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A beginner’s guide to Mongolia

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If your idea of wilderness is wide open spaces that are truly off-grid, then Mongolia is the place for you. A huge nation with a comparatively small population, to the rest of the world this proud Central Asian country is known for its vast landscapes, nomadic herders, and compelling history marked by strong empires and formidable military conquests.

Though its historic legacy is captivating, travelers to present-day Mongolia will find that Mongolians are warm and inclusive; and part of an evolving culture that embraces change while being deeply proud of its traditions and customs. Gain an introduction to this marvelous country with our beginner’s guide to Mongolia.

Wild, primeval spaces

Known as ‘the Land of the Blue Sky’, Mongolia is almost synonymous with open space and a sense of endless horizons. No place illustrates this more beautifully than the mighty Gobi Desert.

The Gobi’s far-reaching lands of rugged and diverse scenery cover towering sand dunes, impressive canyons, craggy mountain ranges and flat, sprawling gravel plains. In the southern regions the Flaming Cliffs, locally known as ‘Bayanzang’, fire up the landscape with their orangey hues, and have been found to hold enormous dinosaur fossils dating back to the Cretaceous period. Traversing these lands on horseback – passing herds of camels and nomadic herders – is a humbling experience that stokes an intrinsic, elemental connection to the land.

Going on a multi-day trip to the Gobi is recommended. Come nightfall, the dome of the sky glistens with unbelievable clarity, for stargazing that is simply unmatched.

Nature upon nature

Alongside the formidable Gobi, Mongolia is teeming with enormous lakes, picturesque mountains and lush, meadowed landscapes, which only adds to the welcome sensation of being truly off-grid.

Of course, there’s the Eastern Steppe, part of the Eurasian Steppe which stretches across a huge portion of Central Asia. These arid grasslands are home to nomadic herding communities who have lived a pastoral lifestyle alongside goats, sheep and cattle for thousands of years.

In the north you’ll find Khövsgöl Lake, the country’s largest freshwater lake surrounded by thick forestland, known simply as the ‘Blue Pearl’. In the west of the country, the Altai Mountains border with China and Russia, forging a stunning strip of alpine panoramas and glaciers, where snow leopards and Altai red deer roam.

For hiking and exploring on foot, Khustain Nuruu National Park (also called Hustai National Park) is a wonderland of rolling hills and rocky trails, known for being the last home of truly wild horses, as well as lots of other glorious flora and fauna.

The nomadic way of life

The nomadic way of life is deeply entwined with Mongolian culture – pastoral herding communities have traversed these plains and lived off the land before historical records began. To get a glimpse of how nomads live, staying in a yurt is a must. Yurts here are known as gers, and are circular tents covered in blankets and fabrics, easily disassembled and carried with the herds as the seasons change.

Nomadic families in Mongolia are deeply hospitable and will gladly host you in their homes for overnight stays. Here you can share cups of tea, help care for their animals and livestock, eat meals together, and get involved in their daily tasks such as felt-making and milking. Of all the memorable experiences to be had in Mongolia, these ancient customs are sure to leave an impression.

Time-honoured culture and customs

If the timing aligns, festivals are big here, devoted to Mongolian past-times that cover everything from camel-herding and throat-singing to eagle-hunting. The most revered of these events is undoubtedly Naadam; a huge national festival that champions wrestling, horse-racing and archery. Otherwise known as the ‘three manly games’, these sports represent the ‘three virtues’ of strength (wrestling), skill (archery) and intelligence (horse-racing).

Alongside the games, you can expect to enjoy heritage music and dance performances, colorful parades and elaborate traditional costumes. People come from far and wide for Naadam; it’s a proud and raucous celebration of Mongolia’s rich and unique culture. Visit in July to be part of the fun.

A seat of notorious power

Mongolia’s unique history spans incredible change; from the introduction of early nomadic tribes, to the rule of iron-fisted leader Genghis Khan and his vast Mongol empire, to its more recent communist era.

Explore the Genghis Khan complex to understand his unifying status as a national symbol; to this day he is seen by many Mongolians as a military hero for his unrivalled strength and long-lasting impact on Mongolia’s legacy. The Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape was the former epicenter of the Mongol Empire and is the best place to observe archaeological ruins from the time; the ancient city of Karakorum is also remarkably well preserved, with a museum of exhibits and artefacts that detail this incredibly provocative time.

Bold journeys

A trip to Mongolia is for those serious about getting off the well-trodden path. As you travel from well-equipped cities to further afield, infrastructure can quickly shift from manageable to non-existent. Local advice, or the assistance of a local guide is often integral to opening up routes that would otherwise be blocked by limited transport or language barriers. Self-drive is preferable to taking public transport, though bus networks do exist. If you’re staying with a nomadic family, they may offer rides via motorbike if not horseback or camel.

For an experiential change of pace, the Trans-Siberian Railway trundles through Mongolia on its journey from Moscow to Beijing. The Mongolian segment is known for its immense and captivating scenery, as it travels through the expansive Steppes and wild Gobi Desert, and makes various stops including in capital Ulaanbaatar. Taking the train is mostly reliable with a bit of prior planning; it’s a novel way to be among Central Asian locals and other travelers.

Make it happen

If Mongolia fires up the imagination for your next big trip, get in touch with our locally-based experts today. They’re on the ground in Mongolia, ready to plan a customized trip to Central Asia that you’ll never forget.

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