Well, I’ll be straight forward and say that we had a horrible time in Ulaanbataar, quite like Nomadic Matt had in Vietnam.
Why is that ?
Firstly, Ulaanbataar has been nominated “worst looking city in the entire World” by a notorious French guide book we found in the, somewhat, perfectly fine hostel we were staying at. We do recommend Golden Gobi Guesthouse by the way, as it was affordable & tidy, with an efficient staff and a good atmosphere.
The main reason why we hated our stay so bad was that the country stepped into Capitalism quite recently without dealing with it very well. Mongolia relies almost only on tourism to sustain its growth. The legendary “hospitality” of Mongolians has become quite pricey, at least in Ulaanbataar, the capital city, where we felt like we were walking around with a big $ sign tattooed on our foreheads.
We didn’t plan a Gobi desert tour in advance, as it is usually cheaper to book one on site. We spent more than a week all day long looking for decent prices, on our laptops, walking in every tour agency/guest house we could find or asking fellow travelers. We couldn’t find anything reasonably affordable.
Like in most Asian countries, I am fine with having to bargain in order to end up paying 3 or 4 times what locals pay. This is the way it works and a dollar to those populations is worth a lot more than it is to us anyway.
But in Mongolia, prices have gotten out of decency : we saw 3 days desert tours for a $1000 per person ! “All included” formulas would always end up with you paying extras : gifts for the family whom you are renting a yurt from ; you payed for the car with a driver but you’d rather have a some more cash to fill up the tank ; if camels are included, the salary of the “camel guide” is not, etc.
We even met a couple of hikers that got lost in the Gobi desert and the only car that passed by wanted not more than a $100 (non negotiable) to take them to the next city, 30km away…
Those examples are actual anecdotes that happened to travelers we met and I could continue on and on. What mattered to us, and to the travelers we encountered, was that we didn’t feel respected as human beings nor wanted there.
As for the food, well, we had a hard time. It might sounds very French of us, but food is a big deal. That’s one of the things we love the most about traveling. In Ulaanbaatar, we had to eat for about 3€/$5 a meal in restaurants everyday because supermarket food was more expensive than it is in Paris. Having to eat in restaurants for so cheap, pretty cool huh ? Except that it was the heaviest food we tasted our World Tour 2014… Local dishes are ALL about strong tasting sheep meat, with mashed potatoes or rice on the side, that you drink with Chai : tea, spices and… curdled milk. Definitely not the best culinary experience we had so far…
On top of everything, we couldn’t go Couchsurfing because of scams : “hosts” will make you take the bus to some faraway suburb and make you pay for your stay. We were sad not to be able to interact with the locals on normal basis.
Do you wonder why with this is the only post we don’t have DSLR pics to show you ? Simply because we felt insecure all the time we spent there (it was explicitly written on hostel’s “rules” that we shouldn’t go out by night). I even had to come to blows with a guy that couldn’t find the patience to wait for us to get our change back at the bus station.
We only went to Ulaanbataar, so I can solely write for what I saw and felt there. The rest of Mongolia might be different. We would have experienced that if the “tour guide” we found were not constantly changing her prices & conditions (we didn’t take the first person we saw, we went through a heavy search process to find someone with not so indecent prices and good references).
We got sick of this mascaraed and managed to get our Chinese visa sorted on the very day so we could leave Mongolia as soon as possible.
Crossing the border to China was fun though !
Have you been to Ulaanbataar yet ? What did you think ?