Five Things I Absolutely Loved About Mongolia
With just 400,000 tourists visiting annually, modern Mongolia was largely unknown to just about every other traveler I’ve met. What most people know comes from the stories of Genghis Khan nearly 1,000 years ago. That mysteriousness (at least compared to tourist meccas like China and Thailand) combined with the history of the region made Mongolia one of my most-anticipated countries to visit.
I pictured rugged people and impressive vistas. What I imagined is what I got. I spent two weeks in the country and loved it, despite the worn-out dirt roads and slow traveling. A few things stand out from my time there that I especially loved.
The Valley Inside the Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert is a little deceiving. While the sand dunes most people picture in deserts (think Lawrence of Arabia) are present, it’s just a small section of this ecologically diverse region. Indeed, the fourth largest desert on the planet is classified as a cold winter type, so it’s not as barren as other deserts.
The most spectacular area I saw on a weeklong tour of the Gobi Desert was the verdant Yolyn Am. This valley was incredibly green in August, with some remnants of ice left over from the frigid winter. There’s a nice hike through the valley that took us past streams, gorges, and plenty of small wildlife.
The Train Rides
Mongolia is a stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway, so most tourists enter and exit the country by train. The trains going to Russia are dated Soviet Era artifacts but are relatively comfortable and pleasant. The train from the capital Ulaanbaatar to Beijing is incredibly nice and modern, yet costs triple of other legs in the journey.
What makes the train rides so pleasant is the scenery. Mongolia is the first country I’ve been to where it looks exactly like I imagined. Picture the lush green hill from the Windows XP background, but full of horses, sheep, and even camels. Enormous vultures fly overhead at fairly low levels. Aside from those yurts (circular tents used by nomads), there are few signs of civilization for most of the journey.
Staring out the window was soothing, despite the drunken Mongolian soldiers who were having fun throughout the train. They were, however, quite friendly and generous with their stash of vodka.
The City of Ulaanbaatar
At first glance, the capital city of Mongolia isn’t too impressive. It’s full of shabby soviet-era housing blocks that look straight out of Eastern Europe. There’s just a hint of a modern skyline and the bus lines can be immensely confusing. It’s also the coldest capital city in the world, with a depressing winter where temperatures are always well below freezing.
Luckily, I was there in the summertime and enjoyed the city quite a bit over the span of five days. Amidst the modernity are some amazing temples and museums, including the former residence of the last khan of Mongolia. Perhaps because of the lack of tourism compared to other places in Asia, there’s almost no pushiness or scams.
While the city itself is a mixture of unappealing industrial sectors, the outskirts are surrounded by green rolling hills. As I made my way out of the city, the “suburbs” were rife with the traditional Mongolian yurts that the nomadic people have lived in for centuries.
I hate it when travel writers an Asian city is a contrast of old and new, but that cliché was especially true in Ulaanbaatar.
The Tacky Tourist Stuff
If you’ve seen the tourist crap in one country, you’ve seen it all. Tacky knick-knacks, gaudy paintings, and other boring things can be found from Asia to Europe. Mongolia’s touristic diversions are far less developed than other countries and way more interesting.
In the souvenir shops, I saw socks made from camel fur and ornate longbows for archery. The traditional outfits, typically involving fur and animal pelts, are also badass. Likewise for the many swords and knives that can be found throughout the shops.
The tourist sites themselves are also a lot of fun. You’ll find horseback riding and archery ranges. A couple of the places had falconers with enormous birds that can be used for a photo op. These attractions felt more rugged than anywhere else I’ve been, which is exactly what I’d expect for a country like Mongolia.
The Food (Sometimes)
I can eat just about anything, but some of the food I had in Mongolia was definitely not too my liking. The fermented horse milk named kumiss definitely wasn’t my favorite alcohol. The dried curdled milk “aarul” is also something I’d never willingly try again. By the end of a weeklong tour, I was sick of boiled mutton in all its variations. As unappetizing as much of the food was, I really enjoyed the experience of trying these new dishes.
It wasn’t all bad, either. During the summertime in Ulaanbaatar, tents serving up delicious barbecue and tasty beer pop up all over the city. These shish kebabs were incredible. Mongolians are known for eschewing vegetables and mainly eating meat. I had no problem with this.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?