Far away from Starbucks, shopping malls, and luxury resorts lies a vast land untouched by time, where nomads travel by camel and live in felt tents.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” is titled after the great Mongolian leader Kublai Khan, who organized and ruled over China in the 13th century. His grandfather, Genghis Khan, had conquered the territory after uniting the tribes of Mongolia into a military state. At its peak, the Mongol dynasty stretched from Korea to Hungary and as far south as Vietnam, becoming the largest empire that ever was.
Xanadu, the “summer” capitol where Khan resided in a lavish palace, inspired Western interest in the East after famed explorer Marco Polo wrote about it. Six hundred years later, Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan,” which begins:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Although his poem was an imaginary vision, the beauty it evokes can be found in the land that is known as Mongolia today.
Mongolia has remained relatively unchanged for centuries; it is one of the few countries that retains its ancient traditions and has one of the only horse-based, nomadic cultures in the world. The countryside, unscarred by industrialization or intensive agriculture, is exceptionally beautiful and sustains some of the last pristine ecosystems in Asia.
There are several ways to explore the wonder that is Mongolia, just 2½ hours by air from the capital of Beijing. Many travelers are interested in discovering the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle. Nomadic families are traditionally very welcoming and offer passing travelers warmth and generosity in their homes—white felt tents called gers.
The ger has religious and superstitious rules associated with it, and is the focal point of many Mongolian customs and traditions. Even in the cities, most Mongolians live in gers, which can be moved easily and have a universal layout (the door always faces south, and on the back wall is the family altar, with Buddhist images and family photos.)
Tourist camps in Mongolia offer ger accommodations, usually with modern amenities. One recommended ger camp is the Three Camel Lodge (800/998-6634), located in the shadows of the Gobi-Altai Mountains in the Gobi Desert. Each of its 45 gers is furnished with Western-style amenities, including a sink, toilet, king-size bed or twin beds and electricity from solar panels. Western-style showers and bathroom facilities are available in the main lodge. Activities on the property include hiking, camel trekking, horseback riding, dinosaur-fossil digging and wildlife viewing. Rates range from $175 to $300 per person per night, including meals and sightseeing with an English-speaking guide.
In major cities, travelers also have the option of staying in Western-style hotels. Three commonly recommended hotels in the capital city of Ulan Bator are the Continental Hotel, the Bayangol Hotel (976-11/328869), and the Ulaan Baatar Hotel.
Programs & Tours
For a different type of Mongolian adventure, many tour groups provide unique experiences outside of the cities.
Pacific Delight World Tours (800/221-7179) offers an all-inclusive 17-day Mongolia Escapade trip. The first four days are spent traveling to and exploring Beijing, with guided tours of the Great Wall, Tianamen Square and the Imperial Palace, and accommodations at the Presidential Plaza Beijing. Then tourists travel to Ulan Bator and visit the Gandan Monastery, the National History Museum, and enjoy a performance of traditional dance and song, while staying at the Ulaan Baatar Hotel. From there, participants will fly to Hovsgol Province and stay at the Ger Camp in Lake Hovsgol, situated in the countryside near the mountains. While there, they will learn about the nomadic culture and visit different families. Later the group will move to the Three Camel Lodge, explore the Gobi Desert and the Yol Valley National Park. While visiting the “Flaming Cliffs” area, which is known for its glowing orange rock that is rich with dinosaur fossils, tourists will have the opportunity to ride two-humped camels. Then it’s back to Ulan Bator for any personal sightseeing and shopping; the next day it’s off to Beijing, and the next back to the U.S. The round-trip flight departs from either Los Angeles (on Northwest Airlines) or San Francisco (on United); other gateways available for a small additional fee.
Wild China (8610/6465-6602)– a tour organization that aims to expose travelers to the exotic landscapes and local cultures of less-visited areas – conducts seven excursions in Mongolia, including a Gobi Desert trek and a trip to Karakorum and the Erdenezuu monastery. Wild China trips are good for the novice traveler because they’re well organized and have a long-standing reputation of being safe. However, the active trips are only for those in good health; before embarking on the journey, the organization must review and approve of each person’s medical history. If you’d prefer something different, Wild China will tailor a trip for you, creating an itinerary around a theme such as religion or environmental conservation. Tours begin at US$550 and are all-inclusive in the (Mongolia) domestic sense, only sometimes including the flight from Beijing to Mongolia, so keep in mind that you will have to book your flight(s) separately.
Nomadic Expeditions (800/998-6634, 609/860-9008) has more than 20 different tour programs in Mongolia, in addition to operating the Three Camel Lodge, noted above. They have active and recreational trips combining a Mongolia visit with Tibet, Siberia and other neighboring regions, as well as purely cultural tours. Equestrians will especially appreciate the Horsetrekking through Mongolia series. One is a 17-day, summer time adventure for more capable riders that traverses the forested mountains of northern Mongolia, right up to the shores of crystal blue Lake Hovsgol, priced from $3,175 for 2007.
Travel Tips & Useful Info
- Travel season is generally May-October, as winters are bitterly cold.
- The easiest way to get to Mongolia is to fly into Ulan Bator, from Berlin, Beijing, or Moscow. Most tourist attractions are in or just outside of the capital city.
- When traveling independently of a tour, budget about US$100 per person per day, which should cover food, lodging, and sightseeing. Bring traveler’s checks and some US dollars in cash. Outside of the capital, you won’t be able to buy anything on credit.
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