In the least densely populated country on earth, expect big, empty, silent landscapes, huge skies and a sense of incredible space. Off the beaten track in Mongolia, you can travel for days without seeing a single soul – not (necessarily) because the landscape is uninhabitable, but just because it’s empty.
Mongolians descend from the cavalry with which Chinggis Khan conquered most of the known world, and riding is deep within Mongolian DNA. Presidential candidates pose on galloping horses, young children herd flocks bareback, and herds of horses gallop free across the plains, manes flowing.
Mongolians trace their heritage proudly back to Chinggis Khan, and the state was Soviet until relatively recently, so customer service in Mongolia is, to put it kindly, not a strength. But the warmth and kindness of rural Mongolians, who welcome strangers into their gers and feed and water them, is astonishing, and you can expect to make friends on buses, trains and more.
Most people think of Mongolia as a land of desert — and the Gobi has some of the world’s tallest dunes. But the serene beauty of the lakes that cluster in the north during summer, their splendid isolation, takes some beating. This is Khövsgöl Nuur.
From wildflowers and larches in the north through to herds of gazelles in the east and hunting eagles in the west, not to mention the odd bear or wolf, Mongolia is full of wildlife, despite its savage climate.
Gers, the tents the Chinese call ‘Mongolian buns’ and the Turks call ‘yurts’, have been part of Mongolian life since long before Chinggis Khan. Toasty warm in winter, surprisingly cool in summer, they are masterpieces of minimal engineering – the framework even functions as storage.
The Trans-Mongolian train forms one end of probably the world’s greatest train journey, the Trans-Siberian. Yet even local trains are a splendid way to travel Mongolia, as they trundle slowly across the empty plains.
Mongolian society is transitioning rapidly, from Soviet state through to a democratic economy super-charged by mineral exploitation. And yet people cling to their old ways. In the countryside, young men still wrestle as they have since time immemorial, often wearing traditional dels. Even sophisticated, US-educated Ulaanbatrites will retreat to the country often to recharge.
One reason to visit Mongolia in summer, apart from the weather? Dairy! Rural Mongolians eat, mainly, meat and fat in winter, and dairy in summer. Some dairy, from ricotta-style fresh yak’s cheese to clotted yak cream served on fresh bread, is just amazing.
Cirque de Soleil come to Mongolia to recruit contortionists, because, despite its population of only a couple of million or so, the country produces some of the best contortionists in the world.
Even if your only encounter with throat-singing is that Simpson’s episode where Homer meets the Inuit, traditional throatsinging is eerie, magical and awe-inspiring. It’s one person singing two tunes at the same time.
From drunken shamans to reindeer herders, from eagle hunters in the mountains to mini-skirted bears at the circus, from Ulaanbaatar’s strip bars through to ice fishing competitions, Mongolia is somewhere where you’ll always find the unexpected, and nothing ever quite goes to plan. And out of everything, it’s probably for the crazy that I love Mongolia…
Clotted cream image by Kai Hendry.