Antarctica is the only place that homo sapiens has never called ‘home’. Next to Antarctica, Mongolia is probably the last, last frontier. Half the population lives in the capital Ulaan Baatar and the other half roam the steppes with their herds of goats, cattle, horses, camels and sheep dogs. Their circular cone-roofed dwellings (called ger) are dismantled, packed and transported from place to place as they sustain their millennia old nomadic lifestyle. These makeshift homes are now stoking the curiosity of eager tourists who are making a beeline to the customized ger camps in remote locations such as the Gobi desert.
The enduring allure of Mongolia is the vast emptiness of the land - the desert sands, the rolling steppes, the rare lakes and the oh-so-different way of life! The country has the lowest population density among all the world’s nations (1.87 per square km in 2015).
Mongolia has one of the most inhospitable terrains on the planet and Ulaan Baatar is the world’s coldest capital (the average annual temperature is below zero), so knowing when to go is all important. Winter is a bad time as Ulaan Baatar is choking with noxious fumes and the night temperatures dip to -40°C.
Indoor sightseeing involves only a couple of museums and everything you want to see is outdoors, so the cold can be a major deterrent. May to October is good, though summer temperatures can be harsh, especially in the desert. If you want to witness the Naadam festival it falls in mid July. That’s when the ‘three manly sporting events’ take place – wrestling, horse-racing and archery.
Flying into the Chinggis Khan international airport at Ulaan Baatar is a good idea. There are decent connections via Beijing, Seoul and Hong Kong to pretty much anywhere. Taking the Trans-Siberian railway to Irkutsk in Siberia could be exciting – or you could travel by train to Beijing and then fly out to your home country.
Where to Stay
The Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel in Ulaan Baatar is expensive but it’s a safe and comfy bet. It’s plum opposite the sprawling Chinggis Square and the National Museum is right next door. Peace Avenue and the Choijin Lama temple are walkable. You can easily get around without the help of any local guide. For the budget conscious there are a variety of fair-priced hotels and other bed and breakfast options.
In the Gobi Desert area the Three Camel Lodge is highly rated by travellers and seems to have attached baths and good food. Others are really, really basic, I am told. I had to put off my visit due to time constraints – and I hope to go there some time in the future.
Dealing with Travel Agents
Don’t allow unscrupulous tour operators in your home country to rip you off. Book a vehicle through a local travel agency. You can opt for one-day tours from the capital or package tours to the Gobi Desert and Khovsgol Lake. Take domestic flights to both locations. Drivers are very professional and English speaking guides are not rare. They know their way around without any of the support systems of modern civilization. They just drive away into the sunset without boards or signposts or any sign of human habitation for miles and miles.
Supplies, Food and Cash
Mongolia has mostly kutcha roads (if they can be called roads at all!), so don’t forget your motion-sickness pills. It’s also a good idea to carry dry shampoo, wet wipes, sunscreen, lip balm, hat, scarf and sunglasses, not to mention the unforgettable warm jacket. Carry milk powder unless you’re ok with mare’s milk. If you are a veggie, carry food packets too. Meat-eaters can enjoy delicious kebabs and multiple meat varieties, but veggies may have to survive on salads and cookies. Our guide gave us a solidified curd pellet to chew, but to be honest it needs an acquired taste (which I lacked). As for fermented mare’s milk and salted tea I didn’t even think of trying.
The Mongolian tugrik at 2410 to a dollar can make you a millionaire overnight. A visit to a local bank is a must on Day 1. Your credit card may just refuse to function, so be warned. It’s important to carry enough currency.
What to Do
While you are on the road watch out for nomadic peoples and stop to talk to them. On our way to the Hustai Nuruu National Park we encountered a 12 year old cattle herder who spoke a little English. It was a delightful interaction.
Peep inside the ger camps wherever you find them. Stay in a ger camp at least for one night. However, if you are addicted to your creature comforts, I suggest you stay away. It’s a good idea to bring along little gifts from your home country to give to the nomads, especially toys and trinkets.
Where to Go
If you choose to stay at Best Western in Ulaan Baatar you can take a walking tour to the Chinggis Square, view the Mongolian Parliament building with massive statues of the great Khan and others, make little purchases from the little shops housed in white tents, go across to the Choijin Lama Temple and spend a few hours at the Museum of Natural History – all on Day 1 of your tour. Bargain hunting for designer cashmere shawls, scarves, coats and tunics is also a good idea. You also get camel hair and yak hair. Besides you have time to arrange a day trip for the next day.
The city centre also houses the Ulaan Baatar Opera House and the Gandan monastery founded in 1839, one of the few monasteries that survived the Soviet purge. (Over 30,000 monks and intellectuals disappeared in the 1930s and innumerable monasteries were laid waste.) A four-lions model similar to the one found on Emperor Asokha's pillars attracted my attention (see below).
The Zaisan Memorial dedicated to Soviet soldiers killed in World War II is poised on a hill so be prepared for a long climb. (We gave it the miss.)
The 130 foot equestrian statue of Chinggis Khan is a must-see. The hour long drive from Ulaan Baatar to Tsonjin Boldog is totally worth it. Legend has it that this is where Chinggis Khaan found a golden whip – the good omen that spurred him on to wider conquests. En route you get a distant view of the capital across the Yuul River and realize with a shock that it’s far more extensive and populous than you ever imagined. Chingghis Khan on his horse atop a circular building is stunning beyond words. As the statue looms up in the distance it presents a shimmering spectacle in stainless steel. You can ride an elevator to the horse’s head and take a selfie with the Great Khan.
Take another day trip to the Hustai Nuruu National Park to search for the wild, elusive, rare and extinction-threatened Przewalski’s horses (called takhi by the locals). In fact they became extinct in the wild and were successfully reintroduced a couple of decades ago. We were fortunate to spot more than a dozen.
As we chased after them (on foot) they moved farther and farther away. With their light-skinned bodies, black tails, black feet, dark Mohawk-style manes and untamed demeanour they were simply mind-blowing. Don’t ever forget your binoculars (as we did). Your driver will give you a pair, but that works well only if you are a lone traveller. You also get to see several marmots going in and out of their burrows – and man, aren’t they cute! The Mongolian domestic horse breeds are different from their Arabian counterparts but the locals say they are sturdier and hardier. We even saw a few that had Dalmatian colours. Our mini trek in search of deer-stones threw up some rare sights – not just grave markers but a graveyard of animals as well. We couldn’t figure out whether they came here to die or humans slaughtered them and threw the carcasses here.
You can take a 90 minute flight from Ulaan Baatar to Dalanzadgad for the Gobi desert tour. Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, the Flaming Cliffs at Bayanzag, the Khongoryn Els sand dunes and the Eagle Valley (Yoliin Am) are not to be missed, but I decided to put this off for my next visit. 80 million years ago the South Gobi was an inland sea. The Flaming Cliffs presents one of the greatest dinosaur fossil sites the world has ever seen. It is possibly a site of mass extinction as there are miles and miles of dinosaur fossils and eggs. Inside the National Park a small museum has excellent paleontological samples, including bones from a Tarbosaurus and eggs from a Protoceratops. The Gobi desert is the original home of the double humped Bactrian camel (no idea why it is called Bactrian!), but you can see them even on the roadside on the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar.
A 90 minute flight from the capital will take you to Moron Town (actually pronounced Mu-roon) from where you can drive to the pristine Khovsgol Nuur Lake (110 Km) which our guide told us is out of this world. You could meet the Tsaatan reindeer herders here – and also yak herders. (And by the way, this isn’t the only Moron Town on the planet. Cuba has one too.)
The annual Eagle Festival takes place in the Ölgii province in Mongolia’s ‘wild west’, an area peopled mostly by Kazakhs. The town lies 1600 kilometres west of the capital. This is a great place to go looking for archaeological sites and deer-stones. Kazakh eagle hunters reside in the Altai Mountains. The Ölgii Airport has flights to Ulaan Baatar and Almaty in Kazakhstan. So in effect I have quite a lot to do on my next trip to Mongolia!
Facts about Mongolia and Chinggis Khaan
Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia and China. It gained freedom in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed, but Russia is still the big brother. One of our guides said she wept bitterly when Brezhnev died in 1982 because she felt like she had lost a member of her family.
We learn from Chinese historical narratives that in the 3rd century B.C. the Xiongnu gained ascendancy among the nomadic tribes of Mongolia. That’s what prompted the building of the Great Wall. The warring traditions continued until 1206 when Temujin united the tribes and was proclaimed ‘Chinggis Khan’ or universal ruler. In the blink of an eye the Mongol empire was extended to Central Asia, Eastern Europe and all of China, becoming the largest contiguous empire in history, with its capital at Karakorum, 230 kilometres west of Ulaan Baatar. Chinggis Khan (and his sons) conquered half the known world on horseback and terrorized great empires into meek submission. His conquest of Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench in modern Uzbekistan remain some of the bloodiest massacres in world history.
But Chinggis wasn’t exactly the first scary Mongol. The Huns had migrated from the steppes of Mongolia to Europe around 100 AD. Attila the Hun terrorized the Roman Empire in the 5th century, triggering the founding of Venice as the inhabitants of the mainland fled to the islets in the lagoon fearing his wrath. Interestingly, the Mongolians of today are somewhat docile, just like the Hungarians.
Kubilai Khaan, the grandson of Chinggis, was ruling China when Marco Polo came visiting. The empire soon disintegrated and the Mongols were driven back to the steppes by the Chinese. Later Mongolia came under Chinese control. In 1911, as the Qing dynasty collapsed, Mongolia managed to shake off 220 years of Chinese domination. A period of political instability followed as the Chinese reasserted control. In 1924, a Mongolian communist leader, Damdin Sukhbaatar, led Soviet forces to re-take the capital. His statue stands in Chinggis Square - which was earlier named Sukhbaatar Square. Russia persuaded China to recognize the independence of Outer Mongolia in 1945 when World War II ended. Inner Mongolia today remains a part of China and has more Mongols than Mongolia itself. There is a mausoleum to Chinggis Khaan (though no one knows where he was buried) and also the ruins of Kubilai Khaan’s famed palace of Xanadu (Shangdu), 350 km north of Beijing.
The Russian influence seems to have done Mongolia some good. In 1956 the Trans Siberian railway was extended to Ulan Baatar and the city acquired a rail link to Beijing as well. Russia initiated the construction of blocks of flats, theatres and museums and forcefully suppressed religious practice. Yet today 90% of the people follow Tibetan Buddhism laced with shamanism.
Ulaan Baatar (meaning Red Hero) is a Soviet-conferred name. The city was founded in the 17th century as a Buddhist monastic centre and the location was shifted 28 times before finally settling down. The capital now lies 4300 feet above sea level in a valley on the Tuul River with the Bodg Khan Mountain to the south. Homo sapiens has been here since Paleolithic times – and hunted to extinction the woolly rhinoceros and woolly mammoth.
The official symbol of Ulaan Baatar is the Khan garuda, a mythical eagle in Hindu and Buddhist folklore. It holds a key, a lotus and a snake in its talons, and has the ‘soyombo’ symbol on its forehead.
Tailpiece: Mongolians are re-branding themselves and their national hero, Chinggis Khaan, after centuries of dominance by China and Russia. Though Genghis Khan’s global reputation is that of a ruthless and bloodthirsty marauder responsible for the mass murders of countless innocents, Mongolians are undeniably proud of his military achievements. Today you can touch down at Chinggis Khaan International Airport, stay at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel, roam around Chinggis Square, drive out to view the Chinggis Khaan equestrian statute, drink the Chinggis brand of vodka or whatever, and pay for everything with Chinggis Khaan notes.