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.
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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.
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.
Some of the grassy patches were big… REALLY BIG. They made us question whether we really were still in the 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…
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.
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.
The further north we traveled, the greener and more beautiful the landscape got!
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.
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!
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!