By Matt Hazel
When I imagined Mongolia before traveling there this summer with my girlfriend Tanya, I thought of gers, nomads, and wide open spaces; I imagined a country unchanged by time. In reality, just 15 years into their new democratic, capitalist way of life, Mongolia is a country in transition. Mongolians are truly embracing the modern, yet holding on to their traditional lifestyles and proud history. It’s an exciting time to visit Mongolia as it tries to find the right balance for the future.
With so much to see and do, it is impossible to do the country justice in a short holiday, but here are my top five tips on places that, even on a short trip, you can’t afford to miss:
TOP 5 TRIP TIPS
NUMBER 1: UNWIND IN ULAANBAATAR
No trip to Mongolia would be complete without visiting Ulaanbaatar (or UB, as it is commonly referred to). It is the biggest city in Mongolia and also the coldest capital in the world, with temperatures of -40° Celsius in winter. It’s a very walkable city, with most of the major attractions situated near the city center. The best of these is probably the Natural History Museum, especially for those interested in dinosaurs. UB is also the jumping off point for any in-country travel. Moreover, where else in the world can you see a huge image of Genghis Khan on the hillside? While the rest of the world remembers Mongolia’s founder as a blood-thirsty conqueror and tyrant, his people have nothing but love and admiration for him – so much so that there’s even talk of re-naming UB after him.
NUMBER 2: SKIP THE FLIGHT AND TAKE THE TRANS-MONGOLIAN RAILWAY
We thought about taking the easy way out and flying to Ulaanbaatar, a two hour flight from Beijing. Instead, we took the Trans-Mongolian Railroad, which is the first section of the Trans- Siberian Railway that travels from Beijing to Moscow. As it was, this short section took 32 hours. We shared a sleeper car with a friendly Mongolian couple. The train was comfortable and the views, including wild horses and the wide blue Mongolian sky, were gorgeous. At one point a storm in the Gobi desert coated the inside of the train and all of us with a layer of dust. The Japanese tourists onboard were ready with their masks!
The Trans-Mongolian is something everyone traveling to Mongolia should experience at least once, but be prepared – it’s a long trip. I’d suggest bringing instant noodles (hot water is provided in each car), drinks, some cards and books and, of course, a mask – just in case there’s a dust storm.
NUMBER 3: BLOW SOME CASH AT THE BLACK MARKET
The UB Black Market is like a giant swap meet and one of the most interesting shopping experiences I’m sure I’ll ever have. You can buy pretty much anything you’d like there, from North Face jackets to Mongolian rugs. But you have to be extremely careful, since it’s one of the more dangerous places in UB for a number of reasons. According to our guidebook, some tourists had been pelted by rocks for daring to take pictures there a few years back, so leave those cameras at home! There are also numerous pickpockets, some of the slash and grab variety, so it’s best not to bring anything at all, just enough money for the cab ride and some shopping.
Even following these precautions, someone still tried to pickpocket me, only to be stopped by a safety pin I had attached to my zippered and velcroed shorts pocket. You can imagine how happy he was about that.
NUMBER 4: FEAST ON FOREIGN FOODS
Since Mongolian food is based on the nomads’ need to use whatever they have on hand while roaming, many of their staples are dairy-based. Yak milk, for example, is prominent in their diet. Unfortunately, such treats as milk tea, hard milk curds and greasy goulash don’t always sit well on the foreign palate. One of the unexpected pleasures of staying in Ulaanbaatar, however, was the wide selection of foreign foods available. If you’re in the mood for a Big Mac and fries you’re out of luck, but UB has a wide selection of outstanding international restaurants and only one chain restaurant. We ate chimichangas at Los Banditos, a joint Indian and Mexican restaurant, and I tried the best gyros (a Greek pita) I’ve ever had at The Silk Road Bar and Grill. We had delicious American-style pizza at the UB Deli and salivated over the amazing pastries at Chez Bernard.
Oh, and that chain? It’s a Mongolian Grill, the first of its kind in Mongolia!
NUMBER 5: GO NATIVE WITH A GER STAY AT TERELJ NATIONAL PARK
Terelj National Park is about 40 miles away from UB; it is beautiful and sparsely populated, with scattered ger camps in the mountain foothills. Most of these serve the tourist population, but instead of staying in a tourists’ ger camp, we decided to do a ger homestay, which turned out to be well worth it. During the day, our driver took us sightseeing around the park. At the end of the day, he drove us to another ger homestead where we started our horseback ride back to where we were staying. Tanya and I were accompanied by two teenagers who were expert riders, as almost all of the children in Mongolia are.
The trip back to the ger took about two hours; two hours of beautiful scenery and exhilaration. I couldn’t believe that we were horseback riding in Mongolia, sharing trails with free range cattle and riding through the countryside. Highly recommended.
We stayed at the Zaya Hostel in UB. Zaya, the owner, speaks Chinese, Russian, Mongolian and English, and can help you with transportation difficulties or help you arrange a ger stay.
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There are direct flights from Japan, but I highly recommend taking the train. Getting into Mongolia by train is relatively easy, since you can reserve tickets on the Trans-Mongolian, which leaves from Beijing. Unfortunately, you can’t reserve tickets on the Trans-Siberian train that is coming from Moscow to Beijing. All you can do is go to the train station the day before the train arrives and scramble for a ticket, if they have an open seat. Long lines, language barriers, and a nearly full train make this an unreliable option. That leaves you with two other options: you can fly, which, while expensive and somewhat limited (there is only one flight a day), only takes two hours to Beijing; or you can take a train to the border, then take a bus to Beijing. The latter seems like a good idea until you realize it is going to take two days and it pays to speak Chinese, since you want to arrive in Beijing and not Shanghai.
Bear in mind that unless you are from the USA (Americans don’t need a Mongolian visa) you will have to buy not only a visa for Mongolia, which will cost you around US$80, but also a multiple entry visa for China, which comes in at a steep US$150. These must be purchased before you enter the country.
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Watch out for missing manhole covers in UB. Seriously! The city leaves them open for the street kids; even in summer the nights can be incredibly cold, so hypothermia is always a risk.
Mongolians were hard hit by the collapse of the Soviet Union and also by the move from communism to capitalism in the early ’90s. At one time UB had a street kid population numbering in the thousands. Things are improving thanks to organizations like the Christina Noble House. If you’re thinking of visiting Mongolia, please bring something from the wish-list found on her website.
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I also have some info on my website: