Mongolia: A Travel Agent’s Perspective
A Travel Agent’s Perspective
By Irene Pelled, J&I Travel, in association with Valerie Wilson Travel, Inc.
I just returned from Mongolia, a trip of a lifetime! Mongolia has been on my bucket list for years, ever since I saw “The Flight of the Eagles” on television. Thanks to Jalsa, owner of Nomadic Expeditions, I finally took the plunge.
I imagined Ulaanbaatar, the capital, as a small village with dirt roads. To my surprise it was anything but, with towering apartment buildings, New York City-style gridlock, plush 5 star hotels, and eclectic restaurants to satisfy any palate.
After meeting up with my group, we spent the next few days exploring this bustling city and of course shopping for some of Mongolia’s finest products, like cashmere – the best in the world! Before we had a chance to settle in, it was time to repack – just enough clothing to last us for a 4-day adventure to one of the most remote areas of Mongolia, in the Western Province. At the break of dawn, we bolted out of bed full of excitement, heading to the airport for our flight to Bayan-Ulgii.
Flying over the vast open land of Mongolia I soon realized how isolated and remote this area really is, with no roads or any sightings of homes anywhere. When we landed we were met by the Kazakh drivers waiting for us in their old, Russian furgon vans, which look like something out of the 70’s hippy era. We drove over the rocky dirt road, kicking up much dust, to the temporary ger camp that was set up just for our group. The sun was bright and the sky crystal clear, and a bright shade of blue. As we unloaded our bags we noticed white, round, mushroom-like structures called gers, which would be our home for the next four days. Not knowing what to expect, I opened the door and let out a sigh of relief since there were wooden cots with soft mattresses and cozy sleeping bags. In one corner was a tiny sink for quick washing, and in the center, a wood-burning stove to keep us warm and toasty during the night. Just steps away were tents, set up as outdoor field toilets with actual toilet seats. Now this is 5 star camping!
There was not much time to poke around, since to our surprise just outside our ger were our guides, Anan and the Kazaks hunters atop their hardy Mongolian horses asking us to ride alongside them. I cannot explain the awe-inspiring feeling of riding under the Mongolian eternal blue sky, hearing the horses bay and having the eagle hunters by my side, dressed in their native deels bursting with brightly colored embroidery and fur hats.
We returned to the camp just in time for dinner. In the center of the camp stood a huge, dome-like dining ger, decorated with vibrant, wool carpets and walls covered with finely embroidered tapestries. We sat down at a long dining table for a filling, traditional Mongolian dinner with new friends. We shared stories and laughed as we let the day melt away into night.
The next day, Anand called us out of our gers to officially meet the eagle hunters. Wow, what a sight! We watched as the hunters strutted towards us on horseback, dressed in their elegant deels, with their eagles perched high on their forearms. It was if I had stepped into a time machine and was transported to another era. When I looked closer, I noticed that one of the riders was a beautiful, young, 14-year-old girl with bright red cheeks and a pearly white smile. I was told she had won the contest the year before. When I spoke with her, with the help of our guide Anand, she told me that she aspires to be a doctor so that she can help her people.
The day of the Festival, the main event was something to behold, as the hunters rode their horses with great precision, at the foot of a great mountain or cliff, waiting and calling out as their helper released the eagle from the top of the mountain. With the hunters call, the eagle plunged like a rocket to attack the lifeless fox skin dragged behind the hunter’s horse. Over 80 hunters from far and wide compete in this event but only one will be the winner.
To one side, there was an archery event going on at the same time and to the other, Kazakh women, selling their handmade clothing, carpets, and tapestries. The ground was covered like a blanket with an array of colors with fine needlepoint work that the Kazak women are known for.
The following day, after the Festival, we flew back to Ulaanbaatar. We were grateful to once again have modern amenities like running water and a hot shower. As I stood in the shower watching as the sand and dust swirled around my feet, I recalled the many unforgettable moments of my adventure with a smile.
The next morning, I picked up my freshly laundered clothes from the hotel clerk just in time to repack and once again head out, this time for my next adventure to the southernmost province of the Gobi.
After touring the park we continued onto our home for the next few days at the Three Camel Lodge. The sight upon arriving was nothing less than fantastic. The Lodge is all hand built from natural products surrounding the area. Everyone was awestruck at the sight of the lodge and the gers set in front of a huge boulder. The gers were real 5 star luxury. Queen size beds, wood-burning stoves for warmth and four steps down, a bathroom housing a sink, shower, and toilet and yes, bathrobes and slippers. The next few days were filled with activities exploring the Gobi Desert, including visits to a a small city and school. The day we drove to see the dunes was amazing. Imagine climbing these huge dunes and then returning to relax to a picnic lunch surrounded by the dunes and the sound of the desert song.
After returning to Ulaanbaatar we toured other exciting sights for the next few days. Time came to an end and with tears we left to continue on our way. Jalsa has spent his life working to bring tourists to Mongolia. The job he has done is remarkable and continues his effort to get Mongolia on the map. The difference between his tours are the flights he uses to get his clients down to Ulgii and the Gobi. While other companies spend days driving down and camping out in small tents and living in nature, we flew and enjoyed the comforts of a short flight and a ride to the gers in vans and cars. You can also book trips to the lake area in season and also book hunting with the eagle hunters. Jalsa knows them all personally and they respect him for what he is doing for them. There is no other company I would go with. Nomadic Expeditions is the only Virtuoso Company that sells Mongolia.