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Discover the Mystique of Mongolia

If Mongolia is not the most mysterious destination in Asia, it certainly makes the short list. This distant sprawling land of camels and nomads, shrouded behind legends of Chinggis Khan, has for centuries felt impenetrable. But for the first time, with the advent of a luxurious eco-sensitive lodge in the heart of the Gobi, breathtaking and barely seen natural wonders coexist with the modern conveniences of flushing toilets, hot showers, comfortable beds, and better-than-expected food.

If Mongolia is not the most mysterious destination in Asia, it certainly makes the short list. This distant sprawling land of camels and nomads, shrouded behind legends of Chinggis Khan, has for centuries felt impenetrable. But for the first time, with the advent of a luxurious eco-sensitive lodge in the heart of the Gobi, breathtaking and barely seen natural wonders coexist with the modern conveniences of flushing toilets, hot showers, comfortable beds, and better-than-expected food.

Friends, relatives, and colleagues -- all were surprised (okay, shocked) when I first mentioned my plans to travel to Mongolia. Why do you want to go there, they asked. Where is it? Is there anything to do? Are there hotels?

The barrage of questions makes sense because Mongolia's main attraction is, in fact, its mystique. Virtually inaccessible to Westerners until 1990 when democracy peacefully took the place of communism, Mongolia is one of the world's last pristine destinations, still unscathed by commercialism. How long this will last is disputable.

Landlocked between Russia and China, Mongolia is vast (more than twice the size of Texas with a population just under 3 million), geographically diverse, and remote. Beyond Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital city, only one paved road exists. Over the past five years, occasional reports have sensationalized the government's plans to lay down approximately 1,600 miles of asphalt -- best known as the Millennium Highway -- but currently, construction is at a standstill and estimates of the project's actual start and end dates vary.

So for now, the Gobi Desert remains au naturale, bursting with history, physical beauty, and hospitable people. It retains the unpolluted blue skies of Khan fame, a traditional nomadic culture, and animals that roam free from fences.

Two years ago, the Three Camel Lodge ( innovatively merged Western-style comforts with Mongolian architecture and culture. The result is a new kind of ger camp, one that provides not merely a place to lay your head at night, but a luxurious base from which to experience thrilling adventures.

The word ger (pronounced gair or gurr) means home. More specifically, it means a traditional Mongolian nomadic home; a round tent-like dwelling, constructed of latticed wood wrapped in felt and canvas, which can be built or deconstructed in about thirty minutes. A group of gers set up for tourists near a lodge with a small restaurant is not an original idea in of itself; simple and sparse models, often with plastic tarps as interior walls and a concrete or dirt floor, have long housed travelers to the Gobi.

But the enchanting Three Camel Lodge -- set in the middle of the awe-inspiring Gurvansaikhan (The Three Beauties) National Park -- has raised the bar.

Conceived, owned, and run by leading tour operator Nomadic Expeditions (, most visitors arrive to this ger camp through one of the company's many package tours that begin and end in Ulaanbaatar. A day or two is enough to get a feel for this city, where the transition toward modernization is just beginning to be palpable. Highlights include natural history museums, the Gandan monastery (spared during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s as a showpiece for government officials), traditional throat-singing performances, and a new attraction: Mongolia's first, and only, franchise restaurant. While you won't find McDonalds or Starbucks here (yet), Mongolia has officially entered the age of the fast-food chain. In May 2005, Michigan-based BD's Mongolian Barbeque ( opened in Ulaanbaatar. With other restaurants in mid-America, BD's flew its Mongolian staff at its Mongolian outpost to Michigan for training.

After two nights in Ulaanbaatar, the real journey begins. I followed a ten-day itinerary comparable to the "Ultimate Gobi" tour you'll find on Nomadic's website. (Rates for this package start at $2,700, including all food, excursions, accommodations, local transportation, and an English-speaking guide.) I flew American Airlines to Tokyo, avoiding any need for a visa (neither Japan nor Mongolia requires one of U.S. tourists staying for less than six months), and then to Ulaanbaatar via Mongolian Airlines, more commonly referred to as MIAT ( Nomadic Expeditions will arrange all domestic flights and transfers. A two-hour flight from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi, plus an hour-and-a-half bumpy ride by jeep, got me to the Three Camel Lodge.

This sophisticated oasis for adventurous travelers is deeply attached to its community. All construction complies with local styles; taxes for the land lease go to the local government; and nearly all staffers are locals. Hot water and electricity are available 24 hours a day, powered almost entirely by wind and sun. Such environmental sensitivity is crucial in a place where people and animals survive off of the land.

Nearly all food at the Three Camel Lodge is locally grown or raised. Because of the Gobi's extreme climate, that means the culinary focus is on meat (mutton, beef, and chicken). But vegetarians need not be scared away. At the Three Camel Lodge, breakfast largely consists of cheese, breads, and cereal; lunch and dinner always include some vegetables (most often cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots) and a starch (rice, pasta, or bread). While this is not the place for hardcore foodies, appetites are well satiated. (I packed nutrition bars with me and never ate one.) One of our more memorable meals was a picnic. Beneath a three-sided tent (set up due to sporadic rain showers), we sipped Korean beers called Tiger; slurped delicious potato soup; and chowed down on enormous quantities of food: grilled mutton, beef, and chicken skewers with side dishes of pasta, carrot, and potato salads, along with slices of crusty white bread. Not the stuff of Gourmet magazine, but one of the freshest and most delicious meals I've ever tasted.

Inside the fifteen newest gers (completed in June 2005) at the Three Camel Lodge are two double beds or one king-sized bed, plus a private Western-style toilet, shower, and sink -- making these the first and only gers in the Gobi to have bathrooms in them. Guests in the other thirty gers have two twin-sized beds and a brief walk along a stone path to more-than-adequate Western-style bathrooms in the lodge building. All bedding includes warm blankets and a heavy duvet on top of thick, comfortable mattresses.

Masterful designs, painted by local artisans in oranges, reds, and yellows, radiate from the furniture and brighten the structure's internal supporting wooden poles. A coal burning stove in the center, with its chimney rising through the center of the ger, serves as a heater. Instead of wake-up calls, expect wake-up knocks. And expect them early.

From the Three Camel Lodge, excursions are easy. Just over an hour by expertly driven Russian-made Land Rover Defenders are the renowned Flaming Cliffs. Here, in 1922, American paleontologist Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews found the first dinosaur eggs humans had ever seen. Bring sunscreen and patience; if you look hard enough, you might spot remaining fossilized bones or eggs in the red rocks here. If you don't, the Lodge's resident geologist/paleontologist will point some out.

Another must-see is Yol Valley, two and a half hours from the Lodge. Between the foothills of the Altai Mountains is the opportunity for a safari-like drive along a dirt path dwarfed by mountains of jagged gray rocks and green shrubs. With the help of our brilliant English-speaking guide and excellent Russian binoculars, we saw ibex (mountain goats), camels, Srgali mountain sheep, a fox, hawks, and countless other birds. Further into the park, we met a local nomad and rode his horses to a nearby glacier. Yes, a glacier in the desert.

Our final and longest drive (about five hours) from the Three Camel Lodge was to Hongoryn Els. Here, spectacular and isolated sand dunes run 60 miles alongside the Gobi Altai Mountain Range and reach upwards of 2,600 feet. We had the intimate pleasure of meeting a local nomadic family who invited us into their ger and, as is the custom, offered us pillows to sit on, along with cookies and tea. The man of the ger passed his snuff bottle around (to be polite, just bring it to your nose; you don't need to inhale) and we swapped stories, with the help of translators, about life in the Gobi versus life in the United States.

Next was a ride on Bactrian (two-humped) camels through the afternoon's unrelenting sandstorm. After an ungraceful dismount on a dune somewhere between the golden sands and azure sky, I stood squinting in the sunlight. And I realized why Mongolia's mystique is here to stay. "It is better to see it once," an ancient Mongolian proverb says, "than to hear about it a thousand times."

Practical Details

A valid passport is required for all visitors to Mongolia. Visas are not required for U.S. tourists staying in Mongolia, nor in Tokyo, for less than 90 days. However, if you plan to travel through China or Russia, you'll need a double-entry visa, which costs $75. Contact the Chinese Consulate, 520 12th Avenue, New York, NY 10036, 212/868-2078. Application forms can be found at For Russian visa rules, visit, or call the embassy in Washington at 202/298-5700.

At press time, the exchange rate was approximately 1,000 Mongolian togrogs to the U.S. dollar. Dollars (especially new, crisp bills) and credit cards are widely accepted in Ulaanbaatar, but in the Gobi, it's best to carry togrogs and some U.S. dollars (smaller denominations are best).

During peak season (May-September), the Gobi's temperature ranges from about 20°F-70°F. Really. Pack accordingly, with lots of layers.

Before You Go

At least a month or six weeks before you depart for Mongolia, consult your doctor or a travel clinic to make sure your following vaccinations are up-to-date: Tetanus; Polio; Hepatitis A; Hepatitis B; Typhoid (I got the shot, but the pills are also fine if you take them at least two months before departure); and possibly Meningitis.

Be sure to bring any medications you take regularly, as well as any personal hygiene products you use on a daily basis. You might ask your doctor for an antibiotic you can take with you in case of infection (Cipro is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic to treat severe stomach problems).

Check with your current health insurance provider to see what expenses are covered, but we also recommend that you purchase international medical and evacuation insurance. For approximately $60, I purchased mine from International SOS (

Reading List

  • Mongolia: The Brandt Handbook Guide / Jane Blunden / 18983223941 / Brandt Travel Guides / February 2004 / 400 pages
  • Ghengis Khan: His Life and Legacy / Paul Ratchnevsky / 0631189491 / Blackwell Publishers / January 1993 / 313 pages
  • Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists / Morris Rossabi / 0520244192 / University of California Press / April 2005 / 428 pages
  • Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia / Louisa Waugh / 0316861707 / Little Brown and Co. (UK) / March 2004 / 270 pages
  • Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World / Jack Weatherford / 0609809644 / Three Rivers Press / March 2005 / 352 pages

Movie Night

  • The Story of the Weeping Camel / New Line Home Entertainment / January 2005 / 87 minutes

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