Overview
Costs
Food
Hotels
Money
Mobile phones
Internet
Weather
Health
VISA
Security
Recommended
Avoid
Getting around
Photos

Ulan Bator, Hustai NP, Khögnö Khan mountain, Karakoram



7.8: Beijing -> Ulan Bator

8.8: Ulan Bator

9.8: Ulan Bator - > Naadam festival -> Hustain NP -> Ulan Bator

10.8: Ulan Bator -> Khugnu mountain

11.8: Khögnö Khan mountain -> Karakoram -> Khögnö Khan mountain

12.8: Khögnö Khan mountain -> Ulan Bator

13.8: Ulan Bator -> airport -> Ulan Bator

14.8: Ulan Bator -> Bishkek



Planning and overall impression

Mongolia has never been high in my list of places to visit mainly because of its remote location and because I always had the impression that it's not a place with many sights, lots of history, impressive geological formations and so on. The reason I decided to pay a visit to the country was that I have been based for a few months in Beijing, which is relatively close to Mongolia. Also, it seemed like a pretty odd and unconventional place to go. After some research I was still not too convinced Mongolia would be really interesting, so I decided to spend only a few days there to get an initial impression of the place and perhaps return later for a longer, more extensive trip.
My impression after this first trip is as follows. Ulan Bator is a very unimpressive place. There is very little which might be of interest for tourists. Also, the tourist infrastructure is underdeveloped. The highlights of Mongolia are its unique culture and the countryside with its amazing sceneries and wide open spaces. When the sun is shining, Mongolia is very, very photogenic.



Costs

Mongolia is not an inexpensive place to visit. Sleeping in a yurt or nomad camp may be cheap, but then you need transportation to get there and that will be expensive, especially considering that a 4WD offroad vehicle is needed for many places and a driver and a guide are highly recommended, especially if you are new to Mongolia. Hotels in Ulan Bator cost as much as hotels in Western Europe.


Food

This is a bit the weak spot of Mongolia. Due to cultural and environmental reasons (until recently agriculture was not possible because of the harsh climatic conditions), Mongolians have traditionally been relying on a diet of meat and dairy products obtained from animal husbandry. Mongolia is not a southeast Asian country, where spices, fresh fruits and vegetables grow in large numbers. As a consequence the food in Mongolia is high in meat and animal fats (energy rich food needed to survive the harsh winter). Not exactly healthy & light meals. I might add that it was difficult to find restaurants in Ulan Bator.



Accommodation

The hotels in Ulan Bator have prices on a level comparable to those of hotels in western Europe. The accomodation quality is not bad, although it is difficult to find hotels up to 100 Euro/night in the centre of Ulan Bator. In the countryside while it is possible to stay in nomad yurts probably spending very little, it's also possible to stay in yurt camps for tourists with good facilities and restaurants for as little as 10 Euro/day, i.e. very, very affordable and good value.




Money  / Exchange rate (August 2015)

1 Euro = 2200 Mongolian Tughrik.
1 Euro ~ USD 1.10
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

ATMs are easily available in Ulan Bator.


Mobile phones and prepaid cards

I bought a local SIM card from Mobicom (20T + 12000T for a 2GB data package and a 35000T recharge for phone calls; calls within Mongolia are 70T/min, to China and Malaysia around 300T/min, to Germany around 400T/min). Mobicom has a 3G network, which at least in Ulan Bator is quite good. Could have also bought a 10000T 1GB package or a 20000T 5GB package.



Internet access

Better hotels in Ulan Bator all offer WLAN in the room. However I relied on the mobile phone to access the Internet (in hotspot mode)



Weather

Mostly good weather, sunny blue sky with temperatures up to 30°C on some days. Some rain during the last day, but not cold.


Health / Vaccinations

I didn't bother refreshing my immunisations for the trip to Mongolia. The strong sun and dryness of the air are a bit of a challenge during the summer.


VISA / Entry requirements

VISA on arrival available for EU citizens and citizens of some other countries in 2015: very easy to get through passport control at the airport in Ulan Bator with my German passport.


Security

Mongolia seems like a very laid back, peaceful and secure country.


Recommended things



Things to avoid



Getting around

I rented a car+driver (110 Euro/day for a 4WD car) to get around Mongolia. Possibly there is also public transportation, but if you want to get to the interesting places you will need your own transportation. Not that many taxis around in Ulan Bator.



Travel agencies and guides who helped us on this trip





Hotel Kaiser, Ulan Bator. 57 Euro for a single room with attached bathroom (shower), TV, fridge, heating, no A/C (!), tea making equipment. Good location in the centre of Ulan Bator, not far from Ghenghiz Khan square. No elevator, meaning I have to walk every time up to the 4th floor where my room is.
The room is really hot, because there is no A/C and because it's hot outside. But also because the heating in the toilet is permanently on and can't be switched off. In the hotel room the temperatures climb to 29°C during the day (and stays like that until midnight), in the toilet they are even higher than that.
Weather: warm, heavy rain in the evening in Beijing.

I only manage to leave my flat in Beijing after 6:30pm. In theory it's only half an hour to the airport by taxi, but because it is Friday evening and it's raining I'm actually a bit late. The taxi arrives in a matter of minutes, but then we are stuck in the traffic jam and only very slowly manage to get out of Beijing. Heavy traffic jam everywhere.

At one point the taxi driver tells me that when it's raining heavily, the flights are cancelled. Some nervousness, and with our current speed it looks like I might even miss the flight. But then I check the flight status on the MIAT website an the flights seems ok.

We reach the airport at 7:45pm (trip cost is 90 CNY). Speedily I get to the check-in counter where there is no queue, and check in. Then I proceed through security and passport control to the gate. Some queue here and there, but not too much. Body massage by some security girls at the security check. It's only girls checking both men and women. In some Middle East country they would have separate queues for men and women, but this is China and sexuality is not an issue.

Then I proceed to the gate, arriving at 8:15pm. 20 minutes later the boarding begins. Not much of a queue, although later the plane fills up to about two thirds. The plane is an oldish Boeing 737 and the staff speaks Mongolian, quite interesting. I've never heard this language before.

The plane takes off at 9:42pm, with over half an hour of delay and lands at 00:30 in Ulan Bator airport. Small airport, pretty backward, not modern. But going through passport control and retrieving the luggage is pretty fast. Outside the only ATM machine doesn't work, so I walk to the departures area where there are plenty of ATM machines.

A taxi to the hotel costs 30000T, about 20-25 minutes drive, no meter. I'm in the hotel around 1:30am.




8.8: Ulan Bator
Hotel Kaiser.
Weather: spotless blue sky, sunny, blue sky. Fresh in the morning, it gets hot (over 30°C) in the afternoon. Strong sun. Special light in the sky.

First day in Mongolia. Looks like a pretty wide, open place. Feeling of being in a former east block country, one of those who haven't developed over time and still retain their communist country flair, 25 years after the end of the cold war. I must say that Ulan Bator overall is a pretty ugly city. There are almost no old structures left, at least not in the centre of the city. Everywhere there are unimpressive communist era buildings and construction sites. Seems like half of the city is being rebuilt. Maybe I should come back in a few years, when they finish remodeling the place.

It's amazing that there are so few shops selling things. In Beijing there are shops literally at every corner, here every now and then there is something, and this something is a small shop with few products. I walk around looking for a travel agency and cannot find a single one. Also, I can't find a "tourist zone", i.e. the typical "tourist ghetto" area full of restaurants, cafes, shops, travel agencies etc. The presidential palace is a small unimpressive building. Ditto for the ministry of foreign affairs.

Most people I see on the streets in Ulan Bator are quite fat and plump, both men and women, shapes like giant babies. Very few slim attractive women

After a breakfast I leave the hotel after 10am. I'm in walking distance of Genghis Khan square, which seems to be the centre and major hotspot of Ulan Bator. After initially getting lost, I reach the square at 10:45am. The first impression is positive, sort of. A big square, bordered by several buildings, some of which are modern skyscrapers. Lots of people wearing the traditional Mongolian dress (sort of a overcoat with a hat and boots). A wedding party walking down the staircase of the government building. Mongolian guards doing a change of guard. Pretty nice performance, for once I happen to be in the right place at the right time.

After a while on the Genghis Khan square, at 11:15am I walk to the nearby National Musum of Mongolian history (ticket 8000 T, photo permit 10000T). This is in a relatively small building, quite small for a national museum and contains some interesting exhibits about the Mongolian history from ancient times until today. Very good for getting a feeling of what kind of country Mongolia is, although I must say that there are no stunning, breathtaking artifacts. Overall I spend a bit over half an hour here (place is not too big).

At the information counter in the musuem I ask where the dinosaur museum is. A friendly lady explains how to get there and hands over a tourist map of Ulan Bator.

Shortly after 12pm I start walking towards the dinosaur museum. On the way I spot the Tedy mall, where there is a Mobicom outlet. There I buy a local SIM card (20T + 12000T for a 2GB data package and a 35000T recharge for phone calls; calls within Mongolia are 70T/min, to China and Malaysia around 300T/min, to Germany around 400T/min). Mobicom has a 3G network, which at least in Ulan Bator is quite good. Could have also bought a 10000T 1GB package or a 20000T 5GB package.

At 12:45pm I leave the Mobicom outlet and after some more walking I'm at the dinosaur museum shortly before 1pm. The main museum is closed and there is just a very small museum nearby with just one room with exhibits (ticket 3000T, photo permit 8000T). A bit disappointing, given what I was expecting.

After about 10 minutes in this place I walk to the KFC restaurant I had spotted before and have some lunch. Then I continue walking westwards towards something which looked like an interesting temple on the tourist map. This somehow turns out to be some pretty uninteresting place. An opposite shopping mall nearby is also not interestiing either because there are just shops for children products.

So I walk back towards the Genghis Khan square, thinking of checking out the Choijin Lama museum. On the way I see some cafes and bakeries, but not too appealing (one place, the French deli, is pretty overpriced). Now it's really hot and the sun is burning. At 3pm I reach the Choijin Lama museum, which looks like a historic place (old architecture) fully surrounded by modern skyscrapers. I'm about to get in when I notice that the ticket is a reasonable 8000T, but the photo permit costs a steep 50000T (over 20 Euro at the current rate). So I end up skipping this place and just walk back to the hotel.

After some stop in a supermarket I reach the hotel at 3:45pm. There I rest a bit and call a local guide and a tour operator to arrange the activities for the next days.

At 7:15pm I walk out of the hotel for some evening photo shooting. Right now the light is quite good. I'll end up skipping dinner, taking plenty of pictures of the area around the Genghis Khan square. Tons of mosquitoes after sunset. I'm back in the hotel after 10pm.





9.8: Ulan Bator - > Naadam festival -> Hustain NP -> Ulan Bator
Hotel Kaiser
Weather: same as yesterday

At 9:30am I meet the driver. We start driving to the festival, which is in sort of an open air arena (just a huge open place, with a giant parking). On the way we drive across Ulan Bator. I notice how messy the entire city is. It spreads uncontrolled in all directions.

After the city ends, the open meadows start. Pretty endless meadows, with soft hills here and there. I wonder why no trees grow here.

After a refueling stop at 10:15am, we continue driving and reach the festival place at 10:45am. Seems to be a pretty big, full-day event. Lots of people in traditional costume, even monks and shamans. Some show going on in a central arena. Very colourful event.

We then watch a kids horse race. Some kids ride their horse without a saddle despite the high speed. Then we walk to the archery competition and finally to another kind of horse race.

Around 12pm we have some lunch (sort of a fried pancake filled with some meat; very greasy). Around 1pm we hear that the wrestlling  competition is only going to start at 2pm, which is too late. So we leave for the next place, the Khustain national park. There we hope to see some wild horses, the takhi or Przewalski horses.

The Przewalski horses were only living in the wild in Mongolia, but became extinct in the 1960s. The current horses are part of a successful breeding program and come from European zoos. Supposedly the population has now increased to 340 horses.

The drive to the Khustain NP takes a bit over an hour. First on paved road, then on a dirt track for the last 13km, passing by a yurt camp. We reach the park entrance at 2:30pm. There there is a big parking and another yurt camp for tourists. The entrance fee is 14000T.

At the entrance a local park ranger gets into the car with us. Together with him we'll drive another 45 minutes along track road, until we park the car in one place. Still no sightings of wild horses.

BTW, because this car has no A/C it becomes hot like an oven, even if the windows are open all the time (and lots of dust comes in).

We park the car in one spot, then walk up the mountain. Finally we see wild horses around 1500m altitude. We'll climb up the rigde up to 1655m altitude and see also a herd of wild deer in the distance.

After two hours, at 5:15pm, we start driving back. I'm surprised that the small Toyota car is able to drive on this not so smooth track road without getting damaged.

I'm back in the hotel at 8pm, tired, dehydrated and "oversunned" after spending so many hours in the sun not drinking enough water and with insufficient sun protection. In addition, due to the cold air it seems I've caught a cold or some flu. Maybe even some pneumonia, because the lung hurts a bit in one spot.

In the evening again I can't find a restaurant where to have dinner. There is just one place where the menu is completely in Mongolian language. The restaurant in the adjacent Platinum hotel is empty, while the one in the Kaiser hotel is closed. There may be other restaurants in Ulan Bator, but it's not so easy to find them. By the way, there are almost no 24h convenience stores in Ulann Bator: I only find one open after 10pm. So I just buy some food in a supermarket and eat that.

Later in the room I book a new hotel for the night from Wednesday to Thursday. Not so easy to find a hotel below 100€/night with A/C and located in the centre of UB. There are some places out of UB, but I only find one in the centre (the Corporate hotel) which I book over Agoda.

The night is crazy. There are 28-29°C in the room and I'm burning due to the sickness. Not sure if tomorrow I'll be fit enough for the three days tour which I have booked.





10.8: Ulan Bator -> Khugnu mountain
Tourist camp in the Khugnu mountain. A ger with not much inside, shared bathroom, shower and toilets. The shower is so-so: you have to ask to heat the water, wait half an hour, then you can take a shower (not much water coming out). But the restaurant and the service in the restaurant is very good. They serve a delicious meal (dumplings with meat). There is electric power only from 9 to 11pm (two hours) and not in the ger, although the ger has an own LED illumination, available 24h.
Total of 64000T for the ger and two dinners (I pay the dinner for the driver; the ger alone is 22000T/night).

Weather: sunny, blue sky, fresh in the morning, hot during the day. Some clouds. Out in the prairie the sky gets cloudy here and there and there is even occasionally some rain.

I get up at 8:30am after having woken up twice in the night. I get ready, pack my stuff and have breakfast. At 10am I meet Bilegt, the lady from the tour operator. Good that she has been a doctor, because I explain her the situation. We get to a pharmacy and buy a broad spectrum antibiotic (just in case I should need it) and some medicine against flu.

We discuss the trip details. It will be three days spent as follows:

Day 1 - Drive to Khugnu Khan mountain
Day 2 - Kharkhorin, Erdenezuu monastery, Shankhiin khiid
Day 3 - Drive back to UB.

The trip cost is 110€/day, i.e. 330€ for three days. The car is a comfortable Toyota Lancruiser with A/C. The driver speaks some English. The cost of sleeping in a tourist camp should be around 50 USD/night.

 I pay a deposit of 500000T. Then we start driving around 10:40am. Initially we drive on the same road taken yesterday. Brief stop on the way in a supermarket to buy food and drinks.

Around 12:30pm the car breaks down. Some damage to the brake of the front right tyre. The driver makes some phone calls, then tells me his father is coming with the spare part he needs. This will be quite a long wait. Only well after two hours will the father arrive and it's almost 3pm when we continue our trip.

The scenery is pretty cool. Endless openness, endless meadows, Every now and then a ger and some people, and every now and then some settlement.

It's almost 7pm when we spot the Khögnö Khan mountains. This is sort of a rocky mountain chain which emerges from the plains. To reach it, the driver turns right onto a dirt track road and drives for a few km. There are some tourist camps in the area and many tourists, some riding horses.

In the evening, when the sun is not so strong anymore, this feels like a pretty comfortable area, a place with which you could spend a holiday with the wife and the kids.

The first ger camp we visit is full. Supposedly they have shared services (toilets, showers). So we drive to a local temple, about 1-2 km away. From the outside this looks quite unimpressive, but inside this is richly decorated. At 8pm we finally settle down in another ger camp.






11.8: Khögnö Khan mountain -> Karakoram -> Khögnö Khan mountain
Khögnö Khan ger camp. The ger here costs 26000T and is better than yesterday's ger: electricity for three hours (7-10pm - they promised four hours, but cut off the power at 10pm) and there is electric power also in the ger (strong enough for a hair dryer).
Good shower (well, let's say better than yesterday, because you don't have to wait until they heat the water). The dinner however is not as good as yesterday's dinner and overall the service of yesterday's ger camp was a bit better. Total cost is 99000T (26000 for my ger, 15000 for the driver's ger and 58000 for the dinners and breakfasts).

Weather: sunny, blue sky until about 3pm. Then a cloud cover gradually builds up and in the evening the sky is overcast. Only a few drops of rain.

For some reason I miss the 8:30am wake up call of my mobile phone and sleep until 9am. Then I get up, have breakfast and by 10:30am we leave for Karakoram, the ancient capital of the Mongol empire.

The road is pretty horrible. There is one section which is brand new, but otherwise it's full of holes everywhere. Makes me wonder whether perhaps Mongolia is a poor country, if they can't afford to maintain the road network.

We first stop at the Shankhiin Khiid Buddhist monastery which we reach at 12:30pm. Not that big, but very colourful and picturesque. At the moment in Mongolia during the day there is a very special light. Probably it's because of the season, the purity of the air and the relatively northern location, so that everything is quite photogenic.

There is no entrance fee at the Shankhiin Khiid monastery. It consists of just a few buildings. In the major one the monks are praying while we arrive.

We spend half an hour at the monastery, then at 1pm start driving towards Karakoram (Kharkhorin as it is called now), arriving there 20 minutes later. Kharkhorin is supposed to be the former capital of the Mongol empire.

In practice, not much is left of the former capital. At least I can't see any ruins of buildings. At Susa in Iran, the former Achaemenid empire capital, at least the foundations are left and Susa is much older than Karakoram. But here there is nothing except for a museum and the Erdenezuu monastery. This monastery again is very, very cute and photogenic. One building reminds me of Tibetan style Buddhist monasteries. There is an entrance fee to some of the buildings in the monastery compound.

The city of Kharkhorin is built in Northern European / Soviet era style. You might mistake it for a settlement in northern Finland. There is nothing typically Mongolian. It's a quite unimpressive place.

At 2:30pm I get out of the monastery and meet the driver. He points to some small restaurants opposite the temple, where to have some lunch. I order a dish of meat and rice for 8000T. Again red meat - after these few days in Mongolia I will have exceeded my red meat quota for the next two months (usually I don't eat red meat, and here all meat is beef, pork, lamb etc.).

Around 3pm we drive to a monument on a hill overlooking Kharkhorin. Very cute monument in Mongolian style, colourful and picturesque. From this hilltop there is a good view of Kharkhorin and the surroundings.

After having visited the monument it's 3:20pm and the question is what to do with the rest of the day and where to spend the night. I ask the driver for some better ger camp with good services, but he knows none. I even call the tour operator lady in Ulan Bator, but she doesn't know either. So I just decide to get back to the Khögnö Khan mountain and spend the rest of the day there.

We reach Khögnö Khan at 6pm (after a small detour along the way: the driver sees many cars a couple of km to the left and assumes there must be a festival. Turns out it's not a festival. All these people are camping here because there is a famous doctor and they want to meet him. Some people have been camping here for days already. Imagine if in Europe or the US people would camp in front a doctor just to see him/her.

In the evening I climb a bit on the hills behind the camp.





12.8: Khögnö Khan mountain -> Ulan Bator
The Corporate hotel, Ulan Bator. About 60 Euro for a nice, comfortable big room with A/C (finally!), flat screen TV, fridge, lots of nice furniture (three chairs, two tables, a cupboard), toilet with bathtub and shower, hair dryer, WLAN in the room. And unlike the Kaiser hotel this place has an elevator. Only a couple of Euro more expensive than the Kaiser, but so much better.
Weather: overcast the whole day, some rain but very little (a few drops every now and then).

In the morning because the sky is overcast and dull and according to the weather forecast it's going to rain, I decide to get back to Ulan Bator and take a rest there. Also, I'm still not feeling well, and don't feel to ride a horse in the rain. But I guess that renting a horse here should be relatively inexpensive. So we leave at 10:45am.

The drive proceeds quite smoothly. Shortly after 1pm we stop in a small village, Lun, and have some lunch. I order a "schnitzel" (supposed to be a steak) and a vegetable soup. My food turns out to be uneatable. The steak is not made out of one piece of meat, it's made out of many small pieces of mutton meat with tendons and ligaments in an envelope of an egg. The meat comes with some rice and tomato ketchup. The soup doesn't contain a lot of vegetables - it's mostly made out of animal fat.

Later I learn that agriculture in Mongolia is virtually non-existent (apparently there is some only in the plains in the north). Vegetables are to a large extent unknown in the Mongolian cuisine and people live mostly on meat and animal fat. That explains why people here are so round and fat.

Anyway, after the lunch stop we continue driving and reach Ulan Bator around 4pm. There the driver changes the car, because today he is not allowed with this licence plate to drive into Ulan Bator. We drive to the hotel in a different car. There I meet the tour operator and settle the balance of the bill.

In the evening I don't do much. I still don't have the price from the Bishkek tour agency for the Kyrgyzstan tour. Perhaps it will be expensive, otherwise she would have got back to me with a quote already.





13.8: Ulan Bator -> airport -> Ulan Bator (was supposed to be Ulan Bator -> Bishkek)
Hotel Best Western, Ulan Bator
Weather: cold, rain and overcast the whole day, until the evening. In the evening the sun starts shining.

Entire day spent at the airport. I arrive around 10:30am at the airport. The Turkish Airlines flight TK0343 is supposed to depart for Bishkek at 12:05pm, but already at 10:30am they show an expected departure time of 2:30pm. Around 12pm we are allowed to check in. Later the expected departure time keeps getting postponed.

Apparently the plane cannot land due to strong wind (but it wasn't windy at all when I left the hotel) and after having spent 2-3 hours circling around Ulan Bator it heads to Irkutsk (Russia) because it still can't land but is getting low on fuel.

The waiting time continues until the evening. Finally around 9:30pm, after 11 hours of waiting at the airport (f**k you Turkish Airlines!), we are transferred into a hotel in Ulan Bator. From what I hear the Turkish Airlines plane has landed in Ulan Bator, but it won't depart today for Bishkek. Really great. One day wasted at the airport and the night paid at the hotel in Bishkek is also lost, because I should have cancelled it at least 1-2 days before.

At least I manage to get the luggage in the hotel.

I spent the whole day discussing the trip in Kyrgyzstan with Aigul, the tour operator in Bishkek. The prices she quotes ($490 for the 3-days option and $670 for the 4-days option) are more than what I am planning to spend. And then the $490 option becomes a $580 option, because Aigul made a calculation mistake. So I probably will do a glacier trip on Saturday and then see what else I can do. There is also the option of just getting a car with driver for $65/day (fuel not included).





14.8: Ulan Bator -> Bishkek
Silk Road Lodge, Bishkek. USD75 for an a bit old-fashioned, but nice room with everything, including A/C, TV, lots of furniture, toilet with bathtub/shower and hairdryer, fridge and tea-making equipment, sofa, ironing board+iron, electronic safe. The hotel has an elevator and is pretty central. Electric water boiler system for the hot water in the bathroom.
Weather: sunny, blue sky and cool in Ulan Bator. Overcast in Bishkek.

Wake up call at 7:45am, then again at 8am. At 9:30am I'm in the Turkish airlines bus to the airport, arriving at the airport at 10:10am. Have to check-in again, long queue, only manage to check in after 11am. Then there is again a long queue at the security check and passport control. Around 11:40am they start boarding the plane (a B737-900).

The plane finally takes off at 12:20pm (about 3/4 full) and lands in Bishkek with some delay shortly before 2pm local time. When disembarking I'm one of the few passengers who are not in the transit area for Istanbul (the flight continues to Istanbul). Going through passport control, getting the luggage, local cash and a local SIM card (Megacom; I pay 600 Som for a SIM card with about 550 Som of balance; international calls cost between 3 and 8 Som/minute; 1MB data 2.4 Som) is quite fast.




Continues with the Kyrgyzstan 2015 travelogue




Copyright 2015 Alfred Molon