Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Your guide to the real Mongolia

You named it the top emerging destination in the Wanderlust Travel Awards 2014. Goyo Reston, tour operator and Mongolian native, explains how to get underneath her country's skin.

Born and raised in the Gobi, Goyo Reston has forged a successful career in tourism, working first as a guide, and now with her own tour company, Goyo Travel, that she set up with her husband, Olly. Her enthusiasm and deep knowledge of Mongolia won her a Wanderlust World Guide Award in 2007.

Below she shares the secrets to really get to know her amazing homeland.

1. UB or not UB? That is the question.

Ulaanbaatar – or UB as it is affectionately known – divides opinion. A bustling cosmopolitan metropolis that combines the flash modern exuberance of the burgeoning economic boom, alongside aging Soviet infrastructure that struggles to cope with increased urban migration – almost half of Mongolia's 2.8m population live here.

People stopping off in Mongolia off the Trans-Siberian tend to spend too much time in the city and not enough time in the countryside. But aside from the problems of traffic and pollution, UB does have a relaxed charm and contains hidden gems worth exploring for a day or two at the start or end of any Mongolia trip.

Start off by planning your time in UB to fall on a weekend if at all possible – it's easier to get around and more pleasant when the roads are not chock-a-block. Secondly, make sure you are staying relatively close to Sukhbaatar Square, as most places of interest and good bars/restaurants are within walking distance from here. Avoid hotels out by, or beyond, the Eastern or Western crossroads, unless you have good walking legs or enjoy sitting in traffic.

Thirdly, by all means tick the worthwhile sightseeing boxes of Gandan Monastery, National History Museum, and Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, but make time to experience other cultural treasures too. Visit the Nicholas Roerich Residence, drop in at the tiny Ulaanbaatar City Museum, see a performance at the State Opera House, pop into antiques shops, art galleries, the workshop of a traditional bow-maker, local cafes, markets and explore the streets on foot during the day.

In the evening, pick from a whole host of great restaurants with local or foreign cuisine – we like to end a trip with a visit to Namaste, with some of the best Indian food you've ever tasted, and cocktails in the sky lounge at the top of the Central Tower.

2. Don't just 'Stop Off'

Almost without fail, anyone who ever mentions to us 'I stopped off in Mongolia for a couple of days when doing the train' quickly follows up this apologetic revelation with a regretful 'I wish I had planned to stay there longer'. And those who do spend any time there – whether as part of an extended Asian overland adventure or just a two-week tour – often claim their time in Mongolia to be the highlight of their travel experiences, and a place they would love to return to and explore further.

No wonder. This country that is commonly distilled into a sentence containing the words 'Genghis, steppe, and horses', with a throwaway mention of 'that festival with all the wrestling', is a vast territory of wild and contrasting landscapes, fascinating history, diverse peoples, and nomadic culture.

From the plains of the east, to the desert of the south, the mountains of the west, the hills and rivers of the heartland, to the lakes and forests of the North – Mongolia is the backdrop to a whole host of cultural and active adventures, from exploratory treks to nomadic homestays to comfortable overland journeys lodging at well-equipped ger camps and lodges. We recommend taking at least two weeks to explore a couple of different compass points within the country.

3. A Ger is a Ger

'What is a ger?', we are often asked when Mongolia initially creeps into someone's psyche. Well, a ger is a ger. Simple. Or, as you might know it, a yurt – a word of Turkic origin used to describe the portable dwellings used by nomads in Central Asia.

The Mongolian word 'ger' actually just means 'home' – used universally whether in reference to a yurt or a modern apartment in Ulaanbaatar. Most Mongolians live in gers (yurts) in rural areas, and when visiting the country you will most likely stay in them as well – either at ger camps specifically designed to cater for travellers, or in guest gers alongside local families.

4. Ignore the Mutton Myth

Don't get taken in by caricature journalistic references to Mongolia being a country where all they consume is sheep tail-fat, boiled mutton and fermented mare's milk. That's not to say that Mongolians don't salivate at the prospect of these delicacies – but you certainly don't need to.

Traditional Mongolian food that you'll try is often much more palatable – noodle soups, steamed and fried meat dumplings (buuz and huushuur), and khorkhog (lamb seared with hot stones and pressure cooked with vegetables) can all be absolutely delicious when prepared well. In the summer, fresh homemade yoghurt (tarag) and clotted cream (uurum) are a welcome addition to any breakfast or to try during a visit to a nomadic family.

However, if the appeal of the relatively limited range of Mongolian food wears thin after a few days, you will be pleasantly surprised by the range of foods available at ger camps or at rural markets. Vegetables and fruit increasingly make their presence felt – even in the arid plains of the Gobi, where organic farms fed by wells and bore-holes provide locals and visitors with home-grown produce.

Of course, much is also imported into Mongolia from China and further afield - meaning a hefty price tag compared to buying similar items back home – but UB generally has a good range of foodstuffs from around the globe, both fresh and packaged. This range also extends into the increasing quality and choice of cafes and restaurants in UB – often run by enterprising expats working together with Mongolian business partners, with foreign chefs from country of the cuisine's origin – so once your unexpected passion for Mongolian dishes has subsided, feast on the delights of some fantastic Korean, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Cuban, Italian or Taiwanese food.

Just be careful when ordering seemingly vegetarian options, especially in rural areas. Take vegetable soup, for instance. It doesn't necessarily mean there is no meat in it. It is just soup with extra vegetables – the base soup may well have meat in it as well. This is Mongolia, after all.

5. Embrace the rain

Most of us get enough of it at home, and we hate it. Mongolians can't get enough of it, and they love it. Even though Mongolia is known as the Land of Blue Sky, most of its 250 days of sunny weather fall outside of the main tourism months of June to August. These summer months bring much needed rainfall to nomadic pastures.

But it's not all grey skies. Weather passes through relatively quickly, with storms lasting a couple of hours or so, before clearing up again. So stay inside and watch impressive torrential downpours from the cosy retreat of your ger before stepping out into the fresh vast landscapes full of green pastures, wildflower meadows, herds of animals and contented nomads.

6. Choosing the right Naadam for you

Visitor numbers to Mongolia swell around the time of the main State Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar on 11th and 12th July, focusing predominately on competitions in the 'three manly sports' of wrestling, horse racing and archery, and timed to commemorate the 1921 revolution when Mongolia proclaimed itself a free country.

However, note that this festival is not the only Naadam festival. 'Naadam' simply means 'games', and there are a whole host of Naadam festivals celebrated around the country in rural areas – predominately also around the same time as the main Naadam in Ulaanbaatar, maybe a few days before or after, but also at other times during the year, not just July.

Naadam festivals are organised to celebrate significant occasions – the anniversary of the founding of a village, a commemoration of a local historical event, the blessing of a sacred site (whether Buddhist or Shamanist in origin). Some festivals are created to celebrate elements of cultural identity - the Eagle Festival in Western Mongolia, the Yak and Felt Festival in Central Mongolia, the Camel Festival in the Gobi Desert – with a focus of these being to showcase Mongolia's heritage and promote the area to visitors who in turn contribute to the local economy, whilst also getting an up close authentic cultural experience.

So, if a festival is part of the attraction of coming to Mongolia, consider seeing one outside of Ulaanbaatar, and you don't need to limit your timing to the main Naadam period in July.

7. Getting Around, Mongolian style

Mongolians don't use maps. Well, OK, some do – but most don't. Ask a nomad to point out where you are, and how to get from point A to point B and they'll laugh you off the steppe. You see, Mongolians rarely get lost – and if they do, they probably won't care much, and certainly won't rush to fish out a map. They'll just stop a passing local, who may or may not appear for a while.

Global Positioning System? Think again – more like Ger Positioning System. Within a defined area, most local Mongolians will know every hill, valley, track, river, and every family's ger in between. Ask them how to get to Chimgee's ger 23km away and they'll tell you in an instant – just don't point at a map or ask to get to N47° 03.079', E102° 57.236'.

What if I'm in the middle of nowhere, you might ask? As anyone who has been to Mongolia knows, if you stop anywhere for longer than about 20 minutes, a nomad on a horse or motorbike will turn up out of the blue. It's almost law. You see, everyone in Mongolia is in the middle of nowhere, and you are in a corner of the world where the help and kindness of strangers is ingrained in their culture.

One extra tip - all ger doors are oriented to the south, so it helps you know which direction you are heading when walking in the countryside.

8. Time

When arranging a set time to do something in Mongolia, and you want to know the likelihood of the appointed hour being adhered to, you should finish by asking 'is that German time, or Mongolia time?'. Or in other words, 'Is it going to happen then, or shall I add on an hour or two of contingency, with the possibility that it won't happen that day, or indeed at all?'.

The same goes for travel times – an hour could easily turn out to be two. The reason for discrepancy is not laziness or ineptitude – it's just that Mongolians are laid-back and don't let their lives be constrained by deadlines and packaging things into slots and boxes. If something is going to happen, it will happen when it happens, just relax!

The only exception to these rules are advertised times or timings of an important nature – trains run like clockwork, buses generally leave on time, shops and offices open and close as indicated, and any important arrangements will usually always run on German time! Especially if there is food involved.

Goyo Renton is co-founder of Goyo Travel, a tour company that combines Mongolian heritage and local knowledge, with a British/Mongolian cross-cultural perspective. The result is a tour that combines the subtle nuances, attention to detail and extra touches that discerning global travellers appreciate. For more information visit the Goyo Travel website..

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