Historically, the Mongolians are a very welcoming people and their hospitality is like nowhere else in the world; nomadic culture dictates that even during his absence, a herder will leave his ger unlocked so that weary passers by can rest there. You will be greeted warmly with a nod and a smile then swiftly offered airag (‘vodka’), all manner of dairy products and probably some snuff too.
Picture your ideal ‘great outdoors’ scene, now remove any hedges, fences, even people that may have found their way in - Mongolia is truly an opportunity to immerse yourself in nature at its wildest. Herds roam across its wide-open grasslands; horses gallop freely, even the yaks look happy. Fishing, trekking, horse riding, you can do it all, and then flop, fulfilled, under the stars.
You cannot get more rugged and remote than Western Mongolia, a truly untouched land of mountains swathed in glaciers and iridescent salt lakes all held together by a patchwork of nomadic tribespeople including the melodic Myangads, known for their traditional khoomii throat singing, and the Kazakhs, who still practice the ancient art of hunting with golden eagles.
Come on, who doesn’t want to be a Mongol warrior? Led by Genghis Khan, the medieval equivalent of Bruce Willis, the Mongols are the strongest and most stealth military force in history and you can be one, if only for a few days. Try your hand at archery and lassoing, pick up riding skills and learn the secrets behind their battle strategies, all the while dressed in traditional ‘deel’ clothing.
Gers are the circular, felt-lined homes of more than half of Mongolia’s population and you will see them everywhere, scattered like miniature circus big tops across the landscape. Some are more tourist-driven offering showers and fridges full of beer, and others are the real deal – nothing but home-cooked food and the comforting crackle of burning wood keeping you warm.
About as off-the-beaten-track as you can get, Mongolia’s landscape is still largely undeveloped, so though extraordinary areas of natural beauty exist, they’re hard to reach on two legs or four wheels - your best bet is to do as the nomads do and find a four-hooved friend to take you across rivers and along mountainsides at a leisurely, stress-free pace.
The Gobi Desert might be arid, but it is awesome – a sprawling patchwork of desert basins and mountain ranges punctuated by fascinating rock formations, mammoth sand dunes and hot springs. The incredible pink and white limestone cliffs that mushroom up and out from the surrounding sands at Tsagaan Suvraga is just one of the natural phenomena you can encounter.
Racing, wrestling, archery and of course the warrior spirit of Genghis Khan all collide in Mongolia’s colourful and captivating calendar of festivals, which are all at once a sort of tipsy blend of the Olympics and Chirstmas Day. Top of the tree? Mongolia’s Nadaam Festival, a riotous affair that combines traditional sport, lashings of airag and loads of good old-fashioned fun.
Known as the Blue Pearl, Lake Khovsgol holds 380 billion litres of freshwater, but is becoming grubbier because there are so many ger camps being developed around its edge. Add to this the imminent threat from sunken oil tankers that have broken through the frozen lake and sunk during its use as an ice road to Russia and you have a ticking pollution time bomb.
Driving about within the region that you’re touring is all well and good; your guide will doubtless be behind the wheel of a huge 4x4 – pretty much the only way to tackle Mongolia’s appalling roads. And they really are appalling: ranked among the worst in the world with an appearance that can only be described as regularly carpet-bombed. Pick a cardinal point and stick with it.
Unless you’re a budding paleontologist, a visit to the Flaming Cliffs at Bayanzag isn’t necessary to appreciate the splendour of the Gobi Desert. Dinosaur fossils have been found there, but it’s a bumpy five hour drive to get to and oddly, it’s not officially protected, so litter, sandstone being broken off by tourists and surrounding saxual forest being used for firewood are not uncommon sights.
There is nothing appealing about the Naran Tull Market, a dark, dank and mostly concrete market that’s too loud, brash and full of fakes to be remotely authentic. It’s also notorious for pick-pockets and bag slashers, so a thoroughly avoidable shopping option – your money is much better spent on local handicrafts from people that need it and work hard to produce them.