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Mongolia is one of the last frontiers; the world’s least densely populated country, it lays between Siberia and the wilds of northern China. Since Ghengis Khan began his conquest to create a great empire in the 13th century, the country has been divided into states, been inhabited by nomads, fallen under Chinese rule and had Soviet backing before becoming a democracy in 1990. But for a place with such a storied history and singular culture, the country feels wild, the vast majority, hauntingly empty. The country is home to a number of unique natural charms, from the oldest National Park in the world (Bogd Khan National Park dates to 1778) to one quarter of the world’s snow leopard population to the extremely rare and endangered wild Bactrian camel.

Cheat Sheet

  • Sleep…in a traditional Mongolia ger (yurt) at the Three Camel Lodge
  • Experience…the silence of the Gobi Desert on a luxury camping trip
  • Splurge…on a private helicopter to eliminate long drives
  • Eat…at Hazara in Ulaanbaatar for Moghul-style Indian cuisine
  • Drink…fermented mare’s milk, a Mongolian specialty
  • Savor…being off-the-grid with no cell phone reception or internet access
  • Visit…a Naadam or Golden Eagle Festival, depending on the time of year
  • See…the Flaming Cliffs, the site of Roy Chapman Andrews’ dinosaur dig
  • Shop…for supplies to bring the local children before your journey
  • Know…the history of Genghis and Kublai Khan’s rule before your trip

Lay of the Land

Stretching from Asia to Europe, as far west as the Black Sea and south as India, Mongolia is around the size of Alaska. Its population is around three million and it is estimated that only 3% of the country is inhabited. Mongolia is a fascinating place: authentic and bizarre and not dressed up for tourists – yet (much of the country is missing basic infrastructure like roads).

With more than one million inhabitants, the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is a crowded, buzzing, expanding place. (It also happens to be the coldest capital in the world, so timing your trip well is key.) Today, Ulaanbaatar’s skyline is shifting away from blocky Soviet remnants, stretching with giant cranes hovered over half-finished apartment high rises.

Outside the city, Mongolia’s natural beauty is staggering and untouched. From icy lakes in the north to the endless central steppe to the fabled Gobi Desert in the south, the country feels like a land that existed before time. The steppe boasts rolling hills that bloom bright green in the summer months under vast skies; barren grasslands stretched for miles are colored by mirage and the shadows of clouds. And then there’s the stark, sprawling Gobi Desert. If the Africa’s Sahara is the classic desert and South America’s Atacama the otherworldly beauty, then the Gobi feels like the most ancient. So possible it is to envision dinosaurs roaming these lands that it starts to seem fathomable – maybe some still exist, but just haven’t been spotted, carrying on unnoticed because this massive scope of land could never be quantified.

Needless to say, it’s rare to find a place so unpolished, unbranded and unselfconscious, an entire country so pure.

Getting Around/There

Mongolia is a developing country in terms of its infrastructure, and delays and changes in travelers’ itineraries are often likely. The most common flights from the U.S. to Mongolia fly through Beijing, Hong Kong or Moscow (2 hrs, 15 min; 4.5 hours, 6hrs, 40 min respectively). In order to adjust to the time zone, we suggest staying a night or two in the layover city before continuing on to Ulaanbaatar. To get to the Gobi Desert, Western Mongolia and Lake Hovskol, direct flights are available daily from Ulaanbaatar but there are no flights between the more remote destinations so traveling between them requires returning to Ulaanbaatar. Car journeys outside of the capital city are long and roads (where they exist) are in terrible condition with potholes caused by extreme weather conditions. We recommend arranging helicopters transfers whenever possible.

When to Go

The best time to visit Mongolia is from mid-February (after the Lunar New Year) through early November, when the Golden Eagle Festival is typically held. The last of the snow melts in May, with late June, July and August being the warmest and greenest months. Tourism peaks in mid-July with the annual Naadam Festival.

Indagare Tip: Mongolian cuisine in the countryside leaves something to be desired. The nomads rarely put down roots long enough to farm and market exchanges are few and far between, so fresh veggies are a rarity.

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Beyond… Mongolia

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