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Mongolian Marvels: Of Cents and Sensibility


The International School of Ulan Bator and Boljmor (Sparrow) House
By LEAH KOHLENBERG

It's hard to beat Mongolia for outdoor travel, particularly during its mild, sunny summer. Camping, hiking, horseback riding or biking through stunning landscapes--from lush pastures to alpine forests to desert--offer a dream vacation for the active traveler. The only problem is getting there. Roads are terrible, distances vast and language barriers challenging. It has often been said that you need plenty of money and time to get the most out of Mongolia. But that was when the country's former rulers controlled tourism. Since the communists' departure in 1990, independent tour operators have mushroomed and national parks have been established to promote conservation--and to encourage travelers to explore the country's natural wonders on their own. Adventurous visitors can escape Ulan Bator's urban sprawl without paying for a pricey package tour. Here are a few tips for sidetrips once you've explored the city:

SHORT-DISTANCE trips (day or weekend)

• Gachuurt (20 km from Ulan Bator) A short taxi or bus ride (departs opposite the Star Hotel) from the capital, this tiny settlement hosts a ger (round felt tent) camp near the Tuul river, plus a golf course, an outdoor jazz café--and its first ever jazz festival, in August. Gachuurt is a great spot for fishing, swimming, horseback riding and hill-walking. Overnight ger stays, including meals, cost $25 a person; call Gerel at 976-1-326-377 for reservations.

BASIC COSTS
Taxi/Jeep (including gas)
250 tugrogs or 25¢/km
Park permits
$1/day
Guide (English-speaking)
$15 to $20/day
Ger camp (with meals)
$15 to $60/day per person
Homestay (including meals)
$15 to $20/day per person
Horseback riding
$2 to $5/hour; $15 to 20/day for guided tours

• Terelj (80 km) Stunning rock formations and forests make this national park a popular getaway. New this year are several park service-run "eco-gers," so-called because profits made from selling handicrafts and hiring bicycles, horses, hiking and fishing guides (or maps for self-guided hikes and bird-watching tours) stay in the community. Visitors can spend the night and then hike to another ger (they are spaced 10 to 15 km apart). Send an e-mail message to GTZnaturecon@magicnet.mn or call 976-1-329-323 for details. Park staff can also help arrange transportation.

• Khustain Nuruu (100 km) The nearly extinct Mongolian wild takhi horse was reintroduced to these grasslands southwest of the capital in 1993. The Mongolian Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment runs an information center and ger camp here. Call 976-1-367-345 or e-mail MACNE@magicnet.mn.

MEDIUM-DISTANCE TRIPS (1-2 weeks)

• Dadal (560 km) This northern village in Khentii province is noted not only for its forests, mountains, lakes and rivers, but also as the purported birthplace of Genghis Khan, in the small village, or sumon, of Dadal (also called Bayan Ovoo). Dadal has been difficult to reach, but starting June 1, MIAT is reinstating flights from the capital for $160 return. In Ulan Bator, contact Bujee at 976-1-9911-5837 to arrange shared jeep rides for about $15 a person each way; for $5 more, the 15-hour ride can be divided into a two-day journey with an overnight camping stop, including tents. Dadal's central post office is the place to make further travel arrangements for lodging in wood cabins ($3 a night) or homestays, or for bear-watching treks and other nature activities. All proceeds remain in the community.

• Omnogobi (580 km) The Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park offers a startlingly diverse landscape, from grassy pastures to dinosaur fossil beds, lunar landscapes, red sandstone formations and white sand dunes. Arrange guides, treks and jeeps by e-mail at GTZGobi@magicnet.mn. From Ulan Bator, a return MIAT flight costs $142; the 24-hour bus trip--departing Mondays and Fridays--costs about $7; or pay $15 a passenger for a jeep ride, leaving at around 7 a.m. daily from the long distance bus station.

LONG-DISTANCE TRIPS (1-3 weeks)

• Lake Khovsgol (770 km) This deep-water lake surrounded by mountains and pine forests is in the Khovsgol Khatgal National Park. Fly roundtrip to Moron for $144 return, or rent a car or taxi for the 20-hour trip by road. From Moron, make tracks to Khatgal, the park's entrance; the park office will sell the necessary permits (save your receipt) and offers a list of English- speaking guides. The Blue Pearl Hotel (about $5 a night) can also help arrange guides, ger or homestays, camping, horse treks or fishing.

• Bayan-Olgii (1,600 km) Mongolia's western-most province boasts spectacular lakes, mountains, deserts and the Kazakh minority people. A flight costs $320 roundtrip, or pay $250 for a one-way jeep ride or $35 for a five-day bus journey. Mongol Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is a must-see. Atai, the director at the park office in Olgii (976-1-071-2111), speaks English and will issue permits and also direct visitors to accommodation and tours, such as a visit to an ancient Hunuu burial ground. One last tip: when booking tours or overnight stays in Mongolia, confirm the rate beforehand and ask if there are any other extra costs involved. And in the spirit of Mongolia's nomadic peoples, bring along your sense of adventure.




Daily

May 17, 1999

Gone Fishin'
Despite its landlocked status, Mongolia's many deep water lakes and rivers are teeming with fish

Bear in Mind
Advice to make your trip to Mongolia go smoothly

Web Crawling
The Web has a wealth of Mongolian resources for visitors

Detour
Mongolian hot pot and barbecue are misnomers

Main Feature
Camping, hiking, horseback riding or biking through stunning Mongolian landscapes offer a dream vacation for the active traveler

POLL
How does Mongolia rate on your wish list for future trips?



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