Mongolia with MIR Corp.

By: Jim Delmonte
This item appears on page 23 of the December 2017 issue.

Sandy and Jim Delmonte at the statue of Genghis Khan — Mongolia.

Visiting Mongolia was a wonderful experience. After seeing an ad in ITN, my wife, Sandy, and I called MIR Corp. (Seattle, WA; 800/424-7289, www.mircorp.com) and booked two spots on their 14-day, 13-night “Mongolia Explorer” tour, June 30-July 13, 2016, at $13,390 for both of us. 

We flew from Oahu, Hawaii, on the wonderful Korean Air to Seoul, South Korea, where we stayed overnight. The next day we arrived in Beijing, China, at 6:30 p.m. for our connecting flight to Ulaanbaatar on MIAT Mongolian Airlines that was to leave by 8 p.m. 

We had used Vayama.com to book our flights. They have very good prices, but many times they offer the lowest price because they’re giving you mixed airfares, for example, seats in business class to Korea and Beijing but then coach class to Ulaanbaatar.

Also, we arrived in Beijing at Terminal 1, and we had not been told by Vayama that we had to go to terminal 3 to transfer to Miat airlines. From when we got off the plane, it took us 2½ hours to get to our departure gate, including claiming luggage; it was late at night, and the bus ran every half hour. 

(As it turned out, there was no one available to fly the plane, and it didn’t leave until 5:30 the next morning. We slept on hard benches. Those members of the tour who flew directly to Mongolia from South Korea or Japan were better off.)

Our van in Mongolia. Photo by Jim Delmonte

We flew in to Ulaanbaatar three days before the tour in order to rest. On one of those days, Sandy and I hired a driver with a vehicle for a full-day private tour for about $75. Our well-spoken driver, Unuruu (phone +976 990 211 43 or email unurudash@yahoo.com), was polite and drove very carefully. The van was very clean, and we felt safe at all times. We recommend Unuruu. 

At lunchtime, we paid for his meal, and he ordered food for us to sample. 

He showed us around the city. More importantly, he showed us the amazing equestrian statue of Genghis Khan that can be seen about 33 miles east of Ulaanbaatar, near the Tuul River.

The huge, stainless-steel statue was completed in 2008. You can take an elevator up two floors, then walk up stairs to the horse’s head and admire the view of the countryside. There is a huge park around the statue, with many, many statues of soldiers on horses. Inside, there is also a wonderful restaurant and a museum plus souvenirs to buy.

Jim Delmonte on a camel in Mongolia.

Ulaanbaatar, with its tall buildings and hillsides, reminded me very much of San Diego. The hillsides rose out of the Mongolian steppe and were very attractive. However, in Ulaanbaatar there was limited power for lights for the hillside homes, where the working class lived, so at night the hills were darkened. (In many homes, there were no utilities other than water.) 

The roads were basic but good. The city was clean but congested, with people everywhere in the downtown area. Most spoke some English, and everyone was related to Genghis Khan (just ask them). 

The 16 members of our tour group stayed at the Best Western Premier Tuushin Hotel (Prime Minister Amar’s St. 15, Ulaanbaatar; bestwesternmongolia.mn). It was on the main square, and from there it was a very easy walk to all the government buildings and the state-run shopping center, about a quarter mile away.

Government officials were often seen scampering across the square, and local families and their kids were part of the panorama and fun to watch. Colorful!

Breakfast at the hotel (included in the price) was ample and tasty. The hotel’s Best Western brand name belied its very fine service and high-end living spaces. There were other hotels in town but not in an area as nice as where we stayed. Also, taxis were rare, so pick a good location.

The steppe surrounding Ulaanbaatar was really neat — vast areas of land covered in many, many sheep, horses and cowboys.

Part of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Photo by Jim Delmonte

There really were not a lot of roads. Many times, we would just go off-road and aim for a distant mountain, passing by gers, the homes of the nomadic herders. We could stop in and get yogurt or other drinks. Our tour group traveled in four air-conditioned Toyota vans. (The cheaper tours there used non-air-conditioned Russian vans.)   

We stayed at the Three Camel Lodge (phone +976 11 313 396, www.threecamellodge.com), where bedrooms were in excellent gers, each with a bathroom in another ger. Getting there was a challenge over bumpy roads that dislocated your back, but you passed by wonderful vistas of green lawn and grazing animals as far as the eye could see. Wow, so beautiful!

At the other gers we stayed at during the trip, we were fed eggs and more eggs plus rolls for breakfast, and dinners were OK. Only the 5-star Three Camel Lodge had great food, and they also had purified water. 

Having first had lesser ger experiences, I found the Three Camel Lodge clean, neat and wonderful. At 6'8", in the gers like the nomads use, I had a hard time getting in and out through the 4-foot-high doors. After staying in those, being in a 4-star hotel was a joy.

During the trip, we also attended the Naadam Festival, which celebrates the country’s culture.

We had selected MIR Corp. for this trip because we like to support advertisers in ITN. The trip manager, Paul Schwartz, was very good. Our group got along well. The only rough parts were bouncing along on the green tundra in the vans, but our driver took good care of us.

Jim and Sandy Delmonte outside of their ger lodging in Mongolia.

This was an exciting trip even for a seasoned traveler. Want to get dirty, see wild animals, sleep in tiny gers and eat yak meat? This trip is for you!

One piece of advice — get rid of your Mongolian currency (tögrög) before you leave the country. Most money changers will not exchange it for Western currencies. Use it to tip your drivers or go to the state store in Ulaanbaatar, which has the best items at reasonable prices.

JIM DELMONTE
Honolulu, HI