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With wide-open plains, never-ending steppes, and an otherworldly desert landscape, the best word to describe Mongolia is: vast. This is a country where you can roam for days without seeing another person and whose very name conjures an image of untamed wilderness—which isn’t surprising, as Mongolia has the lowest population density of any independent country in the world. Journey to the “Land of the Blue Skies” to encounter pristine nature and a wild remoteness untouched by humanity.
Nomadism has deep roots in Mongolia: various nomadic empires controlled these lands until 1206, when Genghis Khan and his legendary horseback warriors galloped across the steppe to create the Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in history. Today, 97% of Mongolia’s population is still nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in traditional gers or yurts and herding yaks to survive. Horses remain as important to the local culture as ever, and the annual Naadam Festival celebrates the “three manly sports” of wrestling, archery, and, of course, horse racing.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Mongolia was ruled by the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of communism in the early 1990s, Mongolia conducted its own peaceful democratic revolution and enthusiastically entered the free market economy. But despite this initial foray into modernity, traditional Mongolia still remains a land largely passed over by time.
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In a nation known for its endless steppes and remote wilderness, Ulaanbaatar is a densely populated and chaotic maze of modern high rises and traditional ger neighborhoods. UB, as the locals call it, is Mongolia’s capital city and cultural hotspot: The country’s best museums, restaurants, and nightlife can all be found here, as can nearly half of Mongolia’s three million residents. While UB pitches itself headlong into the 21st century, the city still retains an air of tradition, and you’re as likely to see horses and wagons as you are cars and motorbikes on the streets of this busy capital.
UB began life as a mobile Buddhist monastery town made up of tents. The itinerant yurt colony moved locations 28 times until, in 1778, it settled in its current location in the valley between the Tuul and Selbe rivers. Its name has also changed many times, most recently when Ulaanbaatar (meaning “red hero” in Mongolian) came under Soviet rule in 1924. The Soviet period proved particularly calamitous for Mongolia’s cultural and spiritual traditions: As part of the religious purges of the 1930s, most of UB’s monasteries were destroyed, and only a handful survived.
Luckily for us, one of that handful is the spectacular Gandan Monastery. Gandan—which means “the great place of complete joy”—was used as a showroom monastery for foreigners during the Soviet era, and the magnificent complex of temples and study centers continues to awe both visitors and students of Buddhism alike. Down to 600 monks from its pre-purge level of 2,000, Gandan is still the largest and most impressive monastery in Mongolia today.
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Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
Only an hour and a half outside of frenetic Ulaanbaatar is the wide-open beauty of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Fringed by the Gorkhi mountains and encompassing an unspoiled mix of wildflower meadows and towering pine forests, the National Park is an oasis to the wildlife that call it home: Spot brown bears in the woodlands and keep an eye out for the more than 250 species of birds that soar across the endless Mongolian sky.
Gorkhi-Terelj boasts some of the best hiking, rock climbing, and of course, horse riding in Mongolia. Witness the park’s striking rock formations, which dot the rolling hills like the whimsical creations of an artistic giant. The most famous of these is Turtle Rock, an enormous stone that resembles the eponymous shelled creature.
Nomadic families continue to dwell in Gorkhi-Terelj, roaming the park as they tend to their yaks, horses, sheep, and goats. They live in gers, or yurts, traditional circular structures that are easily assembled and disassembled. During your time here, experience what life’s like as a nomad with a stay in a ger in the park’s south.
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Known as the “Blue Pearl of Mongolia,” Khovsgol is a pristine freshwater lake in Mongolia’s mountainous northern province. Here, far from the crowds in Ulaanbaatar, you’ll find an alpine oasis home to three of Mongolia’s oldest ethnic groups—the Darkhad, Buriat, and Tsaatan (or Dhuka)—who continue to practice their ancient shamanist traditions.
Khovsgol is a fisher’s paradise: 12 different species of fish, including salmon and sturgeon, swim in the lake’s see-through waters. But if fishing is your goal, don’t visit in winter—at 5,400 feet above sea level, Khovsgol completely freezes over, transforming into an unspoiled winter wonderland.
During the warmer months, enjoy a boat ride across Khovsgol’s glassy surface, which offers a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. Or, camp out in a traditional ger tent along the lake’s shore and marvel at the twinkling vastness of the night sky above.
Mongolia - Khovsgol and Terelj
Fly over the sweeping landscapes of northern Mongolia, from open steppes to forested hills and the waters of Khovsgol Lake.Produced by Peter Kang
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“Gobi” in Mongolian means desert steppe, and this term perfectly encapsulates the harsh terrain and extraordinary size of the Gobi Desert. At about 500,000 square miles, the Gobi may only be the second largest desert in Asia and the fifth largest in the world, but this capacious stretch of wilderness awes all those who behold its seemingly boundless horizons.
The mighty Himalayas to Gobi’s west block much of the would-be rainfall to the region, but only about 5% of the desert—an area known as Moltsog Els—is covered in sandy dunes. The rest of the enormous Gobi is is made up of large swaths of bare rock, gravel, and ice. Visit the Yol Valley, also known as the Vulture Valley, to witness up close its expansive ice field and the scavenging vultures that give the valley its name. Or check out the Flaming Cliffs (Bayanzag), a spectacular series of fiery orange rock formations named by Roy Chapman, the American archaeologist who discovered dinosaur eggs here in the 1920s. In fact, dinosaur fossils have been found throughout the Gobi’s vast expanse.
But for all its inhospitable landscapes and prehistoric findings, the Gobi provides a home for plenty of living creatures, too. Spot golden eagles, black-tailed gazelles, Argali mountain sheep, and the iconic Bactrian camel—a rare two-humped dromedary found only in the great Gobi Desert.
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Most Popular Films
Films featuring Mongolia from international, independent filmmakers
Mongolia's Nomads: Herding Life
Share the freedom of the steppes with Mongolian men and women who live the herding lifestyle still common in this country.Produced by Lauren Knapp
Mongolian Naadam: Archery
Meet a Mongolian woman who is a champion sharpshooter with bow and arrow, and learn about this enduring national tradition.Produced by Lauren Knapp
Mongolian Naadam: Horse Racing
Cheer for 10-year-old jockey Maralmaa as she races her horse during the Naadam Festival, when Mongolians gather to compete.Produced by Lauren Knapp
Mongolian Naadam: Shagai
Take a look a Shagai, a Mongolian game recently added to the traditional competitions at the country’s Naadam Festival.Produced by Lauren Knapp
Mongolian Naadam: Wrestling
Learn about the passion Mongolians have for wrestling, which has centuries of history and symbolism in their country.Produced by Lauren Knapp
Immerse yourself in Mongolia with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
There are around 22 Gobi bears left in the Gobi Desert. Discover what other endangered species roam this arid land.
Before there was fondue, there was Mongolian Hot Pot—get the recipe here.
Five Under Fire
Nature’s fight for survival in the Gobi Desert
by David Valdes Greenwood, for O.A.T.
The Gobi is actually a hotbed of wildlife. Yet not every species is equally thriving.
Sweeping 500,000 square miles of open terrain in Mongolia and China, the Gobi Desert is vast—and unforgiving—territory. The creatures who call the world’s fifth-largest desert home have to adapt to extreme conditions to survive. The temperature peaks at just over 120 degrees F in the summer, yet the mercury can plunge to 40 below in winter, and it is fairly common to see 60-degree changes in a single day.
Despite these conditions, the Gobi is actually a hotbed of wildlife, with golden eagles, lammergeier vultures, jumpy mouse-like jerboas, geckos, and gazelles. Yet not every species is equally thriving. A host of factors—some natural and some man-made—are threatening a quintet of the region’s definitive species, gaining the attention of environmentalists and wildlife experts alike.
Can you really call a species endangered if its ranks still number 50,000? Unfortunately, the answer is yes for the saiga, an antelope known for its ugly nose but pretty horn. Fifty thousand sounds like a high number until you realize that Gobi saiga count was roughly a million at the end of the 20th century. Ninety-five percent of the saiga population was wiped out in a single decade (an almost unheard-of drop for a species) due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to unbridled poaching. Thankfully, Mongolia has shown a recent commitment to stricter policing, which experts hope will slow the decline of the saiga and perhaps even reverse it.
The snow leopard
Poaching is only one reason that the rare snow leopard is becoming ever rarer. Found in the mountainous regions, snow leopards are the biggest members of the cat family to dwell in the Gobi. Unable to roar, these big cats pad quietly and nimbly among the rocks, seeking prey to eat. That, unfortunately, is their biggest problem: Hunters and poachers alike are wiping out the marmots and Ibex that were once the staple of the snow leopard diet. Current estimates show the big cats’ numbers have fallen well below 4,000.
The bactrian camel
The snow leopard's numbers are still ahead of the count for bactrian camels, the original “ships of the desert.” The ultimate survivalists, these camels’ bodies function as living bunkers: Two humps store fat, which then is converted to water so they can go two weeks unfed; their nostrils have flaps that seal them off from the elements during a sandstorm, yet allow for breathing; and their shiny coats reflect (instead of absorb) the sun’s rays, so that can they endure extreme heat. But even as hardy as they are, the species is in decline, with just 1,000 left.
The Gobi bear
The single most endangered species in Mongolia—and among the most at-risk on Earth—are Gobi bears. Scientific American puts the species number at just 22. The only true desert bears, the rangy beasts have long made do with little, but climate change has made the Gobi even drier than before, and the expansion of Gobi farming has eaten up swaths of the land that the bears once hunted. Add poaching and it’s a recipe for species extinction. Fortunately, Mongolia declared 2013 the Year of the Gobi Bear and the government is working on establishing a preserve area.
Mongolia already set a precedent for species restoration with its takhi. The takhi is the last true wild horse, never domesticated. (Even mustangs, the original American wild horse, were feral descendants of escaped domesticated horses.) Native to the Mongolian steppes, takhi numbers fell during the modernization and military conflicts of the 20th century; by the start of World War II there were only five clusters: four rounded up for placement in zoos and a dozen still wild in Mongolia. German soldiers slaughtered a set in the Ukraine, and the American zoo contingent died without reproducing. By the late 1960s, the wild herd had vanished entirely, and the zoo population dwindled to a dozen between Munich and Prague. But the two zoos began cross-breeding their takhi to avoid the inbreeding that can decimate a species, and the numbers began to rise. In the 1990s, the offspring of the original takhi were returned to Mongolia, and today they run wild again, a sign of hope for life in the Gobi Desert.
Nature’s fight for survival in the Gobi Desert
Share & Share Alike: Mongolian Hot Pot
from Harriet's Corner
Mongolian hot pot is the precursor to modern fondue—and our recipe uses a fondue pot to keep the broth at a high enough temperature to cook throughout the meal. This is an inexpensive way to get the same effect as the complex burners set into the tabletops of many hot-pot restaurants. Just be sure to keep the broth simmering; if the food is sliced thinly enough, it will cook quickly without needing
1 ½ pounds beef tenderloin, sliced paper-thin (ask your butcher to do this for you)
2 c. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed
2 c. baby bok choy, sliced thin
1 c. baby corn
2 c. broccoli florets or broccolin
6 c. beef or chicken broth
¼ c. scallions, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. ginger, peeled and minced
¼ c. cilantro, chopped
¼ c. soy sauce, or more to taste
5 cloves of minced garlic, or more to taste
Chili oil, to taste
Optional: A few handfuls of bean sprouts as garnish, or about 1 c. cooked egg noodles per person
- In a large saucepan, bring broth to a boil. Add scallions, ginger, soy sauce, garlic, cilantro, and chili oil (if using). Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, assemble vegetables on individual serving plates. (Keep beef chilled until just before serving.)
- Transfer broth to a fondue pot with a ladle. To avoid spillovers when food is dunked in, don’t overfill; more broth can be added later.
- Light fondue pot in center of table.
- Give each guest a plate of vegetables and beef, an empty plate or bowl for cooked food, a pair of chopsticks or a fondue fork, and a small bowl of soy sauce. (If desired, noodles and bean sprouts can be added to the broth and enjoyed as a soup.)
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Small Group Adventure
7 NIGHTS FROM FROM $2,845
PRE-TRIP EXTENSIONMongolia, the Gobi Desert & Kharkhorin
DAYS IN MONGOLIA
- Explore the capital city of Ulaanbaatar
- Marvel at the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia's main center of Buddhism
- Stay in the traditional dwelling known as a ger
- Admire the vast dunes and Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert
Mongolia, the Gobi Desert & Kharkhorin
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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