Whether landing at the Genghis Khan International Airport or stepping off the Trans-Siberian Railway, the arriving traveler is immediately greeted by a gust of bitterly cold air. At an elevation of over 1,300 metres above sea level, Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city, with an average annual temperature slightly below freezing and typical winter minimums of -40. Just as jarring is the stark contract between the sprawling yurt district and the high-rise skyscrapers in the city centre, separated only by a ring of drab Soviet-era apartment blocks. Smoke billows from a myriad stoves, chimneys and coal power plant stacks, resulting in a thick smog that only adds to the bleak atmosphere.
Ulaanbaatar was founded in the 17th century as a Buddhist centre, and received its present name (which literally means “Red Hero”) after the communist revolution of 1921, becoming the capital city of the newly proclaimed Mongolian People’s Republic. It has since grown to be the cultural, industrial and financial heart of the country, and is now home to over 1.3 million inhabitants - almost half of the entire population of Mongolia. The various stages of the city’s growth are evidences in the distinct architectural styles.
Along with the majority of the hotels and what few tourist attractions Ulaanbaatar has to offer, most modern buildings are to be found around Sukhbaatar square, in the heart of the government district. There, Western luxury boutiques and fast food chains compete with Korean brands amid heavy, chaotic traffic which makes crossing the street feel like a life-threatening adventure. A short walk from the square, tucked between construction sites and decaying concrete tower blocks, the Choijin Lama temple complex is a remainder of the monastic origins of the city. The temple grounds are now a surprisingly well-kept museum, displaying all manner of Buddhist relics and artwork, from gilt bronze statues to embalmed corpses.
Further afield beyond the grey beehives, the dwellings of the less affluent Mongolians take the form of traditional ger tents (yurt), haphazardly mingles with crudely constructed wooden houses on mussy hillsides, lacking paved roads, running water or power supply. The oldest among these districts surrounds the 19th century Gadan monastery, which continued to function even during the communist times and today houses over 150 monks of all ages.
Surprisingly near the capital is the northernmost reach of the Gobi steppe, treeless grassland that stretch to the horizon and beyond. The roads are unpaved and as you drive further away it doesn't get easier. Only undulant dusty tracks scatter into the central expanses of the Gobi. There are no villages here: only individual gers, often separated by several dozen kilometres, punctuate the otherwise featureless scenery.
"Somewhere along the desert an abandoned basketball net"
Travelling along the steppe is slow and uncomfortable, yet it is during this journey that the magic of the Gobi first unfolds in front of one’s eyes, as slowly but surely the colours of the landscape begin to shift, first from muddy brown to ochre, then to green as an oasis nears, then to oxide red, to the pale yellow of dried pastures and finally to the intense white of calcium deposits - all under a dazzling blue sky, the chronically smoggy Ulaanbaatar long behind. The subtle way in which this transformation takes place demands continuous attention, but rewards the watchful eye with a splendid collage of juxtaposed tones and textures.
"The first night in the Gobi steppe"
Spirituality is an important part of the daily life in the steppe. From birth to death, every action is carefully observed by the vigilant spirits, and there is a consequence, or karma, attached to every single decision, no matter how small: from the use of natural resources, to the rituals of going to bed and waking up, nothing can be neglected.
Much like the American bogeyman or the Spanish sack man, Mongolian folklore has its own evil entity, the almas, that steals children away in the night. This demon-ogre is not very smart, though, and can be easily deceived by painting a child’s nose with dirt just before bedtime. The almas will surely mistake the child for a rabbit and leave him or her alone.
"Small child early in the morning still with his nose painted"
Much like the almas, the Gobi is unforgiving towards the careless, and raising a family there requires a committed, almost ritualistic attitude towards household chores and routines. Unforgiving is also the road - or lack thereof - and the countless hours you can spend riding under the sun, where 300 km are eternal and there aren’t indications or paths that can lead you to your next destinations. You just have to trust your driver and let yourself enjoy the inmensity in front of you.
Traveling around the Gobi is really a test to your patience and willingness to let yourself go. When on the road you can spend hours before you see another living being, so you start enjoying the Mongolian music playing from my driver's the cassette (Yes! Cassette), the bluest sky you’ve ever seen, the freshest air kissing your face, no obstacles ahead of you, no time and only the horizon and the expectation of what’s next.
"On top of the Khongoryn Els also called Duut Mankhan, but commonly known as the Singing Dunes"
What’s wonderful about the desert is that you get used to being alone and most of the time your best friends are your thoughts. So if you’re really looking for a holiday in which you fully detached from the vices of technology (except for maybe your camera) and connect and allow yourself to be wholly inspired by nature and culture. It is a refreshing experience to climb the Singing Dunes (Khongoryn els) and just see the infinity when you reach the top.
"Mountain range close by Arvaikheer, Uvurkhangai, one of the most central regions of Mongolia"
That’s the beauty and magic of the desert. To see the ever changing landscape being painted in different shades of reds and orange by the sunset. Or the sublime beauty of the night sky covering the night after an exhausting day on the road. I’m a firm believer that moments like this are unforgettable, when you realise that travelling is freedom, because as a traveller you are in search of the unexpected. No place disappoints when your sole guide is the emotion and uncertainty. That emotion is what drives us to keep exploring around new places and meeting new people. That’s what traveling means.
For more phenomenal pictures from Verónica López follow her on instagram: vero.supertramp