Mongolia: 10 Major Impressions | Ants in Pants

Mongolia: 10 Major Impressions

Русская версия After telling about our Baikal adventures, we offer a new portion of major impressions from Mongolia. We went through many roads there: from Ulan-Ude to Ulanbaatar, Erdenet, Moron, up to the lake Khovsgol. And this is what we learned from the trip.
Mongolia Impressions

1. Sightseeing

is not something you should crave for in Mongolia. There are museums, ancient archeological monuments, Gobi desert here – but all these places are too far from the average understanding of the tourist attractions. You will not find any English descriptions or people who can describe the sight in English; moreover, the sights are scattered all over the country, being hard to reach by the public transportation. Taking into account the size of Mongolia, running after the sights all over the country is not rational.
Mongolia Sightseeing

In Mongolia, you should crave for the experience, for the pleasures which are present here and now. You should enjoy the sun, the steppe landscapes, Mongolian cuisine and communication with the locals. Most of these experiences are available on the way. Riding a car or a bus opens all kinds of steppe views, drivers and passengers relax, listen to the favourite Mongolian music, sing to it and even try to dance.
steppe views in Mongolia

2. Mongolian intercity transport

is a weakly developed network of buses and… cars. Yes, the automobiles, to which you buy tickets at the bus station in the same way you would buy them for the bus. As soon as they get full, the driver starts (no schedules). Yet, this is not the time to relax: after driving out of the bus station, the driver starts to collect more passengers on the way (so that not to pay tax to the bus station) and stuff them into the car. At some point we tried to ask the drivers from the very beginning: do you promise that only five people go in the car? Even is the driver nods, there are no guarantees. Children are not usually considered to be people, and three of them are easily stuffed into the car in addition to five grown-ups. The only possibility to save the situation (for one tourist only though) is to show the camera and say, “Tourist, photo“, pointing at the front passenger’s seat. There is a chance that they will let you sit there and you will not have to sit next to five more passengers at the back.
Mongolian transport

3. The intercity drivers also present an interesting case. At the very first Mongolian bus station in Darkhan we saw them getting together into the groups, taking the t-shirts off their bellies, and warming the bellies up under the sun. Perhaps, the larger the belly is, the more respected the person is. At every bus station you may meet a group of bellies. We were a bit too modest to take pictures of them.
Mongolia-4DSC_5605

4. You understand that you understand nothing – this became our Mongolian motto. No matter which situation we were trying to interpret, it always turned out that we were not right. For instance, once we were stuffed into a car with other passengers to get from one city to another. Next to us there is a young girl, an elderly woman, in front – there is a driver and a woman of his age at the passenger seat. All of them chat and laugh, a girl takes a driver’s bottle of water and drinks from it, brings two ice-creams and eats them in the car, then lies on the elderly woman’s shoulder and gets to sleep. Out of all this we make a conclusion that all the passengers are the family: mother and father on the front seats, a daughter who is allowed to eat ice-creams in the car, drinks from her father’s bottle, and sleeps on her granny’s shoulder. They must have given us a lift to have the gasoline paid. Yet, on the arrival, all the passengers leave the car and go to different sides, and “father” turns out to be the usual driver making his living on it. The physical space is not too intimate in Mongolia: it is normal to drink from someone’s bottle and sleep on someone’s shoulder, you do not have to be relatives or even friends for that.
Such misinterpretations happened to us every day – without the knowledge of the language and traditions.
Mongolian kids

5. Food in Mongolia

is special: there is a certain set of products available and combined together. First and foremost this is meat, a lot of meat in the portions: the vegetarian will not survive here. In addition, they have rice, some potatoes, airag (horse milk), tea (salted, with butter), and almost no fruit. Many westerners complain how terrible and “plain” Mongolian food is. In such moments we get really sad and want to recommend them to stay at home and eat their sophisticated food there. Indeed, not much grows in Mongolia, but it is amazing how much they can do from what they have. The following picture is illustrative: this food in the café window is to attract the visitors. 
Mongolian food

6. Genghis Khan.

The main historical myth on which Mongolian statehood is based is the former power of Mongolian Empire and the related figure of Genghis Khan. By saying a “myth” we do not claim that this idea is wrong: on the contrary, it is interesting, which ideas become central for the identities of different countries. Mongolian houses often have the maps of Mongolian Empire, they are sold in every bookshop.
Mongol empire

Next to the maps there are religious objects related to Buddhism and the photos of the relatives. All this usually makes up small altars – the sets of major objects in the house.
Genghis Khan

7. Another reason for Mongolian pride is that a lot of dinosaurs’ skeletons were found here. The majority of them are now exhibited abroad (for instance, in New York Natural History Museum). In Mongolia and Gobi most of the skeletons of tarbosaurus were found – this is a cousin of American T-rex. You may learn more about Mongolian dinosaurs in the Dinosaurs’ Museum in Ulaanbaatar.
dinosaurs museum in Ulan Bator

8. Another experience – rather negative – is that Mongolians do not deal well with alcohol. Many do not know how to drink, become aggressive and stick to you even if you do not want this. As we wrote when describing the same problem with Buryats, many people do not know how to drink, from different ethnic groups, yet, we do not recommend to approach a group of drunk Mongolians (or whoever else). Still, there is a possibility that you will have to drink with new Mongolian friends!
Mongol hospitality

9. Lake Hovsgol.

If you nevertheless look for the tourist sights in Mongolia, we advise to visit lake Hovsgol: it is easy to reach, the landscape is beautiful and very suitable for hiking. The thrilling views are guaranteed. You may stay in the ger (yurt) or hotel, but it is much more romantic to sleep in the tent at the bank of the lake.
Lake Hovsgol

10. Climate.

In may seem that Mongolian climate is characteristic of Central Asian countries: you may think that there is draught all summer long. This feeling is reinforced by Gobi desert for sure. Yet, unlike, for instance, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, Mongolia often has summer rains which may last for days. Make sure you have water-resistant coat and shoes.
Mongolia-12DSC_5154

Also, at night the temperature goes down, and in case you want to sleep in the tent, it is better to get a warmer sleeping bag. We recommend taking the sleeping bag in any case (unless you are planning to stay in the 5 star hotels): we doubt the cleanness of the average Mongolian hotel/backpacker hostels linen.
All in all we may easily add ten more impressions. About the stoic Mongolian children who seem not to cry ever and their fathers spending a great amount of time with kids. About horse and camel milk, gers and yaks. About the folk costumes and the eagles of Mongolian steppes. About the copper mine and the catholic mission is Erdenet run by the Congolese priest. All the stories are yet to come!

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  • Nancy

    I enjoyed your descriptions very much. I spent 6 months as a volunteer with a UB arts organization and I was lucky to have English-speaking colleagues to explain things to me. The main thing I might add is this: I wondered how a people who came out of the steppes to conquer much of the known world could have evolved into such seemingly peaceful, accommodating people. The answer I was told over and over was the advent of Buddhism (not sure – maybe 10th C.) and came to dominate Mongolian culture and social/political systems thereafter until the they invited the Russians in in the 1930’s to help defend against Chinese domination. The Russians tried to wipe out Buddhism and purged thousands of monks and destroyed many small temples. Lately, there has been an international effort to document and restore these Buddhist centers. A major figure in this history was the monk Zanabazar, who is called the ‘Mongolian Leonardo.’

    One more thing, I was amazed to find the flourishing arts scene in UlanBator. Along with an opera and ballet accommodated in theaters for those performances, there’s a tremendous variety of visual arts on display in several museums and galleries. I learned that one of the benefits if Russian domination for almost 70 years was the training and support of artists who were often sent to great urban centers in Russian and eastern Europe. And the museums and theaters were built through Russian support. Another great achievement during that period was the extension of literacy to around 94 % of the population. Amazing when you think how sparsely populated and dispersed people are.

    • Hi, Nancy!
      Thanks for the response! We are glad that our description is very near to yours.
      We are very impressed with you knowledge and sense of Mongolia! Since we stayed for a short period, you have added something new and interesting for us. If we have “guest articles” we will definitely ask you to write something 🙂
      And one more good thing is that you can see both positive and negative moments. Thanks!