A vast landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China, Mongolia is one of the few societies left on Earth where a large portion of the population actively practices a nomadic lifestyle. Living in temporary structures called gers or yurts, they move with their herds, searching for the best grazing land in the vast rolling grasslands of this nation’s vast hinterland, and for a sheltered location to hunker down in during the harsh, long Mongolian winters.
Yet despite possessing one of the lowest population densities of any independent nation in the world, Mongolia is experiencing a shift towards modernization, at least in the cities and towns across the country, where approximately half of its 2.7 million people live. Compounding the shift towards urban living in Mongolia are the recent bitterly cold winters, which had taken many of the tribes in the countryside by surprise, wiping out some of their herds. This has led to these people seeking a new start in their lives in the cities, with the capital Ulaanbaatar receiving a particularly large influx of new migrants.
The economy is also expanding rapidly here, as the global demand for minerals has reached a fever pitch. Mining companies have piled into Mongolia, in search of abundant deposits of gold, copper, coal, and rare earth elements that rapidly growing economies are gobbling up in record amounts, with China leading the charge.
As such, the nomadic charm that Mongolia possesses, while still present, is beginning to diminish, as changes being brought about by modernizing forces are starting to chip away at this nation’s greatest cultural resource. Therefore, make travelling to this physically stunning and friendly country a top priority on your travel bucket list, as the winds of change wait for nobody, no matter how precious the destination.
Currency: Mongolian Tughrik
Languages: Khalkha Mongol, Turkic, Russian
What To Do
If you arrive in Mongolia by air, you will be starting your explorations of Mongolia in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Begin your sightseeing by checking out the Gandan Monastery. Home to 5,000 monks practicing the Tibetan form of Buddhism, there is a recent reconstruction of a giant Buddha statue, which had been dismantled by the Soviet Communist forces in 1938, which later provided the metal that went into the creation of ammunition during the siege of Leningrad during World War II.
Staying on the subject of significant Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia, one that you should not miss if you are a temple person is the Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Located out in the steppes of Northern Mongolia, this isolated sanctuary serves as the final resting place of the first spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism in this part of East Asia. Situated 70 kilometres from the town of Darkhan, it takes 3-4 days to reach, testifying to the primitive nature of the roads. However, the slow pace will allow to you admire the large rolling hills of the Mongolian outback, cross pure, untainted rivers, and the homely nature of the nomads out here, as your final approach to temple will be on horseback. How’s that for an adventure?
A nation borne under the uniting influence of the mighty Genghis Khan, the one monument that you should see before departing Mongolia is the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue, located on the Tuul River near the town of Erdene. This colossal statue stands 40 metres high and points eastward towards his birthplace. According to legend, it is said that Genghis found a golden whip lying on the ground. It is not known whether or not this inspired him on to found the empire that would dominate much of Central Asia for years, but the grandeur of this point of interest makes it worth seeing in and of itself.
To explore the city where the man himself was born and raised, make for the ancient city of Kahrakorum. Here, you can wander around the remains of the former capital of the old Mongol empire. There is an assortment of Buddhist temples, monasteries, and ruins that are being actively being picked over by archeologists to this day, so don’t be afraid to go up to these culturally attuned folks and say hello!
One of the many ways that Mongolians sustain themselves from year to year is through the profession of reindeer herding. Making a trek out to see these resourceful nomads in action is a cultural education in itself, as you will likely be invited to aid them in their day to day rounds, from milking the reindeer cows to chopping firewood. To get to these camps, you may have to actually ride a reindeer into the area. Hey, if Santa can tough it out, certainly you can, right? 🙂
Finally, Mongolia contains a healthy chunk of the Gobi Desert, which can make for some fantastic adventures for the active traveler. Tour sand dunes, oases, and keep your eye open for many native species of desert animals, including the endangered snow leopard!
What To Eat
Before you get excited about getting to try some authentic Mongolian BBQ in Mongolia, know that this kind of food is intensely westernized, and bears almost no resemblance with actual authentic Mongolian food. Also, Mongolian cuisine is almost entirely meat-focused, so vegetarians may have their resolve pushed to the limit in this country. Now that we have those disclaimers out of the way, let’s discuss the finer points of the palate of this nomadic country.
The most common food that your average Mongolian consumes is cooked mutton (sheep meat), often contained within a steamed dumpling known as a buuz. There are roadside restaurants throughout the vast Mongolian countryside that offer these doughy, meaty treats, so if you take a liking to them, you should able to find them with ease.
Those that prefer their mutton is stew or soup form will be looking to consume either budaatai huurga (stew) or guriltai shol (soup). These meals are often supplemented with rice and fresh noodles, making them a better solution for those looking to fuel up rather than snack to quell their hunger.
Finally, the truly courageous should try a little boodog. For this, your Mongolian hosts will go out and shoot a marmot or a goat. After this, they will cut open the animal, and using preheated stones from the fire, they will insert them into the animal’s stomach, cooking the carcass from the inside out. Vegetables such as onions are thrown into the cooking animal, and the fur is blowtorched off the exterior of the dead creature. Once the fat of the innards starts to leach through the skin, your boodog is now ready to consume. Bon appetit!