AS MONGOLIA has opened up to the world in the 21st century, its citizens are travelling the globe and outsiders are arriving by the plane load for business and travel opportunities.
Visas are relatively easy to acquire. Authorities see tourism as a key growth sector of the Mongolian economy and an important revenue earner for local communities.
Despite the warm welcome you will receive, Mongolia is not a pleasure cruise.
This is still a developing country with rudimentary infrastructure and mostly basic facilities outside the capital.
Mongolians are fully aware of the unique beauty of their country. Ask locals and they will probably start gushing about the spectacular countryside, vast steppes, rugged mountains, clear lakes and abundant wildlife and livestock.
It’s this true wilderness experience that many people find so appealing.
There are few countries in the world with such a stark difference between the rural and urban populations.
While nomadic Mongols live the simple life, their cousins in Ulaanbaatar are lurching headlong into the future.
The capital is changing at a dizzying pace and many Mongolians have bought wholeheartedly into the global economy, capitalism and consumerism.
Urban hipster or nomadic shepherd, however, both share a love of democracy.
The country is often held up as a model emerging democratic state, despite being surrounded by democracy-challenged countries. Mongolia is eager to be part of the global community. By visiting you are contributing to the remarkable developments in this extraordinary land.
MONGOLIA TOP FIVE
1. Naadam Festival
Mongolians love their Naadam. With two or three days of serious wrestling action, awesome horse racing and dazzling archery, who wouldn’t? While naadam literally means games, the celebration is much more than that. It’s all about fun, getting together with friends and relatives, eating a lot of khuushuur (mutton pancakes) and emptying a bottle or two of vodka.
The most traditional festivals happen in small towns such as Khatgal in northern Mongolia, where every member of the community is somehow involved. These village naadams are photogenic – the burly wrestlers, sharp-eyed archers and tough jockeys make for quite a spectacle.
2. Staying in a ger
Of all the different types of domiciles, the Mongolian ger (traditional felt yurt) has to be one of the most useful, versatile and perfectly adapted for a nomadic family. An average ger weighs about 250kg and can be carried by two camels.
These days most families tend to hire a truck to transport their ger to a new location.
But while other traditions are fading, use of the ger is still common.
For travellers, a visit inside a ger is central to the Mongolian experience and a fascinating glimpse into the daily routines of a remarkable culture.
3. Horse riding
Mongolians have been traversing their country on horseback for thousands of years. You should do the same.
Short day rides are possible right around Ulaanbaatar – but the best areas are Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and Bogdkhan Uul Strictly Protected Area. Horse treks can be made at Khovsgol Nuur, the Darkhad Depression, Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area and Naiman Nuur.
It can take some getting used to the half-wild Mongolian horses. Fortunately, guides know their animals well – pay attention and follow their lead.
4. Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert is the most sparsely populated region of Mongolia and there are huge areas where the number of tourists can be counted on one hand. Colossal dunes, ice-filled canyons, dinosaur fossils and the promise of camel treks ensure almost every tour company runs trips here. A recent explosion of Gobi ger camps means you’ll never have to rough it if you don’t want to, although staying with a camel herdsman is half the fun.
5. Mongolian hospitality
It may sound cliched, but the truth is you won’t find a more hospitable people. A culture of hospitality makes locals more accessible. Centuries of nomadic living have given Mongolians a natural bond with travellers. Breakdown in the countryside, and the next driver will stop to help. Stuck for a room, and a family can often find you a bed. Stop at a ger for directions and you’ll end up with tea, snacks and a glimpse into the daily routines of a remarkable culture.
This is an edited extract from Lonely Planet Mongolia (7th Edition) by Michael Kohn, et al. © Lonely Planet 2014. Published this month, $38.99
When to Go
High Season (Jun-Aug): Expect warm and mostly dry weather in June and July, with some storms. Late August sees cooler temperatures, more rain. Book early for Naadam.
Shoulder (May and Sept): Some ger (yurt) camps may be closed. Weather can be changeable so plan for a cold snap. Fewer tourists.
Low (Oct-Apr): Most ger camps and some guesthouses close; discounts available. Frigid in December-January, air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. Winds and dust storms March-April.
Flights to Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan airport can be pricey.
Main carriers are MIAT, Air China, Korean Air, Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot.
National Tourism Centre mongoliatourism.gov.mn
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