This summer, I ventured off to the wilds of Mongolia with Intrepid Travel. Knowing little about the country except what I’d seen on TV in dramatic renditions of the life of Ghenghis Khan, I couldn’t even begin to conceptualize what Mongolia was all about. Although I’m a keen and comfortable solo traveller, I knew that this was going to be one of those places where it’s best to go with a group.
Turns out I was right. Rumbling in our truck as it snaked between mountains and over arid plains, I glanced for other signs of life outside our excited group without luck. Our guide, Tem, was a young and friendly local leader who explained that the places we were heading were a little further off the beaten path than you’d normally go on our own. The kind of places you can only go when you’re with a local.
And those places are breathtaking. Here are five reasons why you should visit Mongolia with a tour operator:
- Navigation – Street signs are a luxury in Mongolia. Venture outside the capital city of Ulaanbataar and road signage is bordering on non-existent. If I challenged you to navigate from the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, on unpaved roads, to the Togoo Uul volcano, and then venture off for another 9 hours to a homestay on the mountainous outskirts of Ikh Uul, do you reckon you could do it? Well, partner up with two local drivers—call them Sansar & Bold—who know the unmarked country roads like the back of their hands, and you’ll have a much easier time getting there.
- Homestay – People may go to Mongolia for the landscape, but they stay for the people. Nomadic Mongol hospitality is truly special, and it’s something that shouldn’t be missed. Intrepid Travel’s Wild Mongolia tour gives travellers the unique chance to stay with a local family in Ikh Uul and Shine Ider. Both homestays allow you to meet local families, learn their customs, dine with them, see how they live, and sleep in their homes. Their gers are in extremely remote pockets of the country and the entire experience would be nearly impossible to arrange on your own.
- Language barrier – I have always been able to pick up a few basic words and phrases in the language of the country I’m travelling to. Not in Mongolia. The country is landlocked between Russia and China, and its language is more confusing than both of them combined. Add that to the fact none of the words are pronounced as they are spelled, and you have yourself one Hell of a language barrier. Without the help of a local, you may find yourself ordering a simple beer and being surprised with some Airag, a local pint-sized delicacy of fermented horse milk. Not to mention the trouble you could run into when asking for directions in the middle of the Gobi Desert, which, spanning one third of the country is a place where you probably don’t want to take a wrong turn.
- Local knowledge – A colleague of mine once said that Lonely Planet is the largest group tour one can take. It is hard not to agree. Lonely Planet is every traveller’s bible, so it is no surprise that, once a “local spot” becomes published in its pages, it quickly becomes a hub for tourists. A local leader always has their ear to the ground and knows exactly what’s happening in real time, including what places are over-crowded, and which ones are a little more off the beaten path. Because of our Intrepid Travel guide, Tem, we found ourselves at the hidden and virtually unknown Ikh Tamir and Tuwshruuleh Naadam Festivals. These events have no set dates or location, and getting to them was, without doubt, the result of Tem’s extensive local knowledge.
- Convenience – Shrouded in mystery, Mongolia is a land of ancient tradition and incredible natural beauty. There is a seemingly endless supply of novel experiences waiting around every corner, from learning archery from a local to hiking volcanoes, swimming along the borders of Siberia in Lake Khovsgol, meeting reindeer herders, bathing in hot springs at Tsenkher, attending the sold out Naadam Festival, and sleeping on mats with nomadic families.
The thought of planning all of those things and more, which go into a 15-day trip around Mongolia, was a daunting task to me. That is why I went with a tour operator. Intrepid Travel took care of everything so that I could spend all my time focusing on being present in every single moment. And I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.