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Mongolia Travel Destination Information

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ULAANBAATAR

When an essentially nomadic people set out to build a capital, they aren't likely to end up with something resembling New York. Add some Stalinesque concrete housing structures and you know you're not in Paris. Still, Ulaanbaatar is much more charming and cosmopolitan than most people realize.

It is not only a great place to use as a base for trips to the countryside, it is well worth exploring in its own right. Its museums provide a structured insight into Mongolian culture and history that you won't find elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, many a visitor is bowled over at the number of high-end restaurants serving up international cuisine of all varieties found in the capital. Comfortable hotels of international standard featuring all mod cons also abound, in contrast to the gers of the countryside. Ulaanbaatar thus makes for a great place to regroup from a trip to Mongolia and its further reaches.

Museums

Visit the Museum of Natural History for a look at the impressive collection of dinosaur fossils, and exhibits on Mongolian flora and fauna. For carvings, paintings and other works of art head to the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts. Be sure to see the painting by Sharav entitled "A Day in Life," an epic mural depicting many scenes from Mongolian daily life that is as dear to Mongolians as the David is to Italians. Also housed in the museum is a gallery of contemporary Mongolian artists' works for sale The National Museum of Mongolian History is a must-see on your Mongolia tour for a deeper understanding of pastoral livelihoods and nomadic life, as well as the different ethnic groups inhabiting the land. A superb collection of traditional ethnic minority dress is well organized. The Mongolian Art Gallery supports an outstanding collection of modern Mongolian paintings and sculptures, with descriptions subtitled in English.

Monasteries

Buddhism was hit hard in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Thousands of lamas (Buddhist monks) were killed, and most monasteries destroyed, and any leftover mangled metal was sent to Leningrad to be melted down for bullet production. The few monasteries that survived are well worth a visit during your Mongolia trip. See the Gandan Hiid, the country's most important monastery, which houses a recently rebuilt 75-foot copper and gold Buddha statue covered in precious stones. The Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan is also worth exploring, as is the Choijin Lama Monastery Museum, spared destruction to serve as a reminder of the "degenerate" ways of the feudal past.

A day trip to Bogd Mountain National Park is a great way to enjoy the lovely nature and wildlife to be found near the capital, but it's also the site of the Manzshir Monastery, spectacularly set overlooking a gorgeous tree-covered valley studded with granite outcroppings. The monastery itself lies in partial ruins, but is currently undergoing restoration. It is sometimes possible to spot small herds of elk in this area.

Naadam Festival

In mid-July, the country celebrates its independence and its rich cultural heritage with three days of sports and revelry during this renowned Mongolia festival. The distinctly Mongolian feel and flair of the Naadam Festival make it a wonderful spectacle, a joyous time, and an intriguing cultural event.

Colorful ceremonies and parading soldiers kick off the celebrations. The ancient game of wrestling follows, with men competing in many rounds of competition. Both men and women compete in the archery games, using the traditional Mongolian compound bow that terrorized Europe when Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde moved their empire west. The quintessentially Mongolian art of horse racing follows, where up to 800 horses compete, jockeyed by children so that the skill of the horse, and not the rider, is tested.

AROUND ULAANBAATAR

Jalman Meadows

Seventy-five miles northeast of Ulaanbaatar is the Jalman Meadows Ger Camp next to the Tuul River. Hiking and horseback riding are excellent. This is perhaps the best area for yak trekking, so exciting day or overnight camping outings can be made in a very scenic and untouristed area. Stay in a ger camp for an authentic Mongolia travel experience.

GOBI DESERT

Straddling Central Asia, spliced between Siberia and the vast steppes of central Asia to the north and China to the south, lies the Gobi Desert, one of the most mysterious and intriguing of all the world's arid lands.

Moonscapes, burnt red cliffs and the amazing Khongoryn Els sand dunes stretching to the horizon may all be found, but the Gobi is also alive with wildlife, particularly in September when the heat of summer begins to subside.  You'll very likely see antelope, wild ass, gazelle, and more than 200 species of bird inhabiting the park, including cranes and raptors. A short flight from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad is the best way to access the Gobi when touring Mongolia.

Fossil Sites

In Gurvansaikhan National Park take a trip to the world-renowned Flaming Cliffs, where evidence of a flourishing Late Cretaceous Age may be experienced firsthand. Considered by many paleontologists to be the mecca of the fossil world, it's a must-see for the enthusiast or casual observer alike. A guided dig may be arranged for the serious student of paleontology.

Arburd Sands

Ninety miles south of Ulaanbaatar you'll encounter steppes, sand dunes and Gobi rock formations, and many nomads with livestock. For a quintessential Mongolia travel experience, stay at a ger camp and enjoy some of the best horse riding in the country. The local family belongs to one of the most famous horse-trainer families in Mongolia, and can give time-tested tips on horsemanship to the eager rider.

Altai Mountains

Where the Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountains meet, a unique ecosystem provides a habitat for wolves, pallas cat, gazelle, ibex, argali, wild ass a variety of raptors, and most importantly, the snow leopard. An expert Mongolia travel guide may be arranged to track this beautiful and, sadly, very endangered animal in the hopes of a glimpse. (Please note that the chances of actually seeing a snow leopard in the wild are extremely remote, and that custom travel in this area may not always be available. Call your Travel Specialist for details.)

Camel Trekking

It's possible to take a day or multi-day camel-supported trek through various areas of the Gobi, alternately walking and riding. They're smelly, ornery and belligerent-you've got to try it! By employing this ancient means of transport you'll be stepping back in time and experiencing an exceptional insight into a way of life that has endured for centuries on the steppes of Central Asia. Stay in gers, welcomed by the locals, or camp under the stars for a truly remarkable Mongolia travel adventure.

LAKE KHOvSGOL (HOVSGOL)

To the north the Lake Khovsgol area is pristine, quiet and surprisingly lush, hosting an eco-system in stark contrast to the deserts and wind-swept plains that characterize so much of Mongolia. Don't miss Uushigiin Uver, a Bronze-age burial site-the beautifully carved deerstones set on a stark plain are an enigma reminiscent of Stonehenge or Easter Island.  As one heads into Lake Khovsgol National Park the wide-open steppe gives way to forests of Siberian larch.

The lake is vast and awe-inspiring, the world's 14th largest source of fresh water. This is the land of the nomadic reindeer herders, the Tsaatan people, who subsist on milk and meat from their animals and who migrate thorough the area in the summer months, using reindeer as beasts of burden. Living in teepees, their ways of life are akin to that of native North Americans: fascinating insights into human migration and anthropology may be gleaned from travels in this area. Excellent opportunities abound for hiking, fishing, horseback riding and sea kayaking, as well as visiting with the various local herding cultures residing in the area in the summer.

Fly Fishing

Mongolia is home to some of the most unspoiled rivers and lakes in the world, and its pristine waters are absolutely teeming with fish. This is strictly catch and release fishing, with concern for sustainable ecosystems the modus operandi. The Lake Khovsgol area is the haunt of the cognoscenti.

Hustai national park

Aceess Hustai National Park via the Khongno Khan Mountain ranges. This national park is perched along rolling steppes with small mountains and large patches of birch and aspen forests. Visible remains of Neolithic graves dot the slopes. Roaming the park are populations of elk and wolf, as well as Mongolian gazelle.

Take a game drive during your Mongolia tour to see takhi horses (also rather oddly known as the Przewalskii horse for the Polish explorer who "discovered" them in the 19th century). This is an ancient wild horse species that was nearly extinct but is now being reintroduced into the wild. It has 66 pairs of chromosomes, just like zebras (unlike domestic horses that have 64 pairs). Unlike the American Mustang, which are actually feral horses descended from escaped domesticated horses, the takhi horse has never been domesticated and is in fact the world's only remaining truly wild horse.

KHARKHORin (Ancient Karakorum)

When Genghis Khan needed a capital for his new empire in 1220, he founded Karakorum (not to be confused with the Karakorum mountain range nearly 3,000 miles to the southwest). The quintessential mysterious city of untold treasures, it lies in ruins today and bears little resemblance today to Marco Polo's depiction of a place endowed with marvelous architecture and fabulous wealth.

However, it is of such historic note that a visit during your Mongolia trip is worthwhile. Access to the site is through the nearby modern city of Kharkhorin.

The rocks that built the ancient city have been carted off to buil the fabulous nearby monastery, the Erdenezuu Hiid (Hundred Treasures Monastery), the first center of Lamaism in the land.

Erdenezuu Hiid

Mongolia's rich Tibetan-Buddhist tradition will come alive to the traveler who ventures into central Mongolia to see this monastery. Vandalized by the Chinese after the fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and tragically further destroyed by the Communists centuries later, it is still a wonderful structure housing many treasures, some of which were hidden for decades in the surrounding countryside. One is left to speculate how extraordinary the monastery, and city, must have been in their prime. Buddhism is currently enjoying a resurgence, as Mongolians reclaim their spiritual heritage, so the Monastery has once again assumed its historically important role.