Mongolia is famed far more for its wide-open countryside and seemingly unending horizons than it is for its city-life. The capital city of Ulaan Baatar is something of a Communist relic made up of blockish 1950s styled buildings, the majority of which have lost what little lustre they once had. It is also shrouded by a smoggy cloud of pollution produced by the ageing cars and buses that run along its roads and by large coal-fuelled power stations on the outskirts of the city.
Whilst UB may not seem to be the jewel of northern Asia it positively sparkles in comparison to Darkhan – Mongolia’s second largest city. Darkhan was built in the early 1960s with not inconsiderable help from Mongolia’s Soviet neighbours. When it was completed the whole enterprise was heralded as a modern socialist miracle. Nowadays though, it is suffering a massive hangover from the Communist era. Without technology and finance provided from the now defunct USSR, Darkhan has begun to crumble.
Whilst Mongolia’s second city may not have seemed the biggest tourist attraction on offer, when Chimgee – a Mongolian friend – invited two friends and I to head up there to stay with her we decided to give the place a shot. To get there we all hitched a ride with her uncle, a giant of a man named Yamcah, who owned a giant 4 x 4. The road between UB and Darkhan was a single sliver of tarmac bisecting vast fields of snow on either side. Up until then we had not left the confines of Ulaan Baatar, so the unspoilt snow and frighteningly clear blue skies were a welcome change.
We drove north for nearly four hours seeing scarcely another human being save for the occasional truck driver or the odd roadside canteen. Once we closed in on Darkhan the snow began to take on a grey sort of tinge and when the city loomed fully into view the whole atmosphere began to take on a dingy, polluted aura.
Darkhan was bleak and in the most part derelict. Thankfully though, we didn’t spend too much time within the city limits. Instead we paid a quick visit to the town’s monastery before heading out onto the steppe. Chimgee had told us that her grandfather was a champion hunter who was keen to take us out wolf hunting. The idea of actually hunting down wolves gave me somewhat mixed feelings. I was not particularly keen on the idea of going out and killing an innocent animal, but on the other hand the idea did seem tremendously exciting.
We set off at 5.30 am on a cold Sunday morning. We picked up Grandpa from his wooden cabin at some point just before 7 and headed out into the wilderness. In the faint orange morning light the countryside was both beautiful and silent. The only noises to be heard were those we made ourselves, which were mainly the whirring s of the engine as Yamcah struggled to navigate his jeep through the thick snow and ice beneath us. By 8.30 the sun had risen fully to reveal yet more bright blue skies giving us the chance to sight our first wolves. Once Grandpa had picked out our prey we set off at breakneck speed. As soon as the wolves picked up the noise of our engine they turned tail and ran, soon managing to get themselves out of sight. Nevertheless Grandpas remained undeterred and was content to follow them using just their tracks.
The chase went on for almost two hours with Yamcah flinging the jeep around as fast as he could through the snow and over the rolling hills of the steppe. It was thrilling stuff knowing the animals could be just a few meters away, but despite Grandpa’s best efforts we were unable to chase them down. Our pursuit came to an end when the trail dissipated into a rocky path, which lead up a steep snowless hillside leaving the trail cold.
After Grandpa had taken out his binoculars and scoured the surrounding area he decided that the hunt had failed and that we should stop for lunch. Chimgee had prepared horsemeat sandwiches and a haggis like dish featuring bread and horse steak stuffed into horse intestine. It was greasy fare, but since the temperature outside was around – 20 it served us well.
As I sat there munching I have to admit that I was a little relieved we had not actually managed to snare our selves a wolf. Even though Chimgee and Grandpa would have used almost every part of the animal – they could use the fur for coats, and its meat and oils for medicinal purposes – I would have felt guilty about being partly responsible for killing such a beautiful wild animal.