Mongolia – The last frontier?
By Franz Scheurer
Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan, was part of the USSR until a peaceful revolution in 1989 but it took till 1996 to brake away from Communism and move to a market economy. Although Mongolian script and language were replaced by Cyrillic and Russian, they could never integrate the Mongolians, a proud and fiercely independent race. Today Mongolia is a Parliamentary Republic, bordered by China to South and the East, Kazakhstan to the West and Siberia to the North (note Inner Mongolia is actually part of China) and the Mongolian language has returned and the ancient script is slowly on its way back, too.
Mongolia has very few paved roads and infrastructure is reserved for Ulaan Baatar and the very few cities in the country. This makes navigation interesting as a GPS is pretty useless and local knowledge wins out every time. Ulaan Baatar is the capital, the major airport and a city with attitude and aspirations. There is a whole new generation of newly rich, flaunting their money and frequenting clubs and discoes. Internet is a given, so are mobile phones and international hotels. The big brand names are highly visible and if you’re using hard currency this is a shoppers’ paradise.
Ulaan Baatar is the best base to plan a trip exploring the country. Mongolia is beautiful and totally unspoilt. Wonderful rivers with huge trout in the North, mountain in the West and the fabled Gobi Desert in the South make your choice of destination difficult because the country is too large to see it all in one trip, unless you stay a year or more. You can self-drive, hiring a car, or you can travel with a driver and a guide / interpreter, which is the way to go. (It’s also cheaper as there are obviously a fair amount of cars lost, each year by the self-drive crowd). The driver will know his way around and the guide will get you where you want to go and communicate with the locals on your behalf. Make sure you hire a 4WD and I suggest you get a Toyota Landrover and not one of the Russian 4WD vans, or worse, a motorbike. The drivers know how to maintain their Toyotas, the cars have air conditioning and spare parts are not a problem. The others, be prepared to spend a lot of time at the side of the track.
Are you adventurous? If so, you’ll see a lot of horses, camels and yak; You will have the chance to taste their milk and cheese and the common perception that the Mongolian diet is only meat is wrong as there is quite a variety of vegetables and salads commonly available. The real Mongolian barbecue uses goat and is made on an open fire in an old milk can under pressure. The food is good and sometimes challenging and the locally brewed vodka superb.
Note that winter is not really an option. Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital city in the world and the amount of snow makes travel around the country all but impossible. The best time is August / September when it’s no longer too hot and most of the tourists have already left. The gers (Mongolian for yerts) are easily available and the locals have all the time in the world for you.
Amex is widely used in Ulaan Baatar and make sure you convert any local currency back to a hard currency before you leave as there is no single place on earth that will want the Mongolian MNT (or Tughrik)
How to get there:
Korean Airlines via Seoul
Hunnu Air (Wings of Mongolia) via Bangkok, Hong Kong, Korea or China