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.
Amarbayasgalant Khiid was built between 1727 and 1737 by the Manchu emperor Yongzheng, and dedicated to the great Mongolian Buddhist and sculptor Zanabazar, whose mummified body was moved here in 1779. The design references Manchu style, down to the inscriptions, symmetrical layout, imperial colour scheme and roof guardians on every roof corner. Despite extensive restoration by Unesco, there's a sense of genteel decay and a gradual takeover by nature that adds to the allure of the place.
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.
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.
Known as the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, Khövsgöl Nuur is an extraordinary lake that stretches 136km deep into the Siberian taiga. The lake, mountains and forests that surround it form the basis for the popular Khövsgöl Nuur National Park, a major destination for both Mongolian and international tourists.
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.
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).
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.
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).