“My deepest gratitude to the people of Mongolia. I carry back wonderful memories of your nation, a land that is our spiritual neighbour”. This was how Prime Minister Narendra Modi described his visit to Mongolia in the year 2015. Indeed Mongolia’s deep rooted spiritual treasures - monasteries, cold deserts, Eagle hunters and their nomadic lifestyle have become a topic of discussion for the new age traveller on the lookout for “bucket list” tourist destinations.
Ever since that historic tour of Prime Minister Modi, there has been a perceptible increase in the number of Indian tourists travelling to Mongolia. What attracts travellers to this nation of extremes is the possibility of living like a true nomad. Imagine yourself dressed in animal skin to ward of the frozen temperatures with the medieval Eagle hunters for company? In the 21st century, where on earth will you find this dramatic setting?
Although the towering figure of Genghis Khan dominates Mongolia’s historical landscape, a plethora of outdoor activities too ranging from Camping to Dog Sledding and much more awaits the discerning traveller. However, let this be also known that the whole world is kind of waiting with bated breath to take advantage of Mongolia’s billion dollar rich mineral deposits and the first intrusion of urbanization too is very palpable, particularly in the capital city - Ulaanbaatar, where global hotel chains like Kempinski, Ramada, Shangri-La, etc. have set up their properties.
Wouldn’t it be a crime committed by humanity if Mongolia’s last remaining rural herdsmen were to disappear and melt with modernity? The rate of urbanisation is pretty high, but the nomads are having difficulty adjusting and most do not fit into the contemporary lifestyle pattern - laptops, smartphones, iPads and what have you...
Already, environmental experts have sounded the alarm bell given the frenetic pace of developments taking place and land being fragmented. This is where, the role of developed nations is of paramount significance - guiding and mentoring the Mongolian government so that its unspoiled eco-system remains untouched by mankind’s forays into the world’s last remaining ecological hotspot.
Ulaanbaatar - the capital city, which is also the entry point to Mongolia is ancient and easily one of the world’s most hospitable cities to live in. The majestic Gandan Monastery even today accommodates Buddhist 5000 monks while the Choijin Lama Monastery is in a class of its own, where the influence of Buddhism is elaborately depicted.
The Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue that towers to a height which is all of 40 metres in which the iconic statesman is portrayed riding on horseback across the Tuul River is easily the city’s most cherished tourist spots.
Ulaanbaatar is the economic and the socio-cultural hub of Mongolia and is ideally located on the banks of the Tuul River. The city’s surreal beauty is further enhanced by the four sacred mountains. The city comes as a huge surprise to the new age traveller as they say goodbye to anything that is hurried, frenetic or hectic and embrace a more relaxed, laidback and nonchalant lifestyle.
In Ulaanbaatar cars and buses compete with wizened horsemen. Although much of the city is ubiquitous with the presence of concrete skyscrapers, traditional Mongolian "Gers" too are an integral part of the landscape.
Forget concepts like “On Time Meetings/Deadlines/Peak Hours” while in Mongolia. If you wanna experience “Timelessness” Mongolia is cut out for you. Much of the landscape as well as the native lifestyle are intact and haven’t been tampered with for centuries.
Right in the city of Ulaanbaatar you are very likely to come across nomadic herdsmen greeting world weary travellers and welcoming them inside their signature “Ger” camps and in no time they are out there in the open flexing their muscles shooting arrows on targets fixed by the local Mongolian nomads.
The best part about the local folks is that they take immense pride in their traditions and rituals, knowing fully well that much of their traditions aren’t in sync with the contemporary world. If you go on a 4x4 drive on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, the scene is straight out of a Hollywood make-belief world of nomads as they move around with their goats and sheep in the green undulating hilly pasturelands. For the more adventurous, driving to the Gobi Desert should be high on the priority list, where one can actually fathom firsthand how these nomads weather the Sub-Zero temperatures with a flamboyance that is hard to match elsewhere in the world.
Try to coincide your trip to Mongolia during the fascinating Naadam Festival, which takes place in the month of July where the three principal masculine sports - horse racing, wrestling and archery are showcased in a spontaneous outpouring of emotions. Indeed it’s pageantry like no other.
The manner in which the male and female archers fire arrows from bows that are simply too big for modern day archers (hangover of the Genghis Khan era!) is a sight to behold. Jockeys trundle past mountainous terrain and wrestlers come with all guns blazing in traditional costumes as they usher in the now-famous Mongolian Eagle Dance to the wrapt wonderment of the distinguished audience and visitors from far away nations.
Many visitors engage in the traditional Mongolian Dog Sledding as a way of transportation. It does make sense particularly in the harsh winter months with temperatures touching -35 degrees, which is both sensible and one hell of a lot of exciting. It is always advisable to avail of the services of a guide while embarking on Dog Sledding trips.
For the quintessential foodie, Mongolia offers some of the most audacious culinary experiences ranging from sheep eyeball juice to the traditional Barbecue (Khorkhog). Try out popular local delicacies like Khuushuur and Guriltai Shul.
Check out with the nearest Mongolian Consulate or even better with the Ministry of Environment & Tourism website for exact dates of the various Mongolian festivals so as to have a first-hand experience of Mongolian lifestyle. During festival visits. Visitors can rest assured of dining with Mongolian royalty, take part in ancient ceremonies, indulge in a variety of Mongolian sports and if you are fortunate, you are even exposed to milking Yaks and preparing authentic Mongolian milk based recipes like salted tea, milk curds, fermented horse milk (Airag) to name just a few.
Time permitting, a visit to the magnificent Terelj National Park should be high on the priority list of visitors as it is one of the most beautiful regions of Mongolia in terms of landscape. This outstanding natural zone happens to be Mongolia’s most highly rated protected area in terms of biodiversity. From stunningly capped Edelweiss meadows to a bewildering array of wild flowers and one-of-a-kind rock formations gurgling mountain streams, Terelj National Park is undoubtedly one of the world’s best kept natural secrets and all it takes is an exhilarating 80 km. drive through the picturesque Mongolian countryside from the capital - Ulaanbaatar.
Traveler’s fact file
Apart from tented accommodations (Gers), a variety of top-end luxury options are available -Kempinski Hotel at Khan Palace, Ulaanbaatar, Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, The Blue Sky Hotel & Tower, Ulaanbaatar and the Ramada Ulaanbaatar Citycentre are some of the most outstanding luxury options available.
The Chinggis Khaan International Airport is well connected to Asian and European aviation hubs. Cathay Pacific, Aeroflot, Air China, Korean Air, Mongolian Airlines and Turkish Airlines offer routine flights to Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia is huge in terms of geography and multiple ways of transportation. For covering short distances rented cars, bikes and bicycles are the best options. Buses and train services, particularly the Mongolian Railway UBTZ ensures great connectivity and traverses through some of the world’s most rarefied landscape.
Visa & passport
It is mandatory for all visitors to Mongolia to hold valid passports with 6 month’s validity. However, there are certain countries whose citizens are visa exempt. Check out with the nearest Mongolian Mission or Consulate.
Best time to travel
Climate wise Mongolia has four distinct seasons, and each bestows a unique natural aura. For the culturally inclined, try to coincide your visit in time of the various Mongolian festivals or events. Please note that the average summer temperature hovers around +20 °C and the average winter temperature is around -26 °C. Winter season commences from November and lasts till April. Spring season from May to June and the Mongolian Summer from July to September.
Important festival dates
December 31- January 1: New Year 3 days; January/February: Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan Sar); June 1: Mother and Child Day; July 11-13: National Holiday (Naadam festival).