Obviously I’ve never been a tourist here. But it seems like it would be pretty awesome. As compared to few years back the amount of services and stuff to do here has drastically improved and developed. Shopping experience has also excelled. Before there was basically just the State department store and the airport duty shops for tourists but now there’s stores and malls everywhere that have clean toilets and reception desks. Amazing.
If you’re new here, you’ll never fully grasp at how much Ulaanbaatar has grown. Tour guides and agencies and affordable hotels everywhere now. But I’ve often heard from tour guide friends and from occasional tourist acquaintances that exploring and staying in the city is not what they plan to do. They want to go to the countryside and experience authentic Mongolian nomadic lifestyle. But what about those who don’t want to as I’m sure there are some who would rather bask in the comfort and convenience of the city and do some cashmere shopping. Are they just dragged along and grouped into the hike loving, horseback riding, pee anywhere in the grasslands type of tourists?
There must be those like me, when they travel like to stay in the city and just chill. Of course an authentic experience is necessary, but 4-5 days camping in the middle of almost nowhere and having reached the nowhere after like a 10-12 hour drive on the dirt road is just not my cup of tea. If it is a long and tiring road trip I rather stay in air conditioned resort or hotels with good food. (There are a lot of these resorts and camps all around Mongolia, especially the places that regularly receive a lot of tourists). In the city I prefer to visit tour guided museums, art galleries and maybe go sight seeing on an air conditioned bus and best of all spend a day at the local flea markets.
I could just spend the whole day in these kinds of places, buying pretty but sort of useless cheap stuff for yourself, your friends, your mom, grandparents, cat. You know. The handmade bracelets, woven tote bags, and unique souvenirs that you don’t find at airport shops. Airport shops and regular souvenir shops add so much on to the price and there’s no room for bargaining. Even though i hate bargaining I also don’t want to pay 3, 4 times the price that I know it’s not.
Sorry if this article isn’t informative of where to find such flea markets in Mongolia if they’re you’re sort of thing too. One of my few experiences with trinket stalls is the ones in Khatgal, Khuvsgul aimag. They sell locally inspired trinkets like reindeers (the main livestock of the nomads up north are reindeers), and rock necklaces made form the beautiful stones found in the Khuvsgul Lake. You can’t buy these in UB, well you could but it’ll most likely not be authentic, cheap copies with the prices marked up.
Here are some of the things I bought at Khatgal:
But I think there can be cute things found in Narantuul market (Ulaanbaatar), you know the infamous black market that sells almost everything. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. If not, click here to read more about it.
The national tourist
If you travel north to aimags like Khuvsgul or Bulgan you’ll most likely stop by Erdenet and Darkhan (Mongolia’s two of the biggest developed cities after Ulaanbaatar) on the way. I like to visit the local markets there to see what good source of non-imported authentic foods there are for example like milk curds made of actual milk. You can really tell the difference in taste between the ones that are factory-made (you’ll find them in pretty packages in supermarkets) and hand-made ones. Most of the factory made curds are filled with flour and dry milk powder.
The Erdenet local market has a good selection of dairy products, freshly frozen local berries as well as fresh bread. Erdenet city a part of the Orkhon aimag is well known for their brand of bread. The prices are also much cheaper than UB markets. So I fill up on all that I can buy, making sure to get enough for my family back in the city. It almost feels like I’m bringing souvenirs from a different country sometimes. I’ve never stopped at Darkhan but I’ll make sure to post something about it when I do.
My experience with Erdenet was that it was an extremely clean city as compared to UB. Landmarks and the buildings made me feel like I travelled back in time to like the mid 20th century, with all the Vladimir Lenin murals, statues and socialist quotes everywhere, still heavily influenced by the Russian culture. Because of the city’s close proximity to the Russian border a lot of Russian goods are more available here in Erdenet than in UB. Life seems like it would be quite peaceful but sort of monotonous there especially if you’re young. You won’t believe how excited I was to see a Tom n Toms Coffee Shop there after a really long drive. These Korean chain shops have not only taken over UB but have entered Erdenet too. You can read more about the domination of Korean chain coffee and bakery shops here.
You don’t get to experience a different city vibe in Mongolia like you can elsewhere because we don’t have the equivalent of UB anywhere in the country. All the good schools and business opportunities are located in UB, which doesn’t encourage people to live anywhere else. Like people in US can have different experiences between New York and Los Angeles sometimes the difference between the 2 are referred to as almost a different country, but what do we have to compare? Besides Erdenet and Darkhan everywhere else is basically just the countryside with small villages here and there.
So much left
So I guess a day at a local flea market, then back at a nice hotel with a good coffee shop nearby would be my ideal tourist experience. Maybe catch the latest movie at a movie theatre. Seeing a movie, you can also experience the local culture as well. After all, you are doing what the normal locals will do on an average day. Majority of Mongolians don’t hike on mountains on horseback drinking airag and eating khorkhog while talking about archery and wrestling every day. “Whaaaat? No way, I thought every Mongolian can ride a horse!” – some people.
There’s so much I still have left to learn about my culture, history and traditions. I’m probably less educated about major landmarks and historical events than the average tourist who visits Mongolia. Yes, we are taught the history of the Mongols and the infamous Mongol Empire in school, but who really pays close attention in history class right? That’s why when I travel to the countryside and we do pit stops at local families or small towns, I like to experience the local lifestyle. But because it’s never a-travel-at-your-own-pace road trips, I never get enough time to explore or I’m usually just too exhausted.
I think a lot of people around my age (I’m 29 by the way) has had a very foreign / western influence of lifestyle that most of us don’t really know a lot about the real Mongolian culture apart from some of the knowledge that are passed to us from our parents and grandparents.
I don’t know a single person in my circle of friends that voluntarily research about our history, culture, or religion just for their personal knowledge. I guess western books, fiction books, binge worthy tv shows and social media has become more relevant but we all become so patriotic during national holidays like Lunar New Year and Naadam, wearing deel and half-heartedly celebrating. Apart from that there’s not much else. I’m not speaking on behalf of all of us but it’s true for a lot of us. Maybe we could all use a historical tour now and then.
Have you ever felt like a tourist in your own country?