In Part One, I shared a few must-see sights from the cities of Mongolia. But, at the end of the day, cities are cities. The beauty of Mongolia is taking on the nomadic life and exploring the country. It’s pretty incredible how dramatically the landscape can change – from the Gobi Desert, to bald mountains, to gorgeous lakes and forested mountains.
Long drives can take you through a number of different terrains. Although the roads are often terrible (sometimes only trails in the grass), traffic in the countryside is usually just roaming herds that might rest in your way. They’ll eventually move out of your way… at their own pace, but the slow pace makes for some great photos of sheep, goats, cows and yaks, and horses.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side by Exploring the Countryside
A few things you might want to see:
National parks: There are numerous national parks around the country, each with their own unique attributes. Gorkhi Terelj National Park is closest to UB, featuring amazing mountain views, some Buddhist temples and meditation centers, some unique archeological features and plenty of tourist camps—both lodges and ger camps—to enjoy the countryside. You can even arrange for extra activities like horseback riding in the countryside and visiting eagle hunters. Don’t forget to stop and ride a two-humped camel along the way.
Camp out at a lake. One of my favorite experiences in Mongolia was camping at Ugii Nuur (Lake), a beautiful freshwater lake in central Mongolia. It’s one of the smaller lakes in Mongolia, but the largest in the mountain steppes and convenient to a number of other attractions, such as Kharkhorin (the ancient capital of Mongolia) and the Arkhangai Province—which features lush, wooded mountains and natural hot springs.
There are a number of ger (yurt) camps around Ugii Lake, even one with the teepee style of ger, indicative of the Duhka people. Keep in mind that while ger camps usually have a small restaurant on site, these restaurants are only open for limited hours. So, pack snacks and drinks (vodka’s always a good choice) for after hours.
Also, access to electricity is often limited in these camps. The gers have a small furnace inside with a bucket of firewood. Campsite staff will help you make a fire in early evening, but you’re on your own after that. So, be sure to bring extra layers of clothing.
And while the limited electricity can be annoying, there is beauty to be had because of it. On a clear night, you’ve never seen such a sight – the dazzling night sky so full of stars, satellites, and galaxies. You feel like you’re part of the sky, not just someone staring up at it.
Soak in hot springs. In the forested mountains of the Arkhangai region, there are many old volcanos and thus natural hot springs. There are a number of ger camps around the hot spring region. Just be aware, the trek to get there includes driving on mountain roads (moreso trails) and crossing relatively shallow rivers. This might not sound that adventurous, until you figure out there are no bridges over the rivers. I’ve seen some pretty small cars driving through the rivers with water levels to about mid-door. They make it, but likely need to get their cars checked out when they get back. With the right tour guide, you might want to drop in and visit one of the nomad camps along the way to learn about the nomadic herder life.
See the flaming cliffs. The red sand mountains of the Gobi Desert are a unique and beautiful sight to behold. They are also home to a trove of dinosaur fossils including protoceratops and velociraptors. In the 1930s, this is where Roy Chapman Andrews discovered the first dinosaur eggs.
Visit the Dukha people. One thing I’ve always wanted to do and haven’t been able to spend enough time in Mongolia to do yet is visit the Dukha people in the thick forests of the Siberian Taiga (snow forest). The Dukha are a tribe of nomadic reindeer herders. That’s right, I said REINDEER! The Dukha have been roaming the taiga at the border with Russia for thousands of years, roaming with their reindeer herds and hunting. Unfortunately, there are only about 40 families left who maintain this difficult lifestyle and about 1000 reindeer.
Speaking of maintaining more traditional lifestyles, Mongolia is also known for the eagle hunters and herders. The Kazakh people residing in the western Bayan-Ulgii province have a long history of using eagles for hunting—it’s a spectacular sight to see. The practice is slowly vanishing, and the Bayan-Ulgii region remains the last stronghold for the ancient tradition.
All in all, there’s a lot to do in Mongolia and many reasons to keep going back, although preferably in the summer months. When this whole pandemic dies down and we can start to move around again, exploring where dinosaurs once roamed in the Gobi Desert and riding reindeer with the Dukha are on my short list. If you find yourself there, I hope you’ll befriend some locals to enhance your experience and learn more about one of my favorite countries. And remember, if you’re ever offered a shot (of vodka), no sipping is allowed. The shot is good luck and why would you leave luck behind?