By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters
ULAN BATOR, May 19, Reuter – Western-style toilets piled outside a row of traditional Mongol felt tents tell the story plainly, the central Asian country of Mongolia has decided to make a play for Western tourists and their hard cash.
The felt tents, situated in a pleasant corner of the vast, empty grasslands, are an attractive draw for visitors looking for an ethnic touch to their holiday.
But up to now the vast majority of tourists to Mongolia have come from its Soviet bloc allies in Eastern Europe. Western tourists are notoriously harder to please when it comes to plumbing.
Mongolia has been virtually off-limits to visitors from non-communist countries for decades, except for a handful of people passing through Ulan Bator on the week-long train journey between Moscow and Peking.
Officials say Mongolia had 250,000 visitors last year, 90 per cent of whom came from Soviet bloc countries.
That leaves only 25,000 tourists from the rest of the world. More than half were in transit and may hardly have stepped off the train.
Increasing the numbers won’t be easy. Mongolia is one of the world’s most isolated countries and can only be reached via China or the Soviet Union.
There are two through trains a week, one each from Moscow and Peking, and the Mongolian state airline runs an occasional charter service to Peking during the summer.
Aeroflot has a daily flight to Moscow, but it is almost always booked up well in advance ferrying members of the large Soviet expatriate community in Mongolia back and forth.
The winter is long and bitter with temperatures dropping to as low as minus 40 degrees celsius (also minus 40 F.). The summer is wonderful but too short.
The tourist season lasts a brief five months from May to September, during which the two 400-bed tourist hotels in Ulan Bator are constantly full.
Talks are under way with a Yugoslav company to build another 400-bed hotel, which might be finished in a couple of years, but officials betray no sense of urgency.
There is not all that much here yet for ordinary foreign tourists anyway.
Ulan Bator, the capital, has a number of museums but the country’s main attraction are the endless grasslands on which, as one traveller put it, a tree is an event.
There are tourist camps, where visitors can spend a night in a felt-covered tent to get a taste of the life led by the nomadic herders of Central Asia, although when the toilets are installed, they will lose a touch of realism.
There are almost no opportunities yet for the obvious pursuits of hiking and horse riding.
But one class of visitor is being well-looked after, the rich hunter interested in shooting some of Mongolia’s wide range of wild life.
Prices range up to 16,000 U.S. dollars for bagging a snow leopard.
Ulan Bator, which is home to a quarter of Mongolia’s two million people, reflects the huge amounts of money the Soviet Union and its allies have pumped into Mongolia over the past 20 years.
The city is dominated by rows of dull Soviet-built apartment blocks. In the city centre, only the faces of the passers-by and the traditional gowns some wear remind the visitor that this is part of Asia.
The people mostly look gentle and friendly, hardly a hint of the ferocity and vigor that Genghis Khan harnessed in the 13th century to create the Mongol Empire.
As the one Mongolian the whole world has heard of, Genghis Khan should be Mongolia’s biggest publicity draw, but the official tourist literature makes not the slightest mention of him.
Officials are embarrassed when questioned about the omission, but they explain that the great Khan’s warlike approach to diplomacy does not mesh well with present-day Mongolia’s self-image as a champion of world peace.
Ten minutes from the centre of Ulan Bator and you are already on the rolling grasslands, which have been home to the Mongols and their herds of horses, camels and cattle since time immemorial.
The steppe looks enchanting in summer when it is covered in edelweiss and a host of other wild flowers. But foreign residents say picnics are not quite as idyllic as would be expected.
“The problem is the whole grassland is covered in dung, and the horseflies are huge,” complained one resident.
The official tourist organisation, Zhuulchin, is responsible for shepherding all visitors through the country. It operates the hotels in Ulan Bator and three tourist camps including one near the ruins of Genghis Khan’s capital of Karakorum.
It provides all tourists with guides, and not just for reasons of hospitality and convenience, it would seem.
The Public Security Minister warned in a speech last year that with foreign contacts growing and the number of people visiting Mongolia expanding, some people were slackening their vigilance and disclosing state secrets to visitors.
Others, he said, were “doing deals in foreign currency, and things they want in trade, and selling their nation’s historical and cultural inheritance and other valuable and rare things for export”.
“I came in by train from the Soviet Union,” said Kay, a tourist from Colorado.
“I was hoping to be able to look round on my own, but literally two seconds after I got off the train at Ulan Bator station, there was my guide. It would be nice if you could do it alone, but it ain’t allowed,” she said. REUTER