Learning > Travel

Mesmerising Mongolia

Lydia Vasko on 10 Jul 2016

The Straits Times


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Experience stunning landscapes and the nomadic way of life in this nation bordered by Russia and China


Who: Kim Lau, 43, an audio visual technology lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He is single.


Favourite destination: Mongolia


Why: It is a great adventure destination. The range of animal habitats, high, jagged mountains and never- ending forests and deserts are mesmerising, offering seemingly endless frames for photography, which is my passion.


Many tourists visit Mongolia for its stunning landscapes and are often surprised by its rich history as the home of the Mongol Empire - the largest land empire in history that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea - and the unique spirit and hospitality of the Mongolian people.


The opportunity to stay with a local horseman family and experience their nomadic way of life can be humbling yet inspiring and gives travellers a chance to see the magnificent night sky, which is unlike anywhere else in the world.


Best place to stay


Zaya (www.zayahostel.com) is a simple, clean hostel which caters to travellers who prefer a quieter and calmer environment, in contrast to some of the more rowdy backpacker places. It has two locations in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city. Room rates start at US$20 (S$27) a night for a private room with a shared bathroom.


I also like camping in tents or with a Mongolian family in a separate ger, a round portable tent covered with skins or felt. Camping allows me to get right into nature, which is necessary for my photography, while staying with a family lets me experience Mongolian hospitality and gain deeper insight into the Mongolian way of life.


It was while staying with a Mongolian family that I learnt they place family photos in their ger as a way of telling their family story, and they sprinkle milk into the air and around the wheels of their vehicle for the good luck and safety of travellers.


You can arrange your homestay at a ger through your hotel or guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar.


They are typically part of a package tour, which will include a driver, guide, food and accommodation. Prices start at US$50 a person a night at the backpacker level, and upwards of US$100 a night if you are staying in a nicer tourist ger camp. The cost of each package will vary, depending on the number of people, type of ger, type of transportation and duration of tour.


What to expect in terms of food


Mongolian food is quite bland; mutton and flour is about as good as it gets. Mongolia is not a place that you go to for food.


While my camping meals often comprised noodles and canned food, when I stayed with families, I ate soup, mutton and lots of dairy products. When in the city, small local restaurants are a good way to get more variety in your meals.


Khan Buzz is a typical guanz, or Mongolian canteen, which is centrally located opposite the State Departmental Store (Khoroo 3, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). At small restaurants like this, you can get buuz (Mongolian steamed lamb dumpling), khuushuur (fried flat dumpling), tsuivan (fried noodles) and guriltai shul (noodle soup).


Suutei tsai is the standard salted milk tea in Mongolia and tastes similar to the Tibetan Butter Tea.


A simple meal at a guanz costs 5,000 (S$3.40) to 10,000 Mongolian Tugrik.


You can also find Chinese and Korean food in abundance in the capital as well as at some Western cafes and bakeries.


Must-try dishes


In addition to buuz and khuushuur, try boortsog, which is the Mongolian version of youtiao (fried dough), although it is more commonly seen in a dried cookie form. It is often eaten as a snack and is found in many homes.


Khorkhog is a special Mongolian mutton or goat dish which is popular in the countryside and not usually served in restaurants.


The meat is cooked inside a sealed metal container using the heat of hot stones which have been placed on top and around it.


You need to order it in advance and it is typically made only for groups. Your tour guide or driver can arrange to have this dish made for you. It is a rather bland dish of fresh meat and potatoes, but it is worth ordering for the experience.


Favourite cultural site


Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape is a unique Unesco site that spans more than 122,000ha.


About 320km west of Ulaanbaatar, the valley is the cradle of nomadic civilisation and reveals the remains of the Gokturks (ancestors of the Turks in Turkey), Uighur and Kyrgyz empires which came before the Mongol Empire.


Favourite festivals


Plan your travel to coincide with local festivals such as Naadam - the country's biggest festival of games held every July. Naadam makes Ulaanbaatar spring to life.


Altargana is a rotating, bi-annual festival celebrating the culture of the Buryat people - a Mongol ethnic group of about 500,000 people, most of whom live in a south-central region of Siberia along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal.


While in Mongolia, see a masked Tsam dance at Amarbayasgalant Monastery or Erdene Zuu - the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia - which provides a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.


Best sunset


Mongolia has a mesmerising landscape, but the best sunset is in the southern Gobi desert at the Bayanzag - also known as the Flaming Cliffs- in the Omnogovi Province of Mongolia.


The cliffs suddenly come out of the steppe, and when the sun sets and strikes the rocks or the sand dunes, it brings out their colours. You can arrange for your tour guide to take you there.


Best hidden find


The bird-nesting colony at Khovsgol Lake in northern Mongolia. It is at the edge of a protruding peninsula and further from the main pathways. The pristine nature and sounds of birds nesting are mesmerising.


Recommended guide book


Mongolia: Nomad Empire Of The Eternal Blue Sky by Carl Robinson provides an overall view of the country's culture, historic sites and landscapes.


Ideal length of stay


One month is the minimum length of stay I would recommend for travellers who want to truly experience Mongolia.


One should not just go to Ulaanbaatar, but venture into the country. Eastern Mongolia is Genghis Khan's homeland; Northern Mongolia has pristine nature landscapes; Central Mongolia hosts many nomadic civilisations; West Mongolia is home to many Mongolian tribes and minorities; and South Mongolia is the Gobi desert.


You will need to hire a guide and an experienced driver to take you around and offline GPS maps on a mobile phone are a must-have.


It would take at least three months to cover the country, so pick where to go if you have limited time.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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