Mongolia may not be one of the first places you’d think of when going on vacation. Yet, it boasts vast natural landscapes and nomadic heritage unparalleled to most destinations — and has been recognised as a fast-growing travel destination by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.
The country, known as the “Land of Blue Skies”, is the sixth largest in Asia and 19th in the world. Even so, the population is only 3,124,997, which makes it one of the least densely populated areas in Asia. A landlocked country situated between China and Russia, the Mongolian steppe remains mostly intact — and its nomadic way of life has been largely unchanged for generations.
Mongolia’s vast steppe is home to one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures. For 3,000 years, the people of the steppes have adopted a pastoral way of life moving in the search of the best pastures and campsites. In fact, approximately half of the population is roaming the vast plains, living in tent houses handmade from branches and wool called ger (pronounced gair). The gers are appointed with small wood-burning stove, beds with futons, a dresser, and stools; with walls embroidered with felt blankets.
As these people are nomadic, the entire contents of the structure — and the house itself — can be packed up and moved in a few hours. The furniture is then tied to the back of their camels or horses.
The Mongolian nomads make a living by raising livestock known as the five muzzles — namely horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats and camels.
So breathtaking is Mongolia’s landscapes that Marco Polo once famously said: “I did not tell half of what I saw, for no one would have believed me.”
From desert to verdant mountains, Mongolia boasts natural landscapes and terrains. The Mongolian Gobi Desert, for instance, covers much of the Southern part of Mongolia (and Northern China), and is notorious for being one of the most hostile deserts on the planet. Unlike the sandy Sahara, the Gobi Desert is comprised mainly of barren expanses of gravel plains and rocky outcrops — a definite contrast from the lush countryside.
An enormous mountain range, the Gobi Desert covers a vast territory of over 16,000 kilometres — studded with huge glacial lakes and permanently snow-covered peaks that rise above 4,500m.
The land of the horse
In Mongolia, a man’s life revolves around his horse. There’s no better way to explore the rugged landscapes than from the back of these creatures. In fact, most Mongolians have been riding horses since they were very young — and for some, before they’ve even learnt how to walk.
If you’re planning to ride a horse in Mongolia, though, it’s worth noting that Mongolian steeds are not beginner horses. Today’s horses are the heirs of Genghis Khan’s cavalry, and practice on a typical stolid beach horse or trekking pony will not prepare you to properly ride the Mongol horses.
Falconry is also huge in Mongolia. Visitors to Mongolia must not miss riding on horseback alongside an experienced hunter with a massive golden eagle perched on his arm. At the sight of a prey, the hunter will then unleash his eagle onto the unsuspecting victim.
Mongolia is home to three major sports: wrestling, horse racing and archery — all of which take place every year at the Naadam festival, the traditional yearly celebration of the country’s national independence. Besides sports, the festival also embraces many of the arts, such as singing, dancing and performing.
Another festival you definitely shouldn’t miss is The Golden Eagle Festival in the Bayan-Ulgii Province, which takes place every first weekend of October. The festival is the largest gathering of eagle hunters in the world, celebrating both the golden eagle as well as the hunters’ traditional culture. It’s arranged by the local Kazakh community and members of the Berkut Association, a community-based conservation organisation.
Every year, ceremonies, dance performances, a parade in the provincial capital’s city square, and a Kazakh play are held in honour of the hunters and their eagles.
As the Mongolian wilderness can have such diverse conditions, visitors unfamiliar with the country should consider embarking on a guided tour instead.
Lightfoot Travel has an “Epic Journey Through Mongolia” tour, which takes guests from Chinggis Khaan Square to camel riding through the desert landscape, followed by a nomadic homestay in the beautiful Tsenkher Valleys. Travellers experience a journey through Mongolia while gaining an understanding of the country’s remarkable past.
Alternatively, if you’re keen on exploring Mongolia’s vast landscapes on a horse, check out Discover Mongolia’s thirteen-day horse riding tour through central Mongolia, which includes Naadam festival in the Karakorum and a ten-day trek through Hentii, the motherland of Chinggis Khan.
Currency in Mongolia
The Mongolian Tughrik is the currency of Mongolia. However, the US dollar is also accepted in some places.
(Main image credit: Lightfoot Travel/Petrie PR)