Thursday, July 2, 2015

Mongolia Inside & Out 101 - Welcome to Mongolia!

Welcome to the first post in the Mongolia Inside & Out series!  I hope you'll find this and subsequent posts interesting and useful for your future travels to the Land of Eternal Blue Heaven.  Let's start with the basics of coming to Mongolia for the very first time.  I'd say that there are 23 preliminary points to cover.  Let's begin!

Before you leave for Mongolia:

1.  VISAS: Know the visa requirements for a) your citizenship and b) the purpose of your visit (study vs. tourism vs. business).  If you're an American citizen entering without prior arrangements, you'll automatically receive a 30-day tourist visa. 

Wow, that is a terrible and blurry picture of my old tourist visas!  I mean, I intentionally blurred this image to prevent passport fraud.
PRO-TIP: extend your visa to 90 days by visiting Mongolian Immigration within 7 days of your arrival.  This only costs a few bucks (official form you fill out on site, a passport photo) and a tenuous connection to Mongolia (name and address of your guesthouse and/or travel agency in Mongolia).  Do not wait more than 7 days or you will be fined!  The fines vary depending on who's working that day - I am not joking, this is how "official fines" often work in Mongolia - and you will need to pay in cash (Mongolian tugrik, or MNT).  Mongolian Immigration is currently located just east of the airport along the main road into Ulaanbaatar before the space age-looking red and gray stadium.

Registration form at Mongolian Immigration: helpfully written in both English and Mongolian

2. BOOK ONE NIGHT: If you make no other plans before setting foot in Mongolia, plan ahead to spend your first night in the country in a guesthouse or hotel.  Unless you plan to go straight from the airport to rural Mongolia or you are joining an expedition team, you'll be glad you made a few arrangements in advance so that your arrival is as smooth as possible.

3.  JOIN A TEAM, EXPEDITION, OR PROJECT.  I find most people who've had extremely positive experiences in Mongolia come as part of a field program, a research expedition, a volunteer expedition - something that requires them to work as part of a team on a shared goal in the Mongolian countryside alongside international and local volunteers or staff.

Team work from the very beginning: 2005 expedition photo in Kharkhorin, Arkhangai Province
A few months before you leave for Mongolia, do a little research online into your options.  Each summer there are usually a few archaeological or conservation biology expeditions that take paying volunteers or students, the National University of Mongolia offers summer educational programs for international students, and some NGOs offer volunteer opportunities (such as Lotus Guesthouse's programs with Mongolian orphans and street kids).  Keep an eye on the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads' website ( for 2016 and future field programs; CSEN has programs specifically for students and adventurers from a variety of backgrounds and with different interests.

Arriving at the airport

Chinggis Khaan International Airport
[by User:Methos31 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

4.  PICKUP: Have someone meet you at the airport (or train station).  Plan to spend your first night in a guesthouse that offers complimentary airport pickup if you don't have Mongolian friends or colleagues.  That way, you'll feel less overwhelmed when the pushy taxi drivers mob you just after you exit customs at Buyant-Ukhaa International Airport.  You'll also be skipping the bus (more on that in a future post on domestic transportation and getting around Mongolia) and putting off the need to exchange money.  Having someone who speaks Mongolian will also come in handy if your bags don't make it to Ulaanbaatar and you need to ask airport staff for help; this is a likely eventuality if you transited through Beijing.

LANGUAGE: Be confident but non-aggressive when refusing the airport taxi drivers.  If they try to take your luggage or luggage cart and steer you outside, keep a firm grasp and walk away to another part of the waiting room.  You can also say, "Avahgui" ("ah - vah - GWEI"), which means you don't want their services.  They will leave you alone if you act like you know what you're doing.

First day/night in Ulaanbaatar:

5.  INCONVENIENCES: Chances are you're coming to Mongolia for the glorious summer weather: Naadam, field research, countryside adventures, and so forth.  Summer weather in Ulaanbaatar signals the annual city-wide construction and repair overhaul.  Each section of the city will go without hot water on a rotating "schedule" for long periods of time (weeks and months, not hours), builders will be drilling and hammering all hours of the night (despite city laws), major roads will be closed off in sections, and major construction projects will loom over many neighborhoods.

This is a long way of saying: be prepared for some daily hassles when you are in UB.  Be physically and emotionally prepared for cold showers.  Don't be surprised by the noise and dirt of construction.  Be ready for important routes to be closed, seemingly randomly.  Give yourself some extra time to do anything you want to accomplish, take a deep breath, get a gelato or iced coffee, and chill out.

6.  MONEY: don't exchange, withdraw from an ATM.  Mongolian banks and money changers are notorious for rejecting US currency that doesn't look perfect; minor creases and wrinkles are grounds for having your 100-dollar bills tossed back at you.  In the past, I had a 50-60% success rate exchanging US bills.  It's not worth the hassle!

Instead, learn the international usage rules of your debit or credit cards and draw Mongolian cash directly from the various ATM around the city.  Withdrawing from an ATM will usually get you the best exchange rate each financial institution offers.  Although there are ATM littered throughout the city center, ideally you should withdraw money from an ATM inside a bank or store to minimize the chances of attracting the attention of pickpockets and thieves.  Best bets: the large cache of ATMs on the 5th floor of the State Department Store (Ikh Delguur) near the elevators, the whole block near the Flower Center (both sides of the street), and the central Khaan Bank branch on Seoul Street past the Dublin Irish pub (and the other bank on the opposite side of the street).

PRO-TIP: UB ATMs often run out of money.  How can you tell?  Obviously, if the person in line in front of you can't take out any money, you might as well jog on.  On the other hand, you can tell if the ATM is running on empty when you insert your card.  Most Mongolian ATMs will display a screen with "bills available" in the following denominations: 5,000; 10,000; 20,000.  If an ATM has no 20,000 bills, you're unlikely to be able to draw out more than 100,000-200,000 MNT.  Move on to greener pastures.

Or move on to technicolor pastures, the rainbow of Mongolian tugrik

Have at least one credit/debit card with you for your time in Mongolia.  Many venues now accept major international credit cards - VISA and Mastercard - and it's safer to have a card for emergencies or big-ticket items.  Carrying around a lot of MNT in cash will attract unwanted attention but no one blinks an eye at credit cards.  Pickpockets have not yet caught on to the value of credit cards; in my experience, they'll take the cash and toss the wallet (with all other contents) on the ground nearby for you or a helpful UB-er to pick up.

Most importantly, you'll need a credit card to pay for emergency medical services in the worst-case scenario.  Hospitals and health care providers in Mongolia do not accept international or travel insurance; you will pay costs upfront and be reimbursed later.  Unless you carry upwards of $10,000 around with you, your credit card will be essential.

7.   FOOD AND DRINK: after a long international flight and arriving in a hot, dusty city (assuming it's summer time), you're at risk for dehydration, constipation, and a killer bout of jet-lag.  Eating and drinking properly are your best remedies.  Almost everyone experiences some digestive irregularities during their first few days in Mongolia.  In addition to staying nourished and hydrated, you will be happier if you bring Tums and Immodium (and hold off on traditional Mongolian food for the first 24 hours).

Save the vodka and knock-off Pringles for your second day in Mongolia
Drink plenty of water: the blazing blue sky and high altitude will have you dried out before you know what hit you.  Water in UB is potable but not exactly healthy.  Buy bottled water or use a personal filtration system.

PRO-TIP: buy a large jug of bottled water and use it to refill a smaller bottle to cut down on waste and trips to the store.  Since the water might get shut off unexpectedly, having a sufficient supply of personal water in your guesthouse or hotel is essential.

I will do a separate post on eating and drinking in UB.  Suffice it to say, try to get something to eat before you go to bed, because jet lag may have you up at 4am with hours before any restaurant or cafe is open.

8.  ACCOMMODATIONS: like I said, spend your first night in a guesthouse or hotel that includes complimentary airport pickup.  For that first night, spend the money on a single room; when you stay in a shared room, you never know when other travelers will be coming and going.  This is extra annoying when you first arrive because you're just settling in yourself.

PRO-TIP: another reason to stay at a hotel or guesthouse with complimentary airport pickup is that you won't waste time and money trying to direct a cab to a difficult-to-find location.  Most guesthouses are tucked away off the main streets; if you've never been, these places can be very hard to reach in a car.  It's also difficult for non-Mongolians to immediately adjust to the Mongolian methods of directions and reaching desired locations (see below).  If your driver works at the guesthouse or hotel, you'll get there without any hassles.

Here are some recommendations for eight centrally-located guesthouses and hotels listed from roughly least to most expensive (as of July 2015):

-UB guesthouse, located one block northwest of the Flower Center:

-Mongolian Steppe guesthouse, one block north of the State Department Store:

-Golden Gobi guesthouse, located one block directly east of the State Department Store:

Entrance of Golden Gobi guesthouse (from

-Lotus guesthouse, located a bit further from the main drag (several blocks north of the Flower Center near the 5th school):

-Corporate hotel, located just across from Monnis Tower southeast of the Grand Khaan Irish pub along Chinggis Avenue:

-Bayangol hotel is just south of the Corporate hotel:

Bayangol hotel and restaurant (courtesy of

-Ramada hotel is a larger tower just west of the Western Crossroads/Baruun Zam past Gandan monastery along Peace Avenue:

-Kempinski hotel is a major landmark in Sansar district at the Eastern Crossroads/Zuun Zam on the NE corner:

PRO-TIP: if you do not travel with a full sleeping bag and mat, consider bringing along one or two bedsheets (or a sleeping bag liner).  Most places in UB should be clean enough, especially the hotels listed above, but there is nothing worse than realizing your bed is a bit dingey at 12:30am on your first night in the country.   Think of your sheets as a protective barrier.  They'll also come in handy when you're out on your adventures (more on that later).

9. NAVIGATING UB: easiest on foot when it comes to downtown central Ulaanbaatar, although the city is served by taxis (official and unofficial), buses, trolley buses, and micros (vans that follow numerous lines throughout the city and surrounding areas).  Stick to traveling on foot when possible to avoid confusion, traffic jams, and being overcharged by taxi drivers.

Chinggis/Sukhbaatar Square is one of the few places in UB you'll be safe from careening cars

Addresses and street names are used very sparingly in Ulaanbaatar.  Landmarks, even descriptions of nearby buildings, are used in their place.  When asking locals for directions or trying to find your way, you will need to use landmarks and the cardinal directions.  Mongolia gets enough sunshine that each day you should have no trouble sorting out east and west.  Grab a simple tourist map of the city and orient yourself using the following well-known landmarks:

-Peace Avenue (Enkhtaivany Gudamj)
-State Department Store (Ikh Delguur)
-Sukhbaatar/Chinggis Square (Sukhbaatryn Talbai)
-Circus (Tsirq)
-Peace Bridge (Enkhtaivany Guur)
-Grand Khaan Irish Pub (great for navigation and grabbing a beer on a very crowded patio, not much else)

The above landmarks are almost universally known amongst the UB general populace, easy to find on a tourist map, and located in the center of downtown.  Memorize the walking route from your guesthouse or hotel to the nearest of these locations.

10.  COMMUNICATIONS.  If you plan to stay in UB for over a week, consider getting a cell phone.  Tedy Center (a tall white building several blocks north of the State Department Store near the Tengis Cinema) sells phones at all price levels as well as a SIM card and negij (minutes).  You need a passport or government-issued ID to buy a SIM card.  Many travel agencies will rent you a cell phone for a short period of time; inquire directly for rates.

While wireless internet is not available throughout the city, many locations provide it, including cafes (Nayra, Caffe Bene, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf), restaurants (Rosewood, Loving Hut), and almost any guesthouse or hotel.  Currently Facebook is the medium by which the vast majority of Mongolian businesses communicate and advertise.  Your best bet for finding a restaurant or travel agency's office location is likely by searching on Facebook.

11.  SAFETY.  While Mongolia is generally a safe country, there are particular dangers faced by travelers who spend time in UB.

-Traffic is not just a nuisance, it's a real hazard: pedestrians do not have the right of way, cars often speed unexpectedly through traffic lights, down footpaths, or the wrong way down a street.  When crossing the street, try to cross in a small group - safety in numbers - and be aware of cars potentially driving at your from behind.  If you spend any time in UB, you'll likely sit through at least one traffic jam.  Most taxis do not have working seat belts and there's not much you can do to stay safe when someone else is driving.  When things are getting particularly dicey, you might try saying, "Bolgoomjtoi yavaarai" [bol-GOMJ-tai yah-vaa-RAY] to your driver and hope s/he slows down and drives more carefully.

PRO-TIP: everyone in UB is well aware of the dangers of cars, traffic, and crossing the road.  Pedestrians will often clump together in an unspoken agreement to cross together.  On the other hand, an elderly Mongolian may grab your arm with little or no warning.  This is a common practice within a broader age-based hierarchy of social relations, where younger people are traditionally expected to help and respect their elders.  If you get grabbed by an emee (granny) or uvuu (gramps) on the sidewalk, slow down and let them lean on you while you cross.  They may try to talk to you or thank you, but don't be offended if they don't say anything.  In fact, you should be honored that they assumed you would help them!

Traffic in Dundgovi Province: a lot less honking and a lot more humps than UB traffic

-Theft and pickpockets.  UB pickpockets are not particularly skillful but they can be a persistent nuisance.  Some obvious points that many travelers forget: do not keep valuables or cash in your pockets, do not carry a backpack or purse unless you can wear it across your front, don't take your wallet/cash/Iphone out on the street for any reason, and store your valuables in a safe at your hotel or guesthouse when you're out and about in the city.  Walk quickly and with purpose when you're on crowded streets - a great way to shake pickpockets and ward off potential hasslers.  Don't feel rude about ignoring people who try to talk to you on the street; unfortunately, there are people legitimately in need or simply asking innocent questions, but you can't sort a pickpocket gang from a curious stranger until it's too late.

-Anti-foreigner sentiment.  Nationalism and xenophobia are strange, complex phenomena in modern Mongolia that intertwine in disturbing ways.  You will see swatiska emblems on clothing (T-shirts, belts, patterns on traditional fabric), cars, and flags; where a particular swatiska falls on the Buddhism to National Socialism spectrum is very much dependent upon the particular case.  A future post in the Mongolia Inside & Out series will focus on nationalism and xenophobia in Mongolia, especially in Ulaanbaatar.  For now, keep in mind that you may unfortunately experience some anti-foreigner sentiment during your time in Mongolia.  In my experience, this happens very rarely outside of UB. There is no sure-fire way to predict or avoid hostile or violent xenophobia in Ulaanbaatar.  On the other hand, you may experience zero negative attitudes or behavior during your time in Mongolia.

Some basic tips for dealing with anti-foreigner sentiment in Ulaanbaatar: avoid nightclubs and bars that seem rowdy or sketchy (if the vibe is off when you walk in the door, turn right around and try somewhere else), stay in well-populated and well-lit areas after dark, travel in pairs or a small group whenever possible (especially at night), know where you are at all times (i.e., nearest major landmark and how to get there on foot), don't get drunk (especially by yourself), don't take a taxi by yourself after dark, ignore strangers who approach you on the street or other public place, avoid someone who seems drunk or belligerent (create physical distance by moving away quickly but unobtrusively), just ignore it if someone shouts at you on the street (pretending not to understand or hear them means they don't get the rise out of you that they're aiming for), and get to somewhere you feel safe if you're feeling rattled (a nice restaurant, a shopping mall, a museum, a hotel, etc.).

Another way to deal with negative attention is to embrace your status as an outsider.  Dress to accentuate your height and size, wear a giant faux-fur hat, and stomp around in humongous boots.  The 'winter bear' look seems to work for me!

Is that a giant foreigner in a winter coat, or bipedal bear ominously shuffling towards you across the ice?  Either way, better run for it!

Intro to Mongolian Language and Cultural Norms
12.  LANGUAGE: Mongolian is a challenging language for most native speakers of English, Germanic, and Romance Languages due to its grammar, syntax, and pronunciation.  Contrary to a strangely popular misconception, Mongolian is unrelated to Mandarin; speaking either Mandarin or Cantonese in Mongolia will not earn you any brownie points at all.  In my experience, few people pick up Mongolian quickly or gain any proficiency without long-term study and exposure to the language.

However, anyone can master a few of the essential phrases and vocabulary:

- Тийм [team] - "Yes" (variants include tea and team-ey)
- Үгүй [oo-GWEI] - "No" (variants include goo and ugoo)
- Баярлалаа [buy-ar-LAA] - "Thank you"
- Уучлаарай [OOCH-la-ray] - "Sorry"/"Excuse me"
- Юу гэнэ? [YOU gen-ai] - "What did you say?"

*There is no direct translation for 'hello' in Mongolian.  Instead, people use the call-and-response phrases below:
- Сайн байна уу? [sann ban oo] - "Hello, how are you?"
- Сайн, сайн байна уу? [sann, sann ban oo] - "I'm well, and how are you?"

- Баяртай! [buy-ar-TAY] - "Goodbye!"

- Намайг Emma гэдэг [nah-MAYG Emma geh-deg] - "My name is Emma"
- Би Амэрик хүн [bee Americk khoon] - "I'm an American" (Canadian: canad; English: angle; Korean: so-LONG-gous)
- Та англи хэл мэдэх уу? [ta angle hell MED-deh-huu] - "Do you know (how to speak) English?"
- Би ойлгохгүй байна [bee oll-GOKH-gwei ban] - "I don't understand"
- Дахиад хэлээрэй [dah-KHI-ahd khel-leh-RAY] - "Please say that again"
- Цаасан дээр бичээрэй [TSAAS-an dare bee-che-RAY] - "Please write that down on this paper"

13.  BASIC ETIQUETTE AND CULTURAL NORMS: it's impossible for me to cover this topic exhaustively in the 101 post.  Here are a few key points that should help you from the moment you get off the plane:

-Use your right hand only: paying, taking, giving, shaking hands, etc.  Even if it's inconvenient, make the effort to only deal with others using your right hand (both hands, if you want, but never just your left hand).

-Watch your feet: if you step on someone's foot or even touch someone's foot with your own, reach out to grasp their right hand with yours.  Feet are considered dirty and touching someone with your foot is a definite faux pas.  When sitting in a ger (traditional Mongolian home), don't stick your feet out at anyone sitting across from you if you feet are soles up.

-Conceptions of personal space in Mongolia differ markedly from those in the US.  In Ulaanbaatar, people on the streets and in stores will bump up against you, wander slowly and aimlessly into your path (and cut in line, of course), and crush against you on the bus (and, when I say crush, I really mean crush!).  Be the rock in a stream of people.  Don't be aggressive but don't move out of the way.  Stand there like a serene, unmovable oak tree as others mill about you.  It helps if you're big and tall, but just consciously being solid will help you deal.  When I went to the most important and widely-attended of the horse races at last summer's national Naadam, my friends and I experienced the largest, most aggressive crowds I'd ever seen in Mongolia.  As my large and solid frame was tossed and squeezed by Mongolians around me, many locals worried out loud that a foreigner wouldn't be able to handle Mongolian crowd behavior.  In other words, if you're coming from North America, urban culture and public behavior in Ulaanbaatar is going to strike you as quite different (and likely as rather rude).  Be prepared for that difference and to hold your ground accordingly.

-Children are beloved in Mongolian society.  Child-free businesses, restaurants, or spaces are basically unheard of.  If you're traveling with children, you will find this delightful.  If you're not particularly tolerant of boisterous children wandering into your personal space, be prepared to loosen up and become less of a grump.

Mongolian children often pull their own weight and pitch in, like this cutie-pie at the Sainshand train station (Dorngovi Province)
-Hats: don't touch someone else's hat unless specifically told to do so.  Mongolians believe that one's khiimor (roughly equivalent to mojo or life-energy) concentrates in the head and gathers in a hat.  Touching or messing with someone's hat messes with their khiimor.  Also, don't step on or over someone's hat - even worse when you involve your dirty feet!

-Hand over, don't toss: hand things directly to someone with your right hand (or both hands).  Tossing papers, your passport, money, and other items is considered rude here in Mongolia.  I notice than many non-Mongolians never pick up on this but are surprised when shop-keepers or waitstaff are cold or rude to them.  Mongolian customer service generally leaves a lot to be desired, but you may be unintentionally offensive in very basic transactions if you're not paying attention.

-Paying with cash: hand the bills flattened out held between your fingers and thumb.  Don't wedge a folded bill between your index and middle finger, or hand someone folded or wadded up bills.  Rude!

-Clockwise is the right way: called narny zuv, which roughly translates to "correct sun direction", Mongolians traditionally move clockwise whenever possible.  This is very important when you are in a Mongolian ger, a Buddhist temple, or at an ovoo site, but still matters in other spaces.

-If you are on a bus and an elderly person gets on, give up your seat if none are available.  This is part of the same age-based system of respect and assistance that leads elderly Mongolian folks to grab your elbow at the crosswalk.  Most Mongolians will jump up first, but recognize that part of polite behavior is giving up your bus seat for the elderly. 

-Overly personal questions are not considered rude.  Complete strangers will ask you your age, your marital status (and if you're looking for a Mongolian wife or husband), how many children you have (or when you will have children), and so forth immediately upon meeting you.  This is quite normal.  If you feel uncomfortable, just laugh and pretend that you don't understand the question. 

-And, finally, learn some basic phrases!  Even some very rudimentary Mongolian will smooth over little social difficulties and help you make friendly connections in unexpected places.

Weather, comfort, health
A few quick notes, as I'll address these topics in more detail in subsequent posts, in case you're heading straight from the airport to rural Mongolia.

14.  INFECTIOUS DISEASE AND IMMUNIZATIONS.  No immunizations are required to enter the country.  Mongolia is free from most diseases that travelers worry about, such as malaria or dengue fever.  The biggest risks of infection are Hepatitis (A, B, C), STDs (syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia), tuberculosis, rabies, and the bubonic plague (yes, really).  Get your Hep series and a rabies inoculation before coming, practice safe sex, and avoid marmot meat.  Marmots (tarvag) are hosts of the fleas that carry the plague bacteria.  Marmot meat is a delicacy in Mongolia.  Ergo, avoiding marmot meat will most likely keep you 100% safe from the plague.  There are specific anti-biotics for the plague if you're very concerned.

15.  FOOD SAFETY.  Clean is a relative term.  When dining in the Mongolian countryside (and somewhat in UB), let go of your expectations when it comes to clean dishes and sterile meals; floaties, hairs, and shared utensils abound.  Many travelers experience "irregularities" when first coming to Mongolia, but usually nothing more than some traveler's diarrhea or constipation.  I recommend Immodium and dried fruit (and some airag), respectively. 

16.  KEEPING CLEAN.  Some ger camps will have showers and you may happen across rivers and lakes for swim-bathing.  Otherwise, you'll be hard-pressed to keep clean in the Mongolian countryside.  Baby wipes, hand sanitizer, dry shampoo, and deodorant will be your salvation.  Pack to change your socks and undies daily but your outer layers only a few times.

PRO-TIP: if you are tent-camping or staying with nomadic families for multiple nights in a row, take morning and evening tent 'baths'.  Start with baby wipes, dust yourself with powder (don't forget your hair!), and liberally apply deodorant.  If you do this twice daily, it'll take longer for you to get truly groady.

17.  FACILITIES.  Bathrooms in Mongolia leave something to be desired if they are present at all.  The situation in UB has improved tremendously since 2005, when even bathrooms in nice restaurants would have toilets without seats, no toilet paper (often still an issue), maybe no sink, and definitely no soap to wash your hands (this one is still a widespread problem).  Outhouses and pit toilets are, as a rule, gross.  Often you'll be using a 'steppe toilet': any convenience natural screen (tall grass, small ravine) between you and the curious gaze of locals and other travelers.  If you're feeling brave and/or modest, ask, "Nuil khaana baigaa ve?" [noil khaan BAI-gaa ve], and hope someone can direct you to the nearest 'bathroom'.

How many bathrooms can you find in this picture?  Hint: more than you'd think!
PRO-TIP: if you need to squat while doing your business but there's not much of a screen, face your onlookers and hold a shirt or coat over your waist.  Yes, looking people in the eye while doing your business is super awkward, even if at a distance.  On the other hand, it's less awkward than showing off your full moon for all to see.

18.  HEALTH CARE.  Aside from emergencies, avoid seeking medical carewhile in Mongolia.  If you must, visit Songdo, SOS Medica, or Intermed in Ulaanbaatar for higher quality services.  SOS Medica operates the emergency medical evacuation services for Mongolia.  Look them up before leaving the city so you know who to call in the worst-case scenario.  In an emergency, call your embassy, your local hosts (travel company, NGO) and SOS Medica, so that you have multiple parties to help you through the crisis.  Don't bother with the Mongolian police or standard emergency services - they don't speak English and they're generally unhelpful.

19.  WEATHER AND CLIMATE.  Mongolia has an extreme climate: arid yet subject to occasional extreme downpours; freezing in winter and sweltering in summer; hail, rain, high winds, and blazing sunshine all in one day; and country-wide high altitudes.  Winter temperatures easily plummet to -40F and further, and summer heatwaves push upwards of 100F in the Gobi regions.  The intensity of the sun is striking and most travelers are unprepared for just how harsh the sunlight can be, even in winter.  Night-time temperatures can drop below freezing even during summer time.  Suffice it to say, pack with the great range in temperature and weather in mind!

Approaching rainstorm in Bulgan Province: the upside of Mongolia's extremely changeable weather is that you can usually see it coming
Mongolia's weather is extremely tempermental.  In a single day, you may experience major fluctuations in temperature, sudden rain showers, and surprise windstorms.  Keep warm with a good quality sleeping bag (and pad if you will be in a tent), polar fleece, cold-weather hat and gloves, and at least one set of thermals or long underwear.  Keep dry with a rain slicker or poncho, water-proof shoes, and quick-drying pants.  Keep cool with layers (tank top, light-weight button-down shirt, khakhi pants, shorts), a hat with a brim, and sandals.  Keep the sun at bay with quality sunglasses, sunscreen (SPF 30 at a minimum), and moisturizer.

PRO-TIP: covering your skin is important.  Contrary to some rumors, Mongolia is not a conservative society when it comes to attire.  Although you should cover your shoulders (and sometimes legs) when visiting a temple or monastery, showing some skin might get you noticed but not rebuked or shunned.  The real reason to cover up is for your own protection from the elements.  I've had sun sickness twice in Mongolia because I underestimated the strength of the sun while doing physical activities outdoors.  Of course you should always apply sunscreen liberally and regularly throughout the day, but I've found that having a physical screen between my skin and the harsh rays of the Mongolian sun is imperative. 

Getting ready to get out of UB

Country roads, take me home...
Let's be honest: unless you're working or studying, you likely didn't come to Mongolia to spend your time in UB.  The best of Mongolia is out under eternal blue heaven: the rolling steppe, the forested hills, the red-rock canyons, the winding rivers, the golden sand, and the snow-capped peaks of Mongolia's 21 provinces.

Standing between heaven and earth in Dundgovi Province

20.  HELP WITH TRAVEL PLANNING.  If you didn't do any research before arriving in Mongolia, consider going to a travel agency or tour company for help.  Know your budget: the high-end operations (like Nomadic Expeditions, located on Peace Avenue just west of the State Department Store) will provide something very different than the budget options (like TTR-Mongolia, located east of the State Department Store) when it comes to travel and adventure in rural Mongolia.  If you're with an experienced field researcher or tour guide, you'll learn all about different aspects of Mongolian traditional culture, history, the environment, and language as you pass what often looks like empty space or piles of rocks to the untrained eye.  At a minimum, try contacting other travelers to Mongolia before you arrive (via Tripadvisor and various Facebook groups) or at backpacker hangouts in UB in order to band together for cost-saving measures and companionship during your rural adventures.

PRO-TIP: I cannot overemphasize how much more rewarding your Mongolian adventures will be if you enlist people to help you navigate the culture and the country.  The odds that either 1) you or your friends speak Mongolian, or 2) you regularly meet countryside folks who speak conversational English (or German, Japanese, Russian, or Spanish) are very slim indeed.  Unless you can hold a conversation (even in translation), you'll be missing out almost entirely on the famous steppe hospitality of countryside folks, on the history and legends of each place, on recommendations of where to go and what to see, and on any warnings or instructions.  Without a 4-wheel drive vehicle at your disposal, there's simply a ton of the countryside that will be utterly inaccessible to you, and going without a good driver is extremely inadvisable.  If you're traveling independently, spend a little extra money on a driver and a guide/translator - you'll thank me later.

21.  TRAVEL IN RURAL MONGOLIA.  To see anything worth seeing or to do anything worth doing, you need to drive a long way.  There's no getting around it.  Don't be tempted by trips that promise a short drive; you will end up at a crowded ger camp (cross between a trailer park, summer camp, and resort) in Terelj, the touristy, overrun national park just east of Ulaanbaatar.  There are some lovely secluded spots in Terelj, but you need to know where to go ahead of time.  A good compromise is Dream Adventure, a small camp run by a young Norwegian-Mongolian couple in a small valley less than two hours from the city just far enough from Terelj's crowds to feel like the 'real' Mongolian countryside.  In general, be prepared to drive (and maybe even fly)!

The Dream Adventure ger camp is one of the few lovely and secluded places you can reach within a relatively short drive from Ulaanbaatar

22.  DON'T GO IT ALONE.  For financial and safety reasons, travel in small groups is the way to go.  Hiring a driver, off-road vehicle, and Mongolian translator/guide will vastly improve your experience in rural Mongolia.  This, however, can get very expensive if you're traveling solo or in a couple.  Join forces with other travelers to split costs and make new friends.  If you don't want to join an organized program, as recommended above, look for like-minded travelers through Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet's online services, or check out guesthouses and backpacker haunts in UB after you've arrived.  While Mongolia is basically a very safe country, accidents, misunderstandings, or medical emergencies out in the countryside can be extremely dangerous if you don't have people who can understand and help you.

Not pictured: going it alone

23.  HOSPITALITY & GENEROSITY.  Traditional Mongolian society is built around gift exchange, where social relations are enacted through giving and receiving appropriate items at appropriate times.  Most Mongolians, particularly those leading the traditional lifestyle outside of Ulaanbaatar, are incredibly generous with their property, time, and kindness.  Steppe hospitality of traditional nomadic society dictates that strangers can enter a home or ger out in the countryside at any time, day or night, and expect to be provided with food, drink, help, and a place to sleep without advanced notice or payment.  The harsh nature of the Mongolian climate and landscape forced people to develop a "help thy neighbor" attitude in recognition that anyone might similarly find themselves at the mercy of the elements in the future.

Unfortunately, visitors to Mongolia over the last 20 years abused this system by taking advantage of that generosity without being generous in return: numerous foreigners ate with nomadic families, slept in their homes, and shared their space without any return gestures of hospitality.  Despite this, the majority of countryside people (khuduunii khumuus) are still incredibly hospitable.  Those visiting Mongolia should feel a moral obligation to be thankful and generous in return.  Practically speaking, this means bringing some small gifts or snacks along with you to share with your Mongolian hosts and friends, occasionally paying for some services (like horseback riding or buying meat), and learning enough of the culture and language to behave like an appropriate guest (see my previous points on language and etiquette, although I will explore these topics more in depth in future Mongolia Inside & Out posts).

Friendly is as friendly does: guest-host relations in Bulgan Province

PRO-TIP: travel with a Mongolian guide, assistant, or translator to help you play your part as an appropriate guest.  Joining a team or hiring a translator will insure that at least someone in your group knows the correct behavior in a given setting or is equipped to ask politely.  This includes determining whether you are actually welcome to visit with this family, how to eat and drink what you're offered, and when it's time to leave; in my experience, rural Mongolians are generally too polite to give those kinds of directives or tell you to scram so that they can get back to work.  Sometimes your hosts in the countryside will make a request of you - let's take a picture together, sing us a song, come with me to my sister's place, add me as a friend on Facebook - that you won't understand if you don't have someone translating for you.

Basebell: minimal translation required
When you are invited into a ger in the countryside, you will be offered snacks and suutei tsai (milky tea - see above) at a minimum.  As a grateful guest, you should 1) politely accept and sample whatever you are offered (even if you don't like it) and 2) offer something to your hosts in return at the end of the visit.  This is not a strict obligation but an act of respectful acknowledgment of your host's efforts.  Sweets, like lollipops or individually-wrapped candies, are a good choice for a large family; a family with young children would appreciate a few small toys or stickers (crayons, a volleyball, bubble blowers); an older family might prefer some staples (a bag of flour, a packet of noodles, a jar of jam or pickled vegetables); an honored host would appreciate a nice bottle of vodka (although this is a risky option, as you may then be expected to share the whole bottle with your hosts on the spot!).  Another option is bringing small souvenirs from your hometown or home country.

PRO-TIP: do not bring your 'gifts' in a container.  In Mongolian society, it is considered rude and inhospitable to let someone bring something in a container and not fill it before they leave your home.  Your hosts will feel obligated to fill the bowl or box in which you brought the 'gifts'.  Although it seems informal, it's better to pile candy and gifts into the hands of your hosts.

Case in point: I brought a bowl of home-made brownies when I visited my friend's family during Tsagaan Sar, and I came home with this impressive haul of aruul and candies provided by his family so that I wouldn't leave the home with an empty bowl

So much for the 23 basic points that I think every traveler, student, expat, and researcher should know about Mongolia before coming for the first time.  But those 23 topics are the barest of bare minimums.  We've only just dipped our toes into the vast ocean that is Mongolian culture, history, religion, language, cuisine, fashion, and life in the 21st century.  Don't worry if you think I've overlooked something or glossed over a topic too quickly - this was just the 101 post.  Leave a comment if there's a specific topic you'd like me to address or revisit in more depth in a future post.  In the next post, "Mongolia Inside & Out 102", I'll focus on Mongolian culture in terms of important customs, beliefs, and concepts that you're likely to encounter during your time in the country.  Until next time, enjoy the summer fruits wherever you are!  I'll be searching out some wild strawberries (guzeelzgene) or black currants (ukhriin nud) the next time I'm at the market.

2013: my "a bowl of ukhriin nud for ME!" face

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