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Mongolia – Vast wilderness and rugged adventure
December 5, 2017, 1:46 pm
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Travelers often overlook Mongolia for its bustling neighbors, China and Russia. But it is in Mongolia — one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries — that one finds a unique blend of adventure and serenity that includes venturing into the wild with epic horse rides through the valleys, climbing up to Buddhist villages and temples, hiking through the mountains or luxurious yurt stays under a canvas of stars.

Mongolians are fully aware of the unique beauty of their country. Ask locals and they will probably start gushing about the spectacular countryside, vast steppes, rugged mountains, clear lakes and abundant wildlife and livestock of their country.  It is this true wilderness experience that many people find so appealing. The country is also famous for its nomadic culture — visitors can sleep in a herder's ger (traditional felt yurt), help roundup the sheep, ride horses and simply 'get back to nature'.

 

Ulaanbaatar

The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a sprawling, industrialized city of pulsating commerce, wild traffic, throbbing nightlife and bohemian counter-culture. The city reflects a sharp contrast between traditional and modern elements that merge to form a unique environment. This is an ever-changing city that may be the biggest surprise of your Mongolian adventure.

The Gandan Khiid is one of the most important monasteries in this region — its full name Gandantegchinlen, translates roughly as ‘the great place of complete joy’ — a popular tourist attraction in Ulaanbaatar. Around the start of the 19th century more than 100 süm (temples) and khiid (monasteries) served a population of about 50,000 in Urga (the former name of Ulaanbaatar). The Gandan Khiid is just one of the handfuls of such buildings that survived the religious purges of 1937.

Among other museums and historical sites in the city is The Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs, home to dinosaurs of all shapes, sizes and appetites that once roamed the Gobi Desert. Their fossilized bones and eggs were first uncovered by American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews in the 1920s. Today you can come face-to-skull with some of the best examples of Mongolian dinosaur fossils in this museum.

Tov

Few tourists come to Mongolia without visiting its most iconic landmark, a 40-meter-high glistening silver statue of Chinggis Khaan at the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex, located in the province of Tov. Constructed in 2008 from stainless steel, the dramatic statue has a lift rising up its tail, from where there are steps to the horse’s head. It was built here, so the legend goes, because this was the spot where Chinggis Khaan found a golden whip. The complex includes an impressive museum which enlightens tourists with the rich history of the country and guides them through the ventures of the nation’s infamous leader, and located just up the road is the statue of Chinggis Khaan’s mother, Hoelun, who gazes back towards her son.

Situated in this region is also the famous Khustain National Park, a 506-sq-km reserve which is well known for its population of takhi, a Mongolian wild horse once thought extinct. Other wildlife in the park includes maral (Asiatic red deer), steppe gazelle, deer, boar, Pallas's cats, wolves, lynx, marmot and 223 species of birds. Wildlife watching is best at dusk and at dawn, so it is worth spending at least one night in the park in order to see takhi and other wildlife.

Gobi Desert

With its iconic sand dunes, ice canyon and stunning mountain vistas, Gurvan Saikhan National Park is understandably one of Mongolia’s most popular national parks, and falls along the northern edge of the Gobi Desert. Besides its spectacular natural beauty it contains more than 200 bird species, including the Mongolian desert finch, cinereous vulture, desert warbler and houbara bustard. The park also has 600 or more types of plants, which help support the black-tailed gazelle, Kozlov’s pygmy jerboa, wild ass and endangered species of wild camel, snow leopard, ibex and argali sheep.

Khongoryn Els are some of the largest and most spectacular sand dunes in Mongolia and fall within the boundaries of the National Park. Yolyn Am, which was originally established to conserve the region's bird life, but is now more famous for its dramatic rocky cliffs and narrow, heavily shaded canyons that allow sheets of blue-veined ice to survive well into the summer in what is known as Yolyn Am Gorge. A pleasant 2km path leads from the parking area to this gorge filled with blue ice, one of the park's not-to-miss sights. You can hike, bike or hire a horse and ride here. Along the way, you will see herds of shaggy yaks and, if you are lucky, an ibex.

Orkhon Valley

If your reason to visit Mongolia is to experience its vast mountainous steppe, then travelling through the Orkhon Valley region is a must on your itinerary. Here you can drive all day and come across flocks of goat and sheep that scurry out of the way, while herds of semi-wild horses graze in the distance. Crossing this vast nothingness of undulating hills you will encounter the occasional ger camp of nomadic herders, who can wave you on in the direction you are heading if you get lost.

It is a route that is popular with tourists making their way from Kharkhorin, invariably stopping at Orkhon Falls. From here you can embark on a horse trek to Khuisiin Naiman Nuur Nature Reserve, or continue east to the scenic Khangai Mountains, where you will find one of central Mongolia's most atmospheric monasteries.

Kharkhorin

The site of Mongolia’s famed 13-century capital Karakorum has since been molded into a gritty Soviet-built town with hints of its Middle Aged glory glistening in its corners. What draws in tourists by the bus load are the remains of the 16th-century monastery, Erdene Zuu Khiid, and the impressive museum, both of which offer some evocative insights into the region's golden era.

Kharkhorin is also within striking distance of a number of worthwhile sights – the stunning lakes of Naiman Nuur, Orkhon Khürkhree waterfall, the secluded hilltop monastery, Tövkhön Khiid, the sand dunes known as Mongol Els, and the magnificently stark rocky nature reserve, Khögnö Khan Uul – making this the best place to base yourself for a tour of the Övörkhangai province.
 

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