ABOUT MONGOLIA

Geography
Mongolia is a landlocked country about 3 times the size of France, sitting between China and Russia. As one of the highest countries in the world, with an average elevation of 1580m it's highest mountains are permanently snow capped. Mongolia has numerous saltwater and freshwater lakes, the largest of which is the Khuvsgul Lake, which contains 2% of the world's fresh water. The southern 33% of the country is dominated by the Gobi Desert and although barren looking, it has enough grass to support scattered herds of sheep, goats and camels. The other 66% is grassland, from where Genghis Khan's famed takhi horses came.

Climate
The climate is extreme with long sub arctic winters and snow in the Gobi Desertinto April, while some lakes remain frozen until June. A short rainy season from mid-July to September with brief, gentle showers being normal. Summer evenings are cool. In Ulaanbaatar, the winter (October to April) is cold and seven months long, with temperatures down to -15-20 C in January, February. Then horrific dust storms kick up during the short spring of May to June.

Culture
Despite urbanisation, the nomadic traditions of the steppes live on so that even in the cities, most continue to live in the 'ger', a large, white felt tent that can be easily moved, and has a universal layout. The doorway always faces south. Towards the back, and a little to the west (right) is the place of honor kept for their guests. The back of the ger, or the 'khoimor', is the place for elders and most treasured possessions. On the back wall is the family altar, with Buddhist images, family photos and suitcases. It is most interesting to get a local to explain the many traditional, religious and superstitious rules and customs associated with gers. Mongolians have always been followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The links between Mongolia and Tibet are old and deep. Once in a lifetime, every devout Buddhist Mongolian tries to reach the holy city of Lhasa.

Mongolia's paintings, music and literature are dominated by Tibetan Buddhism and nomadism. Tsam dances are performed to exorcise evil spirits and are influenced by nomadism and Shamanism. Outlawed during communism, they're beginning to be performed again. Traditional music involves a wide range of instruments and singing styles. The country has produced a huge literature but almost none of which is known to speakers of European languages. There is an old Mongolian saying which goes something like: 'Breakfast, keep for yourself; lunch, share with your friends; dinner, give to your enemies'. The biggest and most important meals for Mongolians are breakfast and lunch, which will usually consist of boiled mutton with lots of fat and flour and maybe some dairy products or rice. The Mongolians are big tea drinkers and the classic drink is suutei tsai (salty tea). Men who refuse to drink arkhi (vodka) are considered wimps.

Currency
Tugrug (T or MNT) Bring US dollar traveler's cheques and have some US$ in cash. Credit cards are handy at some hotels and at airline offices in Ulaanbaatar, but you won't be able to buy anything on credit outside the capital. For some unknown reason, US dollars dated before 1996 are unacceptable. Tipping is appreciated in up market restaurants. Bargaining is catching on in the public markets, but be prepared to pay more than Mongolians.

Events and Activities
The biggest event of the year is the Naadam Festival, is known as the 'Eriyn gurvan naadam' after the many sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing. The festival is held all over the country, normally between 11th and 13th July, the anniversary of the 1921 Mongolian Revolution, with major events taking place during the first two days. Hiking is the 'thing'. The four holy peaks surrounding Ulaanbaatar offer challenging hiking and breathtaking views. There's hiking in the Gurvansaikhan National Park, or the Gobi Desert. Fishing and kayaking in the huge Khovsgol Nuur lake. Caving in lake shores caves or riding a horse, camel or yak in and around Ulaanbaatar. Interesting history everywhere.

Getting There & Getting Around
Most people fly into Ulaanbaatar from Beijing, Berlin, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka or Moscow. Delayed and cancelled flights are common partly due to frequent poor weather conditions. The only other way foreigners can enter and leave Mongolia is on the Trans-Siberian Railway linking Beijing and Moscow. Ticket prices for the Beijing-Ulaanbaatar rail journey can vary but $145 is basically the price for a one-way ticket. The train goes twice a week on Tuesday and Saturday from Beijing and twice a week from Ulaanbaatar- Sundays and Thursdays. It is a two-day and one night journey that is thoroughly recommended.
To get round there are over 80 airports so that the major internal airline MIAT, has flights to most, but not all, major cities and tourist destinations. Buses are becoming an increasingly popular way of traveling around the country, but services are still limited, the buses old and the journeys uncomfortable and slow. Drivers are occasionally drunk and breakdowns can be expected. Bus routes start and end in Ulaanbaatarand no buses travel around western Mongolia. Slightly more expensive minibuses that travel between popular spots are quicker and more comfortable.