Vast, rugged, and wild: Mongolia is home to some of the last pockets of wilderness in Asia. The country is covered by endless steppes, imposing mountains, and massive deserts. In a country like this, you can go for hundreds of miles without seeing any civilization – just raw, unspoiled nature at its best. And that is indeed Mongolia’s biggest draw.
On my “Nomadic Mongolia” tour with G Adventures, I spent two weeks exploring the central region of the country and getting a taste of its wilderness. After just a day in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, we left civilization behind and headed into the backcountry, first to Yolyn Am National Park in the south, on to the Gobi Desert in the southwest, and eventually the Tsenger hot springs in the north.
Each part of Mongolia gave me different perspectives and experiences. Here are five of my favorite ones:
1. Camping with a nomadic family
For over 3,000 years, the people of Mongolia have led a nomadic way of life, moving in search of better pastures for their livestock. Today, half of them continue to roam the vast steppe and live the way their ancestors did. During my trip, we got to stay with a nomadic family to learn more about them and their way of life. Our host family welcomed us with rounds of traditional local firewater, airag (fermented mare’s milk), and shared with us their local traditions and practices. We spent the afternoon farming with them and playing with their children before feasting on a traditional Mongolian barbeque and chatting into the night. The experience turned out to be the highlight of my trip and I can’t recommend it enough.
2. Climbing sand dunes and riding camel in the Gobi Desert
The southern part of Mongolia is dominated by the Gobi Desert, the third-largest desert in the world. We had the chance to climb Khongoriin Els, also known as “singing sands” because of the music the sand makes as it moves with the wind. Getting up there wasn’t easy, but it was well worth it once we saw the amazing view awaiting at the top of the dunes. From above, we could see the entire desert as well as the lush green oasis at the base and the mountains in the far distance. Once we got back to the base of the dunes, we took a camel ride through the oasis and lagoons, giving us a different perspective of the Gobi.
3. Hiking Yolyn Am Canyon
After days of driving through empty steppe and grasslands, I was pleasantly surprised by Yolyn Am, a narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikan Mountains. Translated to mean “Valley of the Eagles,” Yolyn Am is an excellent place to observe vultures, wild Argali sheep and golden eagles. It’s also famous for the deep ice field that forms in winter and remain well into summer. (It had melted by the time we got there in August.) The hiking trail that weaves through the gorge is still gorgeous in summertime, flanked by colourful flowers and rocky outcrops.
4. Catching sunset at the Flaming Cliffs
Near Yolyn Am is another spot worth visiting: The Flaming Cliffs. Known locally as Bayanzag, this is an important paleontological site where the first discovery of dinosaur eggs was made. It was given its name by American paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews who came here in the 1920s. Besides the scientific significance, this area is also exceptionally stunning during sunset. As the name implies, the cliffs look as though they’ve been set ablaze in the evening when the red sandstone turns bright orange with the sun’s rays.
5. Learning Mongolian history and culture in Kharkorin
For culture vultures, you can’t miss out on Kharkorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia established by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. I recommend visiting the nearby Erdene Zuu Khiid, the oldest surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It’s impressive not just for its rich history but also for its architecture – the big complex is made up of a series of stupas, temples, and prayer halls decorated with Chinese porcelain tiles and golden Buddha statues. The Karakorum Museum next to it is modern and well-equipped, with a generous array of artefacts from the ancient city on display.
AN ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCE: Staying in a ger On this trip, we spent most nights in gers, large traditional Mongolian tents made with wooden frames and insulated with layers of felt. The ger camps that we stayed at were very comfortable and equipped with electricity, toilets, showers, and central stoves, as well as proper wooden beds. Most days were spent exploring the outdoors before arriving at the ger camps in the afternoon in time for a shower and dinner. Long evenings were then spent chatting with fellow travelers, drinking Mongolian vodka under the stars and creating some of my favourite memories on the trip.
Want to experience Mongolia for yourself? Join us on the Nomadic Mongolia tour. Choose from wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.