Mongolia is like no other place in the world. For nature lovers, it's an unparalleled destination, with everything from desert sand dunes to clear freshwater lakes to snowy mountain peaks.
And of course, there's the iconic steppeland, where animals graze on green grass that stretches as far as the eye can see. I'd been wanting to visit Mongolia for many years, and on our Trans-Mongolian train trip through Russia, Mongolia and China I would finally get the chance.
As a vegan, though, I was worried about what I would eat there.
Not many vegetables grow in Mongolia, and the local cuisine is notorious for being primarily made up of fatty mutton. Luckily, though, I met Ulzii, a Mongolian vegan who has just started her own tour company called Vegan Travel Mongolia (not sponsored).
My husband Nick and I were Ulzii's very first clients, and Nick, Ulzii, our driver Adya and I all had an amazing time traveling around Mongolia together for 16 days.
In a future post I'll share with you some of the delicious vegan Mongolian dishes that Ulzii cooked for us during out trip, but for now I want to show you what there is to see and do in Mongolia.
Many visitors to the country only make a quick trip to the Gobi desert, but Mongolia has much more to offer. If you can, allow yourself at least two or three weeks to explore this fascinating country.
Here are my top recommendations for things to do in Mongolia. Enjoy!
Most visitors to Mongolia see a stopover in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB for short), as just a necessary means to an end. Before arriving in the country, I had heard nothing but negative things about UB, including that it was ugly, polluted and prone to horrific traffic jams.
Perhaps it was due to my low expectations, but Ulaanbaatar pleasantly surprised me. It's not going to win any beauty awards, but even so, it has plenty of interesting nooks and crannies to explore.
Of its many museums, the National Museum of Mongolia is the most popular. My favorite though, was the International Intellectual Museum, which should really be called the Puzzle Museum. The experience is very hands-on and your tour guide, included in the price of admission, will encourage you to try your hand at some of the puzzles.
Gandan Tegchenling Monastery provides a fascinating introduction to the form of Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Mongolia. Try to get there around 9 am to hear the monks chanting and playing traditional instruments.
And to re-live Mongolia's Communist past, hike up to the Zaisan War Memorial on the outskirts of town to see mosaics in the socialist realism style depicting Nazi soldiers surrendering to Soviet forces.
The massive statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, built on the spot where the national hero supposedly found a golden whip, can be visited as a day trip from Ulaanbaatar.
Gorkhi Terelj National Park is also doable as a day trip or overnight trip. And, unlike most other national parks in Mongolia, it's accessible via public transport.
Baga Gazrin Chuluu
This granite massif is full of beautiful natural rock formations as well as man-made piles of stones. The latter are a type of shrine stemming from ancient animist beliefs.
"Small" is a relative term, as the massif is 15 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide. The name is meant to distinguish it from a similar, larger massif called "Large Rock Formation".
The small one is considered to be the more beautiful of the two, though, and is a popular stop on tours of the Gobi desert. It's best seen in the late afternoon, when the rocks seem to glow in the last rays of sunlight.
While the main appeal of this place is its natural beauty, you can also visit the ruins of a Buddhist monastery. Like almost all monasteries in Mongolia, was destroyed in the 1930s by the atheist Communist regime, which took its cues from Stalin. The monks hid in nearby caves to try to escape persecution, but many of them were killed.
In recent years, Mongolians have started to reclaim their religious roots. You'll see blue strips of cloth, called "hadag" [check sp], tied around the trees surrounding the ruined monastery. Blue is the holiest color in Mongolia, and it represents the deep blue Mongolian sky.
At one of the popular lookout points, there's an inconspicuous whole in the ground that's filled with water. This spring water is believed to be good for one's eyesight. If you'd like to test it, use the provided scooper to scoop out some water and wash your eyes with it. Don't put your fingers or anything else in the water.
Tsagaan Suvraga - White Stupa
White Stupa doesn't seem like a very appropriate name for this natural scenic area, which is a riot of different shades and colors. It's hard to imagine that these dry, weather-beaten cliffs were once a seabed teeming with life.
Over many years, erosion by the wind has exposed different layers of sedimentation, each with its own shade of pink, red or brown. The pigmentation is due to the minerals in the soil. Some companies have shown interest in mining this mineral-rich area, but the proposal is very controversial, and so far it hasn't happened.
While the view is beautiful from the top, it's also worth braving the steep path down to the bottom. From here, you are surrounded by the tall cliffs towering above you.
The cliffs may be dry and desert-like, but wildlife still abounds in this arid landscape. As we were leaving the cliffs, we were lucky enough to see a mother antelope running with her small baby trailing behind her.
A bit later, while searching for a campsite, we came across what I believe were the same two antelope, although it could have been another mother and child. We also spotted a colorful lizard near our camp.
Of all the different landscapes we saw in the Gobi, Yolyn Am is probably my favorite, even though it's the least desert-like. It's hard to believe that the calm, meandering stream was able to carve this beautiful gorge out of the cliffs towering above it on either side.
The yaks and horses grazing on the thick grass at either end of the gorge will be one of my most lasting memories of Mongolia. It's said that part of the stream remains frozen year-round, but thanks to global warming this is no longer true.
All the ice had melted away by the time we arrived in the first week of August. But this did not at all diminish the beauty or serenity of the place.
Due to its deserved popular with tourists, the area just outside the gorge is a bit crowded with ger camps and wild campers. We managed to find a camping spot all to ourselves, though, where we were surrounded by green hills that reminded me of Iceland.
Nick and I walked up one of these hills and accidentally came across a shamanic site, where it was obvious that some kind of ritual had taken place. At the top of the hill was a cow skull with feathers and ribbons attached to it. This was the first of many shamanic sites that we would see in Mongolia.
Khongoriin Els Sand Dunes
Most foreign visitors are surprised to find that the Gobi desert is not a lifeless sea of sand dunes, but a rich and varied landscape that is full of plant and animal life. Khongoriin Els is the one place in the Gobi that looks as you probably imagined the whole Gobi would.
This is where you'll find towering sand dunes like the ones in the Sahara desert. But even here, it's not an endless sweep of sand dunes in all directions.
The Khongoriin Els sand dunes are 150 kilometers long, but they are a thin strip of dunes that follow the Sevrei and Zuulun mountain ranges. For the best views of this unique scenery, you'll need to climb to the top of the dunes, which is much harder than it looks!
I've climbed sand dunes before, but the ones here are massive and incredibly steep. I consider myself to be in pretty decent physical shape, but I honestly didn't think I was going to make it to the top.
Our guide Ulzii convinced me to take a longer but slightly less steep path and see how far I could go. Eventually, I made it and was rewarded with expansive views of the dunes undulating towards the mountain peaks. It was definitely worth it, but it completely wore me out!
To get back down the steep slope, I slid on my butt with pedaling as if I were riding a bike. This is when I heard the unique sounds that have given Khongoriin Els its nickname of "Singing Dunes". Some people say it sounds like an airplane engine, but it reminded me more of a didgeridoo.
The English name "Flaming Cliffs" was given to this place by Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer and paleontologist who led an expedition to Mongolia in the 1920s. About 60 million years ago, this area was a sea bed, and when Andrews and his team arrived it was full of dinosaur fossils.
He discovered many dinosaur remains and a nest of fossilized eggs with dinosaur fetuses inside. This was the first time anyone had found proof that dinosaurs lay eggs. Many of the specimens discovered here are now on display at the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs in Ulaanbaatar.
Dinosaurs were not what brought Andrews to Mongolia, though. He was actually looking for proof that the human race originated here. While he did find some very ancient human remains, he was not able to prove that they were the oldest in the world.
In any case, most visitors nowadays come not for the fossils but for the Flaming Cliffs themselves. The deep red soil appears to glow in the late afternoon sunlight, and it's easy to see why Andrews named them as he did. On a sunny day, it's a spectacular sight.
Interestingly, the Mongolian name for the place, Bayan Zag, has nothing to do with the cliffs or the dinosaurs that roamed here. Zag is the local name for the saxaul shrub, a hardy plant that grows in desert-like conditions and that camels like to feed on.
"Bayan Zag" means "rich in saxaul", and you will see quite a few of these shrubs growing around the cliffs. Our driver Adya took us to a small forest of saxaul nearby, which he called "the real Bayan Zag".
There, the saxaul bushes grow as tall as trees. I chewed on a few of the long, thin leaves, and they were actually pretty tasty. Those camels are on to something!
Kharakhorum and Erdene Zuu Khiid
Founded by Genghis Khan in 1220, Kharakhorum was the capital of the vast Mongolian empire. Sadly, very little remains today of this cosmopolitan city that was once filled with opulent palaces as well as Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Christian churches.
Nevertheless, the Kharakhorum Museum does a good job of illustrating what life was like in the ancient Mongolian capital.
My favorite exhibits were a Mongol passport of the type Marco Polo would have used, and a display of dozens of clay figurines that were found inside the tomb of a Turkish nobleman in 2011. The latter reminded me of a miniature version of the terracotta warriors in Xi'an.
Entry to the museum is 8,000 togrog per person, and photography is supposed to be an extra 10,000, but this wasn't being strictly enforced when I was there.
After visiting the museum, make your way to the nearby Erdene Zuu Khiid, whose name tranlsates as the Hundred Treasures Monastery. Founded in 1586, it was the first Buddhist monastery built in Mongolia.
In its heyday, there were as many as 100 temples within its walls. Just a handful of these remain today, as the rest were destroyed by the Communist regime in the 1930s. The white walls alone are an impressive sight, though, and are punctuated by 108 stupas.
Entrance to the grounds is free, but there is a 3,000 togrog entry fee to visit the three Chinese-style temples on your left as you enter. Each one is devoted to a different phase of the life of Buddha: his childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Also worth seeking out are the Golden Prayer Stupa and the Lavrin Sum, a large, white Tibetan-style temple, where ceremonies are usually held around 11 am. Try to visit Erdene Zuu in the morning, as this is when the light is best for photographing the temples.
Tsenkher Hot Springs
Arkhangai province is known for its volcanic activity, which is the source of the natural hot springs found about 25 kilometers from the town of Tsetserleg. The springs are in a beautiful area of green, forested hills.
After spending about a week in the Gobi desert, we were struck by our first sight of trees in Mongolia at the Tsenkher Hot Springs. If the weather is nice, this would be a lovely place to do some hiking.
Most people come here to soak in the springs, though, and since it was cloudy and drizzling for most of our stay that's exactly what we did. The source of the spring is considered to be a sacred place, and from a distance, you can see a teepee-shaped shrine made of tree branches shrouded in the steam rising up from the springs.
It's forbidden to go near this sacred area, and at 85.5°C (185.9°F) it's much too hot to swim in anyway. But not to worry, several tourist ger camps have been set up on the other side of the stream, with pools at varying temperatures ideal for soaking and relaxing in.
Tsenkher Hot Springs is very popular with Mongolian tourists, who believe that the waters have healing properties and can help heal ailments of the nervous system and the joints.
Khorgo-Terkh National Park
Until I visited Khorgo-Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, I had no idea that there were volcanoes in Mongolia. This country is full of surprises!
Khorgo is a volcano that erupted many years ago but now lies dormant. The name "Khorgo" means to hide or to sneak, and legend has it that some Robin-Hood-type characters who used to rob from the rich and steal from the poor would hide inside the crater.
A hiking trail leads up to the rim, from where you can look down inside the crater. It's a short but steep climb and takes about 20 minutes to reach the top. The views are definitely worth it!
Another, even steeper path leads down inside the crater to a small shamanic shrine, but I didn't see anyone attempting to walk this path. I'm not sure if that's just because it's too difficult or because it's not allowed to enter this sacred place.
From the rim, in addition to the views down inside the crater, you also have expansive views of the unique volcanic landscape, which includes about a dozen extinct volcanoes. In every direction, the ground is covered in black basalt, with green larch trees growing out of it.
To the west is the Terkhiin Tsagaan lake, which is another beautiful scenic spot. There are several ger camps on the shores of the lake, so it's a great place to spend the night while visiting the area.
Along the lake shore are large piles of black volcanic stone, which make for some interesting photographic opportunities. The Terkhiin Tsagaan lake and the Khorgo crater together make up the core of the Khorgo-Terkh National Park.
Located in the north of Mongolia near the border with Russia, Khovsgol Lake is the largest lake in the country and holds 70 percent of its fresh water. It's one of the most well-known tourist destinations in Mongolia and is especially popular with domestic tourists.
Speedboating and kayaking are both popular activities, but swimming is only for the foolhardy, as the water is freezing cold even in summer. During the winter, the lake freezes over completely.
The importance attached to Khovsgol in the Mongolian national psyche is similar to that of Lake Baikal among Russians. And indeed, the two of them are thought of as sister lakes and are connected via the Eg River.
Unfortunately, Khovsgol's success is also its downfall, as the tourism infrastructure somewhat detracts from the natural beauty of the place. We attempted to go for a hike around the shores of the lake, but we kept running into tourist resorts and were disappointed to find lots of garbage along the way.
Most tourist ger camps and resorts are centered around Khatgal at the southern end of the lake, which is where we stayed. Perhaps if you were to go further north you could find a more peaceful, unspoiled part of the lake. But to be honest, I'm not sure it's worth the very long and bumpy ride to get here.
Mongolia has plenty of other lakes that are much less visited, so I suggest seeking out one of these instead.
Get Off the Beaten Path
You might be thinking that the entire country of Mongolia is off the beaten path, and in many ways that's true. Compared with Italy, France or Japan, the number of visitors to Mongolia is minuscule.
Most of your time in Mongolia will probably be spent traveling vast distances along dirt tracks, looking out the window at big blue skies, neverending grasslands, and hardly a human in sight.
And this is precisely why, when you finally do you reach your destination towards the end of the day, it can be jarring to find a few dozen other tourists there. But since most travel companies stick to the same routes, it's easy to find a little piece of Mongolia that you can enjoy all by yourself.
Our guide Ulzii of Vegan Travel Mongolia took us to one of her favorite spots, a lake near the village where her mother grew up. It was a magical place surrounded by wooded hills, farmland and meadows full of wildflowers and grasshoppers.
Hiking in this area is one of my favorite things we did during our whole three weeks in Mongolia. We stayed at a small, isolated camp with just seven gers and didn't see any other foreign tourists in the area.
After a couple of days at the lake, we traveled to a different area where Ulzii's family has a summer house. There, we spent the last two days of our Mongolia trip taking long walks, meeting nomadic families and their animals, and spending all our time out in nature.
I'm not going to mention the names of these two places, because I don't want them to be spoiled by overtourism the way Lake Khovsgol has. If you contact Ulzii, she will be happy to take you there. Or you can go looking for your own undiscovered gem in Mongolia.
Share a Meal with Locals
Even though I didn't think Lake Khosvsgol was worth the very long drive that's required to get there, I deeply appreciated the short stop we made in Moron on the way there. It was here that we were invited into a local family's home to eat dinner with them.
Most foreign visitors to Mongolia complain about the food, which is largely focused on fatty mutton. Our experience on our tour with Vegan Travel Mongolia was entirely different, though.
We were able to try lots of traditional Mongolian dishes, but in vegan versions. The couple in Moron who invited us to eat with them and their two grandchildren had been vegan since 2010, and we were joined by a friend of theirs who had been vegan since 2006.
They cooked a healthy, wholegrain version of buuz, the popular Mongolian dumplings, and potato salad made with their own homemade vegan mayo. We learned that these two dishes are always eaten together in Mongolia during the White Moon Festival, one of the most important celebrations of the year.
Being welcomed into this family's modest home to see how they live was such a privilege and an eye-opening cultural experience. Their tiny wooden house, with an outhouse long-drop toilet in the yard, was simple but cozy.
Despite not having many of the material possessions and creature comforts that we take for granted, they seemed to be living happy lives. It was so inspiring to hear about how the husband had grown up herding animals in a nomadic family but had switched to a fully plant-based diet for spiritual and moral reasons.
Make Friends with the Animals
You will see animals everywhere you go in Mongolia. Cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels are the most common animals raised by Mongolian nomadic herders.
The camels are most often seen around the Gobi desert, while in the north you will see more yaks. And in the taiga areas in the very far north, the Tsataan people still herd reindeer.
Horseback riding and/or camel riding is included in most organized group tours to Mongolia, but we didn't want to ride the animals, we just wanted to meet them.
I've ridden horses and camels in the past, before I knew any better, and I've seen and experienced situations where it was obvious the animals did not want to be ridden. I mean, who would want to have a 100+ pound human on their back pulling on their mouth to tell them which way to go?
Instead of exploiting them for our own entertainment, we were hoping to be able to meet the animals on their own terms and interact with them only if they wanted to interact with us. Thankfully, there were plenty of opportunities to do just that.
Our best yak photo opportunity was in Yolyn Am, where we saw lots of these large, shaggy beasts grazing at the mouth of the gorge. But my most memorable animal encounter in Mongolia was with a camel who I met on our drive between Bayan Zag and Ongi Monastery.
We saw a large camel herd grazing on the side of the road, so our driver Adya stopped and let us out to photograph them. On a previous stop like this, the camels had been rather wary of us and had not allowed us to get very close to them.
But this time, one camel in particular made eye contact with me and watched as I slowly inched my way closer. I reached out my hand and held it up to her, and eventually she leaned in and nuzzled me.
Once I had earned her trust, she seemed to really enjoy getting love and affection, and we enjoyed a very special moment together.
Which of these things to do in Mongolia would you most like to experience? Or have you been to other places in Mongolia that aren't mentioned here? Share your Mongolian experience in the comments below.