Mongolia is said to be the least densely populated country in the world; an isolated yet magnificent landscape untainted by the modernist hands of destruction and sprawl. While the momentous rule and legacy of Genghis Khan is debatable, he did leave behind a country of epic proportion; for this huge country, north of bustling China, gives the avid explorer access to vast lands of varying landscapes, still largely untouched.
An ideal canvas for those who enjoy basic and slow travel, Mongolia is off the beaten track at its very best, yet you should be prepared for the frustrations that come with it and embrace the challenges of navigating through a country that doesn’t have a well-trodden tourist track. Whether you cross its infinite plains via car, truck, Russian jeep or horseback, it can take hours, or even an entire day, before you reach a ger nestled in the distance or arrive at a small-town community.
Dirt tracks are more common than paved roads, and the weather unpredictable as you hit intense desert heat to cold, heavy onslaughts of rain. Yet while my experience included wading through stodgy mud in order to dig out stuck vehicles and push them to freedom, much of my time was spent in awe – looking out at and being within a staggering expanse of serene, undisturbed wilderness.
Ulaanbaatar is the usual starting point; the bustling capital city offering everything from temples, museums and public squares, to international cuisine and busy nightlife. From there you will move through vistas that will change in color, texture and climate, where you will mostly be pitching a tent at the end of each day. Staying in a traditional ger is a unique and unforgettable experience, complete with a toasty coal fire heating system, the opportunity to sample local food and the 5am wake up calls horses and goats rustling around the outside walls.
The distinct lack of infrastructure and amenities means you are never far from the heart of Mongolian life – you are a part of it. Outside of Ulaanbaatar, travelling through Mongolia is like seeing surroundings that haven’t changed in decades or even centuries, where locals still live simply, inviting you into their homes with an eagerness to share their wonderful and unique way of life.
The great outdoors awaits you with plentiful opportunities for walks, hikes and adventure. Clamber through the Bag Gary Chula rock formations, marvel at the hot to cold contrast of the Olin Am canyon in the Gobi which is home to a year-round glacier or attempt the strenuous climb of the Khongoryn Els sand dunes, if only for the excitement of running or rolling down them afterwards. The beautiful Orkhon Valley and the National Parks of Hustain and Tereji – home to the tiny Przewalski horses unique to Mongolia – allow for spectacular picture-perfect panoramic views.
Although nature dominates, history remains. Be sure to check out the Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin. The most important Monastery in the country, it is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia which once had over 100 temples and 1,000 monks before the Communist purges in 1937. Like many other scared sites, not much was left standing after this era of destruction, but the Mongolians preserve what is left of their history with great pride.
What you hear about Mongolia, with its green hues, herds of wild horses and the golden desert expanse is true. For me, it was an experience like no other. I lost myself for three weeks as I travelled across its central and western lands that took in everything from lakes, deserts, forests, hot springs, waterfalls, melting glaciers and sparse flat lands. And with that I learnt to embrace the beauty that comes from simplicity and indulge in the overwhelming sense of liberation that comes only from standing in an uninhabited place. How will you see Mongolia?