Where did you go?
Outer Mongolia, which is another name for the area that encompasses the modern state of Mongolia. It’s distinct from Inner Mongolia, which refers to the autonomous region in China. I went to Ulaanbaatar—the capital—as well as the South Gobi region.
Where should our guests start for unique experiences in Mongolia?
I recommend starting with one or two nights in Ulaanbaatar and visiting the Gandan Monastery. It houses an impressive, 87-foot-tall gold statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and you can also witness the monks’ daily chants. It’s fascinating to watch as they strum local instruments and sip on the offerings left by visitors.
Next, you should definitely plan to visit a nomadic family during your stay. After a warm welcome with a glass of milk and homemade bread, you’ll get the chance to experience a traditional ger, or yurt, firsthand. I love meeting local children when I’m traveling, and during one of my favorite visits from my trip, I met a four-year-old girl named Bodanhand who sang for us when we arrived. Many of the nomads don’t speak English, but we arrange a local guide to help you bridge the language barrier.
What are some can’t-miss experiences and destinations?
First on my list is the Singing Sands in the Gobi Desert. The hike to the top is a bit strenuous, but the panoramic views of the vast sand dunes make it more than worth it. The winds reshape the sands each day, so your footprints look as though they’re the first ones.
While you’re in the Gobi Desert, make sure to visit the Flaming Cliffs. Dinosaurs once roamed here and there are still fossils lodged in the cliffs. I would recommend visiting during sunset, when the sun’s light makes the bluffs look like they’re on fire. Also, don’t miss the chance to take a bumpy but memorable camel ride—there’s no better way to travel back in time to Mongolia of yesteryear.
Eagle Valley, also known as Yol Am, is a picturesque place to spend your afternoon. Ride through the valley on horseback or on foot to see the ice rivers and the immense canyon walls. It takes about an hour and a half to walk the valley, and there’s a small museum you can visit before you exit the park.
If you happen to visit Mongolia in July, you should go to Naadam in Ulaanbaatar. It’s a traditional festival that hosts three types of athletic games—wrestling, horse racing and archery. The festival draws people from all over the country to watch the athletes compete against a lively backdrop of music and dance.
You stayed in some remarkable properties. What made them special?
My favorite was Three Camel Lodge, a sophisticated and luxurious 5-star property in the remote Gobi Desert. I arrived at my ger to find a fire warming the room and local chocolates on my pillow. My en-suite cobblestone bathroom had a spa-like ambience with incredible views of wild horses frolicking in the distance. The food was spectacular, and the lodge offers a variety of activities.
Describe some of your favorite food experiences.
While visiting a nomadic family in their ger, we sat on the mother’s bed and I was handed a colorful bowl filled with mare’s milk, known as airag. As I sipped the fermented milk, our hosts told us about the preparation process, which involves mixing the milk with a starter in a cow skin bag and then pounding it. This traditional beverage has a sour, acidic taste that I will never forget.
On our drive back to Ulaanbaatar, my guide took us to a local festival taking place in preparation for the big Naadam competition. We stopped for an hour to watch the wrestlers and visit the farmers market, which sold dried milk curds, vegetables, snacks, and homemade milk. I loved getting to try the local cuisine, and the whole experience gave me a glimpse of everyday life.
What surprised you about Mongolia?
The otherworldly landscapes enthralled me. One minute you’re driving on flat, desolate plains and the next you’re surrounded by flocks of sheep, goats and camels. Before you know it, you head into a mountain pass flanked with rocky hills. There’s so much wildlife that lives in the vast Mongolian countryside. And outside of Ulaanbaatar, not a street sign in sight. The local drivers rely solely on memory, even at night.
I was also fascinated by the ways of life of the Mongolian people. I learned that there are two types of nomads—those that follow their livestock as they move and those that return to the same place at designated times of the year. Most nomadic families travel by motorbike with their whole lives on their backs and their animals in tow. Superstition is woven into every aspect of daily life, from constructing gers in a particular shape to a ritual of blessing each wheel of a vehicle before departing on a journey.
This is just a small sampling of some of the things we can arrange for you in this fascinating country. We can design the perfect Mongolia trip for you, based on your interests and time constraints. Just give us a call or click on the “contact a consultant” button below to get started.