If I could only use one superlative to describe Mongolia, it would be magical. But, there’s no way I can leave it at just that. My three week long trip through the steppes of Mongolia, and the taiga forests of Siberia on the Trans Siberian railway was so many things, magical being just one – (unwashed was another, but more on that below)…
This blog is not about the train journey, and I didn’t manage to spa anywhere in Mongolia, but it is about those first few truly magical days. Dinosaurs, rocks, friends, bad champagne, camping, and soap. Of the few travel regrets that I have over the years, missing out on several days in Mongolia is nearly at the top of the list.
If you follow this blog, or know me at all, you know that travel is what I live for – discovering new places, meeting new people, sleeping in strange beds, seeing new skies, and facing edge-of-my-comfort-zone adventures. Mongolia met all of my requirements. I know that I was there at the best possible time. Mid-June meant that the coal power plants were off, clearing the smog away, and it had rained the day before, and the Mongolian skies were the color of its name – Land of the Blue Skies.
The landscapes and people in Mongolia truly left me speechless. I sat on hilltops and imagined dinosaurs wandering the landscapes. I curled up in blankets in a ger (also known as a yurt), and looked at the stars through the hole in the roof, wondering if I had remembered to walk in a clockwise direction (read more about etiquette). I learned about the shaman religion, and hiked in rolling hills looking for wild takhi horses. Eagles soared in the skies, and Chinggis Khan gleamed in stainless steel grandeur surveying his lands. My friends and I, basked in awe of actually arriving, reunited after a year of anticipation. We climbed rocks and drank horrific Mongolian gold “champagne” out of coffee mugs. From a gazebo perched up above our ger camp in Terelj national park, we laughed, and enjoyed being together.
One of my favorite things to do in a new place is to wake up to see the sun rise over a foreign landscape. I tried. I did. I woke up, and stepped outside into the chilly morning air and the sky was black with night. And then it wasn’t. There was a whisper of grey, but the moon was down for the night. I blinked and it was daylight, no sunrise for me.
With my trip cut short by flight disturbances, I didn’t have the time to consider a spa, and our days were so full. However, I was lucky enough to have communicated with the founder of Lhamour, a soap and beauty products store run by women in Ulaanbatar, Mongolia before I arrived. Even as I walked through their doors, I was impressed with the look, feel, and smell of the products. Not having a spa treatment on a trip is unusual for me, but I found Lhamour to be the next best thing, and lucky for me, my soaps came in handy in the coming weeks, as I tried desperately to use the tiny stainless steel train bathrooms to maintain some semblance of clean. I just wish I had a) bought more, and b) picked up the anti-pollution face cleanser.
Lhamour started with soaps from natural Mongolian materials and have expanded from there. Sea buckthorn, sheep’s tail fat oil, yak’s milk, horse oil… I started at the flagship store at Shangri-La Mall, where Batchimeg showed me everything, and recommended a lot of products. She was so concerned about my skin, and I hated to tell her that I hadn’t slept in days. We had a great time, and she let me try all the samples. Then I was able to coordinate with the office and factory to reschedule after my trip plans had changed. On my last morning I made it to the other side of UB and got to see how they make and package their products. My tour of the factory showed me how carefully they craft their soaps and products, choosing ingredients carefully, and even the artistic packaging. While I was unable to meet Khulan, the founder, the women that I did meet were so welcoming and interesting.
So here it is, I bought lip balm, assorted soaps, foot salve and hand creme. I’ve used them all, and I’m nearly out. They don’t distribute here in Europe, which is terribly sad. I was so impressed with their kindness, and innovation. I love spa products, and I love young women entrepreneurs. These soaps saved me over the next weeks’ travels, when wet wipes and dry shampoo just couldn’t cut it any more. I was carrying a tiny bit of Mongolian magic with me.
Visas – Getting into Mongolia proved to be difficult. My friends had visa trouble, my flights were cancelled, and I spent 17 hours in Moscow’s airport. By the time I finally arrived, I had missed two and a half days of my trip. All that aside, make sure you keep up with the ever changing visa requirements for this country. Even if you are sure you’ve checked everything, keep checking all the way until you arrive. My friends got caught with visa rules that changed just a few weeks before the trip was scheduled to start.
Airport – There appear to be 174 different ways to spell Ulaanbaatar, but the airport code is always UBN. There are also only a few places from which you can actually fly into UB, and only a few flights per day. So, try to leave yourself connection time when you are booking your flights. I ended up with a delay on the start, missing my UB connection from Moscow. Unfortunately, I had not planned for this eventuality…and didn’t have a Russian transit visa, so I was stuck in SVO airport for a long, long, long time. Lastly, UB is a very tiny airport, with barely any amenities, so don’t count on much, including a working ATM.
Train Station – If you are arriving, or departing from the UB train station, make sure you have your paper ticket in hand. And, once you do, you don’t actually need to stand in line, or carry your bags up and down the stairs. You also do not need to arrive very early – leave yourself no more than 30 minutes or so at the tracks.
Money – it proved relatively difficult to get money in Mongolia. You can only get tugrik in the country, and many of the ATMs do not like western cards. But keep at it – eventualy you’ll find one!
Taxis – quite expensive, the best way to navigate is to stick your thumb out and get a ride with someone! It’s definitely the cheapest way to make it across the town.
Maps.me – I’ve written about Maps.me before and their offline navigation – the Mongolian maps were great and reliable if you don’t have wifi. Getting a SIM card proved elusive and ultimately impossible for our tiny trip, but being offline had us all putting down our phones and seeing so much more.
Etiquette – the Mongolian people are incredibly polite, and also a touch superstitious. Follow the link above to learn more about ger etiquette if you are lucky enough to be welcomed into someone’s home. Also, especially in the city, if someone is randomly very insistent on shaking your hand after they’ve stepped on your foot, it’s not a scam, it’s a cultural norm as way of apology. Lastly, don’t be surprised if everyone asks you about your name and what it means. Naming children is very important, and the Mongolian people are dedicated to finding auspicious names.
Go to Mongolia! Really really really. In the end, it was absolutely worth it. Get out of the city, and experience the beauty of this wonderful country. Get dressed up in traditional Mongolian garb – get your whole group in on it. Try your best Mongolian faces with no smiles – they are the kindest most smiling people I’ve ever met, until they are posing for a picture!
Hotel 9 – pretty good accommodation, easily situated in the city center, walking distance to the big park, and the malls. Half the price of other city hotels, and they were very helpful. In our small party, we had multiple re-bookings as flights were missed, connections lost, and dates changing, they were great about all of it. Breakfast was substantial, especially if you like chicken nuggets first thing in the morning…but seriously, this turned out to be one of the best hotels we had on the whole journey.
Mary & Martha – just opened a store in Shangri-La mall, and had beautiful textiles, fair trade, local, unique, quirky Mongolian gifts.
Lhamour – they have several stores, and beautiful products. My only caution is about the sea buckthorn chapstick – there’s a distinct yellow tinge, so perhaps just use it at home, and not when you’re out in public! Make sure to watch this mini-documentary about Khulan, and Lhamour itself. Seeing the way they source their ingredients, and knowing the love that goes into their manufacturing, added to how much I adore these soaps and creams.
Khustian National Park – Przewalski’s horses went extinct in the wild in the 1960’s but a reintroduction campaign started in the 1990’s has been successful. The museum is highly informative, and the vistas in the park are stunning. Stop along the way to check out the shamanic sites. Watch for eagles in the sky.
Ger living – make sure you try to get a tour that has a Ger experience. I was able to join a small group (just two of us + our guide and driver). Hopefully you’ll go ger camping, but it’s really not the same as getting into a real ger and meeting the wonderful people. The food is very different, I would recommend starting with small portions. I tried the aaruul cheese, which traditionally is thought to strengthen teeth, but my goodness, I think it might have broken mine. It tastes a bit like parmesan, but with a very “yakky” after taste. I also tried batan, which was not really to my liking. It doesn’t help that I am about 85% vegetarian, and my beef consumption is so rare that I can’t really count it as a food I consume. But, as it was made for me, and served with such kindness, I did my best. The milk tea and yogurt was much more to my palate. That being said, the yogurt is often fermented, and then distilled into milk vodka, or Arkhi. That was beyond me, and I simply couldn’t even get it into my mouth.
Terelj National Park, Turtle Rock, and Chinggis Khan – we spent a wonderful two days here and stayed at Ayanchin Ger Camp. The gers were definitely westernized, and oh so comfy!!! They have a restaurant on site, miles and acres of hiking, and rocks to climb. I wish I’d had a week or more to explore here. Do not miss the massive Chinggis Khan statue! Climb to the top and see the steppes from 30 meters. This excursion was simply the best thing that could have happened to our travel weary selves, and served as a great bonding time for our motley crew.
As we left Mongolia, I don’t think that I realized that the very best part of this trip was already over.