Photographer: Timothy Allen/Getty Images
Travel

Why You Need to Go to Mongolia Now in 16 Stunning Photos

Every July Mongolia’s steppes come alive as the Naadam Festival celebrates nomadic sports that date back to the days of Genghis Khan. It’s an exciting time to visit a country far off the beaten path. Outside Ulaanbaatar—its modern capital buzzing with copper, gold, and coal mining wealth and a new Shangri-La hotel—encounter an adventure-rich land of camel-trod deserts and vast grasslands lorded over by craggy mountains.

  1. Camels in Gobi Desert
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    Camels in Gobi Desert

    Animals in Mongolia's Great Gobi National Park include some of the few remaining two-humped Bactrian camels in the wild, the last surviving Gobi bears (at last count there are only 50), and Snow Leopards (a quarter of the world's population are found in Mongolia). The Gobi is also a major source of important fossil discoveries, including the first dinosaur eggs found by Roy Chapman Andrews, who explored its great expanse for New York’s American Museum of Natural History from 1922 to 1930. His adventures are said to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones

    Photographer: Timothy Allen/Getty Images
  2. Gandan Khiid Monastery
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    Gandan Khiid Monastery

    Gandan Khiid Monastery (Gandantegchinlen), in the center of Mongolia's capital city Ulaanbaatar, escaped the destruction of monasteries during the Communist period in the 1930s. It was reopened in 1944 as a “show monastery” for foreign visitors, with some of the buildings used as cow sheds, and was not fully functioning for religious purposes until the 1990s when Buddhism was practiced openly again. In this respect, it's one of the country’s most important monasteries. Visit early, around 9 a.m., to witness the morning ceremony. Inside the main temple is an 80-foot-high statue of Magjid Janraisig (the lord who looks in every direction), which is strewn with precious stones.

    Photographer: Jenny Jones/Getty Images
  3. Zaisan Memorial
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    Zaisan Memorial

    The circular Zaisan Memorial was erected on top of a hill in the south of Ulaanbataar by the former Soviet Union to commemorate those killed in the Second World War. The colorful mural is worth the climb, as is the view of the city on a clear day. At the foot of the hill there’s also a large Buddha statue and another memorial of a Soviet tank, which includes a map of its route from Moscow in 1943 to Berlin in 1945.

    Photographer: Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Getty Images
  4. Kazakh Eagle Hunters
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    Kazakh Eagle Hunters

    It’s highly unusual to find a girl hunting with a golden eagle, yet photographer Asher Svidensky discovered the then 13-year-old Ashol-Pan doing just that. The Kazakhs of the Altai Mountains have been hunting this way in western Mongolia for thousands of years. Boys start hunting at a young age, building power in their little arms to hold the heavy bird, and learning not to fear but respect the birds of prey who they use to hunt hare and foxes. Mature golden eagles are set free to breed in the wild, with a butchered sheep to help them on their way.

    Photographer: Asher Svidensky (svidensky.com)
  5. Mongolian Boots
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    Mongolian Boots

    Known as “Gutul,” hand-sewn traditional Mongolian boots have a pointed upturned toe to prevent horse riders from getting caught in stirrups if they fall. Here, some with applique designs are on sale at Ulaanbaatar’s Naran Tuul (black market) in the Bayanzurh District. 

    Photographer: Laurie Noble/Getty Images
  6. Khangai
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    Khangai

    Mongolia is a country blessed with a varied and stunning countryside, from rugged mountain ranges and sweeping steppes to ancient freshwater lakes and fossil-strewn desert. Here the Khangai mountain range rises from gentle slopes and pastureland. Its highest peak, Otgontenger, tops out at 13,200 feet.

    Photographer: Shenzhen Harbour/Getty Images
  7. Ancient and Modern Ulaanbaatar
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    Ancient and Modern Ulaanbaatar

    The roof of Choijin Lama temple, which the Communist regime transformed into a museum denouncing the "old ways," can be seen alongside the 25-story Blue Sky Tower in Ulaanbaatar, which was completed in 2010. Half of Mongolia’s population lives in or near the booming capital, where you’ll find a glitzy mall on Sukhbaatar Square and that undisputable sign of new wealth, a Louis Vuitton outlet. On June 3, a 290-room Shangri-La hotel (bloom.bg/1JtePlO) opened, helping to remedy the city’s scarce luxury accommodation (and a perfect antidote if you’ve been roughing it out on the steppe). Despite the modern center, the outskirts of the capital, a former nomadic city that changed location three times a year, is surrounded by traditional gers (Mongolian yurts).

    Photographer: Stephen Exley/Getty Images
  8. The Game of Kings
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    The Game of Kings

    Horse Polo may be a game for the rich and the royal in other parts of the world, but in Mongolia where it’s been played for centuries—spread by the invading forces of Genghis Khan who used it to entertain and train his cavalry—it’s an altogether more egalitarian affair. Here, young polo players hone their skills in the Orkhon Valley Polo Camp. 

    Photographer: Michel Setboum/Getty Images
  9. Arkhi
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    Arkhi

    A woman prepares milk, which will be distilled to produce the potent spirit called arkhi. This sour and potent brew, with a 10 percent ABV, has been made since the 14th century from either fermented horse or yak’s milk. If you’re lucky enough to be invited into a family’s ger, chances are you’ll be offered a glass of arkhi. It’s consumed cold and (if you’re smart) in one go.  

    Photographer: Paul Harris/Getty Images
  10. Wrestling at Naadam Festival
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    Wrestling at Naadam Festival

    Wrestling, archery, and horse racing are the “three manly sports” celebrated during the summer’s Naadam Festival, a national holiday which runs for three days each July. The uniform of tight shorts, open jackets, and traditional Mongolian boots are topped off with small hats—it’s said that the open jackets are due to a woman once taking part and winning (although they're welcome to compete in archery and horse racing). There’s no weight division, so expect a lightweight wrestler trying his luck against a burly opponent. There’s also no time limit, so two well matched wrestlers can grapple for hours, giving you time to nip off for a khuurshuur (cold meat pancake). If any part of the body touches the ground (save the hands and, obviously, the feet), the match is over. The judges are then honored with an eagle dance called the devekh, which is also performed in honor of the defeated opponent. Win five rounds and you’re given the title of “Falcon,” win seven and you’re an “Elephant,” while the much celebrated overall winner is a “Lion.”

    Photographer: Thomas L. Kelly/Getty Images
  11. Lake Khuvsgul
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    Lake Khuvsgul

    Pristine Lake Khuvsgul, which sits at the foot of the Sayan Mountains in northwest Mongolia, bordering the great Siberian Taiga Forest, is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes (84 miles long by 24 miles wide). At over 2 million years old, it's also one of the world’s 17 ancient lakes and is nearly 900 feet deep, holding 70 percent of Mongolia’s fresh water. The province is teeming with wildlife and is home to some of the country’s oldest tribes, including the Tsaatan, or reindeer people, who have a lot in common with American Indians, continuing to live in deer hide tepees rather than gers (yurts).

    Photographer: Tulga Otgonbaatar/Tulga Photos
  12. Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan
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    Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan

    This museum on the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar was originally built in 1893 as the Winter Palace of Mongolia’s eighth Living Buddha and last emperor. Inside you’ll discover his interest in all things animal; there’s a vast array of taxidermy, a robe made from 80 fox skins, and a yurt lined with snow leopard skins that’s uncomfortable viewing when you consider their current endangered status. But it’s not all furry stuff. The exhibits also include Mongolia’s 1911 Declaration of Independence from China, Buddhist art and sculpture, and the jewels worn by his pet elephant.

    Photographer: Jane Sweeney/Getty Images
  13. Horse Racing
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    Horse Racing

    Up to 1,000 horses race on open grassland during Mongolia’s Naadam Festival. There are six categories relating to the age of horse—the younger the horse, the shorter the course—while riders are aged between five to 13 years. This course is about the talents of the horse rather than the skill of the tiny riders, although the winning jockey is given the title “Leader of Ten Thousand.” But it’s the winning horses that are honored with songs and poetry about their successes.

    Photographer: Per-Andre Hoffmann/Robert Harding Picture Library (robertharding.com)
  14. Genghis Khan
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    Genghis Khan

    This 131-foot-high statue of Genghis Khan riding a horse is located an hour’s drive from Ulaanbaatar and is believed to be the world’s highest equestrian statue. Built in 2008, the statue of the country’s national hero is made from 250 tons of stainless steel and sits atop a circular visitor center. There’s a restaurant on the second floor and an elevator to a viewing platform on the top of the horse’s head.

    Photographer: Kamal Prashar/Flickr (flickr.com/photos/kampra/5891276477)
  15. Gobi Dunes
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    Gobi Dunes

    Sand dunes account for only five percent of the Gobi, including the Khongoryn Els, also known as the "Singing Sands" because of the sound they make in the wind. It’s the world’s fifth largest desert, which spans 500,000 square miles. While temperatures can reach a blistering 122 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, it can also drop to minus 40F in winter due to its location on a northern plateau around 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s not the easiest place to survive, yet a small number of hardy Mongols and Han Chinese manage it.

    Photographer: Ash Western/Flickr (flickr.com/photos/11195247@N08/5033686689/)
  16. Three Camel Lodge
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    Three Camel Lodge

    There’s only one way to experience the Gobi, and that’s in a ger, or Mongolia yurt. The award-winning Three Camel Lodge (threecamellodge.com) is one of the best. Located near the village of Dalanzadgad in South Gobi Province, and Bulgan, home to one of the only farms in the desert, the eco lodge offers 50 authentic gers that come with wood burning stoves and ornate traditional furniture, half of which have full (if non-authentic) en-suite bathrooms. Bulagtai Restaurant serves local dishes to those looking to experience Mongolian cuisine, and an international menu for those who don’t. Sister company Nomadic Expeditions organizes tours for guests, including hiking, stargazing, and horse and camel treking—and there’s a massage ger to help you recover from a day in the saddle.

    Source: Three Camel Lodge via Bloomberg