Alternative Travel Destinations – Mongolia

Welcome to Part 3 of Alternative Travel Destinations 2014. This week we journey east, over Europe, past Russia, to the ‘Land of the Blue Sky,’ Mongolia.

Located in Central Asia, between China and Russia, Mongolia is a land of vast and varied landscapes, nomadic peoples and endless horizons. It’s the perfect destination for travellers looking to escape the busy cities of the West and experience an entirely different way of living. The most difficult choice is where to begin…

A good place to start is Terelj National Park (pictured above), only a few hours’ drive from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. We arranged a tour, and stayed with a nomadic family at the foot of a valley headed by the famous Turtle Rock. We spent our time playing football with local children, hiking, and, of course, riding horses. Our home was a small but surprisingly comfortable ger. It wasn’t luxury accommodation – far from it – but it was perfectly adequate, with 5 beds centered around a central wood-burning heater. Temperatures can plummet at night in the countryside, even during the summer, so it’s a good idea to pack some warm clothes or a sleeping bag, though it was actually quite warm inside once our hosts had got the fire started.

At night we would settle down outside our ger, drink cheap Mongolian vodka and watch darkness take hold of the valley. As a city boy it is always quite shocking – and also deeply satisfying – to remember just how sensationally dark it can get when there are no sources of artificial light. We felt isolated and distant from the developed world, thousands of miles from London, from home, from everything, which, of course, was exactly what we were looking for.

Another excellent option for travellers is Khustain Nuruu National Park, also located relatively close to the capital but visited far less frequently by tourists. The park is home to a wide range of native animals, including Mongolian gazelles, ibexes, wild boars, wolves and – most famously of all – the Przewalski’s horse. The species had actually gone extinct in the wild by the late 1960s, but a successful reintroduction programme means that you can once again see these magnificent horses roam their natural habitat. Most “wild” horses that exist today, such as the Mustang in the US or the Brumby in Australia, are actually the offspring of animals that had once been domesticated and had later escaped, whereas the Przewalski’s horse has never been tamed by humans and, as such, is considered by many to be the only truly wild horse that remain in the world.

 A trip into the country’s desolate south, where you will find the Gobi Desert, is also very rewarding. Stretching over much of Mongolia and Northern China, the Gobi is known in Chinese as “The Endless Sea”. It was created by the rain shadow of the enormous Himalayan range, and is Asia’s largest desert, covering an area larger than France, Spain and the UK put together.

Gobi Desert

Gobi Desert

 So as long as you don’t get lost, you will have a fantastic time, the Gobi is a wonderful place, full of life and places of interest. High on any itinerary is a tour to see one of the many sites where dinosaur fossils and eggs have been found, such as the Flaming Cliffs (so-called for the distinctive red hue of the rocks), and if you get especially lucky you might spot one of the animals that thrives in the hostile environment, such as Bactrian camels, polecats and wild asses. A host of travel agents in Ulaanbaatar offer tours of around 10 days to three weeks, which will provide everything you need, from accommodation and food to flights between the various locations.

If that all seems too easy and you are really seeking some punishment then you can join the runners of the Gobi Desert Marathon, a grueling test of physical endurance in the most challenging conditions. If doing the whole race is beyond you (and it is certainly beyond me) it is possible to cheat ever so slightly and just run the last 5km or so, where you will still get the obligatory “been there done that” t-shirt and a medal, so no-one at home ever has to know. Easy.

The options above are all well and good, but the country’s real showpiece is the Naadam Festival, a huge three-day celebration of the “three games of men” – archery, wrestling and bareback horse racing – that attracts visitors from all over the world in their tens of thousands. The races are undoubtedly the greatest draw, with up to 1000 young riders, usually children up to the age of 13, racing across huge distances of up to 30km on open grassland. There are no tickets, but the crowds can get extremely large and you’ll have to get there very early if you want a spot near the finish line.

Alternatively, a lesser-known but still wonderful event is the Golden Eagle Festival, held in Bayan-Ölgii, in the western part of the country amongst the Altai mountains. Here you can see traditional Kazakh hunters – an ethnic minority within the country – show off their incredible hunting skills. It is a little more difficult to get to but the city does have a small airport a few kilometres outside the city that is served by a couple of national airlines.

Chiggis Khan

Genghis Khan, born Temujin, was the founder and Great Khan of the Mongol Empire.

 Now for the details. A return trip will cost at least £600-£700, usually going via Turkey because there are very few direct flights to Ulaanbaatar. This might seem a little pricey but Mongolia is extremely cheap, especially for food and accommodation. Hostels in the capital cost £3-5 per night, while hotels will cost a little more, usually something between £50-120, and food will be no more than £25 a head even in the best restaurants. In the countryside the food is a lot more basic (hopefully you are all fans of mutton and rice) but at least there is usually a lot to go around.

If you are feeling especially free-spirited then you can fly to Russia and take the Trans-Siberian Express, factoring in a few weeks in Mongolia as part of your journey. The epic train ride is the subject of another article, but it is worth noting that, personally, it is one of the best singular travel experiences I have ever undertaken. The highlight of the journey is the final stretch from Ulaanbaatar, a 35-hour trip that will take you through the Gobi desert, past the Great Wall of China and into the furiously smoggy mega-city that is Beijing. It’s a considerable commitment of time, effort and personal space, but one that is certainly worth considering.

Thanks for reading.

– Felix Turner (The Miserable Two)