Expectations, Reality and Getting the Most from your Mongolia Travels
Written by Mr. Zanjan Fromer of GERtoGER.org Mongolia – NATGEO Geotourism Ambassador
Here’s my humble opinion based upon 24+ years of living and working among Mongols across Mongolia.
1. Traveling with Nomadic Families via Community Based Tourism “Living Like a Local” (GER to GER’s Humanitarian Works)
Straight to the point, Mongolia is an exceptional travel destination rich in lifestyles, geographic terrains and incredibly important contributions towards human history that requires “learning”, yes “learning”. Those that are experienced outback travelers (Alaskan bush, Australian outback, etc.) automatically, though only partially, qualify you to travel rurally with nomadic families – you will still require some training… take the aforementioned skills/experiences coupled with firsthand knowledge of working, traveling and living with remote cultures (expect the unexpected, compassion, allow for locals to change-up plans, go with the flow, etc.) is what is 100% necessary to have an incredibly authentic “Mongolian Experience”. Reason – it’s indeed who the Mongols are: Mongols are flexible with time/experiences, they love to modify plans on the go, they often wait till the last moment to get stuff done, they’re hospitable, they take care of one another as a tribe, they don’t expect anyone to have expectations, they assume all travelers are like them – easy going, not judgmental, cooperatively overcoming challenges together, not overly demanding, able to take it easy without tons of entertainment to distract them, can calmly sip tea and chat for hours or just sit and enjoy the family environ, never really looking at their watches or staring at their iPhones, etc. Yes, traveling Mongolia is a complete break from our western/European lives of expectations, demands, standards, punctuality, etc. This sort of travel with nomadic families and its incredible cultural adventures, remote geographic terrains and “lifestyle learning by living it” should never be confused with Packaged Trips that are more about “entertainment travel”, punctuality, following the itinerary, etc.
2. Traveling Mongolia via Packaged Trips (Tour Operations)
If the aforementioned makes you nervous as you are really accustomed to ‘western-European’ standards of travel and you have tons of expectations that must be fulfilled (punctuality, activities, entertainment, distances, etc.)… then going on a “Packaged Trip” is the best thing to do when in Mongolia. Keep in mind that you pay for what you get and so do the locals… What does that mean? If an itinerary is super cheap, many days, covering incredible distances then most likely that operator isn’t “ethical” and people are not getting paid fairly, etc. It’s difficult to tell you exactly how to judge a company or itinerary and whether or not you are purchasing a “tourism sweat shop product” or not – however – I will give this sound advice. Ethical Packaged Trips in Mongolia will not be cheap, they will be fairly priced – the more expensive often means better vehicles, better guides, better camps, better food, and hopefully people are being paid fairly well too. Packaged Trips that are being sold exceptionally cheap require a little bit of research – how many days?, what’s included?, what level of services are being provided?, what accommodations are you using?, etc. Reason being – if you book a trekking trip and you are camping all the time without vehicle/animal support then that will be definitively cheaper than standard overland packaged trips (vehicles, fuel, camps, entertainment, etc.). Now keep in mind that Mongols love putting on a good show of hospitality – so when you are tired and exhausted – always be kind to your local Mongols as they are raised from childhood to always be of assistance until they physically are unable too. Yes, everyone gets weak, sick and tired on longer expeditions (clients, guides, drivers, etc.), hence, traveling in Mongolia you must travel with a “team mentality” and not too touristic like with high demands and expectations “everyone SERVE me”; remember, you are out there in remote locations and that’s just the reality so “take care” of each other. Being a good human in Mongolia will take you far and guarantees a successful experience regardless of the challenges – in most cases – Mongols will definitely treat you better than you expect when you show them some kindness.
Mongolia isn’t like other parts of Asia, USA nor Europe – it does require some knowledge and the willingness to learn flexibly on the go (don’t challenge people’s knowledge, etc., like as if you were on a western-European trip testing the quality of your guide, etc… these are locals who are “currently” in development and are indeed trying). I will definitively state that you will at times be required to be understanding as not everything will go as planned and that’s the beauty of ole style expeditions in developing countries – you expect the unexpected and go with the flow – and often it’s rewarding with very unique memories that will stay with you for years as it’s not the same as your “standard” trip nor vacation to Hawaii and/or across the EU… I highly encourage everyone to tone down your expectations, don’t be overly punctual/measure distances, but rather enjoy this rare moment in history – soon enough Mongolia will end up like every other destination on planet earth that’s been destroyEd by the tourism industry with the same boring format of tourism that everyone “expects”. That will be a sad day as Mongolia’s uniqueness to the global tourism industry is indeed its raw flavor of ole styled, locally adapted, genuine travel experiences and more – our learning “how to unlearn” – which is not at all common within our western/European sanitized approaches will be lost forever. Mongolia gives you the right amount of “mystery” which is the essence of “unlearning our standards” regardless if you choose to travel with nomadic families via community based tourism and/or fully packaged trips with tour operators (keep in mind that generally what people think is Mongolia’s weakness is its incredible strength as it’s ole styled expeditions something not readily available around the world – EU, USA, etc.). Mongols have a saying “Ezen Hecheevel, Zaya Hecheen” translation “If the Master tries, Destiney shall try” – Mongols will definitely try and at times they will succeed and at other times we must meet them halfway and go with the flow; you will quickly see how the Mongols will start praising you as a “Good Guest”.