Over dinner one night, a work colleague from the Tokyo office raved about this little-known (albeit, little known on the Western tourist circuit — but, hugely popular to the locals) onsen-hotel about 1 hour outside the city. He told us that this hotel was built during the 1980s property boom and as such, no pennies were spared to make this hotel fabulous. Each guest room faced a lake or water-feature and these were stocked with the largest and most colorful koi fish. Furthermore, a water channel ran thru the hotel lobby and walkways and these water channels teamed with these prized fish.
Intrigued by his recommendation, we could not resist. As the reservation staff did not speak English, our friend helped us with the booking. Once it was all sorted, we hopped onto a train. (Our friend also gave us a card with the hotel address written in Japanese so that we could give it to the taxi driver at the train station.) To this day, I still don’t know the name of the hotel or the exact location. But, I do have a brochure which I’ve scanned below:
The hotel did not disappoint! It was concurrently modern yet traditional. The rooms were luxuriously simple, minimal, and neutral. We had a little balcony which overlooked a man-made lake with a waterfall feature. It was joyous to sit in the quiet with nothing but gurgling water sounds humming in the air. To help us further unwind, we booked an in-room massage. The masseuses came to our suite and set up (surprisingly comfortable) straw mats on the floor. Despite the fact that both masseuses were tiny ladies, they had powerful hand and arm strength and thus did a commendable job! (I still recall with a smile on my face about the time one of the masseuse started to giggle — it turned out that she was amused with the hair on Bruce’s arms. They were sooooo blonde and the masseuse was not accustomed to seeing such blonde hair!)
Another great way to unwind was to visit the onsens (hot natural spring baths). The normal practice to bathing in an onsen is to bathe in the nude. Each onsen had a shower facility next to it and it was mandatory that you shower first before getting into the pool. There were multiple hot thermal pools — some were hotter than others so it was not unusal to see people hop from one pool into the next and then alternate. Also, the onsens were segragated by sex so one could bathe in relative peace. The outdoor onsens had bamboo screens to separate the sexes as well as to provide privacy. But, despite the bamboo screens, I saw pervy old men trying to sneak a peak into the ladies pools! (For complete privacy from the opposite sex, there were indoor onsens.)
That evening, we had a traditional meal which was served in our room. The staff came in and set up a small table for us. The convention was to eat kneeling or sitting on our backside on cushions on the floor. We each had a large tray of food comprising of approximately 15 little dishes. We had: miso soup, pickled vegetables, sashimi, rice, cooked fish, a rich and well stewed piece of meat, and many others that I cannot remember. Succinctly, it was exceptional!
Breakfast was served in the main eating hall. Despite the fact that I ate everything on my tray the night before (and was very full), I was quite hungry the next morning. So, I was thrilled when my breakfast was served — sashimi, rice, soup, and pickled vegetables. But poor Bruce — he is at his most conservative when he is at breakfast — and his face fell when more raw fish was presented to him. He was clearly craving eggs, bacon and sausages! Despite the fact that we were the only Westerners at this hotel-onsen, we spotted what we thought was a “Westerner’s table” as it had yougurt and a basket of eggs. Bruce picked up a pot of yougurt and a few eggs. And, as he was cracking the egg shell, he mused that it would be really funny if these eggs were raw. THEY WERE! It turned out that the eggs were for the hot soup — it was customary to pour the contents from the egg into the soup and the residual heat in the soup would cook the egg. There were no Westerner’s breakkie for Bruce ….
Despite the rough start of the day (for Bruce), we had a cracking great day! It turned out that the hotel was near Mt. Fuji. (We found this out during check-out when we noticed adverts for Mt. Fuji tours at the reception table.) Despite the fact that neither of us could speak Japanese and none of the staff could speak English, we somehow managed to communicate to the hotel staff that we wanted to visit Mt. Fuji (but not with a tour group). What the hotel staff did next was truly remarkable. They had a long chat with the taxi driver who took us to the train station. Once there, the taxi driver got out and found the station manager. He passed on the instructions to the station manager who then collected us and told us where to wait. When the right train arrived, the station manager made sure we got on. He then spoke to the train ticket collector and train supervisor. The ticket collector then kept an eye on us and made sure that we got off at the right spot. When we got off, the ticket collector signalled to someone on the platform to escort us to the Mt. Fuji train. And, from there, we had to connect with a bus to get to Mt. Fuji. The kindness and care of the ordinary Japanese bestowed was wonderful — we would have an ‘interesting’ time had we tried to do this ourselves!
The funny thing about Mt. Fuji is that we all know that it is large, but, we really didn’t know how large it really is. When we were on the train, we kept seeing magnificently large peaks and we would proclaim that it was Mt. Fuji. Until that is, we saw something larger. Then we would proclaim that ‘that one’ must be Mt. Fuji. Until we saw something larger. And, larger. And larger. The truth is, Mt. Fuji is visible from a plane. So, none of the ‘large’ mountains could compare to Mt. Fuji. In a nutshell, Mt. Fuji is monsterously large. And well worth the visit — even if for a short trip such as ours.
[ This is a long and detailed account of my personal travel experience with this company. If you don’t have the time to read the blog in it’s entirety, then the headline is: Mongolia is a beautiful country and I would encourage people to visit. But please chose your travel/tour company wisely. Based on my experience, I would never travel with or use Blue Wolf Travel again. ]
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The following is based on my experience (*) using Blue Wolf Travel (www.bluewolftravel.com & www.mongol-altai.com) during my travels to Ulgii for the 2013 Golden Eagle Festival. Although Blue Wolf Travel (“BW”) is listed in The Lonely Planet guide for Mongolia, I wanted to do my own independent research before deciding on which travel agency to use. In particular, I wanted my tourist dollars to remain in Mongolia and thus I placed particular priority on local agents. Furthermore, I wanted an agency that had deep local connections because I wanted to do a homestay/gerstay with a local family. Finally, for maximum flexibility, I needed an agency that could provide my husband and I with a dedicated car, driver and guide-translator for the seven nights that we would be spending in the region. Hours of Google-searches revealed no red-flags about this company. In addition, I found out that BW sponsors the Sagsai Eagle Festival (a rival festival to the Ulgii event). On paper, it would appear that BW ticked all the boxes: it is locally based with great connections to the local Eagle Hunter community. In addition, my initial contact with the company was equally promising. The owner and manager (Canat) advised that BW has organized many photography tours before and that BW was perfectly placed to help us. With the above in mind, I felt reasonably confident that I could trust BW and thus began working with BW to organize the October 2013 trip. Everything that I’d discussed with Canat was summarized and confirmed in email. Sadly, words are wind with Blue Wolf.
Although all of my requirements were confirmed in writing as well as re-confirmed with Canat face-to-face at our initial ‘greet and meet’ at the BW office, very little of what was agreed (and paid for in full and in advance) was actually delivered. (For details on the specifics, see read the Appendix of this OP-ED.) As annoying, frustrating and disappointing as my experience with BW was, the real motivation for writing this OP-ED is to advise potential clients that under certain circumstances, I believe that travelling with BW can actually be quite dangerous. This opinion is based on what happened to a fellow traveller we met as we’d shared our horror stories about Blue Wolf Travel over coffee at the airport.
Our fellow traveller (“FT”) is an independent soul and likes to travel solo. In addition to attending the Ulgii Eagle Festival, she made arrangements with BW to spend a few days on horseback (accompanied by a guide-translator) to explore the mountainous regions of western Mongolia. Unfortunately, the person that BW assigned to her could neither translate nor guide. (We actually had this person as our guide-translator for the first 1.5 days. She is a very lovely young lady but she was absolutely useless as a translator. From what little that we could understand when speaking with her, it sounded like she worked in the local market and was roped in to fill this role at the last minute!) The alarming thing was that this young guide-translator (“YGT”) was not trained for mountain expeditions and yet was tasked to take FT to the base area in Tuvan Bogh for a multi-day exploration. After travelling some distance (by car) towards the overnight ger in the Tuvan Bogh and in face of declining daylight, falling snow and below-zero wind chill factor, FT became concerned about the overall situation and asked her driver to stop an approaching car travelling in the opposite direction to inquire about their current location and the remaining distance to the overnight ger. The guide in the other car advised FT that the base camp was already full to capacity and that there was simply no room for her (or for her support crew). But, as there was nowhere else to go and as it would be too dangerous to proceed forward (or return back to Ulgii) because it was getting dark and cold, the guide offered FT a place with her group. (Unfortunately, FT’s support team had to sleep in the car!!!). In short, a disaster was averted because of the kindness and hospitality of this group
The next day, YGT told the other guide that she was taking FT to a lake nestled in the mountain regions and offered to take the other guide’s group along as well. FT actually questioned this because she thought that this was doubtful as visibility was very poor. Nonetheless, YGT convinced the other guide that she knew the way and was going nonetheless. In short, YGT proceeded to get everyone lost! Later, she admitted to FT that she had never been to the lake except once before (but that was in the summer and in perfect conditions).
When FT returned to Ulgii, she spoke to Canat about YGT. Specifically, FT mentioned that YGT made very bad decisions on the trip which actually compromised FT’s safety. And that YGT is neither experienced enough nor matured enough and therefore should not have been entrusted to take any traveller up to Tuvan Bogh — especially in winter conditions. According to FT, Canat made some general excuses for YGT but, more importantly, he took no responsibility for this. In short, it seemed to FT that Canat thought that it was perfectly acceptable to send a single female traveller up a mountain in winter with a guide who could not speak English and who knew nothing about the history or culture of the area and who didn’t know what to do in an emergency!
In short, my friend FT paid a premium (she had to carry the full costs of hiring the guide, car & driver) to enable her to have an authentic experience in western Mongolia. She had hoped to be able to converse with the locals, learn about their lives and culture, and share in the history of the beautiful country side. This was made impossible as the YGT could barely speak English — and when she did, she did it poorly (i.e. mistranslation resulting in embarrassment and chagrin).
My experience with BW suggest that what happened to our friend was not an isolated case. In my opinion, BW was as equally careless with our arrangements as they were with hers. The difference was that although we were greatly inconvenienced, our friend was actually put at risk. First, she was assigned someone who was untrained and inexperienced and both were placed in a high-risk situation. As such, there was a failure in duty-of-care by BW to both the traveller and to the guide. Second, BW failed to ensure that they both had a guaranteed place to shelter at night.
If you are travelling to Ulgii to see just the Eagle Festival and are quite content to stay at one of the BW gers set inside their industrial park behind the BW office, then you should be OK to use them. However, if you need something extra — i.e. have a private car, driver, translator-guide, gerstay, etc., then you do need to exercise caution. Even with the simplest arrangements, BW still managed to muck it up for us. For the full details on our issues, please see the Appendix below.
Given that BW is one of the largest travel operators in the region and the options are quite limited, you may find that you have little choice but to use them. If this is the case, then please see the below as I’ve outlined some tips/suggestions on how best to navigate BW.
The above aside, I hope that this OP-ED does not deter you from travelling to western Mongolia. Blue Wolf malarky aside, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the country (please check out my travel blog about the Golden Eagle Festival and travel tips for Mongolia). And, I simply love my host family as they were truly wonderful. If anything, I encourage you to visit this region with it’s remarkable landscape, history and people. But, if you do visit, then please ensure that you have a good partner — don’t let a careless and amateur organisation ruin such a lovely experience.
Happy and safe travels!
(*) Notice: each person will need to make up his/her own informed decision about the merits of this OP-ED blog. As such, if the reader is researching any of the named party(ies) mentioned in this blog, then it is advisable that the reader continues his/her research to form a more robust finding. This blog is purely an OPINION which is based on a personal experience which may or may not be applicable to others.
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The plan agreed with Blue Wolf Travel (“BW”) was that they would provide the logistics to enable us to do a private photography tour of the region. This entailed having a dedicated driver, car and English-speaking guide-translator with us the entire time. In addition, we would spend seven nights in a private ger with an Eagle Hunter and his family and that this would be a full board (i.e. all meals included). This was organized as a private tour so that we would have maximum flexibility. It was important to us to be able to catch sunrises and sunsets in places of outstanding natural beauty and for that, we needed a driver and guide who were willing to wake up before the crack of dawn. In addition, I wanted to have two full days dedicated to photographing the Eagle Hunters in a variety of settings (a total of eight hunters were booked to be our models for the two days). This was to be a private event as we didn’t want to other photographers getting in our frames or determine the direction of the photo sessions. All of this was agreed in email and the costs were paid for in advance and in full.
With the exception of Oct 5th and Oct 6th (during the Eagle Festival whereby BW had little logistical involvement), nothing really went according to plan!
- Sadly, our private photography tour was NOT a private photography tour! Tim, a photographer from the UK who was travelling independently, was evicted from his ger as it turned out that it was double-booked. As such, he lost a day getting bounced around from ger to ger to ger. BW finally sent him to our host family and he had to share a room with the family. Unfortunately, Tim didn’t have his own driver, car, translator-guide, or cook. Thus and by default, he joined our tour. Whilst we enjoyed Tim’s company, we’d paid a premium to travel independently. We could have saved a lot of money by joining a photography group but this was not what we wanted.
- We wanted to get “under the skin” of the place and have as close to an authentic experience as possible. As such, it was important that we have an English-speaking guide so that she/he could help us connect with the host family. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, our English-speaking translator wasn’t available until the middle of the second day. As such, BW assigned someone else in the interim period. Sadly, this temporary translator could barely speak English. And this made the first day and a half a very awkward and logistically challenging experience.
- Based on my experience and in my opinion, BW was highly disorganised. In total, we lost two days faffing around because BW could not connect the dots and handle simple arrangements.
- First, we lost 1/2 of Day One waiting for our driver. Although we paid for the full day, BW sent our driver off to run errands on BW’s behalf !!! Thus, we really didn’t set off to explore the region until well into the afternoon.
- Second, during the initial meet-n-greet meeting with Canat, we agreed on an itinerary for what remained of Day 1 and Day 2. Since our first (temporary) translator didn’t speak English, Canat agreed to convey the plans to both the driver and the guide-translator so that they would know where to take us. I want to say that something got lost in translation, but how is that possible if Canat and the both the driver & guide speak the same language? I can only infer that the problems that followed were due to bad communication or incompetence. On Day 2, we were supposed to catch the sunrise over a lake in one of the national parks. But neither the driver nor the guide knew of this! So, we missed our sunrise photo opportunity. When we asked the translator to call BW and speak to Canat, she didn’t comprehend the request. “What is canat?” “Canat?”. Finally, she clicked that Canat was the manager of BW. So, she called the office and someone from the office told her that we wanted to see a lake. So, her solution was to take us to the lake 500m from our ger. It was a pleasant but non-descriptive lake. Like Day 1, the morning of Day 2 was wasted.
- Third, the afternoon of Day 2 was a washout as well. Canat had agreed to meet up with us that afternoon to take us to see some amazing petroglyphs in the region. He was a no-show. Our new translator-guide (someone who could actually speak English!) arrived whilst we waited for Canat and she suggested that we see a stone monolith nearby instead. We were keen to salvage what remained of that day so we agreed. Unbeknownst to us, Canat called the driver and told him to take us to the lake that we were supposed to go in the morning. The driver therefore ignored the instructions from the translator-guide and drove towards the lake instead; the lake was 90 kilometres away. We were halfway towards the lake when we discovered this. So, we requested a change in direction because we knew the lighting would be poor by the time we reached the lake. But to get to the monolith required backtracking as well as going thru a deserted valley. Twice during the journey, the driver had to stop and check the car. This wasn’t very reassuring. When we realized that we had no spare water, no spare blankets, no mobile phone reception and more importantly, no one from the office knew that we were heading to the monolith instead of the lake, we became concerned about getting stranded in the middle of absolutely nowhere. As such, we had to err on the side of safety and cancel the trip to the monolith and headed back to base.
- Fourth, Day 7 was originally planned as a rest-day. But since Day2 was a complete washout, we decided to re-try visiting the lake in the morning and then go check out the petroglyphs with Canat in the afternoon. There were many petroglyphs in the area but Canat offered to take us to see the best ones. We should not have been surprised when Canat decided to pull another no-show. Our guide tried her best to remedy the situation by getting directions from the office on where the petroglyphs were. But, the directions were vague and thus, our guide had to ask random strangers along the way. In the end, we saw a few petroglyphs but these were the ones we managed to stumble across and they were not particularly interesting (i.e. not ones that can be photographed as these were just scratches on rocks).
- Fifth, we booked eight Eagle Hunters for our private photo sessions. But, BW only managed to secure seven. Even though BW had months to plan for this, it appeared that the Eagle Hunters were organized only at the last minute. In addition, in my many emails with Canat prior to the trip, I was clear that I wanted to book the hunters for the full day as I wanted to capture them in a variety of settings. It was only at the initial meet-n-greet meeting that Canat advised me that the hunters were available to us for only a few hours each day. As such, we had to rethink our plans about when/where to do the photography sessions.
- Sixth, he changed prices suddenly. I was given a quote of USD 20 for each eagle hunter (to be our model for the day) which I agreed to. Then, the prices later increased because he ‘forgot‘ to include the price for the horses (at an additional USD 15 per horse). Upon reflection, I’m surprised that Canat didn’t charge me extra for the eagles! This increase was absurd and unjustified because the Eagle Hunters always hunt with horses and these hunters would be riding their own horses! But, as this price increase came in rather close to the departure date and I didn’t want to jeopardise the plans, I consented to the new price.
- Finally, we arranged for full-board (i.e. all meals included) during the seven nights we spent with the family. BW provided a cook — but, this cook was there for only 5 nights. When the cook left early, we were told to not worry because she prepared food for us. Words are wind with BW because on Day 7, we had no breakfast and our lunch (during the road trip to the lake-petroglyphs) was 1 small bag of potato chips each.
In summary, I would NOT recommend using Blue Wolf Travel. But as the choices are limited, you may find that BW is unavoidable. If you do have to use BW as your travel organizer, then below are my suggestions:
- Confirm everything in email. This way, it would be easier for you to press for a refund if you need to dispute the services rendered (or not rendered).
- Insist on a face-to-face meeting with the Office Manager when you arrive into Ulgii. Have your translator and driver present so that they are aware of the what’s been agreed and what’s on the actual itinerary. This should help mitigate crossed wires.
- Based on my experience, Canat does not like dealing with client’s problems. Every time we try to meet with him, he suddenly becomes ‘unavailable’. Three times we booked a meeting with Canat (via his office staff) and yet each time he is called away to a meeting in another village and this village had no mobile phone reception. I know this to be a cover story because it does not add up. The first time when he failed to show up for a meeting (not related to the petroglyphs outing), his office told me that he had an important meeting with the Eagle Festival organizers. This is dubious to me because the day prior at the meet-n-greet, Canat told me himself that he’s not involved in the Ulgii Eagle Festival at all as this is organized by the government and some other tour operator (Nomadic Expeditions). The second time he failed to show up to a pre-arranged meeting, his office was unable to reach him and didn’t know his schedule and therefore could not advise when he was due back. I then made arrangements to meet with Canat on the morning of my flight out of Ulgii. When I arrived, I was told that he was unavailable as he was still asleep (his house is next door to the BW office). When I’d advised them that I was willing to wait for him (this was a bluff as I actually had a flight to catch), the cover story suddenly changed. The office suddenly remembered that Canat was now actually in another village in a meeting but that he would instead come and meet me at the airport. Needless to say, he was a no-show at the airport. From what I could gather from other travellers who also had problems with BW, the best way to catch Canat is to ambush him in his office. I made the fatal mistake of trying to arrange a meeting with him.
- Hold BW accountable. I am. I’m in the process of getting a partial refund from them. Although I have secured an agreement for a refund amount, words are wind with BW …. Time will tell.
- UPDATE OCT 26th: despite the fact that I’ve secured an agreement on the refund amount, Blue Wolf Travels is now _ignoring_ my emails requesting status updates on the $ transfer. No surprises, then! It appears that this is classic BW again — ignore your customers and hope that they will give up and fly away!
- UPDATE NOV 1st: BW has sent the money to me via Western Union. Although they have my full address, they’ve somehow managed to send the money to Singapore instead of Hong Kong! As such, money is currently NOT collectable! (Did I not say that BW is disorganised and uncoordinated?)
- UPDATE NOV 5th: Refund has arrived. But sadly, I got a terrible foreign exchange rate from Western Union so I didn’t get the amount expected. But, happily, the refund issue is now considered closed.
BTW — it looks like I’m not alone in my disappointment and frustration with BW.