Mongolia is one of those countries that just doesn't seem to pop into peoples' minds when they are planning a holiday. And it's not hard to understand why. This land-locked country nestled between Russia and China is deemed to host rather harsh weather conditions, and hence not conducive to a comfortable and convenient holiday.
And while that may be the case many months of the year, once you start discovering what this East Asian land has on offer in terms of stunning travel experiences, you just might get scrambling for the best airfares to book your tickets to Ulaanbaatar.
Explore the Gobi Desert
The Gobi is the third-largest desert in the world and you can explore this sandy region in Southern Mongolia. As in any bigger desert, riding a camel through oases is a great way to enjoy the local lifestyle and find abundance in arid areas. Try not to leave the Gobi without walking on top of Khongoriin Els, which are called "singing sands". As the wind pushes little sand particles around, a distinct musicality arises and it's loud enough to capture with your smartphone or camera. Mongolia's desert regions aren't easy places for solo travel. You might miss out on many cultural experiences, and getting around can be more than a hassle in a place which is still gearing up for tourism. It might be smart to book a local tour guide who can take you to sights such as the red flaming cliffs, Ongi Temple ruins, and Lake Terkhiin Tsagaan. The latter is an astounding volcanic lake that was formed many thousands of years ago.
Adventures in the wilderness
Mongolia is known as the land of the blue sky. The reason isn't only about the arid climate that doesn't promote the cloud formation and rainy days. Additionally, the landscapes are wide and you can see far out to the horizon, deepening the experience of seeing blue sky all around. Bogd Khan Mountain is one of the places to appreciate stunning views and you can even see Ulaanbaatar from the northern side. The highest point of this UNESCO World Heritage site is 2,261 m; although, you can start seeing the city views at a height of 915 m.
The Orkhon Khürkhree are 16 m high waterfalls that seem radiantly white against the background of black stones. These falls were born over 20,000 years ago after strong geological activity in the area. This natural spectacle is especially powerful when there's been enough rain to make the river stronger. Usually, this place is best visited after the first summer rains because during spring the whole area of the falls can be crackling dry. The best time to visit Orkhon Khürkhree is in late July or August, though the surroundings are still beautiful to visit any time of the year; with pine trees with rolling hills, and mountains encircling the river bed and falls.
Lake Ögii (also spelt Ugii and Ogii) is a prime fishing and bird watching destination. This lake has a strong blue colour that is excellent for taking beautiful photographs. But that’s not all. Many travellers go on boat adventures and explore the lake coast to coast. Also, during the warm season, you can swim in the lake or hike in the surrounding landscapes. If you are not able to go for a Gobi Desert trek, then you can try camel riding near Ögii as well.
Mongolia’s desert cuisine
When it comes to Mongolian food, exotic is one of the first adjectives that people use to describe this cuisine. The regional climate along with Chinese and Russian culture play the biggest role in Mongolia's cuisine, that is dominated by local dairy products and meat. Both food groups are mainly derived from lamb, horse, and yak. Buuz, Mongolia's take on dumplings are steamed dumplings usually filled with lamb or beef; a bit spicier when compared to Russian or Chinese versions. Also, you are bound to eat khorkhog at least once during your trip. The dish is made by cooking a lamb inside a pot with vegetables such as potatoes and onions. All of this is cooked over an open fire, and special stones are put inside the pot to have a more delicious outcome.
Most likely, you will have a chance of trying airag at least once. It's made with mare's milk that has been sitting outside in a leather bag until the liquid becomes slightly alcoholic. One of the reasons for making this concoction is the horse milk's natural high lactose content. The fermentation helps to convert some of that lactose, resulting in fewer unpleasant side-effects.
Explore the capital
The general opinion of travellers is that Ulaanbaatar is the country's only real city. This isn't far from the truth because all the other populated regions are all under 100,000 people, making these places more like small towns rather than bustling cities. The latest figures show that around 46% of the total population lives in the capital, a threefold jump from the 1950s. While there, visit the city's most famous landmarks such as Chinggis Khan Square (Sükhbaatar Square), which is one of Asia's largest squares. Gandan Khiid Monastery is a beautiful Tibetan structure that is viewed as one of Ulaanbaatar's symbols. Furthermore, the capital city is home to many great museums, of which the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts and Bogd Khaan Palace Museum are worth a visit. The former includes precious items from the Stone Age well into the last century while the latter houses collections formed from Mongolia's religious, political, and artistic ventures during the last 500 years.
Mongolia is a stellar destination for all travelers who want to get off the beaten path. If you want to capture its essence while it is still a well-kept travel secret, still steeped in rich traditions and still on the verge of modernization, then head out to discover this land of spectacular scenery, untouched natural wonders, and an authentic nomad lifestyle right away!
Robert is a writer, entrepreneur, and photographer discovering the world while sharing the finds with his readers. He loves hiking and active holidays. Never says no to trying a new gelato flavour!
Image details and licenses: https://flic.kr/p/J7Q6M5 (Vaiz Ha, CC BY 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/5g51j6 (bjornman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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