Travelling to the land of Genghis and Kublai Khan

By | Category: Travel destinations
Mongolian horseman

today the horseman aren’t conquerors but tourist attractions in Mongolia

Mongolia, one of the least visited countries by us in the world, is known for two legendary rulers, Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai Khan. At its height the Mongol empire stretched from Eastern Europe to Korea.  For modern travellers the link – as in ages past – is the Silk Route, the fabled road used by Marco Polo that provided readers with one of the earliest stories about the importance and way of life of the Far East.

Today it portrays itself as “nomadic by nature” recalling a time when the fabled leaders united those nomads to form one of the most influential empires of the middle ages. And that a large section of the country is home to the Gobi Desert where nomads wandered with their goats, camels and other animals in a never-ending search for water.

Yet this country is closer – as the crow flies – than it takes us to reach Los Angeles, Capetown and Rio de Janeiro. Part of the problem is that we have no direct flights. We have to change in Frankfurt, Paris or even Istanbul which adds another hour or so to the journey even if you have a good connection.

The country has 22 airport but it is the one in the capital, Ulan Bator that is the one in which you will arrive. Until recently anyone arriving there would have seen little change from the visitor of thirty years ago. Today, there are improvement works in progress and even new airports are planned as tourists head east.

In order to meet rising demand a new airport is under construction in Khushigt, in the valley of Tuv Province, 52 kilometres from Ulan Bator. As of 2016 two million passengers are expected to arrive here and the plan is for just three million. The country isn’t looking for mass tourism, just a controlled growth  so it will never become a mass market destination. A number of international airlines, including Korean Airlines, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, Air China and Turkish Airlines have already expressed interest in the new airport as a hub for their Central Asian flights but so far, not British Airways.

Mongolia-  as many of us see the Gobi Desert

Mongolia- as many of us see the Gobi Desert

In a country that is more than six times the size of the UK, flights are one of the fastest ways to travel, in order to reach the Gobi Desert in the south or another tourist draw -Huiten Peak in the west. Last year improvements were made to the landing and take-off conditions at the two of the country’s 22 airports. In the past, it often took three days to reach the farthest corners of Mongolia on unpaved roads. Nowadays, it takes only a few hours. In order to make journeying over difficult terrain in the country’s interior easier the Mongolian government plans to increase the number of airports to 24 in 2015.

The other way of reaching and travelling through the country is via rail. That means using another icon of travel – the Trans-Siberian Railway. Starting in Russia or China, a journey to Mongolia on the legendary Trans-Siberian Express is one of the last railway adventures in the world. International trains connecting Moscow, Ulan Bator and Beijing run four times on a weekly basis. To mark the 65th anniversary of this railway line the Mongolian government is investing $250 million part of which will be spent on 15 new carriages from Russia. These modern trains are built to EU standards and offer passengers a high degree of comfort. Features include smart technology that provides wi-fi internet access (more than I get on my local trains here in the UK!) and lets passengers watch videos and films or choose from five different news channels.

But once you arrive, you need more than airports to see a country this size. By 2020 the Mongolian government intends to have paved roads connecting all provincial centres with the capital. Several of the main tourist attractions such as Kharkhorin in Arkhangai Province and the Gobi Provinces can be reached by paved roads. Just in 2013 alone, 1,900 kilometres of paved roads were built as the country rushes to modernise and attract visitors and that all-important economic push that tourism brings. In 2014 a further 2,200 kilometres of roads, including one in the Gobi Desert one of Mongolia’s most popular attractions should be completed.

Mongolian children's welcome

a welcome from Mongolian children

The other main transport in the country is a bus service. There are 930 buses that that belong to the intercity transit network travel between Ulan Bator and over 70 other cities and more are on order.

A few years ago, one inbound Mongolian tour operator exhibited at a London consumer travel show and forecast that visitors would soon come to explore his country. This year, Mongolia exhibited at World Travel Market and is planning to make a big push for visitors at the German equivalent of WTM next March. It remains to see how many of the small, seventeen exisiting UK tour operators offering holidays in the country will be joined by the bigger companies or whether Mongolia will remain a destination just for the intrepid few.

For more about Mongolia, click here.

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