Image credit: CC BY-ND 2.0 (www.david baxendale.com, 2014; cropped and resized)
Deemed a boundless wilderness of craggy mountains, infinite deserts and expansive golden steppes, Mongolia remains an unchartered territory even to the seasoned traveller. Here, the scenery is at its rawest and features unspoiled countryside and bizarre abodes which seem to materialise in the horizon. There are galloping herds of horses everywhere and flocks of goats and sheep wander freely across the roads.
Visually, the sweeping landscapes are a delight to the eye, subtly changing their chromaticity from light brown to pale green to golden yellow as one progresses deeper into the country’s heart. But even more compelling is the heterogeneity of the topography, which boasts one of the world’s wildest mountain ranges with peaks reaching 4,000 metres, giving way to bucolic rolling grassland of steppes as well as the exotic Gobi desert and the otherworldly Siberian taiga forest. Welcome to the exotic land of Genghis Khan — where nature and wildlife have been intact for thousands of years.
At a first glance, the allure of Mongolia is of a vast emptiness of a land frozen in time, of a land dotted with one of the last remaining nomadic people in the world. Today, although this immeasurable territory is home to only three million people, many thrive on a nomadic lifestyle as the country is still trying to acclimatise from Soviet rule to modernisation. Families still live in gers or yurts made of felt, which are perfect for keeping warm during harsh winters but also for keeping out the summer heat. Here, the stark, ravishing landscapes may be unforgiving but they also support one of the most incredible biodiversity on earth.
One ‘steppe’ at a time
Geographically, Mongolia is sandwiched between China and Russia, but due to its fauna, you may vicariously be transported to Africa. And it will not be blasphemy to say that, for even though Mongolia does not have the Big Five that the world’s second largest continent boasts, its safaris have that raw edge and are a window to a valuable ecosystem of unique mammals, birds and plants.
In the east and centre lie the open steppes of Mongolia, peppered with rolling hills, where thousands of gazelles roam freely. Not far from the capital Ulaanbaatar — where ancient Buddhist temples are perched amid modern skyscrapers — are two of the country’s most revered national parks, Hustai and Gorkhi-Terelj. In Hustai, the curious traveller will meet one of the last remaining species of the wild horse, known as the takhi or Przewalski’s horse. The horse has held a revered spot in Mongolian culture since the days of Genghis Khan. The majestic animal, smaller in stature than the regular horse, provides milk, transportation and occasionally meat to Mongolia’s residents.
In the west, the towering Altai Mountains, Mongolia’s highest and farthest-flung mountain range, which forms the western border with China, are laced with streams along which nomads herd horses, camels, yaks and goats. In the valleys of the mountains, over 70 Kazakh hunters gather around every October to celebrate the revered Golden Eagle Festival, which perpetuates the unique tradition of hunting with eagles. Teeming with demonstrations and contests, the festival is a definitive experience that culminates in traditional Kazakh merrymaking.
The lure of Gobi
In the south, the mesmerising Gobi desert is said to have been home to many dinosaur species, whose well-preserved remains can still be found in the sandy soils of the area. In the varying landscapes of the desert, endangered animals such as wild Bactrian camels and the world’s only desert-living bear, the Gobi bear, are a precious sight to behold and they strongly remain at the heart of the Mongolian culture.
But the desert is not all about shifting sands; the landscapes diversify into mountains and lush forests as well as a dune system, which sustains endangered species. At Gegeet Valley, you will encounter the elusive snow leopard as well as unique species including the Argali mountain sheep and ibex, which appear on the cliffs above, while on the red soil of the Flaming Cliffs, you will be able to admire one of the greatest dinosaur fossil sites in the world.
Frozen in time
In the north, Mongolia unveils an entirely different world; the region suddenly turns into an alpine paradise, which shadows Russia’s border and shares the great Siberian taiga (subarctic boreal forest). Here the soil is blanketed by lichens in bright greens and the rivers are rumoured to never freeze. Among the nomadic people you will chance upon here are the Tsaatan or Dukha, who inhabit the harsh forests and have been herding reindeer for thousands of years.
The highlight of the area is the pristine Lake Khövsgöl, also referred to as the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, which is surrounded by streams snaking swiftly onto emerald-like valleys and meadows. It is also the venue of the Ice Festival, held each year on its frozen waters in February. At -35 degrees Celsius, Mongolia drastically transforms into a winter wonderland, where horse-sleds glide across the frozen waters and gers resemble Nordic igloos. It is also perhaps the only time when Africa is the last thing on any traveller’s mind!