Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Alone in Mongolia

Nick Myers recently went to Mongolia.

Edith Zimmerman: Okay — Nick, how did you end up in Mongolia?

Nick Myers: I ended up in Mongolia after having spent a couple trips bumming around Korea with my then-boyfriend, and the prospect of hanging around in Seoul for three weeks for the third time in a calendar year was a bit depressing. So I did some research about places I could fly for the middle week or so of my trip without too much hassle (meaning direct flights or bust). I had originally narrowed down my options to Hanoi, Vietnam, Chengdu, China, or Almaty, Kazakhstan, crowdsourced on facebook for recommendations, and ultimately threw away all of my original ideas and bought a round trip ticket to Ulaanbaatar. I ended up choosing Mongolia because I have, for about as long as I can remember, been fascinated by it. Its remoteness, its history, its culture, etc. I think the pipe dream began when I was 8 or 9 and I saw a picture of Erdene Zuu Khiid Monastery.

What's your "regular" life like?

My regular life at the time was kind of in upheaval. I was finishing up a summer tenure at a major telecommunications firm before my final quarter of business school. These days I'm a smaller scale corporate lackey at a CPG consulting firm in Seattle. Most of the work I do involves manipulating snack food databases. I know more about pretzel thins than I care to. 

How did you get to Mongolia, and what did it cost?

I got there via Seoul. The flight was direct to Seoul from Seattle, and set me back $1100, and I bought my ticket to Mongolia with frequent flier miles. I think the flight would have cost me about $600 had I not used frequent flier miles. If I had had more time, I would have rather taken the first leg of the Trans-Siberian railroad from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, but I guess I'll save that for next time.

What was the first and last thing you ate? The best and worst?

The first thing I ate was this candy from a mini mart next to my hostel. It was amazing, milk chocolate on the outside, coconut creamy something on the inside. Kind of like a Mounds bar, but not quite as ... industrial? I found out later that the candy was actually Polish. Mongolia, as a formerly communist country, still has lots of strong ties with Eastern Bloc nations. The last thing I ate was a mutton dumpling from the Ulaanbaatar airport right before leaving. It was a poor choice. Food wasn't the main draw for me to go to Mongolia — there's a lot of meat (which I don't eat generally, but make a rule of eating anything presented to me when traveling), potatoes and root vegetables, and DAIRY. Lots of yogurt, cheese curds, etc., typically made from mare, goat, or sheep's milk. My favorite meal was, hands down, prepared by this family I met near Kharkhorin (about 4 hours south of Ulaanbaatar via jeep), the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, now a town of about 15,000. Nomadic families in Mongolia have a rich tradition of hospitality, and they welcomed me into their yurt for fermented mare's milk (yes, it's gross — I can only describe it as … viscous) and a carrot, mutton, and potato dish. It wasn't the taste of the food that made it the best, but rather the fact that this family would welcome a foreign stranger into their house, with no Mongolian language, for a meal. It was a spacey experience for sure, and completely discordant from any experience I've had in the states.

The worst thing I ate was a really nasty meat and pasta dish at a rest stop restaurant named "Texas." I also ate a lot of Clif bars because I'm a hypochondriac when it comes to stomach issues. Especially so when I know there aren't going to be many toilets around.

What was the weather like?

The weather was amazing. Mongolia has about 250 days of sunny weather per year, and it was gorgeous during my entire stay. I should preface that by saying the weather was amazing and clear when I was outside of the city. Ulaanbaatar itself is notorious for having terrible air quality and pollution from the combination of its reliance on coal power, city dwellers heating their homes with coal bricks, and particulate matter migrating north from China via the Gobi Desert. Outside of the capital, however, the air was the cleanest I'd ever experienced. It would be sunny and in the 60s or so during the daytime, and the temperature would dip down to about 30 at night — I was not prepared for this drastic a difference. This was September, which is the tail end of the two-month (July/August) high tourist season. Night in the steppe was really a trip, as you could see every star in the sky, hear wolves howling, etc.

Where did you stay / where did you sleep?

My home base for the trip in Ulaanbaatar was in a hostel in an old, Soviet-style apartment block. It occupied the entire fourth floor of the building, and had an interesting variety of clientele — from PCVs arriving to start their tours of duty, to church groups there to build houses, to rowdy, drunken Japanese tourists there (I presume) for sex tourism. The woman who ran the hostel, Zaya, was a harsh woman, I also presume from living through the rise and fall of communism there, and the subsequent economic nightmare that pushed nearly the entire population into poverty. It was, actually, probably the nicest hostel I've ever stayed in.

Yurt interior

Outside the city, I stayed in yurt camps. Because it was the end of the tourist season, most of the yurts had been disassembled for the winter, as the camp operators typically move to the city for the winter because of better access to cheap heat. Essentially, these camps spring up in pastureland all over the country in the summertime to accommodate the influx of tourists. As I was traveling solo, I would typically have a yurt with 4 beds to myself, which worked out in my favor, as they're heated by woodstove, and once the wood stops burning in the middle of the night, it gets cold, FAST. So, because there were three empty beds, I would take the blankets off all of the unoccupied ones, and make myself a nest to stave off hypothermia. The cold hours were typically between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., at which point the host of the camp would come in and start another fire in the woodstove. One of my hosts, after starting a fire in my stove, hopped into my bed and gave me an awkward rubdown, I presume to help warm me up. I didn't ask questions, and pretended to remain asleep for that encounter.

Yurt exterior

Can you briefly describe a few of the best people you met there?

Zaya, the owner of the hostel in Ulaanbaatar, was a savior. She was full of tips, like, "Don't keep anything in your pockets. Pockets are 'Mongolian Donation Boxes'" for pickpockets in the city. At first we were at odds a little bit because I wouldn't listen to her advice regarding riding public transportation or avoiding the outdoor market, but I think she ended up respecting me because I stood my ground on wanting as "authentic" — forgive the hackneyed travel trope — experience. She also introduced me to her daughter, who ended up going with me on my last jaunt outside the city to a remote monastery in the north of the country. Also, because the focus of my trip was to visit the three holy Buddhist sites of the country, I ended up meeting a lot of child monks. I went to this one monastery so remote that I had to traverse about 50km of steppe with no roads in a jeep to get there. Once there, I was the only person there, and the monastery was locked, so I had to tromp around the grounds to find a monk to let me in. I found this group of child monks playing soccer, and one of them gave me a tour. He changed from his Houston Rockets jersey into his robe and walked me through the grounds, unlocking temple buildings housing these amazing pieces of Buddhist parephernelia and art. And then we kicked around a soccer ball for a bit and shared a Clif bar.

Did you hear a lot of music?

I wish I could tell you I heard lots of amazing traditional music (like throat singing!), but mostly I heard a lot of Boney M. I had a driver for my last jaunt, and I swear the only two songs on the only cassette in his car were Boney M's "Rasputin" and "Daddy Cool." Oh, I heard lots of Buddhist chanting, also, if that counts. But for the most part, this was the soundtrack to my trip.

[Boney M.!] Sustain any injuries?

I didn't sustain any injuries, but as I mentioned before, I'm a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to stomach issues, and have a chronic fear of being away from modern plumbing. So I came up with a crafty solution, which involved me taking a prophylactic double dose of Immodium every time I left Ulaanbaatar. I experienced a lot of stomach discomfort, but I never had to shit under a bridge, which is the preferred method to relieve oneself when your minibus pulls over for a five-minute break.

Bring anything home?

I have two prized possessions from my trip to Mongolia. The first is a huge wall map indicating in Cyrillic all the different mines in the nation. I plan on framing it someday. I bought it from a man on a street who sold all kinds of household goods. He seemed tickled to hear me try to speak in his language, and gave me a hearty handshake once we completed the transaction. The other is a custom deel I had made at the outdoor market in Ulaanbaatar. Deels are the national "costume" of Mongolia, there are summer deels, winter deels, formal deels, everyday deels, prom deels, etc. I bought a winter deel, meaning more layers of felt and wool than a summer deel. These days I put it on to entertain when I've had too many drinks and feel the need to convince people that I'm worldly. I did not buy any cashmere (Mongolia produces the lion's share of the world's cashmere — wait for that fact to pop up on Final Jeopardy!).

Would you want to go back?

I hope to go back at some point. I'm big into running lately, and fantasize about running a 50k on Lake Khovsgol (Lake Baikal's baby lake sibling — also home to an endangered tribe of reindeer herders called the Tsaatan, who have some interesting shamanic traditions). Also, the Naadam Festival would warrant a trip back to see the national championships of the three Mongolian "manly sports": wrestling, archery, and horse racing.

Previously: Poland and Lithuania

Nick Myers spends his days researching natural and organic food trends and crafting really pretty PowerPoint decks.

72 Comments / Post A Comment


My friend went to Mongolia and ended up sharing a yurt with a tiny little lamb in a sweater, and I've been jealous ever since.

fondue with cheddar

@parallel-lines THAT SOUNDS MAGICAL


@parallel-lines New life dream. Holy moly.


@tamara I don't feel comfortable sharing the photo since it's not mine but it was a-dor-a-ble! The lamb was a friend of an equally adorable toddler.

Briony Fields

@parallel-lines I just gasped.

Tuna Surprise

I've never been compelled to have a bucket list before now, but holy shit, I now have a one item bucket list.


@parallel-lines After I read your comment I sat motionless staring at it for a full 3 minutes before I could muster the strength to type this: WHAAAAAATTT?!?!!? :-D :-D :-D :-D


@parallel-lines I am squeeing from delight at the thought of this. Squeeing.


@parallel-lines Ugh, how did this not happen on my trip!


SHUT UP THIS HAS BEEN MY DREAM SINCE HIGH SCHOOL aaaand now I'm gonna actually read it.


@Lucienne Mongolia is the jam. Get there as soon as you can! I've traveled quite a bit, and it is, hands down, the best place I've ever had the opportunity to travel to.


wow great article@k



that said, the Clif bar and Immodium strategy made my stomach sympathetically unhappy


@PatatasBravas Yeah, part of the territory of having IBS in a developing country.


@PatatasBravas Don't let that put you off! I've spent a couple of summers in Mongolia, and I've never had any digestive problems at all. Which is a big deal as I usually pick up every bug and germ that's going. I did take water purifying tablets and hand sanitiser and used both a lot, though.


@wanderluster Sorry I just realised this is your article. It's lovely, thanks, making me want to return.


AHHHHH this is so great. I've wanted to go to Mongolia for years and years. I want pictures of that winter deel!


Ask and ye shall receive! http://instagram.com/p/XDtOjpvThc/


I went a few years ago, with an outfit called Stepperiders (good horses; basic camping), and had a blast. Our guides passed the time by singing traditional songs, asking for explanations of American pop lyrics, doing riding tricks, and occasionally stopping for a wrestling break.

FWIW, I liked the fermented mares' milk and loved the tea but couldn't handle the rock-hard cheeses. And my weirdest ger experience was realizing that our hosts for one evening were getting amorous despite sharing the space with six guests. We, like Nick, all pretended to be asleep.


@3penny !! I need to put horseback camping in Mongolia at the top of my vacation list.


@3penny I know I talked about buying a deel, but what I really wanted was one of those wrestling outfits... http://resources0.news.com.au/images/2009/02/13/va1237353158413/Mongolian-wrestler-6485124.jpg


@wanderluster OMG their leg muscles are AMAZING.


@meetapossum Right? And great for serving some muffin top cleavage!


If one goes to Mongolia, can one ride some horsies?

Emma K@twitter

@laurel I went to Mongolia in 2006 and I rode some horsies. Adorable little horsies that didn't even come up to my shoulder. That's the only place where I've ever galloped on a horse (and not had to sign any waivers or take any safety precautions whatsoever before getting on a horse).

Emma K@twitter

@Emma K@twitter Me and a tiny Mongolian horse: http://on.fb.me/Zspyop


@Emma K@twitter See, this is what I'd want out of a visit to Mongolia: galloping across the steppe on a fuzzy pony, snow capped mountains rising up at the far edge of the valley, Mongolian larks rising up from the grass around us, the wind carrying away my fear of pooing in a foreign country...


@Emma K@twitter TINY HORSE



@laurel I failed to realize that the lack of formal roads means there's a risk of having a minivan full of folks roll on up next to you when you're answering a call of nature on a remote hummock. OH WELL.


@3penny So what you're saying is that there are perhaps some legitimate concerns?


@laurel Day one of the trip, one of our guides had us rein in, and when we looked to him for explanation he shrugged and explained, "I peeing." We took the hint and looked the other way. In other words, you get over stuff pretty fast, because there's just no option, and people in the remoter areas tend to offer what privacy they can by looking away. YMMV and all that, but I ended up shrugging it off. Needs must!


Mongolia is pretty high on my "must travel to" list. I'm mostly interested in the horses, though.


@Kirs You should watch "The Horse Boy" on netflix instant (was available last time I checked) about a couple whose high autistic son's behaviors are cured in Mongolia from a combination of horse therapy and Shamanist practices. Fascinating.


I love reading these traveling alone stories. I have been hearing super fascinating stories about Mongolia lately, and I get the feeling I'm meant to go there. Sounds like an awesome trip!

Could I also ask if it's possible to submit one's own solo travels? I sent a (very brief) e-mail to notes@hairpin and never heard back, but maybe that wasn't the best way to do it.


@tamara Ooooh, good call - I did Norway on my own for a long weekend and Paris mostly on my own (stayed with a friend but only saw her at night).


@tamara It was amazing! If you ever have a chance to go, you must! It's a long trip from North America, but well worth it if you have the time/funds! July is, apparently, the time to go, though I loved being there when there weren't a ton of other folks around.


Oh my god this one is my dream this one is my dream I'm afraid to read it!!!

I read before that because of the nomadic culture all land in Mongolia is public so you can just put down a tent or just sit down in a blanket and go to sleep anywhere; that is my ideal world! Where you can stop if you want to! I should read this article now but I'm too excited.


@LaLoba Yes, that is standard practice. But I was too afraid of wolves to do that, myself. Nature is scary.



Also: did you drink that crazy fermented alcoholic milk that this one podcast I listened to said was the inspiration for the fermented mare's milk the Dothraki drink in Game of Thrones?


@cosmia Ahhh I missed the part where you did drink it! I guess I was just way too excited about the prospect of sharing my GoT knowledge.

Also, Hairpin, please never stop these "Alone In" articles!!


@cosmia Anytime to share GoT knowledge is a good time.

(I've been listening to the History of Westeros podcast for the last week, and I now probably know more about Westerosi history than American history.)




@cosmia On a similar note, Princess Amidala's costumes from the Star Wars prequels were inspired by traditional Mongolian regal wear. http://www.suvda.com/personal.php?p=costume


@Megasus One of them is called a Podcast of Ice and Fire (um that I guest hosted a few times hahaha ehem, it was the Battle of Blackwater episode review and a few others I don't remember - but I go by the same handle there as I do here - if you want to hear my stupid voice) and another, much funnier one hosted by two SF comedians called Boars Gore and Swords!


@cosmia :-O I have heard your voice on that episode! I listen to a Podcast of Ice and Fire, but sometimes I need some Sansa love, which seems to be lacking on that show. I'll have to check out Boars, Gore and Swords.


@meetapossum Boars Gore and Swords is best listened to after their review of the first season - they're a little adorably clueless (and sometimes frustratingly clueless) at first, so I'd start around when they review the 8th episode of season 1 and go from there.


He seemed ticked to hear me try to speak in his language

Tickled, maybe? (I'm not trying to be persnickity, I just expected the next thing to be for him to slug you or something.)

Edith Zimmerman

@frigwiggin GAH my mistake! Fixed, and thank you!!


Thanks, Edith. Embarrassed that I missed that pesky keystroke.


@wanderluster Thank you for sharing this, by the way, it sounds fantastic! (I don't want you to think I was just reading this looking for things to nitpick about!)


@frigwiggin No offense taken - my written English has declined rapidly since attending business school where we typically only write in bullets.


The deel sounds great, but I don't think I would be able to buy something like that! I wouldn't be able to wear it back at home because it would feel too appropriative so it would just sit in my closet and I would stare at it guiltily once in a while.


@frigwiggin I have items of clothing like that. Part of me just wants to frame them, too.

Sunny Schomaker

@frigwiggin This, although I did buy a tiny baby jellaba for a friend's baby. And I do regret not buying the cheesy leopard print jellaba for myself. If it isn't really traditional, it isn't orientalism then, right? Just a love of animal prints.


@frigwiggin I hear what you're saying, but it's actually a very practical garment. :)


@wanderluster what do you use it for? Wearing around the house or out and about?


@KitCate Mostly I wear it around my house when I don't want to turn on my heat in the winter (that shit is WARM).


@wanderluster Mongol warm is srs bzness! I love my camel-wool socks and a set of roll-down fingerless gloves I got in UB; they're lighter than the deel but operate on the same principle for keeping your hands warm.


@3penny Loving that you referred to Ulaanbaatar as UB. sigh, I want to be in Mongolia right now, but not really, as my iPhone tells me it's 9 degrees there. Instead I'm off to run a marathon in Zion National Park!


My sister interned in Mongolia for a summer and did so many exciting things, but when she came back she smelled like sheep forever.

loren smith

My dad is taking a motorcycle trip across Mongolia this spring, and I sure hope there's room in his panniers for some cashmere!


@loren smith Your dad is a bad ass.

loren smith

@wanderluster Oh man, yeah. The idea is into Seoul, pick up the bikes that they're shipping, and through Mongolia and Russia in time to hit the Baikonur Cosmodrome in July for the shuttle's launch window. If he had a better grasp on the internet, and this was more a site for sixty-year-old men who listen to a lot of Jimmy Buffet, he'd be a great interviewee.


For everyone who wants to ride in Mongolia, here is how NOT to start: The Mongol Derby. But following it on Twitter is tremendously entertaining. Last year, someone got pitched off his horse in the middle of nowhere in particular; he ran after it for more than three hours, found someone to help him catch the horse, and got back in the race. Someone else broke her pelvis in a fall the first day. In other words, it's completely, entirely, 100% insane...and utterly badass.

Passion Fruit

"I plan on framing it someday."


Passion Fruit

Also, I loved this and I love this series. Thanks.

Steve Dew@twitter

Pop-up boutique concept: "What's Your Deel?", specializing in traditional Mongolian garb.


I have lived in Mongolia for the past year and am leaving this Friday with a heavy, heavy heart - it's a charming, wonderful place!

PS - a yurt in Mongolia is known as a ger


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