Mongolia! Most of us know it as the land of Genghis Khan and his fearless Mongols, yet there is so much more to know about this fascinating country of mystical steppes, filling food, mysterious chants and vast blue skies.
Mongolia is roughly the same size as Alaska and almost double of Eastern Europe, making it the 19th largest country in the world, but the population, just shy of 3 million, is close to that of Miami-Dade, making Mongolia the least densely populated country in the world.
Forty percent of the population lives in the capital city Ulaanbaatar; that leaves lots of unoccupied scenery to explore, including the remote and vast Gobi desert. The majority of the Mongolian population practices Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism.
As soon as you arrive to the humble Chinggis Khaan International Airport you can sense their welcoming spirit. Upon your arrival, the officers give you a tourist visa, and your journey begins. Not long after you leave the airport, you begin to understand that you are in a nomadic country, and transport yourself to the year 1206, when Genghis Khan established the Mongolian State.
As you ride into the capital, a city emerges with tall new buildings, old buildings from the Soviet era, and nomadic tents, all together. You will encounter the Chinggis Khaan Square with its monumental statue of the country’s founder Genghis Khan, which gives you an idea of how powerful the Mongols were, and how much respect the founder gets from his country. Around 6:00 pm, every afternoon during the summer, you can see the square filled with families enjoying themselves.
In Ulaanbaatar, the sky is amazingly blue. You can enjoy it from the new and deluxe Shangri-La Hotel, the Best Western or many others. As you leave the hotel, you will be impressed with a huge Louis Vuitton store that invites you in, only to discover it shares space with Burberry, Zegna, Emporio Armani, Hugo Boss, Chopard, and Mont Blanc among others. Welcome to the new mineral-rich Mongolia which has had 26 years of a stable, market-oriented democracy after being a Soviet satellite country for 70 years. Mongolia gives us the rare opportunity of visiting a country that is about to change from nomadic and simple to modern, technological, and touristy.
There’s no better place to try the world-famous Mongolian grill than in Mongolia itself
While in Ulaanbaatar, a must-visit place is the National Museum of Mongolia, where they explain the history of the Mongolian nation. You will leave understanding why Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan) formed the largest contiguous empire in history. Then you must visit the National Archaeological Museum of Mongolia, home of the Tyrannosaurus Baatar, relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
About two hours from Ulaanbaatar is the Hustai National Park, a great place to spend the day. On your way there, herds of the mighty and rare Mongolian horses might pass you by, led by the nomads who live in their gers (tents), portable homes that are battery-powered through solar panels. Finally, before leaving Ulaanbaatar, you must attend a Mongolian throat-singing concert, a unique guttural choral accompanied by traditional instruments and dances.
THE GOBI DESERT AND MORE
Get a quick Hunnu Air flight from Ulaanbaatar to one of the most intriguing places on earth, the Gobi Desert, and be prepared for the breathtaking views of the nearby glaciers. Plan your stay in Khankhongor at a very unique 5-star facility called the Three Camel Lodge. It offers guests their own private ger with bathroom en suite. The showers are in the main building because water usage, due to its scarcity in the desert, is controlled. The facilities however are impeccably clean. The whole place is run on solar energy, the food is delicious, and they adhere to people’s dietary customs.
When walking through the desert, you might suddenly see the sand covered with minuscule green plants. Similar to chives, they are edible, with an extremely intense flavor. You might also stumble upon concentric circles of black stones, burial sites from the Bronze Age that have been unbelievably preserved for hundreds of years. Experience the thrill of riding a camel though the dunes, and explore and touch the petroglyphs, 10.000 year-old stone carvings also from the Bronze Age.
Before leaving the desert en route to your next stop, go to the Fleming Cliffs at sundown for a candlelight dinner with the magnificent surrounding of wind and terra colors. Finally, you will find the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, a contrastingly luscious green land full of fertile prairies and meadows. Terelj Hotel is the suggested accommodation. It is an old Soviet stronghold that has been completely renovated and transformed into a luxury hotel, with impeccable service. Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is a top destination for trekking, where you will probably learn from a true Mongolian nomadic family how they assemble a ger in 90 minutes flat! A drink with them is the most joyous way of saying goodbye to this fascinating and seldom-visited country.
The best time to visit Mongolia is during spring/summer, from mid-May to the end of August, and the most convenient way to get there is flying in from Frankfurt or Berlin. More than a trip, visiting Mongolia is a life-enhancing experience.