01 October 2009
Mongolia - Mars, Only On Earth
At one time the Mongols - led by Genghis Khan - controlled nearly all of modern day Asia and parts of Europe. Situated between Russia and China, Mongolia has - in recent history - been treated like a wedge separating two great powers. The capital Ulaanbaatar is a bizarre place, as a nation of nomadic people attempts to engage with the world on terms that don’t fit their own identity. The real Mongolia, however, is easily accessible through numerous guesthouses that double as travel agents. The world’s least densely populated nation is home to pristine lakes, majestic mountains, the Gobi dessert and an adorable breed of miniature horses both native and unique to Mongolia. Spend the night star gazing in the middle of nowhere before heading to bed in a traditional nomadic yurt. Wake up to breathtaking landscapes that can be explored by car, horse or even camel. Whoever came up with the phrase “off the beaten path” must have been in Mongolia. This is the place to completely disappear.
The Lay of the Land
The capital Ulaanbaatar is situated in the eastern central part of the country. This is the best jump-off point to explore the country. The north offers lakes, rivers and mountains while the south is home to the mighty Gobi desert. The grasslands stretch east and west, with the far west offering the most remote and most beautiful countryside.
The Quick & Easy
Mongolia is a one-stop shop kind-of country. That is, the right guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar will mean the perfect holiday, as most plan excursions to every corner of the country. The most interesting way to get to Mongolia is via the weekly36-hour sleeper train from Beijing. If gorgeous countryside and fascinating border crossings don’t appeal to you, Ulaanbaatar also has an international airport. For all your travel needs, try:
UB Guesthouse (www.ubguest.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) Bobby and Kim are Mongolia’s travel gurus. Spend two days in the capital regrouping, making excursion plans and sleeping in one of their $18 per night double rooms that offers free breakfast and wifi internet access. Bobby will sit you down upon arrival and give you all your options based on how much time you’ve got:
Three Days - Stay with a local family in Terelj National Park two hours outside Ulaanbaatar ($65 including all meals and horseback riding)
One Week - Head south to Genghis Khan’s ancient capital and the Gobi desert.
Two Weeks - Add one week in the north taking in mountains, lakes and rivers.
One month - Extend south and north to ten days and add another ten going half-way west.
Six Weeks - See all of Mongolia in the grand loop. Go south to the Gobi, north to the mountains and deep west to the one of the most remote places on earth. This is a holiday you’ll never forger.
During your brief stay in the capital don’t miss:
The Culture Show - A divine showing of song, dance, throat singing and Mongolia’s National Symphony Orchestra, who gave London’s Royal Symphony a run for their money. The best $9 you’ll ever spend.
The Natural History Museum - The most complete dinosaur fossils on earth are housed here. Don’t pay the “photo” fee, as you can’t snap shots of the dinosaurs anyway.
Eat at Mongol Shabu. Take a right outside the UB Guesthouse then turn left at the first street. The nondescript sign will be on your left about 50 feet up. Incredible Mongolian hotpot for about $5 a person.
Stock up on pastries as Helmut Sachers Kaffee (Baga Toiruu 14, Opposite Ulaanbaatar City Bank, (976)-70114-734) Brigitte Cummings, A German expat, offers the most divine collection of Berliners, cheesecakes and bread you’ve ever seen. She’ll also help you figure out how to count the local currency, which is no easy task.
Mongolia is a place to just go with the flow. Check in to UB Guesthouse and just go from there. Trust me, it will all work out.