Located in the hills of Mongolia's Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, the Terelj Hotel is a stylish retreat.

Review: Terelj Hotel

Kit Gillet

Few visitors to Mongolia arrive expecting a luxurious time. Most come itching for an adventure out in the vast plains where living in a - the basic felt tents of the nomadic herders also known as a yurt - is the norm. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mongolia earlier this year to attend a forum, her staff found the only hotel they thought was suitable: a former riverside resort used by high-ranking Soviet army officers in the 1960s and '70s.

The Terelj Hotel is located in the rolling hills of the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, 70 kilometres north of Ulan Bator, the sprawling capital.

"We are literally the only luxury hotel in the whole of Ulan Bator," crows hotel manager Oliver Kühn.

The hotel is by no means an international standard five-star hotel; rather, it's a 52-room, old-school riverside complex surrounded by pine-covered mountains and meadows of wildflowers. It is an oasis of stylish calm in a country in a hurry.

Out front, dozens of young Mongolian men sit in the shade, waiting with their horses in case visitors want to take a ride into the surrounding countryside that stretches as far as the eye can see. A short, breathless walk up a nearby hill offers a view down over the hotel, its few neighbouring buildings and some wooded hills. It feels like a landscape created to inspire.

The Terelj Hotel was for decades a shell of a building, having been abandoned in the '80s and left to fall apart in the wake of the political and social upheaval as the country exited the Soviet bloc.

It reopened in 2008 after years of renovation and a slew of international hires brought in from overseas to offer something new to Mongolia's burgeoning consumer class and growing expat and holidaying population.

The hotel has the feel of the Soviet era, with muted colour walls and a seemingly endless labyrinth of identical halls that wind through the several wings of the two-storey structure. Rooms are well - but not overly - equipped, international food is on the menu and channels on the television, and spluttered English spoken by many of the staff. Scattered cabinets filled with historical relics of Mongolian history give those who are lost something to keep them entertained until they find their way once more. Another curiosity is the 10-metre-high statue of Vladimir Lenin, that icon of Soviet communism, overlooking the outside terrace and its displays of individual wealth.

The Swedish spa is the only one of its kind in the country, with treatments ranging from a simple 45,000-tugrik (HK$250) manicure to an 80-minute, 155,000-tugrik aromatherapy massage. In the hotel are children's entertainment and play areas, outdoor tennis courts, a swimming pool and a gym.

But as I sit out on the terrace over a lazy lunch on my first afternoon, watching the river flowing past, it is clear from the conversations wafting over that the hotel serves as a stylish retreat from a nearby urban life for most of the guests. Above all, what the Terelj offers is easy access to the national park, where eagles soar overhead and salmon fishing and horseback riding are steps away.

Across a small footbridge about 100 metres from the hotel's entrance, the park, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres, quickly obliterates all signs of modern human development. Beneath the canopies of trees, weathered old men ride their horses through the icy streams and fishermen cast their lines into the water.

As the sun sets, guests gather for evening cocktails on the outside terrace to watch the stars and listen to the sound of rushing water. While most of the hotel's guests are urbanite Mongolians, the hotel is increasingly tailoring itself to an international clientele looking for a night or two of effortless accommodation in a natural paradise. After all, it doesn't matter if you are Mongolian, European or a former first lady; a room with the right view is worth the journey.


Getting there:

One-stop service to Ulan Bator on Korean Air (via Seoul) or Air China (via Beijing). The hotel is located 70 kilometres north of Ulan Bator. No public transport to the hotel, so it's best to arrange for a vehicle.

Staying there:

Starting from HK$1,250 a night to HK$27,000 for the presidential suite. Breakfast is included.

Tel: +976 9999 2233;


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A lone star on the endless horizon