In Mongolia, the Music Comes Right to Your Tent

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Carter Liotta of Philadelphia is the latest contributor to our Your Vacation in Lights feature, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report -- and become eligible to win a digital camera -- see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: A week in Mongolia.

WHO: Me, my brother Jay and my friend Oliver Lee.

WHY: I wanted to see where my brother lived while in the Peace Corps and get a flavor of nomadic life on the steppes.

WHEN: Summer, when the weather is not arctic, but not in July during Naadam. The national sports festival is exciting, but it snarls transportation and inflates prices in the capital, Ulan Bator (UB).

PLANNING: Made significantly easier by Mr. Kim, miracle worker and hotelier of the UB Guesthouse ( In addition to running a clean, comfortable hostel, Mr. Kim facilitates camping, sightseeing, camel rides and tours into the countryside upon request.

GETTING THERE: Air service to UB is frequent, but we took the Trans-Mongolian railway from Beijing. The two-day trip crosses northern China, then travels through the Gobi Desert. The wheels of each rail car are changed to a different gauge at the border, except for the dining car, which is completely replaced. First class is very affordable (about $200 one way in the summer) and more private.

UB SIGHTS: Make sure to see the Choijin Lama Temple and Gandan, two of UB's oldest monasteries, as well as the National Museum of History and the Zanabazar art museum. Relics of Mongolia's Communist past abound. Have your picture taken with Lenin's statue before heading to Zaisan, a hilltop monument to Mongol-Soviet relations. An enormous statue of Genghis Khan is new to Sukhbaatar Square.

OUTSIDE THE CITY: For a wonderful peek at the Mongolian countryside, we took an overnight trip to Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, and spent the night in a traditional ger house, a kind of round, felt-covered tent. We saw the Erdene Zuu Monastery and the "fertility rock," a five-foot-long stone phallus thought to retain the sexual impulses of the monks at Erdene Zuu. I enjoyed watching packs of horses and goats cross the road back to UB, herded by camel-riding nomadic ranchers.

STOP FOR COFFEE IN . . . Nayra Cafe, near the Zanabazar museum. The cafe is owned by a young entrepreneur named Hulan who has survived extortion schemes and threats from people who didn't want her to succeed in business. Nayra Cafe brews up fantastic lattes and cappuccinos and offers wireless Internet.

WHAT NOT TO EXPECT: Excessive luxury and world-class service. There are some first-class hotels, but we always left time for delays and confusion, part of Mongolian life. Open manholes and steep steps are not always marked, and streets are often unlit at night. Outside the city, Western-style toilets give way to hole-in-the-floor squat latrines. Be prepared.

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: After checking into our ger in Kharkhorin, the guest house operator sent a local musician who, with three instruments, performed a private two-hour concert in our tent. He sang vocally as well as in traditional Mongolian khoomii, or throat singing. Total cost: $12.

I CAN'T BELIEVE WE ALMOST DIDN'T . . . go to a local market. In addition to severed livestock heads announcing the meat being butchered that day, ayrag (fermented mares' milk) is funneled from resin barrels into recycled plastic water bottles. A word of caution: Ayrag doesn't always survive a long, bumpy, hot car ride and can explode like a shaken can of beer. The smell of soured milk in a hot car is pleasing to neither the tourist nor the owner of the car.

SHOP TALK: The State Department Store sells such necessities as food and basic clothing, as well as cashmere and leather goods. Chinggis vodka, a local liquor, is always a good buy. Find handicrafts, watercolors, brightly painted furniture and plenty of fake antiques imported from China in the city's Black Market, an open-air market. Some people have purchased entire gers here, but shipping them home can be problematic. Beware of pickpockets and bag-slashers in the Black Market. The U.S. dollar is very strong in Mongolia (we got a lot for a little), but quality goods are not always easy to find.

DON'T FORGET: It was handy to have packaged food in the countryside, where we were unsure about sanitary conditions; stock up at the State Department Store. From June through August, plan on pleasant afternoons and cool evenings. I don't recommend shorts, especially for touring religious buildings; khakis and a light jacket are best.

RECOMMENDED? Yes, though Mongolia may not be the easiest destination for disabled or elderly travelers or those with special needs. The Lonely Planet guidebook may be the best place to start.

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