On June 30, 2011, I was at SFO, checking in at the Air China counter, the only Westerner in line, with a reservation clerk very doubtful about my beat up passport and lack of visa (not required for US citizens in Mongolia). After several consultations, I finally succeeded getting my boarding pass and then, through Security to the lounge where I chatted with a guy who looked ex-Special Forces, who was hoping for a Shanghai flight - wondered how he got that far without some sort of boarding pass?
This was the start of the two week Mongolian journey that took me to Chinggis Khan country that still has elements of the old days and an appreciation of past history. But like most developing nations, Mongolia is a combination of old, new and undecided. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, shows evidence of the past communist influence and is a work in progress. A dozen of more cranes lurk above the City along with "moderne"structures and uncompleted Russian block houses hiding the old, ill kept ethic buildings. There is no consistency.
And why was I there? Certainly not to spend time in UB, but to get out to the countryside, to the mountains and meadows and above all, the Gobi desert. I was with an Explore group of six: three Brits, an Irish and a Portuguese and me, the token American. It was an exceptional compatible group with a knowledgeable tour leader. There were few glitches, other than stolen Blackberry and a wrecked ankle necessitating one woman's early flight home.
The Itinerary, backwards or forwards, was pretty standard for travelers at this time of year: Ulaanbaatar-Magno Khan-Karakorum-Saikhan Ovoo-South Gobi-Dafanzadgad. Motor transport one way and fly the other. We went by a sturdy fifteen passenger Russian bus out and flew back. Then, drove onto Jalman Meadows for several days before returning to UB for the Naadam Festival, a yearly celebration of wrestling, archery and horse riding skills. There were a fair number of tourist - people came for horse riding trek, camping expeditions and, as we did, just looking-around tours.
After a day orienting to UB, we left, bumping our way to the most basic of the five Ger camps - but one of the best located. In the mountains, with scrub valley terrain, reminding me of Algeria/SW United States, Morocco/The Sudan. The air was clear; the scenery awesome. One day was spent on a 10K hike, at least 3K up into rocky passages before the struggle down a more graduated path. Both evenings, several of us clambered onto nearby rocks to observe/photograph the astounding sunsets.
The next major stoop was at Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, much in need of restoration. Equally significant was the nearby Erdene-Zi Monastery, established in the 1500s, now more of a museum. Recently, the practice of Buddhism is returning so the Monastery is being restored, albeit slowly. There was also a beautifully executed new museum, focusing on Mongolia's history - all but barren of visitors.
Windy, cold and wet, the bus struggled toward the Gobi, overheating several times. Bumpy tracks and barren landscape until The Flaming Cliffs, similar to Canyonlands in the US, An area where Roy Chapman Andrews found dinosaur eggs. Enroute I did my bactrian (two humped) camel ride - very brief when you consider I've suffered on dromedaries (one humpers) for ten days. But muh more comfortable - and with stirrups! Two Ger camps and several villages on and we were on the Gobi, with surprisingly green scrub from the rains.
One hike was in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, where we got in as far as the glacier; then to another path into the rocks where we were slowed by a second glacier. Flora and fauna abounded with the photographers busy, snapping away.
From here, it was a flight to UB and onto Jalman Meadows, described as a true wilderness, a transition zone between steppes and forest. Though much of the countryside so far had seemed quiet and peaceful, Jalman Meadows seems most serene. Several of the group took the opportunity to ride horses, several simply walked about the area with its nearby river, and all went on a yak cart ridge across the river and into the trees.
Throughout, we passed nomads with their gers and livestock. I have never seen so many free range horses. Sheep, goats and cows populated the landscape, blocking traffic (such as it was). It seemed another era.
Back to UB for the Festival: the city was crowded with both Mongol and overseas visitors. The opening ceremonies on the main square had heavy military and political attendance. Then to the main stadium where the Olympic-type proceedings continued. Bands, drill, gymnastic exercises - all before a large enthusiastic audience. By afternoon, the wrestling was in one stadium and archery was in another - with women allowed to compete in the archery contests.
The audience was of as much interest as the performances: clothing ranged from tunics and sashes of the old days to micro-mini skirts and t-shirts of new times - and everything in between. Many of the older folk wore medals stemming from the communist days. Concessionaires were all over. There seemed a party atmosphere of a State Fair.
Horse Racing was the second day, in a venues way out of UB. Though we left early, we had competition from hundred of others. I have never experienced in such a automobile jam, going or coming Suddenly a four lane road is eleven lanes, all going the same way. Checkpoints ignored, cars squealing through gas stations and across streams with police efforts to corral the chaos, unsuccessful!
The horse racing venue was lovely: grassy hills with a fence defining the track and the army providing some security. Concessioners sold kites, people brought small pup tents and picnicked and the horses did not run on time. About an hour plus, late, the trotted to their starting point and too off, one firmly took the lead and stayed throughout.
Then, back to the chaos of returning to UB. And the fight home the next day!
Accommodations: I had called them yurts, which is apparently the Russian term - yurt or ger - all the same. Portable, felt covered over a rounded wooden lattice-=like frame with waterproof fabric covering it all, they are quite quite comfortable. Several of the one I stayed in had a wood stove with the smoke exiting via a hole at the apex. Two had electricity - otherwise, it was candle power. All were set up for two person occupancy with comfortable beds and plenty of bedding. If I were rating them: 1-2 star; 3-3 star and 1-4 star. The UB hotel with a standard 3 start, good location and with internet and wi-fi.
Facilities: Two of the ger camps had buildings with toilet and sowers. The rest had shower-gers with hot water heated on the wood stove, mixed with cold, poured into a cylinder with a presssure pump to push out water for showers. It worked ok, though I found it easier to mix hot and cold water in a pail and do a Hindu bath. The toilet at one camp was a set of chemical units; the other were put toilets with a Western seat (though the first place had a squat pit toilet for those inclined).
The food: Plentiful but basic meat-rice-potatoes diet. Mornings were good: often cereal/muesli. eggs. bred. cucumbers and tomatoes. Sandwiches, tomatoes, hard boiled eff and apple/orange for lunch as often, we ate on the run. Salad, soup and meat-rice-potato at night. As a non-meat eater, it was difficult for me - I recall chicken four times in two weeks. Out of desperation, I did end up chewing on some meat though did ignore the "mystery meat" sandwiches.
Entertainment: On one of the last evenings in town, Nomadic Journeys, who was the local provider for this tour, had all their groups together for dinner (maybe the worst meal of the trip) and entertainment. A ethnic musical group who did throat singing was outstanding. The style show was unique. I would have preferred both in a different setting than a standard hotel dining room with a bunch of noisy tourists. busy with picture taking.
Accommodations: I had called them Yurts, which is apparently the Russian term - they are the same. Portable, felt covered over a rounded wooden lattice-like frame, with waterproof fabric covering it all, they are quite comfortable. Several of the ones I stayed in had a wood stove with the smoke exiting via a whole at the apex. Two had electricity; otherwise it was candle-power. If I were rating them: 1-2 star, 3-3 star and 1-4 star. The UB Hotel was a standard 3 star, good location and with Internet.
Facilities: Two of the Ger Camps had buildings with toilets and showers, The others had Shower-Gers with hot water (heated on the wood stove) to be mixed with cold, poured into a cylinder with a pressure pump to push out water for a shower - in one instance I found it easier to mix hot and cold water in a pail and take a Hindi bath. The toilet at one camp was a set of enclosed chemical units and others were pit toilets albeit with a Western seat. (though the first place had a squat pit toilet for those inclined).
The food: Plentiful but a basic meat-rice-potatoes diet. Mornings were good: often cereal/muesli, eggs, bread, cucumbers and tomatoes. Sandwiches, tomatoes and hard boiled egg at noon for often, we were eating on the run. Salad, soup and meat-rice-potato at night. As a non meat eater, it was difficult for me - I recall having chicken four times during the two weeks - and two of those times was at lunch. I ended up eating some meat, though did ignore the ”mystery meat” sandwiches.
Cost: Explore Worldwide Land of the Great Khan-Naadam Festival tour: $3500 for two weeks including almost all meals. (I get a discount as a prior Explore client). Air China: $2000 including an overnight hotel in Beijing due to the long layover. Also, I was upgraded to Business class Beijing to SFO - a nice touch!.