For my 23rd birthday, I was lucky to be able to take a trip to the pristine Khuvsgul Lake in Mongolia. Khuvsgul Lake is the second largest freshwater lake in the world, the next best thing to Lake Baikal in Siberia. Khuvsgul is 700km north of Ulaanbaatar. To visit, one can opt for a two-day drive or a short 1.5-hour flight.
For those of you interested in traveling to Mongolia, the sights are plenty. In the south is the incredible Gobi desert home to the double humped camels. In the west are the majestic Altai Mountains, where the Kazakh eagle hunters reside. In the east lies the steppe of Mongolia with vast untouched rolling hills for miles on end. Finally, the north is home to the majestic Khuvsgul Lake and the Tsaatan reindeer herders of Mongolia. The time to visit Mongolia is anytime, but be warned, the winter is fierce and the capital city is intolerable during the winter due to air pollution. The less time you spend in the capital city, the happier you will probably be.
The allure of Mongolia for many is the vast emptiness of the land dotted with what remains one the few true nomadic people of the world. In the emptiness, nomadic families live quietly in gers dotting the land with their animals grazing freely. For those confused, a ger is pronounced "gher" and refers to a portable dwelling used by Central Asian nomads. If you can't imagine it, watch this video to see a it being built.
I cannot stress how incredibly powerful it is to see such places of pristine natural wildlife. Some do say, Mongolia is the "last frontier."
When you do visit Mongolia, here are 10 tips to make the most out of your time in Mongolia:
1. Trust your driver. Although there are no maps/gps/road signs/roads available, rest assured, Mongolian drivers are incredibly skilled at navigating. Let yourself go in the incredible scenery and lose any worry about how and where you might be lost. However, if you feel the driver is speeding, do not hesitate to ask to slow down.
2. MST: Mongolian Standard Time. Synonymous to "Island Time". People are much less aware of time here and locals have a very relaxed attitude about it. If you need something urgently, be sure to stress a little otherwise whatever you need could be a few more minutes/hours than expected. Just a note, if your driver says your destination is just over that next hill, be dubious but forgiving.
3. Hang out and play with the local kids! Mongolian children are extremely friendly and so darn cute. They are most famous for their big rosy red cheeks, covering much of their face. If you would like to take pictures, it is polite to ask the family first.
4. Visit a nomadic family. If you have the opportunity, or pass a ger on your way, be sure to make a stop. Mongolians enjoy visitors and are happy to share a few minutes of their time with the weary wanderer. It is customary that any visitor who visits a ger is offered a seat and some milk tea. It is polite to take a sip at minimum. Gift giving is customary for visitors, so if you do intend to visit a nomadic family, bring with you a small gift. My advice would be to bring them something they don't have such as a frisbee, puzzles, but candies and small toys are just as fine.
5. Long (bumpy) car rides: Be prepared for some epic long car rides in some old school rides (russian vans and jeeps). Most of these vans have stereo systems that work with CASSETTE tapes. If you've got some old favorites lying around the house, bring them with you on your travels. Otherwise, charge your mp3 or bring portable speakers. Lastly, if you get car-sick, bring meds. Side note: Our crew for my birthday trip brought portable speakers and they were literally a BLAST. Listening to Johnny Cash under the summer solstice moon with a bon-fire was ideal.
6. Free love! The French hippies, the Israeli solo traveler, the re-pat traveling the homeland... You will be most likely surprised and bewildered by how far some have come to see Mongolia, and how long some have been traveling here. Be friendly and you can make some long-lasting friends.
7. Quality camera: As fun as disposable cameras are and as easy to use your phone camera is, if you really want to capture the EPICNESS of this country, bring with you a decent camera. I promise you, it is worth it. Plus, you can make your friends even MORE jealous of your epic adventures.
8. Shower? In your dreams. Dry shampoo I hear is the new rage, if you are fussy, bring a bottle of that. In some luxury ger camps, you will find some solar and heated showers. Otherwise, let your hair loose, mount that horse, and ride away into the oblivion that is not having any mirrors around. Oh, and bring wetwipes... Once out of the city, its out-houses only or natures doorstep.
9. Ger tourist camps: are plentiful in the most popular destinations and I recommend even just a night. Even if you are camping with your own tent, be sure to fandangle your way into at least 1 night in a ger. The sound of rain pitter-pattering whilst in your ger is incredibly serene. Just a note, if you think the ger is small and you are curious about where the nomads put all of their belongings, one hint are the rungs of the ger on the top. Small necessities such as toothbrushes and towels are stuck in the top. By the way, the mile high club is overrated... how many people are in the "dare in the ger" club?
10. LOOT: Make sure you make room for some hefty loot. My advice on le cashmere: shop till ya drop. I understand if you visit during the summer, it is difficult shopping for cashmere in the heat, but I guarantee you, you won't find anything softer than camel hair, or those warm warm cashmere blankets and sweaters anywhere else.
To note: There are many unmentioned things in this article like Mongolian traditional music, yummy mutton, the how-to on how to hold a baby goat properly, the crazy black market in UB and the probabilities of finding a dinosaur or dinosaur egg during your trip. I couldn't fit all of the fun into this list, so watch out for the next one. In the meantime, if you've got comments and suggestions, please contribute below.