their studies, discoveries and what the implications will be for the world of science and the world environment
bullet meeting with individuals and NGO's who have been a part of Mongolia's transformation
bullet exploring the traditions of Mongolia - the Buddhist monasteries, the palace of the Bodh Khan, riding on horseback and camel with the nomadic herders, learning about Mongolia’s musical traditions


Proposed Itinerary

Saturday, April 23: Meet and depart from Beijing

Day 1: Ulaan Baatar
The contrast between ancient traditions and the dawning of a 21st century democracy is most visible in Ulaan Baatar where traditional gers and Buddhist monasteries coexist with modern high-rises. Upon arrival at the airport, we will be met by our local guides and transferred to the Ulaan Baatar Hotel, a comfortable, centrally located hotel within walking distance of various museums and shops. Meet with an organization integrally involved in the development of Mongolia's civil society and growing industries.

Day 2: Gobi/ Flaming Cliffs
In the morning, fly over vast steppe land to the South Gobi, Mongolia's southernmost province of semi-arid desert. Contrary to the sterile sameness that the word "desert" suggests, the Gobi holds many fascinations.

Upon arrival, drive to Three Camel Lodge next to the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, where our ger camp is located. The park contains mountains (2,815 m), dinosaur fossils, extraordinary sand dunes, rock formations and Yoliin Am (vulture valley) which has ice for most of the year. The park is home to over 200 species of birds, including the Mongolian Desert Finch, Cinerous Vulture, Desert Warbler and Houbara Bustard. The sparse vegetation manages to support black-tailed gazelle, ibex, argali sheep, Bactrian camels, Argali mountain sheep, golden eagles, Saker falcons, jerboas and most elusive mammals such as the dhole, snow leopard and Gobi Bear.

Travel to the legendary Flaming Cliffs, named for its glowing orange rock. It was here, in 1922, that Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews and his team from the American Museum of Natural History found the first nest of dinosaur eggs the world had ever seen. Meet and speak with a Mongolian paleontologist and learn about recent developments in Mongolia and what this means for the world of science today.

Overnight in gers, the traditional felt tents of nomadic herders. Made of a latticed wood structure covered with layers of felt and canvas, each ger is heated by a wood stove and furnished with beautifully painted wood-framed beds. The camp ie equipped with a restaurant and western-style toilet and shower facilities. Gers provide an authentic and memorable taste of Mongolian culture and allow you to visit areas which otherwise lack traveler accommodations.

Day 3: Bulga sum
Drive to Bulgan sum (town of Bulgan), a local settlement established near a natural spring.  Meet the governor of the sum (county center), the Bulgan sum is one of the major counties of South Gobi province and learn of the challenges now facing the nomadic people of the Gobi.  Visit the local elementary school with a dormitory for nomadic children as we learn more about the people that inhabit this area.

Day 4:  Boginy Hyar Mountian
Spend this morning visiting a nomad family to witness the daily life of Gobi nomads.  Camel riding is an option.  In the afternoon, join the environmental study group of students on a hike in the Altai Mountains bordering the Gobi. 

Day 5:  Dalanzadgad (capital of South Gobi province)
Spend the day meeting with foreign investors and those responsible for turning around one of Mongolia's struggling financial institutions.  What is the outlook for the Mongolian economy and the companies operating in it?  What role have foreign investors played in this?

Day 6: Ulaan Bataar
After breakfast transfer to local airport for flight to Ulaan Baatar. Afternoon in the countryside to visit the summer palace of the Bodh Khan (Mongolian version of Dalai Lama) and optional horseback riding. Participants learn from hoomi throat singers.

Day 7: Ulaan Baatar to Beijing
Participants return to Beijing where they may do their own sightseeing, shopping and make connections to international flights.