Call of the wild
Tue, May 23, 2006
The Straits Times
FOR many, the very mention of Mongolia stirs up visions of the wild and the untamed – Genghis Khan and his soldiers on horseback, camels wandering the Gobi Desert, and wild horses galloping free against a dramatic landscape.
Up till a few years ago, visiting the place remained a dream for most, as just getting to the country was a daunting task.
But Mongolia, which has only 2.6 million people living within its 1,566,000 sq m area – making it one of the least populated countries on the planet – has been opening its doors in recent years.
While there are still no direct flights there except from Seoul, Beijing, Osaka, Berlin and Moscow, the country is working with tour operators to increase inbound travel.
Universal Travel was one of the first Singapore agencies to organise trips to Mongolia, in 1994.
Managing director Khoo Boo Liat, 56, recalls that it was a major feat because there were no direct flights and that resulted in higher costs for the customer as connecting flights were involved.
Today, there are still no direct flights from Singapore. Mr Khoo says Universal’s tour groups fly to Beijing, before the plane goes on to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
Despite the logistical hassle, 120 people signed up with the agency last year.
The call of the wild is strong in Mongolia. Most people go there not to shop or eat, but to experience the traditional nomadic lifestyle, say travel agents here.
‘International food is more easily available in Ulaanbaatar now, as more Korean and Japanese, as well as Western, restaurants have opened there,’ says Mr Khoo.
‘We take our groups to the leather and cashmere factories in the capital for some shopping, and then it’s out to the countryside like the sand dunes of Bayangobi and the ancient capital of Karakorum, which was built by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.’
The highlight of the tour is usually a stay in a ger camp (traditional circular Mongolian nomad tents made of wood and white felt), where you get to rough it out in the countryside and get a taste of local food and horseback riding.
Vegetarians and vegans may struggle with the local diet, as it consists mainly of meat like beef and mutton. Universal usually makes a special request for more chicken meals on its tours.
Mr Toh Poh Joo, 31, who runs MXP Adventure, which has been organising tours to Mongolia for three years, says it is a destination that is getting popular with well-travelled Singaporeans who are tired of typical European and Asian holiday packages.
‘Those who come to me want a holiday with a difference. They’ve read about Genghis Khan, they want to try something more adventurous.’
Mr Toh, who took ‘just a handful’ of people to Mongolia when he started, says 30 went with him last year, and he expects more this year. Visiting the nomad families is one of the major highlights of his company’s package tours, he adds. Understanding the life of the nomads, how they eat and sleep, makes the holiday unique. And sleeping out in the open is a special experience.
‘In the countryside, where there are no lights, you can see the Milky Way right above you. The night sky glitters with millions of stars, and there’s a shooting star every other minute.’
Ms Sandra Lee, 45, who went to Mongolia for the first time last year with a girlfriend, says she surprised herself by actually enjoying the camping holiday.
‘It was the first time that I’d ever roughed it out in the wild. There were no toilets out in the country, and we had to find a bush or a rock to answer Nature’s call. I wasn’t sure I’d last two days, let alone eight.
‘But by the time I left, I was in love with the natural beauty of the country, and envied the nomads’ simple but happy lives.’
For Mr K.K. Wong, 28, it is the ultimate break from a hectic, stressful lifestyle.
‘I loved the silence and the peacefulness of the countryside. Not once did I miss the newspapers, TV and radio,’ says the human resources executive.
‘There, you don’t just feel like you’re in another country. You feel like you’re in another world.’
WHAT TO DO
MONGOLIA is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year, with a series of activities that began in January and go on till December.
So far, there have been indoor game festivals, ice festivals, music and cultural events, exhibitions, handicraft fairs and even a rock opera on Genghis Khan. From next month to December, there will be horse fairs, art and photography exhibitions, as well as a Cavalry Ride featuring soldiers re-enacting the power of Genghis Khan’s awesome army.
Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital, has a city centre small enough to be covered on foot.
There is just one shopping street here, says Mr Khoo of Universal Travel. There is nothing much to buy other than cashmere and leather goods, but international cuisine and five-star hotels are easily available.
A number of tourist attractions are also here. Among them are the Ganden Monastery, which has several temples adorned with gold and jewels within its grounds; the Natural History Museum, which houses dinosaur eggs and reconstructed dinosaur skeletons discovered in the Gobi Desert; and the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan, in which the last religious King of Mongolia lived.
It takes 10 hours to get to the Gobi Desert, by jeep, from Ulaanbaatar. One interesting sight is the Flaming Red Cliff, where dinosaur fossils – broken eggshells and previously unknown species – were found in 1922. Some bones are still embedded there.