A short guide to Mongolia (2007)
by Lorenzo Casaccia

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### JUL 15
Losing one day on departure: the flight to Moscow is late & we miss the connection.
Lame start, but my trip had started earlier, from a Trastevere night I was bringing along while stranded in airports.
Meeting the group

### JUL 16
Getting into Ulaan Baatar (UB). The airport is small; out of the airport there is a small parking where people wash their cars.
We get on a jeep and on a van, and off we go towards Erdene-Zuu.
Stopping on the way for some pictures, colorful ovoo, mixture of shamanism and buddhism. This is the region of Lun (where we have lunch) and Erdenesant.
The gher camp in Kharkhorin is organized, with restaurant, restrooms that we are constantly moped, hot water, restroom, etc. Quite amazing. Basically, once you get a guide, you are in an organized trip - and there is more or less no other option, because of distances, etc
Dinner at the gher camp: lots of meat (mutton). In 10 minutes, we climb over a hill with a great view of Kharkhorin on one side, and of some hidden valley, painted in pink by the sunset, on the other side

### JUL 17
Walking on top of the hill again. The air is very clear and all distances appear closer than what they are.
Bizarre monument with the maps of the world conquered by the Huns, by Chinggis Khaan, and by Tamerlan.
Visiting Erdene-Zuu in the morning: Buddhist temples, stone turtles, the valley where Kharkhorin was lying. The temples are nothing special: the best part is the overall complex (square of walls with 108 stupas).
Long drive on a country road (which is what Mongolia's road system amounts to). We get stuck in the middle of a river since our jeep hardly functions. Seen just one bridge today, otherwise the detaul crossing method is driving through the river
Got to Orkhon Falls, in a small canyon.
Spending the night in a gher camp in Bayan Uul, where two girls give a nearly stylish touch to the food and the decor. The night is windy, with an amazing starry sky

### JUL 18
Waking up early. Today we leave the Ovorkhangai aimag towards the Arkhangai.
Stopping in Tovkhon Khiid, buddhist monastry on top of a mountain (~20 mins to get to the top). A circuit at the top brings ayou around a few caves where meditation places have been organized. "Mother's Womb": crawl into a downhill cave, the rotate over and crawl out. The last stretch to the top is forbidden to women.
On the way back, our guide discovers my iPod and we find out he is as westernized as we are (as if...). Then we stop in a gher and we drink mare's milk and other dairy products they prepare. This family breeds horses, so there's flies everywhere.
Driving further to Tsertseleg, modern city; the main roads are paved. The museum has some miscellaneous artifacts. Nice view from the temple behind the museum: worth climbing the hill to get a glimps of the growing city.
Camping in Taikhar Camp. Close is the Taikhar Chuulu, a sacred rock which is now full of modern graffitis.
They were paving the road in and out of Tsersteleg: a major project for a country with little infrastructure

### JUL 19
Today we drove for a long time. The worst road ever.
We stop at Chuluut Canyon. Hiking down and hanging there. Then getting to Badmaarag Camp (they have Bordeaux!).
Tonight I don't feel well so I don't eat.

### JUL 20
Today I feel better but it rains. Khorgo Volcano, hiking around the cone. Impressive views.
In the afternoon we go to the Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur lake and then we hike back to the camp.
There is in theory a trail from the lake to Badmaarag Camp through the hills, but the guide has no clue about it and we end up hinking in a plateau.

### JUL 21
Driving today towards UB on horrible roads and even literally in the mud. The driver does wonders.
Some impressive pristine landscape in this sunny day. Lots of wildlife.
We stop for lunch in Tsertseleg and I get the chance to walk through the village: some Soviet style buildings and an amazing French-style cafe (Farfield) owned by two Brits who ended up here: they cook pastries, danishes, cookiest, veggie burgers, etc. This place has now legendary status among Mongolia travellers: at least 5 groups of Europeans stop here in our 1-hour stay.
Night in Kublai Camp.

### JUL 22
Driving to Khogno Khaan and Ovgon Khiid. The road gets better again but the landscape becomes more uniform and desertic. One can hike or climb Khogno Khaan finding his own trail among the rocks.
At night we find other young travellers in the camp and we drink beer under a spectacular starry sky

### JUL 23
Another long drive (300 km) brings us to UP after 6-7 hours.
Ulaan Baatar is a rapidly growing city, on its way to become another Asian metropolis. I counted four major buildings in construction around the main square. Everything seems to be new or being built. Lots of joint projects with Japan and Korea.
Sukhbaatar Square: Soviet-style square with a brand new Parliament building sporting a monument to Chingiis Khaan.
Natural History Museum: nothing special other than that the major dinosaur skeletons are here, pretty much the one reason this museum has world relevance.
National History Muesum: more celebration of Chingiis Khaan Ganda Khiid: major buddhist temple, the main building has a 26.5m Buddha status in copper and gold.
Zaisan Monument: war memorial of Soviet inspiration; from here you can see the increasing sprawl and pollution of the city.
Chinggis Khaan seems to be everywhere: apart from being in the central square, he is a beer, a brand of cigarettes, the airport and possibly more things are named after him. His face is sort of etched on the side of one of the hills around Ulaan Baatar. In general, democracy here has brought hunger fo globalization/westernization, and a renewed nationalism embodied by the name of Chingiis Khaan

### JUL 24
Internal flight to Altai City. Checked baggage has a 12 kg limit: after that it is 2000 tugrik per extra kilo.
Altai City: museum (schoolbook-like), market. Gher camp outside town held by Mr Baazar.
Driving then to a canyon nearby and hiking to the end of it (~2 hours). The landscape is sometimes barren, with warm, dry weather.

### JUL 25
Driving into the Altai. Camping along a river (Khunkher area). Hiking for a few hours out of the river valley to some spring and rock formations. The landscape starts to be alpine only well above 2500m

### JUL 26
Driving further north (Uujimiin Am area). We camp in a canyon and then hike up the rim.
As expected, the only visible trails are those used by goats. Too bad I don't know the exact name of this canyon (if it has one). In the evening our guide goes and buy a goat from a nomadic family, and a small crowd gathers to prepare a bodog.
They kill a goat, empty it of bones, liver, stomach and all of its meat, then they fill it again with the meat and with stones that in the meanwhile they made hot with a fire made of dung. Then, they cook it.
Spectacular preparation, but it does not taste anything special.

### JUL 27
We join in the morning a nomadic family where they are catching horses and mares for milking.
We drive on then to the Ereen Nuur area. This place had apparently water and grass lasty year, but desertification seems to be taking its toll, since one can be seen. Extremely windy and hot.
We camp and place the tent with some difficulty. Riding camels and horses to the lake (which is also drying year over year)

### JUL 28
In the morning I hike up a dune. You have to hike alongthe crest, with your feet sliding back at every step. As soon as the sun rises a bit, it gets windy and the hike gets tougher (as the sand loses and consistency)
Then we are driving back south in a parallel valley. We camp where a river makes a couple of bends. Nice landscape which reminds of Arizona and of the Grand Canyon. We relax in the river and then I hike up the surrounding peaks. Very hot and very windy

### JUL 29
Waking up after a windy night. Drive of ~100 km. Stop in Tayshir, surreal village in the middle of nowhere.
The following stop is Delger, where we bump into a mini-Naadam. We watch the wresting tournament and go and meet the horses and the end of the horseracing competition.
We blend in the local frenzy, and if we were reporters from some foreign land for this event.

### JUL 30
After the last night of camping, we drive 300 km to Bayankhongor. This is a Soviet style city with very little to see. Plenty of shops, all looking the same. Feels like a frontier town.
In the evening, we go in a local disco bar where they play anglo-saxon '80s pop sung in Korean (or Japanese) and where evidently we are the main attraction ourselves.
Three random dudes end up buying us an entire bottle of vodka of the top brand: thanks guys!

### JUL 31
Very long drive from Bayankongor to Khongoriin Els (420 km including an off road 100 km shortcut)
Going through some amazing nature as we cross the divide of the Baga Bogdin Nuruu and we approach the sand dunes around sunset

### AUG 1
Hiking up Khongoriin Els early in the morning, and then sliding down
Driving to Bayanzag, where the dinosaurs skeletons were found. Arizona-style landscape, quite impressive.
Some very dark clouds later on create wonderful effects against the green of the Gobi steppa Top notch gher camp at Gobi Mirage

### AUG 2
Today we plan to go to the Yol Valley (~40 km from Gobi Mirage)
On the way, we stop for the birthday party of a 85-year old woman. A funerary monument for her deceised husband is uncovered. There's a lama, music, horse-racing, etc
Later we finally go to the Yol Valley. One can hike through the valley to a spectacular gorge, but the supposedly permanent glacier has melted this year

### AUG 3
Driving north towards UB. We stop in Eredenlai for the Songin Dalay monastry (which seems to be undergoing some remodeling)

### AUG 4
Back to UB.
Choijin Lama Temple: best collection of tsam masks. The temple is now turned into a museum.
There is a coffee shop in front of the temple (Millie's Espresso) which seems to be very popular.
Walking around to feel the city.
Seoul Restaurant: ordinary buffet, nothing special
Topping it up going clubbing at the Hollywood: hot.

### AUG 5
UB - Moscow
10 hours in the Moscow airport
Moscow - Rome


Ulaan Baatar

Central Mongolia




Preparation of a bodog (traditional dish)

Ulaan Baatar's main square

Crossing a river in Mongolia

How to Go

As of today (2007), travelling on your own in Mongolia is more or less impossible. Most roads are not paved, and more often than not they are dirt roads that only an expert driver can decipher. Finally, there are no indications whatsoever. Having a GPS can help to some extent but is not sufficient, as it would tell you the general direction but not how to get there (e.g. if you have to go around a marsh, a hill, etc)

Conclusion: you need a driver and a guide. The driver drives the vehicle (typically a jeep / land cruiser / van). The guide translates (the driver will likely speak zero English) and helps for a myriad of practical things that are required because of the complete absence of indications

A good guide can make a lot of difference. I can recommend our guide Sergelanbaatar, who speaks English, Spanish and some very basic Italian (burt_chono05@yahoo.com)


Report from previous travellers (from around 2004/2005) suggested one should bring food from home. My personal opinion is that things have changed (and keep changing) and therefore you do not need to worry about food. Even the most remote village seems to have a stop with water, bread, biscuits, soft drinks and occasionally imported fruit in syrup

Finally, even in the most unlikely locations, one can find a "guanz", i.e. a roadside stop where someone will cook some food. Since the drivers have to eat anyway, you will end up in a guanz one way or another around lunchtime, and that will be ok for you as well

Gher camps typically provide dinner and breakfast


The following options exist for accomodations

In the countryside, the default choice is a gher camp, i.e. a set of ghers (the traditional nomad tent) set up to host tourists. All of them have a common space in a larger gher where meals are served. Restrooms and showers are typically in a separate common building. Most gher camps seem managed by young Mongolians and this new entrepreneurial generation is redefining what are gher camp is, exceeding expectations in terms of comfort and the like. Most ghers have electric light and power; restrooms are clean, towels are provided, and so on. The single most frequent inconvenience may be bugs in the ghers, and even that can happen only in those gher camps where the tents are not fully sealed

If you happen to stay in a city, the default choice becomes a hotel. Alas, for mysterious reasons, hotels do not stand up the comparison with gher camps and are often run down at best

My favourite gher camp is Gobi Mirage in the Gobi desert

You can also camp pretty much everywhere but you must be prepared to face occasional strong winds

Nomad Hospitality

Nomad hospitality is legendary and rightly so. You can virtually stop at any gher where nomads are tending their business and you will be welcomed and offered something. You are expected to taste what you are offered (which can be hard for your stomach) and leave some gifts in exchange.

Nomads leave a perfectly ok life, so you should not think they need the most basic things of everyday life. My impression is that they would rather welcome gifts representing an offer of friendship from your country to Mongolia, e.g. flags of your country, your local cheese (in non perishable format) and so on


© Lorenzo Casaccia, 2007