The ‘Central’ province surrounds Ulaanbaatar (UB) and its forested mountains offer a welcome escape from the city. Popular but picturesque Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is great for horse-trekking, hiking and camping, and it's only an hour or so away by bus! Further afield, you can spot takhi (wild horses) at Khustain National Park.
Arkhangai is something of an oasis in the centre of Mongolia’s harsh climatic zones; to the south lies the hot Gobi Desert and to the north lies the frigid Siberian taiga. Arkhangai is right in the middle, a mixed landscape of rugged mountains, peaceful forests, rushing streams and rolling steppe.
In the mid-13th century, Karakorum was a happening place. Chinggis Khaan established a supply base here and his son Ögedei ordered the construction of a proper capital, a decree that attracted traders, dignitaries and skilled workers from across Asia and even Europe.
Nestled comfortably between rugged mountains, and with a charming temple overlooking the town, Tsetserleg is one of the country's more appealing aimag capitals. It's a perfect place to break up your journey between Kharkhorin and Tariat, especially if you manage to snag a bed at the standout Fairfield Guesthouse.
A nondescript but friendly aimag capital, Arvaikheer is mainly used by travellers as a place to eat and rest, refuel the jeep or arrange onward public transport. Note, there is no need to go to Arvaikheer if you only want to visit Kharkhorin and northern Övörkhangai, as a paved road runs to Kharkhorin from Ulaanbaatar.
Terelj sum (district), about 55km northeast of Ulaanbaatar, is a playground for urban-weary Ulaanbaatarites. At 1600m, the area is cool and the alpine scenery magnificent, and there are great opportunities for hiking, rock climbing, swimming (in icy-cold water), rafting, horse riding and, for hard-core extreme-sports fanatics, skiing in the depths of winter.
Khustain National Park
This park was established in 1993 and is about 100km southwest of Ulaanbaatar. The 50,620-hectare reserve protects Mongolia’s wild horse, the takhi, and the reserve’s steppe and forest-steppe environment. In addition to the takhi, there are populations of maral (Asiatic red deer), steppe gazelle, deer, boar, manul (small wild cat), wolves and lynx.
Around 20km east of Ulaanbaatar, the town of Gachuurt offers the chance to quickly trade city traffic and bustle for riverside walks, horse riding, camping, fishing and rafting. The town is a rapidly growing suburb of the capital, popular with wealthy Mongolians who build gated villas on the hills surrounding the town.
In great contrast to the big city on the other side of the mountain, Zuunmod is a peanut-sized place, even smaller than most Mongolian provincial capitals. There is little reason to linger in the capital of Töv but you’ll probably pass through on the way to Mandshir Khiid in the Bogdkhan Uul Strictly Protected Area.
After a strong rain the magnificent seasonal Orkhon Khürkhree, is one of the best sights in central Mongolia. About 250m downstream from the waterfall you can climb down to the bottom of the gorge; it’s 22m deep and dotted with pine trees. Ask your tour operator about the status of the falls.
Khögnö Khan Uul Nature Reserve
Located just off the main Ulaanbaatar–Kharkhorin highway, this 46,900-hectare nature reserve centres on a large, boulder-strewn rocky mountain which rises up surreally from its semidesert surrounds. The arid terrain is good for short hikes (there's plenty of rock clambering to be done), and there are old temples to explore, both ruined and active.