Survival guide: Mongolia on a shoestring
There is raw and authentic adventure to be had just a short flight away, writes Phillippa Stewart
One flaming ger, two offers of marriage, and three breakdowns (the jeep, not me) - my first trip to Mongolia was certainly eventful.
Mongolia is not for the faint hearted, especially if you're travelling on a budget. Bone-rattling roads, little choice of food (great, however, if you like yak, yak cheese, or yak milk) and lack of access to running water in the countryside are all things to consider before setting off to one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth. But those willing to take the leap will be rewarded. Basic but beautiful, Mongolia's fledgling tourism industry has much to offer the adventurous, only a short flight away from Hong Kong.
Friends and I hired a 4x4 and a driver from the capital, Ulan Bator. We drove, and at times pushed our jeep, over muddy, bumpy, dirt roads north to "the Blue Pearl of Mongolia", the ancient Lake Khövsgöl, - the country's deepest lake - and then onto White Lake in central Mongolia, a region made up of lava flows and near the Khorgo volcano.
At our destination, we abandoned four wheels in favour of a furrier form of transport - horses. As it turns out, they're more reliable and less likely to break down. Horseback tours are popular for seeing the so-called "land of the blue sky" and getting out into the lush forests and misty hills of the country. It's also a great way to meet many of the nomadic locals.
Mongolians are famous for their hospitality and they didn't disappoint. Weary travellers are often ushered into their gers (large tents that function as their homes) and supplied with fermented horse milk (airag) as well as whatever food is available. The generosity of people, many of who live a basic existence, is humbling.
The sense of pride in their homes also extends to the country as a whole - national flags are everywhere. I even spotted one on a machine filling in potholes in the roads.
It wasn't just sustenance I was given by Mongolians. I uncovered pearls of wisdom such as: "Mongolian meat is bloody meat", "in Mongolia, every man wrestles" and "if women want their baby to milk calmly they should put cotton wool in the baby's ears to keep out the wind".
I also got an unexpected lesson about dating from my trip.
Apparently if you're looking for a man, the best place to start is with a grandmother - the unassuming wrinkled, wind-burnt, matchmaker rolling a homemade cigarette with a grandson up for grabs. It turns out a strong-looking woman who can ride a horse is a hit in the countryside. So much for dating websites. And in a land where livestock outnumber the nearly three million people, it is little wonder that nature has even penetrated the dating lexicon. My favourite chat-up line: "I like you. Fancy coming with me for an hour and having a ride on my horse?" I declined.
Of course, there are luxury gers and companies that can organise tours (and showers!) for you, but then you'd miss out on sleeping on the floors of gers, butchering your own food, eating yak cheese for what feels like an eternity, and washing in freezing cold lakes - all part and parcel of a tough but memorable Mongolian experience.
Just one piece of advice: don't put too many logs on the fire before bed. Burning down your ger in the middle of the night is never a good idea - especially if you've just sent a manly Mongolian riding off into the rolling hills.
How to get there
Mongolian Airlines miat.com/en/home and Hunnu Air hunnuair.com/en fly direct from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator. Flights take about four and a half hours.
HKSAR passport holders don't need a visa for a stay less than 14 days. For stays longer or for other passport holders, check with the Mongolian Consulate. The visa process can take a few days.
What to eat and drink
Mongolia isn't known for its cuisine, most of which tastes very earthy. Don't expect fancy restaurants and lots of choice, especially when you leave the capital. Mostly it's a case of eating whatever's cooking in the ger that day - meat (usually mutton), dairy and animal fats are staples. Khuushuur, a type of fried meat dumpling, is a popular dish and you'll undoubtedly encounter airag, fermented horse milk.
If you're visiting a Mongolian family and they offer you food it is extremely rude to reject it. Don't feel the need to finish it all, just try some to be polite.
When to go
You can visit Mongolia all year round, though high season in Mongolia is typically the summer (mid-May onwards).
It's bandied about in travel literature that Ulan Bator is the coldest capital city in the world. In winter temperatures can reach minus 40 degrees Celsius. But many locals claim November to February is a great time to visit Mongolia - especially if you want to try ice skating, skiing or dog sledding. You may want to organise accommodation in advance - many ger camps close, and it's not the weather to be pitching tents.
Avoid March and April as dust storms and wind set in.
Where to stay
Because of the vast, sprawling nature of the country, travel times are not always guaranteed. Drivers will often make suggestions about where to stay that night based on road conditions. Those who like planning: plan not to have a plan. That being said if you're staying in Ulan Bator, the Chingeltei District is a good place to head if you're looking for budget accommodation.
We stayed at the UB Guesthouse. It's extremely basic and slightly rundown but it's a great place to meet fellow travellers and organise a jeep or a budget tour. www.UBGuest.com. Prices range from US$6 for a dorm room to US$20 for a double room.
In Lake Khövsgöl we stayed at Mongol Ujun, a family fun ger camp run by a friendly English-speaking woman called Davaa. email@example.com; tel: (976) 9906 1921, or 88848588
• Gers. For basic gers, expect to pay around 6,000 Mongolian tögrög (around HK$32). This usually includes breakfast and dinner.
• Horses. Expect to pay anything from 10,000 tögrög per horse per day to 10,000 tögrög per hour in more touristy places. Guides charge around 20,000 tögrög.
• Jeeps. Around HK$543 per day for a car and driver is average; you will need to pay extra for fuel. To save money buy fuel before you leave the capital and carry it in canisters.
• Taxis. Negotiate the price with drivers before you travel. To ensure you are delivered to your destination, do not pay upfront.
• Carry a first aid kit. Because of the remote nature of the country, this is a must.
• Bring emergency US dollars. You do not find ATMs in the countryside.
• Stock up on food and water before leaving major towns. Shops are few and far between and water is also much cheaper in Ulan Bator.
• Bring warm clothes. Even in Mongolia’s summer it gets extremely cold at night.
• Forget the outside world. You can find internet connections in Mongolia but the connection is inconsistent.
• Bring loo roll and wet wipes. Many of the cheaper ger camps don't have showers or toilets. Embrace nature.