Know and go: Mongolia
At a glance Mongolia spans more than 600,000 square miles, an area slightly larger than Alaska. Ninety percent of the land is pasture or desert. It has 2.8 million people, about a third living in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. People speak Mongolian, a language using Cyrillic script. Most also speak Russian and many in Ulaanbaatar speak English. Ninety-four percent of the people practice Tibetan Buddhism. The country now is a parliamentary democracy, having had three presidential elections since breaking with the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Climates are harsh in the winter and summers are comparatively mild. Temperatures still vary dramatically even in mild months, especially depending on the location.
ToursI highly recommend an organized tour for traveling in Mongolia, and there are dozens from which to choose. Some guest house owners double as tour guides; other companies are operated out of their homes. We found our company through a basic Internet search. It’s a member of the country’s Ministry of Roads, Transportation and Tourism, the Mongolian Tourism Association and International Eco-tourism Society. The official travel season is May to October, but I’d recommend June to September, unless you’re spending more time in the warmer south. Tours range from basic features (like the one we chose) of travel, short horse and camel rides and nights at tourist camps to hardier fare, like treks by foot or horse, full-scale camping, fishing and hunting, and journeys in the Gobi Desert. I would recommend picking a company with a large staff, which you can gauge in part by how many tours it offers. If you hire an independent driver to hurl you around the countryside, think about who he will call if your car breaks down. Also, no matter which company you choose, it’s a good idea to double check your hotel and flight reservations by Internet and phone. One thing we noticed about the tours: They aren’t made for families with young children. There’s a lot of down time in the camps, during which I took pictures and Brenda wrote in her journal. But younger travelers might not be so happy, especially when it comes to the long, nausea-inducing car rides. After five seasons as a guide, Aggie said she’d rarely seen a family traveling with children.
TransportationAll railways and flights lead to Ulaanbaatar, the country’s main entry point. There are no direct flights from the States; most Americans travel to Beijing or Moscow first. There are a fair number of direct flights from Russia and Asian countries. Some travelers come by train, either a 30-plus hour ride from Beijing, or a four-day ride from Moscow. It’s a great bargain, if that’s your thing. A one-way ticket from Moscow cost $50. No visa is required for American visitors.
LodgingUlaanbaatar has a handful of multistar hotels, many starting at $70 a night for a single room. Ours was one of nicest and most famous, being the backdrop for one of the few travel books on the country and home to one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Still, the hot water knob to the shower fell off in Brenda’s hand, and breakfast was a free-for-all buffet where we had to hunt down our tableware. But it was clean and safe, with feather pillows to boot. Budget hotels and guest houses also are available for considerably less money. Away from town, tourists stay in aptly named tourist camps. Take the word “camp” seriously, and you’ll be fine. Each couple has their own ger, a traditional house made of canvas and felt and propped up with wooden rafters. The ger (rhymes with bear) has no heat, save a wood-burning stove, and unless you can talk your travel companion into feeding it every hour or so, the nighttime temperatures call for serious huddling under blankets. Our tour company suggested bringing clothes to layer, and one night I slept soundly in two pairs of pants, two shirts and a fleece top, and a knit cap. Showers and bathrooms with flush toilets are available, though a walk across the camp is required.
FoodUlaanbaatar has a small collection of international restaurants including French, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai and Cuban. There also are a handful of Mongolian restaurants, though I’d recommend avoiding ones that bill themselves as Mongolian barbecue. Stir frying bowls of meat and vegetables while patrons watch isn’t a local tradition, and the meats and soups done up in the kitchens of proper Mongolian restaurants proved much better. Our tour schedule kept us from sampling any huevos rancheros and fried bananas, but I did manage to sneak away to a French café for a coffee and a slice of spinach quiche. The coffee was weak, similar to the instant grounds we drank most of the week, but the pastry was wonderfully buttery and flaky, a real treat. The food quality varied in the camps, from delicious mutton dumplings and lamb stew to homemade cheeses and yogurt to a surprising selection of fruits and vegetables. The further out from town, the fewer choices at meal time. Oddly enough it was the broiled river fish at our last tourist camp that proved too gamey to eat. We brought snacks of energy bars and trail mix, and with the huge portions served three times a day, we always found enough to eat. Vegetarian options were available everywhere we went, though in some cases that option may mean you get more coleslaw and potatoes and less of everything else.
Health careMongolia can prompt crossed-fingers when it comes to health care. Ulaanbaatar has hospitals, but further out in the country visitors must depend on sparse medical staff in sparse villages. Occasionally, tourists must be airlifted out of the country at a cost of as much as $100,000 to the traveler. It’s best to check with your health insurer about supplemental coverage before traveling. Also, be sure to bring adequate supplies of prescription medicines, clearly labeled and packed among separate bags in case one is lost.
MoneyIn January, a U.S. dollar was worth about 1,164 togrog. Dollars are accepted at many shops in Ulaanbaatar and at souvenir stands near tourist destinations in the countryside. In Ulaanbaatar, I had no trouble getting togrog from an ATM at our hotel, though I’ve heard that’s not always the case. We traveled with about $500 each in cash to exchange at the hotel and to spend on souvenirs, alcohol and tips for our guides. Tipping in restaurants is not expected. Before the trip, we had to wire cash to pay for our tour. The wire fee added almost $100 to the trip’s $1,000 pricetag, and frankly it made me nervous. We found out later that wiring money — rather than a credit card charge through the Internet — is quite common.
EtiquetteIf you’re lucky enough to visit a family in their home, you’re expected to bring small gifts. We packed jewelry, small toys, crayons and paper, scarves, candy and cigarettes. If you are offered something to eat, you should always taste it. Leaving food on your plate is OK, but refusing to taste is an insult. If you clean your plate or bowl, it may signal the hostess to fill it up again no matter how full your stomach. Many people are generous with photography, but you should always ask before taking someone’s picture, even if you have to mime your request with your camera.
SafetyAs always, check the State Department’s Web site for information on your destination. For the first time in my travels, I registered my itinerary with the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, more for concerns about the country’s sparseness than any worries about crime. We walked around the capital city at night, on main roads around open restaurants and busy hotels. The only danger we saw were the people who tottered on their way home from celebrations. Use common sense, be aware of your surroundings and keep your passport and money on your body.
Source: The U.S. State Department, Lonely Planet