Mongolia – A hidden world from tourism, a place of karaoke and with a taste of North Korea

One of the countries l have wanted to visit over the last 5 years has been Mongolia the problem is coming from Australia, China knows you need to pass through and take their airlines so it becomes expensive and the only other way is through Russia which this time around l did as l was coming from Europe, l managed to get a cheap flight with Aeroflot (Russia’s airline) for $530 AUD. I had lots of warnings and read lots of bad reviews about Aeroflot but my ‘need’ to get to Mongolia outweighed my thoughts of terrible service because as you may have previously read, l have had enough bad bus journeys that l would have considered this the same, however l cannot praise Aeroflot enough. I had 2 amazing flights with them and the service was brilliant while we did experience a little turbulence, this can’t be noted as a bad measure towards the airline.

I arrived in Ulan Bator (UB) early morning and l had minimal winter clothing. I decided to take a taxi from the airport and l am glad l did, as soon as l walked outside the nice warm temperatures of -5 degrees celsius hit me. The 30-minute taxi ride cost me 30,000mnt (about $11usd) to get to Sunpath hostel’s door in heating and even though l arrived early and that day, the hostel let me go straight to my bed and offered me breakfast which instantly won over my heart with how tired l was. The other guests at the hostel were great and we all decided to head over to the black market (not actually a black market, but just a large market where you can buy nearly anything and everything), where l could buy some winter boots and other items to keep me warm. The following couple of days, we explored the city which included visiting the main square and large statue of Genghis Khan, the winter palace and the national museum. In my opinion and speaking to a few other people, there isn’t a lot to do in UB itself unless you want to sing karaoke, well there is a pub every 10 meters that offer the service, however a lot of people who come here actually spend most of their time on tours of the countryside.

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I had organised for my time in the country to head north to a town called Murun and volunteer my time helping with a lady called Saraa with her guesthouse and women’s group. I sent her emails before l arrived and heard nothing and on the Sunday when l arrived, l still had no idea if l was going to help her or not. I had planned for 2 weeks in country and after l didn’t hear anything, l started asking other people if they had work, l got one response from another lady called Delai at a hotel for me to go and help her and then 5 minutes later, l had a response from Saraa, so l decided to split my time between the 2 places and help both out, then within the hour l was out the hostel door and onto the bus station for another overnight long distance Asian bus ride. I will never get used to these bus rides but each one is unique.

I arrived in Murun and headed straight over to Saraa’s house where l was informed that her guesthouse was closed for the season, so l would be staying in a small room with her sons and she would only need mostly help with her women’s group. I’m not terrible but l am not the greatest when it comes to understanding women and trying to organise and help with a women’s group was going to be a challenge. I was also informed that there was no shower and l could walk down the road to the public showers to pay to use them. The afternoon, l headed over to the hotel and met Delai, who offered me to stay at the hotel, where l accepted straight away because it is the little wins in life where l could shower and have a western toilet. Over the next few days, l helped where l could but l decided it wasn’t right due to the fact helping Saraa wasn’t exactly what we originally spoke about, plus she was also trying to sell me a tour which was more for less days than what l could get back in UB and then when l was staying in the hotel, l wasn’t getting the same local feel so l left back to UB to join a tour of the country side and see Mongolia, which is what l came for.

Back in UB, l met Dante at the hostel and we decided to go on a 3-day tour of central Mongolia which included the semi-gobi region to conduct camel riding, a visit to the ancient capital of Mongolia called Karakorum, horse riding while both nights we stayed with nomadic families. We had a few more people staying at my hostel that night and l heard from a friend that there was a North Korean restaurant that is a must do which l can say was an experience however you can’t take photos….unless you’re sneaky.

The next morning, we convinced Guillermo and his father who had only arrived 3 hours earlier to join us. The tour started from the hostel and our transportation, a beautifully kept soviet van the hostel offers which had plenty of room for the 4 people. We arrived after a long 5 hours out to our first ger camp with a nomadic family where we rode camels through the semi-gobi region and that night we were taught how to make horse meat dumplings which are delicious and drank a lot of vodka. I don’t drink vodka however l tried to match the locals which was always going to be a difficult task especially when they told us a tradition is if you sing, play guitar or tell a story you must drink a shot of about 2 standard shots of vodka. The family had a beautiful daughter called Iichka, she is very cheeky but a lovely little girl who loves taking selfies.

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Our second day we headed over to Karakorum to visit the site and thankfully we did hire the tour guide because there are only a few plaques around to explain to us what was what. That night we went to our second ger camp with another nomadic family who was set up at the base of some large mountains to protect them from the wind. This time we went horse riding and we were given the freedom to let our horses get up to a gallop and run free in the open plains of the Mongolian countryside which words can’t even describe the freedom and peacefulness a person can experience in that moment. We ended our night with a traditional Mongolian bbq where they heat rocks in a fire and then place them in a large pot over fire with the meat, so basically the method for cooking is stewing the meat rather than grill.

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Our third day was mostly made up of driving back to UB with a few small stops on the way to see a sharman worship place and our van running out of fuel and then 5 minutes after going again, it broke down but these were all rectified within 30-minutes.

I have spent the last few days not doing a lot however it has been nice to relax before l get on the trans-mongolian tonight and head to Moscow with a few stops in between.

 

Tips:

  • Taxi drivers cannot be negotiated but a form of transport that is acceptable in the city is a form of hitchhiking, where you can wait on the side of the road with your thumb out and a local will most likely pick you up. This is the cheaper form of getting around and you must agree a price before you get in the car.
  • The black market is a lot of fake gear but it all is fine for the temperatures on Mongolia. The shop vendors don’t negotiate too much but do try.
  • The North Korean restaurant is in the EXE building. It is worth visiting, except the prices are a little higher but they also put on a show of singing and dancing for you.
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