Things to see and do
I'd say the one attraction of Mongolia is Mongolia itself. Just to visit the vast, undeveloped landscape. We just visited a small part of Mongolia, but most if it looked quite similar. The towns were nearly indistinguishable from each other, apart from the presence or absence of certain basic services such as electricity or water. So just find a spot and spend some time there. Hike, camp out, and enjoy the outdoors.
My first choice would be Lake Khovsgol. It's a beautiful lake, with mountains all around it, and lots of ger camps to choose from. From the north end of the ger camps you could hike further north and enjoy some nice solitude. Second choice would be a larger town such as Tsetserleg. You could easily find a spot not too far from town where you could set up camp. From there, you could hike in to town for food supplies every few days. Camping is pretty much permissible everywhere - although be careful about setting up in a pasture that will be overrun with goats and sheep.
My next recommendation would be to avoid an organized tour. Sure it's simpler. But you're going to get dragged around for days on end, bouncing along across the rugged terrain of Mongolia. Which is fine for a couple of days. But it soon gets tiring. If you have the money, fly. If you don't have the money, hop on a bus and bear the agony. But not spend too much time traveling from place to place. The best times we had were spent in staying in one place, not riding around the countryside (as nice as it looks).
And finally, don't forget to take in the night sky. When the moon is down you can see millions and millions of stars. And it doesn't take much looking to spot a falling star or two.
Pack like you would for a camping trip. Light, light, light. Especially if you plan on doing some hiking or camping. There's a lot of walking to be done in Mongolia, and you don't want to be over loaded. And with the dry heat, your clothes won't stink too bad - or at least they'll dry out quickly after a quick hand wash. Bring a flashlight as well. Gers rarely have electricity, and even some towns don't seem to have any current passing through their wires. If you forget a flashlight, the lighters they sell include a small pen light. Sunscreen, insect repellent, first aid supplies, moisturizing cream (it is very dry there) and things like that will come in handy as well.
Also, pack some warm clothes. In the middle of August we were regularly wearing our light jackets and were still chilly at times.
A sleeping bag is a must, as it can get quite chilly at night. The gers usually have a wood burning stove in them, but the fire will eventually die out. And most hotels don't seem to be equipped with heat. Or at least they're not apt to turn it on in the "summer."
A light tent would also be a good idea, if you're inclined to camping. There are a lot of ger camps, but there's also a lot of wide open landscape to explore. Being able to throw down a tent would be useful.
I have listed most prices in Tugrik (T). At the time we went the Tugrik was 1150 to the US dollar. Here, I'll give the run down in dollars.
For three weeks, our expenses were between $40-45 per person per day. That includes everything from arrival to departure. Accommodations usually ran between $5-$10 per person a night. Transportation accounted for some big expenditures, sometimes $15-20 per day. Meals in Mongolian restaurants usually cost around $2. Food in Ulaan Bataar was considerably more expensive. We were going to the top of the line restaurants in town and paying $10-15 a meal. The rest was for snacks, water, beer, and souvenirs. Cut out some of the traveling, the expensive food and drink, and you could probably get by on $20-25 a day. Traveling solo will be a bit more expensive though.
One important thing to remember is negotiation. Almost all prices are negotiable. Taxi and van drivers will try to over charge you, so ask around what the local price is first. Hotel rooms can also be negotiated at times. In Ulaan Bataar we were able to get a $40 a night room down to 30,000T a night.
They speak Mongolian, of course. Most signs, especially outside of Ulaan Bataar, are written in Cyrillic. It would be very useful to learn some Cyrillic before you go. At the very lest, you'll want to be able to recognize certain words and read the destination signs on buses and vans. Be careful with some of the pronunciations though. For example X is usually romanized as 'kh' when in fact it is more of a guttural 'h' sound. Which is why places like Khovsgol are often written as Hovsgol.
A few examples of place names:
Улаанбаатар = Ulan Bator, or Ulaanbaatar
Хөвсгөл нуур = Lake Khövsgöl or Lake Hovsgol
Хатгал = Khatgal or Hatgal
Хархорин = Kharkhorin or sometimes Karakorum, which is the nearby ancient capital
If you bring a notebook and a marker you can ask people to write the town names in large letters. This comes in handy when trying to find a ride.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Things to see and do
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Transportation is probably one of the most difficult aspects of traveling in Mongolia. The roads turn pedestrian journeys into all day affairs. When planning your route, assume an average speed of 30 km/hr (around 20 mph).
There are several ways of arranging transportation. Most people seem to take the chartered van route. In many ways, this is the easiest. You'll have plenty of space for you and your bag, and you won't have to haggle for prices every day. On the flip side, it is a little more expensive. Figure $30-40 per person per day, depending on the size of your group and the distances you travel. An alternative is finding rides as you go. It will be a bit cheaper, you'll have more freedom to change your plans, but the ride will be cramped and uncomfortable. You will also have to spend a lot of time waiting around for people with no idea what is going on.
We chose the later method, and I think overall it was a better experience. We were able to meet more Mongolians and better experience their daily lives. But it was also some of the most uncomfortable rides I've ever experienced. We were on a mini-bus with 30 people crammed onto it. For 20 hours. We were also stuck with 20 other people in a 12 passenger van. That was only for 9 hours though. But we also got a few nicer rides, including a couple of free hitches.
Based upon my limited experience, it seems like transportation in and out of Ulaan Baatar is cheaper than transportation between other cities. Between other cities the costs were approximately 100 Tukrig per kilometer per person.
To find a ride, the best method we found was to find the road going in your direction and wave down cars and vans. It helps to have the name of your destination written in Cyrillic as well. In every town, there's usually a bus center where the vans all depart from. But you will have a harder time negotiating there. In addition, once you have negotiated a price, you will have to wait around until the van is full. And then you will drive around town picking up everyone's luggage. And then pick up more people. And then back to the market so people can buy snacks. If you're on the main road, you may have to wait 2 or 3 hours before someone will give you a ride, but they will already be in route. So it works out about the same time wise. You also have the freedom to reject a ride which is too crowded or appears to be on the verge of a breakdown.
Remember to buy plenty of snacks before leaving. You might not get any chances to buy food or drinks along the way. And when the van or bus stops in the middle of nowhere, that signifies a bathroom break. Get out, find a spot in the field, and do your business.
Here is a summary of our transportation expenses (price in Tugrik):
UB to Moron (bus) 24,500T, 20 hours
Moron to Hatgal (van) 7,000T, 100 km, 3 hours
Moron to Tariat (tourist van) 25,000T, 280 km, 9 hours
(This was a special deal because the driver was already headed that way and we were just a little icing on the cake for him.)
Tariat to Tsetserleg (car) 20,000T, 170 km, 6 hours
Tsetserleg to Kharkharin (van) 15,000T, 135 km, 3.5 hours
Kharkharin to UB (van) 15,000T, 8 hours
A sampling of some of the roads you will encounter:
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Kharkhorin is the city near Karakorum, which is famous for being the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire. From here, Chengis Khan's descendants ruled most of Asia. But alas, that was over 500 years ago, and today there is little reminder of that era. There is one famous remnant, and that is the Erdene Zuu monastery. It was originally built in the 16th century, but was mostly destroyed by the Soviets. The temple is okay, but I'm not sure if it's worth a special trip. The temple artifacts are impressive, but the remaining structures aren't very spectacular.
Some views of the monastery:
There is also a monument to the Mongolian empire. And near that there is another, smaller temple in town as well.
There are ger camps all over the surrounding countryside. Inside of town, there are very few accommodations. We found one hotel, which didn't have any running water. Rooms were 10,000T a night.
The one memorable moment we had there was on a cold blustery day when the rain briefly turned to snow. The next morning we could still see some snow in the mountains around town. This was on August 25th.
When hiking around the country side, you'll find piles of stones on the top of almost every hill. Some will be small, while some will be rather large. You also find horse skulls and lots of other bones around these piles. We decided to stack some skulls on the pile of stones a take a picture of them. Later, we found out that it is a tradition to put a skull on the pile and face it towards the sunrise. I also just read an article that states 5 was a lucky number for the Huns, and one of their princesses was buried with 5 horse skulls. So I guess there must have been some fate in our arrangement.
The best part of Mongolia is just hiking around the country side. The area around Kharkorin is a World Heritage Site. There some nice rolling hills and a big river valley to hike around.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Tsetserleg was one of our favorite towns we visited. It's big enough to have several cafes, including a foreign cafe, a selection of motels, and a decent market. There is also a small monastery in town with a museum. The highlight for us was the hiking. Heading over the hills (where the cell phone tower is, for those going there) there is a nice little valley with a river. Along the river there are some nice trees to have a picnic under.
A part of the monastery. The rest, including the museum, is located behind me.
The valley with some nice picnic locations.
One of the interesting encounters on hikes is Mongolian cemeteries. They seem to usually be located on hills on the outskirts of town. They're quite small, with no real organization. Just some graves scattered around the hillside. A few have weathered gravestones, but most are just covered with concrete. Due to the rocky soil, the coffins aren't buried very deep. In same cases, people have cracked open the concrete cover and even the coffin. In a few of them we could see bones.
Monday, August 18, 2008
Lake Khovsgol was probably my favorite places I visited. It's nice to see some actual water in Mongolia, as most places are pretty devoid of the stuff. When we first arrived in Khatgal, we were dismayed by the lack of scenery. After spending an extra day there, and on the verge of heading to the next town, we finally ventured away and discovered that Khatgal is the very southern tip of the lake. Heading north is where you want to go.
There is one nice attraction in Khatgal though, and that is the boat tour. The boat is docked just north of town. "Departure" times are listed as 1200 and 1800. Which is actually the beginning of boarding time. You will pay 1000T to board the boat, whence you get to spend an hour looking around. At some point, you get off the boat and back on, paying once again. Supposedly the tourist rate is 10,000T per person, but we were only charged the Mongolian rate of 5,000T. The boat will head out and cruise around the lake for about an hour. Beer is sold on board, and the Mongolians play disco music and dance.
Heading north past the boats, there is a trail along the lake. Ger camps stretch out for a few kilometers and then the trail takes a precocious path along the edge of the mountains. One misstep and you'll inevitably slide down the hill and plunge into the water below. Fortunately, the water is so clear your friends will be able to see your body from up high. There is another trail around the hills which is safer, but you don't have the lovely view of the lake. After some time you will again start seeing ger camps. They will then stretch up the lake for another 15 to 20 kms. At the northern end of the lineup of ger camp there is the famous reindeer family. Actually, I don't think we found the real reindeer family, as the family we found only had about 10 reindeer sitting around. I believe there's an actual herd of reindeer out there somewhere. But we saw some reindeer and decided to head back to camp.
The ger camps along the lake vary in quality and price. There are small, family owned camps with only one or two gers. They usually cost about 5,000T per person in a shared ger. We ended up in a pretty nice camp with about 30 gers that cost 25,000T per ger. Or, for 30,000T per person, we could have had the ger plus three meals plus a hot shower. But that's not a very good deal. For breakfast, they wanted 5,000T. We negotiated a "light" breakfast for 1,500T. That included a fried egg, a loaf of bread, and butter and jam. Meals at the camp restaurant ran in the 3,500-4,500T range. So stick with the ala carte menu, if you can.
As I've said before, and I'll say again, the main attraction in Mongolia is the outdoors. And around Lake Khovsgol there is some wonderful landscape. Just pure, clean, virtually untouched surroundings. Lake Khovsgol has some of the clearest water you'll ever see. You could look out 20 feet and still see the bottom. Some parts along the shore had rock beaches with some of the nicest skipping stones I've ever seen. You'll also see a lot more trees than in other parts of Mongolia. The only thing I wish they had was some canoes. Several ger camps advertised canoes, but I never saw any. It would definitely be a nice place to spend some time canoeing around.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Terelj National Park is located just outside of Ulaan Bataar, which makes it a good quick introduction to Mongolia. For those staying only a few days in Mongolia, I highly recommend it. Also for those who are just starting out and want a quick test run before heading out into the great unknown.
Most every guest house and tour company has packages out to Terelj. There are a great many ger camps out there, with prices running the full range. We paid $50 a person for two nights in a shared ger, transportation and food included. I heard of other people paying $75 a night. There are also some hotels in the area which cater to more upscale travelers.
Included in our package was a few hours of horse back riding. The horses in Mongolia are a bit smaller than what we see in America, so they might not exactly fit the average non-Mongolian. The saddle are also quite uncomfortable. It's a good experience, but just be forewarned. And try to get the guide to adjust your stirrups to your legs.
This is the small camp we stayed in: