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Hungary: Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget

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Ah Budapest! How beautiful you are. I mean talk about epic architecture, scenic rivers and hilly surroundings… this city seems to have a bit of everything.

From the grand Parliament building set on the tranquil Danube River to the historic Castle Hill, there are plenty of places to explore and top-quality sights to see for the city-loving traveller. The ruin bars of the Jewish Quarter transport you to the shabby-chic akin to Berlin’s alt warehouses, and for those that love to party, these bars are open till the early hours every single day. For those of you in need of something a little more relaxing, treat yourself to one of the many thermal spas dotted around the city, or take a trip to Margaret Island to practice mindfulness in nature. There is so much history to be learnt, from the Fascist invasion in World War II, followed by strict communist ruling for the next 40 years, the wounds of Hungary’s past can be felt throughout the city and spotted in the ornate crumbling buildings.

 
Beautiful architecture on the Pest side of the city

Beautiful architecture on the Pest side of the city

 

We loved Budapest, it has definitely made it onto the top of our favourite European cities list. If you are looking for a cheap place to spend a few days, breath-taking architecture and plenty of sights to keep you busy then Budapest sounds like the place for you.

Take a look at our suggested ‘Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget’…..


Get Hungry At The Great Market Hall

This epic hall houses the largest indoor market in Budapest and its expansive neo-Gothic architecture makes for an impressive experience.  The metal framed roof structure is a clear draw, giving the space a light and airy feel whilst imposing its Gothic form over the hall.  Split over 3 floors, you'll find a range of cooked foods such as lángos and goulash, Hungarian souvenirs and fresh groceries including fruit and veg, baked breads and pastries, local cheeses and cured meats... yum!  The cherry strudel is worth a try, as is the pogácsa (Hungarian scone).... we really are suckers for baked goods!  A good time to head there would be for lunch when you can pick up a selection of fresh foods and take them to the Danube for a munch.  Yes it is touristy, but there are also a lot of locals picking up their groceries too.

The market is open Monday to Saturday 6am-6pm but closes early on Mondays at 5pm and 3pm on Saturdays. Address is Budapest, Vámház krt. 1-3, 1093.

www.budapestmarkethall.com

 
The neo-Gothic Great Market Hall

The neo-Gothic Great Market Hall

 

Escape The City On Margaret Island

If you’re looking for green space and an escape from the erratic Hungarian driving then Margaret Island is the place for you.  Positioned in the middle of the Danube river, the island is a hub for sports, leisure activities and leafy spaces, offering tourists and locals a place to connect with fitness and nature.  There is a 5.5km running track which spans the island (make sure you run in the correct direction!), walking routes, cycle routes and plenty of places to hire bikes, tandems and pedalos.  The island also features its own medieval ruins, a lido and national swimming pool, a Japanese garden and some famous musical fountains (although these were being renovated when we visited).  In the summer, the open-air concert venue puts on shows to the public and the green spaces are filled with beer-drinking sun worshipers.  This is one of the most popular parks in Budapest and we would definitely recommend a visit.

The island can be accessed halfway along Margaret Bridge and is open day and night all year round.  Trams 4 and 6 stop just outside on the bridge and bus no. 26 from Nyugati station takes you all the way in. Otherwise it’s a 45 minute walk from the Jewish Quarter.

 
Wintery but still pretty, one of the greens on Margaret Island

Wintery but still pretty, one of the greens on Margaret Island

 


Learn About Hungary’s Tortured Past

A visit to the House of Terror is a must when coming to Budapest as it highlights the atrocities of both the Fascist and Communist rulings of Hungary during the 20th century.  The museum tells a sad story of Budapest, from the Nazi take over towards the end of the Second World War, the result was the mass genocide of thousands of Hungarian (and European) Jews. Those horrors were quickly followed by Soviet communist rule for the next 40 years. The country was brought to it’s knees and an unimaginable number of people lost their lives in horrendous ways at the hands of both regimes.  The museum is set in the former headquarters of the Fascist Arrow Cross party and later State Security services, where it was used as a prison and place of torture for those who were thought to have gone against the government.  Some of the prison area still remains in the basement and forms part of the exhibition, it’s very 1984! Scarily it is not known how far these cells went underground because the tunnels had been filled in with concrete by the time the Soviets had left.  The information is well written and engaging, but most of the memorabilia is not described or translated into English.

Entry is 3000 huf (£8.12) per person and the museum is open 10am-6pm daily, closing on Mondays.

www.terrorhaza.hu

 
The House Of Terror Museum

The House Of Terror Museum

 



Ride The Number 2 Tram

This was recommended to us by a Budapest local who goes out of her way to take this tram every day to work.  Running along the east side of the Danube river, the tram ride is ridiculously scenic, with views of Buda Castle, Liberty Statue on Gellert Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side of the city.  The tram takes a winding route around Parliament building with spectacular views from 3 sides.  The tram itself is pretty retro, with pairs of window seats facing each other in a rickety-style carriage.  We really enjoyed this trip and for 350huf (95p) a go, it is definitely worth it!

You can catch the number 2 tram northbound from the architecturally award-winning Fovam ter station, all the way up to the entrance of Margaret Island on Margaret Bridge.  We would recommend sitting on the left-hand side for optimum views over the river and Parliament building.

Make sure you punch your ticket in the machine on the tram as they are hot on fines if you get caught!

 
The view from the number 2 tram window of the Parliament building

The view from the number 2 tram window of the Parliament building

 

Marvel At The Parliament Building

Rarely do I go to a city and think that the architecture is more impressive than Londons, but Budapest is definitely one of those cities that would give it a run for its money.  The Hungarian Parliamentary Building is a prime example of this, it’s grand scale makes it the one of the largest buildings in Hungary and it’s Gothic Revival-style architecture gives it an incredibly dramatic form from all angles.  This ginormous building has 20 kilometres of stairs and 691 rooms (I mean what could you possibly need 691 rooms for?!) and is the home of legislature, a workplace for members of parliament and their assistants, and guards the safe keeping of the Hungarian Holy Crown.  It is possible to tour this building costing around 3500huf (£9.47), but we were happy just looking from the outside.  For the optimum view of the Parliament building, head over to the Buda side of the river on the promenade for a full frontal view (cheeky!).

www.parlament.hu

 
The epic Parliament building, as seen from the Buda side of the city

The epic Parliament building, as seen from the Buda side of the city

 


Be Wowed By Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

Touristy I know, but 100% worth a visit (or maybe even two), this ruin bar is an impressive conversion of a disused factory and now is a cultural centre for music, film, food and nightlife.  The space itself is an awe-inspiring shabby chic mishmash of quirky objects, graffiti, plants and lighting, making it look more like a post-apocolyptic filmset rather than a pub.  You can’t help but be amazed on first entry, the sheer scale and work that’s gone into the decor is pretty overwhelming.  The building contains many sub-rooms and hangout areas throughout, sprawling across 2 floors and an outdoor area, so you can always find a spot to suit your mood.  

Since opening in 2002, Szimpla Kert has had a green and eco outlook; by promoting sustainable urban living, by giving up-and-coming musicians a platform to perform from, and by serving locally grown food produce to its customers.  Every Sunday the venue hosts a farmers market, where locals can pick up good quality sustainable produce at affordable prices.  It also gives the opportunity for the consumer to re-connect with the farmers which is a huge issue that needs to be addressed in our food industry today.  

Overall, this is a lovely place to come down for a coffee or beer on an afternoon, or for a few drinks in the evening with friends.  If you’re lucky enough to be around on a Sunday then the market runs from 9am-2pm, and if you can afford a bottomless brunch for 5000huf (£13.50) then you will be reassured in the knowledge that you are eating some top quality produce and supporting a sustainable food industry.

Open daily 12pm-4am, and 9am-4am on Sundays.

www.szimpla.hu

 
Szimpla Kert by night, palm plants and colourful lighting

Szimpla Kert by night, palm plants and colourful lighting

 


Take A Stroll Up To The Historic Castle Hill

The Castle District on the Buda side of the city is home to a number of key attractions including the ornate Matthias Church, the Disney-like Fisherman’s Bastion, the popular funicular and Buda Castle itself.  This medieval UNESCO World Heritage site offers spanning views over the Danube river and city, and makes for a lovely morning or afternoons exploration along the cobbled streets of the Old Town and leafy hillsides.  The neo-gothic style Fisherman’s Bastion was actually built in the early 20th century specially as a viewing platform and sits next to the colourfully tiled gothic Matthias Church.  You can walk along the old castle walls of Buda Castle for great views out over the city and explore inside the courtyards for free, and for the contemporary architecture-lovers out there, you’ll enjoy the oxidised steel staircases that lead you up to the old castle walls.

The funicular, which takes you from Chain Bridge up to the top of Castle Hill, is the second oldest of its kind in the world and was built 150 years ago.  Amazingly, it functions on a system of weights and counterweights, maintaining its traditional engineering systems.  If you want a quick and novel way of getting up the hill then this is for you but to be honest we were happy with the stroll.

We visited in February and it wasn’t too busy, but this is apparently the most popular tourist attraction in all of Budapest so expect it to be bustling in peak season.  Apparently a good time to visit is just before sunset when most tourists have headed back to the Pest side for the day.

Castle Hill is open all hours of to explore, but if you want to go into specific buildings then standard opening hours will apply.  It’s free to walk around outside so is great for the budget traveller, but you have to pay for entry to any of the attractions.

 
The colourful tiled roof of St Matthias Church on Castle Hill

The colourful tiled roof of St Matthias Church on Castle Hill

 

Enjoy The View At The Citadel

The walk up to the Citadel is a pleasant meander around the leafy hillsides, with many routes and paths leading up to the top.  As you ascend the path, views over the Danube and Pest side of the city unfold before you, until you reach the top of Gellért Hill with its beautiful panoramic views over the city below.  The citadel itself is a 19th century fortress made from stone, still with bullet holes displaying the tragedies of Hungary’s troubled past. Gellért Hill is a nice spot to bring a picnic, with grassy places to sit down and plenty of benches to perch on.  There isn’t loads to do at the Citadel other than to enjoy the view, but this is one of the free things to do in Budapest so it’s worth a trip.

You can get to the Citadel walking paths by crossing either Elisabeth Bridge or Szabadsag Bridge and then walking up.

 
Me and my bump at the top of the Citadel viewing platform

Me and my bump at the top of the Citadel viewing platform

 

Get Inspired At The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

A walk down the promenade from the Great Market Hall to the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art is a must as it’s one of the only car-free sections next to the Danube River.  The gallery itself is the only public collection in the country that houses art from both local and international artists, and therefore is crucial to the contemporary art scene.  The museum was founded by Peter and Irene Ludwig, avid collectors of contemporary art, who owned a whopping collection of 12,000 pieces!  They needed somewhere to store their collection right?! And since 2005 the Ludwig Museum has been located in the architecturally impressive building, Palace of Arts.  Although the collection on display wasn’t my favourite, it still made an enjoyable mornings activity and I would say that the building itself is worth a visit (if you like modern architecture that is).  The museum has a perminant collection of artworks and a temporary exhibition space which changes 8-10 times a year.

Entry is 2,400huf (£6.50) for both the permanent and temporary exhibitions and the gallery is open Tues-Sun 10am-8pm.

www.ludwigmuseum.hu

 
Contemporary architecture at The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

Contemporary architecture at The Ludwig Museum Of Contemporary Art

 

Soak Up The Vibe At The Jewish Quarter

If you are looking for trendy eateries, cool bars and somewhere to let-lose then the Jewish Quarter is the place for you.  Ruin bars such as Szimpla Kert, Instant and Fogas Ház offer clubbers a place to party until the early hours (any day of the week) in a fun and care-free environment.  The Jewish Quarter is the hub of eating out with a huge array of international cuisines being served from Thai to American-style burgers, and Vietnamese to European dishes.  You can pretty much find any food you want here including very cheap donner kebabs served from a man in a booth!  There are plenty of lovely coffee shops to relax in, independent boutiques such as the inspiring concept store Printa, and small art galleries like The Kahan Art Space to explore.  We spent a lot of our time here, wondering the beautiful streets and stopping off for the odd coffee/beer to relax our legs.  The Jewish Quarter is a great place to base yourself for your trip to Budapest.

 
Inside concept store Printa with its plywood fittings

Inside concept store Printa with its plywood fittings

 

Food

Reading of all the Hungarian foods we wanted to try before our trip, we were super excited at the thought of Lángos (a fried bread smothered in cream cheese), goulash (a beef soupy-stew with spices), Kürtös Kalács (chimney cake which is a tube of sweet bread rolled in sugar) and all the various cheeses, cured meats meat soups and cakes, we were really sad to say that we were disappointed all round and didn’t find any of what we tried that tasty.  We mostly went to étkezdes which are Hungarian home-cooked food style cheap eateries, but each time we found the food a bit underwhelming in flavour and there just wasn’t very much of it! The Lángos was probably the biggest let down, I mean surely you can’t go wrong with bread and cheese right?  But apparently you can and the whole thing was just oily and flavourless despite going to one of the most popular stalls in town, Retró Lángos Büfé.  The best thing we probably ate was a Hungarian desert of walnut dumplings with vanilla sauce (which was a bit like an English bread pudding with custard) but other than that we didn’t feel like there was much to shout about.  Sorry Hungary, did we miss something?!  

 
Believe it or not, this was the best thing we ate!

Believe it or not, this was the best thing we ate!

 

On our last day we spotted a budget cafe in a food hall called Mangalica Heaven which was actually much cheaper than the other étkezdes we had visited, such as Kádár Étkezde and Frici Papa.  You can get 2 courses for around 1200huf (£3.25) and the place was really busy at lunchtime which was a good sign.  For those of you travelling on a budget, be aware that most of the étkezdes are only open in the weekdays for lunch and then are closed in the evenings and weekends.  Perhaps you just need to spend a bit more to get tastier Hungarian food?  I really hope you have better luck with the food than we did!

 
Lángos, it looks the part but just tastes like grease!

Lángos, it looks the part but just tastes like grease!

 

Where We Didn’t Get To….

Our trip was cut a bit short due to Mark getting the flu for 3 days and so there were a couple of activities that we wanted to do but didn’t get round to.  Although they are a bit on the expensive side, we would have liked to have gone to one of the famous spas such as the Gellért or Széchenyi Baths, both known for their thermal waters and healing qualities.  There is Memento Park, a sculpture park on the outskirts of the city displaying all the communist monuments and sculptures that once stood in Budapest during the soviet regime.  If we had visited outside of the winter months when the leaves were on the trees then we would have taken a trip out to the Buda Hills, an expanse of green space in the city where you can find trekking routes and perfect spots for a picnic.  The Hungarian National Museum was being renovated when we visited, but it would have been interesting to see some national artefacts and learn a bit more about the countries history.   If you can spare 16 Euro a ticket (ouch!), then the Dohány Street Synagogue looked like it would have been worth a visit as it’s the largest synagogue in the world outside of Israel.  Other than that, I think we covered most of the main attractions that we were interested in, and mostly it was just interesting to walk around and explore the city.

 
The Dohany Street Synagogue

The Dohany Street Synagogue

 

We hope our article 'Top Things To Do In Budapest On A Budget’ was helpful for you, feel free to leave any comments in the box below (especially if you have any more suggestions about the food!).

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Armenia: 8 Things To Do In Yerevan

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Yerevan’s modern aesthetic might just take you by surprise.  Located in the Caucasus, this neat capital city is more Westenised then you might imagine and yet is deeply rooted in a turmoil of history from the barbaric Armenian genocide to over half a decade of repressive soviet rule.  And yet against all odds it has come out the other side, offering a plethora of high quality experiences for the traveller, from delicious traditional foods to well presented museums.  

 

This is the perfect place to visit for the budget backpacker, where you can enjoy a pint of beer in a cafe for as little as 800 dram (£1.20) and entry to some of their top museums for only 1000 dram (£1.50).  We loved Yerevan’s relaxing setting and ended up staying for 5 nights, enjoying the fresh bread from the bakeries and climbing up to the viewpoints over the city.  As far as capital cities go, this one feels very homely and there is plenty of activities to make this a must-visit destination.  Here are our top picks of things to do in Yerevan....

A fun aztec-style carpet in the Centre of Popular Creation

A fun aztec-style carpet in the Centre of Popular Creation

 

Appreciate Armenian Craftsmanship At The Centre of Popular Creation

This small museum is home to some of the finest examples of folk art in Armenia, and holds a strong collection of woodwork, metalwork, textiles, carpets, traditional costume, lace and embroidery.  The collection has developed over the last 90 years and still to this day the museum supports and displays works of current Armenia artists and craftsmen.  We were told that many artefacts were lost during their troubled history, in the years of the genocide and then later in soviet rule, which is why lots on display has been created in a strange time-hoping timeline.  We were particularly impressed with the woodwork, the hand-carvings of geometric patterns and inlays are so intricate and immaculately done that we left feeling very inspired.  The museum is quite small and not very busy, but definitely worth a visit for only 1,000 dram.  Entry is from 11am-5pm and is closed on Mondays.

Intricate wooden inlays and other handicrafts

Intricate wooden inlays and other handicrafts

 

Enjoy A Refined Breakfast At Lavash

Everyone needs a treat once in a while, and what better way to treat yourself than to eat some tasty food in an enjoyable setting.  In warm months you can sit outside and enjoy breakfast in the fresh air, with a coffee in-hand choosing from a menu of delicious sounding dishes.  The mushroom crepe is a must and comes in two parts so you can share with a friend, and the honey, walnut and butter wrap is probably one of the most intense things we have ever eaten!  An insanely sweet pudding with a thick wedge of butter inside.  We didn’t know whether to love it or hate it. 

We’ve heard that the traditional Armenian cheese balls are a hit but didn’t get round to trying them, maybe you can let us know how they were.  The decor is pleasingly natural-looking and considered, imagine speckled plates and crisp glassware neatly laid out on tables.  Generally the portion sizes are quite small, but the richness of the food seems to make up for it, so order an extra plate to share if your budget allows.  Lavash is open 8.30am-12am and they open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Our bill came to £7.85 for 2 dishes and 2 coffees, so not the cheapest, by local standards but great by European. It’s worth the splash out for a high quality experience.

Delicious mushroom crepes with yoghurt dip

Delicious mushroom crepes with yoghurt dip

 

Visit The Armenian Genocide Memorial & Museum

You can’t help leaving the museum with the heaviest heart and anger at what happened a hundred years ago to the Armenian people.  During Turkey’s last empire, The Ottoman Empire, the imploding Young Turks government callously exterminated 1.5 million people in Armenia including men, women, children and the elderly on the basis that they were Christian, which they believed diluted the strong Islamic traditions of the empire.  The Ottoman government used World War I as an opportunity to invade and coverup their atrocities, as they knew the focus would be elsewhere at the time.  It wasn’t until years later that the rest of the world became aware of the scale of the massacre, and it was too late to stop it.  The modern museum is dedicated to explaining the atrocities of the genocide, the invasion by the Ottoman Empire and the devastating impact it had on the people of Armenia.  It’s pretty heavy going as you can imagine, but it’s important to raise of what happened as recognition of the genocide.  The museum is situated on the top of the hill on the western side of Yerevan city and has an amazing view of Mt Ararat, along with a contemporary metal sculptural memorial marking the remembrance of the genocide.  Entry is free and is open from 11am - 4pm, closing on Mondays.

The stark genocide memorial sculpture

The stark genocide memorial sculpture

 

Have A Rummage At Vernissage Market

This open air handicraft market covers handmade, mass produced and second-hand Armenian products, from laser cut wooden items to resin jewellery, and antique brassware to musical instruments.  It makes for an interesting afternoons stroll wondering down the long market lanes browsing the wears.  Some of the products are standard tourist fair, but actually lots of the stalls are offering something different from one another.  Refreshingly, the sellers are not too pushy, maybe just keen to show you their items if you vest some interest.  There are a number of locals selling antique Armenian carpets and throws, many of which are in mint condition and are as old as a century.  Another highlight is seeing the hand painted artworks by the local artists.  The content of the artworks is generally quite traditional, so expect to see fruit bowls, landscapes, cheesy horses running through water etc, but occasionally you’ll see someone doing things a bit differently.  It’s best to visit at the weekend when more sellers turn out, and if you are looking to do a bit of haggling this may not be the place.  The price given does tend to be the final price but there’s no harm in trying to get a better deal.  The market is open 7am - 6pm daily.

Rugs, rugs and more rugs!

Rugs, rugs and more rugs!

 

Eat Lahmacun With The Locals

If you don’t already know, Lahmacun is a delicious flatbread with a spicy layer of meat on top and is served like a pizza.  You can get Lahmancuns in many neighbouring countries but in Armenia they are also known as Armenian pizza.  The locals love eating this as a snack, and they like to fold each slice over before taking a bite.  If you head to the restaurant next to Lavash on Tumanyan street, you will see many locals eating Lahmacuns there, and if meats not your thing then they also do a vege alternative with Zatar (middle eastern herbs, sesame seeds and oil) on bread.  Both pizzas are utterly morish, and for 900 dram and 750 dram, you really can’t go wrong.  If you also fancy a pint to wash it down then they sell draught beer for 800 dram, which is cheap for Yerevan.

Zataar flatbread pizza, yum!

Zataar flatbread pizza, yum!

 

Get Up To Date At The History Museum Of Armenia

This national museum holds the largest collection of historical artefacts in Armenia, many of which were discovered in 1950’s when the water level at lake Sevan decreased by 20 meters in height and revealed acres of unseen before land.  The museum collection is extensive and consists of Bronze Age artefacts, ceramics, arms and weapons, information on the Armenian genocide, and an incredible wooden chariot excavated from Lchashen near the lake.  The signage is generally good and each room has an information board explaining the timeline of events and all other relevant info.  It’s strictly no photography inside the museum and there are many invigilators walking round to enforce the rule.  Entry is 2,000 dram for adults and the museum is open 11am-6pm daily but closed on Mondays.

No photos inside, so the entrance it is then.

No photos inside, so the entrance it is then.

 

Try Some Traditional Dishes At Tavern Yerevan

This restaurant popular with the locals is a great place to get to know Armenian cuisine as the menu is extensive, the dishes are freshly prepared and the prices are affordable.  There are a few of these restaurants scattered around Yerevan and the one we went to on Teryan street had an open bakery kitchen where you could see some very skilled workers baking the bread that they serve, rolling out flat breads the size of small tables and putting them into a tandoori oven in the ground.  We were mesmerised by the speed that they were making them and ordered a bread basket for only 300 dram to sample the yummy goodies.  The plates are starter size so you can order a few to share, or a couple for yourself if you are dining solo. You will leave feeling very full after two plates. We went for the pumpkin soup (which was deliciously creamy), tabouleh salad (very well seasoned), stuffed aubergines and bread which came to 4,400 dram between two people. That’s really not bad for fresh food, bready entertainment and great service.  The only problem you will have here is choosing from the 20 page picture menu!  Tavern Yerevan is open daily from 10am-12am.

Homemade breads, Tabouleh salad and stuffed aubergines

Homemade breads, Tabouleh salad and stuffed aubergines

 

Climb The Cascade Complex

This impressive outdoor limestone staircase offers incredible views of Yerevan city and the stunning Mt Ararat.  It was designed in the early 70s during the Soviet rule and was only completed in 2009, 18 years after it Armenia became its own republic.  The structure is unique in style, like nothing I have ever seen before, and has a strange contemporary yet minimal Soviet theme.  Water fountains are formed by 3D geometric patterns protruding from the limestone, with half circle curves that look like they’ve been borrowed from an Art Deco building.  The water fountains weren’t on when we visited, which perhaps even added to the oddness of the design.  The climb up the giant staircase might be a challenge for some, so take a few breaks and enjoy the view of the city behind you.  If you don’t feel like walking then you can jump on one of the seven escalators that run up the inside.  This is a must-see when in Yerevan and is free to access.  The monument is open at all times of day and night.

Sculpture in the Cascade Complex, Yerevan, Armenia

 

We really wanted to visit the Cafesjian Centre For The Arts but run out of time on our visit, so if you are into contemporary art then why not pop into this gallery at the same time as seeing the Cascade Complex (it’s situated just inside).

 

We hope you find our article helpful, let us know if you have any questions or other ideas!

 

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China: Top Things To Do In Dali

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Dali, the old hippy haven famous for its chilled out attitude and atmospheric beauty.  Set against the stunning backdrop of the ChanShan mountain range, the ancient city is surrounded by endless fields of growing produce and the mysterious ErHai lake. 

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

The stunning ChanShan mountains by Dali

Although Dali has changed in recent years and is now well on the radar of the youthful Chinese tourists, there is still peace to be found in this little town and lots of back alleys to be explored besides of the main shopping strip.  On a visit to Dali six years ago, we fell in love with the place and have the fondest memories of relaxed cafe culture, fresh water streams running through the cobbled lanes, and the beautiful Bai-style architecture that runs throughout the city.  

Lots of its mountain village charm still remains, but it is fast becoming a major hub for shopping for the Chinese and the prices do reflect the rise in tourism.  We still think it’s worth a visit though, and it’s arguably still more chilled out then the neighbouring Lijiang.  We have put together our recommendations from 6 days spent in Dali Ancient City...

 

Admire The Wood Workers Street

After visiting Dali in 2011, we were anxious that the ancient town would have changed beyond recognition like the rest of rapidly evolving China.  So the first place we headed for was the carpenters street we had admired such a long time ago.  Just south of the old town lies Wenxian Road, a strip of wood working studios where furniture is elaborately carved by Chinese masters.  We were elated to see that many of the studios still exist, and all manner of wooden items are still being carefully constructed from shutters to doors, and desks to cabinets.  Watching these guys work is a joy to see, many craftsmen and women are hand carving from hardwoods using a whole range of chisels and files to get the perfect finish.  The detailing is exquisite, and there is just so much of it.  We can’t help thinking that this must be a dying art form because it would take so much skill and time to do it.  This level of quality would never happen at home because it would be far too expensive! If you are into handicrafts and woodwork then we would thoroughly recommend a wonder down this street.  From the South Gate of Dali old town, take Wenxian Road and keep walking south for 5-10 minutes. 

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

Hand-carved wooden furniture in Dali

 

Eat Authentic Rice Noodles 

We got a tip off from our hostel that this restaurant serves delicious rice noodle soup and charges tourists the same price as the locals.  For those backpackers on a budget, this is what we love to hear!  For the bargain price of 10 yuan (£1.12) for a large and 8 yuan (90p) for a small, you can get yourself a delicious bowl of homemade rice noodles in broth with pork, vegetables, spring onions, parsley, garlic oil, Sichuan pepper oil, soy, chilli, and chopped peanuts.  It’s fresh, it’s zingy, it’s spicy and you can top up your seasonings as much as you want! You pretty much won’t find a cheaper lunch or dinner in town.  The noodle shop is situated on Yu'er Road a couple of minutes walk west of Dongyu street, and is called 'Qing Shi Qiao'.

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

Delicious hand-made rice noodles 

 

Eat Baba Sweet Bread

After spending 2 whole months in China, this culinary discovery was our ultimate favourite.  Imagine a freshly made buttery and doughy flat bread charred on a smokey bbq with a gooey jam and rose petal sugar centre? Mmm......! If you’re salivating as much as we are then you are going to LOVE this delightful sweet bread. Bite into a lightly crunchy outside to find a soft doughy centre oozing with sugary goodness.  It’s really naughty, but probably one of the most delicious baked goods we have ever eaten, ever.  After tasting this bread, we’re not sure how we’re going to live a life without it.  To find them, look amongst the street foods on the main strip (Remin Road) in Dali Ancient City for a round flat bread in a display case. Take note that some are sweet and some are savoury, so with meat.  If you are heading to Xizhou then you are likely to find one there in the centre of town, and it’s bbq’ed to perfection!  It’s totally worth a visit just to taste this bread.

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

Baba sweet bread after being cooked on the fire

 

Stroll Along The Mountain Pass

Looking for a scenic stroll around the Dali area? Well look no further then the mountain pass that connects Zhonghe Temple with Gantong Temple.  The stretch is flat and paved for 11km which makes it a very leisurely stroll, and winds nicely around the edge of the CangShan mountain range.  From there you can see a hazy view of ErHai lake, Dali old town and the surrounding villages that scatter the large valley.   Getting up to the route from Dali ancient city is relatively straight forward, just exit out of the West Gate and make your way up to Zhonghe Temple, following the route on maps me or google maps.  The path can be a bit steep in places although it is still very manageable.  Keep walking on past the temple and onto a flat paved path, take a left when you get there and follow the signs towards Gantong cablecar and continue on until you get to Qingbi stream. From there, there is a path all the way down to Gantong temple and Gantong mountain gate, where you can either take a cab back to Dali old town, or get to the main road and either walk back or flag down one of the buses.  We paid 10 yuan each for a cab share back to the old town.  The whole walk took us only the morning and we were back by 1pm.

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

The view on the walk from Zhonghe Temple to Gangton Temple

 

Cycle To Erhai Lake

Dali has become somewhat of a tourist trap in recent years, and although that’s ok for some of the time, it’s nice to leave the town and head into the countryside around it.  The second biggest lake in China can be found only kilometres away from Dali, and scattered around it in the valley is a mixture of old villages, crops fields and minority cultures.  Locals smile as you cycle past as they continue on with their daily lives.  A nice cycling route would be to head east out of East Gate and keep on going until you reach the town of Caicun by the water.  From there you can do a windy route north along the back roads following the signs for ‘west ring road’ all the way up to Jinguisi where you can then head west to the town of Xizhou.  The ring road is quite developed in places, and locals set up their stalls along the way hoping to sell a trinket or two to the tourists that pass.  A day on the bike can be really fun, and as you cycle along the sometimes bumpy gravel paths, you see many Chinese tourists riding along on rented scooters with plastic flowers in their hair looking all ‘hippy’, or hippy in a contrived ASOS kind of way.  There are hilarious sections by the water that have been set up for photo shoots and selfies (which has gone down a treat with the Chinese tourists), look out for the clear plastic bubble chairs and red heart props.  After you escape these weird built up sections there can be nothing but dirt tracks, little villages and the peace that surrounds ErHai lake.  If you make time to break away from the ring road, there is a lot of nature to be seen here, including many species of bird, plants and the stunning CangShan mountain range.  There are many places to rent bikes in Dali, expect to pay around 20-30 yuan (£2.25-£3.38) for a days hire.

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

Cycling in one of the ancient villages around ErHai Lake

 

Eat Treats From The Local Bakery

All backpackers on a budget know that the best way to get a good deal on tasty food is to watch where the locals go.  Well that’s exactly what we did in Dali and found ourselves an amazing bakery at really low prices.  The display shelves are stacked with tons of tasty baked goods from cookies to cakes, bread rolls to pastries.  We have somewhat been impressed with China’s baking skills, and nearly everything we tried over 2 months of being there was delicious and freshly made that day.  This bakery was the same, and the most brilliant thing about it is that the price is done by weight.  So just fill up your bag with the light stuff and pay peanuts! We opted for a sponge cake (which was honestly about the size of a small birthday cake), a large custard pastry and about 4 small cookies to munch on later, and all of that came to 7 yuan (79p)! What a bargain.  The bakery is situated near the Yincang Rd and Bo’ed Rd crossover.

The baked goods in question....

The baked goods in question....

 

Get A Massage

You can’t come to the laid-back town of Dali without treating yourself to a massage.  Dali has been known for some time as the hippy expat capital of Yunnan and travellers have been coming here for decades to soak up the chilled out lifestyle of bars, cafes and the incredible natural scenery.  How better to relax into this culture other than to get a massage in one of the local salons.  The cheapest one we found was 88 yuan (£9.90) for 1 hour 20 mins which included a foot soak, an oil foot massage and a full body local massage (through clothes).  It was actually pretty good, although we always find that many environments in China aren’t particularly relaxing, what with a kid running round hitting the massagers as they were trying to work! Be prepared for some firm hands also, particularly with the cheaper local massages.  You probably get what you pay for.  There are many massage parlours on Bo’ed Road in Dali ancient city.

Mark waiting for his massage in one of the local parlours.  You can see the kid in the background waiting for his moment to strike!

Mark waiting for his massage in one of the local parlours.  You can see the kid in the background waiting for his moment to strike!

 

Drink The Cheapest Beer On Remin Road

This is the main strip in Dali and tourists flock here to shop, sip coffee in fancy coffee shops and drink cocktails in bars.  Well we love a cheeky drink every now and again too, but what with being budget travellers sometimes touristy bars are totally out of our price range.  A small beer in one of the bars here would normally set you back around 20 yuan (£2.25) for the cheapest one, but we figured out a way to drink on the main strip without paying more than 6 yuan (70p) for a large beer.  Just head to one of the cheap cafe style eateries, they are the open front Chinese rice kitchens with basic decor inside, grab a cheap beer from the fridge and sit out front and watch the world go by.  This is a great way of soaking up the atmosphere, and the sun, without breaking the budget.  We did this several times on our visit!

Grab a cheap beer on the main strip that is Remin Road

Grab a cheap beer on the main strip that is Remin Road

 

Eat A Serendipity Burger

It’s not often that we eat western food on the road, and as we have discovered it is nearly always overpriced compared to the local alternative which is mostly very tasty.  Western food can be very hit and miss (mostly a miss to be honest), and to make sure we were picking a well reviewed burger place we decided to look on the loved/hated Trip Advisor.  Out of 7 burger joints in Dali, Serendipity has made it to no. 1 and we can easily see why.  Each burger is made using good quality beef, cooked medium rare, with a homemade sweet brioche bun and whatever topping you choose.  Each comes with a pickle and handful of fries.  Not the biggest portion but definitely the biggest treat!  We would recommend heading on down for a laid-back dinner in the diner style restaurant or on one of the tables outside.  A burger will set you back 55 yuan (£6.20), a little steep but we think worth the splash out.  You can find Serendipity at 53 Guangwu Lu.

A Serendipity burger

A Serendipity burger

 

Stay At A Rooftop Hostel

One of the coolest things about the accommodation in Dali is that loads of the hostels and guesthouses have rooftop spaces.  From there you can glimpse the impending CangShan mountain range and the beautiful Bai-style oriental architecture of the surrounding buildings.  You may just spot a few other lucky ones doing the same thing.  Being up so high makes you feel detached from the Dali below, the busyness fades away and you are left with the tranquility of the sun gleaming on the plant-lined terraces.  We stayed in the Meet Inn Hostel for the bargain price of 98 yuan (£11) per night, and the hostel itself was well decorated and had a nice relaxed feel to it.  Catching a sunrise or sunset on the terrace is a must, and maybe a few hours spent chilling reading a book is a great way to unwind from China’s tourist hotspots.  

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

The view from our rooftop hostel at the Meet Inn

 

All You Can Eat At The Vegetarian Buffet

Most dishes in China involve some sort of meat, whether that be pork in a noodle broth or a meaty stir fry with seasoning, and so when we found this vegetarian restaurant serving an all you can eat buffet for lunch and dinner we were very excited.  For the unbelievable price of 20 yuan (£2.25) per person, you can munch your way through a whole range of speciality vegetarian dishes: from 5 different types of tofu to slow cooked aubergine, and steamed Chinese buns to seasoned fried rice.  There are about 20 different dishes to choose from and they change on a daily basis.  We ate there for lunch 2 days in a row and it actually worked out cheaper than most of our meals in local rice kitchens and you also get a whole lot more variety on your plate.  If you are looking for some fresh and tasty vegetarian food then this is the place for you. The restaurant is called Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian and can be found at B2-1 Jiulongju, Fuxing Rd.

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

All you can eat vegetarian buffet at Lovely Lotus Delicious Vegetarian

 

Get Into Dali Life

This is by no means a complete list of everything you can do in Dali but they are the things that we enjoyed the most.  All are suited to those backpacking on a budget.  There is also the famous Three Pagodas that you can visit by bike or foot and many popular bars on the main strip, but for us the bars were a bit out of our price range for both food and drink.  We enjoyed dining in the rice and noodle kitchens on the side roads where the locals were eating, and at the end of our trip to China these were some of our fondest memories. 

 

Transport

You can reach Dali by train or bus from Kunming and Lijiang. It’s worth noting that the old town is called Dali Ancient City and that Dali is the modern part of the city just south of there where most of the transport links go to.  If you do get a train into Dali then it will drop you off in the modern city and you will have to get a bus into the old town.  If travelling from Lijiang by bus, you can ask to be dropped off in the old town.

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China: Top Things To Do In Xi’an

temple in xi'an on the city walls
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Once the end destination of the Silk Road, Xi’an was a land-mark Chinese city rich in history, culture and trade.  Today it stands as a busy modern city, with many tourists still flocking to see the world famous delights of the Terracotta Army and The Tomb of Emperor Jingdi.  If you look a little closer then it’s possible to get a glimpse of the old Xi’an, in the ancient Ming dynasty city walls that still surround the centre, or in the bustling Muslim quarter where street sellers offer exotic tasting foods that contrast greatly to the Asian cuisine.  Spend some time wondering the streets to get the best experience of this contrasting city.

 

Visit the Terracotta Army Of Warriors

A trip to Xi’an just isn’t complete without a visit to China’s most famous attraction, the Terracotta Army.  Discovered in the 1970's by local peasants digging for a well, the ancient army lay buried for thousands of years after the Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had the warriors constructed to guard him from evil in the afterlife.  Thousands of life-sized figures of men and horses have been unearthed standing in battle formation in ginormous dug-out pits, that are now on show to the public in huge exhibition halls. 

It is advisable to start at the smaller of the 3 pits (pit 3) first and work your way up to the largest pit (pit 1) for the most impressive of the archeological findings. Several of the terracotta men are on show in glass cases, and it is possible to see the workmanship up close.  The detail on them is next-level extraordinary, the hair, the tread on the soles of the shoes, the hint of coloured paintwork that once brought them to life.  Each face is unique and no two are the same.  This is mastery and skill at its best, and the scale of the creation is at times overwhelming. 

As with all popular Chinese tourist attractions, the groups of crowds can be quite distracting and a lot of tat is being sold on route to the display halls.  It is probably better to visit earlier in the day for a slightly quieter experience, or to head into the halls at lunch time when most of the Chinese are eating.  Putting the annoyances aside, this is one of the rarest discoveries of its kind in the world, and is worth the effort of visiting.  Make sure you take a trip to the internal museum for a quieter view of one of the warriors up close. 

Entry is 150 yuan for access to the 3 pits, museum and cinema showing of how the figures would have been casted (this was closed when we visited). The 306 bus will take you there from outside Xi’an main train station and costs 7 yuan for a 1 hour journey.  Plan for a half day to visit the site.

The terracotta warriors guarding the Emperor

The terracotta warriors guarding the Emperor

 

Cycle The City Walls

Standing strong since 1370 are the old city walls of Xi’an.  Built during the Ming dynasty, the rectangular shaped wall stretches for a lengthy 14km around the oldest part of the city and can be enjoyed all year round by tourists alike.  The elevated walkway on the wall makes a welcome break from the hustle and bustle from the city below, and is surprisingly peaceful with lots of space to stretch your legs and view the contrasting skyline; old vs new sitting side by side.  It is possible to walk the entire circuit in a leisurely 4 hours, or for a funner experience opt for bike hire, either choosing from single bikes or a tandem.  We went for the tandem and had a great time cycling along the cobbled walkway, whizzing past temple-style buildings and up and down speed ramps! For a more magical experience, time your visit just before dusk to see the city by day and night.  Entry to the walls is 55 yuan and opening hours are 8am-10pm.  Tandem hire is a steep 90 yuan and single bikes are 45 yuan, both for 2 hours of rental.  Closest tube stop is YongNing Man station.

A fun couple of hours on a tamdem

A fun couple of hours on a tamdem

 

Soak Up The Muslim Quarter

One of the most exhilarating things to do in Xi’an is to visit the bustling Muslim quarter.  Once the end destination of the Silk Road, Xi’an became a multi-cultural hotpot and a strong Muslim community settled here many centuries ago, sharing their food, culture and religion with the people of China.  The area today is a network of busy market lanes and a hub for some of the best food we have ever tasted, a unique mix of Islamic and Chinese cuisines, creating a taste sensation for even the amateur food-lover. 

The streets are lined with women in decorative head scarfs selling their bites, rawly contrasted by the hanging carcasses of sheep which make the popular meat skewers.  There are hundreds of other interesting street foods to try including a sticky rice cake dipped in syrup, nut and seed brittle (which is being hammered into form right in front of you), slow cooked meat in a bap (which is a bit like the Jewish salt beef bagel), battered squid on a stick, fresh Islamic-style breads, fresh pomegranate juice and even battered banana!

Looking past the market stalls on the main strip, there are numerous restaurants where you can sit in and order a full meal.  If you find somewhere that offers milk soup then order a couple of bowls of the stuff because it’s honestly the most delicious thing you have ever tasted! Around the Muslim quarter is also a famous Mosque, one of the largest of its kind in China.  A trip into the mosque is 40 yuan and is one of the more peaceful places to visit in the city with Chinese style gardens out the front.  We would recommend visiting the Muslim quarter a couple of times during your stay to try a selection of foods, and we found it to be the most interesting place to visit in Xi'an.  Closest tube stop is 

The busy streets of the Muslim quarter

The busy streets of the Muslim quarter

 

Eat Zingy Noodles

Walk into this popular local Chinese noodle shop and you get asked one very important question, “large or small?”. That’s it, no extensive menu to choose from, no frills, no fuss.  Just one stand-out dish that they run all day long for hundreds of noodle-loving diners, for the bargain price of 15 yuan, and it’s even less for a small.  It’s a hearty hug in a bowl with a tiny punch in the mouth from the tongue-zinging Sichuan pepper sauce.  The noodles are home-made and come out varying in width, chunky to slightly less chunky, and are heavy fellas to pick up with chop sticks. Stir in the contents and you will find a secret stash of slow cooked meat, along with fried tofu and a number of tasty vegetables, with a sprinkling of peanuts for some crunchy texture.  On the table sits extra chilli sauce for those wanting an additional kick, and raw garlic cloves which locals munch down by the dozen.  This is a great place to come for a spot of lunch, local style, and this busy joint can be found on Jiqing Lane about half way down.

Those zingy noodles!

Those zingy noodles!

 

Climb One Of The 5 Sacred Taoist Mountains

A trip to the Huashan mountain was a love/hate relationship for us.  On one hand the jaggedly granite peaks covered in fauna are clearly spectacular but on the other there are few clear spots to view them from.  The mountain is known for being a religious Taoist one, but as far as we could tell there is no peace and quiet to be found.  The entrance fee for the day is nearly as steep as the climb up and you frequently get stuck in queues of hundreds of selfie-loving tourists, wondering up and down the steep staircases that run across the site.  When you stop to think about where you are, there’s no denying that the scenery is incredibly impressive and that the steep walking routes demand a sense of achievement after a few hours of struggling in the sun.  However, the authenticity that once was on Huashan mountain doesn’t exist any more, the world famous dangerous trekking routes have long since crumbled and have been concreted over with a network of safe and uninspiring stairs, and the subtle Taoist chants have been drowned out by the sound of sellers flogging tat. 

Perhaps a better way to enjoy the busy Huashan mountain would be to stay over in one of the lodges and to spend time trekking from peak to peak rather than climbing up and down.  Visiting on a weekday would be much more advisable than a weekend.  We will leave this one up to you to decide if you want to take up the challenge!  Entry is an expensive 180 yuan and a one way cable car to the North peak costs 80 yuan.  To get to Huashan, catch a bus from outside Xi’an train station which takes 2 hours and costs 36 yuan. You can get a bus back from the location it dropped you off at on the other side of the road.  A quicker route is to catch the train from Xi’an railway station which takes 35 minutes and costs only slightly more. It is advisable to book trains in advance otherwise you will be bussing it!

The view at the top of Huashan mountain

The view at the top of Huashan mountain

 

Need More Ideas?

There are many other recommended things to do in Xi’an which you will find in most guide books: The Bell and Drum Towers, a trip to the History Museum, The Big Goose Pagoda and Small Wild Goose Pagoda.  If you are looking for more options then why not try one of these first, or grab yourself a bike and explore the city.  There is also an interesting looking Antiques market just inside the East entrance to the wall which might be worth a visit.

 

Where To Stay

We would thoroughly recommend staying at Han Tang House Youth Hostel on Nanchang Xiang.  The rooms are well presented, the hostel has a great atmosphere where many travellers chat to one another and the staff are really helpful and friendly.  They offer a number of affordable day trip tours to attractions in the area and give a wealth of information on transport links and local eateries.  There is a beautiful leafy roof terrace on site where you can sit and relax, and downstairs is a cool woody hang-out bar that offers beer, cocktails, western food and coffee.  After 4 months of being on the road, this was our favourite hostel by far!

On the beautiful roof terrace at Han Tang Youth Hostel

On the beautiful roof terrace at Han Tang Youth Hostel

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China: Top Things To Do In Beijing

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Beijing is a place of many contrasts; modern yet traditional, politically charged yet relaxed and slow paced. Visitors must visit the sardine packed sights of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but must not forget to wonder the quiet ‘hutong’ for street food and traditional culture. Be prepared for friendly locals who want to chat and photograph you, in between their shopping and selfies! Beijing is full of surprises, an epic place to introduce yourself to Chinese culture and their delicious noodles…

 

Find (Some) Peace At The Temple of Heaven

South of the Forbidden City sits the Temple of Heaven, a series of temples originally built in the early 1400's during the Ming and Qing emperors reign as a place to pray for good harvests, along with its surrounding green spaces.  Elders come here to play games together, sing Chinese songs in unison, to dance, and to practice the art of tai chi amongst the leafy pockets within the park. The trees are hilariously ordered in neat rows, although many are 800 year old cypresses which are desperately trying to twist and turn out of their regimented spots.  The temples are very pleasing on the eye to walk around, they follow many rules of feng shui and so are beautifully symmetrical with odd lucky numbers being the focus.  Unfortunately the number of Chinese tourists does continually make it difficult to enjoy the tranquility of the space, so we would strongly recommend getting there at 8am on a weekday to peacefully watch the locals going around their business.  Entry is 35 yuan for a combination ticket which allows access to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Circular Mound Alter, the Echo Wall and all the surrounding parks. Nearest tube stop is Tiantandongmen.

 
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

 

 

Admire The National Centre Of The Performing Arts

The huge half-dome silver structure has caused a bit of a stir in the historic city of Beijing.  Many have shunned it as the shiny egg on the cityscape whilst others have marvelled at its modernist aesthetic.  To us it resembles a Chinese lantern and it’s contemporary style helps to bring Beijing in line with the modern world.  The building is nestled in between the Hall of the People in Tian’nammen Square and Nanhai lake which makes it a perfect location for visiting whilst at other attractions.  Surrounded by a large square of water, the rounded lantern appears to be half submerged, floating like a scoop of ice cream in a cola.  The inside is also worth a visit with a notable deco-style curved roof in the entrance stairwell and a chunky metal pronged structure in the centre, guarded by 3 symmetrically placed security guards.  Sometimes it is possible to visit the exhibition halls inside, but when we visited these weren’t open.  Of course if your budget allows then the best way to experience this modernist building would be to see a show, whether it be an internationally renowned dance or theatre.  The closest tube stop is Tian’anmen Xi and check the below link for opening times and schedule. 

http://en.chncpa.org

 
The National Centre Of Performing Arts

The National Centre Of Performing Arts

 

 

Watch Over The Forbidden City In Jingshan Park 

Directly north of the Forbidden City sits the lusciously green Jingshan Park, it’s the protector from bad karma in Feng Shui alignment to the ancient city.  Make your way up the hill via one of the many staircases and you will discover 7 temples all propped up on the steep slope with the largest Buddhist temple being at the top.  From here you can see spectacular views across the city, the Beijing smog only adding to the mysterious aesthetic, and the Asian glazed tiles on the rooftops below of the Forbidden City.  The park makes a welcoming escape from the busy streets and being up high in an otherwise flat Beijing is a nice change.  The locals gather in the lower parts of the park to dance, practice their tai chi and chat amongst friends, creating a warming atmosphere for others visiting.  On our trip, we were lucky to see over 100 locals singing together at the tops of their voices to some traditional Chinese music, we thought it was a really loud speaker at first!  The people are so friendly in Beijing’s green spaces, trying to involve you in their games and always greeting you with a big grin on their faces.  The closest tube stops are Nanluoguxiang and Beihai North and entrance fee is an affordable 20 yuan. 

 
The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

 

 

Stroll Around The Lakes

Enjoy Beijing’s slower pace of life and take an afternoon stroll around one of the many beautiful lakes.  Serine and tranquil, the lakes cover a relatively large area in the city centre, and are surrounded by cafes, bars, restaurants and small independent shops selling anything from groceries to notebooks. Watch the locals swim in their speedos, play ping pong, exercise on the outdoor gym machines, play mahjong and watch the world go by.  It is possible to ride in a rickshaw around Houhai lake and the surrounding Hutong (traditional alleyways), or to explore by bike or by foot for a more relaxing experience.  On the lakes sit the occasional pagoda framed by willows, oriental in style and reflecting in the jade water, the sight is like a typical scene from a Chinese painting.  The lakes make a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of city life in Beijing and so we would strongly recommend spending some time here.  The lakes are called Xihai Sea, Houhai Lake and Northern Sea, and the closest tube stops are Jishuitan, Shishiahai and Beihai North. 

 
Dusk at Houhai Lake

Dusk at Houhai Lake

 

 

Explore The Trendy Nanluogu Xiang Alley 

Once a rundown old alley without a single Belgium waffle in sight, this commercialised shopping street is a haven for young snap happy Chinese tourists willing to splash out a few yuan on some tasty grub and quirky merchandise.  You can buy pretty much anything on a stick..... chicken, sweet waffles, a spiralised potato, the popular sugar-coated fruit, or perhaps if food isn’t you bag then what about an actual bag, or some cool postcards, or a piece of hand-engraved jewellery or some ceramics.  You can hear the chinking of metal from the engravers at one of the front windows, and the musical toot of the ocarina from another.  Around this area are now many courtyard hotels that you can stay in.  What we love about this place is that drinking alcohol isn’t really a thing, yes there are a few nice bars that specialise in craft beers (at a very steep price mind you), but the Chinese are happy to be out wondering around at 10pm on a Sunday night just enjoying the food and soaking up the atmosphere.  Make sure you explore some of the many Hutong, side alleys, off this street as they have a wonderful historic feeling to them taking you back in time to the old Peking days. Closest tube stop is Nanluoguxiang.

 
Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

 

 

Get Arty In The 798 Area

With numerous art galleries, cool design shops, graffitied walls and too many cafes to choose from, the 798 art district is well worth a visit in the North East corner of Beijing.  One of the most renowned art spaces is the UCCA gallery, where many international artists have showcased their work including Olafur Eliasson, the Danish light and space artist.  At a 60 yuan entrance fee it’s probably worth checking that you’re interested in what’s on beforehand because the space is quite small.  Nearly all of the other galleries are free to enter, and it makes for a nice afternoon dipping in and out of art spaces, searching for interesting pieces and exploring the tiny alleyways.  If you enjoy conceptual and political art then this is the place for you, but if you are looking for world renowned artworks then it’s probably best to go elsewhere.  We are recommending this more as a cool area to explore rather than solely for the artworks, so grab a coffee, take a wander and soak up the atmosphere.  Closest tube stop is Gaojiayuan.

www.798district.com

 
Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

 

 

Munch On A Scorpion At Wangfujing Dajie

On the south end of Wangfujing Dajie shopping street sits a bustling food market packed with hungry shoppers and some seriously tasty treats.  You could compare this to the Borough market of Beijing but with smaller bites rather than full meals.  You can pretty much buy anything on a stick from battered squid to live scorpions (they get cooked once you order them), marinated chicken to crunchy crickets, and hundreds of brilliant red berries (tanghulu) glazed in sugar are sold by the plenty.  Picky street food is such a big thing in Beijing, everyone walks and eats, takes loads of photos of themselves eating, and eats some more.  There are tens of stalls at this market all selling different bites, and each stall has a huddle of people outside munching away on their recent purchase.  If you are around this area and looking for somewhere quick to grab some tasty grub then this market is for you!  Many items can be bought for around 10 yuan (£1.15) a piece, and if you feel like splashing out then a large battered squid is 35 yuan (£4.25) and was pretty tasty.  Closest tube stop is Wangfujing.

 
Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

 

 

Eat Like A Local On Andingmenei Dajie

Just north east of the trendy street Nanluogu Xiang sits the more local and cheaper Andingmenei Dajie.  This main road is packed with good quality Chinese restaurants and street vendors with a local price tag to go with it.  Just head to one of the busy ones and you can’t go wrong. You can pick up almost anything here, including some very acquired dishes of which penis and brain were on the menu, but putting that to one side there is a wonderful array of foods including hotpots, BBQ meats, noodle dishes, vegetables, Peking duck, and soups to name a few.  We would thoroughly recommend the Beijing noodles which is noodles cooked in broth with freshly cut carrot and cucumber, beans, peanuts, oil and black bean and meat paste, and also the world renowned crispy Peking duck.  To get the full local price tag you need to be ordering from one of the smaller restaurants where the menu isn’t in English, so perhaps try to get someone to order it for you if you don’t speak Chinese.  We ordered 4 great dishes in one restaurant with a beer and the bill came to 75 yuan (£8.50)! Bargain.  Also it’s worth noting that the portions are normally massive so make sure you don’t go overboard.  Closest tube stop is Andingmen and walk Southward’s from there.

 
Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

 

 

Feel The Buzz At The Qianmen Dajie Shopping Area

Packed full of Chinese tourists, the busy streets of Qianmen Dajie and Dashilan Commercial Street are a shoppers paradise and an interesting place for those wanting to soak up some bustling Chinese street culture. You can buy anything here from Chinese medicine to speciality sweets, cheap knock offs of traditional Chinese clothing to Tibetan hippy lanterns.  Bright red Chinese symbols illuminate the stores and everyone is busy selling from their shop fronts, rounding up customers with their cheap prices and loud voices.  It makes for a fun afternoon wandering up and down the surrounding streets, some are no more than a meter wide, and there are some great food places for a spot of lunch if you’re hungry.  Head over to the lanes on the West side of Meishi Street to explore the slightly quieter and less developed shopping streets (Dashilan West and Yangmeizhu Byway in particular). Here you can find cool design shops, yoga studios, fancy coffee places and a few courtyard hostels all mixed in amongst local houses with old men playing majong. It’s best to explore these streets by foot or by bike if you want to cover a bit more ground. Definitely try one of the traditional Chinese pastry sweets, it’s always fun trying to figure out what the flavour is! Closest tube stop is Zhushiko.

 
The Quianmen shopping area

The Quianmen shopping area

 

 

See The Infamous Forbidden City 

A trip to Beijing isn’t complete without a visit to China’s number one attraction, the Forbidden City. Built in 1400s during the Ming dynasty, this collection of ancient buildings and temples is the largest of its kind in China and is in immaculate condition considering the millions of people that have traipsed through it in its lifetime.  The Forbidden City got its name because it was off-limits to all, unless you were important enough to be invited to visit by the emperor, and it remained that way for 500 years.  Wander along the north-south central axis to view the largest of temples, impressive in their scale and acute attention to detail, and scattered either side is a collection of smaller buildings that used to be living quarters now used as museum spaces. Visiting the city as early as possible is the best idea to avoid the thousands of selfie loving tourists waving their sticks around.  If you are expecting a peaceful stroll around the complex then think again, all the points of interest are crazy busy and it’s difficult to see inside any of the temples.  Having said that, it is the world famous Forbidden City and so it’s worth seeing it once in a lifetime, especially if you are already in Beijing.  Entrance fee is a steep 120 yuan per person and audio guide is 40 yuan (not sure that it was all that helpful though). Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen West and Tian’anmen East and access to the site is on the south side. 

 
Inside the Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City

 

 

Explore Beijing By Bike

Beijing is a huge city with a population of 22 million people, and as you can probably imagine it takes a long while to travel by foot.  The best way to see all of the sights in a day is to grab a bike and get cycling!  Amazingly all the main roads have wide cycle lanes so you are away from busy traffic, because as little as 4 years ago everyone travelled by bike rather than car.  It is possible to cycle past Tian’anmen Square, the moat around the Forbidden City, around the outskirts of the hilly Jingshan Park, through the bustling Qianmen Dajie shopping area, through the trendy alley Nanluogu Xiang, around The National Centre Of The Performing Arts, past the built up Xidan Bei Dajie and around Hou Hai lake all in a day if you are feeling energetic, and there are plenty of other places to explore off the beaten track. Make sure you explore the many Hutong, alleyways, that run from east to west all across the city.  Bike rental is 40 yuan from Downtown Backpackers Hostel and their bikes make for a super smooth ride.

 
Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

 

 

Stand in Tian’anmen Square 

Surrounded by huge soviet-style blocky buildings, the famous Tian’anmen Square sits as the worlds largest public square and has a significant place in Chinese history.  The square was built by Mao to display the strength of the Communist Party, and if size represents strength then they definitely got their point across.  Standing in the middle, you really get a sense of the vastness of the space and even with a few thousand tourists present there is still enough room to run around.  Impressively, up to a million people have gathered here during the cultural revolution and to pay their last respects to Mao.  It’s a strange visit, all goers are ID and security checked in long queues beforehand, and once in you are surrounded by fences, soldiers, cctv cameras and undercover police officers! The overall feeling is very repressive and perhaps un-fun, step out of line and you could imagine being taken down in a second!  That said, it’s worth going just to see these things for yourself and to get a glimpse into what Chinese life is really like, mouth schtum. Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen East and Tian’anmen West and Quinmen.

 
In the huge Tian'anmen Square

In the huge Tian'anmen Square

 

 

Trek On The Great Wall

Only a couple of hours from Beijing centre sits the legendary Great Wall.  Every year millions of tourists flock to see a bit of ancient history, and to walk on the two thousand year old structure that runs 21,196km from Dandong in the east to Top Lake in the west.  Many stretches of the wall have now been restored and replaced by new stones, creating busy tourist hotspots with numerous selfie sticks and tour guide flags, but there are some sections that remain left untouched, crumbling in their fragility and beauty.  Jiankou is one of these sections, not technically legal to trek on, but worth every risk once you see the splendour of the wall epically snaking around the mountain tops. Highlights include the Sky Stairs, a near vertical staircase that has since crumbled to a few pieces of jutting out rock (you have to have nerves of steel to think about tackling this one) and the Ox Horn which is two incredibly steep watchtowers perched on the mountain tops.  It is possible to trek large sections of the wall in a day, basing yourself in one of the small villages below, or camping out with only a sleeping bag in one of the watchtowers. Jainkou is a photographers delight as the wall is the most dramatic here, climbing high and low winding over the hills, and surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see.  The experience is exhilarating, to be trekking on the Great Wall with only a handful of people is possibly one of the most memorable things you could do in a lifetime.  We would thoroughly recommend it!  All information about getting to and from the Jiankou section of the wall can be found here:

Trek And Wild Camp On The Great Wall Of China

 
Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

 

Beijing is a fantastic city to visit, we loved our time there and 5 days was the perfect amount of time to explore what it has to offer.  If you have been to Beijing and have any other recommendations then we would love to hear them!

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Mongolia: How To Plan And Survive A Tour

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Mongolia is one of the few places to visit in the world that is very much how it was 50 years ago, and the traditional nomadic lifestyle is still prevalent across the country.  Most of the roads are dirt tracks, there are no road signs, the locals don’t speak English and only 4 train lines connect the capital to other cities.  This makes it near impossible to navigate this vast country by yourself, you need expertise from a local, or at least an experienced tour guide.  Mongolia can be a dangerous place to travel to if you are under prepared; winters can be as cold as minus 40 and there are areas in the Gobi desert where no one lives, not even animals!  So read on to discover how we planned, and survived, our 22 day tour around Mongolia.

Sight seeing at the 180km sand dunes in the Gobi desert

Sight seeing at the 180km sand dunes in the Gobi desert

 

Deciding On A Tour

As you can imagine, there are hundred of tours and tour operators to choose from depending on your budget, interests and where you want to visit.  Some tours specialise more in activities such as horse riding and trekking, others in culture so staying with nomadic families, seeing historical sites and visiting monasteries, whilst many offer a good all round sight seeing tour.  First things first, it's good to do some research on some key points of interest and then see where they are on a map.  You can do this by taking a look on some tour operators websites and look at the itineraries they are offering.  

 

Luxury vs Budget Tours

Luxury tours involve staying mostly in tourist camps which have access to power, wifi, hot showers and western toilets.  Budget tours, as you can imagine, are basic and without all the mod cons.  Toilets are usually a hole dug in the ground with some sort of wooden shack around it, showers happen every 3/4 days at a public bathroom and you sleep in guest house gers (Mongolian yurts) belonging to nomad families rather than in a dressed up tourist camp.  Staying in a tourist camp is a lot more convenient, but lacks a lot of the culture you get from staying in a family guest house.  Tourist camps are also a heck of a lot more expensive and can be up to $150USD per night!  In comparison, a guest house ger of a nomadic family is around $10-$15USD per night and nearly always you get welcomed into their home for fresh hot milk, cookies and cream from their livestock.  If you are happy to survive a couple of days without a shower and western toilet then a budget tour would save you a lot of buck.

A guest house ger near Amarbayasgalant Monastery

A guest house ger near Amarbayasgalant Monastery

 

Length of Tour

Mongolia is a huge country and takes a long time to drive around, so a trip to the North and South in a week just isn't realistic.  We spoke to many people heading West for the Eagle Festival and they had allocated 3 weeks of time to only go there.  Most people with only a week to travel will head to the Gobi desert for a speedy but impressive sightseeing tour.  We were lucky enough to have 22 days and so opted for a round tour starting up in the North, and then to moving onto Central Mongolia and finally Gobi.  Even with a generous 22 days to spare, we were still in the van most days driving for hundreds of kilometres across the vast Mongolian landscape. 

 

Which Tour Operator

After doing a LOT of research prior to travel on budget tours, the two best options on price and reviews came down to Sunpath Mongolia and Camel Track.  We decided to book with Camel Track mainly because they were incredibly helpful and prompt on email (which is definitely not the case with many of them!).  They were a fantastic operator and run over 100 tours every year, so the drivers and guides have a wealth of knowledge and a lot of skill on the dirt tracks. We would definitely recommend Camel Track!  We also heard from other tour operators that the owners of Sunpath don’t have a very nice company ethos.  They do not allow Sunpath employees to talk to any other tour operators, if they do so there is a chance they will be fired.  They also don’t allow tourists from their tours to speak to other tourists on the road, in case they discuss price etc.  This sort of behaviour is very un-Mongolian considering it’s custom to be friendly to others and to help others in need.  After finding this out, we were very happy to have chosen Camel Track.

 

Where to Visit

On our tour we covered North, Central and Gobi areas.  These were our highlights from the trip:

1. Eight Lakes area (Naiman Nuur) in Central Mongolia- horse trekking

2. Khongor Sand Dunes in the Gobi Desert

3. Tsagaan Suvarga/ White Stupe in the Gobi Desert

4. Khovsgul Lake in Northern Mongolia

5. Amarbayasgalant Monastery In Northern Mongolia

6. Flaming Cliffs/ Bayanzag in the Gobi Desert 

We have also heard that Western Mongolia is an absolute stunner so if you have a lot of time then consider going there. There is an Eagle Festival on during April and October months which draws a lot of travellers.  From speaking to people on the road we also heard that visiting the Reindeer herders in the North was a highlight for them.  

Our personal highlight: horse trekking in the 8 lakes area

Our personal highlight: horse trekking in the 8 lakes area

 

Booking In Advance vs Booking On Arrival

Researching tour operators in advance can only be a good thing and you should be aware of rough pricing and online reviews.  There are a number of tour operators who have really bad reviews which you should obviously try to avoid.  The benefits of booking in advance is that you will have something secured for when you arrive, and you have the time to negotiate prices and all the fine details in writing beforehand.  The price offered for a tour is dependent on the number of people, and so the more people you can get onboard the cheaper it is.  So the biggest downside of booking in advance is that you don't know how many people are going to be on a tour, and it may end up as only you!  If you were just to turn up to Mongolia and tried to join onto someone's tour that has already been arranged then at least you would be with others making it cheaper.  This would require you to be very flexible with itinerary and the length of the trip seeing as you would be working to someone else's plans.  Obviously if you are visiting as a group then booking in advance would be ideal.  If you are lucky enough to have free time to spare then it is possible to round up people from hostels and restaurants and organise a tour of your own.  We spoke to one guy who had organised 3 separate tours with groups of random people hiring only a driver to make it cheap.

 

Time Of Year

The majority of people travel to Mongolia during the summer months when the sun is warm and the grass is green.  This is when the ger camps get fully booked and sights are bustling with tourists.  Spring and Autumn time is slightly out of season because the weather is colder, and so tourist camps and sights are all less busy as a result.  We actually think this is a brilliant time of year to visit because you get to see some sights without anyone else there, and the changes in weather make it really exciting. Our tour was during September and October and so all the leaves on the trees had turned beautiful shades of yellow and amber.  We were also lucky enough to awake one morning to see 2 inches of snow covering the valley! That said, night times can get very cold out of season and you will need to bring good quality equipment to be comfortable.  We experienced -12 one morning when we awoke from our ger.  It is of course possible to visit Mongolia during the winter months to truly experience the lifestyle of a nomad.  Although be aware that nearly everything touristy will be closed for winter and the ground will be frozen solid.  The Gobi desert is the coldest recorded place on earth during the winter months at a teeth chattering -40!

October weather.... 2 inches of snow covering the landscape!

October weather.... 2 inches of snow covering the landscape!

 

Driver And Guide

On a tour, you will usually be travelling with a driver that speaks only Mongolian, and a guide that speaks both Mongolian and your language.  You will end up spending a lot of time with these people over the duration of your trip so it may be advisable to meet up beforehand to check you all get along.  It is possible to hire just a driver to make the tour cheaper, but it's worth noting that communication could be difficult if they don't speak your language and you will miss out on all the helpful knowledge from a guide.  The guide will talk you through the history of everywhere you visit, will answer any questions that you may have, will translate to nomadic families and will cook for you three times a day.  We would thoroughly recommend having one!

Our tour guide Undra cooking for us out the back of our van

Our tour guide Undra cooking for us out the back of our van

 

Price 

As we have mentioned before, prices vary significantly depending on what sort of tour you opt for, but here is an idea of the cost of our budget 22 day sight seeing tour to Gobi, Central Mongolia and Khovsgul lake and it included a 3 day horse trek:

2 people on tour = $81USD per person per day

3 people on tour = $71USD per person per day

4 people on tour = $61USD per person per day

5 people on tour = $50USD per person per day

6 people on tour = $45USD per person per day

We negotiated these prices down some months in advance and this really was the best Camel Track could offer us. Sunpath Mongolia came out at a similar price, but it was slightly more expensive with 6 people than 5 because they would prefer to take 2 vehicles.

Prices will include the driver (vehicle and petrol), the tour guide (who also cooks), 1.5L of water per person per day, 3 meals a day, entrance fees for the national parks and museums, Camel and horse riding is you are doing any, a number of hot showers and accommodation. 

 

Visas

As with visiting any foreign country, will need to check your embassy's travel advice prior to travel to see if a visa is required.  Some travel guides can be out of date, so make sure you double check on the official website beforehand. We applied for a visa from the UK and the form was relatively easy and cost around £40 each. You will need to supply them with a travel itinerary and some contact details of where you will be staying, along with a copy of your travel insurance.  The only big downside is that you have to visit the embassy to apply and pick up your visa as they don't have an online service.

 

Insurance 

Arranging travel insurance prior to your trip is essential and you will be required to supply this information to the visa application centre.  Although travelling around Mongolia is relatively safe, you need to be aware that a lot of the time you will be hundreds of kilometres away from any sort of medical help.  The main hospitals are in Ulaanbaatar and other cities you will pass on the way.  You will most likely be driving on bumpy dirt tracks, riding a horse or two, doing some mountain trekking and so there is the possibility of injury during the trip.  Once you know what sort of tour you are doing, look for insurance that specifically covers the activities you are doing.  Lots of insurance companies don't cover mountain trekking at a higher altitude than 1,000m so make sure you opt for one which is at least 3000m or more.  Some of the mountain peaks in Western Mongolia are higher than 4,000m so if you plan to head that way you will need to make sure you at covered.  Because you will be staying in gers most of the time, you should consider getting insurance in case of theft of property.  Some of the doors have padlocks on and some do not, so it's best to carry any valuables with you or ask your driver to lock them in the car.  After doing some research on insurance companies for our round the world trip, we chose to get cover with World Nomads because they are well suited to backpacking and outdoor activities.  They cover horse riding, trekking up to 3000m, Camel riding, camping and much more.  In the event of a serious injury, World Nomads will provide a rescue service to get you to hospital and then home.  This is the sort of reassurance you want on your trip when you are riding horses through remote Mongolian mountain ranges! 

Miles away from anywhere!

Miles away from anywhere!

 

What To Pack From Home

When you are travelling to one of the most under populated places on earth, preparation is key as shops are few and far between.  Here is a list of things we think you need to bring from home:

Sleeping bag - 3/4 season and a roll mat

Warm clothes/ thermals

Sun hat & sun glasses

High SPF sun cream & SPF lip balm

Snood/ bandana for wearing in the desert and horse riding

Music device and headphones

Lighter/ matches 

Travel towel

Hand sanitiser

A head torch - for those late night trips out to the toilet!

A book

If you do need to buy any more kit then make sure you do so in Ulaanbaatar beforehand as you won't be able to find specialist stuff anywhere else.

Those warm clothes came in very handy when it was minus 12!

Those warm clothes came in very handy when it was minus 12!

 

What To Get When You Arrive

When you get to Ulaanbaatar, stock up on these items in a supermarket. You will have access to the local markets every few days on the tour so perishable goods can be picked up on the way:

Food - some snacks and long lasting fruit like mandarins

Wet wipes

Extra water - a 4L bottle is ideal as a back up

Gifts for families - useful items like candles, pens, soaps and some sweets for the kids

Loo roll

A bottle of vodka - handy for drinking, cleaning wounds, offering to elders and killing any bad bacteria in your stomach from dodgy food!

Soap - for washing your clothes with

 

On The Road

Long distance travel across Mongolia can be very exhausting and uncomfortable.  It is likely that you will be travelling several hundred kilometres a day on very bumpy dirt tracks without doing much else, so be mentally prepared! Having said that the views from the car are some of the most spectacular we have ever seen so it's not all bad.  It is fine to ask your tour guide to stop to take pictures or for a toilet break every so often.  It's best to keep a day bag with you in the van which contains warm clothes, water, snacks, camera, music, sun cream & glasses and perhaps a neck pillow. You big bag will be packed away in the boot of the van so it's best to have all items on you that you will need.  The best type of vehicle to travel in across the dirt tracks is a Russian van, because they are spacious, have good suspension and are fast.  They are also easy to fix if something goes wrong.  The one we travelled in also had seat belts which is a bonus!

The Russian wheels

The Russian wheels

 

Staying In Gers

The ger (we call yurt in the UK) is a huge part of Mongolian culture and once you are out of the cities you will find that most locals live in these iconic white tents even when its -40 outside!  Gers are well suited to the nomadic lifestyle of moving because they are quick and easy to assemble, and a nomad will move around the countryside depending on the quality of grass for their animals to feed on.  If the grass isn’t good enough then their animals will become too weak to survive the harsh winter.  Nomadic families rely so heavily on their livestock for survival that they must put them first at all costs.  A season with no animals means no food, no milk to drink (they don’t have a running water supply so this is their source of liquid) and nothing to trade for money or other necessities.  The ger is a central place for the nomads to be together, it is not uncommon for the whole family to sleep together on the floor.  A simple family ger has a small kitchen area to the back right, a wood/coal/dung burning stove in the middle, some beds around the sides, a dresser at the top with a buddhist shine and/or tv, and some rugs on the floor to sit on.  The toilet is outside and is usually a deep pit dug into the ground with a few wooden boards across it.  Sometimes a cubicle has been constructed over the top for privacy but in the traditional Mongolian way a wooden fence is put around the hole on 3 sides at half height.  Don’t always expect to get a door on the front of your toilet cubicle! 

Washing

Gers are without running water, and so you will need to make sure you bring enough bottled water for drinking and save the washing of clothes and yourself for your visits to the public bathrooms.  We had 5 free showers written into our itinerary for a 22 day tour which works out to be a shower every 4 days.  If you want to have more than this then you will need to negotiate this with your guide and they may be able to arrange a few more into the trip at an extra cost.  In the mean time, freshen up with a wee wet wipe!  

Mark happy after his wash at the public toilets!

Mark happy after his wash at the public toilets!

Warmth

As you can imagine, gers can get very cold during the night time especially if you are visiting out of season, and so be prepared with a 3-4 season sleeping bag that can go down to below freezing and bring thermals.  Some gers have extra blankets that you can use which is always a bonus on those cold nights, but it’s worth noting that the bedding has probably never seen a washing machine so you will be grateful to be sleeping in your own clean sleeping bag!  Most gers (especially in the North) have a log burner which gets lit in the evening and morning times, it’s not unusual to have grandma pop into your ger unannounced at 6.30am to start making you a fire with a blow torch and some dung!  

Gifts

It is Mongolian tradition to bring a gift to your hosts if you stay in a guest house or with a nomadic family.  We were advised to bring useful items such as candles, soap, pens for the children and a few candies as a treat.

Types Of Ger

There are 3 main types of ger that you may sleep in on your tour: the nomadic family ger which is the family home, the guest house which is an extra ger belonging to the family, and a tourist camp.  If you stay in the nomadic family ger then you will likely be sleeping in with the family.  They don’t normally ask for money as it is Mongolian custom to open your door to any traveller, but it is always good practice to give them some money or a gift for their kind hospitality.  Guest house gers are the most affordable if you are looking to have your own space and cost around $10-15USD per night. Guest house gers are very basic and are without electricity or western toilets so its more of an authentic experience.  Tourist camp gers are geared up for travellers who want a bit more luxury, and so have electricity, western toilets and sometimes even wifi.  Tourist camps are incredibly expensive though compared to guest houses, and some can be up to $150USD per night!  Our recommendation would be to stay in guest houses, and with a nomadic family at least once on your trip.  To charge all your kit you will need to stop off in restaurants in the towns/cites every few days, and it’s the same for taking a shower.  

Our favourite guest house ger by Orkhon waterfall

Our favourite guest house ger by Orkhon waterfall

 

Food & Drink

Nomadic Mongolian tradition when it comes to food is simply meat and dairy, little carbs and no veg.  “The animals eat the veg and I eat the animals, so I get the nutrition of the vegetables” is what one Mongolian said to us!  This is apparent in any nomadic household you visit here; water is replaced with milk, snacks are fresh clotted cream and cookies (sweet dough balls), dried curd (from milk) which is sometimes sweet and sometimes sour, literally mutton everything, dried meats over the winter months, and perhaps a few flour/ rice/ potato based items like Mongolian pasta or dumplings are added to the mix.  

The fresh dairy goods are delicious but very rich, you may be lucky to be offered horse milk which is actually fermented so its a whopping 12% vol alcohol, which increases to 18% during the winter months. Cows and yaks milk is the most common in the North, and camel in the South.  The camel is the only animal that can be milked all year round because it’s so hardy compared to the other animals.  All the milk here is pasteurised so is fine to drink, and milk tea is another Mongolian speciality that you should try.  The traditional nomadic way to make milk tea is fresh milk, tea leaves and a pinch of salt boiled with animal bones for added calcium.  It sounds a bit hard to stomach but actually it’s delicious!  It’s more of a salty hot milk which is incredibly warming when it’s bloody freezing outside.  

If you opt for a tour with a guide then you will have 3 meals cooked/ prepared for you every day which is obviously very convenient.  The guide on our tour was an amazing cook, and she prepared for us tasty meals from scratch including some traditional Mongolian dishes such as Turban, Mongolian handmade pasta with meat.  If you have a guide then you will only need to bring snacks, but to be honest we have never been so full in our lives so you really don’t need to bring that much!  You should be provided with 1.5L of water a day on a tour, and so it’s best to pick up another large bottle before you leave UB especially if you are travelling to the Gobi during summer months.  You will be able to pick up more water every few days in the cities and towns.  Mongolia would be an incredibly difficult place to travel to if you were vegan because the food is based around dairy and meat, and so we would recommend bringing your own food with you.  Vegetarianism is just about understood in restaurants and your guide should be able to cater for you, but again this would prove difficult if you were staying with a nomadic family.  It is best to accept food and drink offered to you, even if you don’t intend on consuming it!  

Curd biscuits hanging to dry in a nomadic family's ger

Curd biscuits hanging to dry in a nomadic family's ger

 

Horse Riding

A Mongolian tour isn’t complete without a horse or camel ride (or maybe even both!) across the vast landscape.  Rides will be arranged through your tour company with local nomads in the area you are visiting, which brings a little income to those involved.  Some tours specialise in horse trekking for many days or even weeks passing through mountain ranges, valleys and rivers.  We picked one that offered us a 3 day horse trek through the 8 lakes area in Central Mongolia.  The terrain was perfect for our horses, it was mountainous so we had a bit of challenge going up and down hill, and then we passed several volcanic rock valleys that surrounded the lakes which were generally flat with only small sections of rubble.  Horse trekking is a must-do when visiting Mongolia!

 

Camel Riding

Arrive in the Gobi desert and you will see many camel tours taking place across the dunes. It’s likely your tour will include and organise local to bring camels to your guesthouse. Firstly, the camel has to crouch down on his elbows and knees to let you on and off, and then proceeds to make a very wobbly stand up where you are balancing in between his two humps without being strapped on!  Once it’s stood up and moving which seems unusually high above the ground, you have to just grip onto the hump and hold the reigns of the camel next to you so you are all in a line.  Camels like to go pretty fast when they are going downhill so be prepared to pull on the reigns of your neighbours camel to slow him down. Be preparers for the odd bit of spitting and screaming when they aren’t so happy!  

Our camel ride to the sand dunes in the gobi desert

Our camel ride to the sand dunes in the gobi desert

 

What To Wear Whilst Riding

For camel riding you need to wear trousers and a jacket that doesn’t rustle. The Gobi is normally baking hot so you don’t need too many layers, just a sun hat and cream.  To prep for a horse ride make sure you have a lot of warm clothing if it’s been cold because your hands and feet are bound to get chilly.  On our 3 day horse trek we were lent Mongolian full-length outdoor jackets which were warm and prevented any rubbing on the saddle.  They gave us a riding helmet and leather chaps for our lower legs.  It’s fine to carry a day bag as long as it’s strapped tightly to your body.  And importantly you can’t take pictures or change your clothes whilst riding a camel or horse because you might spook the animal.  

 

Visiting a Monastery 

There are many monasteries and temples in Mongolia because it is predominantly a buddhist country, and most tours will involve visiting one or more of them at some point.  Temples are peaceful places where many monks still live and practice Buddhism so it is advisable to visit quietly and respectfully, not to disrupt their practice. It is generally ok to take photos outside of the temples but usually there will be a charge if you wish to take photos inside.  If there isn’t an option to pay to take photos then just assume that it is not ok, as some monks can be a bit funny about having their photos taken.  It is a good idea to cover your shoulders and legs if they are exposed, a common custom when visiting a place of worship.  The traditional way to exit a Buddhist monastery is walk out of the room backwards so that you are always facing the Buddha, and not to step on the door frame.  You will see many Buddhist monuments around Mongolia called ‘stupes’, these predominantly white structures are places of worship and it is custom to walk around it 3 times whilst making a wish.  If the stupe has a Buddha on the top, or Buddhas eyes, then the worshiper is to look into the eyes of the Buddha while walking around.  Tibetan prayer wheels can also be found at temples, they are usually embossed metal wheels outside, and it is custom to spin the wheel clockwise whilst focusing on a wish.  Buddhist temples are very relaxed compared to a Christian church for example, but it’s best to be mindful of others and treat it as places of worship rather than a tourist destination.

White stupe and Buddha eyes at the Amarbayasgalant Monastery

 

We have written a much more in-depth piece about our day to day experiences on our Mongolian tour; where we visited, who we met, what life is like in a ger.  If it’s something you would like to read then click the following link ‘Mongolian Guide: A 22 Day Tour Into The Wilderness’.

 

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