Nearly 90 percent of tourists coming to Mongolia visit Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, where 40 percent of the country’s population resides. Ulaanbaatar is a rapidly developing, fast changing city with an exciting folk, classical and modern cultural life. Theaters, museums, galleries, shops, clubs, parks are favorite places for the city’s guests and youth, and the cuisine choices will remind you that Ulaanbaatar is a truly an intersection of East and West.
Ulaanbaatar is a historic place. The Tuul River’s willow forests was famously mentioned several times in the Secret History of the Mongols, the 13th century account of Mongol history, and it was said that a young Temuujin (later Chinggis Khan) visited this area to ask for his first military assistance from Van Khan Tooril when his wife Borte was kidnapped by the Mergid tribesmen. A remain of what may be Van Khan Tooril’s palace is located in Khan-Uul district of Ulaanbaatar and has not yet been fully studied.
Ulaanbaatar was historically a nomadic city and home of Mongolia’s last religious and state ruler, Bogd Khaan Javzundamba. Until it was named Ulaanbaatar, it went by many different names through an interesting history of which you can learn from the Ulaanbaatar City Museum and Bogd Khaan Palace Museum and Bogd’sKhaan’s brother- Chojin Lama Museum.
One of Ulaanbaatar’s cultural heritage sites is Gandan Monastery. Its daily religious activities can be observed.There are, as well, as many other Buddhist, Shamanist and religious and worship ceremonies conducted in the city. Today, as always in Mongolia’s history, religious tolerance is practiced.
A visitor who comes for a few days of business can still find plenty of countryside experience right outside Ulaanbaatar. The horse race area of Ulaanbaatar is a nomadic open space called HuiDoloonHudag. During the naadam days, this empty steppe turns into a lively thriving tent-city where thousands of horsemen and horse-boys become the center of attention. The temporary city will have all the necessary services and cultural shows for the naadam viewers’ needs, but it will disappear before your eyes as soon as the naadam days end. Like a magic, the HuiDoloonHudag will again become open grassland. This is the nomadic feature of Ulaanbaatar. And HuiDoloonHudag is open for anyone to organize festivals and events. The Mongol Naadam Company of Ulaanbaatar city manages this open space.
Other countryside experiences are found in 20-50 kilometers radius outside Ulaanbaatar. The most famous places are Gorhi-Terelj National Park area (plenty of tourism camps and attractions there), Manzushir monastery, and tour camps in the west, north and south-west directions of the city that are reach-able in less than 2 hours.
A famous day-tour out of Ulaanbaatar is a visit to the giant Chinggis Khan monument. The local name of the area is TsonjinBoldog, and this steel monument of the mounted Khan is frequently featured in news about Mongolia. It takes 8-10 hours to visit the Statue and come back to a downtown hotel. And that includes a visit to the impressive museum at the base of the monument.
Orkhon valley is a famous steppe encompassing territory of eight soums (counties) of two provinces- Uvurhangai and Arhangai. You can reach there by bus or car on a paved road. However, as you reach the main towns of Orkhon valley, relatively short, non-paved roads will take you to the cores of the nomadic culture.
The people of this valley are true to the nomadic heritage and many nomadic intangible heritages are kept and transmitted to the next generation in this valley. Orkhon valley and surrounding heritage were registered by UNESCO as a world heritage area. The tourism industry in this valley is developing with the understanding of the fragility of nomadic heritages and environment and the historic and cultural value of the area. When improving their services the industry team work together to stay true to the nomadic lifestyle and protection of the valley’s substantial cultural heritage.
Orkhon valley has hundreds of archeological sites. From ancient rock paintings to Monasteries, from the first written account of Turkik history to the ruins of Uigur palace, from Mongol Empire’s capital city ruins to Zanabazar’s art making escape temple, the valley’s people continue to honor and protect their nomadic heritage along with the heritage of all the past nomadic tribes and empires that once dominated Mongolia.
Because the valley is also the home of thousands of active herders, it is advisable to travel in this world heritage area via a tourism company so that you can be harmonious with the fragile steppe life and its resources.
Nature of Orkhon valley is striking and photogenic. The Orkhon River has sharp stony shores, a waterfall, canyons and prehistoric petroglyphs right along the shore. Even though the steppe is the dominant picture of the valley, mountains, rocks and forest suddenly change the view. There are many nomadic activities and day tours available in the valley including hikes or horseback rides into nearby pristine valleys and forests where you may find a herd of grazing yak.
Landscape and climate of the Gobi is generally understood as desert. But the Gobi is much more than a desert. The Gobi has rocks and mountains, rare trees and flowers, very rare birds and wildlife. The Gobi harbors valuable scientific information – famous paleontological finds including the first dinosaur egg and Tarbosaurbataar were discovered here. In today’s Mongolia, Gobi is an economically powerful region that brings big cash to the country’s budget. Most of Mongolia’s coal and copper export is being produced in areas of the Gobi while most remains remote and beautiful.
Reaching province centers of the Gobi is easy by plane or via paved roads.
The Gobi is a huge area involving territories of some eight out of 21 of Mongolia’s provinces. Much of the Gobi is state protected territory. For example, over 90 percent of Gobi-Altai province territory is a strictly protected area because it is home to rare wildlife such as snow leopards, wild camels, wild sheep, wild ass, ibex, argali (bighorn sheep), and the Gobi bear as well as many rare birds.
If you chose to travel to Gobi’s nomadic and unsettled areas, you should prepare your mood for a different measurement system- Gobi’s. If in your everyday life “nearby” means a 15-minute walk away, in the Gobi it will mean 20-30 kilometers or so.
The Bactrian camel is the dominant animal in the Gobi and you’ll have plenty of chances to photograph their amazingly noble poses. And you’ll have many camel riding opportunities, as well.
We strongly recommend you to have an official guide and a host company to travel to the Gobi as it is not easy to get around in the Gobi. There are many licensed tour companies. They are well spread out in the Gobi and where-ever you reach, you’ll find wonderful 360 degrees views for your relaxation.
Make sure you have an experienced driver from a tourism company or from Gobi itself. Non-Gobi drivers, do not drive well in the Gobi because of mirages that fool drivers.
On the furthest north of the country, there are famous travel destinations from Khuvsgul province. Lake Khuvsgul is Mongolia’s biggest pristine fresh water lake and it is the sister lake to Baikal across the border in Siberia. Many tourism camps are available at Lake Khuvsul national park area and the towns of Khatgal and Khanh. The region is known as the Switzerland of Mongolia with high, ice-capped mountains, beautiful lakes and vast forests of pine and fir.
Before 1990, the lake area was occupied by a wool cleaning factory and petroleum importing and waterway trade logistics factories. When the Lake was officially registered as the strictly protected National park in 1993, all the industries were forced to move out nearly bankrupting the local towns of Khatgal and Khanh.
Thanks to the tourism industry, the people of Khatgal and Khanh remained in their home towns. Local culture features area shamans. Khuvsul people worship nature and shamanistic culture – which is best preserved in this area. There are many tour camps and there’s a paved road to the lake from the town of Muren which is serviced by an airport.
Lake Khuvsgul is surrounded by the sharp peaks of the KhoridolSaridag mountain range on the west side and the thick forests of the Soyon mountains on the east side. The lake is overwhelmingly beautiful and water is so pure that locals drink it directly from the lake.
On the opposite side of KhoridolSaridagmountains, is the ‘Darkhad valley’. Travelling in the Darkhad valley to the Tsaatsan (reindeer herders) community on the north end of the valley will be an unforgettable experience. As to the nomadic part, you’ll see Darkhad’s famous white horses and yaks and the Tsaatan’s reindeer herds. Be sure to ride reindeer while visiting Tsaatsans.
Because the area is full of high mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, it is an adventure travelers’ heaven. The most famous season for locals is late August, as the valley’s forests produce all kinds of berries at this time. If you travel there during ‘berry season’, do not miss the local fresh wild berries. The Darkhad’s won’t eat more than one-day-old berries during this season.
100 kilometers west of Ulaanbaatar is Khustai Mountain National Park. The Park was established twenty years ago just for one type of horse: The Takhi, Mongolia’s native wild horse. Takhi means “worship worthy” in Mongolian. The Takhi’s scientific name is Przewalski’s Horse- the man who first described the horse for science during his late 19th century research in Mongolia.
The Taki went extinct in Mongolia in the 1960s, but survived in European zoos. When the park started its operation, only a few horses were brought back from a Netherlands zoo. Now Mongolia has over 300 Takhi thanks to the National Park. And the park’s protected wildlife is constantly increasing. Wolves, red deer (elk), fox, marmot, lynx and many other native species animals and birds found a safe home in Khustai National Park when development in Ulaanbaatar expanded into wild areas.
This is one of the key areas where local herders have to peacefully share their pasture, with wild animals. Another such area is in the Altai Mountains where local herders may not kill snow leopards even though the big cats occasionally take a herd animal. It is understood as a cost of herding nearby.
Wildlife watching in the Khustai Mountains plays important role to the local economy and environmental protection – more than compensating for the occasional loss of a herd animal. Takhi-watching is very popular for tourists during all seasons except spring. When baby horses are just born in the spring, the takhi herd is possessive and aggressive, as the wolves of the area actively hunt for baby animals. But during summer time, takhi life is much more peaceful. The most handsome takhi and deer population roam in Khustai Mountains during the winter time. Winter walks in the Khustai Mountains offers spectacular pictures of blue sky, white hills and fully fed thick-hair takhis and herds of majestic elk with their full antlers.
Traveling to Khustai Mountain is included in almost all tour packages offered by major tour operators of Mongolia. The Park administration and Khustai’s environmental NGOs recommend tourists to travel as groups guided by registered tourism companies so as not to disturb the area in unpatrolled locations. Khustai Park is also a major scientific research field for mountain-steppe fauna and flora.
When the Mongolian Ornithology Society conducted research to nominate the national bird of Mongolia, the majority of Bayan-Ulgii province survey participants voted for the Eagle. Even though the final result showed 95 percent support for the Saker Falcon, the Eagle remains one of the major stars of the Mongolian tourism sector especially in Bayan-Ulgii province.
Tourists come to Bayan-Ulgii to see a completely different side of Mongolia: Kazakh culture, Kazakh people’s lifestyle, Eagle festivals and the Eagle training culture. Bayan-Ulgii is also home for many Durved, Urianhai and Tuva people and many rare cultural heritages are being preserved there.
The province territory is filled with the spectacular High Altai Mountains and beautiful glacier-carved valleys. Tourism development is in its early stage in the province and most tourists visiting there dream to reach Tavan Bogd peak and the famous glacier rivers that slowly flow between the tops of the mountains down to the green valleys below.
Bayan-Ulgii, with its striking raw beauty, has been attracting artists, photographers, film makers, mountaineers and adventurous travelers, and is now becoming accessible to more and more tourists thanks to new paved roads and flights to the town of Ulgii. Local people are very hospitable as is the case in any other nomadic communities in Mongolia. There are many tourism companies that can take you to this far away but fascinating destination.
To have the best eagle photos, one can visit Bayan-Ulgii from October to early November. Eagles present their best feathers, best speed and best hunting skills before the prey animals hibernate. Consequently, the Kazakhs organize their coolest local festivals in October. March 22 is another important day for the Kazakh community as it is the Nauriz holiday that celebrates the beginning of spring.
This is a favorite destination for birders, wild life watchers, astronomy buffs and those who like big sky, 360 degree views, and a peaceful environment. Mega city dwellers come to the Eastern steppe of Mongolia to enjoy its endless horizons. One of the favorite activities of tourists in the eastern steppe is just to lie down on grass, open their arms, close their eyes and listen to the tweets of… no, not tweeters on internet… but real steppe birds.
Mongolia’s eastern steppe is the world’s largest wildlife preservation steppe area. The open steppe of Dornod and Sukhbaatar provinces harbor millions of gazelle, and thousands of other animals such as foxes and wolves.
Travelers will find horses and horse-riding at its best in the steppe. Horses of the steppe are the fastest and most alert. Therefore, eastern communities bring the best competitors to the State Naadam in Ulaanbaatar. Also, the steppe is the richest with its number of “human stones”, a nomadic archeological heritage that can be either a monument for a tribal leader or a celebration of an achievement. Most human stones date between the 3rd and 14th centuries.
The Eastern steppe is also famous for its small lakes where thousands of migratory birds gather during spring and autumn. One lake of Sukhbaatar province, Ganga, is called Swan Lake because more than ten thousand swans gather there every year to train their youngsters before a long migration over China and the Himalayas to reach South India.
Lake Ganga is the southernmost lake in Mongolia and the safest place for swans to train their youngsters because Mongolians do not hunt birds, and no one even touches a bird nest or the eggs of wild birds. Once trained over the Ganga Lake, the swans gathered from Siberia and Mongolia fly together at once one morning. Locals have a sad tale about those Swans: Every autumn they leave here in so many thousands. And every spring only half of them return. Killing swans in other countries on their way to and from Mongolia reduces their numbers each year.
To raise awareness of the swans, Sukhbaatar province named the swan as its Province Bird, and bird watchers from all over the country and abroad urge people to protect swans wherever they fly. Mongolian National Opera and Ballet Theater is planning to perform Tchaikovsky’s Swan lake ballet at Ganga lake and Sukhbaatar province is expected to announce the performance date soon.
Because Mongolia’s eastern steppe is enormous, travelling alone is not only risky for the traveler but also it could create a fire risk. Fast driving on steppe grassland is prohibited as the strong friction with rich grasses causes fire. Therefore, we strongly recommend you to use a tourism company service for this destination.
Ancient nomadic communities, tribes and empires created the tradition of worshipping a region’s the highest and most significant mountains. The worshiping includes not only an official ceremony, and a worship ceremony naadam, but also assures the permanent protection of the mountain. This intangible culture of worshiping significant mountains helped preserve the entire eco-systems around the sacred mountains, most importantly helped keep the water sources pure for the nomads.
Most rivers running over the territory of Mongolia and sustaining nomadic communities and towns, flow from a few significant mountains and the lakes that are walled by those mountains. Another reason to worship some mountains is local request. When gold, silver, diamonds, coal or other mineral deposits are discovered in the regions of important mountains, people insist on worshipping the mountains so as to protect the water sources from mining activities. Official lists of worshipped mountains can be compiled by the President of the country, or by Local Counsels (for local level worship).
There are ten national-level worshipped sacred mountains that are officially named by the decrees of the President of Mongolia:
Official worshipping ceremonies for each of these mountains are held once in every four years or thereabouts. The worshipping ceremonies are not open for tourists and only a few people established by protocol participate in the ceremonies. Following the ceremonies, small naadams are organized and those are open to the public. Because local people have worshipped sacred mountains for centuries, we advise tourists to not to break local taboos when traveling nearby the above mentioned sacred areas.
It is strongly recommended to retain the service of a Mongolian and/or Mongolia’s shareholding tourism company when travelling in national sacred areas in order to ensure that all local taboos are respected and practices honored.