Brief History of Mongolia:
Dating back to about 200 BCE, Mongolia was settled by pastoral nomads. The Xiongnu, probably the first of these groups to rise to dominance greatly threatened the Chinese and resulted in the building of the Great Wall of China during the Qin Dynasty. Sporadic nomad enclaves rose to power and fell after the Xiongnu and internal strife kept Mongolia in a state of perpetual revolution between conflicting groups closely related to the Mongols. Eventually, the region was dominated by tribes with very loosely bound alliances.
In the twelfth century, Temujin (Genghis Khan) successfully united several tribes of Mongols ranging from Eastern Manchuria to the Altai Mountains. Soon after, around 1206, he mounted several successful military campaigns throughout most of the known world. Creating the largest adjoining land empire in history, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Poland and Siberia to Vietnam – engulfing some 100 million people and cultures. After the death of Genghis Khan, his empire was divided in to four Khanates. Modern China, fell under the rule of Kublai Khan, Genghis’s son and most notable ruler who created the Yuan Dynasty. The other Khanates were divided by other sons and relatives. The Yuan Dynasty, simply replaced top officials with Mongols and allowed the remainder of China to maintain its government positions. This strategy was adopted throughout most of the Khanates. This allowed for an easy transition of power to follow after the notoriously harsh Mongol raids. The downside of this strategy was that the Mongols eventually assimilated into the local cultures allowing other powers to sweep in.
The Ming Dynasty forced the Mongols out of China and several Chinese conquests into Mongolia followed. This eventually led to the collapse of the other Khanates, although at separate points throughout history. After the end of the Yuan Dynasty, Mongolia fell into a state of chaos and power struggles. The Chinese successfully conquered and occupied most of modern day Mongolia during the 18th century under the Qing Dynasty, and maintained control until the fall of Qing rule in 1911.
Bogd Khan declared independence in 1911, but the Republic of China, under control of the Nationalists declared Mongolia as part of China. Chinese Nationalist troops continued to occupy Mongolia until the October Revolution in Russia, at which point, Russia defeated China and controlled Mongolia. Mongolia’s independence was again declared in 1921 with the support of the Soviets.
Mongolia remained closely tied with the Soviet Union throughout most of the century. However, during the “opening” under Gorbachev, Mongolia began to embrace free enterprise, in 1992, a democratic constitution was introduced, and they dropped “The People’s Republic” to form a parliamentary democracy.
Literally, two days after we left Ulan Bator, massive riots broke out in Ulan Bator, which led to several injuries and the death of a Japanese journalist. There were reports of fraud during the most recently election and many Mongols showed up in the center square to protest. Things quickly calmed down, but there is still a lot of resentment and talk of corruption in government going through the streets so keep a watchful eye on newspapers before you take off.
Well known for their ger (Mongolian Yurt) culture, Mongolia’s long history of nomads is still present and visible today. Although no longer wandering, the semi-sedentary country folk are well known for their hospitality. Horseback riding, horseback archery, and wrestling are some of the other claims to fame as well as the famous Mongolia horses – actually from the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. The rural Mongolians like to keep to themselves for the most part. With large expanses of land in between gers, there are no real visible land boundaries and no one really seems to care. You will go miles before you see another one, but there will be wild horses and marked sheep and goats running around the hills and valleys.
Transportation in Mongolia:
Transportation in Mongolia is antiquated at best. While a leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway cuts through Ulan Bator and bisects the country, it is perhaps the most solid and capable piece of machinery in the whole country. Local buses look sturdy enough, but for the life of me, I cannot figure out how anyone in the city knows which bus to board. Outside Ulan Bator, horses are the preferred mode of transportation, and if you are in an automobile, you will likely be passed by multiple men and women on horseback. When all else fails, set out on foot, someone will pick you up- for a fee. Settle all prices in advance for transportation in Mongolia, with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, as state run buses and the Airways’ prices are negotiable. We took a bus, with the help of a friendly local girl who pointed out the correct one, out into the countryside only to have it breakdown. This is not uncommon in Mongolia, and makes for great stories. Make sure you bring enough drinking water, toilet paper and snacks in a pack everywhere you go, as being stranded is a pastime in Mongolia, and one meant to be enjoyed.
Money in Mongolia:
The MNT, exchange rate: $1 USD = 1879.50 MNT
Bargaining is a pastime in Ulan Bator, so be ready to chip away at whatever price they originally offer. Usually a good guideline is to cut whatever price is originally stated by 3/4ths and then offer the remainder. Be careful not to offend them with a ridiculous price. Use your best judgment, and when all else fails, ask an uninvolved local how much it should cost. Charades can communicate a lot of issues and bring about reasonable conclusions.
Be aware that if you leave the country with an excess of MNT, you will be unable to exchange it in any other country outside of Mongolia – including China. To be on the safe side, sell back your MNT before you leave the country. You can do this at the airport.
Mongolian food makes bland sound interesting, but it is essential that you at least give it a try. Cultural cuisine develops for a reason based on the people’s needs, and as a nomadic people the Mongolians needed foods that were easy to grow or find or that could move along with them. Hence, the abundance of lamb, goat and horse meat, the prevalence of noodle, potato and carrot dishes and the use of chives as the only flavoring.
You’ll encounter dog meat while in Mongolia as well as donkey and horse. All are rather chewy and dry, but thankfully they are usually mixed with rice or noodle dishes. If you are bothered by eating these meats, state that in advance, as you’ll have little chance for anything else while out in the countryside. You’ll need to bring some extra food and snacks with you, especially if you are doing a ger to ger horseback tour.
We encountered countless dishes made from goat’s milk; yoghurt, butter, sour cream, milk and curds to state a few of the most prevalent. Your host will likely provide you with a giant tub of sugar in which to dip your milk based treats. We recommend you dip heartily, as the milk is usually best by local standards when sour.
The Mongolians take their drinking seriously. If a bottle of beer is opened, it is to be shared with everyone. Make sure you have a stockpile of beer on hand if you are in a group. Be ready, also, to shoot a few vodka shots. Other than liquor, you will encounter goat’s milk, yoghurt milk, tea and boiled water. If you have a water purification method that is not obvious (aka- rude) bring it along in Mongolia.
Interaction with residents: full immersion
Mongolians do not like the Chinese, nor do they like the Russians we found. In fact, even with our host’s limited English, he still used several four-letter words to describe the people from both the north and south of Mongolia. Both countries have attempted to assert influence in the area and the ever-independent and nomadic Mongolians are very resentful. While many speak Russian, few speak Chinese fluently and even fewer speak English. Be prepared to play charades for everything you need to communicate. The Mongolians we met were patient, friendly and very good-natured about the language gap. You are unlikely to encounter other travelers once out in the countryside unless you are in a tour group, which we don’t recommend. You could bring a language book along, but we preferred miming, guessing and learning from the locals. You might also be pleasantly surprised as a host who speaks a little English approaches you. I would recommend you stay with him over the others, as you will need to communicate simple things like, “please help me light a fire, it is freezing on the steppe.”
Suggestions for Traveling in Mongolia:
Bring a sleeping bag, or at least a cocoon to separate you from the bed bugs. We did not personally have any problems with this, but we met other travelers in Ulan Bator who had, but we did see several sheets that were very questionable. If you can sneak salt and pepper, those would be luxuries to spice up the blandness of most of the food. Bring WARM clothes, even in the summer. It drops to freezing levels at night. There were a few morning when we woke up and the dew on the grass was frozen. Sunscreen for the daytime would be ideal. A water purifier or iodine tablets could prevent several trips to the outhouse, which is many times located across a field. Running across these fields at night in pitch black is about as fun as running in the dark with diarrhea.
Toilet paper (you will not find any outside the cities) is a necessity unless you would like to use the newspaper provided at outhouses – and that is only if you are lucky. There are no showers or baths, so bring moist towels or a bunch of deodorant or, if all else fails, a nose plug.
Recommendation level: 10
Mongolia is one of my favorite locations! If you can make it out there by train or bus- do so! The flight is a turbulent nightmarish affair and you land at Ghenghis Khan Airport with a thud, as the airport is in a strong wind tunnel and may even be a dirt runway. Once you land cab drivers, ready and willing to rip you off, will harass you. Get out of Ulan Bator as soon as you possibly can, as it is the saddest city we have ever seen.
Once outside the city you will find friendly people happy to help you with whatever you need. They are highly educated, politically active and love to debate. If you are lucky enough to speak Russian or Mongolian you will find a lively debate in every bar, restaurant and ger. Some speak English or Chinese, but don’t count on it. They are humorous, good-natured and know EXACTLY how lucky they are to live in the peaceful and beautiful national parks. Most are not interested in modernization beyond their cell phones. We cannot recommend this country highly enough, but will stress that it is only for the adventurous travelers willing to sleep in a ger, go without showering and eat your host’s former pets.
Visas for Mongolia:
Visas are unnecessary if you are a United States citizen / passport carrier. This was the one country in Asia / Central Asia that had this as a luxurious bonus, as most Americans have to pay 4 times the normal rate since U.S visas are difficult to get. We simply got off the plane and got a stamp in our passport. The United States government makes massive contributions to Mongolia as they continue to squabble internally over rights to their natural resources. The strategic importance of Mongolia in between Russia and China is obvious. Check with the Mongolian consulate in your country for the current visa rates.
Our Route in Mongolia:
In 2008 we flew from China to the capital of Mongolia for a week of traveling in Tereleg National Park on horseback (route in blue). In 2010 We will race in the Mongol Rally, a race from the UK to Mongolia for charity (route in red).