Beyond the steppe: Travelling in Mongolia

Mongolia can seem intimidating to outsiders, but know where to look and you’ll find a surprisingly hospitable tourist destination

Image: Koryo Tours
What is it… A vast country leaves the beaten track nothing but a distant memory
Why go… For nomads, yaks and stunning scenery
Getting there… Return flights from Beijing to Ulaanbataar start at 2,000RMB on Ctrip. Individual travel outside the capital is difficult, and reliant on a local fixer. For safe, reliable and adventurous tours, an expert tour company such as Koryo Tours is a better choice; group and private tours can be arranged.


Downtown Ulaanbaatar. Image: Zazaa Mongolia via Wikimedia Commons

The capital and natural launchpad for an exploration of Mongolia is Ulaanbaatar – a city with the ominous title of being the world’s coldest capital, where temperatures can drop as low as -45 degrees Celsius. It’s home to 1.3 million people, or roughly a third of Mongolia’s total population, in a nation where, across 1.5 million square kilometres of rugged expanses, sheep outnumber people 35 to one. Here in the capital though, you’ll find more sheep on your dinner plates than roaming wild and free.

The city sees old and new mixed together with no real rhyme or reason, so you’ll see Soviet-style architecture squashed between modern high-rises, before turning a corner to find historic grand theatres and small alleyways of local shops. The best place to see traditional Mongolian architecture in all its glory, however, is around the main Chinggis Khan Square.

Sükhbaatar Square
Otherwise known as Chinggis Khan Square, the confusion surrounding the name of Mongolia’s central square has reigned since 2013 when it was given the name in honour of Genghis Khan, considered by most Mongolians as the nation’s founding father. But after some debate, it was changed back to Sükhbaatar Square in 2016, due to the fact that most places had the name Chinghis or Khan in their title already.

Image: Zazaa Mongolia via Wikimedia Commons

Visit during a national festival, and the square will be full of music and fireworks, or ice sculptures in winter. At the northern end is the Government Palace, marked by a giant Chinggis Khan statue flanked by his son Ögedei Khan and grandson Kublai Khan. They're fairly bold monuments, but that’s before you even get to the imperious statue at the centre of the square – that of Damdin Sükhbaatar, seen as the father of Mongolia’s revolution.

Gandantegchinlen Monastery
Visit early to make the most of the holy atmosphere at this Buddhist site, which was erected in 1809 and has since survived fires, wars and Soviet purges. Sit with locals to watch the monks chanting, then wander further in to find the giant statue of Avalokiteśvara, which stands at 26.5 metres from its jewelled base. There is a small fee to take a photograph.

Narantuul Market
Whether it’s horse saddles, ger tents, fake military clothing or local jewellery you’re after, the sprawling Narantuul is the place to shop. The bazaar is around a 15-minute ride east of Sükhbaatar Square, or 25-minutes from the Gandantegchinlen Monastery in the city centre’s western side.

Beyond Ulaanbaatar

_007_Kazakh Eagle Hunter
Image: Koryo Tours

Nomadic life
One of the most popular experiences for visitors to Mongolia is to stay in a traditional ger, the round tents that nomadic families live in. There are some families based within an hour’s drive of Ulaanbaatar who will host tourists, but for the real deal, hire a driver to take your further afield – in any direction – where you will find families happy to have you stay for a night in exchange for a small gift such as flour, eggs and a toy for the children. Out in the Gobi, ger camps are scattered and, if travelling solo, you will be very reliant on your local fixer or driver to get you to one.

tourist ger camp in the Gobi
Ger camp for tourists. Image: Koryo Tours

Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
If you haven’t got your fill of statues in Ulaanbaatar, then head to this even more grandiose Chinggis statue for more monumental bliss. Located one-and-a-half hours from the capital, you’ll either need to join a tour or hire a driver to visit this famous site. The main statue in the complex is a 43-metre whopper of the man himself, astride a horse and pointing eastwards, towards his birthplace. As well as the statue, there is an impressive history museum with artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age.

Image: Zazaa Mongolida via Wikimedia Commons

Gobi Desert
Even further afield than the grasslands lies the vast Gobi Desert. The name evokes images of barren wastelands, sand dunes, canyons and dinosaur fossils; whilst all of this is true, the area is also rich in human history and home to a diverse ecosystem. The Bayanzag red sand cliffs, also known as the ‘flaming cliffs’ due to their rich colours, are located about 100km from Dalanzadgad. These beautiful cliffs are best seen in the changing lights of sunrise or sunset.

When to go

Mongolia has four distinct seasons with a huge variation between summer and winter: winter temperatures may drop as low as -40 degrees Celsius, whilst the summer can reach over 40.

Spring brings in the New Year, with Mongolians celebrating the end of winter with Tsagaan Sar, the Lunar New Year. Weather-wise, it’s a pleasant time to visit with an average temperature of 12 degrees Celsius, but many business and families will be gone for the holidays. Summer is the time for scorching weather and Naadam festival, where Mongolians celebrate with the ‘three manly games’ of archery, wrestling and horse racing.

Autumn is a short transition period from summer to winter, but is a beautiful time to see the colours change across the country. Winter is when life becomes tough as the mercury drops, but it is also a chance to visit Mongolia with few other tourists, unbelievable frozen sceneries and, for the super hardy, the first ever Ice Marathon, which will take place on March 16, organised by Koryo Tours. Runners will race across the frozen Lake Khuvsgul for a 10km, half or full marathon distance, finishing in heated ger.

By Rich Beal

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