I have to admit, Mongolia had never really been a destination on my radar. It wasn’t a place I was actively avoiding; rather I’d never read about it as a travel destination, and therefore really knew nothing about it. When we were planning our around-the-world excursion, Stephan had expressed an interest in taking the Trans-Siberian from Beijing to Moscow, via Mongolia. Thus, we’d only considered a brief transit through the country. It was only after learning with absolute certainty that we had no hope of securing Russian tourist visas that a stop in Mongolia became a possibility. Russia makes it unbelievably difficult for U.S. citizens to obtain a proper tourist visa. You can’t apply more than 60 days in advance, and you have to apply from your home country. Because we’d been on the road for six months, and nowhere near the U.S., we were resigned to apply for a transit visa – granting a maximum of 10 days if traveling by rail, and still ridiculously challenging to obtain (as we quickly learned). When finally booking our trans-continental railway journey, Stephan found a company that offered a week-long journey to central Mongolia, our only option for breaking up the nearly 5,000-mile, 5-day train trip. A little bit of research about Mongolia piqued his interest and it was settled – with no possibility of stopping in Siberia, we’d instead be making a legitimate visit to the lesser-traveled central Asian nation.
We arrived in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, via the #23 train from Beijing. The surprisingly large city is home to approximately 1.4 million people, about half of the country’s three million inhabitants. While it was another large city, and didn’t seem to have a ton of noteworthy sights, it certainly had a much more laid-back feel than Beijing, as well as many of the other Asian capitals we visited. Also contrasting from these other cities, the transition from Ulaanbaatar’s urban sprawl to rural countryside is surprisingly abrupt – as soon as we exited the bustling center, we found ourselves in the middle of the open steppe, with nothing but undulating grasslands and livestock as far as the eye could see.
Mongolia’s landscape is indescribably breathtaking, and pictures don’t even begin to do justice, either in showcasing the country’s true beauty or capturing the immense scale of the topography. It’s some of the most remote and unspoiled splendor I’ve ever seen. Brilliant blue skies glow above the vast steppe, as billowing clouds hug the tops of the imposing hillsides. The blazing green grasslands are punctuated intermittently by swaths of brilliant purple and white wildflowers. Droves of livestock and horses speckle the monochromatic meadows as nomadic herdsmen guide them across the fertile land. Hawks and kites soar gracefully above the terrain, seemingly at every turn, likely because their habitat remains free from destruction and human interference. A drive through the pastoral countryside presents a tranquil landscape that is virtually unbroken. There are no high-rises, towns, or even road signs; only the occasional white ger (yurt) would pop from the sea of green. Often, there aren’t even power lines to disrupt the unblemished horizon. On a busy section of road, we’d pass a handful of cars, though it was much more likely that we’d drive for miles without another vehicle in sight. In fact, we were most liable to encounter a large herd of goats or sheep leisurely making their way across the road – a typical Mongolian traffic jam. And of course, what’s a drive through the Mongolian countryside without a little Mariah Carey jam session?
Our Mongolian adventure included a five-day tour of the country’s heartland, staying in basic ger camps, flanked on either side by a night in Ulaanbaatar. A long journey on our first day took us about 300 km (190 miles) southwest of the capital, to the southern edge of Khogno Khan National Park. Here, we took a short walk around Elsen Tasarkhai (‘the sand fracture’), a fragment of the Great Mongolian Sand Dunes that rises and falls for some 80 km (50 miles), boldly juxtaposed to the neighboring verdant countryside. Our first ger camp was only a few miles down a rutted, dirt offshoot that wound, seemingly without direction, through the vast steppe. We quickly learned that these dirt tracks that snaked through the grasslands were a major component of Mongolia’s road network. Often nearly invisible, the ‘roads’ arose out of nowhere, and were not only unmarked and unnamed, but also undocumented on any map. Xas, our guide, informed us that to find nomadic families living out in the countryside, people still rely largely on word of mouth. After arriving in the province in which a family is currently residing, visitors will stop at other gers and ask how to find them, until being successfully directed down one of the barely distinguishable and meandering tracks.
After arriving at our campsite, we were shown to our ger for the night – a cozy, round space with a few twin beds positioned around a small wood-burning stove that serves as both a cook space and the home’s central heating. Peaceful countryside stretched endlessly in every direction, and just beyond the camp, a rock-strewn hill rose in the distance. Because the sun didn’t set completely until well after 10pm, we seized the opportunity for a self-guided, evening hike up the hillside. Although the elevation gain was a mere 155 meters (510 feet), the scramble up the modest prominence afforded sweeping panoramas of the open steppe below, awash in the amber glow of the late-evening sunlight.
Back at our ger, we snuggled into our beds for our first night sleeping in the traditional accommodation. While we were charmed by the rustic living space, we quickly realized the one drawback to having a small gap in the ceiling where the metal stovepipe exited the space – it made a fabulous entryway for unwanted guests. In what seemed like an instant, black beetles ranging from petite to quarter-sized suddenly began pouring in through the crown. Many pinged loudly as they hit the metal stove below, while others made a more muffled sound as they more-stealthily assaulted the soft bedding, pillows, and vinyl floor. Now, I’ve slept in some imperfect conditions before without hesitation, but I think I learned that I draw the line at being rained on by sticky, sprightly beetles. Perhaps a light drizzle would have been okay, but this was a torrential downpour of dozens and dozens of the hard-shelled friends. Stephan finally made a desperate attempt to build a canopy over my head using one of the thin duvet covers and a couple of small wooden stools, much like the forts you build as kids with the couch cushions and kitchen chairs. Though it helped somewhat, the little buggers were still finding their way into the sheets. Thoroughly grossed out, I requested he climb into the tiny bed with me and tuck in the bedspread as tightly as humanly possible, in an effort to keep out the zippy little critters. He reluctantly obliged, and we squeezed like sardines into the narrow space. About an hour later, though, he began crying out that his leg had gone numb, and leapt out of both the bed and the ger fearing the constricting covers had left him with partial paralysis. Needless to say, after he regained feeling in his extremities, I was left to battle the beetles alone in my flimsy fort.
[Note: only sound here; no video (and the volume may need to be cranked to hear the pinging insects). Unfortunately, it’s after the beetle storm tapered off a bit… but you get the idea.]
We awoke the following morning and, having survived the terrifying beetle storm, headed 50 miles west to Karakorum village. The infamous Mongolian leader Chinggis Khan declared Karakorum the capital of the great Mongol Empire in 1220, and five years later, his son began construction on the city. The ancient, walled metropolis was one of the grandest of its time, home to between 10,000 and 15,000 countrymen. Visiting the village today, you’d never know it was once the seat of the renowned empire; the city walls have long since been destroyed, and all that now stands are a number of small, colorful homes and businesses. We made a stop at the Karakorum Museum, where we were able to learn about Mongolia’s impressive history, and view a striking exhibit of ancient artifacts – gold and silver treasures excavated from a 13th century tomb, prehistoric stone tools, pottery and stone inscriptions dating to the 13th and 14th centuries, and delicate coins that once belonged to emperors past.
Just up the road, we also visited Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest surviving Buddhist monastery. The religious complex was constructed in 1586, after the reigning Mongol prince met with the third Dalai Lama and proclaimed Tibetan Buddhism the state’s official religion. In the late 1930s, woefully, the site was razed by the communist Russians, and all of the Buddhist monks were killed. Today, only one original, stone stupa and a number of small, reconstructed temples remain. The monastery is currently a place of active worship, and Stephan and I were privileged to receive a traditional blessing from one of the monks, promising good fortune for the year and safe travels as we journey ahead. Here, we also shared an offering of airag, fermented horse milk with a surprising alcohol content of about 7% that is considered the national drink of Mongolia. I have to say, while it was certainly a unique experience, it was by far the worst-tasting thing I have ever put in my mouth.
Later that evening, after getting settled in at our second ger camp, we again took advantage of the extended daylight and went off exploring the Orkhon River Valley, a UNESCO heritage site and the location of a number of significant archeological discoveries dating back to the 6th century. Intriguingly, some of the earliest evidence unearthed from the region suggests that the area was first settled some 60,000 years ago. We wandered spellbound along the banks of the meandering river, eventually making our way up a neighboring ridge, where we peered down onto the humble village of Karakorum below. Similar to our first night out on the steppe, we quickly realized that you don’t have to climb very high to be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the vast surroundings. While Karakorum had been an interesting place for its historical significance, we hadn’t found it to be exceptional in natural beauty, and I struggled to picture Chinggis Khan’s glorious, imperial capital. Those thoughts changed abruptly as we turned around 180° on the ridge and stood awestruck at the magnificent Orkhon River Valley below. Small tributaries twisted and turned through the lush river delta, zigzagging to the rows of rolling hillsides in the distance. I began to envision the royal khans retreating to the hillside at the end of each day to reflect on their accomplishments and missteps as they gazed fondly upon their exquisite empire.
From Karakorum we journeyed north another 50 miles to Ogii Lake, for a day of relaxing along the waterfront. En route to the lake, we stopped at a second museum to check out the Khushuu Tsaidam Monuments (Orkhon Inscriptions), portions of a memorial complex from the 6th to 8th century Turkish period that was dedicated to the last Turkic ruler, Bilge Khan (Khagan). The ruins include enormous stelae containing elaborate and surprisingly well-preserved inscriptions, as well as sacred human- and animal-like statues. One of the most prominent artifacts on display is the gold crown of Bilge Khan, discovered during excavation of the memorial site in 2001. After arriving at Ogii Lake, we spent the afternoon strolling along the lengthy shoreline. We spotted a number of gulls and terns wading in the shallow ripples and, as the heat of the afternoon pressed on, a large herd of goats and sheep wandered down to dip their hooves in the refreshing water.
Even more extraordinary than the scenic lake, though, was the rainbow we were treated to at the end of a fast-moving rain shower. Shortly after dinner, we watched as storm clouds swirled menacingly around the perimeter of the lake, and a steady yet gentle rain eventually began to fall. As the sun forced its way back through the clouds, we were presented with the most intense and spectacular rainbow I’ve ever seen, with both ends of the enormous arch fading into the blazing green expanse that stretched just beyond our lakeside ger.
As we’d spent three months in the relentless southeast Asia heat (with persistent temperatures well above 100°F), and arrived in Mongolia to a spell of abnormally hot weather, it felt incredible to find that the temperature had taken a dramatic drop the following morning. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy to throw on a fleece jacket in my life. We got an early start and headed back east until we reached Hustai National Park, a protected area about 100 km (60 miles) west of Ulaanbaatar and famous for its wild horses. The Takhi (Przewalski) horses are the only true wild horses in the world, having never been domesticated. While the original population was regrettably forced into extinction in the wild in the 1960s, a handful had been relocated to Europe in the 1880s. The captive population struggled, and at one point only 12 Takhi horses remained in the world. After initiating a careful breeding program by Germany and the Netherlands, a small group was reintroduced into the Mongolian wild in 1993. Fortunately, the population reestablished itself successfully, and today the Takhi horses are thriving within the boundaries of Hustai National Park, with a population of around 300 individuals.
As with our other days on the tour, the two of us were cut loose to explore the park on our own, a welcome delight after not being able to do much independent trekking in southeast Asia. Not long after arriving at the park, we spotted a small group of the wild horses atop a steep hillside in the distance. We set off quickly on the trail, hoping we could make it to the sloping grassland while the horses were still gathered. After about a 30-minute walk over undulating terrain and through meadows bursting with vibrant wildflowers, we reached the area only to find it empty. We looked around for a few minutes, then scoured the neighboring hillsides through our telephotos. Stephan spotted some movement in a large grove of birch trees further up the hill, and as we marched carefully upward, endeavoring to not disturb the skittish animals, a small group began to emerge from the spindly, white trunks and scraggly underbrush. Along with five or six adults was a young foal, much lighter in color and with a distinctly fluffy coat. The horses were just beautiful, and were content to graze peacefully as we watched silently from the tall grass.
While we could have spent significantly longer admiring the park’s enchanting wildlife and panoramic views, we were then off to spend the evening with a nomad family living just outside the national park. It wasn’t more than a 20-mile drive or so, but with the aforementioned rutted-out, dirt roads, it felt more like an epic journey to reach the nomadic family’s ger. Their homestead was set on an absolutely spectacular piece of land, somewhere in the middle of Tov province, well outside the small village of Altanbulag. The woman who greeted us wore a traditional-looking, sapphire tunic, flashed a kind smile, and ushered us into one of four separate gers that served as a separate living room area for entertaining guests. Her husband followed shortly behind after tying up his horse and snuffing out his cigarette. He reminded me of the Marlboro man – tall, rugged and slender, and clad in a traditional, loose-fitting jacket with a matching gray hat and tall, leather boots. He too smiled warmly, and offered us a sniff of his khoorog, a traditional snuff bottle that we later learned contained some sort of pulverized tobacco.
The couple welcomed us affectionately into their home, offering us a traditional greeting of ‘white food’ (a variety of hand-pressed cheeses) and raw milk fresh from their cows, served in a communal bowl. Aside from the fermented horse milk from the monastery, I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d had milk in over twenty years. We learned that the pair had three adult children, not much younger than us, who’d all moved to the city for an education and jobs, choosing to leave behind the pastoral lifestyle. The two owned some five hundred animals – primarily sheep and goats plus around 30 horses, a number of cows, and a few dogs.
After enjoying our welcome fare, we took a quick tour of the property. Nestled beside a small river, the homestead was comprised of four gers and a makeshift ‘bathroom,’ that was merely a hole dug in the ground with some knee-high sheet metal set up as a privacy screen. While the home lacked electricity, and therefore a refrigerator or other appliances, they did have a small solar panel set up beside one of the gers for charging a car battery that powered one small light via a couple of open wires. A large enclosure for the animals sat at one end of the property, and they also owned a motorcycle for making the occasional trip into town. It was incredibly serene and isolated, with never-ending views of the surrounding mountains and steppe. We just stood and marveled in the tranquility before enjoying a traditional dinner of buuz (a steamed, meat-filled Mongolian dumpling, though I received a special vegetarian version with fresh cheese and onions), khuushuur (a fried, stuffed pancake), and suutei tsai (hot milk tea).
With full stomachs and happy hearts, we finished the evening with a nearly 10 pm, sunset, horseback ride around the property. Stephan, who spent a lot of time riding as a kid, was in his glory, and kept repeating how much his mom and godmother, Meri, would have loved to have been out there riding on the open steppe.
Sadly, the following morning was our last in the unspoiled beauty of central Mongolia. Following a typical breakfast of rice porridge with a warm milk base served with with biscuits, we set out for Ulaanbaatar, enjoying our last incredible views of the countryside as we traveled back. Coincidentally, the day we returned to the capital was the first of the annual, three-day Naadam Festival. Celebrated each 11-13th of July, the ‘Three Men’s Games’ (horse racing, wrestling, and archery) is a time-honored festival with centuries of history. Some evidence suggests the games date to the days of Chinggis Khan’s military, when leaders proved themselves in strength, skill, and bravery through the three sports. Since the 1920s, Naadam has also commemorated the nation’s independence and is, therefore, considered one of Mongolia’s most important events of the year.
Excited to see the cultural celebration, we headed a few kilometers from our guesthouse to the stadium to check out the revelries. Typically, the crowds and chaos of such fetes cause me to feel nothing other than complete claustrophobia and anxiety, but I have to say, I tremendously enjoyed the few hours we spent wandering around the festivities. Although packed with people, there was just a really great vibe at the festival – locals dressed in traditional garb as Mongolian flags waved proudly everywhere you looked. A small stage was set up to showcase traditional singing and dancing, and countless food stands offered classic fares. The principal culinary offering seemed to be khuushuur, the much-adored, mutton-filled, fried pancake. Stephan was thrilled that the little meat pockets could be had for a mere 1,000 tugriks ($0.50 USD), and he also enjoyed some mutton kababs hot off the grill. Given all the struggle I’d had to find vegetarian food over the course of the week, I was stunned when we walked by a vegan food booth, offering veggie-filled khuushuur for the same price. I scarfed two of those babies down and have to say, they were amazing! Aside from the tasty food, we really enjoyed watching some of the local talent. We watched with excitement as one gentleman performed a bit of khoomei (traditional throat singing), and a trio of young girls played the horsehead fiddle (morin khuur), a two-stringed musical instrument played with a bow, that is considered Mongolia’s most important and is also a national symbol. Overall, a great atmosphere and a fantastic way to spend our final evening in the country.
Without a doubt, Mongolia was the best unplanned surprise of the trip. I had no idea that a place so expansive and so untouched could still exist. If you’ve never considered visiting the truly pristine country, add it to your list immediately. We hadn’t even left and Stephan was already plotting a return visit. Bayarllaa, Mongolia, and we sincerely hope to share your beautiful landscapes and captivating culture with you again soon!