Mongolia – Sept 27-Oct 11, 2014
Visa. No visa is required since January 1, 2014 for Canada and most of Western Europe if it is a tourist visa for less than 30 days. Prior to that, only the US and New Zealand were visa free. As a result entering Mongolia was easy and free!
Money: US$1=1800 Mongolian Tughrik (MNT). One ends up with an incredible number of bills of 8 different denominations.
Important travel tips:
DO NOT take the train from Ulan-Ude to Ulan Bator. Depending on the train, most of the travel is in the dark, you wait 8 hours at the border during the day, and it is much more expensive than the bus.
Stay at Sunpath Hostel. Besides being a good hostel, they offer the best tours and as there are many other travelers, it is easy to organize virtually any trip. Drivers, guides and vehicles tend to be excellent so deliver the services promised.
Ulan Bator (pop 1.5 million)
History. A city was established in this location in 1778 and proclaimed the capital of Outer Mongolia in 1911 when Mongolia first proclaimed independence from China. It was invaded by the Chinese in 1918 and three years later by the Soviets. The city was named Ulan Bator (Red Hero) in honor of the Communist triumph in 1924 and declared the official capital of an ‘independent’ Mongolia, independent from China but not the Soviet Union. From the 1930s, the Soviets built the city in typical Soviet style – many ugly apartment blocks and grand government buildings. When the Soviet Union fell, they converted from Communism to a democracy. Today it booms with new private construction projects.
It is the coldest capital city in the world in the most sparsely populated country in the world. The alphabet in Mongolia is Mongolian Cyrillic, like Russian Cyrillic but with extra letters making it a challenge.
Mongolia’s population is about 3 million so fully half live in UB. There are apparently 1 million cars in the city and it is a traffic mess with traffic jams from the late afternoon well into the evening. Most cars are right hand drive which makes driving dangerous. Driving is like in India – whoever is in front has the right of way. Crossing a street has its risks as Mongolian drivers are aggressive. Four mountains surround the city trapping smog from all the vehicles and a big coal-fired power plant on the western outskirts. They rarely use street numbers and names so tracking down an address is impossible. A good map, phrase book and sense of direction are essential. The train station is in the SW and the airport 18km SW of the city.
The train arrived at 05:40, it was -2 and snowing, apparently normal for this time of year. To my surprise, my hostel and driver were waiting for me on the platform. I was planning on walking the 45 minutes but I think that would have been a test.
Sunpath, the hostel I was staying in turned out to be excellent. Big, clean, good facilities and a tour service that functions well. As the hostel is full, there are lots of people to fill out the tours thus reducing prices. It is always a problem arranging tours as a single independent traveler. Many tour options are available costing between $50-60 per day; most involve 5-14 day Gobi tours or 2 day Terrlj tour.
September 28th was cold and about 4” of snow fell. I had a relaxing day. There were an amazing variety of travelers on extended trips all over the world. Almost all had China and Russia in their itinerary and several were going to the “Stans”.
I took a two-day tour through the hostel. First we went to Zaison Hill and the Monument to the Soviet Soldier. It commemorates the 1921 war with the Chinese, the 1939 war against Japan and the end of WWII against the Nazis in a mosaic and a tall statue. Surrounded by the high-rent district of UB and high above the city, there were great views of the city and surrounding mountains – and a lot of smog. Buddha Park is just below.
We then drove to Terelj National Park, 55 km NE of UB. The main tourist area is a valley with low mountains, granite outcrops and walls. The dominate tree is larch, a deciduous conifer, a gorgeous yellow at this time of year as it readies to drop its needles. We checked into our ger camp, went horseback riding on the sturdy, small Mongolian horses for an hour, and walked up to the monastery. Spin the wheel and get your Buddhist philosophy for life. There were great views down the valley to Turtle Rock, a large granite monolith that we had passed on our way up.
Outstanding meals of traditional Mongolian food were served. Our ger had 4 raised beds with a stove in the middle. After dinner, a good fire was started and we were soon in sauna-like conditions that turned into arctic-like by 2AM. Apparently the outside low temperature was -13. With little to do, we all stayed in bed until 8 the next morning for a good 12-hour sleep. After breakfast, we walked up the neighboring ridge for great views all over of the tremendous scenery.
After lunch we drove to the giant Genghis Khan Statue outside UB. In the middle of nowhere, it was sited here as this is where Genghis found a golden horse-whip. On a 20m pedestal housing a museum and grand hall, the 30m-tall stainless steel statue of Genghis riding a horse is imposing. It required 250 tons of stainless steel to make at a cost of $3 million. He is holding a gold-plated horse-whip. Stairs lead out onto the horse’s head. Inside the hall is a giant Mongol boot that required 250 cow hides to make and a replica giant horse-whip. Outside were two large statues of Mongol warriors on horseback with the facial likeness of the individual who purchased them. There are two halls making up the museum in the basement. One is of the Bronze Age from the 10th to the 2nd centuries BC and of the Xiongnu Empire of Attila the Hun that lasted from 209 BC-93 AD. The second was of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan and his grandchildren – Golden Horde (1223-1480 in present day Russia) Il Khanate (1256-1353 in the Middle East), Chagatai (1222-1370 in present day ‘Stans), and the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368 of Kublai Khan in present day China and extending to Korea, Burma and Vietnam). Both museums were excellent with amazing artifacts.
Many tourists take a tour into the Gobi, usually of 7-14 days duration. Tours provided through Sunpath Hostel had dependable vehicles, good drivers and guides and delivered all advertised features. All were happy with the experience. Highlights included the ‘red stupa’ valley, giant sand dunes, and in the second week, a waterfall and lake. Most stays were not in large ger camps but in local nomads homes, providing an authentic experience. This may be the strength of any tours to the Gobi as many hours are spent each day on bone jarring roads.
In the City. There are few interesting places to see in town. The highlight would have been the Museum of Natural History with its great dinosaur exhibit, but it has been closed for two years as “the building is old”. The National Museum of Mongolia provided the usual fare. The Choijin Lama Temple Museum is a Buddhist monastery converted to a museum, the main hall was closed as they were painting the floor, but one small temple has some impressive images. The exterior is run down and needs work. The huge Genghis Khan Square fronts the government Palace and contains the usual statues.
Golden Eagle Festival
I had been trying to arrange flights and accommodation to go to the Golden Eagle Festival, Oct 4-5, in Ulgii, in the far NW of Mongolia for months. It is impossible to book domestic flights in Mongolia from outside the country. The only domestic airline is AeroMongolia and the web site cannot be navigated as it degenerates into Mongolian Cyrillic. And no tour operator would arrange the flights, I believe, as I was traveling independently and not buying a 6-day tour (very expensive at over $1,000). This was in July and lots of flights would have been available. By simply not responding, time passed until there were no flights that were close to the festival dates. In August,I had no problems getting accommodation at Traveler’s Guesthouse in Ulgii and I didn’t cancel those reservations. From talking to other travelers trying to arrange tours in Mongolia, most had become just as frustrated as me. Most ger camps are closed, tours are ridiculously costly and Trip Advisor reviews of most of the companies were not flattering with poor accommodation and many undelivered services.
Upon arriving at the hostel I dealt with the tour service in the hostel and was able to obtain the last seat available to Ulgii on Oct 3 (perfect), but I could not get a flight back until Oct 9, so that meant spending 3 days in Ulgii after the festival. There are tours available to the nearby Atlai Mountains.
There was another traveler in the hostel with my flights so we traveled together. Instead of the $20 taxi to the airport, we caught bus #11 for 25 cents, arriving at the airport 18kms SW of the city in 25 minutes. We were told to leave 2 hours for the bus ride because of UB’s horrendous traffic so arrived with lots of time to kill, sat in the coffee shop and enjoyed free wi-fi. Almost the entire plane was full of foreigners going to the festival. Most had bought tickets within the last week as apparently AeroMongolia added an extra flight! On the 3 hour flight to Ulgii, we passed over stark mountainous terrain with some lakes, one very large.
Several travellers who did not want to pay for the high cost of the flight caught the bus on Wednesday, Oct 1st. Supposedly a 50 hour trip, the bus did not leave till the next day as it waited until it was full. So four of these fellows hopped on a cargo truck. Crammed into the back, there was no space to move. After eight flat tires and a major engine breakdown that required 6 hours to fix, they were considerably behind schedule and the bus passed them. They eventually made it to Ulgii on Sunday morning (the 5th) and got to see the second day of the festival. Such are the pitfalls of taking the bus in Mongolia. Sounds like a major epic to me. But these always make for the best travel stories.
Ulgii is a barren looking town spread along a river and surrounded by bare mountains. Most houses are flat-roofed concrete affairs all surrounded by brick walls. The predominate ethnic group is Kasakh who are Muslim. I stayed at Travelers Guesthouse, a ger hotel near the city center for $6 per night. With 3 small and 2 large gers, it was packed for the festival. Amenities are basic: a menial, outside, long-drop, squat toilet, shower with only enough hot water for maybe 2 showers, an outside sink that freezes most nights and no access inside the accompanying house. But what do you expect for $6?
My roommates in my ger are some very unusual travelers. One fellow from Spain has bicycled here from Kasakstan via China and is cycling back in this cold time of the year. The other two from Japan have each bought horses ($550 for the horse with extra for a saddle, bridle, boots, deel (long Mongolian coat), straw etc. Neither had ever ridden a horse before and know virtually nothing about horses. They took a several day “practice” ride south where there is no water, feed or trees to tie the horse down at night. One of the horses was a little wild, bucked one of them off twice, kicked him and ran away! With the help of a Mongolian family, they were able to capture the horse and promptly sold it to the family. That guy swore not to ever ride again. He walks the 10km out to the festival to save $2 per trip and I have never heard him speak. The whole idea of getting horses was to ride the 190km over 5 days out to the nearby national park, explore the park and ride back. The route follows a river and will have grass and water. Being at least smart enough to realize that he needed a guide if he still wanted to go, he was able to get one of the eagle hunters to accompany him. The temperature is barely above zero during the day and much colder at night and the wind blows constantly. Spending 2 weeks on a horse seems more than a little crazy to me.
During my time in Mongolia, I have met many travelers who make my travel seem pretty tame. One fellow from Montreal has cycled 3 months through SE Asia, others are traveling independently overland throughout Asia and other places in the world for 1-2 years. They are the types who travel in very basic ways often because of lack of money: hitchhiking, camping, and traveling on the cheap. Most have rather amazing and authentic experiences.
The festival was 10kms south of Ulgii in a huge wide valley next to the mountains. I purchased a ticket for 4 rides on the bus and the $30 ticket to the festival. This is the 15th annual festival. It was developed and sponsored by Nomadic Expeditions, a tour company, to promote golden eagle hunting and Kazakh culture and to develop a tourism industry. The events were on the first day: registration and credentialing of the eagle hunters; opening ceremony (I counted 51 golden eagles in the parade, all the eagle hunters are mounted on horses and have a forked support that they rest their arm on); best Kazakh costume and harness (their seemed little relationship between what I saw and the marks given by the four elders doing the judging – marks were rarely below 8 and at least 10 had perfect scores – it was hilarious); a horse race around the mountain that nobody saw; an archery competition (From about 60 yards, they shot the padded arrows at a row of softball-sized balls lined up on the ground. If the hit ball struck the backstop about 10m behind, it was removed. Once down to 3 balls, they moved forward about 10m. These guys played all day); another competition where the eagle was released from half way up the small mountain and landed on the hunters arm while riding; and a traditional coin grabbing game while riding. In the evening there was a folk concert with dancing, singing, instrumentalists and a 21-piece orchestra with many traditional instruments. It was held in a lovely theatre. I counted about 160 foreign visitors.
Day 2 had the following events: a timed event where the eagle was released from the top of the mountain and caught a lure of a rabbit or fox being dragged by the mounted rider (this was an amazing event to watch); a camel race; a best costume event for couples (10 couples competed and the more plain but truly traditional couple won); and a traditional horse back riding game involving a tug of war fight over a large sheep skin (this too was exciting). At the end was an award ceremony for the winners.
The eagles and hunters were a very impressive lot. Dressed in traditional clothing of a fur hat, fur coat if from the mountains or traditional deel if not, impressive saddles and bridles, embroidered clothes, bags and accessories. They were very proud and loved posing for photographers. The only female eagle hunter in the world (a NG film has made about her) was one of the star attractions. She was led around by a young guy on a horse and surprisingly won the top award for the festival. Many handicrafts especially embroidered blankets and bags, fur hats, and knives were for sale. Restaurant gers offered meals and Mongolian food is surprisingly good – dumplings with savory meat, pancakes with meat, noodles and meat, BBQ meat on a skewer (mutton and big chunks of fat alternating), and deep-fried pastry with meat. It is hard to be a vegetarian here. Fat is part of a lot of meals to help keep warm and is surprisingly good when barbecued. I was warm all day in the cold, windy conditions.
The audience had many more foreigners than locals. Nomadic Expeditions was the major sponsor of the event and they had a large tent with backed chairs for their pampered guests, almost all who seemed to be American. Several other tour companies also had groups. And then there were several independent travelers, many staying at Travelers Guesthouse. It was clear that the festival was for the eagle hunters as virtually none of the frequent announcements were in English.
The photographic opportunities were incredible and several tourists had massive, high-end lenses. A National Geographic crew was there along with an independent documentary crew. The eagle hunters were almost always mounted on their horse supporting their arm on a wood support. They proudly posed endlessly. Eagles were all over the place. Many photographers, I felt, were intrusive. You could get dressed up in Mongolian warrior outfits and inappropriately, a couple dressed up at Mickey and Minnie Mouse (couldn’t believe this) that charged for photos.
The closing ceremony was impressive with 50 mounted hunters in a big semi-circle in front of the stage getting medals and scrolls for the winners of events.
Ulgii itself has little to offer rather than a few supermarkets and several restaurants. A public bathhouse was popular but we got tired of the wait as all the tour groups jumped the queue.
Tavan Bogd N. P.
Along with a young woman from Georgia working in UB for a year, I went on a 3-day tour to Tavan Bogd National Park, in the Atlai Mountains 190km west of Ulgii. With our driver in a Russian made very sturdy van, it is a 7-hour drive over rough gravel roads. We went over a few wind-swept passes and saw many Bactrian camels (which are only in this part of the world and are all domesticated). We arrived at our accommodation with a local family in their flat-roofed log home where we joined a couple of guys from Australia. They brought their own cook as they have gotten tired of boiled mutton. The parents are in their early 40s, had four children with one son still at home. The mother and son both have untreated congenital dislocation of the hips and terrible limps. They raise yaks. The house has a porch and one big room with linoleum on the floor and walls and colorful carpets covering the walls in the living room area. Separating the kitchen from half the living area is a hollow, cinder block wall that extends from the chimney. It brilliantly stores heat from the small stove that is both heat and cooking. A huge metal bowl in which they do most of their cooking sits in the open hole on the top of the stove. They have a small solar panel that powers one light bulb at night. Outside are roofed stone sheds and corrals for the animals, a river, an unroofed stone long drop squat toilet and many piles of dried dung that is their fuel. There are no trees around here and many high snow covered mountains. Houses are widely spread out and we can see no others from here. They were a lovely, generous family.
We are in their beds but mine was a narrow affair with the loosest springs in the world that seconded as the cat hang-out space during the day. When the cats tried to join me, I moved some simple padding onto the floor and slept there. After we had turned off the light, the 3 members of the family, the cook (and her husband who appeared our of nowhere) and the two drivers came into the house and made all their beds on the floor. One of the drivers took my bed.
The next morning we went into the park to hike and see the terrain. Dark storm clouds with snow seem to hang over the park every day. We stopped at a big, smooth rock littered with amazing petroglyphs of ibex, a huge horse, deer with big antlers and many other animals. After driving to another overlook, we went hiking down to a lake. There were tracks and deer like scat everywhere and we thought we might see ibex. We came upon a lone guy with a horse offering rides in the middle of nowhere. Isabel took him up on the offer, he led her over the hill and promptly tried to molest her. We walked up a small rise and encountered a little boy with no hat and the reddest cheeks! Where did all these people come from? Continuing on over the hill next to the lake was their ger and a tiny stone corral. Then 300 goats and sheep appeared. We climbed the mountain behind for sweeping views of two valleys extending west into the park. It is desolate forbidding terrain – no trees, high rocky hills and a few peaks, one with a glacier, in the distance. We all went down to the small ger. It had a dirt floor, bed and a stove. A few rifles and miscellaneous stuff hung from the walls. After a short visit, we then went on a cultural tour visiting several more homes and picked up a sheep that was put in the back of the van. Everyone was very hospitable and put out snacks and salty milk tea for everyone. One particular home put out unleavened biscuits and six varieties of milk products – dried yoghurt (so hard it is tough to eat and not affected by hot tea), yak butter, a variety of cheeses and things I couldn’t identify. After arriving at our homestay, they butchered the sheep, always an amazing thing to see. Nothing is wasted. After dinner, a gigantic plate of boiled mutton was brought out. The father played a musical instrument like a large violin with a large square body and two strings (all Mongolian stringed instruments have only two strings and tend to produce a rather lame sound. He sang using an unusual “throat singing” voice which is classically Mongolian. The inuit of Canada also throat sing.
The next AM we were up at six to begin the long drive back to Ulgii. We didn’t encounter a tree (some large larch) until 5 hours just before the only town on the route. It is desolate. The wide, flat-bottomed valley is fringed by rugged low mountains of varying hues. Herds of cattle, yaks, sheep and goats roam the valley floor. A high-clearance vehicle with 4WD is necessary to negotiate the occasional washouts and several river crossings. It was below zero all day and windy so was damn cold. I couldn’t imagine what is would be like with -35 for months on end.
We convoyed with the Australians on the way back. We stopped at the small town and their driver disappeared. The road out of the town is incredibly rough and their van was not following us so we stopped and waited. Their driver had passed out at he wheel dead drunk! Now we knew where he had gone. One of the guys tried to drive and then the cook and they eventually caught up to us. We all piled into our van and left the other driver to his own devices.
Back at Travelers Guesthouse, there was a big Ford F-550 diesel truck with California plates in the center of the compound. Mounted on the truck was a specially built European-style camper with Turtle Expedition on the side. Mammoth tires, a winch, overcab steel rack, large metal box on the roof, 2 solar panels and many outside compartments rounded out the vehicle. They are a couple in their early 60s who have been traveling around the world since 1972. This is their fifth Turtle vehicle with #s 2,3, and 4 simple pop-up campers. They had it made in California and is a one-of-a-kind vehicle (I saw a similar truck/camper vehicle in S Utah called Earth Roamer which they claim copied them and has since gone bankrupt). They are apparently photojournalists and have several sponsors, but I am unaware of their funding for such long trips. In 1996, they drove the entire length of Russia in winter and now are on a three-year trip that started in Portugal with a goal of traveling the Silk Road. They have finished that bit and now have driven to Western Mongolia. Go to turtleexpedition.com for details.
My Bigfoot camper has much more space inside with its over the cab queen bed and full bathroom. But my truck suspension and tires come nowhere close to what is on this vehicle. It looks like it can go anywhere.
Some observations about Mongolia
As already stated traffic here is a gridlock from the mid afternoon on. Put a million cars into a poor road system and this is an expected result.
This is a stratified society with evidence of great income disparity (high-end German cars, luxury housing etc) and marked poverty (UB is surrounding by ger neighbourhoods that are basically slums). Many women follow Russian dress styles with makeup, styled hair and high-end clothing. This is despite a collapse of the Mongolian economy since 2011. When a Chinese mining company tried to buy the mining interests of Rio Tinto in Mongolia (Mongolians hate the Chinese), the Mongolian government instituted a “mining law” requiring a majority/minority ownership by Mongolians. This had the unfortunate result that all mining development in the country ground to a halt. The Mongolian currency plummeted in value and unemployment doubled. Adding insult to injury, the 2011/2012 winter was unusually harsh resulting in the death of a large number of livestock. Construction is ongoing everywhere. Expensive development has continued when what is really needed is affordable accommodation for the massive influx of rural Mongolians into Ulan Bator.
Few Mongolians have any English skills and asking directions on the street rarely gets a positive result (this is not a criticism, but an observation). Most restaurants serve only Mongolian food and KFC is the only American fast food. But Korean, Japanese and American style restaurants are common in UB. Prices are very low – you can get a full meal for $2.50-5 and up to $15 for the most expensive foreign meal. Accommodation in the best hostels is $6-7. Diesel is $1.10/litre. Fresh Vegetables tend to be expensive, often more so than at home. A bus ride anywhere in UB is 30 cents.
Basketball is popular. We have a small half-court in the parking lot outside our hostel and there are a group of kids playing for 12-14 hours a day. Some of them actually have reasonable skills but all are short. Budding into queues is common.
Rural Mongolians are unbelievably generous. One could stop at any ger in the country and expect to find a bed and food. Hitchhiking is common but one is expected to contribute to gas. Buses and roads in Mongolia are unreliable. There is a plan to connect all 16 state capitals with all-season roads to UB but only one has been completed. It poses a problem for mining as concentrates need to moved from the mines for smelting. Good roads then are a crucial part of developing the mining industry. The only railways are Soviet built and connect UB to Russia and China only. Trains continuing to China which has a different track gauge must have the undercarriage of all cars changed at the Chinese border.
I took the fight back to UB on Oct 9th, relaxed on the 10th and flew to Beijing on October 11. There are only 2 trains a week from Ulan Bator to Beijing, one on Thursday and Sunday. As I needed to be in Beijing on October 13 for my tour of North Korea, I was forced to fly.