KARAKORUM, Mongolia » A few weeks ago I was bouncing down a bumpy Mongolian highway, seated in a Russian-made UAZ van with my wife and two friends. Our driver was a larger-than-life character named Oyunbaatar, or Ogii. He wore a beret, and as he gripped the steering wheel, dodging potholes, he’d occasionally bark out streams of mystifying Mongolian.
In Russia a UAZ van is known as a Bukhanka, or bread loaf, because of its boxy appearance. With impressive suspension, these off-road vehicles can be seen across Mongolia, rugged as the country’s vast grasslands.
As we soon learned.
Suddenly, without warning, Ogii veered off the highway, hit the gas and accelerated across the scrubby landscape and up a hillside. Within minutes he had brought us to a 360-degree view of the steppes — with flocks of animals grazing in the distance, next to groups of white yurts, or gers as they are called here.
This is what travel is like in Mongolia: huge distances. Broad vistas. Big skies. Bright stars.
For a week we slept in gers, hiked mountains, rode horses, swam in lakes, soaked in hot springs. Along the way we met several Mongolian families, including traditional herders who seasonally move their gers and animals to greener pastures.
Covering 603,000 square miles — roughly the size of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah combined — Mongolia is vast, but home to a mere 3 million people. Half of them live in Ulan Bator, the capital. Most of the rest are spread out on the grasslands, making a traditional living herding and breeding livestock.
Yet even in the outback, signs of modernization are everywhere.
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On our first day on the road, we came across a large flock of camels, including some newborns. The camels made for excellent photos, but we were surprised by the two shepherds that soon arrived. They were riding a motorcycle.
The next day we stopped at a ger camp, perched on a plateau and run by an elegant woman named Yandag. Inside her ger, Yandag was making a batch of urum, the Mongolian name for clotted cream, or "white butter." She soon stepped outside to track her livestock with the aid of some high-quality binoculars.
Outside her ger stood solar panels and a satellite dish, for watching television.
Some Mongolians fret about the rapid change that is sweeping their country. One of these is Oyuntsetseg Suidaan — Oyuna — an Ulan Bator college English teacher who was our tour guide on the trip.
Oyuna isn’t nostalgic about the communist days of a quarter-century ago, when Mongolia was still a closed-off Soviet satellite. But she also doesn’t want her country to forget its history and customs.
"Little by little in the city, we are losing our traditions, our character," she lamented one day as we discussed Mongolia’s full-throttled embrace of capitalism. "We are becoming selfish."
Perhaps that is why Oyuna chose to bring her 12-year-old daughter, Khuslen, on the trip. All of us were charmed by Khuslen and her unbridled enthusiasm. As for Oyuna, she seemed delighted that her little city girl could experience the character of the countryside.
In every ger camp we visited, families would invite us inside and offer us something, usually suutei tsai — salty milk tea. As we sipped our drinks and chatted, we took note of the colorful, ornate furniture inside these tents, including the altars festooned with photos of several generations of family.
The land of Genghis Khan is a rare destination for American tourists. According to government figures, last year there were fewer than 15,000 visits by U.S. citizens to Mongolia, compared with 258,000 by Chinese passport holders. For lovers of nature and ancient cultures, Mongolia remains a relatively undiscovered gem. It feels like one of the last frontiers in Asia.
A typical road trip takes you west from Ulan Bator through Khustain National Park, where Mongolia’s semiwild Takhi horses are protected. More than 300 of these golden horses now roam the park, the result of a successful reintroduction project supported by the Dutch and Mongolian governments.
Farther west is Khogno Khan Uul Nature Reserve, which is dotted with remains of old Buddhist temples and one active one. You can camp here, explore the ruins and hike up a lovely creek into hills filled with wildflowers.
Every day seemed to bring some new visual splendor. We passed by a deep gorge that looked like a tributary to the Grand Canyon. We camped at a lake so vast and undeveloped that you just wanted to stare at it for hours.
But the thing I’ll remember most was a toast on the first night of our trip. Ogii, our driver, pulled out shot glasses and a bottle of Mongolian vodka. He insisted that we partake, and of course, how could we say no?
The customary Mongolian toast involves dipping your right ring finger into the glass and flicking it three or four times. First we toasted the sky, then the earth. The last time we touched our fingers to our foreheads, gave thanks and knocked back the shot.
We all did this. By the end of it, we felt like we were all members of a time-honored, secret club.