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Breathe in fresh air in wide open spaces. Buy your weight in cashmere and hike through interesting rock formations. The capital Ulaan Bataar is less than three hours away by direct flight from most Asian cities. This makes the country ideal for a short getaway. See below for a five-day itinerary.
Day 1: Ulaan Bataar
Day 1:Ulaan Bataar
The airport lies 30-40 minutes away from the city. After greeting your pre-arranged cab–we have not heard great things about getting a cab at the airport–head to the centrally located Ulaan Bataar Shangri-la, one of the newest and highest rated hotels in the city.
From here, most of the sites are within walking distance. First things first, check-in with the Shangri-la’s Concierge to find out about where and when you can see throat-singing–unique to Mongolia–while in town.
Head to Sukhbaatar Square to see the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the hero of Mongolia’s struggle for full independence from the Chinese. Sukhbaatar’s bronze likeness now shares the square with a statue of Chinggis Khaan, completed in 2006 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of this epic leader’s rise to power.
To the northwest of the square lies the National Museum of Mongolia. I especially liked the traditional clothing and finery or Mongolia’s many different ethnic groups. The 3rd floor has a great exhibit on Chinggis Khaan’s empire–as you may have guessed by now, he’s a pretty big deal in these parts–and his descendants, including real armor.
For lunch, head to Khanddoorj, a restaurant set in one of downtown UB’s only gers, located on Seoul Street. I haven’t seen this restaurant in guidebooks or other travel sites, yet it should be listed for the high quality food and picturesque setting.
Top choices include the khushuur, or fried dumplings resembling samosas. The beef soup, bituu shul, is also tasty, served with a “skin” of dumpling dough covering the bowl.
Souvenirs and the Mongolian mall experience:
After a most likely heavy lunch, enjoy the short walk to the State Department Store to check out the souvenirs. This shopping mall and department store has traditional souvenirs on the 5th Floor, including fur, prints, some cashmere and masks. There are also the usual tchotchkes, including ger magnets.
I picked out some prints of Mongolian calligraphy and my friend bought a mask.
The 2nd and 3rd floors of the State Department Store have cashmere, but we will save that for Day-2.
The Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts features a large collection of rare Mongolian Buddhist art as well as local paintings and sculpture, including those of the artist Zanabazar, for whom the museum is named. You can find modern art for sale at the Red Ger Art Gallery on the museum’s first floor. Note: When we were here the gallery was closed for renovation. An artsy local friend of mine grumbled to me that Mongolian art is undervalued on the world scene, so pieces tend to represent good value.
It’s around a 2 kilometer walk back to the Shang. Freshen up for cocktail hour, if that’s your thing. The Shangri-La lobby has cushy sofas and chairs to enjoy a large selection of international wines AND very reasonably priced bottles–8000 tugruk, or around $2 plus tax and service charge–of Kharkhorum, a local lager.
Stay close to home for dinner before catching the throat-singing you arranged with the concierge: Hutong on the 3nd level features hearty Chinese fare from a number of different regions, including cook-at-the-table hot pot.
Day 2:Culture and Cashmere
After a filling breakfast at Cafe Park–make sure to get some milk tea–head around the corner from the hotel to UB Mart for cashmere. My girlfriend and I CLEANED UP here on sweaters, scarves, and baby woolens. Cashmere is a type of wool made from goats that provides three times more insulation than that of sheep. It’s also softer and finer. Mongolia produces excellent cashmere, although in many of the outlets we went to the prices did not differ much than the United States. At UB Mart, however the Buyan and Blue Sky Cashmere shops had prices that were significantly lower than other outlets. Buyan in particular had a number of items made of a cashmere and camel wool blend at a good price point. The baby soft scarves in particular make excellent gifts.
If you still haven’t gotten your cashmere fix–which is totally understandable–head back to the Shang to get a metered taxi to Gobi Cashmere, the largest and most popular outlet.
Taxi Tip: At the Shangri-la you can have your taxi fare billed to the room, or order a car for several hours or the day.
Gobi Cashmere used to be a Mongolian government company and served as the original cashmere outlet in the city. The prices here do not differ much for many outlets in the States, but which we suggest you go to for the sheer selection and if you are looking for a cashmere winter coat. There is an outlet next door that often has good deals, although you need to pore over the merchandise.
For lunch, ask your taxi to take you to Millie’s Espresso for a sandwich.
After lunch, head back to the hotel to drop off your loot and head off to the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan. A highlight of the complex, which contains a number of temples, is the ger lined with snow leopard fur. From there its off to Zaisan Memorial and Buddha Park for an excellent view of the city. The memorial is a great place to watch the sunset, which varies from around 5PM in winter to nearly 9PM in summer.
Want to squeeze in another sight? Or perhaps you would rather stay close to home? Head behind the hotel to the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, an architecturally-interesting former monastery with a number of temples.
For dinner, have your taxi take you to Hezara, known for its buttery North Indian cuisine. I personally love that the address of the restaurant: “Behind Wrestling Palace.”
Day 3:Head to the mountains
You may see some camels along the way…
The lodge is located in the heart of Terelj and makes for a perfect base for a number of activities, including hiking, horseback riding, and even dogsledding in the winter. At Ayanchin, you can stay in a ger for the experience, or a more comfortable room in the lodge. If you are traveling with small children, stay in the lodge or the Gertech building, a round structure with a ger roof and very comfortable suites with multiple beds and rooms for families.
Hike to your heart’s content. The lodge’s location in a national park ensures that nearly all walks offer stunning views of Terelj-Gorkhii National Park’s interesting rock formations. During the grazing season you can see a number of gers from your window, along with herded animals. If you decide to go for an all-day hike, the lodge can pack you a lunch.
According to Ayanchin manager John Karlsen, who has lived in Mongolia for more than 18 years, the best hiking can be found by heading west over the hill behind the lodge. Turtle Rock, an animal shape formation, is around a 16 kilometer round trip.
The lodge also has lots of playground equipment for the kiddos.
Ayanchin’s restaurant features authentic Mongolian and western food. There is even kasha, a Russian-style baby food, for the wee ones. Many Mongolian couples and families make the 1.5 hour trip from the capital to sample the pizza and khushuur. We did and could agree with them. The fried dough reminded me of a Cornish pasty and was stuffed with flavorful beef and shredded cabbage.
Some of our other favorites on the menu include tsuivan, a stir fry made of homemade noodles, with beef, carrots and cabbage, and the buuz, steamed dumplings stuffed with beef and cabbage–you can start to see a theme in the ingredients, no?
Ask the ever efficient staff in the restaurant to pack a lunch for you for tomorrow, as you are off for a hike. You may also want to arrange for a horseback ride, which runs about US$10 per person.
Day 4Take a Hike
It’s time to really explore today. Head out on your horseback ride after breakfast if you arranged it the night before.
Ask the helpful manager for the route to Turtle Rock (16 KM round trip), or take off on an uncharted adventure.
If it’s a weekend, make sure you order the borsht at dinner.
Day 5Luxury in the wilderness
After a hearty breakfast, your friendly taxi driver will whisk you to Terelj Hotel. Lucky you. This 5-star property, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels group has won of a number of awards. Over US$ 1,000,000 went into each of the superbly appointed rooms decorated with Mongolian artwork and antiques.
After lunch at the Riverview cafe, head for a swim in the Roman style columned pool. Like many of the hotel’s other features, this spot takes its guests to a more gilded age, evoking its legacy as a 19th century Russian summer retreat. Were it not for the statue of Stalin on the grounds, I could imagine ourselves at a turn-of-the-century Adirondacks lodge.
Note for those with kiddos: The hotel provides child life jackets, flippers, balls and a number of other toys to save you the hassle of packing them.
It is time for some indulgence, especially if you feel sore from the hiking. The Terelj Hotel spa, Tereljmaa, offers a full range of services using products from Aromatherapy Associates. I recommend the rose hydration facial in particular. You may elect to do the treatment on a water bed, where a twenty minute rest will give you the equivalent of seven hours of sleep.
Go back to your room to freshen up, as dinner features a number of Mongolian and international dishes. The Italian pasta dishes are especially good as Terelj’s dining manager hails from Sicily.
Enjoy a post-drink cigar on the terrace or in the Gentlemen’s room.
If you are not up for a nightcap, curl up with a book in your deluxe room. You may want to have the bottle of wine from dinner delivered to you room to toast your time in Mongolia. You shopped, ate well, got some exercise and walked through some impressive scenery.