A friend’s birthday celebration was the perfect excuse to once again experience Mongolia’s gorgeous landscapes.
Mongolia truly is a tough country of tough-looking people, and it can be a challenging holiday destination at best. If it is not heat stroke, sun burn, food poisoning or car sickness…it might just be an accidental brush with an extremely itchy shrub or the pit latrines that finally drive you over the edge. But take note: there is nowhere to run.
Described by the Lonely Planet as one of the last frontiers of Asia, the place really has a unique end-of-the-world charm. Expect to have all your preconceptions of “Mongolia” blown away. From the country that brought such mythical figures as Chinggis Khaan, Khublai Khaan, and barbarian hordes, today’s Mongolia is a more humbling tale of two worlds, broadly defined by the city and country.
For the millions that now dwell in the capital Ulaanbaatar, the countryside is no less alien a place than for those visiting from abroad. In fact, despite its rich nomad heritage, most Mongolians live in cities. And most live in the overflowing capital.
Ulaanbaatar is a city that has seen dramatic transformation. It has tripled in size over the past decade, and its basic infrastructure is showing the strain. Poor drainage, more vehicles than road space, and its huge inbound immigration, are just some of its key challenges. It is a pock-marked landscape that’s ideal for 4WD vehicles, perhaps its last remaining similarity with the countryside. At least for the moment, city and country people can share a common experience in vehicular travel.
Yet things are changing rapidly. Construction in Ulaanbaatar is happening everywhere, and it is amazing the difference that even one year has made. Whether it is due to the cost of oil, prices too have been on the rise, at least where it impacts tourists; some places have increased their fees for foreign entry, for taking photos or videos. Taxi prices are up too.
That said, an adventure in the wilds of the countryside comes reasonably cheaply if you share the experience with enough other people to fill a vehicle and a ger (traditional tent). However, prepare clothes, bedding and any other necessities as if you were on a trekking expedition. The nearest store might be half a day away.
For any out-of-city adventure, you’ll first need a reliable 4WD SUV-like car, then a skilled and (hopefully) reliable driver. You’ll also want to stay at places that have reasonable facilities (and food) and where they know that you’re coming.
Best to find them through a local agency specializing in foreign tour groups. They can help with the driver, vehicle, and with booking accommodation.
Here are some that come recommended:
Even with an organized tour things will be fairly basic, and your experience will be more like camping than touring. If your plans are to cover long distances, be prepared for full days bumping along anything from paved roads to rivers, and a lot in between.
Mongolia has a shortish summer and longish winter. Summer is the obvious time to go, and it is during this time that the traditional Naadam festival is held, around July. It is also the time when plants and animals are at their most active (and reproductive), when you’ll witness endless fields of grass and flowers.
Although summer in the capital and similar altitudes can be hot, up to 37 degrees celsius, the mountains and lakes can be quite cool especially at night. Last year, near Lake Khovsgol, for example, night temperatures were cold enough to require a fire at night.
Get used to it: that’s just one of Mongolia’s many charms…
(to be continued)