When American naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews proposed his 1923 exedition to search for dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert of Outer Mongolia, insurance companies refused him coverage. His vehicles, they feared, would be eaten up in a few days by the rugged, roadless terrain -- if the expedition even reached the Gobi, Andrews went anyway.
Dispite the wilderness and attacks by bandits, Andrews found his dinosaur fossils. He also made a more dramatic discovery: the first dinosaur eggs known to modern man.
I recently returned, more than 50 years later, from my own "adventure" in Outer Mongolia. While my experience -- fortunately -- did not involve bandit attacks, it did entail a journey of more than 10,000 miles by air, sea and rail to lands that still stir the imagination in an age of near universal travel.
After jetting from Washington to Seattle to Tokyo, my adventure really began in Yokohama, where I embarked on the Soviet Motorship M/S Bailkal for the trip across the Sea of Japan to the port of Nakhodka, near Vladivostok, in the Soviet Far East.
Aboard for 2 1/2 days, I had ample opportunity to make acquaintance with Russian food (wholesome "homestyle" cooking); language (ship's personnel were generously patient when I attempted to match their more-than-adequate English with a Russian phrase or two of my own), and customs (meeting a Russian always involved an exchange of a lapel button or other small trinket).
An overnight boat train journey from Nakhodka brought me to Khabarovsk, where I boarded Train No. 1, better known as the Trans -- Siberian Express. It took three days to get to Irkutsk, near the western shore of Lake Baikal. Three days of cities, towns, villages, mountains, forests, rivers winding aimlessly to the horizon, and tea -- endless cups of tea, made from a coalburning samovar that the dyezhurnaya , the woman who attended the passengers in our coach, devotedly kept full and hot, day and night, throughout our journey.
Then came the last step toward my destination, an 80-minute Mongolian Airlines prop flight to Ulan Bator, the something-old-something-new capital of Outer Mongola. It was a thrilling sight as the city, gleaning in the bright sunlight, appeared within its remote, mountain-ringed setting.
I had come to Outer Mongolia through the Smithsonian Institution's Associates Travel Program, which annually provides a wide range of travel opportunities.
Outer Mongolia is the unofficial name given the Mongolian People's Republic to distinguish it from Inner Mongolia in the People's Republic of China. China and the Soviet Union wholly enclose this landlocked country.
Founded in 1924 as the world's second Communist nation, the Mongolian
People's Republic has been regularly receiving tourists from Socialist countries only since 1958 (about 4,000 visitors are expected this year). Tours from the West are a more recent sight on the streets of Ulan Bator, with about 2,000 visitors (among them some 400 Americans) scheduled this year.
While hard currency is welcome in this developing nation, which is more than twice the size of Texas with a population of only 1.5 million, tourism is not being pushed. Lodging and restaurant facilities are limited, and there are not enough trained personnel, including foreign -- language guides, to handle an unrestricted influx of visitors no matter where they come from.
Another consideration: the United States has no diplomatic relations with the Mongolian People's Republic which issues visas for Americans through its Consular Division in London. The last visas for the 47 participants in our Smithsonian tour arrived only six days prior to our scheduled flight to the Orient.
Paving the way for visitors to Mongolia and handling problems that might arise are the reponsibility of the Zhuulchin National Tourist Agency, Mongolia's counterpart to the U.S.S.R.'s "intourist." Though getting to Mongolia is easier since Zhuulchin initiated tour programs on a year-around basis in 1978, arranging a vacation in this distant land still requires working through an established travel agency.
Ulan Bator, literally "red hero" is a city of contrasts, expressing lifestyles as old as the nomadic days of centuries past, and as current as highrise apartments and jeans. Perhaps half the capital's 350,000 inhabitants occupy the modern, pastel-hued, apartment buildings that line the wide streets and spacious squares. The rest of the population, predominantly older residents, prefer the traditional Yurt or Ger . This is a convas-covered, igloo-shaped tent-home, which harks back to the nomadic lives of early Mongolians, who could easily assemble or dismantle their dwelling in an hour's time.
Similarly, Western dress is common, with jeans and T-shirts evident among the young. Many of the older generation still prefere the traditional del -- heavily brocaded robes of dark green, blue, or maroon satin, brightened by a sash, worn by both men and women. Gutals ; heavy leather boots, intricately designed, complete the national dress.
Modernity clearly marks the capital city, and the government, through roadside posters and the set phrases of tour guides, leaves no question that progress toward a better life stems from the 1920 People's Revolution and aid from the world Socialist community, the Soviet Union in particular.
Some relics of the pre-revolutionary past do remain, however, if only as tokens or in recognition of artistic merit. For example, the government has permitted one lamasery -- out of some 700 that once flourished in the country -- to continue functioning. How striking, amidst the dominating impression of material progress and modern building design, to visit the Gandan Monastery; to hear the monks chanting the ancient prayers in the dimly lit, incense-filled interior of the temple; and to watch very old (and some very young) hands turning the prayer-whells in the temple courtyard.
We also visited the imposing Bogdo Gegen Palace Museum, now a showplace for art treasures, but once the home of the last "Living Buddha," Jebtsun Damba Khutukhtu, who was proclaimed ruler of an autonomous Outer Mongolia when Chinese Manchu rule was overthrown in 1911. Then, one evening, we attended "Swan Lake" at the State Opera House and National Theater. The fine ballet performance provided additional evidence of Zhuulchin's efforts to make tourism in the capital pleasurable -- and possibly to demonstrate further that culture is no stranger to the land of Genghis Khan.
Official Mongolian recognition of Genghis Khan, famed as he is, has limits, The State Central Museum includes memorabilia of Genghis, who unified the tribes of his country and created a vast empire that, by 1224, extended from the Pacific to the Black Sea. But we looked in vain for a monument to the "Perfect Warrior."
We learned that, because of his utter disregard for life, Genghis has been made largely a "non-person" in his native land and was denied the usual proof of high public esteem. On the other hand, the city boasts imposing statuary honoring Stalin (certainly not "Mr. Clean"), Lenin, and Sukhe-Bator, a major young leader of the 1920 People's Revolution.
Highlighting our visit to Mongolia was a three-day stay at a yurt camp in the South Gobi, 38 kilometers east of Dalan-Dzadagad. From Ulan Bator, a smooth 50-minute prop flight over what seemed endless desolation terminated on a gravel "landing-strip" mere yards from our ail , the cluster of 42 yarts that would be home to us, and to visitors from other countries on the same trip from the capital, for the next few days and nights.
Meals at the camp were tasty and varied. East German beer could be ordered, as well as arkini , the more-than-potent national drink. Fortunately, mineral water was available at no extra cost at lunch and dinner to quench our thirst.
Electricity and water are turned off from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., so nighttime requirements during those hours are best avoided or at least attended to with a flashlight. Social activity at the yurt camp was limited to eating and sleeping. The camp served essentially as a jumping-off place to attractions in the surrounding area.
Several bus excursions into the wilds outside the camp took us along furrowed and potholed tracks that rivaled washboards and bucking broncos for sheer orneriness. Moreover, the Gobi is usually windy and consequently dusty. Some of our group, forewarned, had brought face masks and water bottles -- a sensible precaution.
One side trip, to the "Cemetery of the Dragons," brought us to the site where, in 1932, Roy Chapman Andrews discovered the famed dinosaur skeletons and eggs, some of which we saw in the State Central Museum in Ulan Bator.
Another excursion in the Altai Mountains, to the Valley of the Yol (yol means "eagle"), featured a stroll on a glacier at the 7,100-foot level.
Early one morning we drove to a state camel farm, managed by a young couple and the parents of one of them. They also were raising 17 head of cattle, which they own themselves. Highlighting the visit was a ride on one of the farm's 200 two-humped Bactrian camels, which I thought at least a trifle more secure than a seat astride the single hump of their Arabian cousin, the dromedary. We also were invited to sample several national delicacies: airak or koumiss , which is fermented mare's milk; aarul , a camel's milk cheese, and boortsog , hard wheat bread. The consensus was that the cheese and bread required a little getting used to; the koumiss, a lot of getting used to, especially so early in the morning.
Sharif, his English adequate to the purpose, guided our tour group during our stay in Mongolia. English is offered as an elective in high school, he told us, while Russian, the country's second language, is a required subject. As yet, few Mongolians speak English, one reason we were cautioned not to venture out on our own. When some of us went shopping in Ulan Bator's only department store, we found sign language as useful in Mongolia as elswhere in the world.
Tourists in Mongolia appeared to be well-traveled, predominantly middleaged or retired people, not only in our American group but also among tour groups from Socialist countries. For many, Mongolia was about the last new, offbeat travel destination current world political conditions permitted them to visit.
Satisfying sourvenir and gift needs is best done in the "Dollar Shops" at Ulan Bator's hotels for foreigners. Animals of stone and wood (about $6), suede coats ( $60), wool blankets ( $17), and 45 rpm recordings of Mongolian folktunes ( $1) seemed to me particularly attractive and were priced considerably below the same items in other shops. Mongolian postage stamps are among the most beautiful anywhere.
Tourism in Mongolia is still in its infancy. This has one advantage -- the tourist is trated as someone special. Despite the language barrier, the gentle residents we met officially or just on the street were, without exception, friendly and considerate people clearly anxious to please. When Mongolian tourism does come of age, I hope a future trip to Ulan Bator will find this natural warm welcome unchanged.