It doesn’t get more rugged and remote than Mongolia. The country is sparsely populated, with only 2 million people living in an area 2.5 times the size of France. It occupies a space between northern China and desolate Siberia. The geography of the country is steppes and one part Gobi Desert. It’s hard not to think of Ghengis Khan when imagining the Mongolian steppes and to this day, Mongolians remain predominantly nomadic. The capital and only large city in the country is Ulaanbaatar.
Most travelers arrive to Mongolia via the Trans-Siberian Railway. This train stretches all the way from Moscow, across Russia, through Mongolia and into Beijing. The total distance of the trip is almost 6,000 miles! In Mongolia the train stops at Sainshand in the Gobi Desert and at Ulaanbaatar. It is an overnight trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and a two day trip from Ulaanabaatar to the first destination in Siberia, Irkutsk.
[Also see "Four Weeks on the Trans-Siberian Railway"]
Step Into The Steppes
More than 40% of Mongolians live in large tents called gers (sometimes known as yurts). Most gers are occupied by nomads and located on the steppes. The nomads relocate seasonally to find the best grazing for their livestock and as such the ger provides them with much needed mobility. A great way for tourists to experience Mongolia and its lifestyle is to stay in a ger camp. Activities at the camps include archery, horseback riding and overland trips to visit real life nomads! Because Mongolia is at a high elevation and far removed from major sources of light pollution, it is one of the world’s best places for stargazing. So keep an eye to the sky!
The Desert of the Shadow of the Rain
The Gobi Desert, created by the blocking of rain carrying clouds by the Himalayan mountain range, is the largest desert in Asia and one of the largest in the world. The Gobi Desert encompasses a large portion of the southern part of Outer Mongolia and extends well into Inner Mongolia (People’s Republic of China).
The desert can be seen from Trans Siberian train as it takes a scenic route through the desert on its way between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The desert’s sweeping, massive sand dunes are quite a sight. For those wishing to explore the desert, a good jumping off point is the town of Sainshand. From here there are tour operators offering jeep expeditions to some of the remote parts of the desert.
Stay Cultured in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s capital and only large city. More than 40% of the country resides in the city, though not always in ways you would expect. Gers located in permanent plots are a common sight on the outskirts of the city. That said, most people in Ulaanbaatar living in apartment blocks that were built during the time of Soviet influence. Ulaanbaatar is almost always visited by tourists to the country, as it’s the location of the country’s international airport and a major stopping point on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
While tourists usually view the city as a transit point, there are some entertaining activities as well. For instance, the State Opera has regular performances of traditional Mongolian dancing and throat singing. There are also some nice Buddhist temples in the city. Buddhism in Mongolia is very similar to the strand of Buddhism in Tibet, so the temples often have prayer wheels and flags. Sükhbaatar Square, the city’s central square, is home to the country’s parliament and a large statue of Ghenghis Khan.
Why You’ve Never Been To Mongolia
Because your desire to live in a tent just isn’t strong enough.
What Else Is There To Do
Visit during the Naadam Festival (July 11th-13th) and watch the colorful displays of Mongolia’s national sports: wrestling, archery and horse racing. Otherwise check out the northern and western parts of the country and their mountainous alpine landscapes. Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in particular is quite stunning.
How To Get Here
If you don’t have time for the Trans-Siberian Railway, it’s possible to fly into Ulaanbaatar from China, Russia, Japan, and Korea.
When To Go
The weather in Mongolia can be frigid, so it’s best to come during the summer months. May and September are also acceptable and tourist activities will be less crowded.
What To Do After Mongolia
Depending on which direction you’re traveling, you can continue onwards via train to Irkutsk in Siberia (2 nights) or to Beijing in China (overnight).