Fresh off my recent journey to Mongolia, I found myself pondering a simple yet profound question:
Is Mongolia worth visiting?
Spoiler alert: In the shortest possible answer, yes, if your soul yearns for adventures and off-the-beaten-path destinations, you’re in for a treat. Imagine vast landscapes untouched by modernity, waking up to the vast expanse of long tall grass, and feeling the raw energy of nature all around.
Mongolia is worth every minute spent there. Between its captivating landscapes, rich history, and warm-hearted locals, this country is a hidden gem awaiting discovery. It’s a haven for travelers who crave genuine experiences away from touristy crowds. But don’t just take my word for it – let’s delve deeper into the myriad reasons that make Mongolia an unparalleled travel destination.
Discovering Mongolia’s Mystique
Our recent adventure to Mongolia, spanning a memorable two weeks, was a fusion of vast terrains and rich culture. My companions for this journey included Lydia, the founder of Lydiascapes and my beloved wife, and Kai, our photographer friend with a passion for rock climbing. Myself; Cez, a traveler and the co-founder of the Etramping travel blog, was equally eager to unravel the depths of Mongolia’s allure. Our exploration was curated by New Milestone Tours. Established in 2004 by the spirited Adiya, New Milestone Tours is more than just a travel company. Adiya’s entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with his love for his homeland, has fostered unique tour experiences in Mongolia.
The company stands out for its commendable bond with Mongolian nomads, emphasizing sustainability and responsible tourism. These core values were evident throughout our journey as they work closely with local communities, ensuring not only that tourists enjoy nature’s bounty but also that they leave it as pristine as they found it.
Unveiling The Untouched Beauty
Mongolia, aptly termed the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” is nature in its most primal form. As our group departed from Ulaanbaatar and embarked on the scenic 650-kilometer drive to the Hantay region, which is part of Bulgan province, it became abundantly clear that Mongolia’s beauty lies in its vast expanses and livestock-scattered landscapes. Whether it was the shimmering horizons we witnessed during our drive or the raw, unfiltered beauty of the mini Gobi desert during our Kharakhorum exploration, every view was a testament to the country’s pristine wilderness. And while the city of Ulaanbaatar itself has ballooned beyond its intended capacity, causing noticeable traffic jams, as soon as you venture out, the vastness of Mongolia envelops you in its embrace.
Lydia and I on the way to Hantay
Mongolia’s Deep-rooted History and Culture
The historical tapestry of Mongolia is as rich as its landscapes are vast. Our visit to Kharakhorum, once the capital of the Mongol Empire, showcased the country’s illustrious past. The Erdene Zuu Monastery stood as a living testament to the intertwined history of Buddhism and Mongolian culture.
Our city tour of Ulaanbaatar, guided by the knowledgeable Adiya, further deepened our appreciation for the nation’s heritage. The Gandantegchinlen Monastery with its majestic Statue of Avalokiteśvara and the Zaisan Memorial, celebrating Mongolian-Russian friendship, provided a historical lens to view modern Mongolia.
Unique Experiences Only Found in Mongolia
Nomadic Lifestyle: Living with the Locals
Upon our evening arrival at the ger camp, we were greeted with the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked Mongolian bread called Bortsog, still warm and paired with honey gathered by the very community that welcomed us. It tastes a bit like the likes of American fried dough in donuts. This gesture set the tone for our immersive experience in nomadic life.
Our accommodations, a traditional ger, were a blend of cultural authenticity and unexpected comforts. A spacious raised bed, a warming central fireplace for the chilly nights, and even modern amenities like a sink and portable batteries – these subtle luxuries were reflective of the hosts’ desire to offer a genuine yet comfortable experience.
The Hantay area rangers, who joined us for a hike, shared the inspiring tale of their community’s transition into sustainable tourism. Baghy, a figure central to this narrative, ventured here to pioneer beekeeping, an uncommon practice in Mongolia. Her endeavors, coupled with her skills in marketing and journalism, propelled the community’s honey production into the limelight.
This initial traction paved the way for the establishment of the ger camp, designed to offer tourists a real taste of nomadic life while ensuring the locals didn’t feel overwhelmed. Rules were set, like limited tourist groups (maximum 28 visitors at any given time) and operational weeks (maximum 3 weeks per month), to foster genuine interactions between visitors and the community. The cooperative plans to expand their accommodations, with a new ger camp across the river, aiming to welcome more visitors while maintaining the authenticity of the experience – this was requested by the locals living nearby that would love to join the cooperative.
Our day also granted us a candid peek into the lives of the nomadic families. At a local’s seasonal home, we were introduced to their culinary traditions, with dishes crafted from their livestock like a lamb stew with homemade noodles. An unplanned adventure had us observing cow vaccinations, a window into their daily routines and challenges.
The cooperative’s sustainable approach extended beyond just tourism. Their principles, whether in managing the Taimen fish populations or regulating hunting, resonated with their commitment to balance and harmony with nature. And as night approached, the communal bonfire became the backdrop for an exchange of stories, songs, and shared experiences. Their melodies, dedicated to mothers, horses, nature, and heroes, evoked profound emotions, highlighting the deep ties of the community.
This immersion into the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle wasn’t merely a visit; it was a lesson in community, sustainability, and the timeless traditions that bind the nomads together.
Mongolian Traditional Festivals
Although our journey did not coincide with any major festivals, we did manage to experience some local traditions like a communal bonfire. It was very touching to pass around a cup of wine and everyone who took a sip sang a song.
Mongolia is renowned for its traditional celebrations, like the Naadam Festival, which showcases Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery. These festivals, deeply rooted in Mongolian culture and tradition, offer an unparalleled insight into the country’s heritage and the spirit of its people.
Mongolian Cuisine: A Culinary Journey
1. Fresh Beginnings
Our expedition into Mongolia’s culinary heartland began with the simplest of delights, yet profoundly memorable. The scent of freshly baked Bortsog bread, still hot and emanating a golden aroma, welcomed us as we set foot in the ger camp. Drizzled with honey, this humble bread became our breakfast staple, setting the tone for the gastronomic adventure ahead.
2. The Main Affair
For dinner, the pièce de résistance was the sumptuous fried Mongolian lamb or mutton dumplings called Khuushuur. Fried to perfection, these palm-sized delights were generously packed with minced meat and onions. Every bite revealed the meat-centric flavors and traditions that Mongolian cuisine has been weaving for centuries – focused on bringing out the flavors of the meat.
3. Dairy Delights
A visit to a local family introduced us to Mongolia’s dairy-rich tradition. The vast Mongolian steppes and the nomadic lifestyle have fostered a deep-seated dairy culture. We sampled a variety of cow, goat, and yak dairy products, each narrating its unique tale of the land, livestock, and the hands that crafted it.
4. Mutton Stew with Hand-made Noodles
No gastronomic journey in Mongolia is complete without diving into a bowl of mutton stew. The slow-cooked mutton, tender and juicy, paired with hand-made noodles, offered a comforting warmth. The flavors were earthy and robust, mirroring the landscape from which they originated.
5. Traditional Beverages
While we indulged primarily in food, Mongolia has an array of traditional drinks that many travelers swear by. Airag, a fermented horse milk, is a popular summer beverage. Its tangy flavor can be a bit of an acquired taste but is deeply rooted in Mongolian culture. Another notable mention is the Arkhi, a distilled spirit made from fermented mare’s milk. While we didn’t get the chance to try these, they remain a significant part of Mongolia’s culinary identity.
6. What We Missed
Mongolian cuisine offers a plethora of other dishes that we couldn’t sample on this trip. Borts, dried meat which is a staple for many Mongolians, especially during colder months, and Boodog, a unique method of cooking goat or marmot by roasting it from the inside using hot stones, remain on our gastronomic bucket list for future visits.
In essence, our culinary sojourn in Mongolia was an intricate dance of traditional flavors, age-old recipes, and the boundless hospitality of the Mongolian people. Every meal was not just about savoring food, but also about imbibing the rich cultural heritage that accompanied it.
Adventures in Mongolia’s Vast Landscapes
Adventures in the Hantay Region
The Hantay region offered a diverse array of activities, perfectly blending adventure with cultural immersion. Although we didn’t partake in hunting or berry picking, these are popular activities among visitors seeking a more hands-on experience with nature. Our time was spent engaging with the local nomadic community, where we learned about their sustainable practices and unique way of life. This included a deeper understanding of traditional activities such as fishing and herding, showcasing the harmony between the locals and their environment.
Exploring Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Our exploration of Gorkhi Terelj National Park was a remarkable experience. The park’s natural beauty, from its lush valleys to rugged mountains, provided an ideal backdrop for our adventure. Horseback riding through this scenic landscape was a highlight, allowing us to connect deeply with the wilderness of Mongolia. Best of all, it is very close to Ulaanbaatar so you can experience horseback riding in the Mongolian steppes without venturing far away from the capital.
Camping Under the Mongolian Starlit Sky
There’s a certain magic in the Mongolian night sky. Far from the light pollution of urban centers, the stars here shine with an unmatched brilliance. Our nights, whether in the ger camp or in a tent, were illuminated by a canopy of sparkling stars, making for unforgettable memories.
Is Mongolia For Everyone?
Considerations for First-time Visitors
Mongolia offers an array of experiences, but it’s essential to be prepared. The off-road journeys can be bumpy and challenging, as we experienced on our way to Kharakhorum. While this trip mainly targets adventure travelers and couples, young as well as intergenerational families will also thoroughly enjoy the trip. Our suggestion is to go with New Milestone Tours on a minimum 5-7 days trip, as it cuts the long drives shorter and you get to visit places on the way like Erdenet City on the 1st night and the beautiful lake near Kharkhorin city on the final night. Additionally, while Ulaanbaatar is modernizing, venturing into the countryside will introduce you to a more rustic Mongolia. Being open-minded and adaptable is key.
Understanding the Challenges and Rewards
While Mongolia poses certain challenges, from rugged terrains to language barriers, the rewards are manifold. Our trustworthy guide Adiya and driver Jack, ensured that we were always in good hands and did their best to also cater to our itinerary preferences. The commitment of both these groups to sustainability and authenticity ensured our experience was both genuine and environmentally conscious.
In conclusion, Mongolia, with its mix of untouched landscapes, rich history, and warm-hearted locals, offers a travel experience like no other. For those willing to embrace its unique charm and occasional challenges, the rewards are boundless. As for me and my companions – Lydia and Kai – our Mongolian adventure has etched memories that will last a lifetime.
As Baghy eloquently put it, ‘You don’t need money and a lot of things to be happy. Happiness from living in the countryside with just what you need is good enough to find happiness.’