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Since 1986, MIR Corporation has offered vacation products along the Silk Route and the Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as in Russia, and today, it provides travelers with tour options in 34 different countries. Annie Lucas, vice president for MIR, spoke with us about products that her company offers in Mongolia — an increasingly in-demand destination. Lucas also touts a new Central Asia hot spot and offers an update on her company’s Iran business.
Are you seeing more U.S. travelers visiting Mongolia today? Yes, we’re definitely experiencing an increase in interest in visiting Mongolia compared to years past. As an example, we sold out our most comprehensive Mongolia small-group tour program early and added a second departure to the lineup for 2016 as a result.
What makes Mongolia a destination that Americans will enjoy? It’s like nowhere else. It’s a very distinctive destination — still very pristine, with wide-open spaces, and with its nomadic traditions and customs of the steppe still very much alive and well.
What type of traveler is a good fit for the destination? A certain degree of flexibility is required to travel to Mongolia and enjoy it, as it’s a bit more adventurous and rustic than other destinations. There are still no roads in many parts of the country, and much of the time, accommodations are in traditional Mongolian “gers,” or yurts. These frequently do not have private bathrooms or showers — though some do, and those without have them in a shared building within the camp. Many of MIR’s destinations through Central Asia, into the ‘Stans for example, require a similar degree of flexibility and an appreciation for developing destinations, where infrastructure is still evolving.
What sort of cultural experiences might your clients encounter in Mongolia? Mongolia’s entertainment is uniquely Mongolian, from horsehide fiddle concerts to contortionists and throat singing. There’s really nothing like it. Another cultural experience is visiting a Mongolian family in their ger and sampling the local drink, called “airag,” which is fermented mare’s milk. No one ever forgets it.
What are some of the country’s can’t-miss sites? In my opinion, the musical traditions are simply outstanding and a reason to venture to Mongolia on their own. But the ability to drive for a whole day and not see anyone — only animals and open landscapes — that’s hard to find and very hard to beat.
Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is home to some impressive monasteries and provides a wonderful contrast from which to compare when traveling in the countryside. Plus, everything is based in the capital, and flights usually all route via Ulaanbaatar to other parts of the country.
The top attraction is the Gobi, which stretches for thousands of miles along the border of Mongolia and China. It is Mongolia’s southernmost province of semi-arid desert, as well as home to some of the most important paleontological discoveries of the 20th century. The open landscapes are dotted with hardy desert plants that serve as forage for wild Bactrian camels, Argali mountain sheep and goitered gazelle. This part of the Gobi is also home to golden eagles, saker falcons, jerboas — which are similar to kangaroo rats — endemic reptiles and some of the Northern Hemisphere’s rarest mammals, such as the snow leopard.
For those that have more time to explore, Karakorum should be on the list. This UNESCO-listed 13th-century city served as the seat of power for an empire that stretched across two continents, and though the city itself is now gone, the history is fascinating, and one can visit Erdene Zuu Monastery. The monastery has remained intact since its construction in 1586 and is the first Buddhist center in Mongolia. Built from the stones of the ruined capital, it stretches nearly a quarter of a mile in either direction and is surrounded by a brick wall with 108 “stupas,” or shrines. At one time, there were 1,000 monks in residence.
What’s Mongolian food like? Traditional foods are very much oriented on meat and dairy products, and dumplings are very popular. Vegetarians can be accommodated, though.
You mentioned Mongolia’s rustic gers. Are there any higher-end accommodations MIR uses in the destination? There are now some luxury properties in the country. Most notably, a Shangri-La hotel opened right in the Ulaanbaatar city center last year in June. It has everything one would expect of a luxury hotel, and it’s a very welcome addition to the accommodation scene.
Three Camels Lodge in the Gobi is a MIR traveler favorite and offers an authentic Mongolian experience. Local artisans followed the traditions of Mongolian Buddhist architecture in constructing the main lodge without a single nail. Travelers sleep in traditional felt gers, each with an unobstructed view of the Gobi and the heights of the Gobi-Altai mountains beyond. Meals are served in a large ger, modeled after the ceremonial tents of the great khans.
Are there other destinations in central Asia attracting more U.S. travelers? Uzbekistan in particular is rising in popularity among the well-traveled. It’s one of those destinations that has it all in terms of experiences: Its people are extremely hospitable, and it has outstanding bazaars, impressive architecture with the most amazing blue tiles you’ve ever seen and wonderful textiles, ceramics and locally made silks — and still quite a good value. In places such as Bukhara, you can stroll the backstreets and bazaars and literally feel like you’re back in the days of the old Silk Road. New, modern Spanish-made trains are now running on major routes in the country, which has dramatically cut the transport time between principal locations.
How are your Iran products faring in the U.S. market? Iran is our most popular destination for small-group travel this year. We sold out many departures early and added additional dates to accommodate the interest this season. For North Americans, Iran has been perceived as off-limits; but now, that perception is changing. Intrepid travelers recognize that this is an amazing destination they’ve been missing out on. Universally, the feedback we receive from travelers is that the Iranian people are incredibly warm, and the genuine reception Western visitors receive here is very meaningful to travelers.
The country has so much to offer: a rich, ancient history; UNESCO sites all over the country; incredible tile work; traditional Persian gardens; high-quality museums displaying 2,500 years of history; and many ways to get to the destination — from deluxe train trips and small-group tours to private journeys.