Travel: The land of blue skies and medieval microwaves

`No more vodka, thank you' and `I hope your animals are fattening up nicely' is all the language you need for a visit to Mongolia.
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The Independent Culture
THE ONE-sentence chapter in my guidebook on vegetarianism said "bring your own food". The book also told me the only thing good about the trains was that they were better than the buses and that the capital, Ulan Bator, was a run-down ex-Soviet city of grey concrete. Apparently, if I did not speak Mongolian or Russian I would not get very far.

I went anyway. And once you accept that it is going to be a bit unconventional, it is enchanting.

There are no direct flights to Ulan Bator, so most travellers go through Beijing, with an overnight stop. The flight to Mongolia is brief, but there is a world of difference between the two cities: Beijing is a loud, polluted capital; in Mongolia, you leave the airport terminal to be blasted by wide blue skies, rocky mountains and the total absence of taxis, buses or any other obvious way of getting into town.

The only way of getting around is to stick your hand out and try to wave down anyone who has the time and inclination to take you where you want to go. And plenty do have the time. You pay 25p per kilometre and get to travel in some of the oldest cars still able to lurch along.

Mongolia once had an empire which, under Genghis Khan, ruled China, Russia, part of the Middle East and up towards Vienna. More recently, China and the Soviet Union have been in charge and, in the capital, it is the Russian tower-block architecture which is most evident.

Today the country is a democracy with a growing capitalist economy. But the people are still friendly, open and, unlike many others in the region, do not try to drag every tourist dollar from unwilling visitors.

This is known as the land of blue sky and even its busiest city has a sense of spaciousness. The air is clean and, in the countryside around the city, there are no fences, just open grassland. Standing in the city's central square, I could see chocolate-box mountain tops and green hills over which it looked as if Julie Andrews might just appear.

The hotels in town are adequate but ridiculously overpriced by local standards. Much better to stay just 45 minutes away in a traditional "ger" campsite.

Outside of the cities, many Mongolians live in gers - large circular white tents with wooden frames. In the ceiling there is a removable flap so you can sleep under the stars.

For a few pounds a night I could lie in my Mongolian tent just outside Ulan Bator, watch cowboys rounding up horses at sundown and drink Mongolian vodka from silver bowls under a sky which stretched from one horizon to the next.

If you are invited into a family ger there is a strict etiquette. Never wear a hat. Never touch anyone or give them anything with your right hand. Do not wear short sleeves but, if you do, pretend they are long...

You get your own ger to sleep in but eat in a communal ger with throne- like seats and snow-leopard skins hanging from the roof. The local food is a rather tasteless dish of mutton dressed up as lamb. They prepare it by pushing hot stones into the mouth of the lamb and cooking it from the inside out like a medieval microwave. It is then served on a plate with one of the hot stones. Holding the stone is meant to be good for your health - unless, of course, it has not cooled off yet.

You come across plenty of places to drink but see no restaurant signs. Restaurants do exist, but you have to know where to look. It is further complicated by the fact that Ulan Bator has absolutely no street signs or names. The only way of telling anyone where you want to go is to describe the place.

The sole pizza place in town is under the Red Cross building opposite the Japanese embassy. It is a small living room run by a friendly Mongolian woman who used to cook for a Canadian family. When a friend ate there he shared a table with two medical students from Glasgow, the Australian ex-minister of finance, a Turkish film crew and some dodgy-looking businessmen.

Outside the hotels many people do not speak English, so it is a good idea to get a phrase book. Even if you cannot make yourself understood, they appreciate your effort. I bought a small pocket guide and found a diagram of how to dissect a sheep, and the phrases "No more vodka, thank you" and "I hope your animals are fattening up nicely".

That neatly summed it all up: a land of polite herdsmen drinking neat vodka under clear blue skies.

Adam Shaw is one of the presenters of BBC2's `Working Lunch' programme

When to go: not now. Ulan Bator is the world's coldest capital. Plan now for summer.

Getting there: about pounds 700 return via Beijing next June through a specialist such as Regent Holidays (0171-921 1711).

A shorter - and probably cheaper - route is on Aeroflot via Moscow. Alternatively, go on the Trans-Mongolian Express, which takes six days from Moscow.

More information: Embassy of Mongolia, 7 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (0171-937 0150).

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