Mongolia: A country of choices

Travel
Mongolia's rule once stretched throughout Asia and into Europe. Now the country is finding its way as a new democracy in a global marketplace. Still, with only 2.8 million people spread across 600,000 square miles of country, the present can seem slow to eclipse the past.
From Stripes.com
Mongolia's rule once stretched throughout Asia and into Europe. Now the country is finding its way as a new democracy in a global marketplace. Still, with only 2.8 million people spread across 600,000 square miles of country, the present can seem slow to eclipse the past.

Mongolia: A country of choices

by: Teri Weaver | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 09, 2012

As our plane taxied from the runway it

neared midnight, two hours later than our scheduled arrival in

Ulaanbaatar. Passengers rustled and a flight attendant made

announcements about seatbelts and shifting luggage.

But when he thanked us for choosing Mongolia Airlines because "we

know you have a choice," my head jerked up.

"We do?" I said a little too loudly, because laughter came not just

from my friend Brenda sitting beside me, but also from another couple

of Western travelers a row back.

It turns out there are choices in Mongolia, from traditional

orchestras and local rap groups to museums with dinosaurs and

contemporary art to fresh peaches and tomatoes. The capital,

Ulaanbaatar, serves Guinness and offers wireless pay phones for

public use. Tourist camps in the countryside come with flush toilets

and electrical outlets.

Yet there are careful decisions to make when planning a visit to

Mongolia. Above all, the best piece of advice I can offer involves

patience. In Mongolia, inconveniences abound. Electricity can fail,

nights can chill, flies can interrupt meals, and the roads can and

will jostle you into wondering why you ever agreed to the Sunday

drive from hell across the countryside.

For my part, here's why: The country offers an incomparable view into

an empire once domineering, then diminished and now slowly finding

its way in the 21st century. Past and present creep along

unexpectedly in Mongolia, revealing tractors and satellite dishes in

the midst of towns that resemble the American West from a century

ago. Land stretches for miles without utility lines or passing

traffic on foot, horse or car. When a truck does come into view, it's

likely to be loaded with bales of hay or cars - sometimes both.

When you finally do stop, you might see a family, just as likely

watching television and answering cell phones as tending their

animals or setting up their traditional ger home.

The people evoke the food they raise and prepare - sturdy,

warm and comforting. Standing on the land that once served as Genghis

Khan's capital, you can see how valleys and plains and a tiny river

came together to form an enormous, natural keep that ruled most of

Asia and parts of Europe 800 years ago.

Our journey began in Ulaanbaatar, where nearly a third of the

country's 2.8 million people live. We had bought into a package tour,

a $1,000 investment that included lodging, meals and entrance fees to

parks and museums for seven days. It did not include costs incurred

at cashmere shops or during vodka tasting, but that was just as well.

Even with a favorable exchange rate, we managed to leave Mongolia

without hangovers of any kind.

Our companions were the best part of the tour. First, there was

Aggie, our tour guide, a 20-year-old college student studying English

and business. Later in the week we met Sandy and Bob, a couple from

Michigan who embark on a traveling adventure each fall and have a

wonderful knack for making fast friends.

But it's better to go chronologically. So after a first day in

Ulaanbaatar visiting two museums, a Buddhist temple and enjoying our

first taste of

Mongolian food, Brenda found herself helping a Frenchman

spell out various fears spawned by various phobias.

"U-R-I-N-E," she said as Josef, a French college student,

wrote fearlessly to define urophobia.

It doesn't take long in Ulaanbaatar to locate a competitive quiz

night, and by start time we'd joined with a multinational group of

travelers and tour guides for Wednesday night trivia at Dave's Place.

After more than three hours of heavy trivia debate, we lost by just

one point.

The night felt less Mongolian and more expat, after a dinner at an

Irish pub and then ales drawn at Dave's. Still, Dave's location had a

uniquely local feel - it's in a basement corner of the country's

Palace of Culture, one of several behemoth buildings that dominate

the capital's center.

On the way back, we strolled past Sukbaatar Square, named after the

man who declared the country's independence from the Chinese in 1921

and where in the winter of 1990, people once again gathered on the

spot to protest communism.

As we walked, the clangs of construction workers competed with the

traffic, part of a 24-hour effort to complete a mausoleum at the

square to honor the country's 800th anniversary, which was 2006.

The next day we left the city for Gorkhi- Terelj National Park, 34

miles and 90 minutes northwest of Ulaanbaatar. Here, we got our first

taste of life at a tourist camp. We moved into our ger, a traditional

Mongolian home framed with thin wood, wrapped in wool felt and topped

with canvas. Inside were two beds, two wool blankets and electrical

plugs for recharging cameras and iPods.

Before lunch, we took a quick trip to Turtle Rock, the mammoth

formation that looks like a turtle and promises good fortune to those

who visit its craggy insides. In the afternoon, we drove over the

next hill to spend a few hours with Pagma, her family and her horses.

Pagma once worked for the country's parks department, and now her

family rents land from the state to house a couple of generations of

people, 18 horses, a brood of chickens and a very spoiled dog. Her

living room included a television and DVD player, two couches covered

with rugs, a refrigerator and a few family photos. She brought us

heaping bowls of her yogurt, made fresh daily. Later her son, Erdene, took us on a short

horse ride.

Pagma and other families like hers make a little extra money by

playing hosts to tourists. She showed us snapshots of a Japanese

group that had lived with her for three days earlier in the summer.

Brenda asked her what changes she'd seen since communism ended in the

early 1990s. Pagma said the land has more tourist camps.

Next door to her land was an 18-hole golf course where we watched a

group of Korean tourists tee off.

Our time in Terelj proved our favorite leg of the trip. The weather,

hospitality, food - especially the homemade beef stew and lamb

dumplings called buuz - and people all were perfect.

I could have stayed a week. But we had appointments with wild horses

and Genghis Khan, not to mention Bob and Sandy to meet along the way.

And there were 230 miles waiting to jostle us out of bucolic Mongolia

and into rural reality.

NEXT WEEK: Follow along on Teri Weaver's continued trip

through Mongolia.

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