Review by Ray Waddington.
Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Peoples of the World Foundation.
Some of my travel in western Mongolia was arranged through a tour company called Blue Wolf Travel. This tour company is based in Olgii. I don't usually write reviews of the tour companies I use. But when a company is this bad I feel that others should be advised — or, in this case, warned.
When deciding what tour company to use I came across several very negative online reviews of Blue Wolf Travel. They were so negative (and described things that I thought no tour company would actually do) that I chose not to believe them. After all, they are recommended in one of the most popular Mongolia guide books. That was my first mistake. My second mistake was hiring Blue Wolf Travel and my third mistake was paying them in full before any of the travel had begun.
The lies began long before I arrived in Mongolia. I had been corresponding directly the whole time with the owner of Blue Wolf Travel, Canat. On July 9, 2017 he told me that he had made a reservation for me to stay at the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace in Ulaan Baatar.
This is what the Kempinski Hotel said about that "reservation" when I contacted them.
Clearly, Canat knew that Blue Wolf Travel had not reserved a room for me at the Kempinski Hotel. Yet he continued to act as though his company had made such a reservation.
I contacted the Blue Wolf Travel representative in New York about this contradictory information. This is what he told me.
As soon as I received this e-mail I went online to check availability. The Kempinski Hotel had rooms available for my date.
I was not transferred to the Corporate Hotel. The Khunnu Palace hotel in Ulaan Baatar advertises itself as a three-star hotel; it is a two-star hotel at best. The wi-fi was so intermittent that it was unusable. There was no hot water and nobody spoke English. I was so disappointed with this hotel that I sent this e-mail to Canat because if Blue Wolf Travel had booked me into the same place upon my return to Ulaan Baatar, I wanted to discuss other options with them. He never replied to my e-mail. Later in this review it becomes clear why he did not reply.
When I met Canat in person I told him about my disappointment with the Khunnu Palace hotel and explained that I would like to stay at a different hotel on my return to Ulaan Baatar. He said I would have to discuss this with his manager. This was a sign of things to come. More on that later in this review.
After a brief tour of the area, the tour group I was in (three people, including me) returned to Olgii for the weekend for the Sagsai eagle festival. Blue Wolf Travel is the main sponsor and organizer of this festival. It was difficult to believe they have been doing this for fifteen years. On the Friday evening we were given the official schedule of the festival. The actual events followed nothing like this schedule — some of the events listed did not happen at all! Blue Wolf Travel had about thirty clients attending this festival. Still, Saturday morning was chaos and we left so late that we missed the beginning. One of the events that did happen was camel racing. This event lasted about ten minutes. As the camel racers approached the finish — where most of the festivalgoers had gathered to take photos — someone from Blue Wolf Travel pulled up in a car, got out and raised a flag to advertise the company and, in doing so, blocked our view!
One person in my group realized during the weekend that Blue Wolf Travel had booked his return flight from Khovd (six hours away by road) instead of from Olgii. Even though this was clearly their mistake, he was told he would have to pay an additional US $120 to change his flight.
The day after the festival my group was scheduled to leave at 7 o'clock in the morning for an overnight trip into Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We eventually left at 11:30 because Blue Wolf staff were so disorganized. We arrived at our destination less than an hour before sunset. Most of the day was wasted. When we returned the next day I pointed this out to the manager and told her there should be a refund. She just laughed. I had spoken to her over the weekend about my hotel for my return to Ulaan Baatar and she confirmed she had made a reservation for me at the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace. Again I followed up directly with that hotel. They confirmed that Blue Wolf Travel had made a number of reservations around my date, but had not sent a list of names. While that struck me as odd, there was nothing further I could do.
I spoke to many of Blue Wolf's clients over the weekend. Not one was happy. Many had tried to tell Canat how unhappy they were; all had been told to speak to the manager instead. But perhaps the most disturbing part of the weekend happened when I woke up very early on the Sunday morning. I went downstairs and tried to leave the Blue Wolf Travel hotel. The door was locked. We had all been locked in all night and the hotel has no fire escape. When I later mentioned to Canat that this was a major safety issue, he invented some story about how the last employee who left the night before had locked the door accidentally and that it wouldn't happen again. It was very obvious from his mannerism that he was lying to me.
I'd booked two tours with Blue Wolf Travel and the second began the day before the main eagle festival in Olgii. For this festival they had around eighty clients — many of whom had booked a tour that began a few days earlier. They are not set up to handle this number of guests and every mealtime was like a scene from Fawlty Towers. The group I'd joined (six people, including me) were typically served long after we'd sat at a table and the food was typically cold. Other groups were clearly being given priority. When someone from my group mentioned this to the manager she simply said that everyone is treated the same — as though we were imagining it.
One morning that weekend I again awoke early to find the hotel door locked. I asked the manager whether this door would be locked every night and she said "yes, of course." I recounted for her my previous conversation with Canat and asked her to confirm which of them was lying to me. She giggled like a nervous schoolchild caught in a lie, but did not answer my question.
The three days after the Olgii eagle festival were supposed to be spent with eagle hunters. The image below is from the itinerary that Blue Wolf Travel had sent me. Over the weekend the guide confirmed this part of the itinerary.
When we arrived there were no wooden huts, only gers, and no extra horses. When we questioned the guide regarding this she did something very unusual: she told the truth. It turns out that one of Blue Wolf's groups had decided the previous day (Sunday) that they wanted to visit eagle hunters. Canat had decided to send that group to the place my group was supposed to go. He did not bother informing us of his decision and, because it was last-minute, our hosts were unprepared. We had a group meeting and told the guide we wanted to go back to Olgii the next day instead. That day (Tuesday) was wasted and the next day we were driven to an abandoned tourist ger camp by a lake about 45 minutes from Olgii where we spent about an hour walking around. Again, the day was wasted. Again I asked the manager for a refund; again her response took the form of laughter.
I was happy when I landed in Ulaan Baatar and a driver was waiting at the airport to take me to the Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace. But when I arrived they said there was no reservation for me at their hotel. Furious, I asked them if they were willing to call Blue Wolf Travel. They were and, once again, I spoke to the manager. She denied ever telling me that she had reserved a room at the Kempinski hotel and said if I wanted to stay there I would have to pay an additional US $50. It turns out she had reserved the same Khunnu Palace hotel where my experience was the same as before.
The above is 100% fact. What follows is a combination of fact, speculation and opinion. I have tried to make it clear which is which.
I have no doubt that some of Blue Wolf Travel's failures are down to their sheer incompetence. But there is much more than incompetence involved. I was their client for a total of seventeen days, during which I interacted with many of their clients. So I believe I have formed an accurate understanding of their business model. I believe it is as follows. Unless you are someone (or are part of a group) whom Canat regards as important or influential, chances are you'll be treated as an inconvenience instead of a paying client. In my opinion that treatment might include deceit, dishonesty and contempt. I base this on a few observations. For example, like the person from my first group, a four-member group had also been booked a return flight from Khovd instead of Olgii. But that group included a National Geographic photographer and the owner of a large tourism company who had been giving business to Blue Wolf Travel for many years. Canat provided transport to Khovd airport for them at his own expense. As another example, one of the groups given priority at mealtimes was a large (ten people) group. They had brought their own tour guide with them and she treated the Blue Wolf staff as though she were their manager. Neither Canat nor the manager intervened. Third, one person from my second group did have his hotel reservation in Ulaan Baatar upgraded to a much better hotel at no additional cost. He is a semi-professional photographer.
I have no doubt that had I told Canat who I was, I would have received more favorable treatment. Fourth, every time I witnessed or heard about a conversation with the manager regarding a refund, even though Canat had already told them they had to speak with the manager, she had had to consult Canat. I believe this is a game they play as a delay tactic. Canat is often suddenly unavailable and the manager's hands are tied. In our phone conversation where she denied ever telling me I would be staying at the Kempinski hotel, she repeatedly told me she had checked with Canat regarding whether she would be allowed to change my reservation — as though any such conversation she might have had with Canat was proof in and of itself that she could not have told me she had changed my reservation. I got the impression that this manager simply cannot keep track of the lies she tells Blue Wolf clients.
On a final note, I did follow up again later with the Kempinski hotel. Below is their response. I was still in Olgii when Blue Wolf Travel sent the reservation list without my name and they did not bother to tell me. They also forgot to cancel the driver who picked me up and took me to the Kempinski hotel. (Two others on my flight were being taken to the Khunnu Palace by a Blue Wolf driver.) My conclusion is that I can only recommend that travelers avoid doing business with Blue Wolf Travel.