Mongolia is a country that is still relatively off the tourism radar, but it is well worth it for those who wish to venture somewhere a little more remote and intrammelled! Its breath-taking landscapes vary from high glaciated mountains through lush meadows and grass plains with rolling hills to vast swathes of desert with iconic golden sand dunes.
For those who wish to explore the various regions of the country and get a deep insight to the lives and traditions of its peoples, there are now several exciting options for holidays in Mongolia.
The accommodation is comfortable rather than luxurious, but it is the wealth of stunning and varied landscapes, warm and welcoming communities and feeling of true exploration here that is the true privilege to experience.
Here in the eastern reaches of the Gobi Desert there is space aplenty! The Gobi is vast and covers over a million square kilometres spanning both southern Mongolia and northern China.
Although the Gobi, (derived from a Chinese word meaning ‘waterless space’), summons up images of sand dunes, this desert in fact only has around 5% of its area covered in dunes. The majority of the region consists of expanses of steppe, mountains and valleys.
Between the extremes of mountains and desert lies a little-known area known as ‘Ikh Nart’ Nature Reserve, an area of rocky plateau, rich in archaeology and history and home to argali wild sheep and Siberian ibex. Not only is this region perfect for the most intrepid of travellers, it is now also possible to stay there in an exclusive ger camp, experiencing how the local nomadic herders live.
My journey to reach this far-flung destination began with drive from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, down towards the Gobi Desert. As we travelled south the landscape became more arid and the lusher pastures were left behind. We took a brief stop overnight at a ger camp before continuing the following morning. This is where the excitement really began!
In true nomad style camel carts were used to cover the 8 kilometres between the drop-off point and the camp. We were able to walk, horse ride or simply catch a lift on the cart as we chose, all were on offer. The private ger camp awaited our arrival and I really enjoyed the novelty of staying in a traditional nomadic tent. The camp was truly surrounded by wilderness as far as the eye could see.
We spent several days in this camp, searching for the area’s fascinating wildlife and exploring the rich history and archaeology of the region. Species that have been recorded in this area include Pallas’s cat, grey wolf, red fox, Eurasian lynx, several ungulates some of which are endangered, as well as three species of snake and three species of lizards.
At night, cosy camp fires and the wonder of clarity of the starry sky in this vast wilderness was the perfect end to the day, feeling a million miles from civilisation in this hidden part of Asia; a truly unique experience for you and whoever you choose to share it with.
Our next adventure involved embarking upon a guided walk through the reserve accompanied by the camels to reach the next private camp. En route we explored the ruins of a temple and uncovered the history of this region seeing petroglyphs and ancient graves. We then spent two nights in the new ger camp, discovering the recent and ancient history of the area through fascinating treasures such as ancient rock art, as well as learning about the unique geology of this part of Mongolia.
Once again the camels were loaded up and another walk took us north to Mankhan Sands on the edge of the Ikh Nart Plateau, our last stop in the East Gobi. With higher dunes than at the previous location and with fabulous views over the vast desert steppe plains below, this is a superb location for the end to this part of the journey.
The following morning we walked to the airstrip with our camels and luggage, from which the plane was loaded directly from the camels! An amusing mix of traditional and modern travel! If the camp was placed further away we could have also had a vehicle bring us to the airstrip; nothing is set in stone on this journey!
Our private charter Cessna Caravan transferred us on a short one-hour flight to Khan Khenti, from which we then walked for two hours to reach our camp; from desert to lush green meadows in one day! This is a ‘Strictly Protected Area’ and tourism and herding is very limited here, so we were privileged to be able to explore this area open to so few. It is widely considered to be the birthplace of Genghis Khan and the (rumoured) location of his tomb.
In the south herdsmen keep their livestock following a traditional way of life that has remained virtually unchanged since the time of Genghis Khan and in the north lies a true remote wilderness that stretches all the way up to the Russian-Siberian border. Wolves are aplenty in the region, although rarely seen but other wildlife includes wild boar, moose, wapiti deer, marmot and gazelle.
We were met on arrival with yak carts (no limos here!) and walked to another private ger camp set in a location which afforded undisturbed 360-degree views of the stunning countryside which has remained unchanged for thousands of years.
Using this camp as a base, we then spent the following days exploring the surrounding area on foot, horseback or using the Russian ‘catarafts’ (inflatable kayaks) on the Tuul River. There were also mountain bikes available at camp we were able to cycle across the terrain if we wished.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to simply sit in the landscape and take in the startling colours of the area, maybe reading books, or (this is only possible on the hot days) taking a wild swim in the river. The camp will also, should you wish, set up a ger sauna just for you, by the riverside, a once-in-a-lifetime experience! We also had a private chef who kept us very well fed and our energy levels up, for our explorations.
If time allows the camp can be moved to another location and walk between the two. This is the sheer beauty of these camps. They are fully mobile, collapsible with no permanent structures and compacted to be loaded onto the animals that transport them making them very low impact on this precious environment.
On another visit, I spent time in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park. This is located on the northern edge of the Gobi desert and has a range of geological features, including the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains (‘Three Beaties’) in the eastern half of the park, and the Gobi desert in its southern areas of the park. Here lie the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, the iconic desert sand dunes that one imagines! Another feature of the park is the deep ice field of the Yolyn Am canyon.
This area is has some breath-taking vistas! The Khongoryn Els are known as the ‘Singing Sands’ and extend over 965km sq, up to the foot of the Altai Mountains. The dunes seem to stretch for ever and are continuously moving due to the winds. When a dune collapses or sand is moved in the wind the grains resonate, making a sound very much like an aircraft during take-off. This is a fascinating phenomenon which is thought to be due to a coating of slate over the sand grains.
We spent several days here in another mobile ger camp, searching for wildlife. Several endangered species are recorded in this national park including the snow leopard (in the mountains) and the Gobi camel. Other wildlife you may see which includes Pallas’s cat, wolves, Bactrian camels (two humps) and black-tailed gazelles and the bearded vulture.
My favourite thing about this part of Mongolia is that, even more so than anywhere else in this vast and empty country, one can travel for hours without seeing anyone else. When we did see another human they were most likely Cashmere goat and camel nomads who welcomed us into their ger with a hot drink, and sometimes a meal too.
Nomadic herders are incredibly welcoming, even though their ancient way of life is under threat. Their youngsters often move into the cities to take jobs afterwards in urban jungles rather than continue their nomadic traditions.
Once in the city, their cultural identity is quickly eroded and lost, their unique languages are forgotten, and an entire way of life will be changed as modernity and technology takes over.
Indigenous peoples are still found throughout Mongolia and if meeting various cultures is something that you are interested in, I would recommend spending time in the far north, as I have, meeting herders and Dukha (also known as Tsataan) near Khuvsgul Lake.
There are only a few Dukha left, around 500 people, and they herd and keep reindeer for transport and milk. They mainly live in the East Sayan Mountains and also down in the valleys and closer to the lake. The Dukha are very different to other Mongolians, they have Lapp tents and have animistic beliefs and speak an entirely different language.
Mongolia is known for its immense lands, and other notable regions to explore include Khorgo Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park with its extinct Khorgo Volcano, which is within driving distance of Ulaanbaatar. Terelj National Park has beautiful alpine scenery and again is close to Ulaanbaatar.
For cultural immersion, the highly celebrated festival of Naadam in July is a delight to witness. Make plans early if you want to see the festival as half the country’s population in their finery visits Ulaanbaatar for it! Naadam means ‘games’ and features horse races, wrestling (the national sport), shooting arrows from horses, music and much more.
Bayan-Olgii, in the far west of Mongolia is home to the Golden Eagle Festival where one can see Kazakh hunters arrive into settlements of ger camps set up to show off their magnificent birds of prey. The Kazakh Eagle Hunters are known for their tradition rearing golden eagles from eaglets, building a strong bond with them and hunting meat with them.
The Festival is a glorious celebration of this ancient art, where hunters and their eagles participate in competitions of speed, agility and precision catches. By supporting these hunters in this culture and tradition they are able to preserve their heritage.
Any profits made go back to keeping the traditions going by supporting community funds. The ongoing preservation of golden eagles is also supported, as they are highly treasured. The wonderful Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation is currently working with the Eagle Hunters communities to help to preserve their way of life.
Mongolia experiences long and cold winters and short mild but quite wet summers. The temperatures are cold between September through to May, dropping to an average of -20°. Summer daytime temperatures average 21°C.
The best time to visit is during the months of June and August, although the autumn weather of September can also be quite pleasant, and the colours of fall are beautiful. The Naadam Festival takes place in July, and the Golden Eagle Festival takes place at the beginning of October.
Mongolia is a country which seems to be at the far reaches of the modern world. Undertaking a journey through its varied and unique landscapes is surely an unforgettable experience. Please do feel free to contact me for more information.
Images kindly provided courtesy of Mongolia Nomadic Journeys. Image of Eagle Hunter kindly provided by Chris Rainier of Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation.