Mongolia: A Destination Above the Rest

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Standing amid the vastness of the Mongolian steppes, where a pattern of contrasting greens extends in all directions to infinity, and where sunsets which rival the fires of distant volcanoes before surrendering to nights as still, deep, and awash in stars as the Milky Way itself is like no other experience on Earth. Such an experience, because of Mongolia’s isolation, had traditionally been shared by few outsiders; that, however, is beginning to change. That Mongolian Ministry of Tourism reports that for the year 2007, more than half a million tourists visited their country.

Yet time, in Mongolia, still often seems to move no more swiftly than the twin stone turtles which guard the boundaries of the Erdene Zu Buddhist monastery, built from the ruins of Chinggis Khan’s ancient capital city of Karakhorum. Karakhorum, set on the barren highlands at the crossroads of the legendary Silk Road, has more than one hundred other stupas, or Buddhist temples, and it’s  also the place where the Mongolian pavement ends.

Before you arrive at that point, however, your adventure in Mongolia will almost certainly begin two hundred miles (334 km) to the northeast, in the modern-day capital of Ulaanbaatar. Both  China Air and the Mongolian State Airline fly into and out of Ulaanbaatur. More succinctly known to Europeans as “UB,” Ulaanbaatar could not be more different from the nearly 1,60 0,000 square mil es of Mongolia wilds which surround it.

Those entering and leaving Ulaanbaatar are likely to receive a jolt of  culture shock, but “UB” is the “place to be” ifyou long for a taste of nightlife, a shopping spree, five-star cuisine, and some museum-hopping before striking out for the empty Mongolian countryside.

Even Ulaanbaatur has its share of peaceful places, with serene monastery courtyards set against the backdrop of the Four Holy Mountains and the gently meandering river, the Tuul Gol.  You’ll get a fascinating glimpse into the entire history of the Mongolian people from as early as the Stone Age until the 21st century by visiting the National Museum of Mongolian History.

Another must see is the Bogd Khaan Winter Place Museum, the home and monastery of the country’s final governmental and spiritual leader. Wherever you are in Ulaanbaatur, you will be able to see the high-rise Soviet-era apartment housing built between between 1925 and 1990.

From Ulaabaanturyou can arrange trips to many of Mongolia’s eighteen provinces In the Gobi Desert is about 375 (600km) miles to the south, you can visit the magical canyon  of Yolin Am in the Great Gobi National  Park.  Few sights in your life will astonish you as much as the sight of the frozen river, or Gobi Glacier, at the base of the canyon, which survives the desert heat until as late as August each year

If you have journeyed from Ulaanbaatur to Korakhorum and reached the end of the pavement, continuing on by  car will eventually lead you to the Great White Lake. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur). Here you can camp among the local population in a traditional tent known as a ger, designed with an interior central fire efficient enough to protect both man and beast from some of the coldest extremes found anywhere.  The fish are so abundant in this mountain lake that they attract seagulls from the ocean thousands of miles distant.  You can also hike a mile further to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.

Small and extremely sure-footed, no horses are as sturdy as Mongolian horses, and one of the best ways to immerse yourself in this amazing land is on the back on one of them. In the westernmost corner of Mongolia is the perfect place for your equestrian adventure, the hidden kingdom of the Altai Tayn Bogd National Park.

The home of meadows, lakes, forests, wetlands,  and glacial mountains, this  area of Mongolia is a study in eco-diversity. Its nearly 2500 mi2 (6500 km2) offers protection to many at-risk species, including Mongolia’s magnificent wild sheep, the argali, and the rare snow leopard.

Mongolia’s average one-mile (1580 meters) altitude  makes it one of the world’s highest countries, so you should acclimate yourself to heights before starting your trip. The best time to travel is between the months of June and September, when the cold Siberian wind is at its weakest, and the daytime temperature can climb close to 90°F (30°C). To be safe, pack what you’ll need in case of a surprise snowfall, which can happen at any season.

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