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A cloud of exhaust smoke assaulted our senses as we stepped out of our guesthouse and onto the street in Ulanbataar. The capital of Mongolia didn’t impress us at first glance. It was bleak and run down, with crumbling Soviet-style architecture dominating the landscape. The population in Ulanbataar has almost doubled in size since the 90s, causing all sorts social, environmental, and transportation problems. Many of them visible with a naked eye.

The longer we lingered around the city (it took us about 4 days to find a car and organize a driver to take us into the countryside), the more we wondered whether coming to Mongolia was a mistake. There was nothing to do in the capital, nothing to see. There were no signs of the great Mongolian steppe, of the vast emptiness, of the cattle and the Mongolian herdsmen. We couldn’t wait to escape the city. Luckily, it didn’t take long.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, one of the most scenic areas in all of Mongolia, is located just outside of Ulanbataar, making for a perfect day trip destination. 

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, Mongolia
Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. View from the Monastery
Giant rock formations inside the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park
Giant rock formations inside the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

The Gobi Desert

After getting a taste of nature and finally finding a local driver with a half decent vehicle, we headed south towards Mongolia’s top destination – the Gobi Desert. The desert didn’t quite look like what we had envisioned. There were no sweeping sand dunes and most of the landscape consisted of rocky terrain with occasional patches of grass.

Overlooking the steppe at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Gobi Desert
Overlooking the Gobi Steppe at Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Gobi Desert
The rocky formations of Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stupas), The Gobi
The rocky formations of Tsagaan Suvarga (White Stupas), The Gobi

Some of the grassy patches were big… REALLY BIG. They made us question whether we really were still in the Gobi Desert…

Yoliin Am Valley, Gobi Desert
Yoliin Am Valley, Gobi Desert

The landscape changed every few hundred kilometers the scenery getting drier and drier as we moved further south. Eventually, we found some sand dunes…and a few camels…

Camel resting near a ger camp at Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes, Gobi Desert
Camel resting near a ger camp at Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes, Gobi Desert

Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes, Gobi Desert
Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes, Gobi Desert

One thing remained consistent as we traveled through the Gobi Desert – beautiful sunsets over the ger camps. The desert just has a way of making this time of the day look pretty spectacular.

Sunset over the ger camp in Gobi Desert
Sunset over the ger camp in Gobi Desert
Star gazing in the Gobi Desert was not too shabby either!
Stargazing in the Gobi Desert was not too shabby either!
Flaming Cliffs, another set of sand dune formations in the Gobi
Flaming Cliffs, another set of sand formations in the Gobi

Central Mongolia

As we looped around the Gobi and started to make our way back to Central Mongolia, the landscape began to change again. Sand dunes quickly disappeared and were replaced by green pastures dotted with sheep, goats, cows, and yaks. It was evident that unlike other parts of the country, nomadic lifestyle and herding were still a way of life in this part of Mongolia.

Local woman herding livestock on a motorcycle
A local woman uses a motorcycle to herd her livestock. Horses, once the symbol of nomadic lifestyle in Mongolia, have now become too expensive to upkeep and many locals opt to replace them with cheaper alternatives – motorcycles

The further north we traveled, the greener and more beautiful the landscape got!

Tsenkher valley, Central Mongolia
Tsenkher Valley, Central Mongolia

Great White Lake, Central Mongolia
Great White Lake, Central Mongolia

Central Mongolia isn’t only known for green rolling hills. It’s also an important historical and religious center, home to many monasteries and ancient sites.

Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Central Mongolia
Erdene Zuu Monastery, Kharkhorin, Central Mongolia

Northern Mongolia

And then there was the true North…where the nights were cold and the beautiful Lake Khovsgol and the neverending pine forest dominated the landscape!

Lake Khovsgol from above
Lake Khovsgol from above
The never-ending pine forest in Northern Mongolia
The never-ending pine forest near Khovsgol Lake, Northern Mongolia
Horseback riding in pine forest
The best way to explore the pine forest!

Mongolia was truly one of the most beautiful countries we have traveled to this year, but it’s not one without challenges. Lack of infrastructure, difficulty in getting around, and a very short warm weather period, make this one of the more challenging destinations to visit.

But those that do make it out here will attest, that the struggle is absolutely worth it!

Do you dream of visiting Mongolia?

2 thoughts on “Vast, Rugged, Simple and Beautiful – This is Mongolia”

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