Khustain Nuruu National Park
We got to Khustain Nuruu National Park on our second day in Mongolia. It’s only an hour-and-a-half drive from Ulaanbaatar, yet there is no trace of the capital’s modern buildings. The entire landscape consists of snow, with a few lonely gers (herder tents). Every step you take, your shoes sink into snow, the minus 35-degree wind numbing all your senses.
The Gobi Desert is the polar opposite of the snowy landscape. Bayanzag literally means ‘Flaming Cliff’ and its vast, rocky terrain rivals the Grand Canyon or even Mars. Dinosaur fossils are frequently discovered here — the locals even sell dinosaur eggs in the summer.
Getting to the 100km Khongor Dune involves climbing cliffs and finding a part of the river that’s frozen enough to drive across. A sandstorm hit the dune minutes after we went to get some sunset shots. All we could see was a big wall of sand slowly yet firmly swallowing anything in its path. The real treat came during the night, when the desert was silently illuminated by thousands of stars.
Our final stop was Yolyn Am — Ice Canyon. The frozen river here is the only way to proceed. We took every step with caution — the further we walked, the less frozen the river got, until the ground was so swampy we had to stop. We also had to keep an eye out for wolves, arming ourselves with rocks.
Traditionally, the owner of the ger will first offer you a snuff bottle of tobacco powder, which is surprisingly aromatic. Next comes a round of drinks, from milk tea and yogurt to vodka and various regional liquors. My favourite was a homemade liquor brewed from fruit that we sampled on our way to Khongor. The flow doesn’t stop until you leave the ger, and it’s served with a diverse selection of meats, dumplings and side dishes. Because of the new year, the centrepiece of every family's celebratory meal was a big cake made with butter and yogurt. The longer the man of the family has lived, the more layers there are on the cake.
Mongolia is rapidly moving towards modernisation. Our guide Eddie told us only one child from every nomad family takes on their parents’ lifestyle. The rest of the siblings head to bigger towns or Ulaanbaatar to pursue higher education and a more stable lifestyle. While the city still has many Soviet buildings and factories, there are also multiple skyscrapers, and travellers can find everything from local food to Cuban empanadas in the stylish restaurants that overlook the city. The nightlife scene is booming with new bars and lavish clubs.
30-day transit or tourist visas can be obtained from the relevant embassy or via the likes of mongoliatravelguide.mn. You can also purchase a visa on arrival at Chinggis Khaan (Ulaanbaatar) Airport. The cost is US$50 (VND1.1 million) plus a small administration fee. The following countries are visa exempt: USA, Canada, Germany, Israel, Japan, Turkey, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The following airlines fly to Ulaanbaatar: Mongolian Airlines, Korean Airlines, Air China, Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines
The trains from Beijing and Moscow run through to Ulaanbaatar once a week. There is also a daily train between the Mongolian capital and Vladivostok
Accommodation in Ulaanbaatar
Budget rooms start at around US$6 (VND126,000) a night. Mid-range options cost between US$40 (VND840,000) and US$70 (VND1.47 million) a night. There are also a growing number of five-star hotels.
Eating and Drinking
If you go local, it’s very cheap in Mongolia. But end up in the clubs and top-end bars, and beers cost around US$3 (VND63,000) for half a litre. Expect to pay around US$1 (VND21,000) to US$2 (VND42,000) a meal if you go budget.