When you picture Mongolia, you might envision nomadic people living simple lives in gers (yurts) – and half of Mongolians still live this way, in the world’s most sparsely populated country. What I did not realize is the whirlwind speed of change in Mongolia, and in fact, it has the second-fastest growing economy in the world due to its mining industry, which has brought a lot of wealth to a relatively small number of people.
Ulaanbaatar has already changed dramatically since the last time I was there 7 years ago. While many of the buildings are reminders of Mongolia’s former Soviet influence, new construction has become essential, as the city now requires a more modern infrastructure to keep up with the needs of its increasing population and the influx of tourists hoping to experience Mongolia before it surges too far into its imminent future. One of these new buildings is the Blue Sky Hotel, a dramatic glass tower right on Sukhbaatar Square. It is Korean-owned, and it caters more to Koreans than Westerners, while the older Kempinski is more Western-oriented. Despite the Blue Sky Hotel’s fabulous views of the Square, its newness means the service is still spotty and the heating system does not work properly. It is one example of Ulaanbaatar’s growing pains.
I found Ulaanbaar fascinating – particularly the contrast between old and new. I spent my time in the city exploring the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Art, seeing the dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History Museum, watching the economy grow on the ground level at the Mongolia Stock Exchange, visiting the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, exploring the Naran Tuul “Black Market,” buying lots of gifts at the Gobi Cashmere factory outlet, and receiving a private blessing at the Gandan Monastery.
There is a huge contrast between the changes occurring in Ulaanbaatar and the old-world traditions of the rest of the country. To truly immerse yourself in Mongolia, you must escape the city. I flew commercially to Dalanzagad Airport in the South Gobi. Here scattered herds of semi-wild horses, sheep, and goats are all over the place. There are no fences, but the nomads know what they own. I stayed at 3 Camel Lodge, by far the best ger camp in Mongolia, in a deluxe ger with a private bathroom attached, which is a must if you can get it since not all gers have private bathrooms. But everyone has a shared shower, which is standard for stays at ger camps.
The landscape of South Gobi lends itself to outdoor touring activities, like hiking in the dramatic Yol Valley or touring the underwhelming Flaming Cliffs, which has a fascinating history, but in fact, there is not all that much to see there. The most interesting aspect of the Flaming Cliffs is the story behind it; the first dinosaur eggs and skeletons discovered in the world were unearthed here by the American Roy Chapman Andrews, the model for Indiana Jones. Hongor Sands (or the Singing Sands, as it is otherwise called) is four hours away from 3 Camel and requires an overnight stay in one of the surrounding low-end ger camps. I preferred the Tugrugiin Shiree sand dunes, as it is only an hour from the camp and provides a very similar experience.