Spots of Time

July 02, 2004

Cross with the Locals

At 8 a.m. tomorrow morning Ken and I will leave Ulaan Baatar, traveling north in a five-seat Russian Jeep stocked with enough camping gear, food and vodka for a twelve-day adventure in the remote forested steppes of Northern Mongolia. Our only companion is Dugre, a local driver, who, while fluent in Mongolian, does not speak a word of English.

The fact that I have only been camping a handful of times (including Girl Scouts) does not bother me. The fact that Durge does not speak English does not bother me. The fact that only a tiny percentage of the roads we will be traveling on are paved does not bother me. Why? Because I've got a good feeling about this trip. And, because I think I am in good hands.

Sometimes when traveling it's hard to know who is being straight with you and who is just trying to make a buck. Most local people a traveler meets are "in the business" and real insider tips and honest advice (as well as un-inflated tourist prices) are about as hard to come by as peanut butter in Mongolia. It sometimes seems like everyone's number one goal is to separate you from as much money as possible.

A few days ago I arrived in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, with my old (high school) friend Ken. I'd chosen Mongolia specifically for its promise of wide-open spaces and sparse population a stark contrast with the building and population dense congestion of China. Visiting Mongolia, a remote country sandwiched between China and Russia, has been frequently described as going back in time a full century and I was keen to travel back in time.

Due to the limited amount of time in the country, and the almost total lack of infrastructure (including paved roads!), Ken and I decided a somewhat organized tour would be the way to go as long as there was a high level of flexibility. I'd done a lot of Internet research prior to our arrival, so I had an idea of our options routes, prices, and time required. We just needed to nail down the details, made a decision and go. Surprisingly, it turned out to be much harder than we imagined.

Our first inquiry was with a friend of a friend of a friend, an American man living in Mongolia. Despite our "connections," I didn't get the impression he was being straight with us, and his quote for a tour was nearly double my research in budget tours. My questions regarding tips and advice were only vaguely answered and everything he said ultimately looped back into tours that - surprise - his company could arrange for us.

Disappointed, we turned to our guesthouse owner, a Korean man who was quite accommodating when we first arrived and had been in the business for years. His tour sounded pretty good until Ken mentioned our desire to camp for several days along the way. That's when the owner told us that camping was not a possibility in Mongolia. Ken and I were incredulous. We are talking about a country where no one owns land and most of the rural population maintains a nomadic way of life that hasn't changed in over a century. We are talking about a place our guidebook quoted as being "the most perfect country in the world for camping." When we told the guesthouse owner as much, his replay was, "Your guidebook is out of date....but, we have friends with guesthouses all along the way and we can arrange accomodation every night."

Disheartened at being lied to and feeling somewhat pressed for time, we spent the rest of the day researching other options and running errands. We were about to just book a flight to our first destination and wing it from there when Ken suggested Mr. Bolod, a tour operator and local he'd met him on the train platform the day we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Ken said he'd "got a good feeling about him" and suggested we at least talk to him about options. We decided he would be our last organized tour effort. Worst case scenario, we'd do the tour independently, come what may.

Thank goodness for Mr. Bolod. A native Monoglian fluent in five languages (his own, Russian, Italian, French and English), I liked him immediately. We told him what we wanted, as well as our experiences to date, and found him willing and able to accommodate our desires for a tour with enough flexibility to feel unrushed but enough structure so we wouldn't get stuck in one place for too long and run out of time.

While clearly a smart businessman, Mr. Bolod was not brisk and businesslike. He spoke slowly and clearly, listening to what we wanted and giving us a tour that fit, not just #6 in his menu of options. While his tour was slightly more than what I originally wanted to pay, I didn't feel bad spending a little more - because I felt like we would be getting a lot for our money. Plus, when we asked him about camping he said, "This is Mongolia - you can camp anywhere!"

After we left Mr. Bolod's office, both Ken and I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders. We both liked him, felt like we could trust him, and were confident in him taking care of all the details of the trip. He was a local who knew the country, knew the people and knew the land. We would be in good hands. In fact, thinking back now I wonder why on earth we initially contacted expats who had a few years experience when there were locals who had lived and breathed this country for their entire lives!

It is temping to follow the path of the familiar when traveling. To seek out others like you. To talk to expats living and working in a country instead of locals. To think that someone "like you" will be more honest, more straightforward and more accomodating. Sure, sometimes it's nice to have a translator who can help you get your feet wet. But, most of the time its better to go with the locals - otherwise, why did you leave home in the first place?

I know that once we leave the city of Ulaan Baatar anything can happen. Yet, I feel confident that we're about to have a pretty amazing experience. And, that in the hands of Mr. Bolod and Dugre, we couldn't be safer. When crossing a busy street in a foreign country, common sense tells you to cross with the locals. Why would crossing the country be any different?

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Stay tuned for the details of our 12-day Mongolian road warrior adventure - coming to you in two weeks time!