Experiences in Mongolia

This item appears on page 58 of the February 2009 issue.

My wife, Margi, and I met Zambativ Tuvshintulga on a 2006 Pacific Holidays tour of Mongolia, where he was one of our local guides (Aug. ’07, pg. 59). Tuvshin wanted us to see the west and north of Mongolia, too, so when we made plans to attend the Beijing Olympics (Dec. ’08, pg. 32), we contacted him and he arranged a tour for us to follow our China visit.

The shore of Lake Kövsgöl, looking south from Handgard Ger Camp, Mongolia. Photo: Miller

Tuvshin now has his own touring service (No. 929 Middle Dari Ekh, 9th Heseg, 2-Khoroo, Bayanzurkh District, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; cell phone 1 976 991 56285, home phone 1 976 11 352603 or e-mail tuvshin333@yahoo.com). Note: Tuvshin often is leading a tour and, without access to his e-mail, may not respond immediately.

Our trip, Aug. 11-19, cost $5,203 for the two of us. (Our financial transactions were made by wire to his bank account in Ulaanbaatar.) Round-trip airfare from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on Mongolian International Airlines (MIAT) cost $1,008 for two.

Here are some of the memorable parts of our trip with Tuvshin.

• Driving north from Mörön, we had not forgotten the condition of the roads in Mongolia — bone-jarringly rough, no signs, and multiple choices as to which track to take.

Through pretty mountain country which became increasingly forested, we arrived at Lake Khövsgöl, 90 miles long and 25 miles wide. Pines grow down to the pebble beach of this deep lake.

We stayed near the lake at Hovs­gol Hangard Ger Camp, and in Khatgal we saw a “mini-Naadam” festival, featuring wrestling, archery and a 30-kilometer horse race. We knew the horses were coming when there was a buzz and everyone ran to the edge of the field. It was mostly young kids riding bareback — and hard.

Later, we took a launch up the lake 25 miles to a settlement of Tsaatan, an ethnic group related to the Tuvan people in Russia. We visited a family of these reindeer-herding people in their teepee (yes, indeed, a teepee, exactly).

• In Ulaanbaatar, the Moonstone Dance Company presented a show of orchestral music, throat singing and a finale called the “Blue Wolf Dance” which was quite spectacular.

• Our Jeep drive from Khovd to Olgii was through some spectacular scenery and over a number of passes at 8,000-9,000 feet. We could see many snowcapped mountains.

En route from Olgii to Ulaangom City, in the Kazakh-speaking territory of Mongolia, Tuvshin and his driver got lost trying to find the lake where he had planned to set up our camp. We backtracked to a grassy plain near another lake. It was terribly windy and the stove wouldn’t light, so Tuvshin went next door to the ger of a nomad family for hot water. He came back and said we had been invited to go over.

We had an interesting visit with this family, who offered us bowls of hot milk tea and soup. Their ger was cozy, with a stove, rugs on the floor and walls, and beds around the edge. They also had a solar panel, satellite dish, television, cell phone, pickup truck and motorcycle plus a large flock of goats and sheep.

• On our last day in Mongolia we spent some time with Tuvshin’s family in Ulaanbaatar. His mother, Sarah, his aunt and his younger brother were there, along with his uncle by marriage and a friend. Quite a feast was spread for us, including some typical Mongolian fare: buuz (dumplings filled with meat), pickled vegetables, various beers, wines and vodka and a huge, heavily decorated cake.

Our conversation had to be translated by Tuvshin, of course, but we felt very comfortable. As we were preparing to leave, Margi was presented with a beautiful mauve deel (coat) and I with a silver bowl.

The tradition behind the bowl is that it goes with its owner on his travels. Made of solid silver, with some jewels set in the bottom, it is used for presenting guests with milk tea and other beverages as a welcome. We will treasure these very personalized gifts. We hope to assist Tuvshin in visiting the US when he gets some time off during winter.

• While not yet 30, Tuvshin is certainly organized, reliable, trustworthy and caring. Traveling in back country, there are occasional glitches (delayed flights, vehicle repairs, etc), which he always seemed to resolve calmly while keeping us informed.

Note: for our internal flights in Mongolia, we used Eznis Airways and Aero Mongolia. These remote airlines are very conscious of weight, and we had not had a chance to unpack our big international traveling bags, so we had to pay an overweight charge of $45. Next trip out that way, we will just use carry-ons!


Worcester, MA