MONGOLIA (Монгол улс)
One of the countries you rarely hear about, the days of Ghengis Khan being long gone. Being a lover of deserts and wild empty spaces, Mongolia had a lot of appeal, and empty landscapes. If I was going to visit, it would be via the second most famous train route in the region, the Trans-Mongolian Express. A train that leaves from Beijing through Mongolia to Moscow. I wasn't sure if the train ride, or the country was the main appeal, as I enjoy immensely long distance train journeys. A popular misconception would be that there are numerous trains that ply the Bejing to Moscow route, however there are just two a week. The journey is therefore made up of using lots of different trains, which is perfect for hopping on and off. The difficult bit is the China/Mongolia border at Erenhot, because you can't just hop on a train through it. Instead I had to pass through on foot, and get a taxi into Zamin Uud on the Mongolian side, and pick-up a train from there heading North.
I loved my time in Mongolia, and found the people quiet but helpful. In the more remote towns they looked at me oddly, but in a cheerful way. It's a country of smiles, not frowns. The country definitely has a wild west feel too it. Towns are spread out, not unsurprising really, as Mongolia has the lowest population density on earth. Buildings are scattered about with no real concern about using space wisely, or being close to their neighbour. The common form of home is the Yurt, a round tent basically, as seen in the picture below. I stopped at Sainshand, a small town a third of the way from the Chinese border to Ulaan Baatar, it's very much in the middle of the Gobi desert. I travelled out to the isolated Khamariin Khiid Monastery, where one could look out over the empty desert and not see a single soul or man made object. Travelling on to Ulaan Baatar, the capital was very different. Grey skies covered a mostly grey coloured city. Drab apartment blocks sticking out amongst the smog filled city rammed with cars.
Language: Khalkha Mongol (Official) Turkic and Russian also spoken.
Visa: A few nations can enter Mongolia Visa free including Israel, the USA and some SE Asian countries. Every other country requires a visa with fee before arrival.
Plug: European two round prongs, sometimes with a round prong in the plug socket (French Schuko style). 220v
GMT: GMT +7 to +8
GDP Ranking (IMF): #122 £2.980 (Similar to Bolivia and Indonesia)
Communications: Country code is + 976
Health: Protection against Typhoid and Hepatitis A & B is recommended. Due to the size and remoteness of the country, full medical insurance with evacuation is essential. Hospitals outside, and even inside Ulaan Baatar are fairly basic. Stray dogs are a problem, particularly in Ulaan Baatar, and rabies could be an issue. Steer well clear of Marmots, who's fleas could carry the bubonic plague!
When to Visit: Mongolia has Northern Hemisphere seasons, which means a short hot summer, and a very cold winter. May to early October would be the best time to visit, however July/August are peak tourist months. I went in September when a light coat was needed and it was below 10c at night.
Personal Safety: Outside Ulaan Baatar crime is low, inside Ulaan Baatar take the usual big city precautions, particularly regarding pickpockets in busy areas and walking in empty areas at night. Women should be careful for unwanted hands in crowded places. As mentioned in the Health section, there are lots of dogs about, be careful when faced with a group of them. F&CO advice here.
Getting Around: With such vast distances between cities and towns, air travel is the quickest way. All fiights depart or arrive at Ulaan Baatar. The main train route is North South, following the Trans Mongolian tracks. There is also a spur to Erdenet. Car hire is not recommended (or mostly allowed) without a local driver. Mongolia has 30,000miles of road, however only 1200 are sealed. Also, road signs are a rarity. Hitchhiking is possible, with usual safety precautions, and best in pairs. Buses link most towns, although their condition varies.
What to see/do: Ulaan Baatar is the capital, and as such has lots of things for the visitor to see. Gandan Khiid is one of Mongolia's most important monasteries, based in Ulaan Baatar(UB). Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art features a mixed collection of painted and sculpted art. Choijin Lama Temple Museum is just off the main drag in UB, and contrasts strongly with the newer buildings around it. Naran Tuul Market is the biggest in Asia, and has an impressive emporium. And the National Museum of Mongolian History covers three floors of exhibits. I visited the rather grim and dark Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum, where staff turn the lights on and off after you leave each room.It was next to a car dealer for large American 4x4's. The Russian influence can be enjoyed at the State Opera & Ballet Theatre. Khamariin Khiid Monastery allows one to experience the openness of the Gobi Desert, a hour long taxi ride from Sainshand.
For those with more than a week, getting out into the wilds of Mongolia is richly rewarding, although involves long drives. Yol valley in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains is attractive and the area has many different types of wildlife. Bayanzag is a palaeontologists delight, as many dinosaur skeletons and eggs have been found here from the Cretaceous Period. Lake Ugii is an area of the Steppes with lots of wildlife, and Khushuu Tsaidam is an historical and cultural sight, with Turkish Statues. Khustai National Park is huge, and home to countless wild horses. For a different vista again, visit the Khongor sand dunes, at 300m high, and 15kms wide, they add to Mongolia's amazing sceneries.
Food & Drink: The famous Mongolian Barbecue is a certain stomach pleaser (Vegetarians etc aside). Boodog (Goat) and Khorhog (Sheep) are both cooked with hot stones heating up the insides of the carcass on the barbecue. Milk based foods (called White Foods) are popular due to the nomadic lifestyle, khailmag is caramelised clotted cream. Byaslag is basically cheese, of which there are a few varieties. Eezgii is a mass of dried cheese. Various types of small snacks include pockets of various filling, Buuz (steamed) are the most common, along with Bansh (boiled) and Khuushuur (slightly larger and fried). Noodle based foods include Tsuivan, a meat and vegetable soup, and Guriltai Shul, a type of meat soup. If looking for a sugary snack, Boortsog is a type of biscuit/cookie.
Airag is the traditional strong drink here, made from fermented horse milk. Winners of wrestling bouts at festivals are rewarded with a bowl of Airag. Khar Khorum is a good Dunkel type beer, and Chinggis Mongolian Lager is no frills regular lager.
Other notes: Mongolia is a country full of traditions and rituals, check up on them before heading there so you don't cause offence.