Mongolia, former empire of Genghis Khan, is home to one of the last nomadic, horse-based cultures in the world, as well as the home of the famous Gobi Desert in Asia. Explorers looking to adventure on the path-less-traveled should journey to experience the people of Mongolia and to discover their ancient culture in one of Asia’s few remaining pristine ecosystems. Here are seven must-see sights in Mongolia that will make you want to trek there.
1) The Gobi Desert
On an expedition in the vast and dramatic Gobi Desert, travelers can explore an incredible array of unforgettable Mongolian backgrounds, including the sand dunes of Moltsog Els and the deep desert valley of Yol Valley National Park.
The Gobi — which means simply “desert” — has an air of mystery, perhaps, because of its location in the heart of Asia’s most remote hinterlands between the Siberian wilderness to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south.
Contrary to the sterile sameness the word “desert” suggests, the Gobi is home to many fascinating sights including some of the most important paleontology discoveries of this century. Explore the stunning landscape of the Gobi, habitat for Bactrian camels, Argali mountain sheep, goitered gazelle, golden eagles, saker falcons, jerboas (similar to kangaroo rats) and many endemic reptiles. The Gobi is also home to some of the Northern Hemisphere’s rarest and most elusive mammals such as the dhole, snow leopard, and Gobi bear.
2) The Flaming Cliffs and Important Dinosaur Fossil Discoveries
The Flaming Cliffs is the legendary site where the first nest of dinosaur eggs was discovered by famous American explorer and paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920’s. This site is also close to Tugregiin Shiree, the region where researchers unearthed the tangled remains of “The Fighting Dinosaurs,” two dinosaurs which appear to have been locked in a struggle at the time of their abrupt death. Paleontologists assert that the fossils unearthed at the Flaming Cliffs formation and surrounding area were preserved by being buried in sudden sandstorms.
The Flaming Cliffs are home to remains of the velociraptor, oviraptor, protoceratops as well as several other prehistoric beasts.
3) Visit the Altai Mountain Region
Ulgii, the capital of Bayan-Ulgii, is Mongolia’s westernmost province. 90 percent of the population of Bayan-Ulgii is Kazakh, Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority. The isolation of the Altai Mountains has preserved the language and traditions of the Kazakhs, who live amongst some of the most spectacular scenery in Mongolia.
Before enjoying the many outdoor adventure opportunities offered in the Altai Mountains, travelers should visit the Local History Museum located in downtown Ulgii. This two-story building showcases some of the finest embroidery and artifacts collected from the region, including horse and eagle hunting accessories, hand-woven carpets and other arts and crafts. This small but impressive museum offers an excellent introduction to the history and culture of the people who have dwelled in the Altai Mountain region for more than a century.
4) Experience a Traditional Ger
While in the countryside, adventures can normally stay in traditional gers, the felt tents of nomadic herders. Very similar to a yurt, gers are made of a latticed wood structure covered with layers of felt and canvas. Kazakh craftswomen are renowned for their colorful embroidery and textiles, and their gers are beautifully decorated. Handcrafted felt carpets line the floor, and delicately embroidered tapestries adorn the walls of their homes, with each design unique to a particular family.
Each ger is heated by a wood stove with a smokestack through a hole in the center of the roof and furnished with beautifully painted wood-framed beds. This is the traditional home of herdsmen who must move with their animals. A ger is an easily transportable abode, but made to withstand harsh winter weather. The ger camps offer an authentic experience of Mongolian culture and provide a unique opportunity to visit areas which otherwise lack tourist accommodations.
5) The Golden Eagle Festival
The Golden Eagle Festival takes place in Bayan-Uglii Province. Each year the region’s Kazakh hunters attend the festival with their golden eagles, known as “berkut”, entering them in competitions testing speed, agility, and accuracy. Ceremonies, dance performances, a parade in the provincial capital’s city square and a Kazakh play in honor of the hunters and their eagles are among the highlights of this unique adventure travel experience.
The contrast between ancient traditions and the dawn of a 21st-century democracy is most visible in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, where traditional gers and Buddhist monasteries coexist with modern high-rises. One of the most central attractions of this metropolis and home to chic accommodations like the Ulaanbaatar Hotel is Sukhbaatar Square. Like TianAnMen Square or the Red Square, this seemingly communist-inspired quadrangle has lots of key places nearby to visit. It is a quick walk to the Parliament House, National Museum of Mongolian History, Post Office, Monastery-Museum of Choijin Lama and more.
7) The Naadam Festival
The biggest festival in Mongolia, Naadam, is a terrific display of patriotism. Held every year in July, the holiday focus around three popular Mongolian sports: wrestling, archery and horseback riding. The opening ceremony in Ulaanbaatar features cultural celebrations, colorful costumes marches and music before kicking off the two days of sporting events. This showcase of history, tradition and sport is not to be missed. In 2010, the festival was named on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of the few world traditions that is celebrated for its demonstration of Mongolian heritage.
by Hailey McDonald