Rugged Mongolia is an adventure destination where travelers can experience vast, untouched landscapes and learn about nomadic culture.
An Open Country
Mongolia existed in a Soviet bubble for most of the 20th century. Now a generation beyond the fall of communism, Mongolia has emerged as a young democracy with a promising economy based on mining, agriculture and tourism. Some revenue is being funneled back into improving tourist facilities, including a new international airport near Ulaanbaatar. Visas are relatively easy to acquire; a handful of nationalities won’t even require one. Mongolia welcomes all travelers, particularly those with an independent streak that delight in making their own way.
Mongolians are fully aware of the unique beauty of their country. Ask locals and they will probably start gushing about the spectacular countryside, vast steppes, rugged mountains, clear lakes and abundant wildlife and livestock. Some areas are so remote you could drive a full day and see almost no signs of human habitation. It’s this true wilderness experience that many people find so appealing, and city residents from Ulaanbaatar frequently hit the road to camp. Protected areas cover almost a fifth of the country and the government is looking to increase that figure.
Mongolia's nomadic culture is famous – visitors can sleep in a herder's ger (traditional felt yurt), help round up the sheep, ride horses and simply "get back to nature." The legacy of Chinggis Khaan and resurgent nationalist pride sharpens the experience. A culture of tremendous hospitality welcomes respectful travelers here. When traveling in Mongolia, however, keep in mind that guests are expected to reciprocate any forms of generosity, so when visiting families, always have a ready supply of gifts for the kids.
Not Just Grass & Horses
Once half nomadic, Mongolia is changing rapidly as its citizens flock to Ulaanbaatar and other big cities for work and study opportunities. Whether they are rural or urban, Mongolians take pride in their country's democratic institutions of civic participation. Mongolia is eager to be part of the global community, sending its troops on peacekeeping missions around the globe and promoting itself as a country to host northeast Asian peace talks; visiting now puts you in the middle of these dramatic transformations.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Mongolia.
The bend in the river here marks the remains of two ruined monasteries which are today considered one vast complex known as Ongiin Khiid. Bari Lam Khiid was built in 1810 on the north bank, the same side of the river as the area's tourist ger camps. Khutagt Lam Khiid was built in 1760 on the south. It was formerly one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia, and home to over a thousand monks. In the monasteries' heyday there were 17 temples on the northern side of the river and 11 on its southern bank, along with four Buddhist universities. Ongiin Khiid was a place of devotion and scholarship until the complex was destroyed in the 1937 communist purges when over 200 lamas were murdered. Others suffered forced conscription into the communist army and still others ran away to become herders and hopefully live in peace. After the temple was destroyed the river was soon rerouted to support local mines run by the communist government, and when the river dried up local herders were forced out of the area in search of water. Happily, once the Cold War ended in 1990 a small but growing contingent of monks arrived to set up shop amid the ruins, completing a small temple in 2004 and incorporating some original beams from the old ruined monastery in the new structure. A few monks live here full time, and every morning, before an altar flickering with candles and graced with a framed photo of the Dalai Lama, they worship and chant. Services begin at roughly 9am and last until about noon. You are welcome to join them. In summer their numbers swell. The ger beside the temple houses a small but interesting museum showcasing some artefacts found at the site, many of which were hidden by monks to save them from the purges. Views of the monochromatic mudbrick ruins and the surrounding area are impressive from the ibex monument at the top of the complex, where you can find broken original roof tiles. Khutagt Lam Khiid can only be accessed when the water level of the river is low, or when the river is iced over in winter.
Khongoryn Els are some of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia. Also known as the Duut Mankhan (Singing Dunes – from the sound they make when the sand is moved by the wind), they are up to 300m high, 12km wide and about 100km long. The largest dunes are at the northwestern corner of the range. From afar the dunes look painted on the south horizon in front of those gorgeous granite mountains. Up close you get more texture as the sand forms peaks that look like whipped meringue. Getting to the top (45 minutes to one hour) is exhausting; every step forward is followed by a significant backslide, and as you approach you may be sandblasted as the wind shears the lip off the dune and showers you with stinging sand, but the views of the desert from the sandy summit are wonderful. The dunes are also a popular place for organising camel treks (per hour/day T10,000/30,000, plus the same again for the guide fee). Most local herders can arrange treks. You'll have to walk the dunes yourself, but the camel can carry your gear. A two- or three-day walk through the dunes would likely be the highlight of your trip and its greatest challenge. A mini naadam featuring horse racing and wrestling is held here in August. The dunes are about 180km from Dalanzadgad. There is no way to get here unless you charter a vehicle or are part of a tour. From Khongoryn Els it is possible to follow desert tracks 130km north to Bogd in Övörkhangai, or 215km northwest to Bayanlig in Bayankhongor. This is a remote and unforgiving area and you shouldn’t undertake either trip without an experienced driver and full stocks of food, water and fuel.
This 670-sq-km nature reserve, only a four-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar, at an elevation of 2200m, is home to hundreds of ibexes (mountain goats), argali (big-horn sheep), gazelles, black vultures, wolves and other wildlife. There are 10 nomadic herder families living in the park, which is studded with spectacular glacial rock formations, their winter corrals built into red cliffs. Aside from the remote location, one of the reasons there is so much wildlife here is because of the water. There are three natural springs in the park. The one near Khalzan Uul (Bald Mountain) is considered a local health remedy. Burgasan Amny Rashaan is another mineral spring a few kilometres south of Khalzan Uul. August rains form ponds in the valley to which migrating birds descend, just as the Silk Road caravans once did to rest up and hydrate before making the push further north. Several ancient burial mounds and additional Tibetan petroglyphs (GPS: N 45°60.787’, E 108°57.201’; N 45°60.237’, E 108°55.959’; N 45°59.175’, E 108°61.397’) can be found throughout the park, but the reason it's on the tourist radar is the wildlife, specifically a healthy population of the globally threatened argali sheep. A team of international biologists have been conducting a long-term study that has partly habituated the sheep to the presence of humans, so if you spend a few days you’re almost guaranteed to see one. In recent years the Argali Project has expanded to include the ibex and been joined by the Carnivore Project and the Vulture Project. Some locals consider the natural springs near Khalzan Uul (Bald Mountain) a cure for everything from hangovers to HIV.
Yolyn Am was originally established to conserve the region's bird life, but it’s now more famous for its dramatic rocky cliffs and narrow, heavily shaded canyons that allow sheets of blue-veined ice to survive well into the summer in what is known as Yolyn Am Gorge. Yolyn Am is in the Zuun Saikhan Nuruu range, 46km west of Dalanzadgad (return taxi T100,000, one to two hours). Yolyn Am is in the Zuun Saikhan Nuruu, 46km west of Dalanzadgad (return taxi T120,000, one to two hours).
Gurvan Saikhan National Park (20,000 sq km) offers a wealth of sand dunes, canyons, dinosaur fossils and mountainous terrain. Desert wildlife includes argali sheep, ibexes and snow leopards. The most visited sights in the park are Yolyn Am and Khongoryn Els.
A pleasant 2km path leads from the parking area to this gorge filled with blue ice, one of the park's can't-miss sights. You can hike, bike or hire a horse and ride here. Along the way, you'll see herds of shaggy yaks and, if you're lucky, an ibex. You'll have to dismount your horse or mountain bike near where vendors gather to sell handicrafts in order to walk far enough for photo ops of the stunning glacier. Make sure to look out for white etchings on the rock walls – markings from ibex hooves scraping the face as they climb, like a four-legged Alex Honold, to the ridge above. If you fancy a full day hike, an experienced driver can pick you up on the other side of the gorge, roughly 8km away, but be careful, the footing is quite slippery in places. The surrounding hills also offer opportunities for some fine, if strenuous, day hikes where more ibexes and argali sheep roam the ridge line. A bit of history: it's said that Russian military units once used the gorge as a butchery and a kind of walk-in freezer where their meat would remain preserved from autumn until the summertime.
In 1853 Danzan Ravjaa told the local people that he would die in three years but that they could forever come to this place and speak to his spirit. Indeed, he died three years later and the site was marked by an ovoo. Shambhala is now surrounded by 108 new stupas (‘108’ being a sacred number in Buddhism). Festivities are held here on 10 September, but at any time of year you may see families lighting incense, throwing rice, circling the ovoo and chanting into the wind with their palms up as if feeling an infusion from the spirit world.
The so-called Flaming Cliffs are a Gobi highlight and an important palaeontology site first excavated by Roy Chapman Andrews in 1922. Even if you are not a ‘dinophile’, the eerie beauty of the surrounding landscape is a good reason to visit. It’s a classic desert of rock, red sands, scrub, sun and awesome emptiness. The cliffs look to be formed by great rifts in the earth, like a layer cake torn open, offset by the surprisingly green valley below.
A 400m-long jigsaw of white-sand cliffs, striped pastel shades of purple, orange and red. That's the scene awaiting you at Tsagaan Suvarga, a sight similar to Bayanzag, but with much more colour and a sliver of the tourism footprint.