Lonely Planet Mongolia 6th Ed.: 6th Edition Paperback – Jul 14 2011
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About the Author
Michael first arrived in Mongolia in late 1997, when he was hired to work at the Mongol Messenger in Ulaanbaatar. His three-year stint at the paper included freelance work for the Associated Press and BBC, a gig as a talk-show host on Mongol Radio, a starring role in a Mongolian film and a short run as a local TV news broadcaster. His travels have led him through all 21 aimags, occasionally by bicycle or in the back of a truck with sheep, and other times in helicopters or Humvees with politicians and diplomats. Michael's articles on Mongolian culture, politics and history have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of two books, Dateline Mongolia and Lama of the Gobi. Find him on the web at www.michaelkohn.us.
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The book is nicely sized, about half the letter-size paper and fairly light weight with decent paper quality. The cover is soft and a bit torn after the trip and what not, but all the pages are intact. The page layout and typography are decent. The map design could be better. The icons were too large on the map for precise locating. The maps lacked page number reference to the description of the relevant places in them (only the few "highlights" have the page number reference). Also, I wish at least the map for Ulaanbaatar was full-colored for easier reading.
The book was accurate on both objective and subjective information for the most part. All the places (restaurants, accommodations, tourist sights) we visited and the book recommended were indeed satisfying and the places the book didn't particularly recommend were sometimes disappointing. The description for each place could be a little longer, although understandably that would make the book much thicker.
There is no photo other than for the first few pages. I wish at certain point the book included even small, gray-scale photos to make locating certain sights easier or to order a meal from all-Mongolian menu. Given the general dearth of English in the country, informative photos would have served well.
Lastly, while the book was tremendously helpful during the trip, it didn't help planning for the trip beforehand. In particular, I hoped for more information on guesthouse tours. Given how popular those tours are, I feel they deserve their own section in the book.
Despite these complaints, the book provides thorough and accurate information and given the lack of other options, the book is more or less essential for anyone planning to travel Mongolia not as a part of organized tour. It will make the travelling significantly easier and more enjoyable.
It gets worse: much of the coverage is of little use to the independent traveler. For example, almost all of the sights listed in Eastern Mongolia (pages 138-154) are accessible only if you have private transportation. There are no regular tours that go to Eastern Mongolia, and unless you are going to hire a private vehicle you are out of luck. Another example might be that the top three highlighted attractions in the Gobi region (pages 155-179) are all found on the same page, which gives you some idea of just how detailed and descriptive their write-up is.
Furthermore, the sample itineraries and regional highlights supplied by the author are also highly misleading: in order for most of them to be accomplished in the time frames sugggested, you would need to have private transportation and/or a tour arranged before arriving in the country. But you wouldn't know this from reading the book, and would instead have the impression that it would be possible to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. The reality is that Mongolia is a large country with little infrastructure, and even during the high season you can't count on being able to book a tour in UB that will leave within a few days, let alone count on being able to take public transportation/buses on any given day. On the other hand, it is no coincidence that many of the sample itineraries listed in LP seem to be copied directly from tours offered by agencies in UB, making the book only slightly more useful than arriving in UB without any plans and booking a tour as soon as you arrive.
Given the importance of tours--especially guesthouse tours--and the obvious attempts to try and make the book as long as possible, it's a real mystery why more space isn't devoted to the places one can book a tour, what they offer, typical tour routes (maybe they don't describe typical routes because then one might notice that LP suggested routes are the exact same?), and price ranges. Instead we get about two full pages of information on tour operators from pages 52-54, with a number of tour operators getting short write-ups. unfortunately, none of the descriptions have even approximate price ranges attached, and none of them appear to be guest-house tour operators. Indeed, many of the operators listed appear to be specialists, offering things like cycling, rock climbing, and dog sledding. Since there wasn't enough demand for a Gobi trip at my guest house, I visited Black Ibex, which Lonely Planet as offering "countrywide tours at reasonable rates." They quoted me $600 for a four-day Gobi trip, which was not quite as reasonable as I had expected, given that I spent less than $600 total in 3 weeks in Mongolia.
The bottom line is that this isn't as useful a book as you might imagine. If you want to see things outside of UB, you have to either: a) book a tour, in which case you will likely follow one of the sample LP itineraries; b) travel independently and give yourself a lot more time than the book suggests, especially since you will need to keep backtracking to the transport hub of UB and/or be flexible enough to wait around as you hitchhike to smaller locations; or c) arrive with your own transportation or be willing to hire a jeep. For the most part the information you get from LP will be inferior to that you can get from whatever guesthouse you are staying at in UB, and actually trying to plan ahead using this guidebook will only end in frustration as things are extremely unlikely to go as planned.
Finally, much of the information is woefully out of date. I thought things were bad when I was there in 2012, and it can only be that much worse now. The out-of-date nature of the book is only made worse by the fact that the information on LP's website is even older, and comes from prior editions. So while the print edition might have the wrong information, looking to the website for more up to date information sometimes gives you different information (which you assume is more recent), which is supremely unhelpful when you rely on this only to discover that the information online is even older! Sometimes this actually works out in your favor, though, s this edition has actually removed some useful information that existed in previous versions and is available on the website (such as the Od Hotel in Sainshand, which is your best budget bet there).
At the end of my time in Mongolia, it got to the point where I wouldn't go anywhere simply relying on Lonely Planet: I would try to find as much information online or from other travelers before going to the bus station, another city, etc.
For those considering visiting Mongolia, here are my recommendations:
-The big two cultural attractions of Kharkhorin/Erdene Zuu Khiid and Amarbayasgalint Khiid are both worth visiting, and also quite different. Kharkhorin is obviously much easier to visit as it is serviced by daily public bus (if someone in Kharkhorin greets your bus and asks if you want to stay in her yurt camp, say yes!). LP's instructions on how to get to Amarbayasgalint are ridiculously bad and will probably set you off in the wrong direction, but it's worth it to go there (imagine a monastery in a valley pasture surrounded by nomadic herders, horses, cows, goats, and sheep), and I would suggest spending at least one night to give you time to explore.
- Try to spend as little time in UB as possible. You will likely have to spend a few days there anyway, just waiting to go to other places, but other than Naadam there's no real reason to actually want to stay there.
- Sainshand is fairly easy to visit (it's on the railway line to China) and the nearby sites of Khamariin Khiid and Bayanzurkh are both worth visiting. If you arrive in Sainshand on the weekend you have a good chance of either hitchhiking to the above two sites or sharing a taxi with Mongolian tourists who also take the train there.
- Many other activities and sights available in Mongolia are perhaps better (or at least more easily) seen in other places. For example, Ger/Yurt stays, horseback riding, trekking, and other outdoor activities are also available in Kyrgyzstan, easier to arrange and at less cost. You can also get a taste of the desert in China, with places like Dunhuang offering easily-accessible dunes. Yes, the main dunes in Dunhuang are quite touristy, but you can get away from the crowds and other places in Inner Mongolia, Gansu & Xinjiang offer dune experiences as well.
- You can save a lot of money if you take local trains to/from China instead of the Trans-Mongolian. The only catch is that you have to cross the border by jeep/bus, which is a major pain in the ass and involves long border waits, and buying tickets from the border to Ulaan Baatar can be very difficult (especially on the weekend).