The highlight of Mongolia’s northern provinces, an alpine region bordering the forests of Siberia, is the pristine Lake Hovsgol, known as Mongolia’s “dark blue pearl.” Believed to be several million years old, Mongolia’s deepest freshwater lake is surrounded by dozens of small rivers and streams that empty into its waters, pristine taiga forest, and valleys and meadows rich with wildflowers.
Visit Mongolia during the summer and the lake is ideal for kayaking, camping, and birding. Visit Mongolia during the winter months when snow blankets the wilderness and the lake freezes over and have the opportunity to enjoy the celebrations and competitions of the Ice Festival.
A visit to Northern Mongolia is also an excellent destination for horse trekking, hiking, and fishing. Darkhad, an area containing hundreds of small lakes and streams, is where anglers can catch the world’s largest salmonid, enormous taimen weighing up to 200 pounds. Travelers are unlikely to encounter the brown bears and wolves that roam the forests, but elk and moose are among the less elusive wildlife that may be seen near Lake Hovsgol, while a wide variety of bird life can be spotted throughout the region.
Northern Mongolia tours offer a chance to see a large population of reindeer. Among the nomadic peoples who inhabit Mongolia’s northern forests and steppe are the Tsaatan, members of a small Tuvinian ethnic group who have herded domesticated reindeer for centuries. The culture of these herdsmen has changed little since the Ice Age, and like many of Mongolia’s nomads, and particularly those in the north, shamanism plays an important role in their lives.
Western Mongolia tours offer some of Asia’s most beautiful and unspoiled wilderness, where the snow-capped Altai Mountains tower above remote forests, lakes, and rivers. Teeming with wildlife, including endangered snow leopards and antelope, this region contains the most impressive of Mongolia’s mountain scenery, and is a prime destination for adventurous climbers and hikers.
The Altai are also the place to experience some of Mongolia’s most fascinating cultures. Bayan-Ulgii Province, which borders Russia and China, is home to a diverse population whose traditional ways of life have been preserved in these isolated mountains for centuries. Among these is Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, the Kazakhs whose ancestors migrated to the area in the 1800s, and whose proud tradition of hunting with trained eagles is celebrated annually at the renowned Golden Eagle Festival. Also known for their exquisite embroidery and the fine tapestries and carpets they produce, these Muslim nomads live alongside the Uriankhai, famous for their archery skills, and other nomadic groups such as the Uuld, whose colorful traditional dress is unique to this part of Mongolia.
Visitors with an interest in Central Asia’s ancient history are drawn by the burial markers and mysterious “stone men” found throughout the province, monuments to the tribes who roamed the Altai in ancient times. The frozen remains of a Scythian warrior were recently found near Altai Tavan Bogd Park, and a wealth of prehistoric rock paintings have been discovered in the caves and mountains of Mongolia’s wild west.
Central and Eastern Mongolia
Central Mongolia is where most visitors begin their adventures, arriving byplane or rail in Ulaanbaatar. The nation’s capital and largest city, Ulaanbaatar contains an intriguing combination of the traditional and modern, where nomads’ gers and wooden temples sit side by side with concrete apartment buildings and modern high-rises.
The Gandan Monastery, priceless Buddhist treasures on display at the fine arts museum, and the natural history museum’s impressive dinosaur hall are but a few of the capital’s highlights. Another is Bogd Khan, a holy mountain that has been protected from logging and hunting since the 13th century, making it one of the Earth’s oldest national parks.
The steppes of Central Mongolia, beginning only a short distance from the avenues of Ulaanbaatar, are home to many of the nomadic families who travel the plains with their livestock, as well as small towns and ger settlements. However, like much of Mongolia, most of the region is characterized by seemingly endless expanses of uninhabited countryside.
Two of Mongolia’s most celebrated national parks, Hustain and Gorkhi-Terelj, are within short drives of the capital, encompassing vast preserves where a wide range of wildlife roam the grasslands, forests, and mountains. Among these is the takhi, the world’s last surviving species of wild horse, as well as brown bear, elk, and moose.
Two hundred kilometers north of Ulaanbaatar, Hagiin Har Lake is one of Mongolia’s best-kept secrets. Inaccessible by road, this idyllic spot in the Han Hentii Mountains lies hidden withina wilderness of coniferous forest and hills crossed by clear mountain streams.
In addition to its natural wonders, there are many historical sights to be explored in Mongolia’s heartland, particularly in the Orkhon River Valley, which contains archaeological remains dating back several centuries. Few traces remain of Kharakhorum, the 13th-century capital of the Mongol Empire, but the nearby temple of Erdene Zuu was reputedly built from its ruins. The wall surrounding this vast monastery complex, which houses spectacular Buddhist art and architecture, is made up of over a hundred white stupas.
Trips to Mongolia
Across Mongolia in 20 Days
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Across Mongolian Plains
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