Once the center of the largest empire of the ancient world, Mongolia spans Central and Eastern Asia, surviving relatively untouched with indigenous tribes continuing the old way of life in some of the most foreboding landscapes on Earth.
The country’s founding father was Genghis Khan, who in just 25 years, conquered a region with a greater geographical area and population than the Romans managed in almost four centuries. Today, a 131-foot statue commemorates the formidable leader just outside the city of Ulaanbaatar, establishing a new world record as the tallest statue in the world featuring a horse.
From its colorful history to its rare wildlife, Mongolia is a country unlike any other on Earth. In this article, we take a closer look at some of Mongolia’s finest attractions.
Mongolia’s capital city is rich in Soviet architectural influences, leftover from the Soviet occupation of the city from 1921 to 1924. Luxury boutiques like Dior and Hermès vie with wholesale markets in downtown Ulaanbaatar, where nightclubs reminiscent of those in Paris and London can also be found.
Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling, industrialized city of contrasts; Armani-clad executives walk the streets with Buddhist monks and nomad tribe members. Here, visitors can explore sprawling museums, immerse themselves in Mongol culture at traditional theaters, and indulge in world-class haute cuisine.
Highlights of Ulaanbaatar include Gandan Khiid, a 19th-century monastery that survived the religious purges of 1937. Starting in the 1990s Mongolians began openly practicing Buddhism again. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Mongolia guides visitors on a journey right back to the Neolithic era, providing an unparalleled overview of Mongolian history and culture, with exhibits ranging from ancient stone ornaments to traditional ceremonial costumes, unmistakably the inspiration for several Star Warscostumes.
2. Gobi Desert
Spanning parts of China and Mongolia, the Gobi Desert is the fifth-largest desert on the planet. This stunning landscape is in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Ulaanbaatar, its seemingly endless, wide-open spaces of amber-hued rock and sand stretching as far as the eye can see.
This sparsely populated region is home to numerous rare and interesting species, including Bactrian camels, jerboa, wild mountain sheep, goitered gazelles, Siberian ibex, and the elusive Gobi brown bear.
The Gobi Desert is world famous as a dinosaur graveyard, boasting a variety of rare fossils including a fighting protoceratops and a velociraptor, a collection of protoceratops infants, and an oviraptor sitting atop its eggs. Egg fossils of a variety of different species have been unearthed at the site, as has a giant tarbosaur and its baby. In total, 80 dinosaur species have been found in the Gobi Desert, representing a fifth of the 400 dinosaur species discovered worldwide to date.
Located deep in the stony ridges and lush green hills of the Orkhon Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this ancient city was once Mongolia’s capital city. A network of well-trodden cobbled paths weaves around the mountains, providing visitors with glimpses of the city’s ancient past, including crumbling temples, kiln-smelting houses, and stone statues providing a visual testimony of the city’s ancient might. A vast, ornately carved stone turtle dating back to the 13th century still stands at the site, as does the Stupa of Nirvana.
Once a major site for global politics, Karakorum was an incredibly prosperous city in its heyday, with the Silver Tree of Karakorum lying at its heart. This extravagant piece was designed by Guillaume Boucher, the renowned Parisian goldsmith. It was composed of silver and other precious metals, rising from the center of the courtyard and looming over the palace, its branches dripping with silver fruit and four golden serpents twisting around its trunk. When the khan wished for drinks to be served to his guests, a clockwork angel placed a trumpet to his lips, sounding a horn. At this moment, the mouths of the serpents would open, and fountains of alcoholic beverages gushed into a large silver basin at the foot of the tree.
When the Flemish Franciscan missionary William of Rubruck visited Karakorum in 1254, he described it as a very religiously tolerant and cosmopolitan city, citing the silver tree as its focal point.
Sadly, the city fell into ruin over the years. Surrounded by steppe and beneath endless sky, the main sight today is Erdene Zuu Monastery. Constructed from the remnants of the ruined city, the monastery itself dates to 1585. Boasting an impressive row of stupas, Erdene Zuu comprises three beautiful temples and numerous carvings and statues.
4. Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
With snowcapped mountain peaks, picturesque valleys, and vast rock formations, Gorkhi-Terelj National Park provides visitors with a unique opportunity to step back in time, with charming yurt camps dotted all around. Popular with ornithologists, the region boasts numerous rare bird species, including Eurasian hoopoe, Siberian rubythroat, dusky warbler, oriental cuckoo, and taiga flycatcher.
For the ultimate Mongolian experience, a horseback ride through this epic scenery of Gorkhi-Terelj is a must, allowing you to take in the hot springs, glacial lakes, and vivid green pastureland all around.