Yurts on the outskirts. Photos: Courtesy of Casey Hynes
The moment you cross from China into Mongolia, you know it. Despite the slim border that divides the countries, the shift is unmistakable. From the stern and broad-faced stocky guards who patrol the demarcation in their sand-colored fatigues to the lines of farm trucks paused at customs, these places seem a world apart.
The contrast manifests itself nowhere more clearly than it does in Ulaan Baatar, the Mongolian capital. Whether you arrive by overnight train or airplane, the first thing of note is the surprising quiet. Unlike the Chinese capital, where the ears ring from the ever-present cacophony of blaring horns, shouted cell phone conversations, pop music streaming from storefronts and the constant hum of the city, Ulaan Baatar is absent of the din that marks most metropolises.
Ulaan Baatar is also small, though it is purported to be growing. The city boasts only one high-rise building, a Chinese-built structure dubbed "The Sail." Most streets are characterized by a pattern of restaurants, banks and abandoned buildings. The atmosphere feels closer to a post-Soviet Eastern European city than an urban hub in Asia. Only a few minutes from the train station, clusters of yurts, traditional Mongolian nomadic homes, make up what can only be described as village-eqsue urban sprawl.
Despite its size, prices in Mongolia are comparable to those in a second-tier city in the United States, which is to say, not cheap. Hostel prices are reasonable, however, running as low as 40 yuan ($6.20) for a bed per night.
An enormous statue of Ghengis Khan sits in Sukhbaatar Square, a nod to the government's recent push to elevate the ancient warrior to heroic status and inspire a sense of patriotism. Other tourist sites include the Bogd Khan Palace, the Gandan and Choijin Lama monasteries and the Natural History Museum. This isn't the most inviting attraction if you're judging by its bland exterior, but it houses an impressive paleontology collection, including a complete Tarbosaurus skeleton fossil and dinosaur eggs.
If you think the Chinese are assertive when they're trying to get somewhere, you will be amazed (and perhaps irritated) by the Mongolian way of doing things. People will actually shove you out of the way while you're walking down the street or waiting in line to see an attraction. They also toe the line between friendly and rude. On an overnight train ride, during which a friend and I were sharing a car with a Mongolian couple, a friend of the couple's made herself at home on my bed, eating peanuts and chatting for nearly two hours. No one seemed to think anything of piling into each other's rooms and taking over the space.
The traditional Mongolian diet revolves around meat, and fast food restaurants seem to specialize in khuushur, a deep fried, meat-filled pancake. There are a surprising number of Western restaurants, though their attempts at dishes such as pizza and chicken caesar salad fall far short of those in Beijing, let alone the West. For a culture of meat-eaters, however, they also do vegetarian restaurants exceptionally well, where you can find some of the healthiest and best-prepared food in the city.
The outer limits
If Ulaan Baatar is questionable in terms of a vacation destination, however, it does serve as a gateway to the breathtaking scenery that constitutes most of the country. A short drive outside Ulaan Baatar leads to Terelj National Park, where travelers can hike rolling green hills, horseback ride on semi-wild Mongolian horses, sleep in a yurt and break bread with locals. Most hostels in Ulaan Baatar will arrange such a trip, as well as excursions into the Gobi desert.
This is where you will experience authentic Mongolia. Even a brief visit to Terelj will give you stories to tell for years to come. You'll be fed standard Mongolian fare, such as tough bits of meat, cabbage and potatoes mixed into noodles or rice. If you're lucky, however, you'll get the option of springing for some sheep, which will be freshly slaughtered and presented to you as a bucket of freshly charred bones.
And of course there's the horseback riding. Although a local horseman guides small groups through the ride, these horses are for the most part untamed. They will break into a run at any moment, chasing off herds of cows and thundering down the hillside with no regard for their riders' sheer panic while it's happening. It's terrifying but also exhilarating and no trip to Mongolia is complete without it. But be warned: Unless you're a regular equestrian, even a two-hour stint on the horse will likely leave your bum and your knees sore for the next several days.
How you get to Ulaan Baatar depends on whether you value comfort or cost. Intrepid travelers may choose the budget backpackers' route, taking planes, trains and automobiles across the border and on to the city. If this appeals, you can book a cheap flight (about 390 yuan) from Beijing to Erlian, China, the Chinese city that borders Zamyn-uud, Mongolia, through elong.com. Catch a free shuttle from the airport to the border, where you'll need to hire a jeep to take you into Mongolia, as foot crossings are forbidden. Hiring a Jeep can be an adventure in itself. Mongolians aren't as keen on haggling as the Chinese, so you may end up paying as much as 100 yuan to cross. On the bright side, you might make some new friends, as these tiny Jeeps fit as many as nine people and drivers make sure every inch of the vehicle is filled.
Once across, the driver will drop you in Zamyn-uud. Purchase a train ticket (prices vary depending on whether you want an express train, but hover around 220 yuan) for an overnight ride to Ulaan Baatar. The sleeper trains sleep four to a room and the trip typically includes bedding and hot tea. You'll likely have a bit of a wait, but there are restaurants in the square near the train station and shops where you can pick up snacks and drinks for the train ride (highly advised). The entire trip takes about 13 hours, and is worth it for the gorgeous shifting scenery. The landscape begins harsh and desert-like in Zamyn-uud but becomes green, pure and beautiful as you near the capital.
If you care more for convenience and a bit of luxury, you would do well to fly directly from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, or to take a Trans-Siberian train between the two cities. Flights are about 4,000 yuan on the low end.