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GUEST COLUMN: Traveling While Black in Mongolia

One distant, storied land in East Asia, emerging from long isolation. One intrepid Black woman expat traveler — and, I’m proud to say, IBIT reader. It all adds up to one hell of a travel story.

by MELISSA WATKINS
mel.watkins@gmail.com
I knew nothing about Mongolia except that I wanted to go there. Okay, scratch that—I knew two things—I wanted to go there, and it was the birthplace of Genghis Khan.

Melissa Watkin and Sally the Camel in Mongolia

Melissa Watkin and Sally the Camel

A bit of cursory research told me that it’s the fifth fastest growing economy in the world and that much of the country’s population maintains a traditional nomadic way of life. Combined with a favorable exchange rate and inexpensive lodging ($30 USD for a week in a self-catering hostel) and I was intrigued.

I already live in Asia and managed to find a fairly inexpensive flight to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital. Off I went, with reassurances that the country was safe for a lone lady traveler.
Other than that, my expectations weren’t particularly high, and that was a good thing.

My first 72 hours in Ulaan Bataar were an absolute nightmare. In between cancelled bookings and racial abuse, I was ready to pack up and go home early from the 6 day trip—something I’ve never done.
Fortunately, I was able to pull myself up and turn things around just in time to have an absolutely fabulous time in the country for the remaining three days I was there.

Ultimately, I loved Mongolia. I think more Black travelers should go to Mongolia and enjoy the cultural experience. However, there are definitely some things you’ll need to know before venturing out among Genghis Khan’s descendants.

Do: Go to Mongolia
It’s one of the world’s fastest growing countries but also one of the most sparsely populated. Those who live nomadically herd animals while living in round moveable houses called ger. For a fee ($50 – $200 USD), you can travel to these camps and experience a truly traditional way of life that is slowly disappearing as the country urbanizes.

Sleeping on the steppes, riding a camel, watching a vast and empty landscape from horseback are some things I never imagined doing. Though the cities feel modern, the nomad camps have a tinge of the Wild West. The climate ranges from the Gobi desert in the south to icy forests in the north and east, with rolling, open steppes unifying the two.

Besides the nomadic experience, Mongolia also has a rich and detailed history, ranging from the world-conquering legacy of Genghis Khan to today’s peaceful democracy, which you can find out more about in the museums and temples in the capital city.

There’s also a deep and diverse culture, influenced by Buddhism, communist China, Soviet rule and the over-arching legacy of the Khans. The capital city is a mishmash of Soviet-era apartment blocs, cutting edge skyscrapers, wide open public squares, cultural monuments and shopping malls. There are so many things to see and do that I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but they are all unique and worth seeing.

Don’t: Go alone
Mongolia is remote and most locals don’t have a lot of experience with foreign faces. Being alone and visibly different can make you an unintentional target.

On my first afternoon there, I took a stroll to Sukhbataar Square (home of the Mongolian parliamentary building) and was accosted by a large hairy man who shouted “NO BLACKS! GO HOME!” and ran off. Later, I was chased by a potential mugger (fortunately I was rescued by another large hairy man).

The next day, my brand-new camera was stolen. While your hosts in the ger camps will be friendly and open-minded, be aware that alcohol abuse is a problem in some camps and their neighbors may not always be of the same mind.

This is not all that Mongolia has to offer and the benefits far outweigh these potential dangers. I also don’t need to tell you that as Black people traveling, we may encounter people unfamiliar with our actual culture beyond pop-culture icons who may not have the correct idea about who we actually are.

Travel to Mongolia is a priceless experience, but be wise. Go with a group and enjoy it together, safely. I was fortunate to find a few other loners like myself who realized there was safety in numbers and my trip was much better for it.

Do: Plan everything you possibly can in advance, pre-paying when you can
Some lucky people have months-long vacation and choose to spend all of it in Mongolia, wandering through the country wherever there’s an expedition or a horse available. The rest of us, however, would do well to plan everything out as much as possible BEFORE arrival.

I only had a few vague promises when I got into the country and they turned out to be nothing but words. That resulted in spending three days in Ulaan Bataar wandering from agency to agency, a lone voice trying to cry my way into the wilderness. Save yourself the aggravation.

Most hotels and hostels in Mongolia have in-house tour guides and drivers. When you book your accommodation, make sure that you can book your ger camp stay and any visits to national parks and animal trekking at the same time. If you can’t, find another place to stay that does offer the service with specific prices and timeframes.

My personal recommendation is Sunpath Mongolia, a cheerful, family owned company with excellent English and reasonable rates. They operate a clean, safe hostel and plan tours to all parts of the country.

Finding Sunpath was the key to turning my entire stay in the country around. Without their help, I would have left early and gone home.

Don’t: Expect people to operate on Western time frames or quality standards
Life moves slower in Mongolia than what you may be accustomed to. Many people still live according to the rhythms of camp and even in nicer places, things may be a bit…rough. Sunpath Hostel, beloved as it is, didn’t have reliable hot water at the time that I was there — and it’s in a nice area.

Many of the homes in the suburbs don’t have indoor plumbing at all. Food is basic, traffic can be chaotic and don’t expect your bus to run on time. While more people spoke English than I expected, it’s still not common to meet fluent English speakers. Bring a phrasebook, walking shoes, a little bottle of hot sauce —and most importantly, your patience.

Do: Spend as much time as you can with nomads and in nomad camps
To me, the most worthwhile part of a visit to Mongolia was experiencing life outside the cities. Life in the ger camps is beautifully peaceful, and is a wonderful way to reset from a hectic city life. The landscape is serene and if you book carefully, you can see desert, forest, and plains all in one trip.

Don’t: Waste more than a day in the cities
Ulaan Bataar, the capital city, has its own charm, but it’s also not very attractive or safe. Beggars and pickpockets are a problem and after my first day, I decided not to be outside alone at night. There isn’t much nightlife to speak of, anyway, and the museums and landmarks, while good, can all be seen in one full day. All of the best experiences in Mongolia are at least a day’s drive out of the city, in the camps and national parks

I realize that for many of you reading this, Mongolia is far away. It sounds uncomfortable, even dangerous. It is! However, it’s also a unique adventure and one of the rare travel experiences that allows you into homes and a culture completely unlike your own, or any other you’ve experienced.

If you have the time and the money, visit Mongolia.

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