An Ancient Empire

In search of Mongolia’s elusive welcome mat

By: Lauren W. Deutsch

This is the first Image
A mongolian ger with a lady
in traditional clothing.
Last year, when Mongolia invited the world to share in the festivities of the 800th Anniversary of the Great Mongol Empire in the capital Ulaanbaatar (UB to its friends), they generated a great response. A year later, the welcome mat remains extended but, like everything else in the nomadic country, it’s location has shifted a bit. Like generations before them, the population of 2 million (70 percent of whom are under 30 years of age) herd cows, sheep, yaks, goats, horses, reindeer and camels for their livelihood. Animals outnumber humans in Mongolia by seven to one.

Nomadic touring is centered on the ger (yert in Russian), a circular portable edifice with walls and ceiling constructed of a foldable wooden lattice covered by handmade two-inch-thick sheep’s wool felt. Spaced miles apart, they appear on the horizons singly or in groups of two or three. Visitors are invited in without question on arrival at a distant ger, and among the top key phrases to employ when looking for that welcome mat, Lonely Planet suggests learning nok-hoi kho-ri-o. “Please hold the dogs.”

Depending upon one’s definition of “creature comforts,” ger living, even for a short countryside adventure, is not just anyone’s cup of tsa (black tea, with milk and salt), but it is accessible in several ways to tourists, and a well-planned trip can satisfy any trekker’s wanderlust.

The basic ger includes twin wood-frame beds with mattresses or a rug, and in the middle is a wood-burning stove for heat and cooking. Light, if provided, is from a generator-driven single bulb hanging from one of the poles holding the roof beams aloft. A chest of drawers, low table and a few stools complete the usual amenities. Clothes may be hung from the lattice interior. (This is where Mongolians hang their clothes, as well as meat and cheeses to dry.) A brightly decorated door makes up the entrance, and everything can be packed up and moved by a two-wheeled cart pulled by a rented camel or truck when the animals get hungry for new vistas.

Formal ger tourist camps and resorts that cater to more Western standards pop up along main routes from one provincial center or attraction (such as a lake or monastery) to another. Whether in a national park or in the middle of an aimag, the rural geographical divisions, they usually provide a bath/shower house with toilet, a restaurant with local foods and often a place for socializing with or without local entertainment. Some offer satellite telephones, television, Internet connection and traditional cultural programs such as horseback riding, archery, cooking and even above-ground pools.

Privately owned Alagtsar Tourist Camp is located on the lush green shore of Lake Khuvsgul (the “Blue Pearl of Asia”) along the Alagtsar River. The camp can accommodate up to 60 people in gers and in their new wood cabin guesthouse/restaurant that offers three freshly cooked meals. They cater to horseback riders, fishermen and families, as well as tourists interested in visiting nearby reindeer-herding ethnic groups. A typical day with three meals is $30 per adult; $20 per child.

In comparison, the Dreamland Resort, which is a five-hour drive from UB, is palatial. The facility caters to world-class Western taste with 10 standard and deluxe double-occupancy gers, as well as a hotel building. The deluxe gers are adorned with plush carpets, fine linen, air conditioners, television, lamps, end tables, chairs and a minibar. The compound offers men’s and women’s bathhouses with a sauna and ofuro, Japanese soaking tub. The large restaurant offers a diverse menu of continental cuisine and the pub, a full bar, satellite TV and karaoke. Rates range from $80 to $200 per night, double occupancy; $60 to $120, single occupancy.

Ger to Ger’s nomadic experiences, suited to families and adventure travelers, place visitors with hand-selected rural ger-living families who provide accommodations, meals and access to their daily nomadic Mongolian lifestyle. Land packages from UB include traditional experiences with Mongolia’s famed horse culture, herding livestock, cooking, preserving meat and cheese and more. Prices start at $40 for three days, two nights in Dungovi.


Getting There:
Air Bridge, LLC, a Denver, Colo.-based based branch of a UB travel agency, has direct contact with MIAT, Mongolia International Airlines (via Seoul) and China Air (via Beijing), and can assist with contacts to ger camps, including Dreamland Resort.


Ger to Ger is the first Mongolian-operated nomad-centered tourism project to be cited by the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific as an effective regional tourism case study.

Ulaanbaatar Foundation is a Venice, Calif.-based nonprofit organization founded by Arnold Singer, who has extensive Mongolia travel resources. The organization promotes cross-cultural people-to-people exchange through annual tours and special programs, including those for physicians. Topical tours can focus on children, women, Buddhism, traditional medicine and other humanitarian and cultural interests.

Where to Stay:
For the most authentic Mongolian travel experience, clients can stay in gers in nomadic villages. Other options are available at organized camping institutions.

Alagtsar Tourist Camp:

Dreamland Resort: Contact Air Bridge.

When to Go:
The tourism season is typically from May to early October, with a peak in July. Early July also has the best weather for the northern part of the country and time for Mongolia’s Naadam Festival. If clients can tolerate the cold, Ulaanbaatar can be visited any time. The rainy season is from late July through August. June and September are both pleasant times to visit and attract fewer travelers.

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