My Paradise: Mongolia: A land that time almost forgot

Author with wife standing lonely amid the deserted landscape
Author with wife standing lonely amid the deserted landscape

My Paradise: Mongolia: A land that time almost forgot

by Ron Roman
Stripes Korea

In October, my Better Half (Yeon Hee) and I decided to hit the road for Mongolia (Latin for “Land of the Mongols”), one of the few remaining major tourist destinations in Far East Asia we hadn’t yet gotten around to despite our living long-term in Korea. I had always been told (and believed) that October is the time to go. Going earlier was said to be too dusty owing to the proximity of the Gobi Desert; going later was just too darn cold.  We couldn’t have been more wrong. We now recommend going in late spring or the summer. October nights can be freezing.

Arriving inside Chinggis Khaan International Airport outside the capital Ulaanbaatar (note: spelling often varies), we were met by our group’s tour guide, nicknamed Auggie (“Baby” in Korean) and a dozen other Korean travelers from Seoul. Auggie was a full Mongolian, had studied tourism at a Seoul university, spoke Korean with somewhat of a North Korean dialect and had almost no English. Even at the airport, one of our first impressions was that Mongolians look more Korean than Koreans; if you visit, you’ll see for yourself. We headed for our tour bus. In the interest of brevity, the following are just a few highlights.

One of the many crazy-looking cairns dotting the countryside

Barren terrain

We headed east out on the national highway (Terelj Road), where the lay of the land looks truly eerie. I’ve been to 20-plus countries in this part of the world, but here the landscape is unique: a cross between western Texas and Mars, at least as seen in NASA photos. The rock formations are especially weird; they look like huge, smooth, rounded dominoes, often precariously placed atop one another and ready to tumble onto the wayward trekker. The land, mostly flat, is composed of light-brown grassland, dry that time of year, for almost as far as the eye can see. Myriad horses, which are small and stocky, graze on the horizon. (Mongolian horses tend to be smaller than their European counterparts, yet more rugged). On all but the clearest of days, dust will be everywhere. (The country has one of the highest rates of lung infections as a result, particularly in children.) After a couple of hours of driving, you realize just how barren this country is.

We stopped at a roadside department store to load up on snack items – locally produced beers (labeled in Russian), US-made Lay’s potato chips, etc. – all the while not knowing the cost, since price labeling on items was haphazard. Auggie said fruits and vegetables would be expensive, given the barren terrain and harsh climate. Meanwhile, on our way to Gura Tourist Camp, Auggie entertained us with some Mongolian language lessons: “San ban ho” is “How do you do?” in conversational Mongolian; Russian is used for reading and writing. But enough of first-grade language lessons…

Well-stocked roadside department store



Please pass the side dish

Finally, after two hours on the bus, we came to Dung-Ji (Korean) restaurant to wolf down a lunch of kimchi chigae (kimchi stew, fiery in taste and temperature) and assorted side dishes. (If ever taking a Korean tour, remember: if there’s a Korean restaurant nearby, that’s where you’ll eat your next meal; expect to feast on as much Korean cuisine as you will local.) The Korean couple opposite us at the dining table wasted no time in digging in. The woman, to the dismay of my wife, preemptively claimed the cabbage salad side dish as her own, and promptly took it upon herself to gobble up the entire thing. We had been forewarned: try to carefully choose those who sit with you come chow time.

Back on the bus, my wife broke out some chocolate from the department store. (Korean restaurants traditionally don’t serve dessert. Too bad. To the Western palate, the cuisine is overly salty and sour, so postprandial sweets are most welcome.)

We slogged onward to our next destination: a horseback riding camp. Increasingly noticeable are the barrenness and scant population. “Lovely country! Lovely town!” exclaimed my Big City Girl wife. On the way over, we made a quick stop to walk around a rock pyramid, designated as a well-wishing monument, to throw three stones on top as a way of wishing for a safe trip, according to Auggie. (These well-wishing cairns are everywhere). Then, we hopped back on the bus. It was only mid-October and already bitterly cold and windy.

Horseback riding and hiking

Arriving at the Green Sky Resort, it was time for horseback riding. Mongolian horses tend to be short and stocky, as I mentioned, because they have been bred over centuries to adapt to the rugged terrain. It had been a while since I last had ridden. The rugged mountains off in the distance were spectacular. Riding high, I felt like a trooper in Chinggis Khaan’s army of old. This feeling didn’t last long, however; soon, my testicles hurt. (Male readers may know what I mean; other readers can skip this part). We completed a full circle and came back to guzzle down mat, a white, semi-bitter root drink mixed with cow milk inside a yurt, the traditional circular domed tent used by nomads. Then we were on the bus again for a bumpy ride on unpaved roads pockmarked with the sleaziest potholes you’ve ever experienced. This is common; most roads in the countryside are potholed and barely paved.

Exploring deserted plains on the legendary Mongolian horses

We came to a provincial park offering splendid views of jagged mountains circumnavigating the entrance and were told to hike up the path leading to their base. It would take 40 minutes. Alongside the trail spaced every 10 meters or so to the top were pithy Buddhist aphorisms in English with their Russian translations below. Example: “There are three types of people, so there are three types of Buddhism for them.” Hmm. Any Buddhist readers out there?

Going up, my chest hurt owing to the high altitude, I surmised; racing down to be the first to return I didn’t skip a breath, but like an idiot had worn wooden-like dress shoes. Soon, my feet were hurting bad. The temperature was dropping fast. In Mongolia, be sure to bundle up except in summer. Weather may change in a New York minute.

Just before dusk, we were on the road again, only to stop soon at a big yurt-shaped souvenir shop featuring a specialized version of locally produced horse-oil shampoo and soap. Everyone passed on these items, yet local knick-knacks and gewgaws were purchased by some. Outside, it was already getting dark. I had been up since 4:30 a.m. and was ready to punch out for the day.

Inside a traditional nomadic yurt

Hunkering down for the night

After a short while, we pulled into our overnight abode: a no-frills, bare-bones yurt. The wood fireplace was already hot, but it was still chilly inside. Time to unpack and make a beeline for the restaurant nearby to munch on a simple Mongolian meal of roasted lamb, baked potatoes, sliced and whole carrots, coleslaw, and plain white rice washed down with a bottle of ice-cold local beer, the name of which I can’t recall, the label being printed in Russian. A quite simple meal which tasted genuinely homemade. Time to hunker down for the night. Given the circular structure of yurts, double beds are impractical. Both of us were bushed—and soon fast asleep—in separate beds. (Well, I didn’t say this was our honeymoon, did I?)

Upon entering the yurt, it had been too chilly; quickly, though, it was too hot. No fancy central heating here. In the middle of the night, we had to go out to crack open the door and anchor the handle to get a more balanced temperature for the night. We were away from city lights. Outside, the canopy of stars proved breathtaking. Back inside, the yurt proved comfortable. Morning call would be at 7; breakfast was at 8. 

Breakfast was lamb soup (a first for me), rice, eggs, sausage (with hardly any meat, mostly flour, according to my wife), white “toast” that hadn’t been toasted, and instant coffee. Nothing to build a gourmet appetite upon, yet adequate. Though we may have been ensconced in a comfortable restaurant, my wife still blurted out, “Everything here is rough and tough!” perhaps musing over the night spent in our no-frills yurt. The pithy description well characterizes the countryside.

I went to the restaurant toilet. Reminiscent of what she had just said, sure enough, there was no toilet tissue in the stall. I had discovered that after I…

Everybody packed their bags and headed for the bus. The landscape was dotted with tourist yurt resorts. In the distance, I spotted a fellow on “camel buck,” the famed Mongolian two-hump camel, one of the few places in the world where this breed is found. We drove on, up to a walk leading to the Tuul River where we got off for a good mile-and-a-half stroll dodging livestock dung everywhere. The river was clear and clean and swimmable in summer, according to Auggie. Also common are half-sunken rubber tires in the soil serving as boundary markers. I thought this was weird.

Costumed dancers on stage as part of the traditional troupe performance

Memorial and museum a must

On our walk back to the bus, a driver with a huge eagle stopped by our entourage, offering to let us take individual photos, at two bucks apiece, holding the clawed beast up high at arm’s length, as if in a triumphant pose. Several of us gladly ponied up the cash for the privilege. It was then back to Gurda Lodge Resort for lunch and then to Chinggis Khaan National Memorial and Museum.

Holding up high a trained Mongolian eagle

The Chinggis Khaan National Memorial & Museum

Don’t miss this national memorial and museum if you visit Mongolia. It’s astounding. Less grandiose, but equally informative, at least on a historical scale, is the other national museum of Mongolia once you’re back in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Of course, there are myriad attractions to visit in the city, too numerous to list. Just grab a brochure.

Mannequins of royalty at the National Museum

Depending on the season, particularly, Ulaanbaatar may appear somewhat drab and run-down, a result of the influence of old Soviet-style architecture with exception of the more modern downtown area. For sure, expect to find it dusty anytime. Construction of new, soaring high-rises dots the city’s horizon as far as can be seen, even on a clear day. It’s definitely a city on the move.

Not much later, it would be time to bid good-bye to Auggie. We exchanged email addresses, and I promised to forward this article to him if it’s published. I hope he likes it as much as you do!

The facade of one of many historical museums in Ulaanbaatar, capital city

Overlooking downtown Ulaanbaatar 

Speakin’ Mongolian

Hello: Sain uu

My name is: Minii neriig

Goodbye: Bayartai

Author’s Bio:

Ron Roman taught English and the humanities for the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) all over the Pacific since 1996 until the COVID-19 crisis (2020). His critically acclaimed apocalyptic doomsday thriller “Of Ashes and Dust” was published by Histria Books (Nov. 2022) and is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and retail book vendors everywhere.



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