Even through my dazed , semi-conscious state, after various flights which took 30 hours to get to Chinggis Khaan airport (now New Ulaanbaatar International Airport), in Mongolia, when I looked down from the plane’s window over Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, it was not at all what I expected to see. Instead of sparse, humble housing areas, my first shock were the sleek, creative skyscrapers plus all the building cranes for more of the same.
Surrounded by the Altai Mountain range,I had a preconceived idea about this small land locked country which had been untouched by the modern world with undisturbed beauty and little tourism.
But since their independence from Soviet regime since 1990,it isn’t at all as I expected. I felt this would be like the last place on earth for this alien scribe.
Expecting a sad third world country struggling to emerge instead I learned there is a plethora of undeveloped riches…for example minerals such as gold, oil, copper, nickel zinc, coal, silver, phosphates and fluorspar, to name a few,
Mongolia could become an extremely wealthy country under the right political circumstances. Although the potential is staggering there is a major need of entrepreneurial skills.
For those wanting adventure and new venues, tourists should take the opportunity to visit this “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky” before it makes the ‘bucket lists” of the avid traveler.
Among low rise buildings and Gers, (more about them below), I suspect that within the next few years this will be a city that will be ready for luxury tourists and five star treatment.
However, if truth be told, traveling here is still an adventure with hardship since the infrastructure doesn’t exist. Roads are sometimes paved but mostly outside the major city, it gives a somewhat new definition to river rock, pitted, washboard, pathways, often awestruck as the drive goes onto the pastures of this truly untouched and lovely country crisscrossing with yaks, goats and wild horses.
Although there is a only a populations of 3 million, about 1.5 million live in Ulaanbaatar (UB). What seemed to get my attention is the traffic snarled to the point where going a few miles could take an hour. I thought that I should have had a few yoga lessons and meditation sessions before leaving to learn patience.
From the airport, there are visible discrepancies in communities with very lowly and shabby houses and Gers while in a blink of the eye, all that changed as ultra trendy steel and glass structures are replacing these structures.
Even with the horrendous and constant traffic, and not far from the Ramada Hotel where I would be staying, it took over an hour for those 15 miles (approx. 25 km). Not only is the traffic uncontrollable, drivers, without any care for safety, blatantly disobey international road rules.
The now renovated, very up market, Ramada Hotel, is where I resided for the first two days and again, a few more days, after my sojourn in the Gobi desert.
There is the first, five star hotel (opened in 2011), The Blue Sky. Its architecture so unusual that for the time being, it has become the city’s signature. Stunning curved glass towers that narrow at the top, is so innovative and would be a stand-out anywhere in the world.
However, my first thoughts after seeing my very nicely decorated room, were to take to shower, change my clothing, and yes, as demanded, get ready for our first sightseeing excursion that very same day without the respite of a few hours of shut eye.
Blurry eyed and slow paced, as though I was a puppet, I could say with conviction, if there’s one place not to see first without a short nap, it’s the fabulous National Museum of Mongolia. There are just too many wondrous objects to observe when your mind is still in daze mode. However, I do remember vividly, the costume area with the bejeweled, gold woven robes and the splendiferous collection of several million year old fossils found in the Gobi Desert. Certainly, easier, would have been the wonderful, small, Fine Art Museum. Refreshed, the next day it should have been the Gandan Monastery, for peace-loving Buddhist monks in their brightly colored robes accented with beautiful chapels. This most revered ‘home’ is for 100 monks and the giant 75 foot gold gilded Buddha statue surrounded by Mongolians who have come to see this monument. Near the entrance is a strange sight, pair of huge, but truly huge feet of bronze, in this serene location.
Just across the National Museum, is a very wide, very large Genghis Khan (formerly Sukhbaatar) Square. Here was the opportunity for the crisp fresh air and to see the monumental bronze statue of Genghis Khan, who sits majestically, in the centre of the exterior of a grand building. However, the other large sculpture of importance in the square is an equestrian, sitting warlike on the horse whom all foreigners think is Khan but, in fact, it’s Sukhbaatar. Damin Sukhbaatar was the founder of Mongolians People’s Party. However, he has now lost the name of the square to Genghis Khan .
I didn’t see any beggars in this vast, sparkling clean space. Instead, a few artists selling some art, others claiming they have the best maps and postcards of the city, children laughing and running about, all in western clothing and well known designer sneakers, a wedding party having their photos taken and a ‘philosopher’ who insisted that he thought that “the Russian rule was just fine” with him, an opinion not shared with any other local to whom I spoke.
Looking across this vast space, there is a most modern glass building with the unexpected deluxe stores like Louis Vuitton and Zegna, plus many more high class designer boutiques. I asked the sales person if only tourists shop here and was told that, in fact, 90 percent of their clients,were locals.
I never expected torrents of rain, nor did I realize that in there would be so very few taxis. Without boots, no umbrella or raincoat, with non existent drains the streets quickly created very deep puddles, I naively tried hailing cab. Finally soaked to the skin, I found rescue in an Yves Rocher Cosmetic shop where the very kind salespeople couldn’t have been more helpful. They helpfully called my hotel for a car which came in an hour, to my dampened rescue. But due to the bad narrow roads, the never ending stream of bumper to bumper cars, the wait was long although Ramada is only about 5 miles ( 8 km away). Pedestrians take their live’s in their hands if they try using the zebra lined walkways. But they manage and rush if and when there’s a space between the stopped cars,to the other side.
However, I had come mainly to see the Gobi desert and its offerings. Little did I know, the so-called highway would be so horrendous, almost un-drivable. Our 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser was a must to get over the deep gorges, washboard pits and curves. I was stunned when our very experienced driver went off road onto the grassy lands filled with wild horses, goats and yaks and drove on pathways known only to the animals, to get to our first Ger.
And what is a Ger? (or in Russian, Yurt). They look round but in fact, inside they are 6 to 10 angles. These portable put up/tear down traditional Nomad ‘homes” are held up by a central column, often the interior is brightly hand painted with the only natural light from the top flab which is closed at night. Most have a hanging light bulb but they go dark after 11 PM. And leaving the Ger for any reason during the night, since the loos and showers are a bit of a walk away, a flashlight becomes a most important object to have brought. But the plus is that star gazing is such a treat. They seemed so close and the sparkle was like a well cut diamond.
The permanent Gers, when the harsh winters come, have heaters but none were needed during my stay even the one night the wind howled The permanent Gers,have heavy felt lining, thus another name, The City of Felt, which prevents the harsh winds and snow from freezing the inhabitants. I spotted space heaters obviously for the winter months.
One of my companions, Kathy Lamb, an American, travel agent from San Diego California, declared, “Mongolia has a long way to go to accommodate the average American/Canadian/European tourist,” Perhaps that statement was for her clientele but I wanted adventure as do many other tourists.
Since it is a ‘new’ destination, the local guides need some education. That said, what we viewed and experienced was extremely interesting, but the rough drive to our first Ger in the Yol Valley in Gurvansaikhan National Park, was a physical challenge.
The three Gers where I stayed,- Discovery 1, Discovery 2, and Gobi Tour, (my favorite), all had the same configuration with three narrow but comfortable brightly painted beds, placed in one of the angles of the Ger, covered with spotless linens, a table and chair. They are spotlessly clean as are the buildings which house the toilets and showers (water??? sometimes cool, other times lukewarm and dribbling), are bearable.
A tip is to keep your shoes stuffed with stockings or packed away since scorpions seem to love the warmth of the toes.
All are dismantled after the season and before the snow and severe frost sets in.
For me, the one of the major highlights were the sunsets and sunrises and their dazzling and spectacular colors.
Along with the outdoor adventures, was the welcomed invitation into a Ger, the permanent residence of a Mongol family, who kindly offered fermented mare’s milk and homemade bread, as well as a Bactrian(the two hump variety) camel ride- (for a price).
I decided to take this once in a lifetime opportunity and as calmly as possible climbed on the kneeling Bactrian camel ( the two humps variety). In fact, it was a great thrill when she finally stood up and I looked down, very far down, to the ground from my seat between the two humps. These animals seemed timid, old and tired which suited me just fine.
This sandy means of transportation was one of my finest memories- riding a camel in the Gobi Desert surrounded by snow capped towering sand dunes, and grassy steppe and of course, the mountain range. But when the sun goes down and the breeze picks up, it is admittedly very cold, a great temperature drop from the heat of the day.
After the third Ger overnighter,(four were scheduled), I opted to return to Ulaanbaatar to search out the small, quaint areas, as well as the new glitzy additions that we didn’t see while there. And Soyoloo of TravelallMongolia.com, was most agreeable and came to fetch me.
“It will be three years before the roads are paved,” almost apologetically, Soyoloo, the owner of www.travelinmongolia, a bright, optimistic, young travel agent, tells me on our way back to the big city. More like 5 years is my guessimate. But he certainly has a budding future with fluent English, tremendous knowledge of his country and with the perfect patient personality,all the making of a great tour operator.
Mongolians understand the palate of the finicky foreign eaters who have the choice of vegetarian food or going native. The latter is often an acquired taste but there is much to admire and like. It was a surprise when I asked for hot milk tea which is made with mare’s milk, salt, and some mutton oil. It was worth tasting since it’s one of the national foods.
I had heard about the “Singing Sands”. These dunes are heartbreakers if you love the shifting of shadows and sandy hills. Although too difficult to take the hike to the top of the highest point, 2500 feet, I had a remarkable chit chat time with Michael, an Aussie travel mate.
It seemed strange to have an arena in an isolated area, but Hustai National Park is the site of the Przewalskii horse show. There is great horsemanship, wrestling, sword fighting on horse, archery and a bit of local dancers in national costumes. And if there was a thread of a story, it was about the nation’s hero, Ghenghis Khan.
Other stops were Bayanzag, where 70 million years ago there is evidence of Paleontological findings. The American explorer, Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922, searched the Gobi and discovered in 1924, dinosaur fossils and eggs for the first time in the world. Our guides, had hidden and buried one of their treasures showing them only to their favorite private clients. Seeing this very large dinosaur foot, when I put my hand next to it, was as though I only had very petite hands.
And one can’t possibly leave this country without visiting Terelj National Park. It’s here visible from miles away, is a 40 meter high, huge silver covered statue of Ghengis Khan, whose shiny statue sits on the roof of the library and archives dedicated to the hero
After seeing Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America. Mongolia is sure to be one of the next big destinations. It’s a safari in the sand. And although at the time of this article, (2013), there are undeniable difficulties, improving daily. I would never have passed up a trip like this and happy to visit again.
The rooms at very posh, The Blue Sky Hotel, is the only five star hotel. There seemed to be a huge staff of cleaners with their mops and cloths. The lobby is spotless, but has the look of an office building – cold, drafty and without personality except for a small area with tables and a few chairs,an-off-the lobby cafe with a counter filled with great pastry making it look like a dressed up bakery shop. However, in the same large dining space, a few steps away, is a more formal, opulent dining area, a strange juxtaposition, I thought.
At my request I asked for a site inspection of the executive rooms. They were unexpectedly small for this caliber of hotel. Much to my surprise, showers were unusually small but the rooms were well decorated. The two executive suites I did see didn’t get my heart rate up. While sizing up the price difference and the age, I was completely happy with the Ramada Hotel, an older but renovated accommodation. The organization seems to have rethought their standards and are going up market.
I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and the various cozy corners in the lobby with the colorful coffee tables of black, red and white odd-shaped cubes, a great place to relax. There are other restaurants and the breakfast on the 5th floor is first rate and it’s here too, that you will have an entrance to the art gallery and Max Mall where there’s a great choice from jewelry and wearables to a most important section- a spa and hair salon, Mimosa, where I had terrific success with my frizzy hair.
WHERE TO BUY YOUR CASHMERES
I found that the noted out of the city, Gobi Factory, the largest outlet for cashmeres, didn’t have sizes,colors, styles that you may have wanted. It really was a disappointment after all the hype Gobi gets. It lacked service while at Eermel (Evseg), (Tel 7495 928 8432) more convenient and in the centre of the city, there was more substantial, chic styles and no need to spend an hour getting to the Gobi Factory.
In the Max Mall complex,attached to the Ramada Hotel, The Cashmere Shop , on the second floor, may be small but turned out to be one of the best and convenient boutiques with great western styling, not your basic cardigan , and made from the finest cashmere. Styles for both men and women .Ask for Ghana.
WHERE TO EAT
Although Hazara, is a noted northern food Indian restaurant. It is more a fusion of Indian and Mongolian which is very interesting. The exotic mixtures are tasty but not like any authentic Indian food. Located is stunning and the ambiance great especially with the a helpful staff who will suggested dishes.
16 Peace Ave. Tel 011480214
Known as the original Mongolian Grill since 1206, Atlai has very traditional meals where you have the choice of being a vegetarian or opting for meat. Get Bunz (Mongolian steamed beef dumplings), cooked sheep’s head, a very popular dish, and also Khorkhog, mutton soup which has been cooked by red hot stones.
Sukhbatar district …3 Seoul Street. 976 70110880
It’s called bd’s Mongolian Grill, not BD, and is a US based chain and the first to set up a franchise in Mongolia. Choose your food from the very cold buffet, especially meat, take it to the chefs who will stir fry your choices. It’s fun and good.