The Mongolian government has declared 2023 the year of tourism with the aim of finally increasing the number of tourists, which has been far below the target of at least 1 million visitors for years and was not reached even after the end of the corona restrictions. The landscape and the nomadic culture are Mongolia's two great assets. In order to attract tourists, and above all to encourage them to visit again, the quality of the organization and the price-performance ratio must be right. 

However, my trip with my wife to eastern Mongolia in August 2023 was proof that the quality of the organization and execution offered and the costs involved will not attract tourists, at least not from Western Europe. What we were offered was also unlikely to encourage tourists from Mongolia's two neighboring countries as well as those from South Korea, Japan and other countries to visit Mongolia. 

As a well-traveled diplomat, I, like every other experienced tourist, compare what Mongolia has to offer with other destinations in the world, and Mongolia falls far behind in terms of value for money. You could also say that it is not competitive.

At the end of my trip, I wrote the following letter to the Mongolian travel agency, which I have abridged and anonymized for data protection reasons.

Read now the letter:

I was German ambassador to Mongolia for two years (2011-2013). In the last 10 years, I have visited Mongolia six times. I have covered thousands of kilometers in Mongolia with my own off-road vehicle and have driven on dirt roads for years during my foreign assignments as a diplomat, such as in Turkmenistan, Cape Verde, and Afghanistan. This is just a preliminary remark so that you understand that neither my wife nor I are among the "normal" tourists who, as "greenhorns", have difficulty understanding Mongolia with its special conditions.

In 2023, we went on a trip through eastern Mongolia from 5 to 19 August, organized by your company. The planned route went from Ulanbaatar through the Khenti Mountains, via Choibalsan to Buir Nuur, via Khalkhin Gol along the Chinese border to Dariganga and then back to Ulaanbataar. We paid the price of 7788 EURO for 14 days (the trip to the airport on 19.08. cannot be counted as one day) - without the flight - and expected a well-organized trip with nice accommodation and good food. In view of a daily price of 556 EURO (i.e. more than 2,000,000 Tugrik), this expectation was justified. For reasons of comparison: this is roughly equivalent to the average monthly salary in Mongolia.

We trusted in the experience of your agency and in the fact that your company meets the high demands of individual travelers and organizes an above-average travel experience in view of the not exactly cheap daily price. Our expectations were not met across the board: Right from the start, the itinerary was planned incorrectly, as it was unfeasible in terms of kilometers; the accommodation was disastrous in places, the food was very basic and, considering the price, unjustifiable. Neither the driver nor the guide met the standards that are usually expected.

There would be a lot of details to report, all of which show that your company made no effort whatsoever in the preparation and execution and treated us like dump and inexperienced tourists who could be driven around at will. For reasons of space, I will limit myself to the essentials, although I will go into detail on some aspects so that you can properly grasp the situation.

1. the drivers

Driver No. 1 was in no way prepared for the planned route. He searched for the ger camp on August 6th together with the guide, who also had no idea what it was about, for an hour and a half, driving back and forth through the countryside. 

On 08 August the driver got completely lost in the Khenti Mountains and struggled for hours through high forest on a track that was easily recognizable as a side road. He steered us into a brook without need, which we only managed to get out of with difficulty. 

We then forced him to turn back. He had completely lost his orientation, which was demonstrated by the fact that he pointed to an uninhabited yurt in the distance, saying that it was facing completely the wrong way to the north. We were very surprised by this, as it is a fact of life in Mongolia that yurts face south without exception. As the sky was overcast and the sun was barely visible, I used my compass to show him and the guide the right direction. 

After the driver had found the right turn-off with our help, he drove us on a muddy, deeply rutted track in the forest due to excessive speed (which the driver then admitted) against a tree. The speed immediately before the collision was over 40 km/h. Thank God there were no injuries apart from the guide's bruised knee.

When I asked the guide to inform the agency's office in Ulan Bator, I learned that neither the driver's nor the guide's cell phone had reception. There was no satellite phone, a deficiency that could not be justified, and which shows that your agency does not particularly care about the well-being of its customers. I don't even want to imagine what would have happened if there had been a serious injury, such as broken limbs. Later, when talking to your agency, I insisted that the replacement driver bring a satellite phone.

After the accident, I looked for nomads with the tour guide and finally spotted a yurt about 5 km away with my binoculars. At the nomads we had a telephone connection again for the first time.

We spent the rest of the day and the night with nomads with the usual restrictions. As my wife doesn't eat mutton, she only had dry bread with honey.

On 09 August the replacement driver T., who had been sent from Ulan Bator, reached us at the nomad camp. Near the settlement N. he took the wrong track, turning right instead of left. My wife and I pointed out the mistake to him and asked him to drive back to the turn-off. He refused and instead tried to take a shortcut through a shallow, marshy valley with a small stream running through it. We warned T. twice not to drive through this swampy area and asked him to turn back, which he refused to do. As could be foreseen, he got stuck in the water. To cut a long story short: After about 4 hours, another car pulled us out of the swamp. We drove on during the night to Ch. which we reached around midnight.

As an aside, your employee, whom I later contacted about this incident, apparently regarded this getting stuck in the swamp as quite normal, saying "That's just the way Mongolia is!". Such a remark was inappropriate, as this was an avoidable incident. Anyone can get lost once in a while, but stubbornness and know-it-all won’t get you back on the right track.

Further comments on the driver: He regularly drove at excessive speed and ignored our requests to slow down (we didn't want to break any speed record); he was unable to clean the windows in the morning before departure (we wanted to see the landscape around us) and I had to keep asking him to do so. On the way to B. he almost got stuck in the mud again because he wanted to take a side road instead of the main road.

2. the tour guide

O. told us right at the beginning of the trip that she worships the mountain spirit (and other nature gods) and spent most of her time making offerings to this spirit and others, completely forgetting about us. I respect the religious beliefs of others, but not that I, as a customer, have to wait for the guide because she has not yet distributed her offerings. This is what happened at B. Monastery (and also in other places), where she didn't care about us at all, but just talked to the lama and explained her offerings. I then explored the extensive grounds myself with my wife and with the help of the guidebook I had brought from Germany. 

O. had not prepared for the trip in any way. She knew neither the camps nor the hotels. In Ch. I had to explain to her which sights I wanted to see beyond the Aimag Museum. I had to ask her to translate inscriptions and information boards, she didn't come up with the idea herself. As I speak Russian, she only had to translate the Mongolian texts anyway, but it was obviously too much to ask her to do it on her own. I repeatedly confronted her about such carelessness, but ultimately to no avail. I was particularly annoyed that my wife and I had to wait for her all the time and that she apparently considered it normal that we had to adapt to her schedule instead of her to ours. She took particular pleasure in explaining everything to the driver, but not to us. 

Overall, I consider this guide to be completely unsuitable, at least not for individual travelers, nor for trips that are out of the ordinary.

3. the accommodation/catering

The accommodations were in no way commensurate with the high daily rate. Some examples: 

In Camp B. there was friendly service, but unacceptable toilets/washing facilities and no shower.

In the town of B., where we spent the night unplanned because the planned route for the day could not be adhered to, there was no running water in the hotel and an outhouse, of course with no water. The breakfast was unappetizingly heaped on a plate, but was still better than most of the others.

None of the camps/hotels served coffee (powder) or milk/butter for breakfast. Jam only rarely and on request. This is incomprehensible because these foods are available in every Soum town. But obviously the landlords have no interest, and your agency obviously doesn't care either. The guide lent us coffee powder from her stocks and my wife had instant coffee with her because she only drinks decaffeinated coffee. 

The planned camp in D. was closed. The landlords could not be reached via the telephone number known to the guide. Fortunately, O. Was able to arrange accommodation in a guesthouse, but this was without running water and had an outhouse without toilet paper. We bought our breakfast in the local stores.

At the hotel in Ch. they wanted to give us a cramped standard room instead of the deluxe room we had booked, because all the rooms in the deluxe category had been allocated to a delegation. When we insisted on a deluxe, we were shown the only remaining one that had not been offered to the delegation for good reason: it overlooked a narrow courtyard filled with vehicles, machines were roaring in the adjacent room and a window could not be closed. We then moved into another hotel.

It was one of the highlights of the trip when O. asked us if we had sleeping bags with us, after we were once again looking where we could spend the night because the planning hadn't worked out! 

4. the itinerary

The itinerary could not be adhered to in the originally planned form. Even the first day of the route could not have been covered in a reasonable amount of time if we had visited the Tsonjinboldog Chinggis Khaan Complex, which we didn't do because we knew it. The route from B. to D. was impossible to cover in a day, which is why we had to spend the night in a Soum town and therefore missed Dadal, an important place in connection with Chinghis Khan.

The crowning moment came on 11 August in Choibalsan. We had already realized that the planned route through the southeast (passing through Khalkin Gol and roughly following the Chinese border) was not feasible due to the distance and the road conditions and asked the guide and the driver for a discussion after breakfast. The guide then told us that we should not worry because the route had been changed and that the office in Ulan Bator had canceled the southeast (Darianga) and that we would instead return to the west and spend the rest of the time (= 7 days) in ger camps within a radius of 300 kilometers from Ulan Bator. Isn't that what we had been told in Ulan Bator before the start of the trip?

This turn of events put my patience to the test, as nothing had been communicated to us. The agency had arbitrarily changed a significant part of the route without informing us and without even asking us. 

I immediately phoned Ulan Bator and complained in no uncertain terms about this outrageous procedure, which was a completely unacceptable way of presenting us with a fait accompli. The contact person apologized and explained that the camp intended for overnight stay was closed. But this should/could have been known in advance.

I then insisted on driving south and decided on a new route with my wife, which was then implemented. However, it is not the tourist's job to ensure proper organization.

Let me summarize:

The planning of the trip was bumbling and ill-considered. It was not carried out as planned, and essential parts of the planned tour were omitted without asking us, contrary to what had been agreed. 

Your agency did nothing to ensure an appropriate quality of driver, tour guide, accommodation and meals. In view of these serious shortcomings and at this price, one can only speak of usury. As a tourist, you feel taken advantage of, or bluntly spoken: abused. I know the normal prices for accommodation, food and fuel in Mongolia.

Some will argue that the east is underdeveloped in terms of tourism compared to the west and the main destinations in central Mongolia. This is true, and I don’t expect a five star hotel and French cuisine, but then you cannot charge a price that a real luxury hotel and a fancy restaurant would charge. Or you refuse to organize such a trip because you can't get it done.

In 2019, I planned a round trip through western Mongolia myself and arranged and carried it out with a Mongolian former driver from an embassy in Ulaanbaatar. 2,500 km went without a problem. The touristic shortcomings could be overlooked as the prices were in line with what was offered. Unfortunately, the driver was not available this year. I regret not having waited a year and having used your agency instead.

Berlin, November 24, 2023