Ever visited Mongolia? We did not, but Luca Scheuring has been there and shared his experience with us in a wonderful guest post.
Off the Grid and Into the Green
Areawise, Mongolia is 38 times the size of Switzerland but has only about 3 million inhabitants, 40% of which live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. It’s little wonder then that this land that’s surrounded by Russia and China is one of the least densely settled countries in the world. Horse lovers will be happy to hear that there are more horses living in Mongolia than people. And in the 13th century, the time of Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire was even bigger. It stretched from the Korean peninsula all the way to Hungary, making it the “largest contiguous land empire in history.” You can still hear a little wistfulness when Mongols talk about this period in their history—but hey, they’re still the second-largest landlocked country in the world after Kazakhstan. So from the viewpoint of the Swiss, they really have nothing to complain about.
So for all of you who are stressed out from population density and the flood of emails and news media that plague the modern world, this country offers the ideal destination for taking a deep breath, slowing down, and doing a “digital detox.” Nature lovers will also get their money’s worth. And horse and sheep nuts could potentially even overdose on enjoyment. Our own interest in the country came about through the descriptions of the Mongolian exchange students who were staying with my parents. The fact that there’s still no mass tourism in Mongolia also spoke strongly in favor of this trip.
How do you travel across such a gigantic country?
The country is simply too big to do a tour of the whole thing in just a few weeks – you’d have to limit yourself to no more than one or two regions. For us, those were Central and Northern Mongolia. The Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian Railway travels right through the middle of Mongolia on its way from Moscow to Beijing. Aside from that, there’s practically no railway network, which makes the train an unsuitable means of transport. You’re consequently left with a choice of bus, minivan, and jeep – and also domestic flights for greater distances.
But picking up a Land Rover from Sixt at the airport and then just taking off is not a good idea unless you have experience with overland travel, some good maps, and of course, a GPS. On a lot of streets in Mongolia, you’re dealing with dirt roads or tracks in the grass, and there are practically no markers or road signs. On top of that, you have to cross a lot of rivers and go through stretches of mud – in other words, there are countless opportunities for getting stuck or breaking down. So in Mongolia, renting a car means hiring a jeep (the old, Russian kind) and driver, which actually ends up being cheaper than a car without a driver. And ideally, you do all this together with fellow travelers. There are also a lot of small and large jeep tour service providers. We decided on the overland bus tour by Dragoman, an English travel provider .
Btw, the best time for visiting Central and Northern Mongolia is from June to August. That’s when the weather is mostly pleasant and warm (sometimes even reaching summerlike temperatures), and in spite of the rainy season, it’s not too wet. In the higher-lying areas, temperatures can actually plummet to zero at night, so be sure to bring warm clothes and rain gear.
Dragoman – “It’s the Journey, Not Just the Destination”
Since 1981, Dragoman has been sending their standard orange-and-white vehicles off to Africa, the Americas, and Asia. These vehicles are converted trucks. A good 20 passengers can fit on the bus, which is equipped with everything you need for survival far from civilization: tents for two, a full range of cooking equipment, provisions, refrigerator, tables and chairs, a fresh-water tank, and a whole bunch of spare parts and tools for the vehicle. Among the highlights are the so-called “roof-seats”: up to eight people at a time can sit up in the integrated seating area up top, which gives them a chance to enjoy the airstream and the view from a fairly up high, although this is only allowed away from the asphalt roads. The vehicle – ours had the pretty name of “Rashida” – was driven by two Dragoman employees, in our case by a supercool English couple. And then there’s always a local guide, who also acts as an indispensable translator for all communications in Mongolian.
Traveling with Dragoman means traveling in a group. For us, it was the first time. You also have to do your part – there are a variety of “truck jobs” as well as cooking teams that you’re assigned to. Traveling with Dragoman also means figuring on delays and plan changes at any time. The Dragoman employees are of course trained to be able to repair just about any truck defect. But that can take a while (luckily, we were spared any mishaps). On top of that, there’s an almost 100% guarantee that you’ll either get stuck in the mud or the sand (luckily each happened to us only once). So in reality, the slogan “It’s the Journey, Not Just the Destination” can very quickly catch up with you, but it’s all just part of traveling with Dragoman. Another source of excitement are the numerous river crossings that you have to do, partly because the wooden bridges came across as too fragile for the several-ton truck, but a lot of the time because there simply were no bridges.
We spent half our night in yurt camps and the other half in our tent. Yurt camps are similar to campgrounds, just more idyllic. Each yurt has two or three beds as well as a wood stove in the middle. There are restroom containers with toilets and showers. These camps also serve breakfast and supper. So they’re very comfortable.
A little less comfortable but all the more idyllic is camping in the wilderness. That means going without a shower or toilet, but the upside is that you can pitch your tent in the middle of a pristine and endless expanse of countryside, and at night you can gaze in awe at all the stars as you sit around the campfire.
You can find the route specifics for the tour here.
50 Shades of Green and Other Highlights
To me, the most impressive thing was the wide expanse of countryside – and all the different shades of green. In certain wooded valleys, you would at times feel like you were back in the Jura mountains, except that there was no town immediately after the hill, but just ten more hills. In other valleys, you could imagine yourself in the Serengeti, with its beautiful, meandering rivers. And a little further on, you could see camels trudging through the rolling hills.
- Sunrise and sunset – Amateur photographers are practically spoiled with “magic light” moments. A short hike to the nearby hills is rewarded with spectacular photos. No need to worry about backlight!
- Nomads – The journey across the countryside takes you by a large number of nomadic families who have pitched their two or three yurts and will stay there with their animals until all the good grass has been eaten up. The people are very friendly (and perpetually astonished over the strange Dragoman vehicle).
- Sightseeing – Along the route, there are also a number of monasteries, temples, and museums that you can visit, some of which can only be reached with a hike.
- Volcanic landscapes – Mongolia has numerous accessible (dormant) volcanoes and volcanic landscapes. Several thousand years ago there was large earthquake that tore huge gorges in the landscape. Today, these gorges are filled with flowing rivers and tumbling waterfalls.
- Hot springs – Another highlight are the hot springs that make it possible for the nearby yurt camps to offer little outdoor spa facilities. A very welcome sight when you’ve gone without showering for a few days.
- Lakes – You can have more of your fill of “spas” with lakes such as Khövsgöl Nuur, which is almost as big as Switzerland. In the winter, it freezes over until the ice is as much as 1.5 meters thick, so that trucks on their way to Russia will actually choose to take the shortcut over the lake. Unfortunately, it’s also quite cool in the summer, so swimming is not for the fainthearted.
- Birds of prey and Edelweiss: Mongolia offers both à discrétion. Eagles, vultures, buzzards and red kites will be your constant companions and sometimes it’s almost a bit scary seeing them circle above you. And especially the Swiss will be delighted by the millions of Edelweiss.
- Nadaam – The Naadam festival takes place every year between the 10th and 13th of July. It’s a traditional outdoor sports competition that’s held in the bigger locales as well as in the countryside. The categories include wrestling, archery, horse racing, and sheepshearing, a game of skill.
- Ulaanbaatar – Definitely not an insider’s tip as far as city tours go. For that, the capital offers too little in the way of attractions. There’s still stuff to see (impressive squares, temples, or a good museum), but after a three-week overland tour, there’s nothing like a cappuccino and a nice hotel bed. There’s also “Mongolian BBQ” here, the joke being that it has nothing to do with Mongolia and comes from Taiwan instead.
Will I Gain Weight?
Not really. Mongolia has a lot to offer, but you shouldn’t expect too much in the way of culinary excitement. Not much will grow in a country that mostly consists of steppe that’s covered with snow from autumn to spring. As as far as grass for sheep and cows, there’s more than enough of that, and the cuisine is appropriately heavy on meat. It goes without saying that everything from the animals is put to good use. Instead of lamb filet (Mongolians don’t eat young stock), you’re better off thinking of sheep stew. Dumplings and noodle dishes are equally easy to find and taste delicious. “Airag”—fermented mare’s milk—is also legendary. This takes some getting used to, but according to the locals, it heals all kinds of diseases. If your hosts should offer it to you in their yurt, you would be very rude to refuse it. Still, there’s no need to drink more than one tiny swig.
Vegetarians will quickly discover that “vegetable soup” means that, aside from mutton, it also contains a few vegetables. A translator would be performing a great service by helping customers order their food in a restaurant.
On our Dragoman tour, we often did our own cooking, though the scant availability of fresh food in the “supermarkets” often made it challenging. Because of this, it wasn’t unusual to have rice salad with canned vegetables. But grilled yak meat cooked over the campfire balanced this out.
For those who can’t leave the Internet at home
After at most five days of being completely offline, most digital natives get kind of antsy (OK, it also happened to me as a digital immigrant). After all, who doesn’t want to share their nice pictures with their friends back home? The restaurants and museums in the bigger cities – the biggest one we passed was Mörön, with 28,000 inhabitants – often offer free WLAN. Even one of the yurt camps had (sporadic) WLAN.
Cell phone coverage is pretty good along the main roads as well as in the villages and cities. In many of the valleys, there’s absolutely no reception, much less 3G/4G. And don’t even think about roaming – the prices are reminiscent of the early days of mobile communications. For SIM cards with data credits, like the one from Mobicom, you’re best off picking them up in the capital city at the beginning of the trip.
There was a USB charging socket in the Dragoman truck, and to some extent even the yurts were equipped with electricity (useful for charging your camera battery). Speaking of cameras, it can help to take along a tripod (e.g., to capture the starry sky), a polarizing filter (so that the beautiful blue sky actually looks like it’s a beautiful blue) and a wide-angle lens (for obvious reasons).
It’s also a good idea to install a tracking app like Fabric. It significantly increases your smartphone’s power usage, but the upside is that it automatically records the route on a map. Next it inserts the pictures you took with your cell phone into the route. Very useful for anyone who’s curious about exactly where they’ve been once they’ve already passed through it. Trust me, after a day of driving across grass, you can quickly lose your bearings.
A tidbit for geo-nerds: the point of intersection for the 50th parallel and the 100th meridian lies in Mongolia. We drove by it about two kilometers away. In nearby Mörön, there’s also a “50° 100°”-Hotel.