How was Mongolia?

I just got back from a trip to Mongolia w/ my kids & girlfriend (at the tail end of a trip thru part of China with the same crew plus my  mom), and am getting a load of questions from folks in the vein of “How was Mongolia”, “What’s Mongolia like?”, etc.  So I figured I’d write the answer down here once and for all….  (Warning: this is typed fast and stream-of-consciousness and is definitely not an attempt at professional travel prose!!)

First off: Mongolia is AWESOME.  Everyone should go there.  Experience it before it gets modernized, as will inevitably happen in the next couple decades, as the country’s substantial mineral wealth finally gets tapped.

The original motivation for the trip was my son Zeb’s obsession with Mongolian history from the period of the extensive Mongol empire….

Our introduction to Mongolia, which we entered over-land from the Chinese border, was getting a jeep-taxi to cross the border, and having 5 of us (plus our backpacks) crammed improbably into 2 seats.  The rest of the jeep was filled with cartons of vodka bottles.  2 of our party were “seated” so as to have no contact with any seat in the jeep, just suspended in the air on top of us.  That was hilarious but fortunately short-lived.  The overnight train from the Mongolian border town (Zamyn-Uud) to Ulaanbaator was slow but uneventful, and the dining car was full of colorful-looking Mongolians drinking vodka and getting high.

Ulaanbaator is a surprisingly funky city, with all sort of restaurants and lot of nightlife.  Lots of businessmen in Armani suits, who are the best people to ask for directions when you’re lost, as they usually speak English (and in Ulaanbaator one is usually lost, because the street layout makes no sense and the addresses are usually meaningless).  Worst traffic imaginable, walking is usually faster than driving; and completely psychotic drivers.  Surprising number of young blue-haired punk rockers and Mongolian-language rappers and such….  The city is very European in a way, with scarcely a trace of Chinese influence (though Erlianhaute, in China on the Mongolian border, seems very Mongolian…).

But the real fun is getting out of Ulaanbaator, which is accomplished only expensively or very uncomfortably, but is very much worth it.  Our first stop was Terelj, which is actually close to Ulaanbaator and takes only a couple hours to get to (we took a local bus there and hitched back), and consists of amazingly beautiful scenery quite different from what one thinks of as typically Mongolian.   Mountains covered with trees and grass, crystal-clear rivers, complex rambling rock formations atop mountains, perfect for climbing…  I’m sure it’s painfully cold in the winter, but in summer it’s quite paradisiacal.  Renting horses and riding them through the woods, criss-crossing the river, etc.

Terelj was beautiful but in a somewhat familiar way — our main destination was the South Gobi, which was in some places truly otherworldly … in Bayankar (Flaming Cliffs) you felt like you were on Mars rather than Earth … and on Khongoryn Els (huge sand dunes, taking about an hour to hike up each dune) you felt like you were on some science-fictional desert planet.  Furthermore when you roll down the dunes, they make a weird “singing” sound that shakes your whole body — it has to be experienced to be believed.  Fortunately we didn’t meet any of the fabled Mongolian Death Worms….

Getting to the Gobi was a bit hellish — we took a local bus, which ran overnight … a 15 hour trip on an overcrowded bus with no shock absorbers and, for most of the drive, no roads (just some tangled up, sometimes rather faint, jeep tracks).  None of us slept more than a few minutes.  This bus brought us to Dalanzadgad, a small desert city without  much to recommend it, except that they let you camp in the park in the center of the city.  We caught part of the local Naadam (wrestling) festival, which was somewhat interesting, though the airag (fermented horse milk) they dispensed free in the stands was too sour for my liking, not as good as the airag I’d obtained earlier from Inner Mongolia….

To get out of Dalanzadgad, we rented a Russian van and Mongolian driver, shared with a wonderful young German traveler, and an occasionally frustrating Polish priest/videographer.  The van broke down very frequently and overheated so badly that the interior felt like a pressure-cooker.  The driver constantly got lost, not surprisingly, due to the lack of roads.

However, the countryside was simply amazing….  So much beautiful empty space — grasslands and desert extending everywhere….  More “pure nothing” than I’ve ever seen — with astounding sunsets and sunrises and cloud formations — and herds of camels, goats and horses throughout … so many horses: Mongolia must have the world’s highest horse-to-human ratio.  And then the rare occurrence of some spectacular sight out of the nothing — sand dunes or volcanic mountains or canyons….

I hadn’t realized, beforehand, that so much of the population still lives in the traditional nomadic manner, living in yurts (gers) out in the desert, herding animals for food.  Most ger camps have at least one ger with a television (generally tuned to sumo), and at least one motorcycle (watching Mongolians herd camels by  motorcycle is pretty hilarious), and everyone has a mobile phone … so technology has certainly touched the nomads’ lives … but nevertheless, the basic lifestyle is the same as it’s been for ages.  Single-family villages, a few yurts in the desert and a few dozen camels, goats and horses….

It felt like a privilege to get a glimpse of the nomadic lifestyle now, a few decades before (according to my best guess) it goes away — even if not due to a Singularity or Surge or whatever, then simply due to the increase of wealth in Mongolia as their minerals are extracted.  As we drove from UB to Dalanzadgad we saw the beginnings of a paved road being built (following about the first 1/30 of our path).  Granted, a paved road would make that trip a hell of a lot more comfortable; but in a little time, that road and other local ones connecting to it will make a big change in the way rural Mongols live.  I don’t say this is wrong, just that it’s pretty interesting to see how they live and think now, before that change happens.

And in spite of the language barrier, it’s easier to see the lives of Mongols than folks in most countries, because of their incredible hospitality — basically any Mongol family will let you into their home to stay for a couple nights, and eat their food, etc.  We didn’t end up staying with any  Mongol families, as we had tents and were camping, but even visiting their homes for briefer periods was interesting….

It’s interesting that Mongolia is a reasonably well-functioning democracy, in spite of its low income level and relative lack of development.  One among many counterexamples to the idea that a certain level of economic wealth is needed for democracy.

Some practical negatives (apart from the transport ones mentioned above).  Sanitation is not quite at Western standards; the state of the toilets is usually sufficiently disgusting that you’re better off doing like the Mongolians and finding some random spot outdoors to relieve yourself…  Food: nobody has ever visited Mongolia for the food.  UB has some great restaurants, but UB is special…  The “Mongolian Barbecue” restaurants you find sometimes in the US serve Chinese food, not Mongolian food.  Outside UB, when we asked for vegetables we were commonly offered eggs or rice.  An apple in the store costs more than a steak.  The meat itself is very good, so the best you can do is to try to find meat prepared as simply as possible.  If you like meat cooked in horse milk, bully for you….  The worst is when they try to prepare Western food.  I lost a few pounds in Mongolia, due to lots of exercise and eating only when necessary…  English is spoken very little, and Chinese is spoken even less; Russian is spoken occasionally, though mainly in Ulaanbaator.  You mostly have to get by on common sense and improvised sign language.  Also, the only way to get from one local city to another in Mongolia is to go via Ulaanbaator — it’s the hub of the cobweb of jeep tracks, which substitutes for a road system.

But obviously those negatives are part and parcel of the positives of the place.  The beauty of  Mongolia is that you can REALLY get out of it, into another world….  As the rest of the world invades rural Mongolia, it will get more and more comfortable, and less and less fascinating.

I was intrigued to find that my iPhone could get 3G signal about half the time even in rural Mongolia, especially atop mountains.  However, disappointingly, Mongolia isn’t covered in my international data plan (unlike China and every other country I’ve visited); I got an SMS informing me that data access would cost me US$19.97/MB, an offer I did not make use of….

Also, after leaving the country, I found that the currency exchange booths in the airports in China, Hong Kong and the US would not exchange my extra togrog (Mongolian currency) for me.  I’ll give it a try at my bank.  The money has cool pictures of Chinggis Khan on it.

If you want to take a tour in Mongolia, I’d recommend the Golden Gobi tours run via the Golden Gobi hostel in UB.  I didn’t do that because I prefer to travel independently, but I met the people who run Golden Gobi and they seem pretty good (and very multilingual).  Independent travel in Mongolia is not that easy but I encountered plenty of other travelers doing it too….

I’m back in the US now and preparing for the AGI-11 conference, but my two sons are staying in Mongolia through much of August, off on another adventure to a  different region.  I’m a bit jealous — though also happy to be back to pushing AGI forward…

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