Midway through the 10-hour delay of my Air China flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I managed to telephone the front desk at Mongolia’s first five-star resort, the 52-room Terelj Hotel. The English-speaking receptionist was not at all surprised by my news; I would later learn it was a below-average hold up for this particular route. However, her next remark threw me further off course: “Please be aware, our roads are not what you are accustomed to in your country.”
How right she was. But not in the way I thought. When our plane finally did swoop into Chinggis Khaan International Airport late on that January night, I braced myself for an epically bumpy ride, or at least a serious slip and slide along ice-covered terrain. Instead, the 50km trip took us across some of the newest, smoothest highway in all my travels. Rather than warning me that my travel time would be drawn out still further, the receptionist had been reassuring me that the last leg of my journey would be blissfully smooth. Equally unexpected here in the raw wilds of Mongolia’s protected Gorkhi-Terelj National Park was this 19th-century Russian-holiday-camp-turned-21st-century-luxury-retreat, complete with towering copper sculpture of Josef Stalin.
We passed through a peach-velvet lobby with its multiple plumped-up couches festooned with embroidered pillows, and headed straight for the incongruously named Executive Room. Was I really in Mongolia, I thought, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I admired the sumptuous European fabrics, Egyptian-cotton bed linens and local cashmere blankets on the bed. The last thing I remember before collapsing onto that international compilation was the bellman’s parting comment that temperatures at this time of year “can drop as low as -18°C”.
The next day, after breakfasting on Italian espresso and Parisian-quality croissants, I took warming refuge in the spa’s German-made, gently undulating aquatic flotation bed. When I asked about this preponderance of European influences at such a remote Asian outpost, including the cigar lounge stocked with 70 types of imported whisky, the hotel’s Mongolian managing director explained that almost everything had to be brought into the country prior to Terelj’s opening at the end of 2008 – except the foie gras, which the first chef, from Strasbourg, painstakingly taught the locals to produce, beginning with the slaughtering technique. Canadian designers heeded the local owner’s request to hang indigenous art among the French-château inspired interiors, resulting in a surprisingly appealing juxtaposition (one of the rooms, second picture).
Pure authenticity comes in the form of the hotel’s own traditional ger, where the owners display their museum-quality Mongolian antiques and Tibetan carpets. I braved the six-second trek across the hotel’s ice-covered driveway to investigate the stylishly glamorous tent, though for this California girl, further expeditions to the 100 Monks Cave and Praying Lama Rock, or horseback riding, salmon fishing and bird watching in the surrounding Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area, would have to wait a warming while.