Termites
Termites

Thai Airways took us from Bangkok to Beijing on their daily red-eye. The flight was way too short to have a meaningful amount of sleep but that didn’t matter, I was very excited to be on the way to Mongolia! We landed in Beijing just before dawn on a beautiful autumn morning.

After a brief visit to the Air China lounge we boarded our connecting flight on an Air China operated Boeing 737. It was my first time on Air China and I have to say that I wasn’t impressed. The meal service included some terribly bland rice porridge and the entertainment consisted of a lively argument between two of the flight attendants midway through the meal service. In the end, I concluded that the best thing about Air China is that they are in the Star Alliance (my miles work for booking their flights) and that they go to Mongolia. Other than that, I wasn’t too impressed.

Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK

We had booked a room with the Khongor Guest with the intent of also booking one of their tours. This got us a free transfer from Chenggis Khaan International Airport into the center of Ulaanbaatar (UB), a drive which took nearly an hour to cover the 10 or so miles. Traffic, even at 10:30AM on a weekday, is horrendous in UB. I was glad that we had the ride because the location, or at least the entrance, of our hostel was hard to find.

The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse

We spent the majority of our first day in UB recovering from the redeye and working on a tour plan with the owner at Khongor. They offer a wide range of itineraries spanning from simple day trips to 30-day tours of the whole country. We wanted to visit both the Gobi Desert (in the south) and some of the lakes in the west/north of the country. We eventually converged on a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to visit these areas.

Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.

Another aspect to planning to the tour was finding companions to lower the per person cost. Luckily two other travelers had arrived the day prior and had similar destinations in mind for their tour of the steppe. The four of us were to travel together for the first 8 days of the tour and then Amy and I would continue on our own for the remaining days. We opted for an all-inclusive tour which included the minivan, fuel, driver, tour assistant, accommodation, all food, and admission fees along the way. This type of tour priced out to $48 per person per day when we were splitting it four ways, and then $82 per person when it was just Amy and I. Pretty expensive, but it is not an easy place to travel independently.

Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square

With the tour scheduled for departure the next day, we set out and explored a little of UB. Near the guesthouse was the State Department Store whose slogan reads ‘all needs fulfilled.’ It dates back to ‘Red Russia’ times but nowadays serves as an outlet for all sorts of high-end brands. Just a little further down the main drag is Sükhbaatar Square, the center of UB which was a reasonably impressive sight.

UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"

Foodwise, UB treated us much better than expected. We found a vegetarian restaurant (Gerel Ayalguu, directions here) just a couple blocks from where we were staying. On our first visit we sat down and had a good long stare at the Mongolian menu. I could positively identify one word “кофе” (coffee) but nothing else. Eventually one of the waitresses brought over an English menu – phew, what a relief. Ordering still took some guesswork (the translations were iffy) but Amy ended up with a nice soup and I got a big hearty serving of noodles.

One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food

The next morning we were met by our driver and tour assistant, Ultzi, who would be taking care of us for the next 13 days. We loaded our bags into a tough-as-nails looking Russian minivan and set out for the grocery store. Ultzi shopped for the food that we would need for the next few days and we found some supplemental snacks before setting out on the steppe.

Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?
Off to Mongolia
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
Nice mix of livery in the early light at PEK
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
This flight brought to you by Boeing and Air China
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
The non-descript entrance to our guesthouse
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Our room at the Khongor guesthouse was a bit on the small side.
Sükhbaatar Square
Sükhbaatar Square
UB's State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
UB’s State Department Store: "All needs fulfilled"
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
One of our first challenges in Mongolia: ordering food
Amy enjoying her 'kimchi soup' and (soy) milk tea
Amy enjoying her ‘kimchi soup’ and (soy) milk tea
Noodles, the first of many I think I'll be having in Mongolia
Noodles, the first of many I think I’ll be having in Mongolia
Noodles.  The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Noodles. The first of many I will consume in Mongolia
Who's hungry?
Who’s hungry?

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