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Mongolia is the land of blue skies and the mighty Genghis Khan. It’s a place where the modern world meets old traditions; a destination so off the beaten track that mass tourism simply doesn’t exist.
It’s a bucket list favourite for those seeking true adventure. Roads are bad – if they exist at all – so travelling anywhere can take a long time. But it’s well worth it; beautiful mountains, lonely valleys and herds of wild horses alternate. It is all about being close to nature, feeling freedom at its most elemental level and experiencing a sweet loneliness away from the crazy materialism of everyday life.
Nearly half of the population resides in the cosmopolitan capital of Ulaanbaatar. It’s by far the most westernised part of the country, where big hotel chains, international restaurants and luxury brands rub shoulders with ancient temples and castles. Yet it’s in the rural areas you’ll find Mongolia’s nomads – some of the last of such peoples in the world.
Even if you’re an independent traveller, you’ll need a local driver or guide to get around. With the help of the Indy Guide, SUITCASE found some of the best food and activities for your next adventure, though a nearly non-existent tourist industry make it hard to pin down the specifics. Use these as your guidelines, but go and make your own adventure.
Sleep in a ger (yurt), a traditional round tent covered with animal skins or felt. If you travel to the countryside, this is the most common type of accommodation. You’ll find shower gers at the more luxurious tourist camps, while the more traditional ones have fewer facilities but no less charm.
Friendly nomadic people will often invite travellers to stay in their own ger. It’s the perfect way to experience the Mongolian lifestyle, enjoying homemade meals and partaking in traditional activities such as herding camels and horses. You’ll get up early in the morning, prepare the yaks for milking, play nomadic card games, drink plenty of milky tea and even more vodka.
Khuushuur are little doughy bags filled with mutton or beef, similar to Chinese dumplings. While Khuushuur are deep fried and served like pancakes, the buuz variety of dumplings are steamed or boiled. There are a few good places to eat Khuushuur in Ulaanbaatar but you will find them in every local canteen up and down the country.
Khorkhog is a typical nomadic dish served throughout Mongolia. Mutton is gently cooked inside a pot filled with water for several hours and then served with potatoes or rice. Eaten by hand, it’s a communal dish, best enjoyed with company – you’re likely to be invited in by a nomadic family to try this local speciality.
Serving chai is an important social gesture in the Mongolian culture; all guests are immediately greeted with a steaming hot brew. Typically, Mongolians serve black tea with a lot of milk. Again, you will no doubt be welcomed into a traditional yurt or ger several times on your trip.
Airag or kumis is a tangy fermented dairy product made from horse milk and enjoyed by most nomadic tribes throughout central Asia and Mongolia – ask your local guide to get hold of some for you. It’s a sour, acquired taste which takes some getting used to but you can’t leave Mongolia without trying it.
Mongolia is best discovered on horseback – but if you’re not a natural horse whisperer, don’t worry. Mongolian horses are known to be gentle, friendly and easy to get used to. You can go on horseback tours throughout the whole country. If you stay around the capital Ulaanbaatar then there are several options where you can go on day or multi-day horseback tours especially at the Terelj National Park, at the Khustai National Park or at the Khangai Nuruu National Park. If you have time for a longer trip then head up to the beautiful Khovsgol Lake to enjoy the mountain scenery at the border to Siberia. That also the area where you can meet the Tsaatan people. This tribe lives are structured around their reindeer herds.
Trekking or mountaineering is another way to explore. Mongolia’s abundance of open spaces and beautiful mountain scenery make the country a mecca for hiking aficionados – go in spring/summer when the alpine flowers are in full bloom. The different national parks around Ulaanbaatar, such as Terelj National Park, Khustai National Park or Khangai Nuruu National Park, all offer good trekking options. If you’ve got the grit for bigger tours, done your walking boots and head west into the Altai Mountains. The best base for this sort of trip is the city of Ölgii is the capital of the western part. The city can be reached by plane from Ulaanbaatar.
Fiercely proud of their heritage, nomads are extremely hospitable to the small number of travellers who venture into their world. Spending some time with locals is one of the best ways to experience the Mongolian lifestyle, and many people will welcome you into their homes with open arms and plenty of tea. If you go on a guided tour you will definitely be invited into a yurt and probably stay a couple of days with local families. It is not uncommon for travellers to enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life so much that they stay a couple of weeks. You will expected to help around the gers as well as with the animals, and in return you will be treated as one of the family. Experiential travel at its best.
In western Mongolia, which is home to the Kazakh people, the ancient tradition of eagle hunting is still very much in practice. The Kazakhs hunt foxes, rabbits and even wolves with their majestic golden eagles. Hunting season kicks off with two eagle festivals held in autumn: the Sagsai Eagle festival is in mid-September, while the biggest is the Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii at the beginning of October, which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage cultural event. We thoroughly recommend arranging your trip to coincide with one of these, though if that’s not feasible it’s possible to visit eagle-hunter families and go on hunting trips with them instead.
The Naadam Festival is a major holiday held across Mongolia in the summer months during which villages come to life with horse racing, archery and wrestling competitions. It’s a great way to meet local people and truly throw yourself into the Mongolian way of life. The festival is held at beginning of July and lasts three days in all the larger towns around the country, with the biggest celebration taking place in Ulaanbaatar.
Follow in the footsteps of Genghis Khan, the fearsome founder of the Mongol Empire, beginning with his birthplace in the city of Dadal Sum in the Hentii region. Here, you’ll find a museum about the great warrior as well as suggested routes mapping his life, with beautiful lakes to visit along the way. Not far from Ulaanbaatar on the River Tuul in Tsonjin Boldog, you will find a commemorative 40-metre high statue in the place where, according to legend, Khan famously found a golden whip. Visiting empire capital of Kharkhorin is also worth doing. While there is not much left of the old city, the Erdene Zuu Monastery is probably the earliest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia and is located just 2km north-east in the Övörkhangai Province.
The very lucky ones may encounter the ever-elusive snow leopard prowling through Mongolia’s serene mountains. The mystical animal is best seen in winter when it comes down from the snow-covered mountains in search of prey. Expertly camouflaged, you have the best chance of spotting it in western Mongolia or around the Gobi Altai High Mountain. Other wildlife to look out for includes ibex wild goats, eagles, bears and wolves, all of which can all be spotted in the country’s various national parks. If you want to see a ‘takhi’ aka the highly endangered ‘Przewalski’s horse’ (a sub-species of wild horse) head for the Khustai National Park.
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