A four-hour car ride northeast of Ulaan Bataar, an increasingly traffic-choked city eager to lay claim to its place in the 21st century, takes me to another capital that seems firmly rooted in the nineteenth.
Ondorkhaan is the provincial capital of Hentie Aimag in eastern Mongolia, a 82,000-square-kilometer grassland with just 68,000 people -- little more than a standing-room-only crowd at Citizens Bank Park.
The town has some government buildings, stores, and a few socialist era hotels. But the part that still has the feel of old Mongolia is the residential section of town where many hundreds of log and crumbling stucco buildings are laid out in a grid of wide dirt roads. Thanks to last night’s heavy rain, these are now rutted and pooled with water.
Each house with a cluster of related out-buildings is enclosed by a tall, roughhewn wooden stockade, giving the place more the feel of a medieval fortress than of a modern town. One of the heavy gates that breaks the wooden wall fronting the road is thrown open for us to enter.
We are here to meet the herdsman named Bayra Bayarbat, who will be our host for the next several days. Without his help, it would be almost impossible for us to find where we are going. He will lead us into the countryside where the rest of his family are waiting to greet us.
As we wait for him to load a few last provisions into his truck and make his goodbys to those who are staying behind, I explore his immediate neighborhood, exciting a dozen or more guard dogs into a frenzy of ferocious growls and barks. Happily all are either chained or constrained by fences too strong to allow them through.
I see no humans in my wanderings, though clearly they are around. It is early still. Perhaps they are still sleeping or going about their morning chores. There is wood smoke drifting from a dozen or more metal stove pipes. Without wind, it drifts up and disappears into the leaden sky.
By the time I return from my walk, our friends are ready. Two pile into the cab with Bayra and two more nestle beneath a heavy blanket in the open back of the truck, which has been otherwise crammed with supplies. They will get a ride to their own family’s summer quarters near Bayra’s.
Just beyond the city limits, we leave the paved highway and follow a meandering dirt track into a sweeping landscape of green and khaki grass. For the next two hours we see no people or livestock.
When we descend slightly in elevation into the summer pasture areas, we begin to see an occasional white ger, the round felt and canvas yurts that provide portable housing for the semi-nomadic herding families that make up the rural population of Mongolia. It is from these isolated herdsmen that we will gather information to help us better understand the changing weather patterns of Central Asia.