Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, I’m thrilled to introduce my friend Justin, a geologist working off the grid in vast, mysterious, off-the-beaten-track Mongolia. Here’s what he had to say about traveling in Mongolia and, particularly, in and around Ulaanbaatar:
First, tell us about you.
I am originally from central Massachusetts, after high school i moved to Colorado and spent the next 12 years in the Rocky Mountain west before moving here to Mongolia, where I have lived for the last six years.
I’m an exploration geologist for a small Mongolian oil company. That occupation, to me, is not only an intellectual conduit for the science that interests me, but also a means to support the various passions that take priority in my life. Namely: big mountain skiing, BASE jumping, skydiving, downhill biking, and off-road rally sport. As you can imagine, each of these pursuits alone is an expensive endeavor. And if you are, like me, not one of the amazing people talented enough to land big sponsorship contracts, you’d better find something that can keep you flush with the right gear and tech to keep you safe and operating at a high level when you while you are out there. Fortunately, I found something that not only does that, but fuels my intellectual hunger as well. It’s certainly never boring out here.
If someone is visiting Ulaanbaatar for the first time, what do you recommend they do and see?
Coming to Mongolia, you will almost certainly arrive first in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. There are always plenty of cultural tourism opportunities in and around the city that are easy enough to find, but the real appeal and must-do when traveling to Mongolia, in my opinion anyway, is to schedule enough time and resources to travel deep into the countryside.
This is where you will find the heart and soul of the country and its people and where you will probably find the most meaningful experiences. There are plenty of excellent operations that can handle the logistics and planning of your adventure.
Mongolia is the least populated country on earth per unit area. It is a vast landscape roughly the same size as Alaska, but with only three million inhabitants and 1.5 million of them live in the capital. So, very quickly as you exit the city you enter a place like nowhere else on the planet for feeling like you’ve truly gotten away from it all. It is empty, remote, and beautiful. And when you do meet and interact with the nomadic people that live out there, you tend to find a level of hospitality, personal connection, and genuine character that is all too often lost in our modern lifestyles.
What are some of your favorite hidden gems?
In my experience, it’s the journey that makes the gem, not the gem itself necessarily. Nonetheless, if you are a mountain enthusiast, making your way to the mighty Altai Mountains in the western part of the country will be an epic journey and offers endless high alpine adventuring.
If you’re into remote deserts, hardcore endurance sports, or maybe just really love camels, head south to the proper Gobi.
If you want a mix of deserts, mountains, lakes, and yes, more camels, try navigating the Valley of Lakes.
If you want trees, mountains, one massive lake, and traditional reindeer herds and herders, head north to the Khovsgol Lake region.
If you are a backcountry fisherman or want to trundle through rolling mountains with secluded lakes and hot springs, try heading to the Khangai region northwest of the city.
And if you just want to experience the vast wonder of Central Asian steppe and the famous horse culture of Mongolia, head east from the city until you find what you’re looking for.
What neighborhoods do you recommend staying in for those who want to get a real taste of Ulaanbaatar?
While a city of 1.5 million, Ulaanbaatar is pretty condensed, so I recommend staying in the central city and venturing out from there. The city center has all the accommodation and dining range that you could want, but is convenient enough to wander out of and find your own taste of Mongolian urban life.
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?
Easy hiking on the south side of the city at Bogd Khan Uul (mountain forming the southern edge of town) is a good steep slope to get your blood pumping, but mild enough that most anyone can do it, and it tops out in to gentle larch and pine forests.
About an hour drive from the city is Terelj National Park, which is good for day trip hiking, horseback riding, biking, rock climbing, etc., but also has plenty of lodges and ger (yurt) camps for overnighting.
The great Chinggis (Ghengis to the westerner) Khan statue, also about an hour out of the city, is a pretty cool thing to see and has a cool museum in the base. There are also cool museums in the city detailing both the natural and human history of Mongolia.
What nearby walking trails or natural areas would you recommend?
Again, Bogd Khan mountain on the south side of town and Terelj National Park are the “nearby” options. But really there is nothing stopping you from picking a hillside and going for it. There aren’t really designated hiking areas or managed trail systems here. It’s goat paths and nomad tracks that trail off as far as the eye can see….choose your own adventure.
Tell us about the food from your region. What local dishes and drinks should people try?
I chuckle only because you probably wouldn’t put Mongolia on the map for culinary travel agendas. To be honest, the traditional food is simple and straightforward: meat, meat, and more meat. If you are vegetarian, prepare to be frustrated.
That said, the food that I have really grown to love while living here are: Buuz (steamed meat dumplings), Khuushur (deep fried meat dumpling), Tsuivan (sort of a dry version of Lo Mein), and Khorkhog (a meat and root-vegetable stew cooked by hot stones in a pressure sealed pot). Also, Mongolia has a variety of traditional dairy products: all kinds of cheeses, yogurts, butters, milks, and alcohols….yes, alcohols. Mongolia is rather infamous around the world for its “Airag” (fermented mare’s milk, best during the mid summer to early fall season). And for a little more kick, you can try Nermel (distilled goats milk), it falls somewhere between saki and vodka in terms of alcohol and has a goaty flavor. But don’t be misled by the lower alcohol volume, something about this drink routinely lands me face down in the dirt.
What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants in your city/town/area?
My regulars are Silk Road Restaurant, Rosewood Kitchen & Enoteca, MexiKhan, MB Brew Pub, Bluefin Cuisine ‘d Art, Blue Sky Lounge, and Millie’s Cafe. For a decent night club experience try M1nt, Temple Club, Velvet Club, or Vegas.
Do you have any tips for saving money while traveling here?
Any traditional Mongolian food restaurant should be very cost-effective, but likely with a limited selection. Millie’s Cafe is a good go-to breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot for reasonable cost. The exchange rate is pretty fair, so usually no matter what, you are paying significantly less than the US or Europe for any dining experience.
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?
Don’t expose the bottoms of your feet/shoes to others (feet up on chairs or tables, etc.). Don’t pat children (especially boys) on the top of the head. If, by chance, you accidentally touch/step on someone’s foot, under the table or in the street, immediately offer to shake hands (today this is a common courtesy, but foot contact has roots in Mongolian culture as a way to show disrespect and therefore start a fight…shaking shows it was accidental).
Watch the level of your voice in public. Westerners (especially Americans) are infamously loud speakers, which is not only annoying to locals, but embarrassing for those of us living as expats.
Give and receive any object, especially money and alcohol, with two hands, not one. There is all kinds of etiquette regarding countryside life…for example: ger (yurt) dos/don’ts…but anyone taking you out there will likely explain these along the way.
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
There are tons of young professional groups and Facebook clubs around, depending on what you are into. Internations is active here and has some regular mixer functions. Otherwise, just be pleasant, be humble, get involved in something, and participate, just like you would at home.
Where are the best places to get a memorable photograph of the area?
:: Zaisan Monument on the south edge of the city (for citywide shots and interesting historical monuments)
::The giant Chingis statue (about an hour out of the city)
:: Along the Tuul River or in Terelj National Park (for nature shots)
Why should people make sure to visit your city/town/area?
There aren’t many places like Mongolia left on the earth. The country is a beautifully wild place.
Where can we find a good Wi-Fi connection?
Pretty much any restaurant, coffee shop, or bar in city center has good Wi-Fi. Any of the regular places I mentioned above are great for that. There are also more formal office spaces for rent by the hour/day if you need a more focused environment. Or just pop into one of the local phone service providers and pay for a local SIM card and data plan, its incredibly cheap by western standards and excellent 3g/4g speed.
Anything else you want us to know about your city or the region?
Probably better to visit for your first time in the summer (late May – late September) to maximize your opportunities to travel and get the full experience. Winters are harsh and complicate long distance remote travel safety and logistics, and the city air quality is terrible during the winter (often among the top three worst in the world).
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