by Russ Oquist
“Mongolia — why would I want to go to Mongolia?”
That’s the first reaction most people have when you mention a trip to this country, whose very name is a pop-culture equivalent for the most remote place on earth. Most travelers know very little about Mongolia — perhaps a smattering about the great conqueror Genghis Khan and the Gobi desert.
However, this country is home to some of the most bizarre and exciting adventures on this planet. Mongolia has Tuvan Throat Singers who produce unique sounds ranging from low guttural growls to haunting high tones ... contortionists who can even sit on their own heads ... the Kazakh Mongol eagle hunters who use birds of prey to capture their quarries. Mongolia even has places where dinosaur fossils lie exposed on the ground. In addition, travelers can embark on camel treks, horse treks, and jeep treks to regions where nomads still live as they have for the last 2,000 years.
Mongolia has large expanses of unspoiled nature, from mountain ranges to the expanses of the Gobi desert. The region is also known for its gently rolling steppe, which can look like a rolling green ocean in the springtime when the grass is growing. With its clean, clear air and breathtaking vistas, the country is often called the Land of the Eternal Blue Skies.
Sandwiched between Russia and China in eastern Asia, Mongolia is three times the size of France. A young democracy, Mongolia was established in 1991 when the USSR dissolved. The people are very friendly and overwhelmingly honest, making it generally a very safe place to visit. One-quarter of its 2.8 million citizens live in UlaanBaatar, the capital, and about one-half dwell in the Mongolian countryside.
The Gobi desert lives up to its legend with sites such as the Flaming Cliffs (a repository for dinosaur fossils and dinosaur eggs), Yol Am (where a large block of ice sits in the Gobi desert sun without melting), and the Els, where gigantic solo sand dunes stand in the midst of scrubby desert. Here, visitors can explore on guided camel expeditions. Overnights are spent in gers — a combination of a tent and a house with comfortable beds. Located in a separate wooden building, bathroom facilities have flush- toilets and showers with hot water.
A drive through the steppes leads to Karakhorum, which is the site of the old capital of Genghis Khan (whom the Mongols call “Chinggis”). The route passes the ErDenn Zuu Monastery, which has 9th-century stone tortoises and some ancient hero stones. At Hustai, people can see the Takhi, the only wild breed of horses left
in the world. A huge lake surrounded by tree-covered mountains, Lake Huvsgal is known for its pristine beauty and delightful sunsets. Travelers can enjoy a guided horseback ride and meet a family of Tsaatan, who raise herds of reindeer.
Treks form a highlight of every visit to Mongolia. In the Altai Mountains, hikers can see petroglyphs, burial sites, and ancient deer stones (sculpted rocks in the ground which celebrate a Mongol hero). Expeditions also include visits with nomads who tend huge herds of camels, sheep, goats and yaks. The region is also home to the Kazakh Mongol Eagle Hunters, who use the magnificent birds in the winter to capture rabbits, marmots and even wolves. Overnight accommodations include both tents and ger camps.
Visitors might want to time their travels with the Naadam Festival in UlaanBaatar, which is held July 11 to 13 every year in celebration of Mongolia’s independence. Events highlight Mongolia’s three national sports: horse-racing, archery and wrestling. There are also local “Naadams” held in each aimag (province).
UlaanBaatar, the capital, offers a fascinating selection of museums. At the National History Museum, exhibits recount the story of the Mongolian Empire and display ethnic costumes, while the Natural History Museum has notable collections of dinosaur eggs and fossils. Gandan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, houses an 80-foot-tall Buddha statue made of copper, silver, gold and precious jewels.
It all adds up to reasons why Mongolia is an ideal destination for travelers seeking excitement, adventure and the joys of getting to know a dramatically different culture. n
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Author Russ Oquist is the president and owner of The Mongol Global Tour Company Inc., which offers a wide choice of individualized explorations in Mongolia and other countries in Asia and the Pacific. Flexible planning allows people to have a customized trip even when they are traveling with a group. For further information about programs, telephone 866-225-0577 or 714-220-2579, or visit www.MongolGlobalTours.com.
MONGOLIA — Travel Tips
• The Mongols are ancestors of the American Indians, Koreans, Japanese and Turks.
• There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Mongolia. Travelers enter via China, Korea, Japan or Russia. American citizens do not need a visa to enter Mongolia.
• High season in Mongolia is June through August, when the temperature runs 70 to 88 degrees. During shoulder seasons (April/May and September/October) temperatures can be fairly cold (40 to 65 degrees) and many sites are not easily accessible. Although November through February is very cold (-20 to +45 degrees), some interesting activities take place at that time, such as the Eagle Hunting.
• Travelers should beware of pickpockets in crowded public areas and exercise reasonable caution when going out at night in UlaanBaatar. (It’s best to be accompanied by a Mongol when out late at night.)