Going to Mongolia
for no apparent reason
Copyright © Carl-Magnus Dumell
IntroductionYour vacation is coming up and people keep asking you what you will be doing, will you be going somewhere this summer? For once you feel like coming up with something that will make them raise their eyebrows, something different. Something interesting.
Now your friends will indeed raise their eyebrow. The next thing they will do is ask: "will you be going there by train" and your female friends will add something about it being "so romantic". Call me un-romantic, but ten days in a crowded third-world train without air conditioning and with the food running out near Kazakhstan is not what I consider romantic. For me, ten hours in a Russian airplane is quite romantic enough, two hours if you eat the in-flight chicken. Whitch reminds me of a peculiarity in the Tupolev toilet. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
Judging by the search results from Google, most Mongolians wear colorful national dresses, live in tents and travel by horses. This is obviously not true, but the tourist industry is very sensitive to market demands. If foreigners are willing to pay to see something, then the tourist industry will make sure they get to see it. Even if they have to fake it.
I want to see the real Mongolia, not the postcard version with horses and tents, but the real one with Hyundais and concrete. I want to try a slice of an authentic Mongolian pizza, I want to put my teeth in a real Mongolian hamburger, I want to see the name of a genuine Mongolian GSM operator in the screen of my cell phone and, most of all, I want to surf the web from a computer with a .mn top level domain.
Getting thereThere are only a few cities in the world from witch you can fly to Ulaanbaatar. In practice, you go to Mongolia either trough Moscow with Aeroflot or trough Bejing with Air China.
In my case, living in Northern Europe, Moscow/Aeroflot is the more convenient choice. Or at least it seemed so until I tried to spend 10 hours in a worn down airport that for some reason has far too few chairs.
Sheremetyevo-2I was quite surprised to find that Moscow's airport is tiny, the city is after all enormous. The airport, called Sheremetyevo-2, is the smallest international airport I have ever seen, smaller than Stockholm or Helsinki, not to mention smaller than Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Newark.
I have read some horror stories about this airport, obviously from the '90s, but it is not that bad. Providing customer service is certainly not the top priority among the employees of the airport but they do get you from A to B, although quite reluctantly. And don't expect anyone to smile.
Although the Moscow airport was a sad experience, the flight with Aeroflot was exemplary. The flight between Moscow and Helsinki was made with a brand new Airbus that was cleaner and nicer than any aircraft I have seen in Western European or North American use and I have nothing ill to say about the service. The flight between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar was made with a Russian built Tupolev 214. The Tupolev was an interesting experience. Russian, and the cheapest in its class, yet modern and designed to compete with western crafts, it first entered service in 2001. At first glance, you don't notice any difference compared to a western craft, the biggest difference from a passenger point of view being the lack off video-screens in the cabin.
Entering MongoliaI can only imagine what the airfield must look like from the cockpit, this has got to be one of the more picturesque airfields in the world. And keep your eyes open for a row of old airplanes on display by the landing field, they have even got some double-deckers on display there.
The actual airport building is small but modern and functional. Once inside, you fill out a small paper with basic information about yourself and your trip: name, nationality, address of the hotel where you are staying and so on. After this you pass the passport check, pick up your luggage and exit through the customs. Perhaps I was lucky, but the whole process only took a few minutes. I had expected a bit more Soviet-style hassle with the paperworks and American-style unfriendly questioning.
Once outside a large number of transportation-entrepreneurs will be trying to offer their services to you. Witch brings us to our next subject:
TaxisThere are now many yellow Hyundais with Taxi-signs on the roof in Ulaanbaatar but there are also a lot of other people who simply own a car who are eager to offer you a ride for the same price as a taxi, whatever that is.
I still have not figured out what you are supposed to pay for a taxi ride. Expect to pay anything between 20 cents and 20 dollars. As a tourist you will often be expected to pay more, and frankly I think that is fair considering the circumstances. My experience is that they will take the opportunity to try to earn a bit more than usual but they will not even try to scam you.
Try to agree about the price in advance and there will be no surprises for ether party. Something like 25 cents per kilometer is a good place to start. Unfortunately only a few taxis have meters, and those who have don't necessarily use them or they are not of much use. I used two taxis that had meters and one counted Wons (South Korean currency) and the other one an unknown currency that wasn't Mongolian: at the end of the ride the meter said 2.50 something and I paid 500 Togrogs.
I guess it is safer to go with an official looking taxi, or should I say less hazardous as working seat belts seems to be rare, streets are in poor condition and the traffic is somewhat chaotic.
I started out by not following this advice myself, going from the hotel to the airport in a private car with an Mongolian Airlines official moonlighting as a taxi driver. But he came highly recommended.
Inside the airport, before the customs check and next to the baggage claim, there is a suspicious looking currency exchange office (= a table with "exchange" written on a paper). After the young woman behind the desk had turned my dollars into an impressively looking stack of tugrugs she pointed at a man standing next to her with a MIAT id-card and dressed in a MIAT jacket and said "he is a taxi driver, he can help you".
Walking trough customs together with a MIAT official went smoothly but the real taxi drivers who had to wait outside of customs did not look too happy with this uneven competition.
My friendly transportation-entrepreneur of many trades spoke no English whatsoever but "Chinggis Khaan Hotel" seemed to be all the verbal communication necessary.
AccommodationI had no trouble booking a room by e-mail before I left and choosing a hotel is fairly simple as there are only a few to choose between. I was, however, not able to find much independent information about the hotels and their location on the web and what I found was somewhat confusing especially regarding the location of the hotels. I ended up, by chance, at the Chinggis Khaan hotel.
As I was gently shaken down the road towards Ulaanbaatar I got my first glimpses of Mongolia while listening to local entertainment news in thick American English on the Mongolian Voice of America that the car radio was tuned to.
If I was a witty person I would say that this pretty much summed things up. The streets being in poor condition is certainly typical for Mongolia but noticeable US presence is not. I have read that the US has great political interest in Mongolia, perhaps for its location in between Russia and China and to show their loyalty towards the US, Mongolia has a symbolic military presence in Irak. Still, with the exception of a Voice of America billboard and some American senior citizens on vacation, the American presence keeps a low profile. Even the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar is quite unimpressive. It is neither an imperialistic castle nor a militaristic fort, just a plain looking small office building. But try to read the tourist information about water quality in Ulaanbaatar posted on a board outside the embassy and within 30 seconds a guard in mirror shades will inquire about your presence.
Come to think of it, there is one American icon you can see in almost every street corner: Coca-Cola. And in general the raise of capitalism during the 1990s has resulted in an incredible amount of advertisement signs. As soon as we got out of the parking lot outside the airport the street was lined with huge billboards advertising everything from Mercedes automobiles to Mongolian banks. As we got closer to the city center the number of advertisement signs just grew, many of them being hand painted and with known logos looking a bit distorted.
I had been a bit worried about the location of the Chinggis Khaan Hotel, the information I had found on the Internet had made me think it was located outside the city. As my "taxi" entered the city center I started recognizing buildings I had seen on photos and the Ulaanbaatar Hotel I knew was in the absolute center of the city. I was relieved when the taxi slowed down only a few blocks further away and pulled up by the modern glass and steel building that is the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. The ride was supposed to be 8.000 tugrugs but I ended up paying 10.000 as I only had 5.000 and 10.000 bills. I made a mental note about trying to break up the bills.
The outside of the hotel already made it clear this was a modern and up-scale place to stay. At 120 USD per night for a single room, I was expecting a quite luxurious hotel. As I entering the hotel I was still surprised in a positive way: think 4-5 star Hiltons or Marriotts.
According to the international classification system the Chinggis Khaan is a four star hotel. The check in was simple and the staff had no problems with English. The room was like you would expect in any western four star hotel and being on the ninth floor facing towards the city center the view was nice.
ShoppingI set out on my quest for small Mongolian bills and asked the concierge if she could help me break a 10.000 bill. She could not, but referred me to "the shop, down that corridor". It turns out that the Chinggis Khaan Hotel also houses one of Ulaanbaatar's largest and most modern department stores: "Sky Shopping Center". Forgot your toothpaste? No problem, they have got every flavor of Colgate you have ever seen. This place has got all your familiar western brands as well as the best domestic, Russian and Korean products. Just in the juice shelf I found everything from EuroShopper Apple Juice to two different Korean Aloe Vera juices. Reading content declarations on products can be tricky though as they are usually in Russian, Mongolian or Korean. Coca-Cola products, however, are brought in from Hong Kong and have all the texts in English.
Besides having a broad product selection, Sky Shopping Center is one of the few places where you can pay with a 10.000 bill without anyone complaining.
Besides the main department store, the Sky Shopping center also includes a fast food restaurant that serves decent pizza slices and slightly less decent hamburgers. There are also home electronic shops, a bookstore, flower shop, cell phone store, jewelery and so on in the shopping center. I had hoped electronics would be cheaper in Mongolia but the prices where similar to those in Western Europe and North America. Food and clothes, however, where significantly cheaper: how about a bottle of Coke for 12 cents?
An interesting store in this complex was a shop selling computer and video games as well as videos in MPEG1 (VCD) and MPEG4 (DivX) format. All the products came in very professionally looking packages but judging by the formats and prices they where illegal copies. I was surprised to see this in such an official and upscale store. They also sold what looked like illegal copies of such software titles as Adobe PageMaker and PhotoShop
MoneyThe name of the Mongolian currency is "togrog" (alternatively spelled "tugrug"). One US dollar will get you approximately 1000 togrogs so it is quite easy to convert prices, just leave out the last three zeros and you have pretty much got the price in dollars. The problem is that the smallest bill they have is 10 togrogs, in other words about 1 cent, and the largest bill is 10.000 togrogs, about 10 dollars. This is inconvenient if you have, say, a few hundred dollars that you exchange for local currently. Add to this the fact that, with the exception of a few of the largest department stores, no one has enough money to give change if you pay with a large bill. And with large bill I mean 500 and up. The currency exchange at the airport will happily give you local currency in 10.000 bills only and if you ask they may agree to give you the money in 5.000 bills. You will spend the rest of your vacation trying to break these bills into smaller once that you can actually use. And once you succeed, you'll notice that carrying, say, 50 dollars in 1, 2 and 5 cent bills in your pocket, makes sitting uncomfortable.
You can exchange currency at the larger hotels, the state department store and probably at many of the bank offices that the city seems to be filled with. Bring US dollars or Euros and you will have no problem exchanging them, Japanese Yen and British sterling is also listed at most exchanges. Alternatively, you can withdraw local currency at Visa ATM-machines located at a few places in the city, at least in the Ulaanbaatar Hotel in the absolute center of the city and at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. But do note that these are Visa ATM-machines, not generic ATM machines so users of other credit cards may find themselves in a rather inconvenient position: penniless.
If you don't have any Togrogs you will often be able to pay with US dollars as well but at a very approximated exchange rate.
FoodMany tourists seems to think they are somehow obliged to try local food to get a feel for the local ... food. I have only got two things to say: "you're not" and "don't".
The local food is horrible. I kid you not. No matter what they call the dish, it is essentially just a mixture of fat and meat with a bit of salt. This is one of the few places where vegetables are more expensive than meat, or so I have been told and it seems to hold true.
Whatever you do, don't eat anywhere but restaurants that have been recommended on the Internet by foreigners for foreigners as serving non-Mongolian food. At least make sure that the restaurant have some text in English, on the sign outside or English translations in the menu.
I presumed hotel restaurants would be ok but this is not always the case. The main restaurant at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel serves both local and international dishes but the "international" chicken dish I ordered was so greasy that I simply could not eat it. The Chinese restaurant "Mr. Wong" located in the same hotel was expensive even by western standards and again the chicken I ordered was so greasy and fat that I had to leave it.
The main restaurant at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel was no better. The restaurant was an impressive looking ballroom but their "rolled chicken" was, in my view, slices of fat rolled in thick chicken skin with a bit of rice on the side. Again I could not eat it, I just paid and walked across the street to another restaurant: Pizza de la Casa.
Marko Polo Pizza near the Circus has been recommended on the net but unfortunately I never got around to try that one. Pizza de la Casa has also been mentioned as a good place for pizza and I tend to agree. Very salty, quite spicy and certainly a bit greasy but with a wonderful flavor. The next day I came back for more.
I quickly learned not to experiment with food in Mongolia but to stick with safe choices. Another restaurant I visited several times was Grill House Serikon next to the meteorological institute in central Ulaanbaatar.
My clear favorite among restaurants in Ulaanbaatar is, however, the Indian restaurant Hazara. The restaurant is located next to the wrestling stadium, quite near the Chinggis Khaan Hotel. Prices are almost as high as in restaurants in Western Europe or North America but the food as well as the service is excellent. I ate here five times in one week. 'Nuff said.
Maps & Finding your wayThere are a few maps of Ulaanbaatar floating around on the web and they are all quite poor. The one that looked best among the ones I found turned out to be hopelessly outdated and I should have noticed that in advanced since it listed the Soviet embassy.
About the authorLives in Helsinki, Finland.
List of hotelsHere is a list of hotels that I visited or at least saw from the outside:
Chinggis Khaan Hotel ****
Ulaanbaatar Hotel ****
Bayangol Hotel ****