Visiting Mongolia is a must for everyone, so why should you travel to Mongolia?
Maybe because the temperature reaches between +40̊ C in summer and -40̊ C in winter (that is 104̊ F to -40̊ F)?
Mongolia is the perfect country for adventurers, for those who want to have a once in a lifetime experience. Next to endless steppes, vast deserts and just a few towns, there are also countless lakes, rivers as well as snow-covered mountains offering a huge landscape variety.
Outside the towns you will only encounter the life style you experienced as a tourist in the Ger Camps. For the adventurers amongst you this would mean you would have to reduce your demand of luxuries. Not without an alternative though: if you wish so, your usual everyday luxuries can be arranged for you.
Mongolia is also a perfect destination for relaxing as you become one with nature and take in the endless silence of the steppe.
The lakes, created mostly from groundwater are crystal clear and cold. In the summer you can swim in them you can fish all year long. One of the most common free time activities is hiking as it’s the best way to explore indescribably beautiful landscapes and observe fascinating species of the animal kingdom.
With every year more and more tourists are attracted by the mystic beauty of Mongolian nature as well as the untouched culture and traditions of the nomads.
In order to see the best sites and attractions spread all over the country, you have to consider an off road trip with an SUV. But even with a car like that you might find places hard to reach and that would be a good chance to do continue on the back of a horse. The local horse-tours can easily and safely take you even further into the steppe. This way you will be able to visit secluded monuments and excavation sites as for example the Hun tumuli: over 200 grave hills of various different sizes. Grave goods of the deceased Huns like precious stones, vehicles or everyday objects, found within and around the tombs, can today be admired in the museums.
Speaking of the Huns, this is a good chance to dive a little bit into history. As mentioned before, most of Mongolia has remained untouched by human intervention for thousands of years. First writings where Mongolia is mentioned go back to the 4th century B.C, to the times of the Xiongnu-settlements. The Xiongu imperium established itself in the 3rd century BC as one of the first imperia of nomadic tribes worldwide. But even before that, there is proof of civilization connected with the bronze age of the Scythians. The characteristic deer stones (khirigsuur in Mongolian) with their highly stylized images of reindeer show an advanced culture regarding arts and use of metal tools. Traces of everyday life thousands of years ago have been immortalized on cave walls in Gobi and Altai.
The most significant historic period of Mongolia begins in the 12th century with the union of all the tribes and confederations of the Mongolian steppe. The first of this unity was named Khamag Mongol under the leadership of Genghis Khan.
We are closing this little historical trip with a very special sight: just a few kilometers from Ulaanbaatar in the region of Tsonjin Boldog stands the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40m high statue is the world’s biggest steel covered monument. It weighs 250 tons and is surrounded by 36 columns, one for each Khan of the Mongolian imperium.
Visitors can walk to the head of the horse through its chest and neck for a breathtaking panoramic view of the steppe.
Close by to the monument is an attraction park called the „13th century”. There one can find the most beautiful objects mirroring the nomadic life. Walk from yurt to yurt (traditional Mongolian round tents) and discover extraordinary accessories, artefacts, shaman attributes and various other objects. Soon enough you will realize that Mongolia is an archeologist’s paradise that still holds some undiscovered cultural and prehistoric goods well hidden. For example, the Gobi Desert is the center for exciting fossil finds. From an archeologist’s point of view Mongolia is a terrain full of sensations waiting to be discovered. The best thing about it is that you can also have a part in this while visiting the desert landscape as it is not impossible to stumble across some ancient fossils.
Getting a little into Mongolia’s history, you will soon realize that Karakorum used to be a major site for world politics. Karakorum was the old capital of the Mongol Empire and a point of interest even in the times before the rule of the Mongolian dynasties. You can admire selected artefacts of that time in the Orkhon Museum.
A few kilometers outside the old capital, archeologists discovered the ruins of Ordu-Baliq, the capital city of the Uyghur Khaganate, also known as Kharbalgas. Numerous excavations have taken place throughout the country but very often due to lack of proper storage facilities, the findings would be documented and then often buried again where they were found.
With less than an hour drive to the north from Kharakorum you can visit the Khushuut Tsaidam Museum, also known as Bilge Khaan Museum, which showcases Orkhun inscriptions and other magnificent objects from the second Göktürk Dynastie and the Ashina Clan.
Furthermore, located in Karakorum, is one of the most significant monasteries of the country based on its architecture, the world famous Erdene Zuu. The monastery was built in the middle of the 16th century and resembles the medieval Tibetan fortresses. The old monasteries in Mongolia and especially Erdene Zuu are remarkable as they are more like a temple complex with three different buildings. It is a perfect example for Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese architecture. More than 10.000 people used to live here when it was first build. Nowadays it only serves as a tourist attraction except the religiously still operational Lavran-temple. In one of the buildings there is also a museum displaying Buddhist artefacts found around the walls of the monastery. One of these is the statue of Ikh-Tzu, hidden in the ruins of the Shakyamuni Buddha.
Worth visiting is also the Manshir / Manzushir monastery built in the beginning of the 18th century. The mountain on which the monastery is built, offers a breathtaking view on the valley below. Here you can also admire the beautiful Buddha paintings. While being there, make sure not to miss a Buddhist ritual and the prayers of the monks.
Animals in Mongolia are generally treated humane and with respect. Horse breeding facilities are open to the public, as well as the special reserves that have been set up to protect and increase the number the endangered Gobi bear.
It is important to know that spring and summer are short in Mongolia, which is why Ulaanbaatar is considered as one of the coldest capitals in the world. Ulaanbaatar is a modern city that keeps growing fast. There are many worth seeing sights at the city. Be sure not to miss the Gandan-Monastery (Gandantegchinlen Khiid) with its 26m high statue of the Megjid Janraisag god.
Here you will also get the chance to meet a lama friend of ours, talk to him, take pictures and even take part in a ritual – a privilege not every tourists gets.
Not less interesting is the Natural History Museum if you are eager to learn about the history of Mongolia, the Huns and the Göktürks. Another small but exciting museum is the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs which hosts dinosaur fossils found in the Gobi Desert.
Similar to the capital, Gobi Desert which covers almost half of the country is the coldest desert in the world. Most tourist attractions are in the south such as the excavation site of the dinosaur fossils which is open to visitors or the Stone Age cave paintings. The Bain-Dzak region is famous for yielding the first discovery of dinosaur eggs aged over a hundred million years.
Gurvan Saikhan situated in the north of the Gobi Desert is the largest national park of Mongolia. A big part of the park is covered with barchan dunes. But Gobi has even more to offer besides sand and fossils. The Mongolian Grand Canyon Tsagaan Suvraga is a magnificent sight resembling the red planet Mars. The desert might appear vast and lifeless but there are actually nomadic families living there. Don’t expect any luxuries here but you will have a true nomadic life experience here: Camel herding and ger tent sleep overs.
Legend says that you can hear the desert sand’s song when the wind howls through it and moves the sand dunes. Moreover I am sure you have never seen a sunset as red as you will experience it in the Gobi Desert. At night on the other hand you can admire millions of stars shining bright on the dark sky. A breathtaking experience is also to watch a Mongolian desert sandstorm. Another extraordinary sight and astonishing landscape in the middle of the desert is the Yolyn Am, a deep and narrow ice canyon. If you are lucky you might be able to see ancient water creatures frozen in an ice curtain millions of years ago.
The crossing over from the Gobi Desert to the Altaic promontory region is a whole other world that resembles more the Swiss Alps. On warm months the trekking tracks are open for tourists who can climb to the mountain tops or just admire the surrounding beauty along the tracks.
The most popular destinations for trekkers and hikers are the Khantei, Altai and Khangai Mountains. The top of the Khangai is the Khan Tengri with a height of 4000m. In the northwest of Mongolia hikers also visit the popular Khubsugul-Grate with its highest peak at 3189m. The Altai Mountains in the southeast side of the country have a peak at 4350m called Khuiten. These mountains are the home of the Altai Bear, the snow leopard and also the Kazakh golden eagle hunters. Visiting a camp site you will surely get the chance to get close to these magnificent birds of prey or, if you are lucky enough, witness them hunting.
North from the Altaic national park one can find the caves of the Altai Tavan Bogd Mountain. The paintings on the walls cover a long time in history starting from the Palaeolithic Age.
The National Park is in the west of Mongolia at the border in between Russia and China. At the northern side of it is the Koss peak, the highest of Mongolia with its 4374m.
In the park you can come across with a number of big lakes such as the Lake Dayan, Lake Khoton and Lake Khurgan. Due to the rough climate –strong winds and frost- the vegetation is limited in this area.
The Tavan Bogd offers an ideal landscape for mountain activities, camel riding or rafting.
The Khara Us Nuur Park was founded in order to conserve the unique ecosystem of the lakes. The park is located 45 km east of the Khovd Province and embraces the Jargalant Khairkhan Mountain with its numerous gorges. The climate is defined by extremely cold winters and very hot summers.
The Khovsgol Lake is by far one of the top tourist highlights. It is located in between hard to reach mountains and forests. In the north flows the Siberian Yenisei River which feeds into the northern end of Lake Baikal in Russia. The lake area is a National Park and strictly protected. Its water is potable without any treatment and there is a hunting ban on all wild animals.
The area around the heavenly blue water of the lake is home to the Dukha people (Tsaatan in Mongolian), a small Tuvan Turkic community of reindeer herders. Dukha people practice Shamanism, which differs from other Shamanistic religions in the region and is very closely connected to nature. The main camp of the Dukha is in the north of the lake but the Mongolian government is paying some smaller families to remain at the more accessible eastern side of the lake as a tourist attraction. This camp is reachable by a motorboat that you can rent together with a driver.
The region is a perfect destination for ecotourism. Especially children can have a great time around the lakes. Most tourists visit the Khovsgol Lake. Adults can fish and children can bathe in the crystal clear waters. There are special vacations camps where you can enjoy even more than just the necessary standards, especially regarding food as you can try all the local delicacies.
The most popular national park for family trips is the Gorkhi-Terelj, not far from Ulaanbaatar. Over 250 different bird species live in the Gorkhi-Terelj Taiga forest. Another main attraction is the glacier lake Hagin-Har. Spread across the park you will also find numerous rock formations with the most famous one being the Turtle Rock. In the south side of the park there are some tourist settlements such as hotels or ger camps as well as playgrounds, restaurants and souvenir shops. What is also offered a lot in this area is horse or camel riding.
The Uvs Lake Basin is an endorheic basin located on the territorial border of Mongolia and Russia. The basin is part of the Central Asian Internal Drainage Basin and is 160km wide from north to south and 600km wide from west to east. Today it’s part of a reserve including a complex mix of different ecosystems.
The reserve is more than a million hectares large and is covered with impassable Taiga, lifeless deserts, sand dunes, and majestic swamps. There are 359 bird species recorded as well as ca. 80 species of mammals. Most of them like the snow leopard, the Altai wapiti, the wolverine or the lynx live in the mountain areas of the reserve.
Besides its natural beauties the Uvs Lake Basin is also remarkable from an archeological point of view, as the long lakeside was a settlement for Huns and Skyths. Generally with about 40.000 excavation sites across the country, travelers will come across many historical tombs and memorial stones.
Though it is not very popular, travelers can also go hunting after getting the relevant license which is quite expensive. The game can be bears, lynxes, red deer, wild boar, sheep, wild goats or black-tailed antelopes. While hunting of wildcats is prohibited due to the low population, hunting wolves is allowed. The highest wolf population can be found in the Baganuur-Region.
Lake fishing is very popular amongst local or foreign vacationers. A very popular fishing spot is the Ogii Lake, home to the freshwater northern pike which can grow to a relatively large size. Besides pike one can also catch percidae or carp. In the Chuluut River live taimen, lenoks and thymallus.
The biggest lake in Mongolia is the Ubsu-Nur where you can find a large number of tomb hills and inscriptions of the nomadic Hunnu tribes.
Khubsugul, located at the border with Russia is the second largest lake. It is surrounded by a national park and is a shelter of various endangered animals. The Onon-Balj National Park, which name derives from the two rivers crossing it, is located in the northeast of Mongolia. The park preserves the natural ecosystem of the region and the cultural inheritance of the Buryats. In the waters of the Onon-Balj you can find taimen, lenoks, perch and salmon. It is also the habitat of migration birds such as ducks and swans. The beautiful and unique landscape of the Buryats creates excellent conditions for the development of ecotourism.
Mongolian cuisine is mostly based on meat and there are only a few vegetarian dishes. This has to do with the culture and way of life of the nomads but also with the fact that there is almost no fruit and vegetable cultivation which can be found only in the capital. The alternative is dough products. Food is fried in animal or plant oil which is full of calories and can be stored for a long period of time as there are no fridges or freezers in the steppe. Food culture is closely linked to livestock though no young animal is killed if it can be avoided. The most popular meat is lamb, goat and horse. Milk is mostly taken from cows, horse or yak and in the southern regions from camels, playing an important part in the nomads’ life. The various dairy products are the main source of income. The traditional aaruul cheese, produced with sour milk, is a daily sweet or salty family snack. Suutei Tsai Larda or simply known as milktea with salt is prepared every morning in every family. As the water for it is drawn from springs, rivers or lakes it defines the half year settlement of the nomads. The most common milkdrink is the Airag or Kumis. It is a fermented sour mare milk drink produced with the help of lactobacilli bacteria. Next to meat recipes, the Mongolian cuisine is also known for various dough products as is the Boortsog, a long shaped fried butter cookie which often serves as a side dish to meat. The most, let’s say exotic dish is the marmot which is not sold on any market but has to be hunted. For protecting its sinking population there is a hunting ban in specific times of the year.
Mongolian people remain faithful to their traditions and they love their freedom. It is not that there has been no civilizational progress -on the contrary, the cities grow and evolve-, but they refuse to give up on the nomadic way of life completely. They honor their culture and ancestors. Life in the steppe has another, slower pace than in the city. Through the year the nomads carry out their daily field work like wool harvesting, cow milking and cattle grazing. The rest is free time they spend doing traditional tea rituals, discussing, or doing trade with handmade goods. Their life is self-sufficient as they produce their food and clothing on their own.
Mongolian people are sincere, sympathetic, hospitable and helpful. A visit to Mongolian house or yurt is accompanied by many rituals and is a religious honor for the host. Religion is very complex in Mongolia as the Tibetan Buddhism is widely spread.
3% of the population is Muslims, 2% Christians and more than 50% Buddhists. There are no religious conflicts amongst them. The rest of the population practices shamanism which is treated with great awe and respect from Buddhists as well.
Common shaman practices are the oboos, sacred stone heaps used as altars or shrines. Oboos are often found at the top of mountains and in high places, like mountain passes as well as at lakes and roadsides.
On the10th of July Mongolian people celebrate their independence day, the Naadam. It’s a big celebration as it is also the official start of the summer holiday. Naadam is celebrated throughout the land but the biggest festivities take place in the capital, Ulaanbaatar with Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery. The highlights of the festival are the horse races where girls and boys between six and thirteen years impress the audience with their riding skills.
The mysterious tsam is the most important religious ceremony that takes place every year in July in the Erdene Zuu Monastery. The masked priests perform dance rituals to honor and celebrate their great leader Genghis Khan.
Another big event is the Golden Eagle Festival that used to take place in Altai in the beginning of October. In 2019 this festival was moved to Ulaanbaatar and is now held in February for a bigger audience. At the Golden Eagle Festival the horse riding hunter Berkutchi commands his eagle to catch a rabbit or a fox. It is an impressive moment showing the intelligence and dangerousness of these magnificent birds of prey.
I hope I managed to give glimpse of all that Mongolia has to offer with my little travel report and maybe you feel just like me, the urge to explore this land of endless adventure with its incomparable and unique nature, climate and people. Life here is still in place, as it has been for thousands of years: calm, balanced and remarkably beautiful. A bliss for historians, archeologists and tourists with ecological sensitivity longing for a life defining experience.