in the land of the KHANS
My first 72 hours in Mongolia had made a
believer of me. We'd covered about 130 miles by car, first going east
to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and then u-turning west, passing
through Ulaanbaatar to switch the car for a van and heading toward
I was traveling with my friend Brenda on a seven-day tour of central
Mongolia led by a delightful young woman named Aggie. In the next few
days, she would lead us to the site of Genghis Khan's capital, two
Buddhist monasteries and the view of sand dunes from atop two very
But getting to and from these magnificent spots called for the
patience of a Red Sox fan and, frankly, the stomach of one, too. So
far, the road had been bumpy but manageable, and I began to think I'd
make it through the week without a bout of my usual carsickness. I
can't remember another time in my life when I've been more wrong.
In the afternoon of day three we pulled into Khustain National Park,
where the wild takhi horses live. The park is about 62 miles
southeast of Ulaanbaatar and the ride took around two hours, a
reasonable pace. The roads in Mongolia are few, and those that exist
are in a constant state of disrepair. I thought the road to Khustain
was fairly rough. I'd learn later those 62 miles wove a silk road
compared to what lay ahead.
After a quiet night at Khustain we awoke at daybreak for a quick
breakfast and a trip out to find the takhi. First we found Sandy and
Bob, a couple from Michigan we'd befriended. We said our hellos and
went looking for horses.
Khustain is really a reserve, nearly 200 square miles of land for the
takhi. The takhi are a short, stubby-legged and broad-nosed breed
that once roamed wild on the Mongol steppes. The wild herds had
disappeared by the late 1960s after too much hunting and poaching.
About a dozen remained in a few zoos around the world, which were
bred with some success.
Starting in the early 1990s, small herds from various zoos were
brought back to Mongolia, and now the country works with the
Netherlands to track and protect the horses, which number now close
We lucked upon a herd grazing on a hill, then watched as a second
herd approached and the two stallions said their manly, hoof-slapping
hellos. After a few screams, the passing herd passed by and each
stallion remained king for the day.
We humans crawled back in the van and headed east toward Kharkhorin,
once home to Genghis Khan's capital, called Karakorum. We left before
11 a.m. with a little less than 200 miles to go. We arrived just
before 4 p.m. with a full understanding of the life of a bobblehead
and that the road to hell is paved with Mongolia asphalt.
We reached smooth land in Kharkhorin, where we settled our stomachs
with fresh air, rest and a bottle of wine I'd foraged in Ulaanbaatar.
Meanwhile, the owners of the tourist camp made us a traditional feast
of khorkhog, a mutton stew fired with hot stones. The cook heated
river stones in a fire, then dropped them into a huge vat. She added
the mutton, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, turnips,
spices, salt and water, closed it with a screw-top lid and
set it atop her fire.
Two hours later, this pressure cooker delivered the best
lamb stew I've ever had and even convinced Bob, who hated mutton
until that day, that lamb could make a satisfying meal.
The next morning we toured the former land of the Khans.
We stood on land in the former Karakorum from which Genghis (more
accurately pronounced Chinggis) Khan steered an empire that stretched
from the Korean peninsula past Russia, Iran and Iraq up to Italy's
borders. The ancient capital was founded in 1220 along the silk road,
though the empire stayed there for only 40 years until another Mongol
leader, Khublai Khan, moved the leadership to what is now Beijing.
The Mongol dominance was fueled by its warriors, its horses and its
diplomacy, many historians now note. While massacres certainly spread
from town to town during the 13th century, the Khans also ordered
their soldiers to limit bloodshed and spare entire towns that agreed
to come under Mongolia's rule. Genghis Khan, known from afar as a
ruthless invader, is revered at home as a statesman who set up a
modern government and established a common written language.
It was Khublai Khan who first embraced Buddhism while ruling from
China, and by the 16th century, Karakorum had become home to 1,000
monks at Erdene Zuu. By the time we visited, the monastery and
Buddhism had suffered through persecutions of communist leaders.
Monks and sympathetic leaders helped hide relics, and the monastery
was allowed to reopen as a museum in the mid-1960s. By 1990, it once
again was allowed to be a place of worship and teaching monastery.
The visit to Karakorum and the history lessons reminded me of an
adage I'd heard on a past trip to Beijing. A Chinese leader
apparently told Khublai Khan that an empire conquered by horseback
could not be ruled by horseback, a saying with obvious truth.
But the vista also brought home a Mongolian proverb told to us the
previous night over dinner: Travel as far as you can while your horse
is alive and meet as many people as you can while your father is
alive. The dependence on camaraderie and reliable transportation can
never be underestimated, and traveling across frustrating yet
breathtaking paths with new friends - Aggie, Bob and Sandy - made for
one of the most rewarding adventures I've had in years.
But it wasn't without its challenges: The last night in a tourist
camp proved the coldest, complete with frost, and the camp workers
forgot to light our stoves in the early morning. We shivered through
breakfast and braved ahead, slinking back into the lurching van and
turning east to Ulaanbaatar.
We careened into town in time for a relaxing lunch, some cashmere
shopping, hot showers and a rousing concert by traditional
performers. The music included traditional throat singing and a trio
of string players, so that one performance sounded like Peking Opera
and another like a bluegrass jamboree.
Looking back, it feels magical that I got to visit such a monumental
It also feels miraculous that we never once got a flat tire. It must
mean my 21st century horse is still alive, and that I'm ready to
return to Mongolia for another visit.
E-mail Teri Weaver at: email@example.com
We humans crawled back in the van and
headed east toward Kharkhorin, once home to Genghis Khan's capital,
called Karakorum. We left before 11 a.m. with a little less than 200
miles to go. We
arrived just before 4 p.m. with a full understanding of the life of a
bobblehead and that the road to hell is paved with Mongolia asphalt.
know & go: Mongolia
At a glance
Mongolia spans more than 600,000 square miles, an area slightly
larger than Alaska. Ninety percent of the land is pasture or desert.
It has 2.8 million people, about a third living in the capital of
Ulaanbaatar. People speak Mongolian, a language using Cyrillic
script. Most also speak Russian and many in Ulaanbaatar speak
English. Ninety-four percent of the people practice Tibetan Buddhism.
The country now is a parliamentary democracy, having had three
presidential elections since breaking with the former Soviet Union in
the early 1990s. Climates are harsh in the winter and summers are
comparatively mild. Temperatures still vary dramatically even in mild
months, especially depending on the location.
I highly recommend an organized tour for traveling in Mongolia,
and there are dozens from which to choose. Some guest house owners
double as tour guides; other companies are operated out of their
homes. We found our company through a basic Internet search. It's a
member of the country's Ministry of Roads, Transportation and
Tourism, the Mongolian Tourism Association and International
Eco-tourism Society. The official travel season is May to October,
but I'd recommend June to September, unless you're spending more time
in the warmer south.
Tours range from basic features (like the one we chose) of
travel, short horse and camel rides and nights at tourist camps to
hardier fare, like treks by foot or horse, full-scale camping,
fishing and hunting, and journeys in the Gobi Desert. I would
recommend picking a company with a large staff, which you can gauge
in part by how many tours it offers. If you hire an independent
driver to hurl you around the countryside, think about who he will
call if your car breaks down. Also, no matter which company you
choose, it's a good idea to double check your hotel and flight
reservations by Internet and phone.
One thing we noticed about the tours: They aren't made for
families with young children. There's a lot of down time in the
camps, during which I took pictures and Brenda wrote in her journal.
But younger travelers might not be so happy, especially when it comes
to the long, nausea-inducing car rides. After five seasons as a
guide, Aggie said she'd rarely seen a family traveling with children.
All railways and flights lead to Ulaanbaatar, the country's main
entry point. There are no direct flights from the States; most
Americans travel to Beijing or Moscow first. There are a fair number
of direct flights from Russia and Asian countries. Some travelers
come by train, either a 30-plus hour ride from Beijing, or a four-day
ride from Moscow. It's a great bargain, if that's your thing. A
one-way ticket from Moscow cost $50. No visa is required for American
Ulaanbaatar has a handful of multistar hotels, many starting at
$70 a night for a single room. Ours was one of nicest and most
famous, being the backdrop for one of the few travel books on the
country and home to one of the city's most popular restaurants.
Still, the hot water knob to the shower fell off in Brenda's hand,
and breakfast was a free-for-all buffet where we had to hunt down our
tableware. But it was clean and safe, with feather pillows to boot.
Budget hotels and guest houses also are available for considerably
Away from town, tourists stay in aptly named tourist camps. Take
the word "camp" seriously, and you'll be fine. Each couple has their
own ger, a traditional house made of canvas and felt and propped up
with wooden rafters. The ger (rhymes with bear) has no heat, save a
wood-burning stove, and unless you can talk your travel companion
into feeding it every hour or so, the nighttime temperatures call for
serious huddling under blankets. Our tour company suggested bringing
clothes to layer, and one night I slept soundly in two pairs of
pants, two shirts and a fleece top, and a knit cap. Showers and
bathrooms with flush toilets are available, though a walk across the
camp is required.
Ulaanbaatar has a small collection of international restaurants
including French, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, Thai and
Cuban. There also are a handful of Mongolian restaurants, though I'd
recommend avoiding ones that bill themselves as Mongolian barbecue.
Stir frying bowls of meat and vegetables while patrons watch isn't a
local tradition, and the meats and soups done up in the kitchens of
proper Mongolian restaurants proved much better. Our tour schedule
kept us from sampling any huevos rancheros and fried bananas, but I
did manage to sneak away to a French café for a coffee and a slice of
spinach quiche. The coffee was weak, similar to the instant grounds
we drank most of the week, but the pastry was wonderfully buttery and
flaky, a real treat.
The food quality varied in the camps, from delicious mutton
dumplings and lamb stew to homemade cheeses and yogurt to a
surprising selection of fruits and vegetables. The further out from
town, the fewer choices at meal time. Oddly enough it was the broiled
river fish at our last tourist camp that proved too gamey to eat. We
brought snacks of energy bars and trail mix, and with the huge
portions served three times a day, we always found enough to eat.
Vegetarian options were available everywhere we went, though in some
cases that option may mean you get more coleslaw and potatoes and
less of everything else.
Mongolia can prompt crossed-fingers when it comes to health care.
Ulaanbaatar has hospitals, but further out in the country visitors
must depend on sparse medical staff in sparse villages. Occasionally,
tourists must be airlifted out of the country at a cost of as much as
$100,000 to the traveler. It's best to check with your health insurer
about supplemental coverage before traveling. Also, be sure to bring
adequate supplies of prescription medicines, clearly labeled and
packed among separate bags in case one is lost.
In January, a U.S. dollar was worth about 1,164 togrog. Dollars
are accepted at many shops in Ulaanbaatar and at souvenir stands near
tourist destinations in the countryside. In Ulaanbaatar, I had no
trouble getting togrog from an ATM at our hotel, though I've heard
that's not always the case. We traveled with about $500 each in cash
to exchange at the hotel and to spend on souvenirs, alcohol and tips
for our guides. Tipping in restaurants is not expected. Before the
trip, we had to wire cash to pay for our tour. The wire fee added
almost $100 to the trip's $1,000 pricetag, and frankly it made me
nervous. We found out later that wiring money - rather than a credit
card charge through the Internet - is quite common.
If you're lucky enough to visit a family in their home, you're
expected to bring small gifts. We packed jewelry, small toys, crayons
and paper, scarves, candy and cigarettes. If you are offered
something to eat, you should always taste it. Leaving food on your
plate is OK, but refusing to taste is an insult. If you clean your
plate or bowl, it may signal the hostess to fill it up again no
matter how full your stomach. Many people are generous with
photography, but you should always ask before taking someone's
picture, even if you have to mime your request with your camera.
As always, check the State Department's Web site for information
on your destination. For the first time in my travels, I registered
my itinerary with the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, more for concerns
about the country's sparseness than any worries about crime. We
walked around the capital city at night, on main roads around open
restaurants and busy hotels. The only danger we saw were the people
who tottered on their way home from celebrations. Use common sense,
be aware of your surroundings and keep your passport and money on
Source: The U.S. State Department, Lonely Planet