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As our plane taxied from the runway it neared midnight, two hours later than our scheduled arrival in Ulaanbaatar. Passengers rustled and a flight attendant made announcements about seatbelts and shifting luggage.

But when he thanked us for choosing Mongolia Airlines because “we know you have a choice,” my head jerked up.

“We do?” I said a little too loudly, because laughter came not just from my friend Brenda sitting beside me, but also from another couple of Western travelers a row back.

It turns out there are choices in Mongolia, from traditional orchestras and local rap groups to museums with dinosaurs and contemporary art to fresh peaches and tomatoes. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, serves Guinness and offers wireless pay phones for public use. Tourist camps in the countryside come with flush toilets and electrical outlets.

Yet there are careful decisions to make when planning a visit to Mongolia. Above all, the best piece of advice I can offer involves patience. In Mongolia, inconveniences abound. Electricity can fail, nights can chill, flies can interrupt meals, and the roads can and will jostle you into wondering why you ever agreed to the Sunday drive from hell across the countryside.

For my part, here’s why: The country offers an incomparable view into an empire once domineering, then diminished and now slowly finding its way in the 21st century. Past and present creep along unexpectedly in Mongolia, revealing tractors and satellite dishes in the midst of towns that resemble the American West from a century ago. Land stretches for miles without utility lines or passing traffic on foot, horse or car. When a truck does come into view, it’s likely to be loaded with bales of hay or cars — sometimes both.

When you finally do stop, you might see a family, just as likely watching television and answering cell phones as tending their animals or setting up their traditional ger home.

The people evoke the food they raise and prepare — sturdy, warm and comforting. Standing on the land that once served as Genghis Khan’s capital, you can see how valleys and plains and a tiny river came together to form an enormous, natural keep that ruled most of Asia and parts of Europe 800 years ago.

Our journey began in Ulaanbaatar, where nearly a third of the country’s 2.8 million people live. We had bought into a package tour, a $1,000 investment that included lodging, meals and entrance fees to parks and museums for seven days. It did not include costs incurred at cashmere shops or during vodka tasting, but that was just as well. Even with a favorable exchange rate, we managed to leave Mongolia without hangovers of any kind.

Our companions were the best part of the tour. First, there was Aggie, our tour guide, a 20-year-old college student studying English and business. Later in the week we met Sandy and Bob, a couple from Michigan who embark on a traveling adventure each fall and have a wonderful knack for making fast friends.

But it’s better to go chronologically. So after a first day in Ulaanbaatar visiting two museums, a Buddhist temple and enjoying our first taste of

Mongolian food, Brenda found herself helping a Frenchman spell out various fears spawned by various phobias.

“U-R-I-N-E,” she said as Josef, a French college student, wrote fearlessly to define urophobia.

It doesn’t take long in Ulaanbaatar to locate a competitive quiz night, and by start time we’d joined with a multinational group of travelers and tour guides for Wednesday night trivia at Dave’s Place. After more than three hours of heavy trivia debate, we lost by just one point.

The night felt less Mongolian and more expat, after a dinner at an Irish pub and then ales drawn at Dave’s. Still, Dave’s location had a uniquely local feel — it’s in a basement corner of the country’s Palace of Culture, one of several behemoth buildings that dominate the capital’s center.

On the way back, we strolled past Sukbaatar Square, named after the man who declared the country’s independence from the Chinese in 1921 and where in the winter of 1990, people once again gathered on the spot to protest communism.

As we walked, the clangs of construction workers competed with the traffic, part of a 24-hour effort to complete a mausoleum at the square to honor the country’s 800th anniversary, which was 2006.

The next day we left the city for Gorkhi- Terelj National Park, 34 miles and 90 minutes northwest of Ulaanbaatar. Here, we got our first taste of life at a tourist camp. We moved into our ger, a traditional Mongolian home framed with thin wood, wrapped in wool felt and topped with canvas. Inside were two beds, two wool blankets and electrical plugs for recharging cameras and iPods.

Before lunch, we took a quick trip to Turtle Rock, the mammoth formation that looks like a turtle and promises good fortune to those who visit its craggy insides. In the afternoon, we drove over the next hill to spend a few hours with Pagma, her family and her horses.

Pagma once worked for the country’s parks department, and now her family rents land from the state to house a couple of generations of people, 18 horses, a brood of chickens and a very spoiled dog. Her living room included a television and DVD player, two couches covered with rugs, a refrigerator and a few family photos. She brought us heaping bowls of her yogurt, made fresh daily. Later her son, Erdene, took us on a short horse ride.

Pagma and other families like hers make a little extra money by playing hosts to tourists. She showed us snapshots of a Japanese group that had lived with her for three days earlier in the summer. Brenda asked her what changes she’d seen since communism ended in the early 1990s. Pagma said the land has more tourist camps.

Next door to her land was an 18-hole golf course where we watched a group of Korean tourists tee off.

Our time in Terelj proved our favorite leg of the trip. The weather, hospitality, food — especially the homemade beef stew and lamb dumplings called buuz — and people all were perfect.

I could have stayed a week. But we had appointments with wild horses and Genghis Khan, not to mention Bob and Sandy to meet along the way.

And there were 230 miles waiting to jostle us out of bucolic Mongolia and into rural reality.

NEXT WEEK: Follow along on Teri Weaver’s continued trip through Mongolia.


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