Steppe-ing in Style: 7 Days in Mongolia

I [Genghis] Khan’t believe I’ve been living in Asia for almost two months now…

About a week ago I returned from a trip to Mongolia for 国庆节, or national week, which is basically like Chinese Fourth of July when the whole country gets a week off and everyone travels. Not Inner Mongolia, which is part of China, but the country Mongolia—China’s northern neighbor famous for being the birthplace of the largest land empire the world has ever seen.

At the start of the holiday Summer (another PiA fellow) and I reverse Mulan-ed, flew back over the Great Wall, and invaded the Mongols, and I can say with certainty that it was one of the coolest and weirdest trips of my life. This post will be part recount of our adventures and part travel guide, since there isn’t a ton of info on the internet about traveling in Mongolia even though EVERYONE SHOULD GO THERE, because it is so so incredible.

Ulaanbaatar

The first thing you’ll notice about UB is that everything is named after Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan), who founded the Mongol Empire in 1206 C.E. Seriously, everything. I’m pretty sure we took three or four separate Chinggis Khaan Avenues to get to our friend’s apartment from Chinggis Khaan International Airport, soon realizing that we were staying just down the street from Chinggis Khaan Hotel.

It seems like a lot of this Chinggis pride has to do with the country’s rocky history. During its time as a Soviet satellite state throughout the 20th century, many of Mongolia’s cultural heritage sites were demolished—as a result, modern democratic Mongolia has made an extra effort to reclaim, preserve, and celebrate its impressive past. I observed something similar going on when I briefly visited Bratislava, Slovakia this summer, the capital of another former Soviet nation in Eastern Europe. Traditional history becomes even more important to countries that have experienced almost losing it.

We didn’t spend too much time in UB, since the real allure of Mongolia is its countryside, but the city is still worth poking around. We walked around Sukhbaatar Square (also known as Chinggis Square, raise your hand if you’re surprised), visited (read: did shameless photoshoots) at Gandantegchinlen Monastery, toasted drinks at the Blue Sky Lounge rooftop bar overlooking the city, and ate at a restaurant owned and operated by the North Korean government. One night we had Mongolian hot pot at a restaurant called The Bull, which I was dying to try because my favorite restaurant in the world is a Mongolian hot pot place in Boston called Q (the real thing did not disappoint). The highlight, though, was sitting in a tiny Mongolian hair salon while Summer got her hair cut and professionally colored for the equivalent of merely 16USD—those tugriks go a looooong way.

Some things to note about UB: it is cooooooold, at least this time of year, and pretty soon it will go from chilly af to unbearably frigid. If you’re planning a visit, shoot for between May and September unless you’re looking to become a popsicle. Formal addresses are not a thing; you just navigate the city based on a place’s proximity to certain landmarks (the Wrestling Palace was our beacon). There’s also lots of traffic, since pretty much the only way to get from one side of the city to the other is on one main road called Peace Avenue. Luckily, most of the tourist sites are in the center and easy to reach on foot. Finally, every car on the street doubles as a taxi, so on more than one occasion we were in the back of some random person’s vehicle paying them to take us somewhere. The catch is, though, it was reeeeally hard to get them to stop for us random desperate foreigners—this may have just been our experience, but we ended up having to call some more expensive, marked English-speaking taxis a few times.

Kharkhorin

For a few days in the middle of the week we went to Kharkhorin, which is the small town on the site of Kharakhorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire before Kublai Khan moved it to Beijing. This trip spanned three days, but two of those were spent on 6hr bus rides to/from UB. Don’t be deterred by that, though, because the bus rides are tourist attractions in themselves—we rode in gaudy purple coaches with all kinds of local characters, stopped for a lunch of dumpling soup at a tiny roadside town, and watched scores of Mongolian music videos that they play on the bus screen throughout the entire ride. At one point we watched a brawl go down; two local guys who had clearly been drinking were stirring up trouble so the bus driver literally parked the bus on the side of the road, dragged them off and let them throw punches at each other out on the open steppe, and then calmly brought them back into the bus and sat them in separate seats. This entire ordeal went down in thick Mongolian, though, so we’ll never really understand what happened…

In Kharkhorin we stayed at Gaya’s Guesthouse, a little B&B run by a wonderful woman named Gaya and her family. The guesthouse has one main building and then a dozen yurts (called gers in Mongolian) in the yard of its fenced-in property, so we spent two nights in our own little ger and ate delicious homemade Mongolian food that Gaya and her team cooked up.

There’s pretty much a set tourist circuit for visitors to Kharkhorin: first, climb the hill next to Gaya’s guesthouse for sunset, where you’ll see a Buddhist stupa and a stone turtle, which is the only piece of Genghis Khan’s empire that remains on the site of Kharakhorum. Do this the evening you arrive from UB. The next day, visit Erdene Zuu monastery (about a 15min walk from Gaya’s), the oldest and largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Make sure you’re there at 11am, which is when the monks hold a prayer ceremony and tourists can sit in and listen to their chants and readings. Have lunch in the little town of Kharkhorin (but beware the deceptively long walk from Erdene Zuu), and then visit the wonderful and informative Kharakhorum museum on the way back to Gaya’s. Spend the evening either hiking up the hill for sunset again, or relaxing at Gaya’s and feasting on khorkhog (Mongolian barbecue). We did the latter.

Some tourists stay longer and use Kharkhorin as a base for exploring the nearby Orkhon Valley, which is supposed to be beautiful, but since we only had a week we headed back to UB the next morning and saved our weekend for Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

All in all, I definitely recommend hitting up Kharkhorin if you don’t have time for farther-flung excursions to the Gobi, Lake Khovsgol, or the far west—it’s a suuuuuper cheap trip (I’m talking $7 bus tickets and $8 per night at Gaya’s) and really easy to do on your own without a guide.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

A MUST if you are in Mongolia. It so lives up to the hype. And if you’re going, stay with Dream Adventure. They were recommended to us by the five PiA fellows who live and work in UB, and this was up there in the top 5 best 24 hours of travel I’ve ever had.

Gorkhi-Terelj is only a 1.5 hour drive northeast of UB, so it’s a very accessible day trip, weekend trip, or however-long-you-want-to-stay-because-it-is-that-amazing trip. It’s full of rolling mountains and sprawling valleys, and everyone’s animals roam free—horses, cows, sheep, goats, yaks, camels, you name it. Early October is the tail end of fall in Mongolia, so the trees were all a stunning yellow-orange that set the hills on fire with a single touch of sunlight. Few places I have ever seen are as beautiful.

Dream Adventure organized us transportation from UB to the park, where we’d be picked up by Puja (one half of the young Mongolian couple who run the ger camp) and taken to the remote valley where the camp sits hugging the mountainside. We waited with our first driver for a solid half hour next to a river with no clue what was going on until Puja rolled up in his little sedan plowing straight through the water, which is a pretty good representation of who Puja is as a person (i.e. a fearless badass).

The following day and a half was just magic. We hiked up the mountain beside the camp to catch a stunning view of the valley, with the buildings of UB visible as tiny specks on the southwestern horizon. We ate delicious food, played with Puja and Nami’s two adorable dogs, and visited a nomad family living nearby in their autumn camp.

By far the best part, though, was the horseback riding. Included in your Dream Adventure stay is a long afternoon ride, and I have never felt so free as I did galloping through the valley on Blue-Eye, one of Puja’s Mongolian horses. We loved our first ride so much that we did another longer one the next morning, riding around the park in search of Puja’s herd of yaks to round them up for the animal doctor’s visit later that day.

There’s not much more I can say about our time in Terelj—the pictures speak for themselves.

Final thoughts

Mongolian people are so cool. They’re warm, kind, tough, loud, proud, and a ton of fun to be around. One of the best things about traveling in Mongolia is that because so few tourists come through, you can’t help but get to know locals. Guesthouses and ger camps are almost all small and locally-run, and locals will be your tour guides, your taxi drivers, and the primary people you interact with on a day-to-day basis. I was also surprised by how many people spoke at least a little bit of English, so getting around was never a serious issue.

The travelers you do meet in an off-the-beaten path place like Mongolia are really cool, as well. We spent time with a handful of Americans working in South Korea, a Dutch couple doing the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and an American couple who came to Mongolia in July, bought horses, and have been trekking the country ever since. Everyone has an interesting story about what they’re up to and how they got there, which makes for some fascinating chats while drinking tea and eating khuushuur around the warm stove in a dining ger.

If you are living and working anywhere in East Asia and/or want the adventure of a lifetime, go out of your way to see Mongolia. It may be difficult to get to (the airport has like three international flights per day lol), but it’s so worth the trouble—you will not be disappointed. Баярлалаа (let’s pretend we ever figured out how to pronounce that) for an incredible 国庆节 and first excursion out of China, Mongolia!


3 thoughts on “Steppe-ing in Style: 7 Days in Mongolia

  1. Wow, your photos are stunning! A very small group of us (4) travelled around Mongolia a couple of years ago and I’ve just posted my photos. We spent 2 weeks travelling around, and it is vast! Endless grassland, steppe and sand dunes. We visited some nomad families and everywhere we stayed we were offered fermented mare’s milk – an experience I never want to repeat ever again!

    Like

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