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Mellow Mongolia

On Mongolia's vast grasslands, time is measured not in minutes or hours but by how long it takes milk to become cream, when a family's yaks decide to amble home for the night, the red embers in an iron stove fading to black.
A view of the Terelj National Park near Ulan Bator, Mongolia, May 27, 2005. Ng Han Guan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On Mongolia's vast grasslands, time is measured not in minutes or hours but by how long it takes milk to become cream, when a family's yaks decide to amble home for the night, the red embers in an iron stove fading to black.

Mongolia is one of the last unspoiled travel destinations, where nomadic herders live as they have for centuries and livestock graze unfettered across the gray-green steppe.

It was from here that Genghis Khan's armies conquered China and threatened Europe some 700 years ago, and where round white tents with colorful wooden doors still dot the countryside.

To travel to Mongolia is to step back in time. There are no American fast-food franchises. No luxury hotels, either.

Instead, rent a horse or camel to survey the endless plains, sit back and watch as Mongolian cowboys tame a wild yak, climb the steps to a pristine Buddhist monastery built into the side of a mountain, or relax with a family of herders while sipping big bowls of salted milk tea.

Fifteen years after this former Soviet satellite made the peaceful transition to democracy in 1990, its travel industry is just now getting off the ground. Prices are low, and tour operators offer personalized service, as well as friendly young guides eager to practice their English and tell the world about their storied land.

An Associated Press photographer and I had traveled to Mongolia for work and wanted to sneak in some sightseeing. We did nothing in the way of preparation and still got exactly what we wanted.

A day after meeting with the very helpful B. Uranchimeg, general director of SSS Travel, we were off to the stunning Terelj National Park where we stayed in big felt tents heated by crackling wood fires.

It was good to get out of the city. Mongolia is endlessly fascinating but also desperately poor. The economy collapsed with the end of Soviet aid, as factories were forced to close and herders lost their monthly wages. Today, the capital city of Ulan Bator is a maze of shantytowns where street children rummage through garbage cans for food.

Ulan Bator is also a place where very little works. The shower head in my hotel room offered little more than a steady drip, so I washed the dust out of my hair each morning by shoving my head under the bathtub spout.

The hotel's business center would close hours early if the manager felt like going home. Contacting the AP's computer network to file a story often meant making an international call to Beijing - racking up hundreds of dollars in phone charges.

AP photographer Ng Han Guan joked that we should get out of the city just to stop bleeding money.

We didn't need to go far.

Just 20 minutes from the city center, the grasslands stretch out forever. An hour out is the national park. Adventure travelers would say the park isn't really the countryside. There are hotels for those who don't want to stay in tents. Our cell phones still had reception.

For those with more than a few days, the tour operators can organize weeks of trekking. Our guide, Chaagii, told of taking a group of Westerners on a 10-day camping trip, when they stayed with herders, ate with them and learned about their lives. One night, they even set their own Mongolian tent - called a ger - which is made of layers of wool felt on wooden poles. An iron stove in the center sends smoke through a pipe leading out the top.

But we were on the company clock, and the park offered everything we wanted and more.

Terelj - also known as Gorkhi-Terelj for the surrounding Gorkhi mountains - is said to be home to more than 250 species of birds, as well as rare brown bears. It's a bit touristy in parts, but also convenient.

There are horse and camel rentals, plus countless hiking trails and a Buddhist monastery high in the hills. Monks fleeing communist purges in the 1930s hid in the caves that cut into the blue-gray mountains.

Nomads are free to roam the park's vast hills, and they are justly known for their generosity. Visitors - no matter how foreign - are welcomed with bowls of tea and yogurt as well as homemade cookies served with a delicious heavy cream that is boiled and left to sit until it turns as thick as butter.

Their schedule revolves around their livestock - yaks, horses, sheep, goats - and as we sat with one family waiting for their yaks to come home and be milked, time slowed to a crawl. The sky turned from blue to gray, the wind picked up a bracing chill, all thoughts of modem troubles and looming deadlines were an ocean away.

I can't wait to go back.

If you go:

WHEN TO GO: Mongolian winters are bitterly cold, with nighttime temperatures often as low as minus 18. June through September, daytime temperatures in the high 60s to low 70s.

GETTING THERE: The Mongolian airline MIAT flies to Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow and Berlin. Ulan Bator also is served by Air China, Russia's Aeroflot and Korean Airlines.

COSTS: For a 1 1/2-day trip to Terelj National Park from Ulan Bator, we paid $194 for two people including transportation, accommodation, and three large meals. Roundtrip airfare to Ulan Bator from Beijing was $385.

MONEY: Bring cash. The ATMs in Mongolia aren't connected to international networks like Cirrus, though apparently some take credit cards. The currency is the tugrik, which is freely convertible.

TOUR GUIDE: We used SSS Travel, or (011) (976-11) 328-410.