Midwesterner in Mongolia (part 1)

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:56 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the beginning of a multi-part series of my trip to Mongolia, which happened almost 5 months ago, but for various reasons I never got around to documenting online. You can also see the first of three Mongolia photo albums on benross.net. More will come in the following days.

Back in September when I was working on the migrant worker research project I had a little visa predicament. Because of a silly regulation, my visa at the time was valid for 6 months, but only allowed me to stay in China 30 days at a time. Usually, this means a quick trip to Hong Kong, since for visa purposes Hong Kong is still considered outside of China. This was quite convenient when I was in Guangzhou for our first research site, as Hong Kong was only a 2 hour train ride away. However, our second research site was Beijing, so (un)fortunately going to Hong Kong for a day was more of a stretch. We had about a week between our research in Beijing, and the next site, which was Shanghai, and I figured since I had to leave the country anyway, instead of hopping over to Hong Kong again, why not just take the week off and pay a quick visit to neighboring Mongolia?

Ulaanbaatar Mongolia Genghis Khan International Airport
Chinggis Khaan International Airport, Ulaanbaatar

For point of clarification, there are actually 2 Mongolias: Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is part of China and consists of a long strip of land running the length of most of China’s northern borders. Outer Mongolia (usually simply referred to as Mongolia) is an independent country sandwiched between Russia and China. Today there are more ethnic Mongolians living in Inner Mongolia (China) than Mongolia itself, however, they are heavily Sinocized and culturally distant from their brothers and sisters across the border.

Mongolia is one of the world’s least-developed, least-populated, and least-polluted countries in the world. With a population of only 2.4 million, about half of which living in the capital Ulaanbaatar, the entire country’s entire population is just more than a third of the population of Fuzhou, a medium-sized city by Chinese standards. Outside of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s largest “cities” only number in the tens of thousands, with a significant portion of its population still living the traditional Mongolian life as nomadic sheep herders.

The best way to experience Mongolia is to rent a jeep from Ulaanbaatar and take a two week trip out to the remote Western regions. For me, I only had 6 days, so my route was much simpler. I bought a plane ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, with the plan of taking ground transportation back to Beijing.

The Moscow-Beijing train route transverses Mongolia from north to south (this one route comprises 90% of Mongolia’s rail grid), and most travelers take the direct international train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. My plan was rather than take the international train, to take Mongolian transportation from UB to the Chinese border, stopping along the way in small towns if possible, and then crossing the border overland. From the border I would take Chinese transportation back to Beijing. This also turned out to be much, much cheaper as well, as my train tickets from Ulaanbaatar to the border only cost me about $11 USD. My bus ride from the Chinese border to Beijing was about $25. For comparison sake, my one-way plane ticket from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar had cost $250 and the international train would have cost $100.

I flew from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar on an Air China flight which felt like a U.N. delegation. There were people of all races, and colors. The funny thing was few of them looked Chinese or Mongolian. Flying across the Gobi Desert reaffirmed what I had already learned from Google Earth which was that Beijing is on the edge of Chinese civilization, and north of the Great Wall all the way to Ulaanbaatar is nothing but sand. I could not see a single sign of civilization until we began our descent on Ulaanbaatar. Looking down from the plane I could see tiny white circles, which were the gehrs (tents) that had been the staple dwellings of Mongolians for centuries. There were no buildings until we landed in Ulaanbaatar.

Landing at Chinggis Khan Airport in Ulaanbaatar gives you your first taste of how underdeveloped Mongolia really is. I have seen McDonald’s in China where were bigger than this airport, which is by far Mongolia’s largest. As our plane taxied to the gate, looking out the window I saw a fleet of small Mongolian Airlines planes which looked like they were left over from World War II. Because the Mongolian population is so sparsely populated, air travel is the only way to reach many far-off domestic locations. However, big jets are only used for international routs which in addition to Beijing, also go to Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Moscow, Irkutsk (Russia), Berlin, and Hohhot (Inner Mongolia).

Once I got to the Ulaanbaatar airport, I had what was easily the most seamless customs experience of my life. Because only several flights come in to Ulaanbaatar every day, there were only the 50 or so people from our flight going through customs. As an American, you don’t even need a visa to enter Mongolia. You simply show them your passport, and voila, you’re in.

On the plane I had met a former Wall Street guy named Kevin who had quit his job and was now traveling the world. We found a cab, and headed into town bound for a Youth Hostel which had been recommended by the thoroughly cliché, but useful Lonely Planet.

Ulaanbaatar (or “UB” as people in the know seem to refer to it) is relatively cosmopolitan and tourist friendly. It is also the starting point for virtually every Mongolian travel expedition. There are youth hostels all over the city, with helpful staff, many of whom speak English, and can organize trips all over the country. The hostel we stayed at was run by a Korean man named “David” and his Mongolian wife who towered over him by at least a foot.

ulaanbaatar mongolia yurts
the “suburbs” of Ulaanbaatar

As soon as we got situated at the hostel, Kevin and I hit the road, on foot, to explore the town. After living in China 2 years, I viewed everything in Mongolia through the lens of my experiences in China. What became immediately apparent is that Mongolia and China have virtually nothing in common (more on this in later posts). As we walked further from the city, the Soviet era styled buildings got smaller and smaller. After wandering over an hour, we reached the outskirts of the city which were nothing more than tent villages scattered out forming vast suburbs between the city and the ensuing desert.

After our little “hike” to the suburbs, it was time for our first bona fide Mongolian meal. Because of Mongolia’s harsh climate, farming is difficult. Many of the Mongolian nomads outside of the cities, subsist the entire winter on a diet which consists entirely of boiled mutton and…mutton. Though the situation is not as bleak in UB, which has access to a small variety of farmed vegetables, plus several imported goods, food variety is still limited. During a trip I took to the local market, the only vegetables I could find were carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, beats, cabbage, and pickles. The meat was mainly mutton, but there was quite a variety of sausage and other processed products, this is of course, due to Mongolia’s harsh winters and the need for storing food.

mongolian food
Mongolian “AY3”

Regardless of these limitations, the food in UB was excellent. It was so good that my mouth is now watering as I write this and try to think back about the handful of meals I ate during my stay. With the help of my Mongolian phrasebook, and several pictures on the wall, Kevin and I ordered our meals. My dish, which was called “AY3” in Mongolian script and pronounced something like “azo” resembled a skillet. It was cooked on a fajita plate and consisted of fried potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peppers and pieces of sausage. Kevin ordered sausages, which came with rice, pickled vegetables, and potato wedges on the side. As you can see from the picture, Mongolians eat with forks and knives, rather than chopsticks as is done in most other Asian countries. It is likely however, (just my guess) that this was because of the immense Russian influence on Mongolia during the 20th century.

After our meal, Kevin and I headed back to the hostel. There was still much more to see in UB, but after our flight and hike, it was time to relax and let the AY3 digest.

Note: Unfortunately, I still have not gotten around to continuing this series about the Mongolia trip even though it was a year ago. So if you’re looking for Midwesterner in Mongolia (part 2) and can’t find it, that’s why. Hopefully in the not to distant future I will get this updated.


  1. Jeremy China said,

    May 7, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    hi,ben,u said that “Mongolians eat with forks and knives, rather than chopsticks as is done in most other Asian countries.” the second half of the sentence is not actually accurate. there r only 5 countries in asia where chopsticks r commonly used. they r china, japan, n korea, s korea and singapore. and only about 1/3 of malaysians use chopsticks too bcuz of their chinese ethnic background. people of other countries in asia do not actually eat with chopsticks,except of some chinese descendants there.

  2. GangstaCHN China said,

    May 16, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    Where is Part 2?

  3. funny Singapore said,

    June 6, 2007 at 12:38 am

    why didn’t u take nicer picture??? maybe i can share with u!

  4. mongolia » Blog Archive » Midwesterner in Mongolia (part 1) United States said,

    June 9, 2007 at 1:30 am

    […] in UB was excellent. It was so good that my mouth is now watering as I write this and try to think back about the handful of meals I ate during my stay. With the help of my Mongolian phrasebook, … …Read More […]

  5. Jenn China said,

    June 11, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    We are thinking about a Mongolia trip at the end of June. Do you think that is entirely ludicrous and that we will melt?

    Also, how was travel there? Easy? Difficult? Lots of hassles?

  6. mongolia » Blog Archive » Authentic Mongolian food in LA/OC? United States said,

    June 12, 2007 at 9:49 am

    […] Regardless of these limitations, the food in UB was excellent. It was so good that my mouth is now watering as I write this and try to think back about the handful of meals I ate during my stay. With the help of my Mongolian phrasebook, … …Read More […]

  7. mongolia » Blog Archive » Chess lists United States said,

    June 16, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    […] Regardless of these limitations, the food in UB was excellent. It was so good that my mouth is now watering as I write this and try to think back about the handful of meals I ate during my stay. With the help of my Mongolian phrasebook, … …Read More […]

  8. Selenge United States said,

    January 22, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    It was nice to read about my Mongolia from your blog.

    You have actually spelled your favorite mongolian dish wrong. hehe… “A3Y” is correct way in Mongolian script and it pronounced something like ‘azu’.
    That blue-roofed building is actually Mongolian National Circus building.

  9. boogie Ireland said,

    April 11, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    yeah agree with selenge,
    you got my home town right across the face, nothing added nothing taken. And that building was(blue roofed circus) my fav place to go when i was little kid.
    i hope you`d go to my country again to see more, esp, nomads,

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