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5. Mongolia - Tourism

5.1 How to travel to Mongolia?

The principal ways to Mongolia are by train and by air. The capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, is connected via the Transmongolian Railway to China and Buryatia. In Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatia, the Transsiberian Railway (leading from Moscow to the Russian Far East, Khabaravosk, Nakhodka etc.) connects to the Transmongolian Railway. Trains from Moscow to Beijing run once a week in each direction and take about five days for the whole trip. There are also `local trains' between Irkutsk (Ärxüü) and Ulaanbaatar which take about 24 hours one way. Similar local trains run between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. Since the Transmongolian Railway sports only one track this is a bottleneck for railway traffic which results in these one train/week schedules. Prices for train tickets vary between USD 200 and USD 500. It is not possible to state any exact amount because prices fluctuate, the currency exchange rates vary daily and pricing policies create different price tags depending on where the tickets are purchased. The second feasible way to enter Mongolia is by air. Air transport is available between Buyant Uxaa (the international airport of Ulaanbaatar) and Beijing as well as Irkutsk, the latter with a weekly connect flight to Moscow (or should I say, it's a weekly flight to Moscow with a stop-over in Irkutsk?). These lines are served throughout the whole year. In summer, there are additional flights to Huhhot (Inner Mongolia) and Japan, the latter being served on a somewhat irregular basis. Past experience has shown that these links were just chartered flights without a genuine ``schedule'' in the sense of the word. There are about four to six international passenger flights per week connecting Ulaanbaatar and the rest of the world. Links to other Central Asian regions are under consideration or offered on a seasonal basis such as a flight between Almaty / Kazakhstan and Mongolia. A new route has recently been opened between Buyant Uxaa and Seoul, Korea (spring 1996). The latest developments (fall 1996) include an air link between Buyant Uxaa / Ulaanbaatar and Germany, Berlin Schoenefeld (code SXF - important because there are two other public airports in Berlin: Tegel (TXL) and Tempelhof (THF)). The flights are scheduled on a weekly basis (Sunday: OM135 goes to Berlin, OM136 returns to Ulaanbaatar). There is a stop-over in Shcheremetyevo/Moscow and occasionally a fuel refill in Nowosibirsk. Prices for the return ticket start from appr. USD 700.-- (in winter) when bought in Berlin.

Only the prices on the Ulaanbaatar / Beijing route are fairly constant: around USD 200.-- for a one-way ticket. For almost all other destinations there are wildly varying ticket prices depending on where the ticket is bought and whether the client is entitled to special reductions (like being an official student at the Mongolian National University).

5.2 What kind of accommodation is available in Mongolia?

In Ulaanbaatar there are some big hotels. One of them is a monument to Soviet-style luxury and lavishness: The ``Ulaanbaatar Zoqid Buudal''. Located next to the central square, it is ideal for travellers with a not so restricted budget. Price tags start at USD 60.- (or so) and the two dining rooms are frequently used by external guests when every other supply of food in Ulaanbaatar collapses. The next important hotel (near the Bogd Gegen Palace) is the Bayangol which was thoroughly revamped in 1992. Similar standard. The ``Chinggis Khan Hotel'' in Sansar (a district name in Ulaanbaatar) has been ``due to open soon'' since 1991 but did not do so until 1995. It used to be ``under construction'' and was temporarily managed by the Holiday Inn group, a Korean group (Lotte, I think) until it was finally taken over by a Mongolian enterprise. It offers good Western food and is virtually empty so that you can enjoy a very calm meal there. Service used to be good in the opening year as part of the personnel was trained in Munich, Germany, but has deteriorated significantly recently.

Small hotels for the traveller with a tight budget include the ``Stroitel'' (Russian: construction worker) which is north of the Ix Toïrog (Great Ring) Road close to the smaller monastery. A Mongolian-Chinese joint venture is the ``Manduhai'' hotel near the Ix Dälgüür (Department Store). Clean rooms, simple furniture, but nice atmosphere and acceptable price tag. Other private hotels keep opening with the rise of the private sector. These offer similar prices (sometimes starting with USD 10.-- / day for a complete little flat) but the situations keeps changing so it is difficult to give names and addresses here. New hotels open constantly; a nice choice is the ``Flower Hotel'' which is the former ``Altai Zoqid Buudal''. It is under Japanese management now.

In the countryside the situation looks different. In the tourist spots there are ger camps with a complete infrastructure (restaurant gers, shower facilities etc.) and they are quite convenient because they ensure a minimum of reliability for the traveller. Some of these camps are still operated by Juulqin while new camps are operated by private companies. Once leaving the tourist paths the situation again looks different. It is possible to ask at people's homes (= gers) but one may be turned away (already too many people staying there). Prepare for a long demarche to the ``neighbour'' (maybe 50 or 100 kilometers (30 to 60 miles). Never, never forget to bring a reasonably useful and valuable gift. Useful and valuable gifts include tobacco, vodka, snuff bottles, snuff tobacco and other objects.

When staying at somebody's gär then stick to the following minimal rules regardless how friendly people may appear to you:

  1. Check carefully whether your potential host is capable at all of accommodating another guest. In order to find out, you can check for the number of family members, the situation of the animals, etc.
  2. Never stay longer than one day.
  3. Never refuse ceremonial offerings of tea even if it is salty, etc.
  4. Roll down the sleeves of your shirt/coat no matter which temperature it is. If it is summer and you (and Mongolians) wear a t-shirt, then pretend to roll down your sleeves symbolically when being offered food and drink.
  5. Never accept any offering of food, drink etc. with your left hand. Both hands is best.
  6. If there is only a well, not a river nearby, never abuse it as a bathtub. Water in general and wells in particular are precious in this country.
  7. When bringing your own food or drink never forget to offer it to everybody. Never attempt to munch your biscuits secretely. If you can't resist eating your own biscuits then wait until you are on the road again.
  8. Perhaps last in this list, but not least: Show due respect to the dogs and animals of your host. The dog will only respect you if advised by his master to do so. Mongolian dogs are no pets!

5.3 What kind of transport is available in Mongolia?

Transport in Ulaanbaatar

``In UB, you can walk, ride the bus, or flag down a private vehicle and negotiate a price. No taxis. I was fairly insulated from that, as my cousin has a car. But I did a lot of walking anyway, because I like to walk and the city is a convenient one to walk in. Most of the hotels are near the center of the city, as are many of the sights. The exception is the big market, which runs on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays - it's a bit of a hike from downtown.'' (Quoted from Peter Crandall's Mongolia Travelogue)

Besides that, Ulaanbaatar sports numerous public bus lines which are usually more than crowded but offer about the cheapest rides in the world even though the prices went up by a factor of 100 from 1991 to 1995: In 1990, a bus ticket was 0.50t, while in September 1996 it was 50t. Bus tickets are now priced 100t.

Peter Crandall's observations on taxis are superseded by end of 1999. There is now a taxi service with bright yellow cabs of Korean origin. The company, City Taxi, can be reached with the telephone number 343433 and accepts reservations at any time. The price per kilometer is 280t. Most drivers have a mobile phone. It is helpful to record the driver's phone number in case the reservation desk does not answer.

Flagging down a private car is certainly recommended for all ad hoc transport in Ulaanbaatar as it is faster than calling a taxi first. The kilometer is charged with 300t.

It is always good to know the words for left, right and straight ahead in Mongolian (züün gar tiïsh, baruun gar tiïsh, qiïgäärää) when directing the driver. Ulaanbaatar does not have many named streets, and addresses are usually given by land marks (see the MobiCom address above which was given as ``behind the Central Post Office''), or in the case of residential buildings, by district and building number.

Transport outside Ulaanbaatar

Travelling to the country requires going by MIAT, the national air line carrier, or renting a jeep. MIAT flights are fairly irregular (usually only once a week per direction) and may be cancelled completely for lack of gasoline or bad weather. It may happen that you take a flight to Uws and cannot return for 8 weeks. Renting a jeep is fairly inexpensive and usually includes a driver who is indispensable because this man usually knows the way in the endless steppe. He also has the technical skill to cross rivers, sand dunes etc. A ``Camel Trophy'' - commercial-like driving style may ruin vehicle and passengers.

In the areas closer to Ulaanbaatar (within a 500-km or 300 miles range) there are busses available. Their departure takes place in front of the Museum of Fine Arts downtown Ulaanbaatar.

5.4 Which season is recommended for travelling?

Summer is beautiful but short. Winter is not recommended if you go beyond Ulaanbaatar. Living conditions and road conditions are at least uncomfortable, nutrition and all related resources become too scarce. Storms in winter are especially dangerous for hikers outdoors, and even a short sightseeing trip in the close vicinity of Ulaanbaatar, like Zuun Mod with its famous monastery Manjshiriïn Xiïd, might yield one or the other frost bite.

A good start is in May. It is still cold but the overwhelming beauty of spring, the mild fragrance of blossoms and the fresh smell of water offer experiences which one will never forget.

5.5 What are the points of sightseeing, museums etc.?

Mongolia is a country rich in natural beauty which includes a wide range of different types of landscape on her vast territory. From the Gobi desert in the south to the pristine waters of Lake Xöwsgöl in the north, from the grasslands of the east to the Altai mountain range in the west there is something for every traveller who loves nature.

For those interested in culture and religion, there are numerous museums in Ulaanbaatar:

The universities have some permanent faculty exhibitions which are often worth visiting. Most Aimag capitals have their own local natural history museum. Xar Xorin has a temple museum about Chingis Khan and the buddhist oriented spiritual history of Mongolia. This list does not claim to be complete.

Main points of interest outside Ulaanbaatar include the former Capital Xar Xorin (Kara Korum, or ``Black Fortress'', derived from the word ``xäräm'') and Manjshiriïn Xiïd in Zuun Mod, Central Aimag.

Only two or so of the over 700 monasteries survived the Stalinist purges of 1937/1938. One of them is the Gandan monastery in Ulaanbaatar which recently underwent major reconstruction, and the other one is situated within the walls of the Xar Xorin compound.

Manjshiriïn Xiïd is the monastery dedicated to the protector goddess of Mongolia, Manjushri. The ruins of the monastery, situated in a valley at the south slope of Bogd Uul mountain, are a silent witness of the atrocities which took place in 1937/38. Recently, money has been donated to reconstruct the monastery, and first steps towards that direction are the erection of a small museum on its site with many photographs of the 1920s showing the former dimensions of the monastery complex.

Another famous monastery worth visiting is Amarbayasgalang, and en route between Xujirt and Xar Xorin you can find the somewhat smaller Baruun Xuree (Western Monastery).

The travel literature on Mongolia offers more in-depth information.

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