Day by Day Itinerary

Wild and untamed, Mongolia is a deeply spiritual land of nomadic cultures and dreamy landscapes of snowcapped mountains, crystalline lakes, and great swathes of grassy plains and ancient desert. Even today, Mongolia evokes a time when Genghis Khan and his warrior horsemen thundered across the steppe to establish the largest land empire the world has ever known. Discover Mongolia’s diverse land and people, from the bustle of Ulaanbaatar and alpine beauty of Khovsgol Lake to the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert. Meet with nomadic herding families, learn about ancient shamanistic beliefs, ride a camel in the desert dunes, and discover why Mongolia is known as the "Land of Blue Sky" during stays in authentic ger tents—just as modern-day nomads and their ancestors have done for centuries. Travel to Mongolia, a pristine land that time forgot, for an adventure you’ll treasure forever.

Ulaanbaatar Gobi Desert Expand All
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    Since your overnight flight to Beijing, China, departs Los Angeles very early in the morning, travelers are advised to arrive at LAX the night before.

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    Explore the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Mongolia

    After our early morning arrival in Beijing, we fly to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with those who chose to take the pre-trip extension to Mystical Yunnan: Kunming, Dali & Lijiang, arriving in time for lunch at a local restaurant. The afternoon is free to relax before we gather together this evening for a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant, where we can talk about our upcoming discoveries while enjoying traditional Mongolian cuisine.

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    Today we begin a city tour of the Mongolian capital, situated on the banks of the mighty Tuul River and surrounded by holy mountains. The first capital of the modern Mongolian empire was founded in 1639 as a nomadic encampment. This ancient "city" of gers (traditional felt tents; also known as yurts in Russian) was moved to the present site of Ulaanbaatar in 1778. Today, UB (as Ulaanbaatar is commonly referred to) is a bustling metropolis of roughly a million people, where modern buildings vie with Mongolian gers, and cars often share the road with nomads on horseback. Our exploration of UB begins with a visit to Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s largest and most important center of Buddhism, which was built in 1838. Next, we'll explore Sukhbaatar Square. A famous statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, the “hero of the revolution,” presides over the square. It was on this spot that Sukhbaatar declared Mongolia’s independence from China in 1921. Less than 70 years later, in 1989, Sukhbaatar Square was also the site of the first protests against Soviet oppression, and rallies and ceremonies are still held here today. Then view exhibits on Mongolian history and culture at the Museum of Natural History.

    After lunch at a local restaurant, we stop at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, home to a collection of Mongolian art from prehistory through the early 20th century, along with works by Zanabazar, a 17th-century artist and Mongolia's first spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. Zanabazar has been referred to as the "Michelangelo of Asia." Afterwards, we ascend the 200 steps to the top of Zaisan Hill to enjoy panoramic views of the city and the four sacred mountains that surround it—Bayanzurkh, Chingeltei, Khairkhan, and Bogd Khaan.

    Dinner is on your own this evening.

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    After breakfast, we’ll delve deeper into Mongolia’s spirituality by visiting a shaman in his home and participating in a shamanistic ritual. Our visit will reveal how many modern-day nomadic practices—including the blue flags and mounds of sacred stones called ovoos—can be traced to shamanistic beliefs that have been shaping Mongolian culture since the days of Genghis Khan.

    Later, we'll enjoy traditional Mongolian cuisine during a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local Kazakh family, giving us the chance to glimpse into the daily lives of our gracious hosts. Then we'll return to our ger camp, where we'll have some leisure time before a traditional hot-stone barbeque.

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    This morning we’ll travel east into the Mongolian countryside. Our destination is Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a nature reserve set in a deep valley between forested hillsides, granite boulders, and mountain streams. Nomads roam the surrounding hills, which are home to some 250 different bird species, rare brown bears, and a wealth of scenic hiking trails. After a short drive—in which we’ll pass by the park’s famous Turtle Rock—we’ll enjoy a hike to Aryabal, a scenic meditation temple.

    Then, we’ll return to our camp for lunch before meeting a local nomadic family. With the family’s help, we’ll milk their cows and learn how to turn the milk into cheese. Tonight, we’ll have dinner together at our ger camp.

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    Today begins with a visit to a rather remarkable monument. The people of Mongolia decided to honor Genghis Khan in a big way—by erecting a statue of him astride his horse that stands 131 feet high atop a 33-foot-high coliseum. Built at the site where legend has it Genghis Khan found a golden whip that inspired his future conquests, it is said to be the world’s largest equestrian statue.

    After returning to our camp for lunch, we’ll visit a nomadic horse-breeding family to better our understanding of the nomadic lifestyle. This will be a rare opportunity to experience modern Mongolian life firsthand. Nomads learn to ride horses as soon as they can walk, and spend much of their lives in search of stray animals—for there are almost no fences in the entire country. After a demonstration of horse-catching techniques, we’ll return to our camp for a lesson on how to build a traditional Mongolian ger. We’ll have dinner together at our camp this evening.

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    Today we'll return to Nalaikh to visit the Sain Nomun Monastery, where local monks will be waiting to show us how to practice meditation. 

    Next, we'll have lunch together at a local restaurant in Ulaanbaatar before visiting Naran Tuul, sometimes called the Black Market. In browsing its labyrinth of stalls, you'll find clothing, bags, leather boots, Mongolian antiques, saddles, a variety of local foods, and much more. The market will also provide you with a unique opportunity to mingle with locals and experience life in the bustling capital.

    After exploring Naran Tuul, we'll head to our hotel with enough time for dinner on your own in Ulaanbaatar.

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    Explore the western shore of Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia

    After breakfast, we visit a workshop that produces traditional morin khuur (horse head fiddles), registered on UNESCO’s World Heritage of Art and Cultural Objects list. Mimicking the shape of the all-important horse, this bowed instrument features a long neck with a carved horse head at its end and two horse-hair strings. At the workshop, we’ll learn how the ritual of morin khuur playing has become intertwined with Mongolia’s history and culture.

    Then we head to the airport for a flight to Moron, the administrative center of northern Mongolia’s Khovsgol Province. After our late afternoon arrival in Moron, we’ll have lunch at a local restaurant and continue with an overland journey to our ger camp along Khovsgol Lake.

    One of Mongolia’s most picturesque destinations, Khovsgol is an idyllic landscape of thick evergreen forests, flowering meadows with grazing yaks, rugged mountains, and crystal-clear streams and lakes. Khovsgol Lake is a pristine alpine lake some 100 miles long, situated close to the Siberian border. The surrounding region is home to camels of the Gobi and reindeer of the taiga (coniferous forest), as well as several Mongolian ethnic groups, including Buriat, Khalk, Darhat, and the Tsaatan.

    Tonight, we’ll have dinner together at our camp.

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    Encounter reindeer and yak herding families on the Mongolian steppe

    After breakfast, we begin the day with a morning excursion out onto Khovsgol Lake, whose crystal-clear waters are home to such species as Siberian grayling, pike, perch, salmon, and sturgeon. After our boat ride, we enjoy a leisurely horseback ride along the shores of the scenic lake. The rest of the day is at leisure, with lunch at the camp's restaurant. You may wish to take advantage of this time by embarking on some elective hiking through this scenic region. This evening we'll gather together and dine under the Mongolian stars with an outdoor dinner and bonfire by the shores of the lake.

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    After breakfast, we’ll experience A Day in Life of modern Mongolia, first stopping to meet with members of a yak-herding family on the Mongolian steppe. Our meeting will reveal the austere lifestyle of these nomadic families, who depend on the long-haired bovine for virtually all of their core needs: milk, food, shelter, and clothing.

    Next we explore the nearby town of Khatgal to learn more about the daily lives of the people in this remote area. Here, we’ll visit a local school which Grand Circle Foundation is proud to support. After a discussion hosted by one of the school’s teachers, we will walk to a local bakery and meet with a local women’s sewing group.

    Back at our camp, we’ll have lunch together, and enjoy an afternoon at leisure before dinner.

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    After breakfast and some time at leisure, we drive back to Moron and enjoy lunch at a local restaurant. Then we head to the airport for a flight to Ulaanbaatar, arriving in late afternoon. Dinner is on our own this evening.

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    After a morning at leisure, we leave Ulaanbaatar and fly to the Gobi Desert. Covering much of southern Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is a breathtaking region of semi-arid desert terrain that is dazzling in its variety—from rocky outcrops to barren stretches of seemingly endless, rolling gravel plains. It is the world’s coldest and northernmost desert, as well as a great repository of dinosaur remains. Caravan routes have been crossing the Gobi since ancient times. When Marco Polo, seeking the fabled capital of the Kublai Khan, encountered this vast and unforgiving landscape in the 1270s, he proclaimed, “It consists entirely of mountains and sands and valleys. There is nothing at all to eat.” But nomads—and wildlife—do survive here (and you will certainly be well-fed as we venture into this mysterious, otherworldly region). Once we land, we enjoy an included lunch before continuing our drive through the stunning Gobi landscape that rolls out to the horizon. You might keep your eyes peeled for the wildlife that makes its home in the great desert, from golden eagles and saker falcons to Argali mountain sheep, goitered gazelle, and a variety of reptiles. This area is also the last refuge of wild two-humped Bactrian camels and home to the rare snow leopard and desert-dwelling Gobi bear.

    We’ll have dinner in our desert camp.

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    Today we explore Yol Valley (also known as Vulture Valley). We’ll travel across the Gobi Desert to the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains and enter this deep gorge in a Mongolian national park. We’ll hike here amid impressive mountain scenery and learn about this area’s endemic plants and local wildlife, including the valley’s namesake, the lammergeier vulture (yol in Mongolian). One of the valley’s most striking sights is glacial ice that extends six miles down the gorge in the winter, some of which often lingers through September or even year-round. After enjoying a boxed lunch, we return to our desert camp to enjoy the remainder of the day at leisure. Dinner is included at our ger lodgings.

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    Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

    We begin the day with a visit to an area of the Gobi Desert known as Bayanzag, but more commonly referred to as the Flaming Cliffs. The region is famous as the location of the first nest of dinosaur eggs and other fossils found here by the American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s—and it was he who nicknamed the site "Flaming Cliffs" for the surreal, glowing orange color of the surrounding rocks and cliffs. We’ll enjoy a bit of light trekking among Flaming Cliffs before driving to another striking feature of the Gobi Desert, Moltsog Els.

    While only about 5% of the Gobi Desert is sand, we explore one of the few regions of the Gobi covered in dunes at Moltsog Els. Then, after a box lunch in the desert, we visit with a nomadic family engaged in the breeding of Bactrian camels. After learning about Gobi nomads and their camels, you will get to hop aboard one of the twin-humped beasts for a ride into the sweeping desert sands of the mysterious Gobi Desert.

    Back at our camp, you will have time to relax before an included dinner.

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    Statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar in front of the Parliament building, Suhbaatar square, Ulan Bator, Mongolia

    After breakfast, we drive to Dalanzadgad, where we make our final flight to Ulaanbaatar. We have some free time at our hotel in UB before we gather together for a performance of traditional Mongolian entertainment and to celebrate our adventure at a Farewell Dinner.

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    Depart for the airport for a flight to Beijing and your final night. Passengers taking the Beijing & Xian, China post-trip extension begin their tour today.

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    Transfer to the airport for your return flight home, or begin your Beijing & Xian, China extension.


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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 8 locations in 16 days with four 1-night stays
  • Lengthy overland travel of 2-4 hours each on several days
  • 4 internal flights, which could be delayed due to frequent weather changes  

Physical requirements

  • Not appropriate for travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility aids
  • You must be able to walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 6-8 hours of physical activities each day


  • Daytime temperatures range from 77-95°F in July and August to 41-60°F in May and September, when snow is also expected
  • Due to the varied geography of Mongolia, you will experience a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions


  • Frequent travel in 4x4 vehicles over poorly maintained—and occasionally non-existent—country roads
  • During most transfers, Western-style toilet facilities may not be available; however, drivers will make every effort to find suitable rest area stops upon request


  • City travel by 45-passenger air-conditioned coach (no toilet on board). In the Khovsgol Lake and the Gobi Desert, we ride in an 8-passenger van with air-conditioning—and camel ride in the Gobi Desert
  • 4-hour drives, 4 internal flights of 1-2-hours each

Accommodations & Facilities

  • Lodgings in Ulaanbaatar are standard hotels, but in many locales, we stay in traditional ger tents, with Western-style bath facilities
  • Two of our camps have Western toilets attached to the ger, while the third camp has facilities in the main lodge

Travel Documents


Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary:

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.


U.S. citizens will need a visa (or visas) for this trip. In addition, there may be other entry requirements that also need to be met. For your convenience, we’ve included a quick reference list, organized by country:

  • Mongolia: Visa not required.
  • China (optional extension): Visa required.

Travelers who are booked on this adventure will be sent a complete Visa Packet— with instructions, applications, and a list of visa fees—approximately 100 days prior to their departure. (Because many countries limit the validity of their visa from the date it is issued, or have a specific time window for when you can apply, we do not recommend applying too early.)

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your adventure, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Trip Leaders and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • Kempinski Hotel Khan Palace

    Ulaanbataar, Mongolia

    This modern, 102-room hotel is conveniently situated in the center of Ulaanbaatar, within walking distance of shops, theaters, and museums. The hotel features two restaurants, a fitness center, beauty salon, and boutique. Rooms include an Internet connection, climate control, and a private bath with shower.

  • Alungoo Camp

    Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia

    Alungoo Camp is a rural camp located about an hour-and-a-half’s drive northeast of Ulaanbaatar in a natural valley fringed by forested mountains. There are 30 traditional ger tents at the camp, with private bath facilities in each ger. We’ll also enjoy authentic Mongolian cuisine in the large communal dining ger.

  • Ashihai Lake Camp

    Khovsgol Lake, Mongolia

    Set on the western shore of Lake Khovsgol with scenic mountains in the distance, the Ashihai Lake Camp features 15 traditional ger tents, with a restaurant at the main lodge. Bath and shower facilities are located in a main lodge building.

  • Dream Gobi Camp

    Gobi Desert, Mongolia

    Set in the Gobi Desert 39 miles northwest of Dalanzadgad, the Dream Gobi Camp features 40 traditional ger tents, each with private bathroom facilities. When not exploring the surrounding landscape, we’ll enjoy authentic Mongolian cuisine in the large communal dining ger or relax on the terrace with scenic views of the desert landscape.

  • Royal Phoenix Hotel

    Beijing, China

    The Royal Phoenix Hotel is located close to the shops of Wangfujing Street, near Forbidden City and Jingshan Park. Hotel amenities include restaurants serving Chinese and Western cuisine, bar, and lounge. There are 193 air-conditioned rooms, each with safe, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.


  • Kunming Hotel

    Kunming, China

    The Kunming Hotel is located within walking distance of the city center. Facilities include several restaurants, a bar and lounge, coffee shop, and fitness center. There are 221 air-conditioned rooms at the Kunming Hotel, each with modern amenities including satellite TV, and private bath with shower, hair dryer, and bathrobes.

  • Landscape Hotel

    Dali, China

    Built around an ancient courtyard, this traditionally decorated hotel features a restaurant and coffee shop, a gym with massage and sauna, beauty salon, gift shop, and—if you’re so inclined—karaoke. Its 160 air-conditioned rooms include a telephone, satellite TV, Internet access, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Hexi Hotel

    Lijiang, China

    The Hexi Hotel features Naxi-style residential buildings consisting of 171 rooms. It is conveniently located in the city center within walking distance to local attractions. The rooms feature air conditioning, coffee- and tea-making facilities, telephone, hair dryer, in-room safe, mini bar, Internet access, and private bath.

  • Royal Phoenix Hotel

    Beijing, China

    The Royal Phoenix Hotel is located close to the shops of Wangfujing Street, near Forbidden City and Jingshan Park. Hotel amenities include restaurants serving Chinese and Western cuisine, bar, and lounge. There are 193 air-conditioned rooms, each with safe, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Ramada Xian Bell Tower Hotel

    Xian, China

    The Ramada Bell Tower is conveniently located near many local attractions, including Xian's historic Bell Tower as well as the Drum Tower, Shaanxi History Museum, Belin Museum, and Qianling Mausoleum. Each of the 172 rooms features cable/satellite TV, wireless Internet access, a safe, a mini-fridge, and a private bathroom. Hotel facilities include an on-site restaurant serving Asian and Western cuisine, a lobby bar, and a recreation center with rooms for fitness, chess, and massage.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to personalizing your air—and creating the OAT adventure that’s right for you:

Personalized Air Routing

  • Work with our expert Air Travel Consultants to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Customize your trip by staying overnight in a connecting city, arriving at your destination a few days early, or spending additional time in a nearby city on your own
  • Combine your choice of OAT adventures to maximize your value

Your Own Air Routing

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

A Day in the Life in Modern Mongolia

Your visit to Nalaikh’s Culture and Art Palace is just one aspect of your A Day in the Life experience, which is featured on most OAT itineraries. Each A Day in the Life is specifically tailored to showcase daily life in your destination—in this case, modern Mongolia. You'll get to know local people through conversation and hands-on activities, gaining an authentic glimpse of what life is really like here—and not just the typical tourist's version.

Our [A] Day in the Life with the Kazakh family was terrific, with our group helping to prepare the meal, playing with the kids, and posing with the farmer's eagle ... This was a real experience of a people (varied though they are) that are changing so quickly that the same experience will not be available later. Go now.

Rosalind Salzman, 4-time traveler
Los Angeles, California

Culture and Art Palace and Kazakh Family Visit

Partner since: 2013

While Mongolian culture has been developing for centuries, it is currently undergoing some major changes as the country struggles to plunge into the modern world while also preserving its age-old traditions. As you’ll discover during your A Day in the Life experience, the best way to understand modern Mongolia is by meeting the country’s people and glimpsing into their daily lives.

We’ll do just that when we visit the Culture and Art Palace in the mining city of Nalaikh. This government-supported organization aims to foster local children’s creativity through extracurricular music, dance, singing, art, drama, and computer classes. Currently, about 100 Mongolian students attend these courses, but with Foundation support—as well as support from travelers like you—the Palace hopes to expand enrollment, particularly to include more of the area’s low-income children. The Palace also hopes to purchase more computers and musical instruments for its students and improve its dance facilities, giving local Mongolians a chance to develop their artistic talent from a young age.

Next, you’ll see another side of modern Mongolian culture by meeting a Kazakh family in Nalaikh. Many Kazakhs moved to this small city in the 1950s to work in its mines, and today, they still represent a quarter of the population. Although Nalaikh’s mines were closed decades ago, many of them are still excavated (often illegally) by Kazakhs. We’ll enjoy traditional Mongolian cuisine during a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local Kazakh family to discuss their daily lives.

Naadam Festival—Select July 2015 Departures

An annual celebration of Mongolia’s “three manly games”

Our July 5, July 8, and July 10, 2015, departures of Mongolia & the Gobi Desert feature highlights of Mongolia’s Naadam Festival—an annual celebration of traditional sporting events which take place in Ulaanbaatar and in many rural villages during Mongolia’s July national holiday. Naadam (which simply means “festival”) is a time when Mongolia’s finest athletes participate in the country’s “three sports of men”

  • Mongolian wrestling—a competition utilizing a combination of skill and strength where the first opponent to touch the ground loses. This single-elimination, untimed tournament consists of 512 or 1024 wrestlers who grapple for nine or ten rounds. Only men are allowed to compete, and the wrestler with the greatest fame gets to choose his opponent. Victors are known as arslan, or “lion,” and two-time winners get to be called avraga, or “giants.”
  • Archery—Mongolian men and women compete in this sport of skill that features hundreds of targets against a huge wall. Ten-man (or ten-woman) teams are given four arrows each and the first team to hit 33 targets (called surs) can achieve the title of “national marksman” or “national markswoman.”
  • Horse racing—in a tradition that dates to the days of Genghis Khan, Mongolian horseback races during Naadam can last two hours or more—and cover distances of up to 18 miles. Up to 1,000 horses from various corners of Mongolia may be chosen to participate in the races. The horses are ridden by children ranging in age from 5 to 13—and while the jockey’s skill is important, the primary goal of the competition is to test the skill of the Mongolian horses.

Please note: The competitions you may observe during the Naadam Festival will vary by departure date, and each departure will not include all sporting events. On our special festival departure dates, all features of our advertised itinerary will be included, and Naadam Festival activities will be added whenever possible.

Solo Traveler Stories

Why Travel Solo on Mongolia & the Gobi Desert

We're proud to offer the best value for solo travelers in the industry, guaranteed, with FREE Single Supplements on your base trip and all extensions. Travel with the leader in solo-friendly travel on Mongolia & the Gobi Desertand save up to $780 per person versus the competition.

Our small group size and expert, resident Trip Leaders help solo travelers make personal connections and ensure peace of mind. Here are some thoughts from solo travelers about why this adventure was right for them.

"The Mongolian people were wonderful and the country beautiful. I loved all our ger camps. Probably my favorite memory was the 6-year-old riding his horse in the National Park, so proud that he is going to school."

Bette Bardeen, 6-time traveler, Cayucos, California

"M.G. was a delightful Trip Leader. She was very personable and always tried to get everyone involved in all the daily activities. She displayed a knowledge of her country (past and present), as well as knowledge of the Mongolian people living there today. M.G. always made herself available to the travelers and tried her best very to please everyone."

Louise P. Lewis, 5-time traveler, Baltimore, Maryland

"Meeting with the nomad families was a special delight—so welcoming and hospitable. They had so little, but what they had, they shared generously with us."

Rosemary Kavadias, 9-time traveler, Portsmouth, Virginia

"All visits to families [and] people were extraordinary! The planned visits and the unexpected ones showed the simple yet warm, loving lives that are often led. Helping to fix a flat tire led to an invitation to visit the family’s ger for tea. A stop by a farm led to a delightful chat with an 85-year-old nomad. All wonderful. This is why we travel!"

Diane Thayer, 7-time traveler, Grass Valley, California

Five Under Fire

Nature’s fight for survival in the Gobi Desert

by David Valdes Greenwood, for Overseas Adventure Travel

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.

The saiga

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.

The takhi

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.