PANDEMIC TRAVEL What a fantastic trip to Mongolia! As so many other people I knew were fighting the crowds in Europe, Mongolias beautiful deserts and steppes were wide open for exploration without the jockeying for position. With my wonderful guide and driver, I spent 8 days looping through multiple stunning landscapes on the hunt for photos of wild horse (takhi), Argali sheep, and magnificent birds. Between the nights in the ger by Khustain National Park, the relaxed pace of camping near Ikh Nart, and the wonderful luxury of Three Camel Lodge, I had a fabulous trip and was so grateful to be out in nature after a long pandemic. Mongolia is not for the faint of heart! We did a fair amount of driving since intra-country flights are not quite back to pre-pandemic levels, but the landscapes were breath-taking and the wildlife spotting was an adventure.
The trip provided a diversity of experiences although we were mainly there for the Golden Eagle Festival. Jalsa has a great team working with him, from the administrative staff, ground crew to guides – they all gave their best so we could have the full Mongolian experience (from sights, cuisine to traffic!) The team who supported our group were responsive and adaptive, we also had access to many wonderful cultural performances and Chai Murat himself at the festival! One thing to consider is a visit to the Khustain National Park – there is more wildlife to see and seemed to be less touristy (some on our group had an extension there); on our itinerary was instead Gorkhi-Terelj National Park which is highly touristy and we encountered no wildlife during our visit. Regardless, Jalsa’s passion for Mongolia was clearly articulated during our trip – his company makes great lengths to help develop and also preserve the real Mongolia and this is another reason we use a WOW List specialist.
The overall service provided by Jalsa’s team on our “In Search of Dragons & Eagles” trip to Mongolia was consistently above expectations – plus there were a number of surprises that were not on the itinerary. For example, the three-time champion of the Golden Eagle Festival stayed with our group in temporary “ger” camp outside of Ulgii and was accessible to us on multiple occasions for pictures and, before the beginning of the second day of competition, photo ops on his horse while holding his eagle and dressed in his fur coat – truly spectacular. We also had unexpected entertainment after dinner at Three Camel Lodge in the Gobi – top-flight musicians playing traditional Mongolian music, dancers, throat singers, and a contortionist. We watched the sunset at Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi while having drinks and munchies with seating, for those who wanted it – this was an additional surprise.
On the ground, this was a fantastic trip. The venues were varied and intriguing. We had three nights in a temporary ger camp on a hillside with a phenomenal view and a night camping under the stars next to a river. In addition, we stayed in the Three Camels Lodge a luxury facility in the South Gobi and a lake side lodge in north Mongolia next to Russian Siberia. The level of service at all the facilities operated by Nomadic Expeditions was excellent.
Our guide, Dash Teemuujin, really made this trip stand out. He had been a Mongolian Communist cadre educated in Moscow. He gave us a perspective on Russian and Mongolian communism and their relationship that was unique and fascinating. Teemuujin shared many of his personal experiences as an ex-communist transitioning to a market economy. We knew that Communism had destroyed cultures and degraded peoples but talking with someone who had lived through it made it very real.
Teemuujin is also well versed in Mongolian traditions, especially Buddhism and Shamanism, and is an expert on the Nomadic way of life. He introduced us to 5 different Nomadic families, each raising different animals and participating in the economy in a different way. We tasted fermented mare’s milk, fermented camel’s milk, dried goat yoghurt, cow yoghurt and “vodka” (saki is the closest approximation, it is a distillation of fermented dairy products) all made in the ger by the woman who milked the animals. We participated in a shaman ceremony and had our futures foretold. We also attended a small local festival in the south Gobi (Nadam) arranged by Nomadic Expeditions that was great fun. We sat at the edge of the wrestling field (the wrestlers grappled on the bare earth and threw each other to the rocky ground), stood at the finish line of a horse race won by a 9 year old boy followed by two 7 year old girls, and talked with the archers who helped us draw their bows. This is a much smaller and intimate version of the national festival held in July near Ulaanbatar.
The pre-trip planning was spotty. The young man helping us quit about 10 weeks before our departure and we fell through the cracks a bit. The departure package including packing list, travel tips, etc. was supposed to come out 3 weeks before our departure. When it had not arrived 10 days before we were to leave, I emailed 3 Nomadic Expeditions’ employees. When I had not heard back after 24 hours I emailed Jalsa Urubshurow and he took care of it immediately. Some of the information I received concerning the use of US dollars in Mongolia did not seem quite right. I was told that “One can use USD in most places.” That did not appear to be correct, except perhaps at the Ulaanbatar hotel, but it made almost no difference since most restaurants took my credit card and I bought some local currency.